Tempting Fate: A late-November road trip in a vintage car, Part 2
I drove to Virginia Beach to speak at The Coastal Virginia Auto Show the weekend before Thanksgiving, which wouldn’t be a big deal except for one thing. I decided it would be a great idea to drive my 1973 BMW 3.0CSi on a 1200-mile, late-season road trip from Boston to Virginia Beach and back. And in a bit of irony, I left the same day that Hagerty posted a story I wrote about winter storage.
As I wrote in the first installment of this tale, the BMW is a very well-sorted car and appeared to need little. In fact, the punch list consisted mainly of replacing a ripped ball joint boot, fixing a slow leak in the left front tire, repairing intermittent taillights, changing to lighter oil, and calling Hagerty to double the Guaranteed Value of the increasingly-valuable car.
My main concern was the weather; this is the kind of car that rusts if you sneeze on it. Fortunately, the forecast for the trip down was clear. The drive back, three days hence, looked like it could bring a little rain, but at least it didn’t look like I was headed into the teeth of a nor’easter.
On my Friday departure, I found myself awake way earlier than I’d planned, but those road hours before dawn always feel like you’re stealing time. So at 3:15 a.m., the beautiful red coupe and I rolled out of my garage in suburban Boston. Immediately, there were two issues.
First, the car was running surprisingly rough, as if it was missing on one or two cylinders. Granted, with the calendar ticking inexorably toward Thanksgiving, the temperature was in the low 40s, colder than when I customarily drive the car. I thought I’d let it warm up and see what happened.
Second, I remembered that, in my ticking off the “The Big Six” things likely to leave you stranded (fuel delivery, cooling, ignition, charging, belts, ball joints), I’d forgotten to check the alternator. A car’s battery should deliver 12.6 volts when the car is at rest, and about 13.5 to 14.2 volts when the engine is running. You can check this at the battery with a multimeter, but for years I’ve relied on an inexpensive cigarette-lighter voltmeter. I’ve sung their praises in my how-to articles, in fact. I dug mine out, plugged it in, and ran the car around the block. And the readings were strange. The voltage would sit at 12.6, then jump up to 13, then fall to 12.2. I wondered if I had a charging issue that was creating low voltage that, in turn, was causing the rough running. My mind began to weigh the bail-out options, including loading everything in my 1972 BMW 2002tii and taking that instead.
Of course, the $6 lighter voltmeter could simply have gone wonky, or not had a good connection through the lighter socket. So I pulled the car back into the garage and put a real multimeter directly on the battery, and it immediately registered a reassuring 13.7 volts. What’s more, as the car warmed up, the rough running went away.
Alright then. On with it.
At 3:45 a.m. I underway again. But as I traversed the two miles to I-90 and my speed began to creep up, something didn’t feel right in the front end. At certain speeds, particularly right around 40 mph, there was a pronounced shimmy. I did have the ball joint detached in order to replace the boot, but unless I’d damaged the joint, that shouldn’t have had any effect. Besides, the boot I’d replaced was on the right front, and the shimmy felt like it was coming from the left front.
Then I remembered the slow leak I had repaired in the left front tire. When I’d brought the wheel and tire into a shop, they said they could fix the leak immediately but it might take a few days to balance it because their balancing machine was broken. When I picked it up four days later, it didn’t occur to me to confirm that they had indeed balanced it. I got onto the highway and drove a few exits, varying the car’s speed and getting a sense for how bad the vibration was. At about 40, it was awful, but at about 70, it was tolerable. I decided to live with it. If necessary, I figured I could find a tire shop and get it balanced along the way.
In fact, with my insanely early departure time, Waze was putting my arrival in Virginia Beach at 1:30 p.m. (To the uninitiated, Waze is a traffic avoidance cellphone app.) I liked the idea of pounding out the 600 miles and dealing with it when I arrived. Besides, I thought, how much driving would I be doing at 40 mph? More than I realized, as it turned out, but we’ll get to that.
Any long road trip in a vintage car is potentially analogous to the way a commercial pilot once described his job: Long periods of sheer boredom punctuated by short periods of sheer terror. Even with well-sorted cars that have had “The Big Six” proactively tended to, things can (and do) go wrong. Few things give you that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach the way a car does when it begins to buck and stumble as you approach a tangled interchange with no breakdown lane in a high-traffic area of a major city. When I’m in one of these areas, my situational awareness heightens, and I begin to wonder, “If I heard BANGwhubbawhubbawhubba right now, what would be my exit strategy?”
Of course, the other technique is to avoid these areas altogether in favor of more prosaic drives. In my annual pilgrimages to “The Vintage,” a BMW event in North Carolina, I usually drive west all the way out to Scranton, New Jersey, then head south. This avoids New York and New Jersey and the high-volume stress-inducing traffic around New York City (nothing against those great states, by the way; they’re just congested). For this trip, however, that maneuver would have added nearly an hour and a half to the drive.
Regardless of my route, I find that typically I begin a long road trip by hugging the right lane, as if my proximity to the breakdown lane will save me from something. As I warm to the fact that a well-maintained car is unlikely to spontaneously fly apart, I allow the speed to creep up until I’m flowing with normal traffic. When, however, I find myself in a column of fast-moving cars in the left lane, and I see jersey barriers to my left and I’m boxed in by trucks to my right, I get a little antsy.
For the first part of the drive to Virginia Beach, I explicitly told Waze to send me across the Tappan Zee Bridge, as I was not going to drive directly through New York City over the George Washington at rush hour, even if by some chance it was the faster route. Waze had me take the first exit after the bridge, then directed me south along the road that accesses the nice houses on the west bank of the Hudson River.
From there, it was the Palisades Parkway to the Jersey Turnpike. Make all the jokes you want about the Jersey Turnpike; it’s probably one of the best-maintained high-volume roads in the country. And it has incredibly well-designed service plazas. You can stop, relieve yourself, fuel up, grab some food, and be rolling in 12 minutes. And you have to love the names. I mean, where else can you find the Grover Cleveland Service Area?
After the Turnpike, I had a choice to make: veer west and run down I-95, or stay east and drive down the Delmarva Peninsula. The former goes through the howling maw of Washington, D.C., traffic (in my case, on the Friday before Thanksgiving). The latter heads 225 miles from the Delaware Memorial Bridge down the peninsula that forms the outer bank of the Chesapeake Bay. It runs through small towns and farmland, and finally over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. It’s really no contest. Down the Delmarva I went.
The first route down the Delmarva, Route 1, is a limited-access road that moves along at a pretty good clip. Routes 113 and 13, on the other hand, are small local access roads with stop lights. You don’t “make time” driving down the Delmarva. You lumber. Much of this ride was lumbering, in fact, at the shimmy-inducing speed of 40 mph. Still, with bright sunshine and no other problems, I took the shimmy in stride.
A minor fuel management issue also arose. To bring my car inside the Virginia Beach Convention Center, it had to have less than a quarter-tank of gas upon arrival. Waze accurately told me the distance remaining, but I didn’t want to cut it too close and run out of gas on the bridge, so I made some calculations, then stopped at the last gas station before the bridge and added two gallons. It was perfect.
I crossed the 23-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (a spectacular, highly recommended run over open water) and landed in Virginia Beach at around 2 p.m. on Friday. I thought that since I planned to leave early Sunday morning, I’d drive toward the convention center and stop at the first tire shop I saw. But you know how this stuff goes; sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not. As I neared the convention center, I still hadn’t found a tire shop. It seemed that I needed to stop and actually search for one on my phone.
Then I saw it—a hole-in-the-wall shop, “All About Auto Service,” that was practically encircled by racks of used tires. In the side yard was a beat-up late 1970s Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. Dozens more cars were in the backyard, including a jacked-up bright orange Nova on racing slicks. It was the kind of place that most people would have avoided, particularly someone driving a precious, pampered vintage car. Naturally, I stopped.
Later, when I told the story to my friends, they said, “That place? You went to that place?” The people there were great. The owner’s semi-retired father works the desk. He was a BMW guy back in the day and knew all about the car. The place offered inexpensive high-volume work, servicing cars outside with floor jacks. I asked them to balance all four wheels. I nervous-Nellied around the car, making sure they jacked it up under the subframe and not the rocker panels, and I was in and out in about an hour—slowed down a bit to allow for the selfies they took around the car. The culprit was the left front wheel (the one that had the slow leak and apparently hadn’t been re-balanced). When I drove the remaining mile to the convention center, the shimmy was gone.
The auto show was a lot of fun. It was mostly American iron but included a smattering of Europeans, as well. I don’t “show” my 3.0CSi, but it looked absolutely spectacular inside the convention center, particularly after my friend John (who had talked me into coming down) detailed it with Clearshine products. The car garnered a great deal of attention and a large number of compliments. I had a memorable chat with a gentleman who also had an arrestingly beautiful car. He leaned in close and said, discreetly, “The problem is that you can’t pick your nose in a car like this, because someone’s always looking at you.” Words to live by.
My favorite moment may have been the conversation I had with a 65-ish woman in a shawl and straw hat, who stopped by my table. “What do you drive?” I asked her, as I often do to break the ice. “Well,” she said in a gentle drawl, “I have a ’31 Model A that I just love. I bought it from a gentleman who, it turned out, owned my granddaddy’s old farm. I didn’t remember my granddaddy having a Model A, but it had been in a barn on the farm, so I don’t see how it couldn’t have been his. It was like I was meant to have it.”
My jaw hung open.
She continued, “I also have a ’46 Cadillac. It’s pretty rough. Folks tell me to part it out, but I’ve seen worse. There’s no trees growin’ through it or nothin’. ’Course the folks who tell me to part it out probably want the parts. It’s just sittin’ in a barn for now. I don’t need to make no decisions on it.” I agreed. If there’s nothing forcing you to sell, let it sit.
The conversation—between two very different people whose fuse is lit by very different cars—was a microcosm of everything that is right about this hobby.
I took the time to walk the floor, too. A silver ’67 XKE roadster spun my head pretty hard, and a rat rod from “Rusty Nuts Rod Shop” in Pungo, Virginia, hit all the right notes. But sometimes nothing succeeds like excess, and the Eldorado hearse-based “Pirate Surfmobile” was the kind of thing that’s fun to see at a car show.
Rain was forecast Sunday, but it looked like it would be over early, and I hit the road about 7 a.m. I may have used my wipers for perhaps 10 single swipes of the windshield. That was it. Back over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, and back to the long, slow drive up the Delmarva Peninsula (this time, without the wheel shimmy). I was grateful when I hit Route 1 and could begin to carry some speed north.
As I neared New York, I allowed Waze to choose the route this time. The problem with biasing the process and forcing Waze to, say, take you over the Tappan Zee Bridge instead of the GW, is that it will do so even if the bridge is completely clogged with traffic. You can’t have it both ways—or is that both Waze?—and take a route that you think is more relaxing and that will get you home the fastest. I puckered a bit, as it was clear Waze was sending me over the GW, but its traffic-avoidance calculations are usually right on the money. Plus, the car was running like a Swiss watch. I shrugged and followed the route.
Then, as I crossed the bridge, Waze sent me not to the right, to I-287, but to the left, toward the Henry Hudson Parkway. At the bottom of the ramp, there was a hard stop, then some jockeying along local roads to get to the entrance to the Hudson. This was not what I was expecting.
On the bright side, suddenly I was the guy driving an eye-poppingly gorgeous red 1973 BMW 3.0CSi on the streets of New York City, four days before Thanksgiving. Heads turned. People pointed. When I was on the Hudson Parkway, there were thumbs-ups, waves, and aimed cell phones. Most folks who own eye-popping cars will tell you that they really don’t care what kind of reaction the car gets; while they love the way the car looks, they don’t own it to be seen. But, damn, everyone once in awhile, it is pretty cool to be “that guy.” I just had to remember not to, you know, pick my nose.
I followed Waze north up the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways. Folks rave about these twisty roads. I’m not really a fan. There’s usually too much congestion, too many aggressive drivers doing too many bonehead things, too much construction, and too great a chance that you’ll round a corner and be confronted by a sea of brake lights. (If I may digress for a moment, the entire 1200-mile trip reminded me how awful lane discipline is in this country. Does anyone other than me keep right except to pass, and then correctly use their left signal, pass, and signal right before merging back?)
Before I knew it, I was passing Hartford and driving up to I-84. Then I saw a mass of flashing red-and-blue lights. An accident. It looked bad, with a smashed passenger compartment and ambulances. I was reminded that, vintage car or no, we’re tempting fate any time we drive any car anywhere. So I was thankful when my beautiful red coupe and I pulled into my garage about 6 p.m. I am a lucky man—1200 miles in a classic, and the only problem was an out-of-balance wheel.
Time to put the 3.0CSi away for winter. Maybe I’ll take just one more drive. After patronizing that tire shop in Virginia Beach, I’m on fate’s good side.
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.