Tempting Fate: A late-November road trip in a vintage car, Part 1
At about the same time that I was sharing winter storage tips for those classic car owners who live in cold weather regions, I decided to challenge the powers that be and take my 1973 BMW 3.0CSi—the nicest and most valuable car I own—for a late-season, 1,200-mile road trip from Boston to Virginia Beach and back.
Why tempt fate? A couple of reasons. My friend John is a muscle car guy and owns an award-winning tuxedo black 1968 Chevrolet Camaro RS/SS. He is very active in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach classic Chevy community, and he’s been trying to get me to come down for years. When John became involved in organizing the third annual Coastal Virginia Auto Show, he offered me a speaking slot. I gladly accepted. Bonus: I could drive one of my classics and display it inside the Virginia Beach Convention Center, and I thought it would be fun to road-trip my 3.0CSi down and show it off under the lights. The only possible drawback was the event was the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Now, the 3.0CSi—frequently referred to by its body code, E9—is regarded by many as the most beautiful car BMW ever built. It’s a lithe two-door coupe, a bit trimmer than the imposing 635CSi that succeeded it. It’s not over-the-top curvy or angular like an Italian exotic, but it has a certain mature, refined elegance. I’ve owned mine for 31 years. I had it repainted and color-changed to Signal Red in 1988, and I’ve been careful with it. The car isn’t in concours condition, but it is still drop-dead gorgeous, particularly when the sun hits the wet-sanded, two-stage red paint.
The problem with road-tripping it is that, while you need to keep any vintage car dry, some cars are more rust-prone than others, and the E9 is at the right-hand edge of that bell curve. It’s the kind of car that will rust if you have a damp thought within 100 yards of it. The body is built by Karmann, and these two automotive jokes seem appropriate: “Why do the British drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas refrigerators,” and “Karmann invented rust, then licensed the process to the Italians.”
I never wanted to be the kind of person who has a hissy fit if his car gets rained on at a Cars and Coffee event. I’ve long held that it’s not what happens over a day or a weekend, but rather the moisture exposure that occurs over a lifetime of ownership that affects the condition of the car. I didn’t stroke out when, decades back, on the way home from a driver’s school at Lime Rock (yes, I used to track the E9), the skies opened. It was one drive, just a few hours long, and it was the only road trip during which the car got wet, and that’s if you consider Boston to Connecticut a road trip. No big deal.
But then came The Great Drenching of 2013. I annually attend a BMW event in North Carolina called “The Vintage.” Four years ago, during the 800-mile drive down, it rained for about 700 of those miles, 500 of which were torrential, unremitting, biblical levels of precipitation.
Driving in the rain in any vintage car is no picnic. You’re in a vehicle that’s bereft of modern safety features like ABS, traction control, and air bags, and old cars typically have wipers that advance across the windshield as slowly as sane health care through Congress. Plus, you’re convinced that every passing truck is going to jackknife and decapitate you. But over and above all that, my precious rust-prone E9 drove through so much water that the rugs got wet from water forcing itself in through seams in the large circular plugs in the floor pans. I swore I could hear it scream, if not actually rust.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, during one of the low-visibility deluges, a truck kicked something up, causing a large whack in the car’s nose. I assumed it was a stone, but that evening, when I finally arrived at the event hotel and inspected the car, I found the left grille splintered, and a chain hanging from it. What the…? When I pulled the chain, I found that a clevis pin the size of a small flashlight had embedded itself in my a/c condenser. Miraculously, the pin was between two passes of the cooling tubes and didn’t puncture the condenser.
When I arrived home from the trip, I pulled out the rugs and ran fans to dry out the car, but I felt like I’d crossed a line, like I’d taken my entire lifetime moisture allocation for the car and blew it in one trip.
So, yeah, after that, I became more than a little concerned about keeping the car out of the wet. From then on, if I couldn’t look at a weather forecast and be all but guaranteed of clear skies for the entire duration of a trip, I wouldn’t take the E9. While that might have made sense on paper, and while I have other interesting cars that enjoyed getting their turn, it is a terrible way to manage the ownership experience of a car that you love. As the saying goes, if you’re playing it safe, are you really even playing?
With that said that, there’s not a right or a wrong answer to how much your classic can handle. Every owner has to do what he or she feels is right for the car. If that’s keeping it as a trailer queen, no judgment, no harm, no foul. But I’ve always felt that if, when I die, if there’s no rust anywhere on the E9, then I didn’t use it enough. In a perfect world, when I shuffle off this mortal ignition coil, I think there should be one—exactly one—rust blister, the size of a pencil eraser. Maybe a dime. Zero rust and I underused it. More rust than that, and I wasn’t careful enough. Hey, we all have metrics, right?
All of this was in the forefront of my mind when I accepted the speaking invitation to the Coastal Virginia Car Show. I thought that I’d prep the E9 and, weather permitting, drive it. If rain was forecast for three straight days, I’d drive down in something else less valuable and rust-prone but also less eye-popping, maybe the 2002tii or the Bavaria. Hell, with a date of late November—in New England—snow was even a possibility. So I prepped the E9 and watched the weather forecast like a hawk. If I saw three days of rain and 35-degree weather in the forecast, I’d probably hang pizazz for safety and drive down in my 2003 530i.
It’s not like the E9 had been sitting for the four years since 2013’s Great Drenching. It has had many pleasure drives and day trips. But I only have garage space at my house for four cars; the others are stored in different places. The E9, like the other cars, gets moved around frequently. When I retrieved it from an offsite storage space about 15 miles from home, I found that the left front tire was low, the result of a persistent slow leak. I inflated it and drove the car home.
When you drive an old car for the first time in a while, your mind often ticks off the “Oh, yeah, there’s this problem” list, but the E9 is a pretty well-sorted car. I write and talk often about “The Big Six” things that are likely to leave you stranded (fuel delivery issues, cooling system issues, ignition system issues, charging system issues, belts, and ball joints), and all of those are accounted for. The drivetrain was replaced in the 1990s. An updated fuel injection system went into it in the early 2000s. The radiator, water pump, and hoses were replaced about 10 years ago. It has an electronic ignition system from a later BMW, so it isn’t subject to the vagaries of points closing up. I installed in a new alternator with an integrated voltage regulator and rebuilt the front end about five years ago.
So what does one need to do to prepare a well-sorted car for a 1,200-mile trip?
I start by driving it and seeing if anything jumps out as amiss. I cannot stress enough that cars are not biological systems. They do not heal themselves. If something isn’t right, it isn’t going to get better. In fact, it’s likely to get worse. With that said, cross-correlate whatever you find with “The Big Six.” That is, the heat or the stereo may not work, but those things aren’t going to land the car on a flatbed. Obviously, you may want to fix them if you have the time and inclination, but priorities come first.
I got the car up on the lift, and gave the underside of the engine compartment a good look. I was alarmed to find that some antifreeze had collected at the bottom of the radiator.
The weeping seemed to be coming from the lower hose connection. I wiped it off, tightened the clamp, drove the car a few miles, and re-checked. When I didn’t see any more coolant, I called it done. I gave a squeeze and a tug to every coolant and fuel hose to check for softness or cracking. All appeared to be OK. The belts all looked fine, properly tensioned and crack-free.
Even though the alternator had recently been replaced, I made a mental note to check it with a multimeter. I’m sure you know that means the other shoe will drop later.
Fuel, cooling, ignition, alternator, belts, and…ball joints. Right. I thought, “I don’t even need to check those. I rebuilt the front end recently.” But when I looked at them, I was reminded of the fact that I hadn’t replaced the ball joints; I’d replaced the tie rods and center track rod, and deemed the ball joints fine. And what I saw, to my surprise and dismay, was that the boot on the right front ball joint was worn.
Original BMW ball joints on ’70s-era cars last an incredibly long time…provided that the boots aren’t ripped. When a boot tears, it allows the ball joint to lose its lubrication, be contaminated with moisture, and loosen. I few months ago I wrote about how you can check for ball joint play by squeezing the ball and cup with a large set of channel lock pliers. I did that, and the ball joint appeared to be tight and play-free, but the ripped boot was concerning, as I was potentially about to drive the car 1,200 miles. I thought that I’d be an idiot if I ignored my own advice about “The Big Six.”
The first step was knowing what my options were. In an E9, the ball joint is integral with the lower control arm. I searched online and quickly found that the assembly is no longer available from BMW, and that the only aftermarket replacement appeared to be a Chinese-made part branded as Ocap, derisively referred to on enthusiast forums as Ocrap.
A friend tipped me off that, as long as the ball joint itself is OK, you can just replace the boot, and a generic ball joint boot will, in fact, fit. The downside is that you need to separate the ball joint from the steering knuckle to get the boot on it, so the amount of work is nearly equal to what you’d go through to replace the entire lower control arm. I thought about it, ordered the boot kit, and had it installed in a few hours. It’s not a perfect seal, but it’s way better than a yawning-open split boot.
There are other potential issues that fall between the extremes of reliability and triviality. Things that affect the safety and legality of the car. Obviously, I give these very high priority. In the case of the E9, I had a longstanding problem with intermittent functionality of the taillights. I traced one to a bad bulb, the other to an intermittent ground inside the taillight assembly.
Because I do all my own work, I don’t have “service records” for my cars. I throw receipts into a folder, but I’m pretty bad about keeping it organized. Thus, I generally don’t have records of when I change oil. I tend to do it by gut. The oil in the E9 was black, so I probably hadn’t changed it in a while. And with the potential November trip, I wanted 10W40 in it, not the 20W50 I almost always have in the vintage cars.
While the car was up on the lift, I pulled the left front wheel, the one whose tire had a slow leak, and brought it to a tire shop a mile from my house. “We can get to the leak today,” the service adviser said, “but the tire will need to be re-balanced, and our balancing machine is broken. Can you leave it?” I told the gentleman that was fine, left my phone number, and assumed that I’d get the wheel back in a day or two.
With the car in the air, I also made sure the exhaust hangers were in good condition, the shift platform and transmission support bracket bolts were tight, and the guibo (driveshaft rubber flex disc) wasn’t cracked, as these are all things that have required field repairs in the past.
In addition to the mechanical issues, also on my punch list was to call Hagerty, as I honestly couldn’t remember what I had the E9 insured for. My jaw dropped when Hagerty told me that the current policy covered the car for $24,000. “Let’s make that $50,000,” I said. I spent the next 1,200 miles thinking I should’ve made it $60,000. Perhaps for the next drive, I will. (Spoiler alert: Nothing happened that required use of my insurance policy.)
The day before I needed to leave, the weather forecast for the drive down and back looked good, but I still didn’t have the wheel and tire back. I went down to the tire shop. “Sorry, we lost your phone number,” the service adviser said. “Tire’s all done.” I mounted the wheel on the car, then began to test-drive it to make sure there was nothing egregiously amiss after replacing the ball joint boot. I ran around the block and was about to pull it onto the highway for a high-speed test when rain began to spit on my windshield. I pulled over and checked the forecast on my phone, and saw that several hours of moderate rain were forecast. I pulled the car back into the garage just as the skies opened. I packed the trunk with the usual retinue of tools and parts, and Rain-X’d the windshield.
I planned to wake up around 5:30 the next morning to pound out the 600 miles and arrive in Virginia Beach before dark, but I found myself wide awake at 1:30 a.m. I laid in bed for an hour, trying to will myself back to sleep. It didn’t work. At 2:30 a.m. I said screw it, got up, did a few last-minute things, and at 3:15 a.m., the beautiful coupe and I rolled out into the darkness…
Next week: The drive. Did I get the prep right?
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel Magazine for 30 years. His new book, Ran When Parked: How I Road-Tripped a Decade-Dead BMW 2002tii a Thousand Miles Back Home, and How You Can, Too, is available here on Amazon. In addition, he is the author of Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic and The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to European Automotive Electrical Systems. Both are available from Bentley Publishers and Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.