No thanks, I’ll pass: Saying no to a “sure thing”
We’ve all had it happen. You look on Craigslist, find a car that sounds like an unbelievable deal, do a double-take, call or e-mail as fast as your fingers will dial or type, count the minutes until you hear back, can’t believe your good fortune that you’ve managed to be the first call and snag the first viewing, drive two hours to see the suspected score, and then walk away empty-handed and disappointed.
The reasons why vary. Sometimes it’s because the owner has intentionally over-promised the condition of the car. Sometimes it’s because there are issues he or she doesn’t know about (a common one is rust-through on the inside edge of a frame rail that can’t be seen unless the car is jacked up). But sometimes it’s that even though the ad makes the car sound like you’d buy it sight-unseen, your first sight proves otherwise.
As I’ve written, my particular poison is vintage BMWs, particularly the mechanically fuel-injected 2002tii. I’ve resurrected several that have been dormant for decades, so long-dead specimens don’t scare me. One morning last week, a friend of mine sent me a link to a Craigslist ad and asked, “Have you seen this?” I opened up the link and read: “1974 BMW 2002 Tii for sale. Parts or do some work. California car, barn find after sitting in a horse barn for 25 years, ran when parked, body is rough, undercarriage is good. $1750.” There were no photos.
Since I wrote a book titled Ran When Parked, about resurrecting a decade-dead 2002tii, the ad seemed to have been aimed right at me. The fact that I hadn’t seen it was curious, as I’d just searched Craigslist while enjoying my morning coffee. When I looked, I saw that the ad had only been up for 15 minutes, so it carried with it the tantalizing possibility of my responding before anyone else. However, I had just acquired my 12th car—I’d bought back Bertha, the 2002 I’d owned 30 years ago and sold to a friend, and was frantically trying to get it running well enough to drive to BMW CCA’s annual Oktoberfest event. So I thanked my friend for sending me the link, but didn’t contact the seller.
That steely resolve lasted about 20 minutes.
I’ve long thought that “The Automotive Powers That Be” watch how you react to these things. If you don’t respond to an ad like that, they tally in their little book “Hmmmn… we were going to dangle a Craigslist ad for a 1963 Series I Jaguar XKE, ran when parked, zero rust, $5800, five miles from your house, you’re guaranteed to get there first.” But he didn’t respond to the tii ad, so screw him.”
I emailed the seller, and in a few hours I received a call back. He told me an interesting story. The car, a ’74 2002tii with wide aftermarket fender flares and three-piece wheels, had been owned by a relative. It had been moved from California to western Massachusetts 27 years ago. The relative passed away, and the car was put into storage in a horse barn. About two years ago, the seller, who is a filmmaker and a car guy, bought the car and made a “sizzle reel” (a teaser film) about rescuing the barn-find. He and some friends pulled the car out of the barn and got it to a restoration shop in Athol MA. Condition-wise, the sojourn in the horse barn had been rough, introducing the requisite mouse infestation. Some of the bondo around the fender flares, the seller said, had begun to crack. But when the shop put the car up on a lift, they found that, underneath, it was extremely solid. They began to disassemble the interior for restoration, pulling the headliner and the mouse-eaten Recaro seats.
But then, life intervened, as life often does. The owner and his wife started a family. The project was halted. The car was rolled out from the restoration shop and left in a parking lot behind the building. It had been sitting there, the seller said, for two years.
I told him straight up that it was difficult for me to see how the car couldn’t be worth his $1750 asking price. The pair of front strut housings alone, with their bolt spacing for the larger tii front calipers, routinely bring $800. I offered to drop everything and drive immediately out to Athol with cash. I offered to send a non-refundable $100 deposit through PayPal to hold my place as first in line until such time as we both could get to the car. He said that he and his family were leaving for vacation in the morning, but he’d get back to me.
Just before 3 p.m. he called me back, saying he had a short window of opportunity, and asked me if I could be there before the restoration shop closed at 5 and locked the gate on their back parking lot. I looked at the map and the clock, made a snap decision, threw a floor jack in the car, ran to the bank, and burned rubber in my 2003 530i sport to get out there in time.
When I arrived at the shop about 30 minutes before closing, the proprietor pointed me in the direction of the car in the back lot. When I saw it, my heart sank. Any vintage car that’s been sitting outside for two years typically undergoes a pretty radical transformation, and any car sitting on flat tires has that beached whale look, but this one, with its fat fender flares practically touching the asphalt, was particularly cetacean-like.
The seller had mentioned cracked bondo around the fender flares, but he hadn’t said it was coming off in large, thick pieces, leaving dinner-plate-sized patches of surface rust.
The corner of one fender was flapping. The bottoms of the doors looked very rusty. And the roof. Oh my god. I understand why the roof, as exposed as it is, can get more sun-damaged than the rest of the car, but in front of the sunroof, in addition to the flaking paint, were eighth-inch-thick pieces of bondo coming up. I thought it was likely that the car had been rolled or that a tree had fallen on it.
It was a beastly hot day, but in my haste to beat it out to Athol, I hadn’t brought a hat, sunscreen, or water, so while I was sussing out the car, I rapidly found myself baking in the hot parking lot. Still, I needed to do my due diligence. I pulled the floor jack out of my car so I could example the car’s undercarriage, but found that the whale was so beached that I couldn’t get the jack under a frame rail to lift it up, and on old cars, you risk damaging the body if you use the original jacking points on the rocker panels. I got down on my hands and knees and inspected what I could. The rocker panels did seem surprisingly solid, with just isolated rust blisters but no visible holes. I reached underneath with my hand and felt along the outer and inner walls of the frame rails, and did not feel any rust-through. The rust that was plainly visible at the bottoms of the doors didn’t appear to perforate the metal. In the trunk, I found that the rear shock towers also had blisters but no apparent perforations. Sheesh, I thought, maybe it’s all just surface rust.
But as I continued inspecting, I found rust perforation at the bottom of the opening for the windshield. The adage that rust is an iceberg—that you only see a small percentage of it—is usually quite accurate.
The interior, as you’d expect from a car that was stored in a barn for 25 years and then sat outside for two more, was an unmitigated disaster. The headliner and rugs had been removed. Coincidentally, it had exactly the same striped Recaro front and rear seats as Bertha, and in similarly mouse-eaten condition. Evidence of rodent activity—nests, shells, dung—was everywhere. It looked like more than rodents had been partying in it, evidenced by several cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The engine compartment was analogous to the interior. For some reason, the radiator and air cleaner had been removed and were sitting in the trunk, making it so the engine was not left well-sealed. It did have the correct nose for a tii without the hole (the “snorkel”), and the front shock towers appeared rust-free.
At some point in this process, with this sort of a highly-compromised car, you step back and ask yourself what this car would actually be for. It has been many years since I have parted out a car, both because I don’t want to go to the work, and because I’ve felt that it would be over the line for my suburban Boston neighborhood (there’s more than enough automotive activity in my driveway without the spectacle of stripped hulks). I already have a spare tii motor; I don’t need another one. And the condition of this one was highly suspect anyway. Bertha did need a windshield, though, and this car had a good one. The Recaro seats, even in their poor condition, had value as cores. And as I said, the front strut housings were worth money. But those three things weren’t enough reason to buy the car. I checked to make sure the previous owner hadn’t retrofitted a five-speed into the car, as that might have been enough to sway me, but it had the stock four speed.
Plus, it wasn’t clear to me that the car was a parts car; it wasn’t so rusty that it couldn’t be brought back from the brink. When you love a certain model, you can start to think that every one you see, no matter how hobbled, should be saved. Hell, that’s what I was doing with Bertha.
As I thought of Bertha, my interest in this beached whale came down to answering this question: Did I think that Bertha somehow lacked sufficient rat rod panache and patina? Did I want to pick up another 2002 so outrageous that it would make Bertha look like a Camry? Did I want two rat rod 2002 projects, one that, in This is Spinal Tap parlance, went to 11, and another that went to 17?
When framed like that, the answer was clear: No. I thought that someone would probably love to pick this car up cheaply and save it. It’s just that that someone would not be me.
I climbed back into my 530i, turned the A/C on full, and collected my thoughts. Not long after, the owner showed up. He hadn’t seen the car in over a year and was pretty jarred by how badly it had deteriorated. We wound up chatting for nearly an hour, as he had some great stories about his Sunbeam Tiger. When we came back around to my potential interest in the car, I declined to make an offer. He apologized that the car’s condition had deteriorated so badly since he’d seen it; I apologized that having as much as said I’d buy it sight-unseen, the sight of it was causing me to see more clearly and back off. We both headed off, agreeing to stay in touch.
So, having dropped everything, driven nearly two hours each way, nearly heat-stroked myself in the hot sun looking at something any right-minded car guy would’ve steered clear of from the get-go, was it worth it? Of course it was. You never know until you look at it. And I may very well have made a new friend.
And, most importantly, I’m still on the good side of The Automotive Powers That Be. That $5800 rust-free E Type five miles from my house might show up yet.
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.