Last week, I wrote that I drove Hampton (my survivor ’73 2002) down to The Vintage, rolling it over to 50,000 miles just 28 miles into the trip. My ’73 Bavaria also made the trip, as one of my road-trip companions (Jose Rosario) got last-minute bad news that his 2002 wasn’t ready, so I loaned him the Bav. Both cars made it down without incident. The only mechanical issues I had to deal with weren’t from our cars—they were from a ’73 2002 Automatic belonging to a fellow Vintage traveler we rescued the morning of our second day’s drive when my good friend and serial Vintage tormentor Paul Wegweiser contacted me saying that his friend / customer Mike was 30 minutes south of us with a dead 2002. The diagnosis was the easy part of the problem: The car’s points had closed up. The more nuanced issues were that they were an old set of points with much of the nylon block worn down, they were left-opening points which no store carries anymore, and it didn’t seem that they were the right ones for the distributor—they didn’t fit correctly; the adjustment slot wasn’t between the two nubs, so adjusting them was challenging. But I got them gapped and we made it down to The Vintage late that afternoon.

The event itself was wonderful. I’d missed last year’s Vintage, so it was especially sweet to see the action in both the Clarion hotel parking lot as well as the event field itself in nearby Hot Springs and catch up with those who I only see at this event.

I arrived at Hot Springs early enough to see wave after wave of cool cars drive onto the field. Good stuff.

It was a joy to see Hampton there on the field, hanging with the cool cars instead of a shut-in wallflower. In many ways, it was an ordinary-looking 2002, at least when compared with the pretty shiny eye-grabbing Inka and Taiga cars, but I took particular pleasure in opening the doors and showing off the like-new door cards with their perfect chrome film on the trim strips.

Hampton was officially in the club.

This year, Paul’s pranking of me was unexpectedly merciful. It took the form him having arranged with Brad Day (one of Vintage organizer Scott Sturdy’s right-hand people) to put a special T-shirt in my swag bag. Brad in turn passed the task to his wife, Anne Marie Vincent (“Give it to Anne Marie,” he said to Paul. “Rob will trust her.”). I didn’t open the swag bag until hours later, and only did so at Paul’s urging, with the fake impetus being that he wanted to see what this year’s T-shirts looked like. I walked into it hook line and sinker, saying “I don’t know, there’s something pink in mine, the regular event shirts aren’t pink, I have no idea what it is.” At Paul’s oh-so-reasonable request, I unrolled it, and it took me a good five seconds to grok that I was looking at an illustration of a human prostate and the words “smooth and unremarkable” written in a font, as Brad noted, that looked like your grandmother would choose for a greeting card. The phrase dates back to a Facebook post of mine six years ago that said “Happiness is having your senior South African urologist declare your prostate smooth and unremarkable.” It took on a life of its own, which became ironic when I did turn out to have prostate cancer (treated and cured the following year). Paul said that he had three of these shirts made (the other two being for himself and Sam Smith), and that we all should wear them at Hot Springs. And although he didn’t say that if I did, he’d spare Hampton the usual pranking, it was strongly implied. The joke, of course, was on me a second time, because I was the only one who wore his shirt. People at The Vintage who I’m Facebook friends with immediately got the reference, but I got some strange facial expressions from a few women who got close enough to read the shirt and then realized it was a prostate.

Personally I consider myself smooth and rather remarkable. (photo by Susan Strickland)

On the morning we left, while doing a routine coolant check, I found the only thing that went wrong with my car—I discovered that the original 50-year-old radiator cap was cracked in multiple places. Fortunately someone produced a spare from their trunk. Of course they did. It’s The Vintage.

Glad I discovered this before lift-off.

On the drive home, all of the action was again with Mike’s car. It died again as we were coming into a small gas station / convenience store. I found that not only had the points closed back up, the inside of the distributor cap was oddly sooty, and the little braided ground cable connecting the plate to the distributor housing had broken off. Further, the points were noticeably more pitted than they were before.


While I was fixing it, the other guys commented that the parking lot of the gas station smelled like sewage. I wrote it off to the fact that we happened to be parked next to where they filled propane tanks. I secured the little braided cable and opened up the points a bit wider than normal, giving them more time before they closed again, and installed a new spare cap and rotor that Mike had in his trunk.

Trapping that little braided cable under its snapped-off ground connector was particularly satisfying.

I checked both the dwell and the inside of the distributor cap at subsequent stops to make sure the problem didn’t reappear. Those things were fine, but strangely enough, at those stops, we noticed that the funky smell persisted. I didn’t really think anything of it, as at one of the gas stations we were literally parked next to a drainage culvert.

That night, however, while we were waiting in line to check into the hotel in Chambersburg PA, , the mental red light went on.

Paul Wegweiser. That rat. He pranked my car. He said (well, he didn’t say—he strongly implied) that if I wore the “smooth and unremarkable” shirt, he wouldn’t mess with Hampton, but remember, this is the guy who literally put a burned-out fan motor under Bertha’s front seat and zip-tied a bunch of burned wires under the dashboard so I’d smell an electrical fire on the drive home. (“WEGWEISER!” *shakes fist at sky*).

Totally not making that up. Photo from Vintage 2019.

I mentioned my suspicion to my two regular road-trip companions Bob and Jose, both of whom witnessed said transgression in 2019. We all had a good laugh over this strong probability. I decided to not even mention it online. Pretend we didn’t notice. Never post about it. Don’t give Paul the satisfaction. Yeah. That’s the passive-aggressive ticket. But I did go out and sniff around my car. I mean, if he did it, it would have to be my car. He certainly wouldn’t have done it to a customer’s car like Mike’s. I didn’t find anything. I wondered if he’d spread something somewhere that reacted with heat. Nothing is beyond Paul. He once joked about attaching zip-ties to my driveshaft just so he could read about me going crazy trying to find the noise.

The following morning, I wanted to check Mike’s car one more time before we departed and he split off for Philadelphia. I looked inside the  distributor cap cap. No soot. And my repair of the little braided cable was holding. Good and good. I hooked up my dwell meter, borrowed Mike’s key, and turned it.

Click but no crank.

I’ve written multiple articles about the car-won’t start troubleshooting tree. It’s very pretty straightforward. I pulled out the voltmeter and measured the battery voltage. It was 13.1 volts. A fully-charged battery is 12.6 volts, so he clearly didn’t have a dead battery. I attached a jumper wire to his solenoid to bypass the ignition switch. Same thing. Click but no crank. Occasionally you could see the fan twitch a bit, but zero spinning of the engine.


Even though the battery had plenty of voltage, the next thing to try was jumping it. Rather than move a car into position for a jump-start, Bob had a brand-new fully-charged lithium jump pack. It buzzed when we connected it, but made absolutely no difference. Click but no crank.

It was beginning to look like a bad starter (and Mike’s car is an automatic, so there’s no push-starting), but you want to be certain before you go to the effort of pulling it out. I cleaned the battery connections. I swapped the battery cables from my car. I used my jumper cables to directly connect the battery to the starter. Nothing made any difference. I banged on the starter with a hammer to dislodge it if it was stuck. This seemed to make the fan twitch more on the next start attempt, but still no spin. I recommended to Michael that he call around to auto parts stores to find a starter (you don’t ask for a starter for a 2002; you ask for one or an E28 or E34). He came up empty.

So I pulled the starter out—a pain on an automatic because the bracket for the downshift cable is in the way—and tested it on the ground with the car’s battery. It spun, but it seemed weak; the ramp-up for spinning was pretty long.

It was at this point that I lit the Hack beacon. Both Edwin Miller and Christopher Roth at CR Bimmers contacted me saying that they had the goods. I had a great talk with Edwin (he’s the guy who had the misfortune of having not one but two cars wrecked either at or in route to The Vintage, and hasn’t been back due to “the bad juju”), who said he was 90 minutes from us but could meet us halfway. Chris was much closer, just 20 minutes. Jose jumped in the Bavaria, drove up to CR Bimmers, and returned with not one but two used starters. I tested them both. One had a faster time-to-spin, so I picked that one.

But getting it installed was a bear. The solenoid on the replacement starter was fatter than the original one. I had to disconnect the downshift cable bracket to get the solenoid past it. It was hot work in a hot parking lot, hunching over an engine compartment and pulling up on wrenches in exactly the way that angers up my back. I tightened one of the bolts on the starter’s ear to secure it, made sure there was a good ground path, connected things back up, and again touched my solenoid jumper wire directly to battery positive.

Click but no crank.

No no no no no no no.

TWO bad starters? Doubtful. But what the hell was going on?

This was me, caught in the WTF moment.

I chocked a wheel with one of the other starters, put the car in neutral, and rotated the engine with the fan to make sure it wasn’t seized.

Then, just to try something else, I swung my car nose-to-nose with Mike’s and jumped it, again just touching the solenoid jump wire to the battery.

The engine spun instantly.

Everyone was like “Wait, what just happened?” I wasn’t even sure what just happened. I asked them to give me some space and let me put the car back together and then we could talk. I reassembled Mike’s car, tightened everything down, reconnected the ignition wire to the solenoid, and turned the key. The car started as easily as a Honda lawnmower.

I told the pack that the most probable answer was that I simply had gotten it wrong. The starter was probably fine. Something was likely wrong with the battery. Appearing to be fully charged (hell, more than fully charged) and having amperage to crank over the starter are two different things. Mike said that he’d installed the battery after he bought the car a few years ago, but batteries do go bad.

But I was pissed as hell at myself for having blown the diagnosis. Anyone who walked up would’ve asked “Does it need to be jump-started?” That’s what AAA would’ve done. And it almost certainly would’ve fired right up. In my thin defense, two months ago, I had exactly the opposite thing happen to Hampton—I bought and installed a new battery when the problem turned out to be the starter motor. Maybe I was re-running that in my mind.

With the car running, I hooked up my dwell meter. The point gap hadn’t changed. Dwell was still in the mid-50s, a slightly wider gap than called for, good for getting you somewhere when point gap appears to be wearing closed over time.

By this point it was nearly noon. We said our goodbyes, as Michael would be peeling off to head for Philly. I thought it was likely he’d make the 250-ish trip without further incident.

Are you ready for the good part? It’s really good.

A few hours later, Michael texted me. “Update! The good news: I am safe at a rest stop off the turnpike. Bad news: I am kaput! Car puttered out and battery is fried. Smoking and a little stuff coming out. I am 96 miles from home, which puts me within the free 100 mile tow! PS I think that [expletive deleted] smell was ME!”

Oh. My. God. To quote the NetFlix series Dark, “It’s all connected.”

The smell was the battery being boiled by a bad voltage regulator allowing the alternator to run open-loop and overcharge the battery. It was probably putting out 17 volts. The sulfuric acid boils and smells like rotten eggs. THAT’s what we were all smelling. THAT (combined with the bad distributor ground) was why the cap was full of soot and the points were pitted. THAT was why the battery wasn’t reading the standard 12.6 volts, but was ABOVE that at 13.1 volts without the engine running. And, most importantly, THAT was why the battery couldn’t put out amperage to crank the starter and turn over the engine. And even with the starter removed and being tested with jumper cables while lying on the pavement, THAT’s why it took a long time to spin up. I was still testing it with the same bad battery. If someone had said “I smell Sulphur” or “I smell rotten eggs,” I would’ve caught it, but because the word “sewage” was used instead, it just didn’t fire my boiled-battery-bad-regulator neurons.

As I said, had I simply jump-started the car, the whole starter episode could’ve been avoided. I did check the voltage once the car was running, and it jumped to about 13.4, which is a good number. But had I revved the engine, I would’ve seen it jump much higher, and the second part of the episode could’ve been avoided. I had a spare voltage regulator in my trunk. His battery was probably already toast, but he likely could’ve made it home running off the alternator.

But wait! There’s more!

After I got home, Bob texted me: “So I figured out why the starter didn’t crank with the jump pack. It’s a “smart” jump pack that sensed that the battery was at 13.1 volts. That’s the buzzing we heard when you hooked it up. Per the instructions:”

“HOMPOW car jump starter with intelligent clamps provides protection against over-charging, over-discharging, surge voltage, overload, over-voltage, short-circuit, reverse polarity, and high-temperature protection, making your devices jump faster in a safe way.”

Screw you, smart jump pack.

So I blew the entire diagnosis. I can’t believe that seeing a resting battery voltage of not 12.6 but 13.1 wasn’t a flag, and that I didn’t drop in the battery from my car, OR AT LEAST JUMP-START IT, before going to all the work to replace the starter. Live and learn.

And the smell wasn’t from Paul.

But let’s just all agree that it COULD have been.

Oh. My cars? Flawless. Both of them. So flawless they disappeared into the background of the story like the MacGuffin in a Hitchcock film.

Hampton leading the Bavaria back into the Monson warehouse at the end of a very successful trip.

So Hampton, with 2063 more miles for a total just a bit over 52,000, is now a Vintage alum, and her previous life as a cloistered debutante is but a memory. The Bavaria unexpectedly completed its third trip down, but it hadn’t been there since 2015, and the fact that it behaved flawlessly is astonishing. And Mike is now one of us. We joked about repeating the chant in the old movie Freaks. (“Gooba gabba gooba gabba! We accept him! We accept him! One of us! One of us!”)

Mike’s car, though, I’m not so sure about.

[Item last: When I told Mike about my “it’s all connected” epiphany, he said “I literally had it [the voltage regulator] replaced the week before I left.” Cue the choir singing “All new parts are craaaaaaaap” followed by the sad trombone…]

Rob Siegel


Rob’s newest book, The Best of The Hack Mechanic, is available here on Amazon, as are his seven other books. Signed copies can be ordered directly from Rob here.




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