A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about being a car nut during the COVID-19 pandemic and how, while I’m missing my big annual road trip to the BMW event called “The Vintage,” we all need to cut ourselves some slack, be happy we have our health and our cars, and enjoy whatever automotive activities we can—perhaps in reduced scope.
Almost on cue, one day later an e-mail arrived from the Nor’East 02ers. This group, a loosely affiliated bunch of BMW 2002 owners in an area from Connecticut to Maine, has this delightfully accommodating motto: “If you can drive it, you’re in.” There’s no membership fee or dues—just a website, Facebook page, and email list. Typically there’s a spring drive and a fall barbecue. Really, it’s just a way for a bunch of people who love the same car and live close to each other to support one another, get together a few times a year, talk, and ogle each other’s cars. Change “BMW 2002” to any other car make and model and I’m certain you’ll find similar ad hoc communities. We’re all pretty much the same. (Although I recall a column by the great Peter Egan some years back where he waxes eloquent about this universal sense of automotive kinship, then says something like, “Except those Reliant Robin guys; them I’m not so sure of.”)
Of course, it’s the “close to each other” and the “get together” aspects that we need to be careful about these days, but the email—with the subject line “Spring Drive! (with precautions)”—said that the plan was for all interested parties to phone in a take-out lunch order to a Mexican restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the night before, meet in the restaurant’s parking lot at 11 a.m. on Saturday, drive a few minutes to a park to eat lunch at an appropriate distance from the others, then do a roughly 30-mile drive along the New Hampshire coast before returning on an inland route that would end in the parking lot of a now-closed vendor, which used to host a big event each fall. The email also specifically said, “Please: We request that everyone respect 6-foot distancing and wear a mask while we are out of our cars.”
For several reasons, it sounded perfect. First, Saturday May 16, was the day that many of us would’ve been at The Vintage in Asheville, North Carolina, so the symmetry of doing this mini-event on that day was hugely appealing.
Also, thus far this spring I’d only been out on short solo pleasure drives in my Lotus Europa, which, though it’s well-sorted, is still … well … a Lotus Europa. This was an opportunity for me to pull out Louie, the 1972 BMW 2002tii that’s the subject of my book Ran When Parked, and take it for a much longer run, It’s now a well-sorted car that I have a deep bond with, and I very much looked forward to it taking back out for a spring fling.
This is, however, the same car that, as I wrote last November, required me to fix a crack in its head with J-B Weld before I could drive it home from a year-long stay in the BMW CCA Foundation Museum in Greer, South Carolina. It’s not a crack near the combustion chambers—it’s up near the upper rear corner of the head that manifested itself as an oil leak onto the exhaust manifold. I’d planned to replace the head over the winter, but I had multiple projects to complete on the Lotus, I never sourced the correct used head for the 2002tii, and besides, the crack repair appeared to be holding just fine. Now, coming into this COVID-19 spring, when I have no plans for a long road trip in any car, enjoying Louie as-is (as long as it continues to live on without leaking) seems in sync with this odd rhythm of life.
Louie had been sitting in the back of the garage since last October. I dug it out, and in addition to verifying that the crack repair was still holding, I went through the process I described in April to check it out before recommissioning it. The main thing I noticed was that, compared with the hyper-connected Grand-Prix-car-like feel of the Lotus, the 2002’s steering felt very sluggish. Of course, compared with the Lotus, anything feels like a ’55 Chevy. The car, however, did have two long road trips under its belt since I’d done a front-end refresh, so I thought that maybe something had loosened or drifted.
I did a quick alignment check using my stick gauge, and found that the front wheels were toed-in too far, which makes a car feel “scrubby.” As I described in the piece, these DIY alignment methods that use the tire sidewall rather than the hub or wheel are approximate, but they can work pretty well if you’re familiar enough with a car to be able to feel when it’s too toed-out and wandering versus too toed-in and scrubbing. I reset the toe-in to a measured 1/8-inch, then started driving it and tweaking it to iteratively dial it in. Then I was interrupted by rain, so I called it good enough.
Two days later, I left for the one-hour drive up to Portsmouth at about 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The weather was cool and clear but quite windy from the previous days of unsettled weather. It was difficult to know whether it was due to the wind, the crown of the road, my incomplete alignment, or a little of all of them, but the car seemed more toed out and wandering than when I’d tested it a few days prior. Further, as I drove, it seemed to be getting worse.
When I was about five miles from the exit, my internal caution light went on: Having stopped in the middle of tweaking the alignment, had I remembered to tighten the nuts locking down the tie rod adjustment? I wasn’t sure. I thought it was likely that I snugged the nuts so the rods wouldn’t spontaneously move but left them so that I could still tweak them by hand without having to re-loosen the nuts, but I couldn’t be certain.
So, when I arrived to our meeting spot at Qdoba, I backed the car into a spot, donned a Tyvek suit, and immediately crawled under the nose (talk about social distancing). My memory was correct—I’d left the nuts partially snug. The tie rods probably hadn’t moved, and my sense that the toe-out had gotten worse could’ve been just due to the wind, but if they had moved, it probably wasn’t far. Still, I gave one of the tie rods a twist to pull in the toe, snugged down all the nuts, and figured that if it was massively out, I’d feel it on the first part of the drive, which was only a few miles.
The social distancing part went fine. Three of my regular caravan companions to The Vintage were there, and it was great to see them, even if we weren’t pounding out 12-hour days at the wheel. Everyone was wearing a mask, and we tried to maintain a 6-foot separation. That turned out to be difficult when my friend Andrew’s fully restored 2002tii wouldn’t start. I stuck my head under the hood to listen to a malfunctioning starter. Instantly, three other car people did what car people do and swarmed around the hood. I stepped back, the others took the cue, stepped away, and I leaned back in to help diagnose the problem, which turned out to be a pinion gear spinning in place instead of extending to engage the flywheel. Fortunately, small primitive cars are easy to push-start. Having two people within 6 feet of each other when they were both at the back bumper to get car rolling before Andrew let out the clutch was unavoidable but quick.
Drive organizer Gary Hamilton handed out paper maps of the route along with the address of the end destination, in case anyone got lost and needed to phone their way home. A moment later we were on our way to the first stop—the U.S. Albacore Museum, a little building with information on the teardrop-shaped Albacore research submarine on display. As we expected, both the sub and the museum were closed, but the parking lot appeared to be open and available for us to space ourselves appropriately and eat our lunch. Unfortunately, as we arranged ourselves, someone came out and told us that another group had dibs on the space.
We drove to the large parking lot of a nearby church, taking care to park in alternating spaces, and ate lunch in our cars. It worked out very well. We were at least 6 feet apart, yet with the windows down, we could actually have conversations with people two cars over. And the 15 or so BMW 2002s provided a flash-mob-like car show to some interested pedestrians.
Then came the group drive. These really are a natural activity for these times, in that you’re doing something with a community, all together, but you’re still in your own little bubble. If you’ve never gone on a drive with 10, 20, or 30 others all driving the same model car, it’s really quite a spectacle seeing them snaking away ahead of you in the windshield and behind you in the rear view mirror. We went out from Portsmouth and headed across the harbor to Newcastle, then south along the coast for 11 miles before turning west and heading back inland. The weather was perfect for windows-down shirtsleeve motoring.
The through-the-country route was lovely, ending in the parking lot of the now-gone Bavarian Autosport, a BMW parts vendor who, for 24 years, held an annual “Show and Shine” event in the fall that drew hundreds of cars. Near the end of its run, the Show and Shine had gotten so popular that, in order to get a good spot in front of the building (rather than be banished to the nether regions of the back), you essentially needed to get there before sunrise. As I approached the address and I found myself behind a line of 2002s waiting to turn left into the parking lot, I was hit with the feeling of déjà vu. My immediate and reflexive thought was “Gee, in the past, you’d need to get here by 5:30 a.m. to have this few cars in front of you.”
We hung there for about an hour, masks on, again careful to keep properly separated. People gradually drifted away. When we were down to four cars, we called it, and the diehards headed off.
On the highway drive home, the wandering feeling in the car was gone. I’d probably twisted the tie rod to put it back into over-toed scrubbing territory. I’m about to pull some of the front end apart to replace the shocks and springs, so I’ll realign it anyway.
No, it wasn’t the big gonzo road trip I’d normally be doing that very weekend. But it was good for what ailed all of us. We were out and about in the cars we loved and reaching out to each other within the proper safety guidelines. Really, could you hope for much more on a spring day during a pandemic?
(Thanks to Nor’East 02er Gary Hamilton, rally master for New England Vintage Road Rallys LLC, for organizing the event and laying out the route.)
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.