Tomb Raiders: Extracting a classic BMW from its seemingly inaccessible crypt

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And finally, the easy part: The ramp truck. Rob Siegel

Recently I wrote about buying back the 1975 BMW 2002 that my wife and I drove away from our wedding in 34 years ago. I’d sold the car to a friend in the early 1990s, but soon after it was stolen and recovered with apparent engine damage.

My friend put the car in his neighbor’s rear-entry garage—essentially a drive-in basement—which sat on steep, sloping property that backed into a pond. Bertha, as I called her, sat there deteriorating for 26 years. In the meantime, another neighbor had erected a chain-link fence along the side of the driveway, making the garage inaccessible.

Bertha was not only dead, but landlocked.
Bertha was not only dead, but landlocked. Rob Siegel

We’ve all watched episodes of Chasing Classic Cars where Wayne Carini easily pulls dusty, neglected relics out of old garages and dilapidated barns. In theory, the steps required to free Bertha from the garage weren’t rocket science:

  1. Contact the neighbor and get permission to temporarily roll back a section of the chain link fence.
  2. Inflate the BMW’s tires.
  3. Ask for volunteers to help roll the car out of the garage and angle it toward the gap in the fence.
  4. Borrow a truck, back it down neighbor #2’s driveway and use a winch to pull the car through the gap.
  5. Reposition the truck to winch the car up the driveway and onto the street.
  6. Tow the car home in a flatbed.

Although it certainly wasn’t going to be as easy as putting a plate on the car, turning the key, and driving off, it was easily doable. Right? Unfortunately, when my friend (the seller) contacted neighbor #2 to ask about rolling back the fence, the owner was unresponsive. (The house is rental property, and the owner doesn’t live there.) So we were stymied at the first step.

While waiting for an answer, we inflated the tires to see if the car even rolled. I’ve been jammed up by this first step before, since cars that have been sitting for years often have seized brakes and garbage for tires. If a car is parked where a ramp truck can access it, it can be dragged—even with flat rubber and binding brakes—onto the ramp, and dropped off in your driveway. But in this instance, because of the lack of access and the fact that the car had to move across a lawn in the backyard, it was absolutely necessary that the car roll.

We hooked up a compressor and were happy to find that all four ancient tires held air. Unfortunately, when we tried rolling Bertha, she wouldn’t budge. We temporarily braced a beam against the garage’s opening and used it to position a come-along to winch the car forward, and found that the car slid on the rear tires, indicating that the rear brakes were completely seized.

With disc brakes, it’s usually pretty easy to tap laterally on the exposed brake pads to free them, and, if necessary, unbolt the calipers and pry them off the discs. But seized drum brakes are challenging, since what seizes are the shoes pressing against the insides of the drums, and the drums themselves prevent you from getting at the shoes.

But more to the point, buying back Bertha had turned into extricating Bertha, which had turned into working on Bertha in her tomb. I loaded up my car with a small floor jack, jack stands, tools, a MAPP gas torch, and a fire extinguisher, went over just before noon one Sunday, and began the assault. While the car was only five miles from my house, doing remote work is always much less convenient than working in your own garage. No matter how carefully you plan, you always find you have to run back home, or to the store, for something.

The tried-and-true method for dealing with seized brake shoes is applying repeated blows to the flat face of the drum where the shoes are (usually 9:00 and 3:00) with a small sledgehammer to break the bond between the shoes and the drum. If this doesn’t work, you’re in a world of hurt, as other methods such as trying to free and rotate the adjusters, using heat on the lip between the drum and the hub, and putting a puller on the drum are generally used when the drum is already free to rotate and you’re trying to pull it off. Fortunately, the beat-on-it-with-a-hammer method was successful. The right rear wheel was very stubborn, but the left one gave it up quickly. With that, Bertha was a “roller,” though the left front caliper was quite sticky.

Tools of the trade to free stuck rear drums.
Tools of the trade to free stuck rear drums. Rob Siegel

Several days passed and my friend still had heard nothing from the neighbor regarding the fence. We eyeballed the other side of the house, and noted that, even though there was no driveway there, there seemed to be just enough room to get the little car up, although you wouldn’t want to back a truck down, as that would tear up the yard and some shrubbery on the side. There certainly wasn’t enough room for a ramp truck.

Then my friend said something that got me thinking. “If she ran, we could just drive it out of the garage and up the left side.”

“I thought you said there was engine damage,” I said, “and that was why you’d rolled it into the garage in 1992.”

“No, I drove it in,” my friend corrected me. He then explained that 26 years ago, after the theft, although the car sounded like a chainsaw, he’d driven it home from where it had been recovered. This was something I was unaware of.

In my recent book Ran When Parked, I explained that even if a car did “run when parked,” the longer it sits, the less relevant that is. I also listed, in detail, the steps required to resurrect a long-dormant car. The first ones are, in a nutshell: Make sure the engine rotates, lubricate the cylinder walls, change the oil and filter, make sure the air cleaner isn’t full of rodent debris, verify the presence of spark, replace the fuel filters and clean any fuel screens, make sure that the gas tank, fuel pump, and carburetor float bowl aren’t full of rust, supply the engine with clean fuel, and check for fuel leaks. Then, with a fire extinguisher ready, try to start it. In my case, because of the specter of Bertha’s engine damage, after I lubricated the cylinders and changed the oil and filter, I also did a compression and leakdown test. They showed that #1 cylinder had low compression due to a non-sealing intake valve, but the other three cylinders looked good.

So I began doing something I never planned—I tried to get Bertha running in the neighbor’s garage. Within a few hours I had the engine cranking over on the starter, then sparking, then catching on starting fluid. I filled up the float bowls in both Weber carburetors with gas from a can, and the car started easily and idled well. I replaced the ancient gas lines under the hood with new rubber, and stuck a fuel hose into the gas the can. The car revved surprisingly easily once I replaced and adjusted a missing synchronization screw in the linkage.

I then examined the gas tank. It actually looked remarkably clean, but I took it home, gave it a quick cleaning by throwing a chain inside, shaking the tank around, washing it with water, and tipping it overnight to drain. The next day I reinstalled the tank, changed the rubber lines in the rear of the car, dumped in five gallons of fresh high-test, and turned the key. The ease with which it started belied its 26 years of slumber.

However, as I wrote in Ran When Parked, while hearing an engine run for the first time in decades is exciting, it’s often much easier than the work that follows. The next step is to try to move the car under its own power. In doing so, I found that, amazingly, the clutch hydraulics still worked, but the brake pedal seemed hard to the point of unresponsive, and the accelerator pedal and gearshift linkage were both completely seized.

Over the next two days, I went back to the garage to address both of these issues. I freed up the gearshift lever using copious quantities of penetrating oil (SiliKroil) on the pivoting points in the shift linkage, and massive amounts of leverage in the form of a one-foot pipe over the shift lever. By rocking it back and forth, I was able to free the linkage enough to nurse the car in and out of gear.

Freeing up the accelerator pedal was a bear. On BMW 2002s, there’s a bendy rod that goes through the pedal bucket. The rod typically rusts where it goes through the nylon bushings on which it pivots. I was able to hammer it out, scrape off the rust, lubricate it, and reassemble it, all of which required lying under the car in the filthy garage, and working with my nose far too close to the rodent-scented carpet. Most unpleasant.

But with the accelerator and shift linkages freed, I could actually start the car and try to move it under its own power. A few feet forward, a few feet back, and… wow. Bertha was alive and moving after 26 years. Unfortunately, there was no driveway in front of me for testing, only the backyard. Bertha’s first drive would need to be a Hail Mary pass all the way up to the street.

On the following Sunday, my friend still hadn’t heard from the neighbor regarding the fence. I asked him if he was serious about driving up the left side of his neighbor’s house, noting that it would put tire tracks across some ground cover that wasn’t grass. He indicated that the absentee landlord wouldn’t care. I went back to the garage and investigated. There did appear to be ample room for a car, but the grassy hill I needed to climb was steep.

The non-driveway side of the house.
The non-driveway side of the house. Rob Siegel

I realized that I had to make sure I had functioning brakes, both to slow the car down as I approached the sidewalk, as well prevent me from rolling backward into the pond if I couldn’t make it up the hill. To test the brakes, I started the car and let out the clutch with my foot on the brake pedal, and the brakes won—it stalled the engine. I did it again with the car rolling forward while feeding some gas, and again, the brakes worked well enough to stall the car.

With the brakes having passed my self-imposed test, the only impediment was now street access. I have some small ramps for loading and unloading low cars, so the curb itself posed no problem, but because there was no driveway there, this was a perfectly legitimate parking spot on a public street, and indeed a small blue Honda had positioned itself right where I needed to drive. My friend knocked on the door of the adjacent houses, but the Honda’s owner could not be located.

While we waited for the owner of the blocking car, we decided to try and get Bertha up onto the sidewalk. I started the car and attempted to drive it up the hill, but a combination of power loss and higher RPM likely caused by the non-sealing intake valve, a slipping clutch, and concern that I was ripping up the yard made me abandon the attempt about three-quarters of the way up.

At this point, one of the tenants of the house came out. He was very interested in the whole story of the resurrected car having been secretly right under him, but noted that over the past several days, what I’d been doing in the garage had stunk up the house. It made me realize that my working with gasoline and running the car in the garage had been over the line. It’s a wonder I’d gotten away with it.

Bertha positioned for the second attempt.
Bertha positioned for the second attempt. Rob Siegel

When the little blue Honda departed, I grabbed the ramps and moved them into position to reserve the space, then made another attempt at getting Bertha up the hill. I had the same problems with RPM, clutch engagement, and terrain, but with the engine in full howling chainsaw mode and enough clutch slippage to take a year off the life of the clutch disc, Bertha drove for the first time in 26 years. She climbed the hill, drove across the sidewalk, down the little ramps, and parked on the opposite side of the street. Unbelievable.

Then there was the question of getting Bertha the last five miles home. Driving her was tempting, but it was out of the question, due to the barely functional brakes, the flagrantly illegal appearance, and the totally non-sorted condition. As I wrote in Ran When Parked, when you sort out a long-dormant car, you drive it five feet, then 20, then 100, then around the block, then a mile—each time returning to the garage, checking for leaks, and likely fixing something. Since the car was unregistered, I didn’t try using either my AAA or Hagerty Plus benefits; I simply called a local towing company. For $100, a flatbed truck arrived in 20 minutes and delivered Bertha to my driveway. Money well spent.

And finally, the easy part: The ramp truck.
And finally, the easy part: The ramp truck. Rob Siegel

A week of wrenching had passed between the time I unseized the rear brakes until I got the car running and drove it up the side of the house and onto the street. It was very exciting and enormously satisfying, but I can’t say I’d recommend it as a method of extracting a trapped car. While I had a fire extinguisher with me, the risk of fire when handling gas is never to be trivialized, particularly in someone else’s garage or barn. And, unknown to me at the time, the gas and exhaust fumes bothered the house’s inhabitants.

It’s difficult for me to come up with valuable advice here. This was right on the edge of what I should have been handling with my seat-of-the-pants methods. It’s easy to say that you should put the responsibility of extraction on the seller, and that when they have the car out, they should call you, but part of the value a buyer brings is making the car go away. If you want the car, you usually need to shoulder the burden of extraction. Particularly in a case like this, where the car was not even on the seller’s property, you want to get the extraction done as quickly and efficiently as possible, not spend a week like I did.

This situation didn’t absolutely require professional riggers (and even if I had used them, the car’s seized brakes still likely needed to be freed up), but if I had to do it again, I think I’d consult a pro.

***

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 order a personally inscribed copy here.

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