Tools and parts for the road (revisited)
As I wrote a couple weeks back, I recently embarked on a winter road trip in my 1972 BMW 2002tii (nicknamed Louie), driving it down to Greer, South Carolina, so that it could be included in the BMW Car Club of America Foundation exhibit, The Icon: 50 Years of the BMW 2002. The trip would normally be about 900 miles, but a detour to see a friend in western Pennsylvania put the total mileage closer to 1150.
Normally, the large dynamic here is that anything you don’t bring on a road trip, you’ll need. If the converse is true—that anything you bring, you won’t need—that’s fine, just think of it as inoculation paid for by the pound. So, if you’re wavering about whether or not you should take something and you have the room, take it.
However, there was an additional complication on this trip: Since Louie won’t be coming back until the exhibit ends in January 2019, anything that went down in the trunk either needed to stay there or be shipped back, and that can get pretty expensive if there’s big, heavy stuff.
I began with the question of the biggest items: Should I bring the floor jack and jack stands? So many things can go wrong on a long road trip in a vintage car, from a loosened shift platform bolt to a detached fuel pump wire (or even safely changing a flat), that can be easily remedied if you have a floor jack and stands with you. I have an inexpensive aluminum Harbor Freight floor jack and jack stands that I own expressly for the purpose of throwing in the trunk for road trips. I decided to bring them and simply leave them in the trunk. After all, I have several other floor jacks and stands for my garage, and if I needed another set for another road trip, I could probably purchase them for about the cost of shipping those home.
Selecting the tools made for some interesting choices. While I carry a set of basic tools in a red plastic toolbox whenever I drive a vintage car, I also take most of the commonly-used tools that I own. I carry my ratchet handles, sockets, and extensions in one plastic case, my wrenches in a another, and most of my other useful miscellaneous tools in a third. I own many other tools, of course, but those reside in the big roller cabinet against the wall of the garage. I’ve found that, whenever I’m working on a car, these three plastic cases are most of what I need.
So when I take a road trip, I typically carry all three boxes in a 1×3-foot plastic bin in the trunk and fill the remaining space with a handful of miscellaneous other tools that won’t fit in the cases—things like my half-inch breaker bar, cheater pipe, torque wrench, and big screwdriver/pry bar. I brought all this, and more, a year ago when I resurrected Louie after his decade-long slumber and drove him a thousand miles back home. I could certainly do that for this trip, but I was concerned that the cost of shipping everything back would be astronomical. USPS flat rate boxes are a cost-effective way to ship heavy things like tools, but they don’t have a form factor for long items.
I thought that instead I’d try something new—simply buy an inexpensive combo toolkit and leave it in the trunk with the jack and stands. I looked on the Harbor Freight website and there seemed to be two combo sets that filled the bill, one for about $35 in a clamshell case, the other for about $50 in a case with drawers. Now, I am realistic about the quality of Harbor Freight tools, and certainly in buying something like this, you’re making the calculation that you don’t in fact need to break it out to, say, replace a clutch, but Louie is now a pretty well-sorted-out car, which was definitely not the case a year ago.
So I went to a local HF store to see the combo tool sets in person. In the end, the fact that neither of them had a half-inch ratchet and socket set, and that both were chock full of English sockets I’d never use and way more pliers than any mechanic should own, swayed me away from buying either. Instead, I made a mental tally of what was in my red plastic tool box and bought a few a la carte items I had only one of—like a spare half-inch ratchet handle, vice grips, and Allen key socket set. Then I assembled a decent tool set that not only fit in the red plastic box but could be left in Louie’s trunk or dumped into a USPS flat rate box and shipped home.
There are, of course, many other tool choices, as well. The big one was the torque wrench. Previously I described my surprise at learning that Louie’s valve cover gasket was not sealing due to a crack in the upper part of the head (away from the combustion chamber). The correct way to address it was to pull the head off, disassemble it, tank it, and weld the crack. While driving any car that I suspect is still running on its original head gasket, I usually travel with a full head-gasket set and a torque wrench, just in case the head gasket gives way. Louie is a very original car, and the odds that it has its original head gasket are high. While changing a head gasket in a parking lot is certainly not trivial, it can be done. The problem is that you need more than just the gasket set and a torque wrench; you need single-edge razor blades to clean the head surface, paper towels and brake cleaner to clean the oil out of the head bolts and holes, and a torque angle gauge since the tightness of new head gaskets are usually specified by torque angle. I thought back about the crack in Louie’s head and reasoned that if the head gasket went south, I’d be better off bailing on the trip and correctly rebuilding the head so I could address the crack (rather than just slapping the cracked head back on). Bottom line: I decided to leave the torque wrench and angle gauge at home.
I had an interesting moment when I looked through the case of miscellaneous tools and saw the circlip (snap ring) pliers. BMW 2002s have circlips in a few places, including the clutch slave cylinder and shift lever. The clutch slave was replaced last year, but I imagined not having the pliers and needing them, and threw them in. Besides, the goal didn’t need to be having a complete duplicate set of tools that I could leave in Louie’s trunk; if I needed to ship a few tools home or put them in my luggage, then that would be fine too.
Next, I dealt with parts. Because I have another nearly-identical 1972 2002tii that I plan on using this summer, the idea of leaving boxes of important parts in Louie’s trunk was a non-starter. So I staged four large USPS flat-rate boxes (shipping cost $18.90 for each) in the trunk and began filling them. They naturally divided up according to function. I’ve nearly made a career out of talking about “the Big Six” things that are likely to leave you stranded (fuel delivery issues, ignition issues, cooling system issues, charging system issues, belts, and ball joints). The parts that I bring naturally stem from those categories. Note that it’s one thing, for instance, to bring a spare water pump and the tools needed to replace it on the road. But I’d never bring spare ball joints and a ball joint separator. If you have any inkling that your ball joints are loose, they should be changed before a trip, as failure means losing control of the car.
In the “electrical box,” I packed a spare alternator and regulator and all of my electrical tools, including a multimeter, battery post cleaner, wire strippers, crimpers, crimp-on connectors, electrical tape, a spool of 14-gauge double-stranded wire, and a set of alligator clips so that any device could be wired directly to the battery if necessary. I also tossed in some tune-up and troubleshooting-related items, like a timing light and remote starter switch.
The next box became the “ignition and fuel box.” I systematically sorted out Louie’s fuel and ignition systems last year, but I brought a spare set of the 2002tii’s plastic injection lines (if one of those cracks, you’re up the creek unless you have a spare), a spare injection belt, injector, fuel pump and filter, plugs, points, coil, and a few other odds and ends. I added a guibo (the flex disc that sits between the transmission and driveshaft) too, as there was plenty of room.
Box number three was the “cooling system box.” Louie is running on a very recent radiator and water pump, but I’d bought the water pump as new old stock, and when I grabbed the fan and rocked it gently fore and aft, there was more play in the pump bearing than I’d prefer. Plus, I had never systematically replaced every cooling hose in Louie, only the lower and upper radiator hoses that showed signs of cracking. I’m in the habit of traveling with a spare water pump, gasket, belt, and a bag containing a full set of spare hoses, so into the cooling system box they went. Of course, if you’re planning to do cooling system surgery in a parking lot, you’ll also need antifreeze, so two gallons went in the trunk.
If it sounds like I was meticulously organizing these boxes to the point of OCD, that wasn’t the case. When I hit the fourth box, it immediately became the miscellaneous box. In it went a fuel pressure gauge, a compression tester (just in case I needed to check for a blown head gasket and kick myself for not having brought the gasket set and torque wrench), assorted fasteners, zip ties, nitrile gloves, tii injection-specific adjusting tools, gasket sealer, JB Kwik Weld, a roll of Gorilla tape (in case I found, you know, an unsecured gorilla), and a few cans of spray chemicals like starting fluid, brake cleaner, penetrating oil, and Fix-O-Flat. Owing to shipping regulations, these spray cans would likely remain in the trunk, which was fine.
Finally, I threw in three non-box-related entities. One was an insulated mechanics suit in case I needed to fix something in a cold parking lot. I have two suits; this one could stay in the trunk if need be. The second was a lightweight Tyvek suit. The last was a coat hanger. Louie dropped his exhaust last year, and even though I’d replaced all the rubber hangers, better safe than sorry.
Of course, there was also oil. And paper towels. And a funnel. And a fire extinguisher beneath the driver’s seat, something I’d never be without in a primitive fuel-injected car like a 2002tii. It has a high-pressure fuel system that runs whenever the key is turned on but no automatic shutoff if, say, the car was upside-down with a stalled engine.
Anyway, it was finally packed and ready to go. I thought I’d struck a good, measured, rational balance between preparation and paranoia—somewhere between Boy Scout and bad juju.
Okay. I admit it. I decided to bring the head gasket set. But not the torque wrench or the angle torque gauge. Then I was off. What could go wrong?
Next week: Bitten by originality.
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.