Resurrecting a car and trying to meet a deadline? Sometimes failure is an option.
Deadlines. I can hit those when I write, but when you’re resurrecting a 26-year-dead 1975 BMW 2002, it’s best that you don’t rush things. Nevertheless, with BMW celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 2002 this year, my friends began egging me on to drive “Bertha” to Oktoberfest earlier this month in Pittsburgh. (I know, Oktoberfest in July. But that’s when everyone has the time to go on vacation, so that’s when the club celebrates it.)
I didn’t think that timetable was realistic, especially since I’m keenly aware that when resurrecting a long-dead car, it is the car, not you, that ultimately sets the timetable. Some appear eager to get back on the road, others are like a cranky old man who are woken prematurely from a nap.
The biggest issue with Bertha was the head. It had two bad valves and one bad guide. I’d taken the head into a machine shop and ordered the parts, but I had incorrectly remembered which of the two intake valve sizes and valve guide styles the head had, and I mistakenly ordered the wrong ones. This pushed back the machine shop’s completion of the head by two weeks. While I did quite a bit of other work on the car during that period, the delay seemed to put an end to the possibility of driving the car to Oktoberfest. Oh well, I thought. I have other vintage BMWs, even other 2002s. Not being able to drive Bertha wasn’t a hardship.
But then, to my delight, the Friday morning before my scheduled Monday departure, the machine shop called and said that the head was done. A glimmer of hope.
I spent Friday reassembling the head and began putting it back on the car on Saturday. I then began reattaching the ancillary engine components. The dual Weber sidedraft carbs went on first. This car originally had exhaust headers, which I had unfortunately broken during removal. I had sourced a used exhaust manifold, but had forgotten that most of these have a threaded port for an exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) pipe that is no longer on Bertha. A web search revealed that an oil plug from a late-model Subaru has the same threads, and after a quick trip to a nearby Subaru dealer, the port was plugged and the manifold and exhaust were reattached. The radiator went back in. I replaced a section of rubber gas line in the engine compartment that felt rock-hard. I then primed the electric fuel pump and did not see any leaks.
On Sunday, I fired it up. The car started easily, but there were immediate issues. I noticed antifreeze dripping down the left side of the block. I was, at first, concerned that the leak seemed to be coming from the head gasket itself, but I knew that it was far more likely that the source was the coolant neck that bolts to the side of the head. On a BMW 2002, the front-most intake manifold gasket is elongated to include a section that seals the coolant neck, and I realized that I’d forgotten to coat this section with gasket sealant. So off came not only the coolant neck, but the Webers and the manifolds. I pulled off the gasket, let it dry in the sun, then coated both sides with Permatex Aviation Form-A-Gasket and put it all back together.
With the coolant leak fixed, I began to let the car idle long enough to burn the grease off the exhaust components. Unfortunately, as the car was running, I smelled gas. I immediately shut it off, and was alarmed to see fuel dripping at a pretty good rate from the lower front of the engine compartment, right where I’d replaced the old hardened rubber fuel hose.
I raised the car on the mid-rise lift and crawled beneath it. I loosened the hose clamp, slid the rubber fuel hose further down over the metal line that runs the length of the car, and tightened the clamp. I fired up the fuel pump again and was surprised to see the car still leaking fuel.
On closer examination, the leak wasn’t coming from that location at all, but instead was emanating from the metal fuel line itself, about eight inches farther back, where the line ran through a narrow channel between the fuel rail and the pedal bucket. I had to unclip the line from some of the tabs and rubber insulators holding it against the fuel rail and pull it away to see, but when I did, the problem was immediately apparent: The metal line had rusted away.
I sat under the car for a while and soaked in the scene. When a fuel line or a brake line rusts through and ruptures, it makes you stop, think, and inspect other things in the undercarriage very carefully. Just to keep things moving, I took a pipe cutter, trimmed off the rotted section of the metal line, and ran a longer rubber fuel hose up to the engine compartment. I again fired up the electric fuel pump, primed the system, checked for leaks, and found none. I continued testing.
As the hours ticked away, it was increasingly clear that there was no way I was going to get the kind of driving time on Bertha that was needed before embarking on a 1200-mile round trip. The way that a long-dead car needs to be sorted out is to drive it a few feet, then 20, then 100, then around the block, then a mile, etc., likely returning to the garage each time to tweak something or make a repair. You don’t just start in Boston, aim a car at Pittsburgh, hit the gas, and hope for the best. At least I don’t.
At 7:00 PM, I took the car down off the mid-rise lift and ran it up and down the driveway twice. The accelerator linkage, brakes, and clutch all seemed just on the hairy edge of functionality. And this was driving perhaps 30 feet at 5 mph. At no point did I feel that Bertha was saying, “Let’s go.” Instead, it was clear that the car was saying, “Don’t even think about it, pal.” So I packed my things in my other 2002, a 1972 2002tii, and left for Pittsburgh in the morning.
Despite my best effort, Bertha was never close to being ready. But in the end, I had given it my best effort. There was no self-recrimination on being too risk-averse. There was no woulda-shoulda-coulda. Plus, although I had failed to get the car sorted out in time for Oktoberfest, I had moved things along further, and far more quickly, than I would’ve if I hadn’t tried.
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 Mechanic™ Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is now available on Amazon. You can order a personally inscribed copy here.