Looking back on Weissrat: A slapdash resurrection and 5000-mile road trip in a dumpster-fresh BMW
Once, your narrator rebuilt an old car. The project was intentionally slapdash for the best reasons and chronicled on this site. The first installment in that series of stories lives here.
Surprisingly, people liked the tale! It produced a healthy dose of traffic, and my editor asked me to synthesize the story for the Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. The resulting piece, reprinted below, saw more than 600,000 readers in HDC #72, March/April 2022.
Several of you have emailed, asking about the tii’s condition. It is currently in the rudest of health. A few weeks ago, I took it on a back-roads camping trip with friends. Last summer, I drove it to California and back. More work—a light flywheel, a good used steering box—is on the way. But mostly, we just rack up the miles. Hope you enjoy! —Sam Smith
1. The Driveway
To understand all of this, we go back to a moment. The summer of 2020. A Baltimore driveway. The seller, waiting patiently a few yards away.
“I’m sorry,” my friend Paul said, under his breath.
“It’s worse than I thought?”
I shrugged. “I mean, it’d be nice if the subframe were more attached to the car.”
“Floors don’t look great, either.”
“Big rusty tear in each shock tower.”
He made a face.
I was a few months past my 39th birthday. Dozens of used or vintage cars had passed through my hands in the previous 20 years, many of them ugly. The only one bought sight unseen cost just $1800 and was undeniably the worst of the lot. It smelled of swamp and armpit.
In Baltimore, Paul squinted at that very car. “You offered money. You kind of have to buy it.”
“I’ll help part it out.”
“Who said anything about parting out?”
We both knew it was too far gone to restore. Paul changed the subject.
“I got you into this.”
“Nobody made me pull the trigger.”
“I have a plan.”
I laughed. “Are you kidding? No.”
2. Awful Things and Nice Things
A BMW 2002. Like the ones I owned in high school and college, or the ’69 I raced with the SCCA. This was an early ’72, originally blue but long ago repainted four shades of white. It was also mechanically fuel-injected—a 2002tii, for touring international injection.
Both left and right rockers had rusted to nothing. The rear subframe mounts were mostly air, part of why the car had spent 10 years in outside storage. A deep pothole would have simply ripped the axle loose and left it lying on the pavement. The roof, rear subframe, and trailing arms were peppered with holes. Each inner sill had an oxide gash as wide as your wrist from wheel to wheel. The hood skin and one door skin had rusted loose from their frames. All of this looked like the aftermath of a saltwater flood. Only the engine seemed immune.
It idled like a champ. Paul was the instigator. He found the car through friends, then told me to buy it. This is very Paul. Once, 20 years ago, he was my parts guy at an East Coast German importer. Later, he got a job restoring Mercedes Gullwings and Colombo-engined Ferraris. Now he lives in the hills outside Pittsburgh and ministers to ratty old barn-find BMWs like crazy old ladies minister to cats and Jeopardy DVDs.
Like me, Paul owned nice cars once but has since reformed. Awful sheetmetal can be driven without worry about value or damage. Also, neither of us is made of money, and many of the cars we loved and drove when we were young have now become unaffordable. On top of that, a certain school of thought says many awful things are better than one nice thing, or at least I am telling you right now that this school of thought exists, so you should trust me on this and totally not assume that I am spewing hard gibberish made up on the spot to justify an extreme and possibly disease-ridden case of hoarding.
Paul acted as go-between with the owner. The asking price was a few thousand dollars. A summary of the telephone negotiation process:
Me: “I have no money. I’m exempt.”
Me: “Twist my arm. I have $1800 from our tax refund. No way he’ll take that.”
Paul, much later: “I got him to take $1800.”
Me [confused]: “Kismet?”
My wife, walking into the room: “What’s kismet?”
Paul: “What’s nothing?”
Me: “Never mind?”
Paul had only seen the car in pictures.
I am occasionally so dumb that it passes for smart.
3. Why Meets How
“I kind of want to save it.”
A response not unlike approval emerged from my phone speaker.
Ben is a man of few words. Witty, little tolerance for fools. We have been friends for 20 years. I worked for him after college, as a mechanic at his Chicago BMW shop, where he little tolerated me. Ben is the sort of guy you can hand a bent paper clip and two bucks, and he will return to you $1.50 change and a small nuclear reactor made from said paper clip. Improv and dumb projects are a specialty.
I dropped the bomb. A dumb idea that had come to me on the toilet. “What if we just welded steel tube into the thing until it held itself together?”
Ben made a noise that identified this idea as stupid, if not unappealing.
“Tubes like an exoskeleton until the car holds together,” I said. “Leave the rest awful.”
You know what a great 2002tii is worth these days? Creeping up on six figures. What if you want to drive a car, but the buy-in stands in the way? Rusty and ugly means nothing to lose. Who cares about snow or rain if you should be dead to begin with?
I asked for help. I forget what Ben said after that. It was probably supportive and loving.
Momentum snowballed. I towed the car to Chicago from my house in Tennessee. Ben ordered a pile of tube steel and quietly mentioned the project to friends around the country. Over the six weekends that followed—not consecutive and scattered over months—those people met us in Chicago without being asked. Then they worked on my car while we all laughed and everyone knew the work was for reasons beyond me or my wants.
Ben or Paul or Owen or Matt or Mark or Carl or Tim or Andy or Larry or Joe or Veronica or the rest—at some point, each asked about the end goal. Each time, I deflected. And then we kept going.
4. The Work
Fall of 2020. The shell was stripped that first weekend. I spent much of that time grinding steel or scraping insulation from the floors with a heat gun. It was like watching a school of piranhas skeletonize a cow, from inside the cow.
Paul called it a homecoming. I couldn’t tell if he meant the gathered labor or me owning a 2002 after decades out of that game or what. Ben was something like chief engineer. The first new steel went into the rockers, where unibody cars carry most of their rigidity. On each side, a 65-inch square tube was stitch-welded to the bottom of a round tube the same length, and then the whole assembly was hoisted into the sill cavity, plug-welded in through holes drilled from above. Up front, the forward end of this tube structure was welded to another, vertically oriented round tube that was itself stitched into the lower A-pillar.
In the rear, each tube assembly met newly reconstructed subframe mounts, then another vertical tube tied into the rear quarter. The old subframe and trailing arms were thrown away, too rusty. Good used parts went in.
Some people restore machinery for satisfaction or profit. Others customize cars to make something like art. This was mostly just one dude burning too much cash on cheap steel and too many new parts as he and other denizens with a skewed idea of the value of time aimed slam-bang work at a car that should have been hucked in a dumpster a decade ago.
You ever hear the Stooges song, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”?
I sang that a lot in the shop. But quietly, to myself. Didn’t want to look nuts.
5. The Work, Part II
Weekend after weekend, more people came by Ben’s shop. Friends and friends of friends, socially distant but curious, drawn by … something. A restoration that wasn’t? Sheer spectacle? Maybe, because this was 2020, they were all simply bored.
A pattern developed. Friday night, we’d all stand around talking in the parking lot while quality-checking the contents of beer bottles. Saturday morning meant an excess of donuts and coffee, then bleary-eyed grinding and welding. The whole circus would carry on until late, under a cloud of dirty jokes, and then we’d all wake up late on Sunday and poke at the car before ambling home midafternoon.
The welding began carefully and ended as something else. Even from the talent. Mark was a professional TIG welder from California, and Matt ran a restoration shop in Connecticut. The two men had not met before traveling to Chicago, but each grew up in the Northeast. They became fast friends, welding inches apart while tripping the shop breaker every five minutes and yelling four-letter words. The BMW consumed an entire wheel of MIG wire. Both shock towers were encased like Chernobyl, those rusty scars left to rot inside a new jacket of steel. The floor holes were patched with the precision of a dog fertilizing a lawn. Some of the beads I laid were actually quite nice, in the way that some parts of a Twinkie are real food.
The car gained structural integrity. The results looked accidental. And everyone kept laughing.
6. Not the End
Late fall. I headed to Chicago one last time and rented a trailer to drag the car south. Back home, over the months that followed, the BMW went from needy (cooling bits, brake bits, fuel bits, electrical bits, interior bits, seats, you know the drill) to serviceable vehicle. Driveline internals were left untouched, but anything that moved or carried liquid was replaced or rebuilt, or at least cleaned and lubed, or at least smacked with a large hammer for good measure. Most fasteners were seized or stripped. Liquid rust penetrant entered my life by the barrel. Missing trim parts were sourced from the scrap piles of friends. I adjusted the hood with a small sledge and some kicking from my right foot, which is my favorite foot.
Do not, dear reader, consider how much all those parts cost, or how the finished car is worth almost nothing. Should I have spent thousands on new Italian seats—reproductions of the factory Recaros—and a rare 1960s Momo wheel? Or bought a rare period Momo hub, or borrowed rare Borrani steel wheels from Ben? Probably not. Except when you think about how it matters, what you touch and see and feel in this life. Especially if you actually want to go places in your new pile of ugly and not merely look at it.
I left the front bumper crooked. The right mounting bracket is bent, giving the car a sneer when viewed head-on. It fit.
7. A Drive, Somehow
Spring 2021. The first drive was like a drug. Miles! Driver giddy and twitching! Maybe one day they’ll outlaw this sort of thing, or it’ll be viewed as we now view 19th-century doctors prescribing cocaine for a stubbed toe. Are you telling me they fed this stuff to children?
So many cars and motorcycles reassembled in my life. The feeling never changes—new but not new, same but different. A good 2002 is a cheery little thing: an ordinary car designed for ordinary use, made less ordinary by time and culture. After a few miles on a back road near home, I stopped on the shoulder and listened to the idle for a minute.
What would cars think, in moments like this, if cars could think?
Probably something like, “What just happened?”
8. August: Monterey County
Why did I drive the thing to California? Why does anyone do anything? I had to be at Monterey Car Week, in August, for work, for a start. Flying would have been easier and cheaper, but every project needs a destination. Reason matters less than rhyme.
Prep was limited to a lazy assembly of spares in the trunk, then 100 miles of Sunday-night shakedown on a local interstate. The car pointed west the next morning, in the middle of a national heat wave. Most days carried an index of more than 105 Fahrenheit. The trip took four days, with a 1:1 top gear turning nearly 4000 rpm at 70 mph. When it rained in Flagstaff, Arizona, water came up through the floor.
The odometer died near Memphis. When the alternator spat its locknut in Arkansas, I laughed and slapped on a replacement. The motor-mount nut that disappeared six hours later was replaced in a hotel parking lot; when the driveshaft bearing lost a fastener in New Mexico, I fixed it under a tree next to a JCPenney. The engine hoovered oil the first day but settled down to a mere half-quart per gas stop. (Stuck ring, probably, sure, why not?) In Los Angeles, the main fore-aft brake line rusted through and began leaking right around the time a driveshaft U-joint grew sticky. I stopped at a friend’s shop in La Jolla and fixed both on a borrowed lift, then ordered the shop guys a pizza.
In Monterey, on that beautiful peninsula, co-workers asked to see the car. “This is worse than it looks,” one said. Then I spent $140 to enter the BMW in Legends of the Autobahn, a lawn concours for German cars of no ill repute. The tii met a small amount of appreciation and many raised eyebrows. One spectator frowned at her boyfriend: “Why is this here? Does it even run?”
I would share precisely how much joy I felt in that moment, but you’d never believe it.
9. The Great Return (Just Not on Investment)
Every road trip has a point where you would rather be somewhere else. Even the good ones. Usually on the way home.
Friends texted: Did you die yet? What does monoxide poisoning taste like? The best were always some form of Do you hate it?
No? It wasn’t comfortable. Or was it? Wind noise from rust holes became a friend. Bored with not taking chances, I spent an afternoon cruising at 5000 rpm in fourth. The sound felt seamless and unstoppable.
So many miles covered. By the time I returned to Tennessee, I hadn’t changed my shirt in four days. (“This car,” my 6-year-old daughter said, “smells like people.”) Long road trips in old stuff leave you familiar with personal ideas of risk and doubt: Why did A or B stop working? Did I bring the parts if C falls apart? Take enough journeys like this, you discover that giving air to those questions only makes the experience more like real life. And if you’re not on the road in some rusty old paper clip at least partly to escape reality, why did you even go?
10. The End, or the Awful Car You Make
(Is Equal to the Awful Car You Take)
In the end, it went from project to not-a-project. As all projects do.
From the start, I had maintained a project log on Instagram, under the tag #weissrat. Fake-German for White Rat. (Get it? Experiments! For science!) This was done mostly to note things for myself at low effort. Surprisingly, thousands followed along, there and in stories I wrote for the Hagerty website. Maybe it was the sense of attainability—car culture is nothing if not exclusionary, gatekept by funding, but a crap car can be had by anybody. Or maybe it was the satisfaction of doing exactly as books say you shouldn’t.
Five thousand miles to California and back. These days, I take the BMW shopping and on trips around the South, in all kinds of weather. A 2002tii is technically a classic, but this is not a jewel under glass, some stationary monument to my own taste. It’s just a car, alive right now.
The odometer is still broken. Gonna leave that for a bit.
A good moment from a terrible year. Too worthless to keep and too valuable to sell. A way to get somewhere. And unavoidably—wonderfully, inarguably—mine.