Smithology: I wish I could sell you my car
May I call you Greyson? You gave no last name. There was only a phone number and a short written hello, this polite little missive in thick pencil. The scrap of paper was tucked under a windshield wiper, torn from a larger piece and folded neatly in half.
The car sat a few hours from home, on the upper floor of a parking garage in a small southern city, looking no more grotty than usual.
Which is, as you know, still pretty grotty.
I thought it was a parking ticket at first. Cars like this don’t get many notes, you know? This one mostly sees dirty looks, or middle fingers, or headlights flashed in annoyance. Once, on a North Carolina interstate, some troglodyte in a Mercedes gave all three at once. Being the sort of person who believes in rigid adherence to rules regardless of circumstance or sense, I was at that moment of course trundling along at the 55-mph posted limit.
There was a fast downhill sweeper. There was a chance to safely pass that Mercedes in the left lane, on the outside.
As that tired old tach needle swung past four grand, I did what any reasonable person does while swimming in good, clean fun that doesn’t hurt anybody: I kept going. Who knows how fast? Forty miles per hour? A million? Mach numbers are for Yeagers. In the mirror, I saw the finger come out, the headlights on that Mercedes flash.
What a nincowpoop, as my hero once said. Much ado, crapcan nothing.
You offered to buy it! How kind! I have so many questions. Are you into old cars in general or BMWs in particular? Have you seen a 2002tii before? This one is a ’72, fuel-injected and early in that model run, 70th off the line for America. (Cue anal-retentive Concours Man Voice: Oh my, produced in the third week of Junetember, that was before they switched to cad-plated hardware on the flooglehousing, SO RARE AND SPECIAL.)
(It is not rare.)
(At least, not in that sense.)
I wish I could sell you my car. Such is the nature of the project that no explanation as to why I cannot, why I love it too much to do that, will make any sense.
When your garage holds a smelly old pile of German steel . . . when that pile itself holds much questionable body repair and three distinct shades of filthy white paint . . . when you and your goon friends have over years laid hands or welder or torch on every inch . . . when oxide and time and maybe a saltwater flood have given that sheet metal more holes than a dozen donut shops . . .
Most of all, when you have spent a galactically stupid amount of money to bludgeon and Band-Aid back to life a zombiefied pile that, even today, is barely worth its value in parts . . .
Well, some notions that do not make sense start to make sense, seem utterly vital and necessary, even if only to you. So you keep spending that money, mile after mile and month after month, keep buying and repairing bits.
Maybe you convince your significant other that this whole pointless effort is important, that you Need it For Mental Health, but that sentiment is usually unspoken, because that person knows you so well, they don’t need to be told.
“You are building,” a friend once said, as I bolted some shiny new component into place, “a very nice parts car for someone else.” And then we laughed, because we each knew he was right, and that my children will likely inherit this pile and curse my name—it’s Sam, for the record—when I am gone. But that will be then and this is now, as they say, and it all sounds a lot like Dead Sam’s problem.
This didn’t seem like a big deal, once. That was before I had written thousands of words on it for my employer. Before I drove from Tennessee to California and back solely to enter a fancy car show as a joke. And before I hopped behind the wheel last Friday afternoon and drove from Knoxville, where I live, to Asheville, North Carolina, a few hours away, to meet a group of friends for the weekend.
At which point all that hard work and rust sat in a downtown parking garage for a few days. And you found it.
Before I left for North Carolina, I stopped for fuel. As I hung up the pump, an older man left the C-store and strolled over. He nodded at the hood badge. “This a 2002?”
“It is,” I said. “You know them?”
He used to run a body shop, he said, did a lot of crash repair. “Worked on a lot of these.” The words were friendly but unsentimental. A minute later, he asked the question I knew was coming. Because it always comes, when people walk up at gas stations, because the car looks like a project waiting to happen, not an end in itself.
“What are your plans for it?”
Love you are keeping it alive, you wrote.
The Cliffs Notes are short. I am a car journalist by trade. I have owned several dozen old BMWs and more than a few 2002s. This one cost $1800 and had been sitting for ten years. It left the factory a pretty shade of blue, then weathered 48 years and two repaints in the Northeast.
Rust had eaten everything. The roof, trunk, hood, floors, and doors were burned through with holes. The rockers were gone. The inner fenders were Chernobyl. The steel box sections for the rear-subframe mounts were simply dust. The few bits of interior not missing were cracked open, shredded, or spattered with mold.
It was not the nastiest old car in the world.
Friends in the restoration business suggested a cutting-up for parts. Instead, there was welding, sloppy and quick, from those same friends and others, a gifted-labor group project that seemed to grow and rope in new people every day, equal parts pandemic time-burner and half-serious joke. The work began as experiment, to see how quickly a group of experienced folks could slam a DOA car back to life minus their standard workmanship and care. It ended as a reminder of how freeing it can be to meet something you love on your own terms.
Lotta jerks in this world, Greyson. Too many get their bloomers in a bunch at the thought of a person enjoying themselves in a manner they don’t endorse.
Love you are keeping it alive.
My friend, I suspect you are young. Your handwriting reminds me of my daughter’s. Moreover, your note sat under the windshield wiper with another piece of paper, a note in pen with tidy letters.
A parent? An older sibling? It wasn’t signed. Made me smile, though.
The 2002 was “finished” in Spring of 2021; the California trip was a few months later. We have gone many places since. What else do you do with a reliable, sorted little thing that tracks hands-free at highway speed and pulls strong at high rpm? Few machines I’ve owned have seen as many miles in as short a time, or made my clothing stink so much of oil. (Tired valve guides, smoking on overrun.) None have been more fun.
Just as perfect can be the enemy of good, so can good be the enemy of good enough. For a long time, I thought I knew what those words meant. Now I know a little more.
I almost texted you pictures of the resurrection, all that welding. Then I thought better of it. Shortly after this story is published, however, I will send you two things. A link to this page, for one. Then a line or two of thanks.
Like I said, we don’t get a lot of notes. Yours was the first. It made my day.
Your friend in rust,
Sam Smith is an editor-at-large for Hagerty. His ’72 BMW 2002tii “Weissrat” has appeared previously on this site, including a seven-part feature series documenting the build.
If you’d like to read more, start here. The car can also be found on Instagram at @thatsamsmith and the hashtag #weissrat.
So Sam, are you going to sell your car to Rob Siegel as he has some kind of faddish for foreign cars and seems to be the go to buyer? I am surprised Rob was south of the Mason Dixon Line but I understand he travels to NC to some gathering of people with a glutton for punishment. 🙂
And what happened with the “BMW nut” in the WRX?
That would be me! I have always had a love for BMW and the older, the rustier, the crispier, the better. But I needed a car for college with no room or extra cash for a project car, and a 2002 (hah) WRX that desperately needed saving found me. She has been my faithful daily ever since and I will do whatever she needs to stay running. So I do BMW still (always will), and the little WRX will forever be here with them as the loved black sheep 🙂
Salutations, Ms. Ashley of Asheville! Thanks for letting us know. I assume you have the good fortune of following the exploits of Super Sam on these pages (or Humble Sam as he likes to pretend). Maybe we’ll run into each other (figuratively) one of these days, somewhere on U. S. 64. I’ll be in my black 2014 Ford Focus ST, a/k/a “The Scarab”.
I do now for sure! And if you ever see me out, please wave. I am either in a bagged orange 740iL with big white wheels (go vols), or either one of my twin world rally blue and gold wheels bugeye WRXs. One is covered in stickers and the other has an STi wing. It’s hard to hide when I take any of them out! Haha
I worked on my friends 2002 back in 75. He had issues & wanted to know if the parts left over after fixing the front shocks & brakes were needed.😂😂😂, I was working on my 56 MGA Coupe. I still have the MGA, I helped him put everything right. But the upkeep got too much for him when the rust got too expensive to fix sadly the results,well you know. Cool that you keep her up.
*What if* BMW resurrected this car, a la the Camaro and Challenger? I had a 1600 for a minute, and I will never forget how much fun it was to drive while at the same time, how it could comfortably seat four adults and had a full trunk. Even though the engine was burning oil, it could cruise at 80mph all day long.
Take a look at the 128i manual. Try to source an N52 if you want to mod it but the N51 is almost as sweet.
had an 1800 in the 70’s with about 900kkm on it for free. it was great and later gave it away for a 69 2002 ti. sold it because wrestling child seats in the back was too tight. had the high compression engine and the kid that bought it wrapped it around a light pole and survived. had a 320i and then a 528e
all were great cars
Sam, I wanted to let you know this may be the coolest thing that has ever come of me having an insane love affair for rusty old BMWs and leaving notes of encouragement on them. I think I owe you an introduction as well. My name is Erika, and I’m the one that left the second note with the half cursive writing and no name. This entire article is beautiful and captures exactly what it’s like to keep these little ones going. I’m so happy she has you as her caretaker to keep her legacy alive. As I said, Happy Driving (for many long years)!
Hi Sam! love the article. you love the car because it is elemental at its purest form. The sum of its parts to perform a task. To drive! to experience it with nothing but its essence. It asks nothing of you but love, labor and fuel. Nothing to wash – (that would remove some of its character!) it only needs to be comfortable to get you places in one piece. No need to worry about it. A ding only as character! The world will not covet it. But it will appreciate it. It has no artiface but its history it represents. You can enjoy it authenticity with out guilt. It is a manifestation of the love your friends that helped repair it. You think of them when you drive it. It is a thing of its own beauty and joy! May I wish you many years of happy motoring!
So I picked up the same car — a 1972 2002tii — white (chamonix) with blue interior as a surprise for my wife on our 20th anniversary a couple of years ago. Had it shipped across the country and had a friend meet the delivery truck to park the car in the neighborhood but away from our house. It sat there filthy from the trip until the next day. I went to retrieve it to move it to a more secure location until the big surprise reveal, only to find a note on the windshield asking if I’d sell it. I hadn’t even started the engine of this new-to-me vehicle yet! This car gets tons of love whenever I take it out. Will be hard to part with. Ever. Best of luck with yours, Sam!
Mine was a 68 1600 – in white, with the typical rust ahead of the doors and on the leading edge of the hood. What a great car – I bought it for C$300. It had come from Florida and had what looked like an aftermarket AC unit which gobbled up a lot of the under dash area. I had great joy doing 360’s in the snow using the hand brake in our high school parking lot! I killed it in a collision – apparently parts did not exist for it by my ownership in 1977. Another one of those cars that I wish I still owned…
I own a rusty 1961 E-100. Every once in a while, I find a similar note under the rotten windshield wiper blade. One guy came by to look at it. I knew we were just wasting time as soon as he said “That’s the gear shift?” when he saw the 3-on-the-tree. When I explained how to double-clutch it, he was gone.
I received a small photo of my car someone took at a car show. That was a nice thing to do, too bad I didn’t see who did it or a name, phone, etc.
I liked the line about building a nice parts car for somebody. I have bought a few parts cars with maybe four brand-new parts – where a fifth one would have saved the car. On one hand, it’s nice to find that. The downside is that it makes it had to cut off life support on your own project – “”maybe just one more part…”
I have a junker Sprite which I bought years ago as a sort of father/son project. It took a year for it to finally start and run out of the garage, and maybe another 6 months to stop!! I vowed to not spend any extra money on the operation until the car proved its worth, so I built the pieces I could, went to the hardware store for this and that and I was finally rewarded 2 years later with a tentative trip around the block,( though I pushed the last 1/4 mile).
Was it fun? Yep. Did I then decide to spend some dough? Yep, it finally turned into a nice little car, which probably cost me less than any number of far less entertaining things like vacations or even going to the movies. My favorite weekend run is to Cars and Coffee with a nice return trip buzz through the nearby wine country, and I have also had my share of the Un-enlightened who can’t wait to blast by me, to wit I feel more pity that they will never feel the chill and hear the roar of a hopelessly underpowered little “David” to a big hostile unforgiving world.
I remember seeing photos of two Japanese warships that were very badly damaged and although they were beloved by their crews they were scuttled because they were to far gone . That BMW looks in even worse shape. Love is blind and while I can somewhat understand it between two people,trust me just barely, I can not wax poetic over something as that BMW.
Eddie, I’m surprised that your comment got past the Hagerty censors. Here’s the truth: Larry Webster and a handful of higher up Hagerteers are aware that Sam has lost a few parts over the years as he has moved from job to job. The main part lost was his differential, which had allowed him to see the difference between feces and Beluga productions. (Harry Truman had a better version, but I, too, am hoping to get past the censors.) Once he had lost his differential, the quality of his work was bound to suffer. He limped along, but on one occasion he jumped the shark and bought a carcass. (Pun intended.) Webster and the gang took quick action and assembled a group of wrenchmen to make the best of things by going along with the preposterous plan to reanimate a dead 2002tii. Meanwhile, Webster is working the phones in hopes that some other car journal will take Sam into their fold, but before he gets any interest the word reaches him that the carcass has actually been reanimated! Sam has been seen “roaring” around the Smoky Mountains. Sam has even floated the idea of a series of articles about this Lourdes-like miracle. Oh, the road is paved with good intentions. Best of all, at least for Sam, as he and his wrenchmen were scavenging for parts, they found Sam’s missing differential. Ave Maria!
So, if Sam has now recovered his ability to differentiate between this and that, why does he persist in this maddening quixotic adventure? No one has a good answer. Personally, my guess would be that he longs to be the CEO of Bavarian Motor Works, and he may have a chance. Who else has proven that he can bring to life cars from a time when they were always, so to speak, the glass of fashion and the mold of form?
Eddie, you may wonder how I could believe that Sam has supernatural powers based on his story of the Weissrat. If I knew how to do it, I would provide a link to the chapter in “Don Quixote” that includes the discovery of Mambrino’s helmet. It may look a lot like a barber’s shaving bowl, but it is actually a sacred relic.
Dan, you loon, you are a good human.
The truth: I began this stupid project of my own accord, to stay sane, or perhaps to stay the opposite. Then I started writing about it. Mostly because a certain former supervisor at this business convinced me it was worth writing about.
Like the car itself, the writing went places I never would have guessed.
The differential howls.
The actual differential.
“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams—this may be madness.”
(I got a lotta windmills, is all I’m sayin’.)
Ah, Dear Leader, I have never doubted but that you know a hawk from a handsaw.
Semper fi, Dan
Go figure, I click on another wonderful article by Sam, see notes of love by admirers, meet one of the admirers who is a certified car-nut, read a slag, then a glorious rebuttal and admission of lunacy. The world is right, of which it is a joy to be a part!
I haven’t had the pleasure of resurrecting a BMW (yet), but I’m familiar with what others would deem “worthless junk projects”. There was the ‘78 Saab EMS rust around the edges, broken motor mounts and the key permanently stuck in ignition because the engine had shifted rearward due to the motor mounts. That was a $500 project back in the late 80’s that came together, was cleaned up, painted and a great runner…looked so nice afterwards, the guy my dad and I bought it from, happily bought it back. It was also the last project car I built with my dad before he died. This past summer, a hopeless cause reeled me in again! This time a crunched and rusty ‘89 Ford F-150. It started and ran, but couldn’t be driven due to a cracked clutch/brake pedal mount that wouldn’t allow the clutch to disengage and gear shift that wasn’t attached to the transmission due to the mounting pin falling out. Add to that, no accessories worked, the rear gas tank was tossed in the bed, the seat foam on drivers side 1/2 missing a drivers door that was sprung and therefore wouldn’t latch, cab and bed full of garbage, and it smelled like it looked. 9 months later, everything works, it drives, doesn’t smell bad, has a replaced front clip and drivers door and looks decent. Still not pretty…there’s rust around rear wheel wells, the rear tank is clean and ready to install, and the replacement rear tailgate is the wrong color.
Good fun, reading this as I wait for the UPS truck with a needed part to fix a coolant leak. I have owned dozens of interesting vehicles, and my 71 2002 is the one I’d want back in the garage. Not the 73 911E, or most of the 240Z’s…well, maybe the one I built for Larry…
I love this car and its story, including — maybe especially — this most recent bit. First car I fell in love with was a roundie 2002 owned by a friend of my dad, a fellow mountain-climber. Calling Sam’s car a German car is a bit of a stretch — it probably contains as much new, non-European steel as original Rhineland metal, and is in a sense an American body-on-frame car, a Frankensam’s Monster shocked back to life on a welded box frame that makes it both a wreck (visually) and impervious to further rusting. Do those valve guides, Sam! You’ll thank yourself if you do.