The price of originality is steep… but is it worth it?

My cars are drivers, not hangar/trailer queens. To me, cars are way too expensive and take up way too much space to not actually drive and enjoy them.

For most of the past 35 years, I’ve unabashedly put function—and cost—ahead of a blind adherence to originality. I’ve scoffed at people who pay $80 for an original battery cable when one for $5 at Autozone will work just as well. And don’t get me started on the whole thing about correct fasteners. If a bolt doesn’t have a high-enough strength rating, that’s one thing, but the way that some folks act when they see one generic under-hood fastener (like Donald Sutherland in the last scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers)… well, it’s way over the line.

My 1972 BMW 2002tii is very original, but purists would still find much to howl over.
My 1972 BMW 2002tii is very original, but purists would still find much to howl over.
Rob Siegel

And hose clamps. My god, the amount of energy people expend over hose clamps. OEM clamps vary by manufacturer. On BMWs, both the original clamps and high-quality aftermarket versions are thin, have a hex-head fitting that can be tightened with a flex-nut driver, and have ridges instead of slots for the worm gear to bite into. In contrast, generic Autozone hose clamps tend to be wide, require a screwdriver, and have the worm gear bite into slots in the clamp that can eventually damage the hoses. But they are just hose clamps, and people have hissy fits when they’re incorrect, particularly when there’s an extra inch in them as there is in the photo below.

The “good” hose clamps (left) and the “bad” hose clamps (right).
The “good” hose clamps (left) and the “bad” hose clamps (right).
Rob Siegel

That having been said, over the past few years, I’ve come around somewhat to the idea of originality. And it’s not simply due to the increasing values of my ’73 BMW 3.0CSi and my ’72 2002tii, cars on which originality and correctness are prized, particularly the 2002. I think that much of it is simply a natural evolution in my tastes.

Now, this sort of pendulum swing affects cars in a variety of ways. In the series I did on obsolete car audio a few months back, I detailed how many radios from 1970s-era cars were jettisoned in favor of first cassette decks and then CD players, and how now, many owners are finding that these newer units look completely out of step with the car’s interior vernacular, and how it now takes a pretty penny to get an original radio back in the dash.

It’s similar with wheels and hubcaps. On cars where alloys were a factory option, the steel wheels and caps were always a poor stepchild. Certain aftermarket alloys may have been popular in the day as well. Then came the trend toward what used to be called “plus-one” and “plus-two” sizing, where you’d increase the wheel diameter by an inch or two and shorten the tire sidewall to improve handling. In the BMW world, the swapability of wheels from newer models onto older ones made this easy (indeed, people joked that the E30 3 Series built from 1984 through ’91 were a gift to 2002 owners because their plus-one wheels fit perfectly). Later, of course, all hell broke loose with the “stancing” trend and the goal of stuffing as big a wheel under the well as was possible. Because of all these factors, many original steel wheels and hubcaps wound up in the recycle heap.

Now, 40 or 50 years later, original steel wheels and big hubcaps are back, big time. In the case of my ’72 BMW 2002tii, that model has larger front calipers than a standard 2002, so its steelies are a half-inch wider to accommodate them. This means that tii steel wheels with hubcaps were only on the cars for two years—1972 and ’73 (in 1974, all 2002s received a different, wider wheel). They’re now, as they say, rare as hen’s teeth. Plus, the longer I’ve owned these cars, the more I prefer the ride feel with the original 13-inch wheels, although the 185/70R13 tires are getting a bit difficult to find.

Louie’s engine compartment was astonishingly original, including the “donut” upper radiator hose.
Louie’s engine compartment was astonishingly original, including the “donut” upper radiator hose.
Rob Siegel

Part of what’s swung me around is that, a year ago I bought a very original ’72 BMW 2002tii (“Louie”). In addition to sitting for a decade and requiring a good bit of work to get it up and running, the car had been driven very little since 1980, so it was a bit of a time capsule. When I purchased it, I thought that the odometer’s 39,068 miles could well have been original. The folder of receipts that came with the car stopped cold in 1980—with the last one showing 38,693 miles—only 375 less than the current odometer reading. The seats and the windshield were in remarkably good condition. The car still wore its original steel wheels and cereal-bowl hubcaps. The door buzzers still worked.

In addition, there were some very unusual under-hood details that were still intact. An original donut-style upper radiator hose that had long ago been superseded was still present, as was an original brass thermostat. The car even still had the original inductive pick-up on the wire from the coil to the distributor, and the original connector on the valve cover to hook this system up to the dealer’s engine analyzer. This pickup and connector were typically thrown in the trash when the spark plug wires were changed back when Gerald Ford was president. The fact that they were present meant the car was running on its original plug wires.

The inductive pickup on the center coil wire (left) and service port (right) are details that very rarely survive.
service port

Given everything, I thought that the car’s 39,068 miles were likely original—that it was more likely that the car had been driven 375 miles since the last receipt in 1980 than 100,375 miles. I reached out to the original owner’s son, who informed me that he thought the car’s odometer had, in fact, rolled, over, something I still can’t fathom.

The actual mileage notwithstanding, the car (whose story is told in my book Ran When Parked) had not run in a decade. I needed to make it roadworthy. The fact that I did so right where the car sat in Louisville, Kentucky, and then drove it home makes for an interesting story, but it doesn’t really change the dynamic of how originality can slip away.

The issue is, having bought a dead car with a great deal of originality to it, anything you do to get it running and road-worthy moves it away from that original state, at least to some degree. On paper, many of these choices may seem to be between original equipment (dealer), original equipment manufacturer (OEM), branded aftermarket, or generic aftermarket parts. It’s easy to say, “Well, just spend the money to keep it original,” but there are many choices and shades of gray.

For example, the car will certainly need a new battery. In my world, batteries have gotten expensive enough without ponying up for reproductions of original batteries. You have to replace the fuel lines, the fuel filters, the hardened or swelled-shut flexible brake lines, and any seized or leaking brake or clutch hydraulics. It’s unsafe to drive the car otherwise. Braided stainless steel brake lines are typically less expensive these days than the original black ATE rubber lines, but they do have a different look to them.

Then, if you are going to drive the car any farther than around the block, you have to have a cooling system that is leak-free and allows the car to run cool. So out came Louie’s original radiator, water pump, and the way-cool original “donut” radiator hose and brass thermostat. New factory BMW 2002 radiators have gotten very pricey (about $550), so for cost reasons, I installed a $120 aftermarket 320i radiator, which worked fine but has a different look and feel.

There was nothing wrong with the new 320i radiator—it worked perfectly—but it looked a little out of place, both age- and patina-wise, in Louie’s engine compartment.
There was nothing wrong with the new 320i radiator—it worked perfectly—but it looked a little out of place, both age- and patina-wise, in Louie’s engine compartment.
Rob Siegel

A similar dynamic existed with the ignition system. As much as I liked the look and feel of the original plug wires with their inductive coil and service port, old ignition wires are an invitation for misfires due to cracks causing arcing of the spark prematurely to ground. So I replaced them. It seemed the prudent thing to do for a car I was distance-driving to events.

I found the original canister-style air cleaner housing in the trunk. Some of its fasteners were missing, so to get the housing attached, I used generic hardware-store-bought nuts and bolts. Similarly, when I isolated the source of a particularly loud, snotty rattle to a loose exhaust manifold shield, I shimmed it with a generic quarter-inch washer, paying no attention to the glaring difference in patina between it and the manifold. Hey, it got the thing quiet; that was all I cared about.

After driving the car for about eight months, the front end began banging over bumps. I traced the problem to a bad center track rod. Two of the tie rod ends were questionable, as well. I replaced them with aftermarket parts from a reputable supplier, which cost about a quarter of the price of those from a dealer. And, let’s face it, with globalization, you don’t really know where dealer parts are coming from these days anyway. When they arrived, however, I was disappointed to find that the tubes connecting the tie rod ends weren’t black like the originals, but were bare unpainted metal. So that they wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb, I sprayed them flat black. But I felt like I’d strayed over an unwritten line.

Having made these tradeoffs, I continued to drive the car, and other than the tie rods, I was generally pleased with my decisions. They seemed appropriate for the fact that the car was a driver and not a display piece. This is not my only vintage car. It’s not even my only ’72 2002tii. And, on paper, my other one is a nicer vehicle. This one’s originality was a curiosity, but not really something I treasured.

And then, something surprising happened. This year is the 50th anniversary of the BMW 2002 (the first ones rolled off the assembly line in 1968), and the BMW CCA Foundation is putting together an exhibit at its museum in Greer, South Carolina, to commemorate the event. I applied, and Louie was accepted into the exhibit. Although I wasn’t touting Louie as completely unmolested car (more as a survivor with a great story), almost immediately, certain things began bugging me. I’d allowed Louie’s originality to slip away.

So I swapped radiators and battery cables with my other ’72 2002tii, whose parts were correct. I doggedly replaced my hastily-installed generic under-hood fasteners with ones from my bolt bucket that had the appropriate patina. Back in went the original plug wires, the inductive pick-up, and service port. I now love the way the engine compartment looks. Everything has the right amount of patina. Nothing jumps out as being out of place.

The original cooling system parts—the “donut” radiator hose and brass thermostat—were a tough call. Driving the 900 miles from Boston to Greer with these parts installed doesn’t feel right, so I relegated them to a small museum in a cardboard box in the trunk.

I haven’t completely reformed my function-and-cost-over-originality ways. Louie’s cold-start system is malfunctioning. The problem is due to the thermo time relay box having gone bad. A new box lists for about $300. Instead, I bypassed the box and installed a $2 switch discretely mounted below the steering column, as is frequently done on these cars. But I do feel that, over time I’m erring more and more on the side of originality. And I’ll be driving Louie down to the museum with a Pertronix electronic ignition in it. I’ve had too many vintage cars die because the points have closed up on a long trip. If you don’t like it, you and I can have a reasonable adult conversation about the limits of originality.

But if you shriek like Donald Sutherland, you’ve gone too far.

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Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel Magazine for 30 years. His new book, Ran When Parked: How I Road-Tripped a Decade-Dead BMW 2002tii a Thousand Miles Back Home, and How You Can, Too, is available here on Amazon. In addition, he is the author of Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic and The Hack MechanicGuide to European Automotive Electrical Systems. Both are available from Bentley Publishers and Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.