Road tripping in the winter requires proper prep, and even then…
Unless this is your first time reading one of my columns, you know I’m a BMW guy; I’ve been a member of the BMW Car Club of America (BMW CCA)—and written for the club’s magazine—for more than 30 years.
In addition to the BMW CCA’s many activities, there is also the BMW CCA Foundation, which has as its charter the encouragement of automobile preservation, the creation of a museum and archive, and a “Street Survival” teen driving school. In pursuit of those first two goals, there is an excellent museum at the BMW CCA Foundation in Greer, South Carolina, a stone’s throw from the big BMW factory in Spartanburg. (Fun fact: This single U.S. plant makes BMW the largest dollar-value exporter of cars in the country.)
The Foundation museum recently featured a “Heroes of Bavaria” exhibit, a jaw-dropping collection of historically significant BMW race cars, on loan from BMW and private collectors.
As last year’s calendar approached 2018, the Foundation announced its next exhibit: “The Icon: 50 Years of the BMW 2002.” It’s hard to believe, but it’s been a half century since importer Max Hoffman talked BMW into stuffing its bigger 2.0-liter engine into what was then the 1.6-liter 1602 two-door sedan and, in 1968, selling the car in the United States as the BMW 2002. It was the car that established BMW’s reputation in the United States, and, along with Alfa’s offerings, cemented the “sports sedan” in the American marketplace as a real thing. The Foundation put out a call staying that they were looking for 25 of the best 2002s in the country, where “the best” could be the most original, the most correctly restored, the most heavily modified, or the most historically significant.
I thought about it for a moment, then dashed off a quick application, saying that Louie, one of my two ’72 2002tiis, isn’t any of those things, but it is a survivor-driver with a great story. I bought the car a year ago, sight-unseen, in Louisville after it had been dead for a decade, drove down there in a rented SUV with tools and parts, got it running while spending a week sleeping on the sofas of people I barely knew, nursed it the thousand miles back home to Boston, and wrote my book Ran When Parked about it. And, as I said in the application, all of the people who helped me on this hare-brained adventure were BMW CCA members, making the car something of a car club ambassador of goodwill.
The Foundation took the bait. I soon received an email saying, “Congratulations! Your car has been accepted into the Foundation’s 2002 exhibit!”
There was a catch. Well, two catches. The first was that the exhibit was scheduled to run from May 2018 through January 2019, so I’d be without the car for a while. Well, there are worse places to store a car rent-free than in a museum, right? Plus, since I not only own another vintage BMW but another 1972 2002tii, being without the first one isn’t exactly hardship.
The second catch was that they wanted the car soon, like right now (well, in fairness, about six weeks from when I received the e-mail), because they need to curate the exhibit and photograph the cars for a book about the whole affair. I was asked to get the car to South Carolina between February 19–March 2, which, in an absolutely cosmic coincidence, is within a day of my whole adventure resurrecting Louie and driving him home last year.
I imagine that most people will be shipping their prized cars. But I wouldn’t know who I am, let alone Louie, if I didn’t drive it there myself. After all, I can’t call Louie a “survivor-driver” (note to self: trademark “survivor-driver”) unless I drive him and we both survive.
I began watching the weather like a hawk and prepping the car. Now, you may recall that three months back I wrote about road-tripping my ’73 BMW 3.0CSi to Virginia Beach just before Thanksgiving. That’s late enough in the fall that fickle weather is a real concern. I would never even consider driving the 3.0 this time of year, due to existing road salt and the likelihood of nasty weather.
On the one hand, Louie is a different car; he already has some rust and his value is a fraction of the 3.0’s, so I’m not going to have a hissy fit if I see evidence of a road that’s seen salt. On the other hand, if I get the weather wrong and wind up driving into the maw of a Nor’Easter in a car with no snow tires and have to follow a conga line of snow plows and sand and salt trucks in order to stay moving, clearly I will have screwed up big time.
Fortunately, prep-wise, there wasn’t really all that much to do (or so I thought). I’ve made a career writing and spouting the gospel of “The Big Six” things that need to be addressed to make a vintage car dependable: fuel delivery, ignition, cooling system, charging system, belts, and ball joints. All of these things were addressed, or at least checked, when I drove Louie home last year, and were given a second scrutiny when I drove him 2000 miles round trip to a vintage BMW event in Asheville, North Carolina, last spring. So, yeah, I made a punch list, but it was mostly things like changing to 10W40 weight oil for the winter trip and undoing some hasty fastener and wiring hacks under the hood to return the car to originality.
I did, however, want to adjust the car’s valves, which, not-so-coincidentally, I wrote about last week. It’s not that the valves were loud, but I’d put 3000 miles on the car since resurrecting it, and it had sat for a decade and had been little-used for decades before that, so it felt like the responsible thing to do.
There was one issue with doing this, though. When I resurrected Louie a year ago, after pulling off the valve cover and adjusting the valves, I couldn’t get the cover to seal. There was a persistent and dangerous leak of oil onto the exhaust manifold. It’s dangerous to drive a car with any active oil leak onto the manifold or the exhaust, as it’s a fire hazard. I found that the threads holding the stud at the lower left corner had stripped, preventing that corner of the valve cover from being tightened. I sunk in a Time-Sert (helicoil) to hold the stud, but it still leaked. To stanch the dripping of oil, I coated both sides of the valve cover gasket with black RTV. That worked, but it meant that I’d have to rip it up and shred the gasket if I wanted to re-adjust the valves.
Not surprisingly, the valve cover gasket did not come off without a fight. I had to pry it up an inch at a time with a screwdriver. I then spent the next 20 minutes with a single-edge razor blade, carefully scraping the RTV and shredded gasket off the top sealing surface of the head, trying as hard as I could to flick the pieces outward and not have them fall down inside the valve train, ruing the fact that I’d just changed the oil, and realizing that I’d done it in the wrong order (the thing to do would’ve been to rip up the gasket, clean the surface, then pour a quart of oil over the valve train to flush any shreds down into the pan, and then drain the oil).
It was when I was scraping with the blade near the upper timing cover at the front of the engine that my heart nearly stopped. I had to look for a few seconds before I realized what I was seeing. The end plug had popped out of the intake rocker shaft and was about to fall down into the timing chain. It was possibly only held back by the fact that it was touching the back of the cam gear, which obviously was not good either.
Note that, in this engine, the rocker shaft is an oil passageway. Oil is pumped into the far end of the shaft, then squirts through holes in the shaft and head into the camshaft journals. The plugs on these old rocker shafts are knurled and press-fit in; newer ones are screwed in. If the plug is missing, in addition to the obvious hazards of it falling into rotating engine parts, oil just dribbles out the near end instead of lubricating the cam journals. So finding the plug before it grenaded my engine was good, but the idea that I’d been driving with it like this for any distance was pretty jarring.
What I should’ve done was pull the loose plug out and replace it with a new one, but what I did instead was an emotional reaction to seeing it dangling over the precipice—I pushed it into the end of the shaft. As it turns out, that was the worst thing I could’ve done, because then I couldn’t get it back out to replace it. What followed was several days of attempts, including drilling partially through it (“partially” because if I drilled all the way through it and still couldn’t get it out, I’d be totally up the creek), sinking a screw into it, and still not being able to pull it out.
Eventually I decided that, for better or worse, the plug seemed to have re-embedded itself, so I peened it in place with a hammer and a punch, and, to use belts and suspenders, took advantage of a bracket—whose existence a friend alerted me to—that’s held in place by a head bolt and hangs over the front of the shaft to make sure the plug doesn’t fall out the end.
With the plug episode finally behind me, I began to button up the head. I was scraping the last of the black RTV off the sealing surface of the lower left corner of the head, the area where the Time-Sert is, when I noticed some old blue RTV that had dripped down into the head. It was likely that this was from an attempt by a prior owner to squelch the same leak I’d dealt with. That meant that it was very old RTV. I wanted to make sure it didn’t slide off the oily surface and drop down into the motor, so I gently pulled it up with needle-nosed pliers.
And that’s when I saw big bad problem #2. The boss that the head stud went into, the one where I’d sunk the Time-Sert last year, was cracked, and badly. What’s more, the crack could be seen continuing through toward the top of the back corner of the head. I may well have exacerbated the crack by putting the Time-Sert and new stud into it and tightening the valve cover nut hard to try to seal it up last year. Yikes!
I swung into high gear, contacted some friends who are pros, and sent them photographs of the damage. The consensus was that the crack could probably be TIG-welded, but due to problems with clearance from the other rocker shaft and the necessity for aluminum to be scrupulously clean before TIG-welding, the head would need to come off. One friend, Lindsey Brown, a pro at The Little Foreign Car Garage in Waltham, Massachusetts, recommended that I run a tap all the way down the hole and see if I could try to use a stud with two nuts at the top to pull both cracked sections toward each other. I tried this, but was concerned that the tap was pushing against the bottom part rather than threading into it. Concerned that I might be widening the crack rather than closing it, I stopped.
With a window of just a week or two before I needed to get the car down to South Carolina, pulling the head and getting it welded was possible, but awfully tight. I thought it might take me an entire evening with a torch simply to free the 46-year-old nuts holding the exhaust manifold nuts onto the studs.
One of the things I’ve learned is that certain repairs have their rhythm, and you risk all sorts of disaster if you try to force them outside that rhythm. For example, you might think you’re pulling a head to just replace a head gasket, or get a valve job done, or in this case, weld a crack, but if you pull the head, you need to deal with whatever it is you find. Every indication was that the head had never been off this car. At some point, sure, it makes sense to pull the head, hot-tank it, look for other cracks, and so on, but right now, all I needed to do was the same thing I needed to do a year ago—simply get the valve cover to seal and not dump oil onto the exhaust manifold.
One of my pro friends said that, when they need to get a gasket to seal and are past the point of asking nicely, they use “The Right Stuff” by Permatex. A local Autozone had it in stock. I coated the bottom of the valve cover gasket with it, and used Hylomar non-drying adhesive on the top so, if necessary, I could still pull the valve cover and not shred the gasket. I then buttoned everything up, waited about an hour, started the car, and let it idle in the driveway.
I took Louie for a few laps around the block, the car’s first drive in several months, and rechecked. Still good.
So, what’s the message here? Is it that my much-vaunted “Big Six” is a load of malarkey because, on a 46-year-old vintage car, anything, any part, anywhere, can fail, such as a pressed-in rocker shaft end plug that worked itself loose and dropped down onto the timing chain? Or is it that diligent care and regular maintenance can help forestall disaster, such as adjusting the valves caused me to find said end plug before its disastrous plunge into spinning engine internals? Or is it that nothing is certain, so you might as well ignore a spreading head crack and do what you want to do anyway, which is drive the car a thousand miles in winter?
Hey, at least I’ll be heading south.
By the time you read this, hopefully Louie and I will have successfully pounded out the thousand or so miles down to the BMW CCA Foundation and be safely ensconced in the museum until January 2019. And, if not…more to write about, no?
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 Mechanic™ Guide 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.