Smithology: Until you one day wake up and have actually gone someplace

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Sam Smith

Welcome back to The Weissrat Chronicles, Sam Smith’s ongoing 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 seventh and final installment in the series—the rest can be found here (ONE), here (TWO), here (THREE), here (FOUR), here (FIVE), and here (SIX). Shorter updates live on Instagram, under the hashtag #weissrat. —Ed.

At 11:52 in the morning Chicago time, on Sunday, October 11, structural metalwork was declared complete.

A lot of people did a lot of things to get through 2020. For my part, some friends and I went all goober-weld obsessed and gave life to a dead old BMW for almost no reason. As I’ve said in this space before, the car should have been thrown away. What do you do with a machine that almost certainly lived through a saltwater flood and is missing 80 percent of its body structure below the seat mounts?

What if you bought said machine on a whim, because you’re a softie and the seller was a nice guy and the car was cheap as old socks?

Follow-up question: If you’re not a softie for lost causes and old loves and stupid ideas, are you even a car person to begin with? Wouldn’t your money be better off in the bank?

So much on the car was gone. We didn’t bring all of it back; that would have been almost impossibly stupid, and just as important, I didn’t have the money. So we did something else entirely.

Sam Smith

If you want to know why I bought this BMW last summer, you can read about it here, if you like. The real work went down last fall, a truly massive amount of slapdash welding and exoskeleton installation—bracing tubes and patches in place of absent factory steel—over six weekends at a friend’s shop in Chicago. At the end of each day, we’d all sit outside in the parking lot and eat, watching the sun set over the city and trying not to think about the rest of the world.

Early in this project, someone jumped into the comments and expressed concern for my liability: Don’t sell the car, he said; nonfactory “restoration” done as a larf can leave you open to lawsuits in an accident. I meant to reply to that comment and didn’t, but it’s irrelevant. I long ago decided that this car will either leave my hands as scrap steel, cut up and rolled into a Dumpster, or it will never leave my hands.

Funny, though, how that opinion shifted a bit over time.

Roof rust hole and HVAC foil tape: match made in heaven. Sam Smith

A quick summary of what happened in Illinois:

Sills: Rotten factory rocker structure excavated and replaced with rectangular tubing the length of the car, plug-welded into the cabin sill from beneath.

A-pillar and rear-subframe reinforcement: In the front, round tubing was built into an L-shape and used to reinforce the weakened A-pillar structure, creating something like a load path for the rocker tubes. A similar idea was used in the rear.

Rear-subframe mount structures: The factory ones were gone. As gone as gone could be, air and oxide dust, evanesced. New mounts were built and welded to the floors using aftermarket repair panels.

Shock-tower patching: A sarcophagus of steel patchwork was created around the original shock towers, which had split and torn from rust. Picture what they did to Chernobyl—the bad is still in there, only now it won’t come out for a bit.

Floors: Large holes of various sizes were patched to be less holey. Often messily. There may still be a hole or two and some sloppy weld drips, but who’s counting?

Various and sundry details replaced, sourced, or repaired: Windshield, driveshaft, flex coupling, driveshaft center bearing, gearbox mount, motor mounts, trailing arms, rear subframe, rear subframe mounts, main (high-pressure) fuel feed line, front bumper, strut bearings, wheel bearings, wheel cylinders, calipers, rotors, brake flex lines, most of the rigid brake lines, brake master cylinder, and there was far more but this list is now long enough. You get the picture.

And then, on November 16th, at 10:44 in the morning, I drove the thing onto a trailer and dragged it 550 miles home, to my house in Tennessee.

Sam Smith

You do not get to see our awful work in detail. Not unless you spot it on the road somewhere in the months ahead, or at some car show I have entered for laughs. If you see it then and are impressed, find me. I will buy you a drink and a hamburger and ask why your mother dropped you on your head when you were little.

I have driven it! On real roads! In traffic! It acts like a half-decent car of not-inappropriate speed and ability! A combination of facts that should not be surprising but manage the trick anyway. The first time I drove the car was the day I bought it, from the seller’s house to my U-Haul trailer down the street. The subframe creaked in protest, groaning louder than the engine, and wind blew up through the carpet. A couple of days later, in my shop, the subframe mounts crumbled away when I poked them with a screwdriver.

It is now actually something not unlike good. A word that sounds strange to use in this context, but what else do you call a car that tracks straight at 80 mph, hands off the wheel?

Sam Smith

My wife, when I shared this fact: “Are you sure you want to be doing 80 mph in … that?”

Me: “It’s a real car! Mostly.”

Her: “Just don’t put the kids in it.”

Me: “You’re just saying that because they’re healthy.”

The doors latch on a finger, with halfway decent fit. One of those delightful little results in a complex project that ends up being far more satisfying than you expect. When the car hit Illinois, the A-pillars lacked certain bits of undergarment. Each sill was also oxygen from the base of the seat rails to the pavement outside, a three-inch-tall tear longer than the door above.

Sills give a unibody car its strength, and so these do again, sort of. The car’s rockers went back together with a raft of plug welds but precisely zero concern for body fit. And then, miraculously, the doors fit again.

(For the record, I had to shim and tweak-hammer-twist-bludgeon the right door to get it to close without the striker hanging, because the B-pillar was, as they say in spy novels, geographically dislocated.)

(The left door, though: Shut like buttah, from the beginning.)

Sam Smith

You know that feeling you get after eating a satisfying but deeply unhealthy meal that has taken you hours to prepare? That moment where the table is finally empty, and the only thing left to do is return to real life, and do the dishes?

You ever just take a minute right then to lie down on the floor and moan at the ceiling?

With most life-altering decisions, the end result rarely matters so much as the doing. Which is why I want to take a moment to tell you about the seats. I bought them online late one night, after much thought and cross-shopping, while loaded up on a dangerous mix of dark roast and Sour Patch Kids.

In the late 1960s, German seatmaker Recaro produced and sold a number of different sport and racing buckets. The company’s early offerings made novel use of foam padding—horsehair and metal springs were far more common—and large bolsters, to help a body stay in place.

A handful of carmakers bought Recaros in this period and offered them as factory options. Porsche famously used a particular version of the company’s sportsitze in the early long-hood 911 S; BMW offered the same seat for early 2002s. Original versions of these seats in good condition now command five figures per pair, so a few companies make relatively accurate reproductions.

BMW

I spent a lot of time thinking about seats. The car came with an absolutely roached set of Flofits installed maybe 40 years ago. The fabric was torn and the foam collapsing. There was thought. Then googling. Then more thought, then books and hours of thinking. A margarita helped, once. A savings-account balance was eyed.

Did you know that there is an Italian seating firm called BF Torino, and that this company will ship you a set of seats, not hyperaccurate reproductions but remarkably close, all the way from Italy, in a week or two? Like the rare Borrani steel wheels the BMW now wears, those seats represented what the tii looked like and felt and meant in my head: period DGAF rat, plus a few nice touches I would have ordered from new.

Moreover, I figured, if you’re actually going to drive a thing, use it to go places, you don’t skimp on the skeleton holster.

Budget retconning occurred on a grand scale. It’s remarkable, what you can convince yourself is necessary, when absolutely nothing is necessary.

What I didn’t then realize was how the car was slowly mutating into a different kind of project. It started off as a way to kill time and have a DGAF driver example of the kind of car I owned when I was younger, when they were cheap and disposable. Those Torinos were the first sign that it was becoming something else. You don’t put $2000 worth of seats in a car you built for a laugh.

Or maybe you do, just for … reasons.

Sam Smith

That final weekend in Chicago amounted largely to cleaning and the reinstallation of interior bits. In a fit of optimism, somebody declared the metalwork complete—the car safe to drive and no longer self-consuming—but the front suspension still needed a complete refresh, and the clutch hydraulics were roached, and there were fluid swaps to be done and a water pump and a radiator and a raft of other small repairs. All of it would wait for home.

We sat down that afternoon and had a beer. Paul, the industrious type, rolled under the car to attend to some last-minute detail something on the driveshaft. The guibo wore new hardware, bright and shiny, standing out against the many square feet of garbage metal and only lightly undone rot.

I liked that.

Once, a long time ago, I wanted to be a person who kept vehicles forever. I have since and over the course of many purchases learned that I am not this kind of person. The few cars and bikes that stick around are special. There is for example the Mercedes W108 that my grandmother bought new, when Mom and Dad were in high school, that my parents left their wedding in, that I left my wedding in. That car is in Dad’s garage and will eventually come live with me. There is also one particular motorcycle that has accumulated many miles in my ownership and will stay in the house, pickled in the living room, long after my body is too old and frail to throw a leg over two wheels.

Everything else has left the building, as they said about Elvis. Always to make funds or time or room for some other interest.

There are a lot of different ways to look at this process, but I’ve always believed that you either move through life learning and trying, or you stop moving.

Sam Smith

A good and old friend named Ben helped make all this happen. It was his shop and his generosity with time and knowledge that made so much of the car come back to life; he was the one who told me that zombie-waking a car almost beyond hope wasn’t stupid. Or maybe that it was just stupid enough.

Late in the process, just before I took the BMW home, he and I were talking in his office. For some reason, I flashed back to watching him weld in a small reinforcement in a particularly rusty part of the rear suspension.

“I’ve been thinking about that spring perch,” I said. “How long it’ll last, you know?”

Ben shrugged. He is remarkably good at estimating just how much work one needs to do in situations where there is little time or resource for said work.

An are-you-kidding-me look crossed his face.

“I don’t know,” he said, only lightly annoyed. “If it breaks, we just fix it again.”

Well duh, I thought. I knew that. And really, what else would we do?

A certain feeling tends to creep up when you commit a project. It’s stronger if the machine in question was dragged into your life half alive, sputtering and sad, barely able to hold itself off the ground. You take stock and you get to work, and sometimes that work takes weeks and sometimes months or years, life and outside commitments getting in the way. Small projects become big projects, simple jobs stretch out in that uniquely impossible fashion—How on earth can it take me three weeks to find the garage time to spend 90 minutes hanging the front suspension on the thing?—but you move ahead anyway.

Sam Smith

And then there is that moment on the road, that delicious and surreal moment, when you let the clutch out for the first time and the whole stack moves with more alacrity than you expect, unexpectedly light on its feet. When you make one turn and then another, and for a while you lose track of time and just glide along seemingly powered only by the new and bubbly little tingle in your toes, filling your shoes and body with air, and you are not thinking about when the grocery closes today or whether the kids need picked up from school or if the laundry is backing up for the fourth time this week, nothing at all like that, and this wash of weird giddy calm comes over you and the whole thing feels like a gift, it is a gift, there is no asking why or how or whether it was all worth it, because of course it was worth it, how could it not be, not with a feeling like this, unique and so rare and brewing, buoyant as helium, all the way down in your deepest of bones.

At which point you stop for a second, pull over to the side of the road, and notice that you are much further from home than you thought.

Sam Smith

There are miles to go. Mostly roads nearby, for now. There will be weeks of shakedown driving, prep for larger trips, because old cars are always meant to go places. I need to actually use the BMW for a bit, see what breaks or falls off, maybe time it so those breaks or fallings-off happen within a single area code.

Then more venturing, farther and farther, as you do. Until you one day wake up and have actually gone someplace, gone there in this one-time hulk made alive, this improbable little pile of work and memory that you didn’t know you needed in your life until the day it showed up. Until it invited itself in and you thought, I mean, I wasn’t expecting guests, but maybe a tenant would be nice for a bit.

Time passes. You occasionally wonder about letting go, selling perhaps a few years from now. Then something shifts. The idea of eviction fades in the rearview. Who kicks family out of the house?

It’s awake now. The first part of the job is over.

Time to get to work on the rest.

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