From beaten down to beautiful: Resurrecting a BMW E9, Part 2

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1973 BMW 3.0 CSi Rob Siegel

I don’t use the word “restored” to describe any of my cars, no matter how much work I put into them. And that includes the 1973 BMW 3.0CSi that I purchased as a lightly-wrecked basket-case in 1986. Last week I explained how the car became mine and I shared some of the upgrades I slowly began to make.

I bought new sheet metal, had it installed, and drove the car half in primer for a few years while I saved money to get it painted. I changed the color from Polaris (silver) to Signal Red, a rich Mercedes color slightly deeper than the Verona red in BMW’s color palette. (Hey, I was young. I wanted a red E9.) The outer body restoration and paint job—seven coats of color and seven coats of clear—cost me $4000, which, in 1988, was literally more than all the money I had in the world. I took out an unsecured bank loan to fund it. My wife was supportive, but some of my family and friends thought I’d gone over the edge.

Now back to the word “restored.” When it comes to the E9, I’m more comfortable using it to refer to specific work that’s been done. For instance, “outer body restoration” is a carefully-chosen, yet-appropriate linguistic selection that describes the front-end repair and paint job. I’ve had other cars painted, but only the E9 has received a glass-out paint job including the engine compartment and trunk, followed by replacement of the exterior chrome and rubber. The results were absolutely stunning. But to say the car is “restored” is an overstatement.

Shortly after the E9 receive new paint, I treated myself to a “WARP9” vanity plate. It’s the fastest that the Enterprise was ever ordered to go on the original Star Trek television show, which is a great piece of trivia but is a little embarrassing when you’re pulled over for speeding and the police officer asks about the significance of the plate. (“I’m only writing you up for a warning, but fly your spaceship a little closer to the ground next time.”)

For a few months, I actually had three E9s—the freshly-red CSi, the white CS I swapped interiors with, and a running 2800CS parts car that I planned to use as a winter beater until I played one game too many with license plate swaps and the City of Boston towed it off and crushed it. Yeah. Ouch.

All three E9s in their brief moment of triplet glory.
All three E9s in their brief moment of triplet glory. Rob Siegel

A rebuilt 3.2-liter motor and a five-speed went into the car in the mid-1990s. Air conditioning was retrofitted in 1999. The Webers came off and an L-Jetronic injection system was installed in the early 2000s. The car was treated to slightly shorter springs, Bilstein HD shocks and struts, and bigger sway bars in the mid-2000s.

Reliability-wise, the E9 has been great. With the 3.2-liter engine and L-Jetronic injection, it starts and idles no matter how long it’s been sitting, and it has plenty of power and no drivability issues. However, I’ve spent much of the last 30 years sorting out a cacophony of thunks, clunks, and rattles. It turns out that the gentleman responsible for the sweet paint job was very good at painting, but not so good at reassembly. Many of the noises were traceable to lapses in tightening fasteners on doors, bumpers, trim pieces, power window assemblies, etc.

For many years, I drove the E9 anywhere and everywhere, weather permitting. At some point I stumbled into a set of Recaro SE seats that were close enough to the color of the leather that your eye isn’t drawn to the difference. Although the E9 is at heart a touring car, with the suspension, sway bars, and Recaros in it, it responds well to enthusiastic driving. I even tracked the car a couple of times at Lime Rock. That is, until the accelerator stuck at the end of the main straight. Talk about excitement!

The cloth Recaros look right at home in the car.
The cloth Recaros look right at home in the car. Rob Siegel

The pillar-less design that the E9 inherited from the 2000CS is dramatic; it’s one of the things people react to when they see the car parked with the windows down. However, it comes at a cost. Since there is no B-pillar for the glass to seal against, the door window and rear quarter window have to seal against each other using a thin strip of rubber. Even when the rubber is new and everything is adjusted properly, there’s usually some amount of wind noise and water leakage. In the late 1980s, back before the cars were worth what they are today, I once took the white 3.0CS through a car wash, and my attempts to stem the amount of suds suddenly pouring into the car reminded me of Woody Allen trying to beat back the instant pudding in Sleeper. Even with the wind noise, however, the car is noticeably quieter and more comfortable on long drives than a 2002, which can get a bit buzzy.

The pillar-less design is dramatic, but getting the glass to seal is an issue.
The pillar-less design is dramatic, but getting the glass to seal is an issue. Rob Siegel

When I insured the E9 with Hagerty in 1998 it was, at first, quite an adjustment not being able to use it as my daily driver. Shortly after, I bought a ’82 Porsche 911SC that I owned for a decade, and a few years later a ’99 BMW Z3 M Coupe that I still have. These and other events caused the E9 to be lightly used for about 12 years.

Then, in 2010, I began driving the E9 long distances to vintage BMW events, and it totally renewed my relationship with the car. The air conditioning retrofit and Recaro seat installation suddenly seemed like acts of sheer genius.

But even more than the Recaros and the cold air, I enjoyed the reaction the car got at shows. Because it had been painted in a base coat / clear coat finish and wet-sanded between coats, and because it’s been well cared-for, when the sun hits it, it absolutely pops. The first time I showed it, I began to tell the story of how the car was originally Polaris, how I had it painted red because I was a kid who didn’t know what I know now how color-changing a car can affect its value, and how I’ve second-guessed the decision ever since. But the amazing thing is that, since I’ve been telling this story, not a single person has ever said, “Yeah, you blew it with the color change; you destroyed the value of the car.” All that anyone ever says is, “Wow… it looks just gorgeous in this color.” I feel vindicated for a rash youthful decision I made 30 years ago. My left brain says, “There were a lot of Polaris / navy CSis brought over though the gray market, whereas red (Verona) and tan leather is a rare combination.” But my right brain simply loves the red and tan.

The car strutting its stuff at a show in 2010.
The car strutting its stuff at a show in 2010. Rob Siegel

And then came The Great Drenching Event of 2013. While driving from Boston to a vintage BMW event in Winston-Salem, it rained most of the 800 miles, and about 500 of those miles were in torrential rain. While I’ve long held that it’s not what happens on a single day but instead the pattern of usage over years that determines rust formation, so much water descended upon my Karmann-constructed E9 that I felt like I’d used my entire 30-year moisture allocation in one trip. After that, I became very hesitant to drive the car on any trip where I couldn’t see a clear forecast. Because of that, for the next four years the car did occasional outings but no road trips.

A brief rainbow-punctuated respite during The Great Drenching Event of 2013. BMW
A brief rainbow-punctuated respite during The Great Drenching Event of 2013. Rob Siegel

There is, of course, no one right answer to the question of what constitutes the right level of usage of a classic car. People need to do what feels right for them. If someone gets pleasure out of restoring a car to perfection, trailering it to shows, and never driving it, then that’s what they should do. If someone else wants to drive the wheels off their high-dollar car, risk and rust be damned, more power to them. For most of us, we calibrate and adjust. On the one hand, appearance-wise the car has changed very little since the outer body restoration in 1988. It astonishes me that that was 30 years ago, but the reason why it looks so good is that I’ve been careful with the car. On the other hand, at a fundamental level, I feel that if when I die there’s not a single rust bubble anywhere on the E9, it will mean that I used it too little.

Last year, just before Thanksgiving, I drove the E9 1200 miles round-trip to the Coastal Virginia Auto Show. I encountered no inclement weather, and I vowed that going forward I would not be such a nervous Nellie and would drive the damned thing more.

And thus, 32 years since its purchase, WARP9 and I are still not only living quite happily together, but we’re deeply in love. By last count, 64 other BMWs have come and gone, but the 3.0CSi is the one that stayed. Since I just turned 60, it’s eye-opening to think that I’ve almost certainly passed the halfway point in our relationship. The car’s value is now high enough that, if I sold it, I’d certainly never be able to afford another. With its non-original and non-BMW color, non-original interior, and Frankenstein’s monster-like engine, it’s the kind of car that would get picked apart to death on bringatrailer.com. Unless, of course, someone simply wanted the prettiest red E9 around. But it doesn’t matter; I’d never sell it. If the creditors beat down the doors, it would be the last car left in the stable. Hell, it would be my getaway car to escape those creditors.

They are only cars, and as I was reminded by a friend who sold his E-Type for college money, and there will always be more of them. But it’s pretty special owning a car for longer than I’ve had my kids. I no longer cringe at or second-guess the color change. I love the way the car looks in Signal Red. I’m not sure I’d have the same attachment to it if it had stayed Polaris.

On the other hand, the four holes I cut in the back deck and rear kick panel in the 1980s to install speakers and subwoofers… that’s another issue. Ah, youth.

In Part 1 I mentioned that I’m often asked if I have a favorite among the nine cars that I own. Hell, yes I do. This one. The one I’ve had so long that it’s part of me and I’m part of it. The real question is, which one of my three kids gets it when I die? That’s a little more difficult to answer. Favoritism can and should only go so far.

***

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 MechanicGuide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is now available on Amazon. You can also order a personally inscribed copy here.

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