Even in quarantine, there’s plenty to keep car enthusiasts busy

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Rob Siegel - BMW - Coronavirus
Rob Siegel

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I mean, it’s spring, we’re car nuts, and we can’t drive. I’m thinking of that scene in Tropic Thunder where Jack Black has his companions tie him to a tree so he won’t ingest all the heroin in Southeast Asia.

OK, maybe that’s an overstatement. The “can’t drive” part. I guess it depends on a combination of local guidelines and common sense. I live in a leafy suburb of Boston. I can head west, cross I-95, and be on stress-busting rural roads in 10 minutes, and I do so, in the Lotus Europa or the BMW 2002tii, as often as I can.

But that’s just a taste. It’s driving season. The time of year you channel Animal House and yell “ROAD TRIP!” For 10 years I’ve been going to a BMW event in North Carolina called “The Vintage,” caravanning down there with the same group of people. Selecting and preparing a car is half the fun. People post on social media with the hashtag #VintagePrep, showing what they’re doing. This starts months in advance (actually, it starts for Vintage N+1 the day after people return from Vintage N), but it also includes wonderful insanity like engine swaps that begin three days before departure. For the past few years, I’ve run down in a series of long-dead-but-recently-resurrected cars of questionable integrity, so I’ve had a lot to do.

And then, after the breakneck prep, there’s the drive, the obligatory stupefying 17 hours at the wheel. Caravanning down with your companions. Fixing what breaks. No one left behind. And you arrive, triumphant, and take 90 minutes to get from the parking space to the hotel entrance because it takes you that long to get through saying hello to people and trading war stories about the drive. Then you settle in, quaff a few cold ones, and spend two days hanging out with your second family of like-minded wingnuts, which you see once a year. People you know have your automotive back. People that would drop the differential out of their car and give it to you if you needed it.

But not this year. Gone, as John Hiatt says, like my last paycheck. It’s a first-world loss, to be sure, but a loss nonetheless, and many of us feel it in our bones.

Plus, I’m not looking at cars, at least not in person. Of course, with 12 cars, I don’t need another car, but the churn—one goes out, two come in—is half the fun of what so many of us do. 20 years ago, I remember reading a column Bobby Rahal wrote called “The Fresh Rattle Syndrome.” You reach a point where you don’t want to hear your car rattle; you want to hear a different rattle. But while it’s not like I can’t go out and mask and glove up to look at a car, I probably won’t, at least not unless it was a $4000 E-Type in dry storage a mile from my house. I am assiduously careful about proper PPE and social distancing. Being in a car with anyone else except my wife, masked or not, crosses a line.

Siegel - 1973 BMW 3.0CSi
My 1973 BMW 3.0CSi. Rob Siegel

The rhythm of car-dom has been interrupted in odd ways. As I’ve written, I store four cars in my garage in suburban Boston, and another four in rented storage in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, about 50 miles west. Waking up on a weekend morning, jumping into one cool old car, and running it for an hour out to Fitchburg to swap it for another cool old car is one of the enjoyable consequences of the divided storage.

But even that’s been interrupted.

My wife, as reasonable a spouse as one could ever hope to have, has developed a level of anxiety about it. What if one of the cars dies and I have to get into a tow truck with an unmasked coughing driver? Initially I waived it off, as the cars are well maintained and certainly vetted to run for the hour it takes to make the trip, and as I always have a mask and gloves with me. But then I had to run my BMW 3.0CSi up to a different storage area where I didn’t currently have a car stashed, so she had to follow me to give me a ride back, and as we pulled onto the highway, the car lost power. It recovered, but I still haven’t figured out why it happened. Suddenly the idea that, even on a pleasure drive, one of the cars could require a tow, and I could face sliding into a truck cab with someone to whom the importance of distance and PPE is not uppermost in their mind. I’ll get back out to Fitchburg to swap cars, just maybe not alone at 11 at night or 7 in the morning. Maybe she’ll follow me there and back. Part of a happy marriage is listening and compromise. I’m doing both of those things. We’ll figure it out.

But in the larger sense, how do you enjoy your automotive hobby, the source of so much pleasure for you, when a big part of it is being taken away?

Relax. Take small steps. Do small things.

If big road trips are off the table, so is the preparation for them. While I miss the level of insanity of #VintagePrep, the lack of a deadline does let me breathe. I used to order BMW parts from a vendor just across the line in New Hampshire. If they had something in stock, they’d get it to me in a day. Then they went out of business a few years back. After that, whenever possible, I relied on Amazon, as with Prime, parts would arrive in just a day or two. Now, with Amazon prioritizing shipping Covid-19-related goods, delivery of parts might take five to ten days. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. There’s no deadline. I and the cars aren’t going anywhere. If I find that I need something for a repair, I just want to know that the parts are on order. They get here when they get here.

Siegel - 1974 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special
My 1974 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special. Rob Siegel

Project-wise, at the house I currently have the Winnebago Rialta RV, which has been sitting all winter and now has a whine from the serpentine belt (probably an idler pulley); the E39 BMW 530i stick sport, that I basically abandoned in my driveway last September when I bought the X5 stick sport; the X5, which has two broken rear window regulators and apparently nonfunctional air conditioning; my ’72 BMW 2002tii, whose cracked head I temporarily repaired at the beginning of a 900-mile road trip last fall with J-B Weld and to which I have a promise to keep for a real head repair; the 48,000-mile ’73 BMW 2002 that I bought last fall and have been cleaning and readying for sale; and, of course, the now-reasonably-well-sorted-but-I-can-always-find-something-to-fix-on-it ‘74 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special.

I think I have plenty to keep me busy for a while.

What do you enjoy doing with your car? Cleaning? Go clean it. Tinkering? Go tinker. As I’ve written, while I get a lot of satisfaction out of big, long, involved projects like the Lotus, there’s a special joy in fixing something simple and wholly-contained, taking something that wasn’t working yesterday and making it work today. For example, the rear wiper motor on the X5 was wonky, banging around inside the rear hatch with a huge amount of play. I pulled the panel off to expose it and found that the three plastic mounting tabs had all broken off. I first tried jury-rigging something with washers and brackets. It lasted one wipe. I looked online and learned that a new motor is pricey, but I found a used one on eBay for $47.80 shipped. Click. Buy. I left everything exposed under the back hatch (after all, I’m not going anywhere), the part arrived a few days later, and in it went. Fixed. Completely. Man, that felt good.

So … You have your health. You have your cars. Relax. Make it work.


Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 34 years and is the author of five automotive books. His new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying back our wedding car after 26 years in storage, is available on Amazon, as are his other books, like Ran When Parked. You can order personally inscribed copies here.

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