My professional colleague Zach Bowman at Road & Track already beat me to writing a “Best Apocalypse Vehicle” piece, and in it, he came to a quite unexpected conclusion. Then, a day later, my friend Craig Fitzgerald put his odd spin on the subject, writing a piece for cartalk.com on “10 Cars for Social Distancing,” taking the standpoint that those cars are so ugly, ill-conceived, or poorly executed that people will recoil and give you lots of space as you drive past (anti-E-Types, if you will). Damn, guys, you left slim pickings for little ol’ me.
Ah. But wait. I can personalize it and crank up the dystopian knob. There are 12 cars here at Chez Siegel (well, eight on the premises and four 50 miles from here in rented garages). We all know that every zombie movie begins with a fast-moving virus. We’ve gotten the virus part; the zombie part is really just a question of time. We all think that, when the viral zombie apocalypse comes, we’ll be Mad Max driving the last of the V-8 Interceptors, or if not that, at least we’ll have the time to select that perfect Mercedes W123 diesel wagon with a stick and air conditioning on Craigslist. But what if things suddenly went sideways and my little suburban paradise of West Newton, Massachusetts, turned into Zombieland? What if my wife and I had only 90 seconds to grab some clothes, treasured mementos, bottled water, the 50-year-old ancestral family cache of Pillsbury Space Food Sticks, the good bottle of pinot noir, and a Swiss Army knife? Which set of keys would we reach for?
Now, there is a complicating factor, and it’s a substantial one—our son Ethan and his dog Wanda live with us. My knee-jerk reaction is, well, leave ’em. I’m a practical guy. If we need to consider not two bodies but four, it forces my hand in unpalatable ways. He’s young and strong. And he’s got the dog. But I’m not heartless. I’ve SEEN the post-apocalyptic dystopian film A Boy and His Dog. I know that it ends well. At least for the boy and the dog.
With tongue firmly in cheek, let’s run down the list:
The Nixon-era Triplets
I never think of my 12 cars as a collection. I don’t go out and buy the best of the best and squirrel them away in a climate-controlled warehouse. There are eight vintage BMWs and the Lotus Europa that are on my Hagerty policy, plus my wife’s and my daily drivers, plus the RV. But at the center of this not-a-collection are three cars I think of as “The Nixon-Era Triplets.” They’re the 1973 3.0CSi that I’ve owned for 32 years, the ’73 Bavaria four-door sedan, and the low-mileage ’73 2002 I bought last fall.
Let’s be realistic and just rule all three of them out in one fell swoop.
The 3.0CSi is drop-dead gorgeous, well-sorted, and even has working air conditioning, but subjecting it to a life on the run would be a death sentence for it, an act of violence perpetrated on a car I’ve owned and loved since 1986. From an emotional standpoint, I’d prefer that it outlast me—or even better, still be there for me when the apocalypse ends and Space Force has individually picked off the zombies from low Earth orbit. And from a practical standpoint, the Karman-built body is so rust-prone that, after a year on the road, the body would probably be resting on the tires.
“Hampton,” the 48,000-mile 2002 I bought last September in Bridgehampton from its original owner, is a right pretty little thing. Maire Anne and I would look elegant as we nibbled Wheat Thins and apple slices staged on the parcel shelf of its utilitarian dashboard (can’t do that in a modern car) while nimbly and adroitly swerving between burning wrecks like they were autocross pylons. But there’s a fair amount of value in a car having fewer than 50,000 miles on the odometer. I can’t imagine that running from the zombie horde wouldn’t burn up at least 2000 miles, and even in a post-apocalyptic future, I’d hate to, you know, destroy the value of the car when I have two other 2002s that could rack up the mileage on without being dinged for it. (Dystopian fantasy aside, I’m not done sorting the car out; I have other cars in the driveway that are more dependably proven for both immediate getaways and long-haul road trips.)
The Bavaria has a lot of appeal and actually wouldn’t be a bad choice for a life on the run from brain-eating throngs. It’s fully capable of sustained Autobahn speeds while having a suspension that’s incredibly forgiving over rough pavement, its trunk and big back seat could hold the bodies of people whose eyeballs we need to scan to get into high-security facilities, and it’s mechanically simple with its bulletproof M30 straight-six engine and dual Weber downdrafts. And with its rebuilt A/C system still running Freon, it is almost brutally cold. It could even accommodate Ethan and the dog. And yet… with other cars to choose from, I think I’d feel better having it keep its 3.0CSi sister company and look forward to a time when I can come home to it. Besides, I’d hate to get blood, gunk, and dog saliva on those original un-ripped German pleated vinyl seats.
My Euro 1979 635CSi sucks up interstate like it’s no one’s business. It’s got A/C, the sport interior with the supportive seats, and a lazy-geared Euro rear end that makes the engine RPM loaf on the highway. What’s not to like? If zombies could be intimidated by a car’s presence, this would be the one to take. But really, I don’t think they’d be impressed. Besides, the car has 220,000 miles on it. Move on.
If the goal is simply to burst out of the Bat Cave, out-run and out-handle the infected multitudes, and return with antibiotics and toilet paper, the Clown Shoe—the 1999 BMW Z3 M Coupe—is the clear favorite, at least on paper. With 105K on the odometer and a recently-replaced cooling system, the car should be good to go. However, its minuscule cargo space, the lack of a spare tire, and the fact that the bolstered sport seats are so firm that my lower back is in agony after two hours of driving—plus, they don’t fully recline for a passenger to sleep in while the driver runs all night to reach the safe zone—effectively rule it out.
With all the work I’ve done on the ’74 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special over the past seven years—the engine rebuild, the sorting out of most of its systems, the new front end and suspension—I’d hope that I could at least fake making a case that it should be the zombie-fighter. I suppose that I could wear a white lab coat and do a blackboard calculation showing that the knife-edged nose that’s a scant 26 inches off the ground could cut zombies off at the knees and that their bodies would easily clear the 42-inch roof line if I slammed into them at speed, but odds are that the fragile fiberglass body would crumple. Unlike the Z3 M Coupe, the Europa actually does carry a spare tire, and there’s a surprising amount of room in the well behind the engine, but even if Maire Anne and I don outfits that are steampunk versions of John Steed and Mrs. Peele in The Avengers, we all know that there’s no universe in which this is a good idea.
Bertha, the heavily modified 1975 BMW 2002 that I owned decades ago, sold to a friend, sat for 26 years, and I bought back and resurrected two years ago, totally has the proper swagger to be a zombie apocalypse car. She’s loud, proud, and snotty. The twin Weber 40DCOE sidedrafts give a throaty roar when you open them up to feed the 300-degree cam and the 10:1 pistons. And clearly, she doesn’t care if she gets more rust or dents. She’s got battle scars already. Bring ’em on, she taunts. However, when I drove her last fall, I encountered a fuel delivery issue. She behaved as if the electric fuel pump was dying. I replaced it with a spare, and that appeared to solve the problem, but then it happened again. I suspect there’s an issue of air being sucked instead of fuel, but I haven’t gotten around to resolving it. So, unfortunately, if I had to make a snap decision, this would prevent me from letting her live what probably should be her destiny. Too bad. She coulda been a contenda.
The Sensible Silver Sedan
I’ve written before about how my 2003 BMW E39 530i stick sport is the best daily driver I’ve ever owned. The balance of power, handling, comfort, space, good air conditioning, a great stereo, and a surprising degree of reliability has bought the car a special place in my heart. But I let some needed maintenance issues get away from me, I bought the X5 last fall (below), and basically abandoned the 530i in my driveway over the winter. I’m trying to bring it back to roadworthiness, but it’s not there yet.
The Sentimental Favorite
I know vintage BMWs quite well, but if there’s any car I know like the back of my hand, it’s the mechanically-injected 2002tii, fueled by the Kugelfischer injection pump that pushes gas at high pressure to the injectors, not unlike a vintage diesel. Once they’re properly set up, they’re good for years and tens of thousands of miles. And I have spares for every injection part. My ’72 2002tii, Louie, subject of my book Ran When Parked, is a very original car with moderate patina and a little rust, a combination that makes the idea of taking it out for an extended period of time not a crime against nature. With all the history Maire Anne and I have with 2002s, it would be fitting that we drive off to meet our destiny, whatever that may be, in a tii. But if push came to shove, I doubt we actually would.
Last fall, I found a triple-unicorn 2004 BMW X5, equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, the sport package including sport seats, and the tow package. I bought it and have been using it ever since as a daily driver, figuring that, if needed, I could press it into service to tow a U-Haul auto transporter and some highly questionable newly purchased car home. Like some of the other cars, on paper, it sounds like the perfect zombie apocalypse escape vehicle—it’s big enough to sleep in (or roomy enough for Ethan and the dog, but not both), it’s got all-wheel drive and good ground clearance for the obligatory excursion into the back country where it’s rumored the last vestiges of non-infected society are, and it could mow down decaying desiccated moaning masses with abandon. However, although it appears to be generally well-maintained and in excellent condition, the combination of a technology-laden vehicle with airbag suspension likely to lose pressure and leave it a beached whale, 16 years of the vicissitudes of time and 270,000 miles strikes me as a poor combination on which to stake our chances. And its appetite for oil creates a supply chain issue. Too bad. It’s even got headlight washers to rinse off the blood.
The House on Wheels
Sitting in the back of my driveway is a Winnebago Rialta, which is a Volkswagen Eurovan with a Winnebago camper body on the back. My wife and I use it mainly for overnights on Cape Cod. It’s a great package—21-feet long, very maneuverable, fairly fuel efficient, the standard RV suite of a bed, toilet, shower, tanks for fresh, gray, and black water, refrigerator, microwave, propane heat and stove, rooftop A/C, shore power line when it’s available and generator when it’s not, so we could actually heat up those cans of beans with little effort. Plus, I added a solar panel onto the roof which keeps the battery bank charged and the refrigerator cold, which could be useful if we need to store, I don’t know, spare human organs. And it’s really the only one of the 12 vehicles that could comfortably accommodate not only Maire Anne and I but Ethan and the dog as well. Unfortunately, 1) This is an early model that’s based on the Eurovan with the 100-hp five-cylinder Audi engine, so it’s as slow as the VW Westfalia campers of yore, and 2) It’s under-maintained; it could lose an idler pulley and throw the serpentine belt at any moment. As an apocalypse escape vehicle, it’s not completely out of the question, and boy that bathroom, shower, and bed make it awfully appealing (hey, maybe let’s sight-see as we flee and make this a vacation and an escape), but if we were really running for our lives, I don’t think it would be the vehicle whose keys I’d grab.
And so, it comes down to this. Is there really any doubt that you’ll grab the keys for the newest, lowest-mileage, most-dependable car you own? And for us, that’s my wife’s 45,000-mile 2013 Honda Fit. No tools, no parts, no oil. Just the keys. With the hatchback and the fold-down rear seats, it can store tons of cargo. It’s a five-speed sport package car, which makes it nimble and fun. When you get on the gas hard in first, you can feel that it’ll need a clutch in the next six months. I think I’d take it anyway. Come on. When the brain-eaters are at your back door, you’re going to make the same choice. It’s OK. You can admit it. You’re not a bad person. In fact, your spouse is never going to forgive you if you even suggest taking the Skyline instead.
All kidding aside… The zombies are only on your television. The virus will pass. We’ll all do fun road trips again in our beloved vintage cars where the goals aren’t escaping the walking dead but instead hanging out with our spouses and family and friends and visiting restaurants and antique shops and music stores. Chin up, everyone.
But I think I’ll change the idler pulley in the Rialta. You know, just in case. It’s always good to have options. Besides, Ethan can handle a chainsaw a lot better than I can. And I like the dog.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 34 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, like Ran When Parked. You can order personally inscribed copies here.