Most people regard cars as appliances that come and go, like washing machines and coffee makers. At most, perhaps there’s a moment—like in those Subaru ads—when the owner fondly recalls bringing a newborn home in the car or mists up at a memory of a teen-aged child driving it to the prom. But that’s it.
We, of course, are not like most people. We are Car People. Automobiles mean something to us. Sure, there may be memories layered on top of our relationships with cars, but the cars themselves are objects of passion and desire. We pour ourselves, our time, our money, and our choices into them. Our car, bone stock or wildly modified, becomes a reflection of us. It’s no wonder we get so attached to them.
And yet, everything has its time and place, and cars, even ones that we love, get old and sold. Typically a car starts off as a daily driver. Perhaps it begins to rust. Perhaps it becomes unreliable. Perhaps our family needs dictate something newer, larger, and safer. Often it’s a combination of all of these. We may love a car, but if it’s no longer filling its role, something else needs to take its place. It could become a pampered enthusiast car, but young people usually don’t have the resources to build a garage or rent storage space to house a car they love as it transitions from daily driver to weekend warrior. Instead, we suck it up, shed a tear or two, and sell our old friend.
So it’s difficult to see the irony when, 20 years later and with more disposable income and garage space, many people try to recapture the magic by buying another example of the same car instead of simply holding onto the one they had. But that seems to be the cycle of things.
It’s normal to feel a sense of loss for a car you loved and wonder where it might be now, just as Neil Young sings in Long May You Run, written about his Pontiac hearse (in the last verse, he wonders if the Beach Boys are using it to ferry surfers and boards). Some folks try to track down the actual car they wish they’d never sold. In this web-enabled world, it’s amazing what you can find by just googling the VIN. I know people who have gone that route, only to learn that their car was scrapped. That’s sad, but at least it’s an answer.
I had never tracked down and re-purchased a car that I’d sold, but in the early 1990s, I sold a car I loved to a good friend. Thus, there was never any mystery about what happened to it. It was always just five miles away. I originally bought the big-bumper 1975 BMW 2002 in 1984, when my then-fiancé and I lived Austin. It was, I believe, my eighth 2002. I bought it because it was very well-priced, had working air conditioning, and I knew the two of us would soon be moving back up to Boston to get married, and I wanted a 1974–76 big-bumper 2002 that would stand a better chance in Boston traffic and parking than the earlier slim-bumper cars.
I nicknamed the car “Bertha,” since with those big bumpers she was anything but dainty. I have photos of me and my wife driving from our wedding in the shaving-cream-and-toilet-paper-covered car, and pictures of us taking road trips in it before our kids were born. Over the next seven years, the car became the repository for much of my passion and disposable income, as I did modification after modification—dual Webers, five-speed, Recaro seats, stiff suspension, Cibie Oscar driving lamps, you name it. For those reasons, Bertha did, and still does, occupy a special place in my heart.
But when my wife and I bought our first house, it had only a one-car garage, which needed to shelter my other passion vehicle—my 1973 BMW 3.0CSi, the kind of car that rusts if you sneeze on it. That meant that Bertha had to sit outside, a far from ideal situation. It was clear that I needed to sell it or watch it suffer the death of exposure. Shortly thereafter, I loaned the car to a friend so he and his wife could go on their honeymoon, a six-week road trip through the national parks out west. After what we joked was the longest test-drive in history, they agreed to buy the car. So I found it a good home. Or so I thought.
From there, the story becomes sad. In the early 1990s, the car got stolen and damaged. It was recovered, and I helped my friend fix it, but it was soon stolen again. When it was recovered the second time, there were ominous noises in the engine and dents in the body. My friend’s absentee landlord neighbor had a difficult-to-access garage around the back of his house. Bertha was rolled inside.
Years passed. Life intervened. Rodents got in. Vandals got in. I saw the car about 10 years ago. It looked sad and neglected. After that, whenever I asked my friend about Bertha, he’d get defensive. He was waiting, he said, until he had the money to restore it. “Or,” I gently suggested, “you could just get it running.” Although I saw him regularly and the car was only about five miles from my house, I learned to stop asking.
A few months ago, I was chatting with someone who’d just bought back a BMW 2002 that, like me, he had sold to a friend in 1992. His old car was an unfinished project with dual Webers not unlike mine, but it had been carefully stored, garaged, and covered, so it appeared to still be in good condition. He joked that he was a genius who had engineered the whole thing to get out of paying 36 years of storage fees.
It’s difficult to say whether this was what made me inquire about my old car. I have two other BMW 2002s, so it’s not like I needed that particular car back to recapture the driving experiences of my youth. Some of it was that I’d just sold a car and had cash burning a hole in my pocket. I had some interest in buying an inexpensive-but-needy 12-cylinder BMW 850i coupe, but the complexity and money pit reputation gave me pause. In contrast, I don’t consider long-dead 2002s risky because they’re simple cars and I know what to expect. I recalled the list of parts and mods on my old 2002, and thought that, if I saw it advertised on Craigslist, even in poor condition, I’d drop everything and go see it. And, with it not advertised anywhere, I had an advantage. No one else could swoop in and beat me to it. It was like a barn-find that was only known to me.
So, somewhat out of the blue, I texted my friend a very credible cash offer for the car. By utter coincidence, I caught him in a moment of reflection where he was making some hard decisions regarding a number of unfinished projects in his life. A few days later, we spoke and reached a verbal agreement. Note that I had not seen Bertha in nearly 10 years, but with only two New England winters on it before it was put away, I was assuming that the body was still solid.
I arranged to meet my old love. My friend warned me that both the meeting and the extraction of the car were going to be rough. First, he said, I should be prepared: Bertha had passed from neglected to a basket case. Second, his neighbor’s around-the-back garage no longer had a driveway leading to it, and a fence had been erected, a portion of which would need to be taken down to get the car out. Third, the car was surrounded by used 2002 parts, many in disintegrating cardboard boxes, so a parts clean-out and re-boxing needed to accompany the sale.
The next morning, we opened up the garage. My heart instantly sank. The paint on the car’s hood looked like acid had been thrown on it, the passenger door window had been smashed, glass littered the interior of the car, the headlights were missing, all four tires were flat, and rodent dung (from the size of it, rat dung) was everywhere. What, I thought, have I gotten myself into? I recalled the fellow I’d spoken with who joked that he’d gotten 26 years of free clean storage. Clearly I wasn’t getting the same deal.
I got my wits about me and donned a mask and Tyvek suit. My friend and I ran a compressor and pumped up the tires, which in turn allowed me to inspect the undercarriage of the car. Despite the horrible condition of the paint, Bertha still appeared to be remarkably solid. The only rust hole I could find was just behind the pedal bucket, a very common spot on 2002s.
I opened the hood. The rat dung on the air cleaners was, shall we say, off-putting, but the dual Weber 40DCOEs were still there. And the engine still turned freely.
With trepidation, I stuck my head inside the car. I expected to get bowled over by a mustard-gas-level cloud of rodent urine, but to my surprise, the main smell was musty, not acidic. I picked broken glass off the driver’s seat, then sat in it. Despite all the damage, it felt familiar. It felt good. It felt like this was what I was supposed to do. Yeah, I thought; I can do this. I want to do this.
We are Car People. Cars mean something to us. I’m buying back the dream. It doesn’t make any sense, and I don’t need it, but it needs me. There’s only one car that my wife and I drove from our wedding, and this is it.
Bertha, the prodigal daughter, is coming home.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 30 years. His new book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is now available on Amazon. You can order a personally inscribed copy here.