My Tortured Relationship with “Survivor” Cars

Rob Sass

The traffic on Oregon 26 approaching Portland’s Vista Ridge Tunnels had just started to get a little heavy when a pickup suddenly changed lanes in front of me. Evidently, they were trying to catch the last exit before the tunnel. Traffic came to a standstill at that precise moment, and when the truck jammed on its brakes, the nose of my 1976 BMW 2002 slammed into his bumper. Because of the height difference, the truck’s bumper smacked the vintage Bimmer straight in the twin kidneys. What had been a nearly perfect, original paint, preservation class 2002 was a write-off. And it happened on my watch.

PTSD is way too strong a term for the after-effects of losing an automobile, but that accident happened almost 20 years ago and it has permanently altered my ability to happily own a preservation class/survivor type of car. It made me shift gears more than just a little bit in terms of what I look for when buying a car.

survivor bmw 2002 1976 front
I didn’t quite know how special this car was until it was gone.Rob Sass

At the outset, it’s probably important to clarify what we’re talking about.

The term “survivor” gets thrown about willy-nilly. In actuality, it’s a trademarked term owned by the Bloomington Gold Corvette people. Roughly translated, a Survivor should have the majority of its original finishes intact on the body, engine compartment, interior, and underside, and those finishes should be well-preserved enough to serve as a template for restoring a similar car.

Although formally applied only to Corvettes, my ’76 BMW, originally from dry Northern California, met all of those criteria. Its Mint Green paint (actually more of a lime green shade) was totally original, the underside untouched down to the muffler, and the interior, save for a removable dash cover (which saved the dash from cracking) was perfect as well. The thing is, I didn’t think much of it. Even by the beginning of the 2000s, it was still just a nice, used car. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I went to Bloomington Gold boot camp, that I realized what I had, and what was lost on that day in Portland.

About 10 years after the accident, I tried to replace the all-original 2002. As hard as I tried to find a similar car, I just couldn’t. I found a lot of once-rusty repaints, all at several multiples of the $5000 that I paid for the Mint Green car. If perfect, unrestored 2002s still existed, they weren’t being offered on the open market anywhere that I could tell, or at any price that I could afford. I settled on an impossibly clean 1989 325i cabriolet with a five-speed manual. I found it in maybe the most unlikely place to locate a rust-free vintage BMW—Lansing, Michigan. Its Alpine White paint looked like it could have been applied the week before, the Cardinal Red leather interior didn’t even have any wear on the bolsters, and the top looked new. The car showed about 50,000 miles, and I remember wondering if any of those had been joyful, given the owner’s over-the-top obsession about the condition of the car.

As it turned out, this was a fairly prescient observation, because very few of my miles in the car could qualify in any way as joyful. My experience in the 2002 made me hate driving in any kind of traffic. The thought of the smallest fender-bender made me realize that I now lived 2000 miles away from the only painter that I knew who could properly match and blend the car’s ancient but pristine paint. And while I thought it would be fun to throw my kids and their car seats in the back to enjoy a convertible for many lovely Ann Arbor summers, the thought of what their car seats were doing to the perfect Cardinal Red seats (even with two towels underneath each) just ate at me. And then there was their habit of climbing into the back seat not by tilting the seat back forward, but by stepping on the passenger’s seat and the center console. That drove me bonkers.

I was becoming Cameron Fry’s dad—the obsessive father from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off who drove his kid to extreme neuroticism because he wouldn’t let him so much as breathe on his car. That thought was terrifying. I didn’t want to be that guy, the person who raised car-resenting, neurotic kids. I sold the perfect 325i ‘vert’, and replaced it with something the same, but very different.

On a trip to LA, I ran across a Dakar Yellow/Dove Grey 1995 E36 BMW M3 convertible with a 5-speed. The car had almost 100,000 miles on it, not perfect, but certainly not a rat. Most importantly, the rear bumper was a shade off the rest of the car, there was a minor blend in the trunk lid, and the grey leather had been nicely re-dyed at some point. This was a car that had already accumulated some bumps, some stories, and some Carfax notes. But my time with that M3 was long, happy, and worry-free. I loved it, and my kids could climb in and out of it any way they damn well pleased. It was all the more fun this way, and fun is the whole point of this hobby, isn’t it?


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    Great article! I recently came into ownership of a survivor ’68 Beetle, and as neat as it is, I’m afraid to “ruin” it and am thinking of selling it. A restored example would look nice and be less stressful to own

    can’t agree with any of this. I am the original owner of a 1974 MGB. While the paint and interior are all original (as is the motor which at 118,000 has not needed a rebuild), my car is USED as it is meant to be. I have a stable of somewhat rare motorcycles that while near show quality get used too. So you get a scuff here and there. If you don’t enjoy your vehicle, someone else surely will.

    Spring is in the air, the clocks will be moved forward shortly. I’ll be getting out the touch-up paint , artists brushes and hunting and pecking for those inevitable here and there chips in the paint soon. You’ve had your -” How I stopped worrying and learned to love the bomb ” moment. So put the top down and enjoy the ride. Best of luck- Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano

    I get this. Although I work hard to keep them looking good, my cars are meant to be driven. I have photos of my Boxster from all kinds of wonderful trips, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

    I know this story too well. When I owned my low mileage 2006 C6 Z I was obsessed about keeping it in pristine condition at the sake of any kind of fun. Add the constant worry about the dropped valve issue made me question every sound as the end of the mighty LS7! I’ve since sold it and bought a reasonable shape LS1 2006 Corvette. I don’t worry about a thing and just drive it as it was meant to be driven. Way more fun.

    Nothing in my collection would qualify as highly sought after or pristine. A 65 Impala that I am currently resurrecting from being a lot closer to a parts car than anything else, a 74 454 Vette that left the factory with about 100 fewer cubes, a 72 F350 (my latest) that is pictured in the dictionary next to ‘patina’… and the list goes on. I am not afraid to drive any of them and I appreciate my odd ducks

    Not exactly a “survivor” story, but bear with me. I had bought a 2008 Jeep – my last new car purchase – and still remember when we loaded up some camping gear and hooked the boat trailer to it. When we got to the reservoir where we were to meet other family members, it was after dark. I missed a turn on the 2-track dirt road. Nothing to do but to turn out into the sagebrush and blaze a circular trail back round to the turnoff. As the branches screeched along my brand new Jeep’s sides, obviously leaving marks, I smiled to myself, knowing that I’d never worry about using this vehicle for its intended purpose: off-roading. I use everything I own for the intended purpose. If I’m scared to drive a vehicle, why would I want it?

    I have posted this very delima many times. I’ve owned a very rare ‘68 Camaro RS Convertible in color and options (speculation is if not 1 of 1, 1 of 5 maybe…). I bought with 48k orignal miles from the family with nearly every correct bolt, much less every correct orignal part under the hood. Nearly 25 years later, it has 53k miles. I refer to it as my albatross. It is a burden. On the flip side, I own an fairly rare AC Ace replica (maybe a couple dozen exist) built on a MGB chassis & not worth a whole lot $-wise by comparison. However, I put 7,000 miles on the first year I owned it.

    It’s pretty simple math to determine which one I enjoy the most.

    I had a 1962 Chevy 2 wagon I drove for 45,000 miles after building it. A friend had to have it and I traded for his 1995 Impala ss that had 8,500 miles on it. After having it for a year and being afraid of ruining its value I sold it and bought a 1963 Avanti that was poorly painted in 1976. Love driving it because no fear of ruining it by driving it. Thats what they are for driving and having fun!

    There was a recent article in a Hagerty publication, a story about a guy and his dog off-roading in a Nissan X-terra. A great quote from that article, which was highlighted: “There’s something to be said about having a car you love but don’t care about”.
    We used to have a Rolls Royce Dawn convertible, beautiful car, but no fun. Now we have a crappy but presentable Solara convertible. No arrogance or attitude , no glares or stares. What a relief!

    I am with you all. I had the most original 1966 230SL on the planet, but feared every bug that I would hit on each drive. It went into a very select West Coast Mercedes museum and I replaced it with an excellent 1970 280SL driver. While I like preserving them, I much more like using them.

    I can totally relate to this story. I restored a 1940 Garwood mahogany speedboat down to the original copper nails, 6 V battery system, and everything else as original as I possibly could. Every time I put it in the water I was worried that it would get a scratch or worse. I eventually turned the mahogany boat into a maple kitchen for my wife!! Now I’m restoring a 1974 Triumph TR6, But approaching it very differently. The goal is to have a nice driving car and not necessarily a show car. Hope I can restrain myself!

    So well written, Rob. Thank you. Was feeling it in the pit of my stomach as I read……….. While I am not ‘ of the manor born ‘ as it pertains to cars, I try to ‘ park long ‘ to avoid getting dinged. This small effort, sometimes much to the chagrin of my spouse, does afford me a small measure of personal satisfaction…….

    I understand the feeling about keeping a car pristine, but with a slight economic twist. Four years ago I purchased a 1995 Corvette, fastidiously maintained, NCRS Top Flight coupe, in #2 condition for under $13,000. The appraisal report and current Hagerty valuation indicate I bought the car well. For what I paid it would be foolish not to drive it, and in fact it is my daily driver from May to October. I love driving the car, but every time I turn the key, I have that slight hesitation about “should I take my wife’s car” That feeling lasts until I have depressed the clutch pedal and have shifted into 1st gear. YOLO, right?

    To the author: We wanna know what you said to the driver of the pickup at the entrance to the tunnel as you exchanged information at the accident scene!

    Great article, I have embraced this philosophy ever since I freaked out when my son was little and spilled water in the back seat of a car (in his car seat with the towels) I was treating like cameron’s dad. I didn’t wanna be that guy anymore either. I now have 1 classic car and 1 classic truck and I love teasing the people next to me at shows about how infrequently I’ve washed the paint on the car (gotta polish chrome) and that I no longer have to worry about door dings, but I will be careful about THEIR doors. It helps that the car is a woodie so you probably can’t ding thick wood, it just looks better with character marks and you can sand or re-stain it yourself (not that I have done that yet either). For the 60’s truck, I point out that I sought after one that didn’t have a piano-finish bed, because I wanna throw my recycling cans in there. The fun of actually USING the truck for a run to the recycling center or the Home Depot/Lowes is only surpassed by how well received it is by the crowds at both venues! You don’t get such enthusiasm by parking it next to 5 other pristine show trucks at a car show venue.

    Even if your car is rare, valuable, and nice, drive it, enjoy it, be careful, but don’t fret or worry. Worry spoils the fun. If you survive the crash, Hagerty will pay to fix it. If it gets totalled, remember: all cars will be gone some day, and so will you. It’s just a matter of time.
    I drive all my cars (when they run) including the Duesenberg model J.

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