Welcome back to The Weissrat Chronicles, Sam Smith’s tale of dragging an $1800 BMW 2002tii back to life in off-hours and weekends, when he’s not busy testing new cars for Hagerty. This is the second installment in the series, with the chapters best enjoyed in order: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, and Seven. Shorter updates live on Instagram, at @thatsamsmith and the hashtag #weissrat. —Ed.
It was too awful to die and too good to kill. That was the first decision.
The second decision involved wheels. Gotta find some Alpina Borranis, I thought. Old Borranis are the caviar of steel wheels. Car was too scruffy for alloys, but you have to aim high somehow. And anyway, decisions move you forward. Got enough stagnant projects already.
I strapped the BMW onto the trailer, walked to the back, and shut the trunk. A piece of brown oxide the size of my palm came off in … well, my palm.
The car had mounted the trailer under its own power, on tires at least a decade old. The engine ran with the quiet indifference of a machine whose grace clearly exceeds that of the surroundings. Imagine an espresso machine in the bottom of a well. I turned off the key and watched the open hood wobble in the breeze. Bits of it fluttered separately from other bits, part of a whole and not. Like a wave crashing on the beach, as Tom Petty said.
Should fix that, I thought.
When you pay money for a Dumpster fire, advice finds you. Part it out, they said, cut up the tub—”they” being virtually everyone who saw the car, from gas-station bystanders during the tow home to friends who texted over clever jokes like, “Nice Cthulhu, what year?” or, “Did you lose a bet?”
The car was in Baltimore, 500 miles from our house. My friend Paul Wegweiser, who lives in Pittsburgh, helped me pick it up. Paul knew the seller, so he met us in Maryland for fun. A week prior, he had told me, over the phone, that the car was almost definitely certainly possibly saveable. I believed him, because Mama Smith didn’t raise no fools, except that one guy who became a journalist.
There had been resistance on my part, initially. Paul had found the car, told me I should buy it. An early 1972 2002tii, four shades of white over black. Astonishingly rusty. I’d begged off, no time or money. Paul, a barn-find junkie, kept calling and texting, insistent. Then the insistence began to come from a small voice in the back of my head. The one that tells you to buy ten pounds of ice cream and marshmallow fluff every time you go to the grocery.
The seller, a friendly older man named Earle, wanted a few grand. Mostly for parts value. The exact asking price is immaterial save for how the figure immediately made me recall a few prime lessons of adulthood. Namely how Ice Cream Voice is rarely wrong but simultaneously almost never right.
“See if he’ll take $1800.”
It was both all the cash I had spare and a blessed exit, a seemingly guaranteed no. Who sells a running, fuel-injected 2002 for $1800? A week later, I was in Maryland, gazing into a hole where the left rear subframe mount should have been. Each rear shock tower carried a foot-long gash that let various suspension bits peer into the trunk. Rust holes zitted out over roof and pillars and floors. One frame rail was half dust. More than a foot of the trunklid lip was simply absent. The rockers were engaged in a life-or-death struggle to confirm their own existence. As a whole, the car looked one pothole or hard launch away from ripping in half.
“I am … sorry,” Paul said. Head hung a little. “I thought it had … subframe … yeah.”
I ran a finger along the left A-pillar, inexplicably chipper, accidentally poking a hole in it. “Don’t be! Lost causes are neat.”
“I thought you didn’t buy cars sight-unseen,” my wife said, later. “You broke your own rule?”
“It was more of a bend,” I said. (“The subframe is still mounted to the car,” Earle had said, over the phone. I should have asked how.)
Ice Cream Voice was relentless: Hey! A running tii for 1800 bucks! I was torn between wanting to reward that voice with a triple-decker waffle cone and figuring out how it feed it horse tranquilizer until the grownups sorted things out.
That afternoon, I texted pictures of the car to my father, who once ran a restoration shop. “I am truly amazed,” he said.
“Really?” I said, incredulous.
“Yes. By what’s not there.”
Two notions were clear: First, this was obviously a project. Second, people kept telling me the car demanded junking, but mobthink is dangerous, so maybe, I thought, other sports beckoned. And finally, I had no plan whatsoever, which was somehow comforting. The heart wants what it wants, even if said want stinks of hantavirus.
So many learnings on the hoof. In his day job, Paul is the vintage-car consultant at a BMW parts house. I called him when I got home, firing questions about availability and cost.
“It’s not like ten years ago,” he said. “Now that ’02s are actually worth something, people are spending $600 on factory euro turn signals, $900 on the fancy Italian-market ones. Front control arms used to be 70 bucks or whatever, now they’re more than $200. BMW is less interested, and its Classic division has been cut to a skeleton crew. You can’t get tii cold-start or pressure-maintenance valves, injectors, standard service bits. Don’t get me started on the rare period stuff, like factory Recaros or Alpina bits; they’re through the roof. The cars are Sunday runners now, garage queens, not driven like they used to be. Too many people being too precious.”
Perhaps you see where this is going.
Facts coalesced as I hung up. After years of owning and racing old cars, more than a few of them 2002s, I couldn’t bring myself to put this one in the ground. It had somehow managed to beat the odds, a gnarly little survivor dodging junkyards for years, too rusty to keep driving and too insignificant to save. Restoration was patently insane; I lacked the time and space to do the work myself, and any professional shop worth its salt would want six figures at least. A shell swap was also out; rust-free ’02 tubs can be found for reasonable money, but the tii’s underbits weren’t nice enough for the trouble. And even if they had been, that act resembled a sort of throwing away in itself.
I walked out to the garage and squatted in front of the car, poking at the rust around the nose. The grilles, rare and expensive, were straight and clean, if covered in black paint. Parts you would stick on a shelf, for a rainy day.
So many questions. Why are we so locked into certain ways of doing things? Who said the car had to die in the first place? What if you wanted a crapcan old hulk to drive like hell because it reminded you of the days when you were younger and even more stupid and most of the cars you loved were crapcan old things that drove like hell? Could you just go all kludge-zombie, keeping the whole mess alive in spite of itself, as quick and dirty as possible? Stave off execution by welding in structural tubing, mining the parts stashes and talents of friends?
Race horses used to get shot for a broken leg. This would be … crutches. Maybe a visible exoskeleton. The world’s only body-on-frame 2002?
The more I stood there, the more it made sense. A car like that, you’d have an icon in the garage but nothing to lose. All the stuff normally off-limits to even moderately valuable old iron—fire roads, snow, dirt, Baja—you could just lean in. Maybe set aside some cash for vintage speed parts, neat bits more valuable than the car itself, because it seemed funny, next to the ugly. The cosmetics could stay untouched, because anything else would A) cost real money and B) lose the rampant sense of dead-rod indifference.
An experiment in yelling into the void. Not a new idea, but a good one. And proof that you don’t need money to live with desirable old cars, just a complete lack of shame and a willingness to burn MIG wire like fireworks in July.
The thing collects monikers. A friend dubbed the car Sh*tii, for obvious reasons. I needed a hashtag to keep photos together on Instagram, so that became #weissrat. (You know, white rat. Experiments. For science.) My friend Ben Thongsai, a mechanic, named the thing Suzanne, after a James Taylor song.
The connection wasn’t random; Earle had given me a small paper trail suggesting that Taylor actually bought the car new.
“I got ahold of his people, years ago. Guy came back and said that, yeah, he had owned a BMW in 1972, couldn’t remember what it was. I think he bought it for a lady. Carly Simon?”
Last week, during a quiet lunch hour, I called my friend John Krewson, another former 2002 owner, now an editor at The Onion. We shot the breeze for a bit, and then he asked about the car. I mentioned its 1971 build and the possible Taylor connection—not my bag musically, but hey, strange trivia.
“Huh,” he said. “Two-Lane Blacktop came out in ’71. That whole period… wasn’t that guy on a lot of heroin?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Scary stuff. Why?”
“Nothing, really,” he said, laughing. “It’s just—and maybe this is relevant—but man, Taylor’s decisions around then—I mean, they were just awful.”
To be continued …