What a drag: Tips for long-distance hauling a vintage car
Last week, I talked about the general issues involved in showing up with a truck and trailer to check out a car you’re interested in buying. This week, I’ll share how it played out when I purchased a 48,000-mile 1973 BMW 2002 that I went to check out in Bridgehampton, Long Island, where it had been sitting in a barn/garage since 2008. The original-owner seller described the car as “rust-free” and in “excellent condition.” While you never know until you look, it was enough for me to make 600-mile round trip prepared to drag the car home if it was as described and if we could agree on a price.
I no longer own a Suburban, so when I need to pounce, I have to beg, borrow, or steal to get a truck for the job. Fortunately, I have loaner access to a 2008 Chevy Silverado 3500HD from my old job. It had been sitting for six months, so I needed to deal with a dead battery and an expired inspection sticker, but with about half a day’s work, it was ready to roll.
As I said last week, the $59/day rate on U-Haul auto transports (trailers) is seductive, and they generally work well for small to mid-size cars, but the problem is that the transports are often unavailable. I’d reserved one in Bridgehampton, figuring that I could thread the needle by driving down in the truck, looking at the car, and if I decided to buy it, picking up the trailer. But the day before I left, U-Haul called to inform me that the only thing available on Long Island that weekend was a tow dolly. I assumed that meant I’d need to rent a trailer near me and drag it both ways, but after calling every U-Haul dealer in Boston, I came up empty again. A friend bailed me out with the loan of his trailer, but it was a construction equipment trailer, not a car trailer, so it was longer, heavier, and had an unfamiliar strapping scheme (we’ll get to that). Plus, he lived 50 miles north of me, so while I was in his debt for the loan, picking the trailer up and dropping it back off was a hundred-mile trip.
The connection of borrowed trailer to borrowed truck was seamless. The truck already had the super-duty 2 5/16-inch ball required by the trailer, both had the same big round electrical connector, and the truck’s integrated brake controller recognized the brakes on the trailer. The hitch on the back of the truck, though, was a bit too high, which tilted the rear of the trailer lower. Although the hitch height was adjustable, adjustment requires undoing two big high-torque nuts and bolts that hold the hitch together. They’d been on the hitch for 10 New England winters, and I couldn’t get them off. I left it alone. The back of the trailer scraped on a handful of undulating surfaces, such as a gas station with a big drainage swale in front, but generally, it was fine.
The drive down
To avoid traffic, I left Boston at 5:15 a.m. It worked like a charm, and even while maintaining sub-traffic speeds, I arrived in Bridgehampton at 10:45 am. Other than highway expansion joints that made the trailer go ba-BANG for 40 miles, the trip was uneventful.
If you don’t tow regularly—and I most certainly don’t—maneuvering a truck and trailer into position to load a car isn’t trivial. I do fine if there’s a big, wide, flat parking lot where I can get a straight shot at backing up to a roll-up door, but hooking tight turns are a problem for me. When I arrived, I found that the car was down a long narrow hedge-lined private gravel driveway with two houses at the end. One, fortunately, had a turn-around circle, so I swung the truck and trailer around it to face back up the driveway. The other house—the one where the car was—had a short gravel driveway at a dog-leg angle to the main driveway. The car was at the far end of a barn attached to the house, directly in front of which was not the driveway but a section of lawn. A power pole and guy-wire made it nearly impossible to back the trailer up and put it in front of the barn door, even if I felt comfortable driving over the lawn, which I didn’t, so I parked it temporarily in the short gravel driveway. It was the kind of layout that would be problematic for a shipper. A small rollback ramp truck could get back there, but a big multi-level trailer certainly couldn’t. A shipper would probably want the seller to put the car out on the main street, and this seller didn’t really have the ability to do that by herself.
I thoroughly examined the car’s body and found that while it was as rust-free as you’ll ever see a 2002 survivor, there were a lot of body blemishes that were less than dents but more than just dings. The interior, however, was the nicest original interior I’d ever seen in one of these cars, with uncut door panels, original radio and rugs, a virtually crack-free dash, rip-less seats, and a very good headliner. But the engine compartment was a mess, prompting a long discussion between the seller and me about what constituted “excellent condition.” I grabbed the fan blades and used them to rotate the engine to verify it wasn’t seized.
The barn had a cement floor, which, in theory, facilitated rolling the car out. However, the handbrake had been left on, and even after releasing it, the shoes were seized to the drums. There’s a technique for dealing with this which I refer to as “jack and smack.” You jack up the back of the car, set it on stands, pull off the wheels, and using a small sledgehammer, smack the flat vertical surface of the drums to shear them away from the stuck shoes. It usually works, which is good, because if it doesn’t, you have a big problem. I first needed to roll the rear of the car sideways on the floor jack to get it away from the Jaguar to its left to have enough room to pull off the wheels, but after a few smacks, the drums acquiesced, and the rear wheels were un-seized.
However, “unseized” doesn’t mean “easy to roll.” The combination of lightly-binding brakes and underinflated tires made rolling the car across the smooth cement floor surprisingly challenging. I wondered whether we (the seller, the barn owner, and me) would be able to push the car across the lawn and into position behind the trailer, or whether it might be necessary to press a passenger car with a tow strap into use.
I changed the oil, lubricated the cylinder walls, opened up the carburetor, verified the float bowl wasn’t gummed up, poured fresh gas in it, and got the car running. All of the brake fluid in the reservoir had seeped out through porous reservoir hoses, but a quick refill and bleed restored clutch and brake functionality. On the one hand, this increased the value of the car before I bought it, thus weakening my bargaining position, but an even playing field, in the end, is best for both parties, as both can look at what they’re dealing with honestly and fairly. Plus, getting the car running made me realize that, if I did buy it, I could simply drive it out of the barn and up onto the trailer. It’d triple the length of this piece to detail the nearly three-hour negotiation I had with the seller. By the time we had a deal, it was 8 p.m., so loading the car the following morning and driving home stretched events into a second day.
The load-on and strap-down
Obviously, with the car running off gas I poured into the float bowl, getting it onto the trailer was a breeze—I simply drove it on, which was much easier than what I expected to have to do (stretching an extension cord into the barn to run my little Warn PullzAll electric winch, and having to reposition it multiple times as the cable is only 15 feet long).
The strap-down, though, was a cautionary tale. As I said last week, part of the advantage of a U-Haul auto transport is that there’s basically one way to strap the car down. I’ve also used trailers where pairs of D-rings are in the bed of the trailer at regular four-foot intervals. But this borrowed 20-foot construction trailer only had D-rings at the very front and rear. There were none in the middle, though on the sides were square-channeled attachment points. The trailer’s owner had included a big Rubbermaid container of straps, chains, and binders, but it wasn’t clear to me how to use them. I texted him, asking “So, how do you strap a car to this thing?” He replied that he had never done it; he’d only used it to move his tractor.
So I did the best I could with what I had. In addition to the box o’ straps that came with the trailer, I’d brought four wheel nets along in the truck. They were the kind that are designed to strap to D-rings in the bed of the trailer in front and behind each tire. There were two problems with this. First, there weren’t D-rings in the bed of this trailer, only at the extreme front and rear. Second, this kind of wheel net is sized for a specific tire, and what they were used for was to strap down a small UTV like a Gator that has little tires. Even though the BMW 2002 has only 13-inch tires, the nets didn’t fit all the way over them. It’s not a question of whether or not they’d hold the car down (they would). It’s a question of clearance between the ratchet straps and the car’s body. If the straps touch the body, they’ll rub the paint off as the car bounces around.
I spent nearly two hours figuring out how best to use the odd mix of wheel nets, chains, and regular ratchet straps. The front straps of the front wheel nets clipped directly into the D-rings on the front of the trailer, so those were completely secure, but I could only attach the rear of those straps to the rectangular attachment points of the side of the trailer. They seemed to tighten down OK, but the fact that there was nothing for the safety latches to go around gave me pause. I hooked some chains to the D-rings on the back of the trailer to clip into the back end of the rear wheel nets. These were also secure. To give something for the front of the rear wheel net straps to attach to, I ran a chain laterally across the bed of the trailer. It all seemed secure, but to do the belts and suspenders thing, I ran two safety straps—one looped multiple times over the rear subframe, the other threaded through the front subframe—and pulled them both snug.
The drive home
After you hit the road with a strapped-down car, it’s important to stop several times and snug things down as the load shifts and the straps stretch. I first stopped after just a few miles, then again after 10, and then a third time before beginning the run up the Long Island Expressway, over the Throggs Neck Bridge, and towards Connecticut—during which there are no readily-accessible rest areas. This was also the stretch of expansion joint hell, and with each ba-BANG ba-BANG from the trailer, I imagined the load loosening up and breaking free.
When I was able to stop and checked the straps, I found that my paranoia was well-justified: Of the 12 ends of the six straps, four without safety latches had come unhooked, and one of the straps that I’d wrapped around a sharp angle on the rear subframe was cut 80 percent through.
I was horrified, but due to the redundant strapping, the car wasn’t in serious danger. However, had the expansion joints kept up, it might have been. The big takeaway is that next time I borrow a trailer, I’ll suss out how the car straps to it and be certain that every attachment point has safety latches on the hooked ends of the straps so they can’t detach if they loosen up.
The return drive had more traffic to contend with than the drive down. When I arrived home after nearly eight hours, backed the trailer into my driveway, and unstrapped the car, it simply rolled off without needing to start it because of the driveway’s slight incline.
The drive was about 600 miles round trip. I spent a good part of the next day driving 100 miles to return the borrowed trailer, then another 20 to return the borrowed truck. Add it all up, and it was about 850 miles. Time-wise, it was two days for the drive down and back, plus a full shoulder day on each end. That’s a lot of time to allocate for getting a car.
But showing up with the truck and trailer was a big factor in the deal for both the seller and me. From the seller’s standpoint, she lives in the city, and the hundred-mile back-and-forth to Bridgehampton to show the car to other buyers (or meet a shipper if the car was auctioned) is 2–4 hours each way depending on traffic. My having the means to make the car go away on the spot allowed her to be done with it, right then and there. From my standpoint, the drive was far enough that I probably would not have done it twice (once to look and again to tow), and the combination of the seized brakes and the odd layout of the driveway made it such that shipping wasn’t really a practical option. I kind of needed to make it happen myself.
Maybe that’s what’s so appealing about showing up prepared to tow. It gives you one more lever of control over your destiny in this uncertain world. Here’s hoping that you drag back your own prize.
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.