Packing light for a classic car road trip has its advantages

It’s easy to go overboard on road trip tools. A couple of years ago, I wrote a story about essential tools to pack, and that was actually a scaled-down list—a “do as I say, not as I do” list, if you will—because I usually bring almost enough stuff to rebuild an engine.

How does it happen? You simply recall all those times your vintage car has needed repairs, make a mental list of the tools you’ve needed to fix your car in the past, and then convince yourself that those are exactly the ones you should bring. If you reach the conclusion, “Wait, that’s all of them,” then you get my point. The same goes with parts. You’ve probably replaced fuel pumps, water pumps, alternators, and more, right? You could rightly conclude that those are the spare parts you should bring on every trip.

I suppose you can also look at this from a purely space-centric view. If, after you’re done packing tools and parts for a road trip in a vintage car and there’s still room left in the trunk (and on the back seat), you can—and probably should—bring more.

Obviously, I’m being a little flippant, but there’s a good deal of truth in this. When I’m working in my garage, I have my most frequently-used ratchet handles, sockets, and extensions in a small tool box, my wrenches in another, and my screwdrivers, pliers, and miscellaneous hand tools in a third. When I embark on a long road trip, I’ll put all three of these boxes in the trunk, along with an aluminum floor jack; a pair of aluminum jack stands; an electrical repair box with a multimeter, wire, crimping tools, and fittings; a troubleshooting box with a timing light, dwell-tach, and fuel pressure gauge; an ignition box with plugs, points, condenser, coil, cap, rotor, and spark plug wire ends; and a fuel injection box with parts specific to the injection system of a BMW 2002tii, my frequent road trip companion.

There are several reasons why I carry the Boy Scouts’ “Be Prepared” motto to such extremes. One is that I’ve helped friends replace blown head gaskets in hotel parking lots, so things like this do happen. The other is that, as many of my readers know, I have a tendency to buy cars that are, shall we say, challenged, and then take them on long road trips. While in this connected world you can get yourself out of trouble with just a cell phone and a credit card, it goes against my flinty self-reliant New England roots. Being able to deal with breakdowns yourself can make the difference between being in control of destiny and being at the mercy of a repair shop that you have no history with. While sometimes you must, as they say, “pay the man,” I hate having no way out and being forced to write a check for thousands of dollars for something that would’ve cost me hundreds if I’d done it myself.

So, yeah, if I’m driving an untested car, I bring everything I think I might need. And still I sometimes come up short. I don’t, for example, routinely bring a brake line flaring tool or brake bleeding equipment, but twice I’ve needed them and not had them.

Recently, however, my everything-but-the-kitchen-sink strategy was recalibrated. My reasoning is a little quirky. I sold the white 1972 BMW 2002tii I’ve had for eight years. It’s the most well-sorted of all my vintage cars. I made an agreement with the buyer, someone who had bought another car from me and I now consider a friend, that I’d deliver the car to him at the annual BMW Oktoberfest event held this year in Greenville SC. This avoided him needing to pay to ship the car, and it had two advantages to me: 1) I needed to get down to Oktoberfest anyway, and 2) I needed to pick up another car. The second car, a nearly-identical 1972 BMW 2002tii, “Louie,” the subject of my book Ran When Parked, had been part of the “BMW 2002: ICON” exhibit at the BMW Car Club of America Foundation’s museum in South Carolina, but when I’d gone down to the closing of the exhibit to pick it up last January, a blizzard moved into Boston. In addition to being hesitant to drive the car on salted roads, I received a message from my wife that it had snowed so much and the temperature had dropped so quickly that I would literally be unable to open the garage door. So when a friend said he had room in his trailer to bring the car back to Cincinnati and store it, I took him up on his offer. It’s been in his warehouse since January.

So here’s the rub. Not only was I driving down in one car and driving back in a second, I needed to catch a ride from Greenville to Cincinnati in a third car. This meant that I wasn’t simply packing a trunk full of tools and grimy spare parts and leaving them there for a 2000-mile round-trip drive; all that stuff needed to be shuttled between three cars, one of which wasn’t even my own.

Further, I already had packed Louie (the car in Cincinnati) with a fairly complete set of road tools, including my aluminum floor jack and stands, and left those in the car for the duration of its time in the museum. When I went down to retrieve the car, I’d brought a fair assortment of back-up parts and put those in the trunk before the planned drive home got snowed out.

So when I prepared to pack the white car for the trip down to Greenville, I did something almost unthinkable: I decided to pack light. While this went against all my instincts, there were two things that made it logical. The first was that I often say (I said it above, in fact) that the white 2002tii I was driving down is my most well-sorted vintage car. And the other car, Louie, also had several rounds of sorting, including a pretty thorough one prior to its 1000-mile drive to Greenville 18 months prior. Both cars had new fuel pumps, new water pumps, and new electronic ignition modules that eliminate the vagaries of ignition points closing up at the most inopportune moment. Well, I thought, if that’s the case, why not bet on nothing going wrong rather than planning on something breaking?

The other thing was that I was caravanning with a friend. This fundamentally changed things. Initially I was very hesitant not to bring a floor jack and stands, but the more I thought about it, the more I reasoned if something went wrong that required me to work under the car, I could simply send him to the nearest auto parts store to buy a jack and a pair of stands.

Caravanning with someone who has your back fundamentally changes how many tools and parts you bring.
Caravanning with someone who has your back fundamentally changes how many tools and parts you bring. Rob Siegel

With those two realizations, I began stuffing tools into a medium-sized zippered tool bag. I allowed myself whatever would fit in the bag, but no more. So I said yes to a very good assortment of general hand tools, but no to the torque wrench and the big breaker bar.

If a tool couldn’t fit in this zippered bag, it didn’t come.
If a tool couldn’t fit in this zippered bag, it didn’t come. Rob Siegel

Then I did the same real-estate-limited thing with parts and troubleshooting equipment. I allocated one cardboard box and filled it. I did bring some 2002tii-specific parts that would stop you cold if they died, such as the plastic injection lines, the cogged belt that runs the injection pump, a fuel pump, a water pump, and a few hoses, but left other more generic items behind. I did throw in a spare cooling fan, as I’d had one shatter on a previous trip. And even though both cars have electronic ignition, not taking a set of points and condensers seemed to be tempting The Automotive Powers That Be, so I threw those in too. I also tossed in a can of starting fluid and a timing light, as I find those are indispensable for doing the “gas or spark” triage if a car should die. Finnaly, I added a length of wire, a crimping tool, and a little baggie of spade and ring connectors.

The parts were similarly on the light side.
The parts were similarly on the light side. Rob Siegel

And that was it. Well, almost. I couldn’t go without a set of jumper cables. And the only 20W50 oil I had in the garage was the waning supply of a five-quart container. And I couldn’t not bring antifreeze. I took a second cardboard box and set the tool bag and sundries in it. I threw in a roll of paper towels and a few sets of latex gloves.

But that really was it. I didn’t even bring my traditional exhaust-saving coat hanger (as I joke, it’s both a tool and a part), as both cars had recently-rehung exhausts.

Compared to my usual stuff-the-trunk-’til-it-bursts approach, the resulting trunk looked like a tree in winter, although by the time I added in my suitcase and the travel guitar, it filled up.

Something’s wrong. I can actually see the towel protecting the floor of the trunk.
Something’s wrong. I can actually see the towel protecting the floor of the trunk. Rob Siegel

As I write this, I’m halfway through this adventure. I did indeed make it to Greenville in the white 2002tii without incident. I could get used to traveling light. Hell, if I find a spare five-speed transmission for a 2002, I’ll have room for it in the trunk!


Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 33 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. You can order personally inscribed copies here.

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