In the big picture, how important are the cars and the garage space?

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Hack_Mechanic_Garage_Space_Lede
Rob Siegel

I’ve written quite a bit over the years in these digital pages about my space issues, how for 15 years I had a rusting, leaning, corrugated-metal, single-car garage, and how in 2005 we tore it down and had a 17 x 31-foot garage built that’s attached to the back of the house. All automotive access is through a single roll-up door, which allows easy storage of three cars and a fourth, if you put one on wheel dollies and slide it.

However, my continuing purchase of cars caused me to rent four garage spaces 50 miles away in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where rent is cheaper. I have an additional safety valve in the form of a little-used industrial space that’s associated with my old engineering job.

Rob Siegel - Garage Space - the old garage
The old garage really was absolutely awful. Rob Siegel
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My garage in its packed, one-car-on-wheel-dollies configuration. Rob Siegel

Of course, garage space is like closet space and lanes on interstates—you immediately fill up what you have. When I bought “Hampton,” the 1973 BMW 2002 survivor car in the fall of 2019, and then bought back Zelda, my 1999 BMW Z3, in December 2020, I went two tokes over the line. Two winters ago, I used the engineering-job-safety-valve storage spot and put one car in the warehouse. Last winter, I stored two cars in my friend Mike’s Garage Mahal in exchange for selling his car for him on Bring a Trailer.

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My cars were certainly safe and happy at Mike’s, but it couldn’t go on indefinitely. Rob Siegel

In the past few months, though, a confluence of four separate events made the space issues a problem that wasn’t going away.

First, I put Hampton on Bring a Trailer, but it didn’t meet its reserve. Anyone who’s gone through the BaT process knows that it’s a lengthy and time-consuming one, and to step through it and emerge at the end still owning the car but having neither the garage space nor the money upends some carefully-laid plans. I’m still wrestling with what it means and what to do next.

Second, the house in Fitchburg where I rent four bargain-priced garage spaces, just sold. My lease for the spaces is up at the end of July, and I’m waiting for the new owner to tell me if she is going to continue to rent to me at the inexpensive rate the previous owner charged me, double or triple my rent, or kick me out. In the meantime, I feel like a space-related sword of Damocles is hanging above my head.

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The four inexpensive rented garages out in Fitchburg that have been enabling my excesses for years. Losing these would be very problematic. Rob Siegel

Third, the industrial space that my old engineering job maintained was abruptly closed a few weeks ago. My automotive spider sense warned me that this might happen, which was why I didn’t put a car in there last winter, but what it means is that the safety valve is gone.

Fourth, I needed to get back the two cars—my BMW “clown shoe” (M Coupe) and 1973 E9 3.0CSi—that had been over-wintering at my friend Mike’s garage—in order to shoot the episode of The Next Big Thing With Magnus Walker. It was not only time to do this, it was long overdue, as they’d been there since Thanksgiving. But suddenly having two more cars in the driveway forced me to look the big ugly drooling space monster in the face, and the effect was dramatic. I’d previously thought that if I lost Fitchburg, I could temporarily move the four cars here until I figured out what to do, but it was immediately obvious that, even garage space notwithstanding, my driveway was now so full that I could only fit one or two more small cars, not four.

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This doesn’t include the small Winnebago Rialta RV at the end of the driveway. Rob Siegel

Now, as I wrote previously, for space and other reasons, my wife and I have been thinking about selling our house here in Newton, Massachusetts, and moving somewhere with a thrilling view, fewer close neighbors, and a big building for the cars. We probably looked at a thousand properties on Zillow and a handful in person. However, after looking at a property in Rhode Island on 32 acres with not one but two 40 x 60-foot metal outbuildings and a detached garage, and looking closer at whether we were actually going to do this, it all ground to a halt.

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This property, with two metal outbuildings, forced us to ask hard questions, and we were surprised by the answers. Rob Siegel

The biggest issue is financing. I love what I’m doing at this point in my life as an automotive writer, but there’s only a fraction of the income that I had as an engineer, and mortgage qualification is very much an income-related calculation. I thought the fact that we fully own not only our home in Newton and also half of what was my mother’s house in Boston (my sister owns the other half) would shield me from the income calculation, and a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) would enable us to make the kind of cash offer you seem to need to make in order to pounce on a desirable property. When push came to shove, however, both of those things turned out not to be true. In order to make a move work, it appears that my wife and I would need to put our house in Newton on the market with the closing contingent on us finding a place to move to, and since we don’t even know which New England state we want to move to, we’re simply not willing to do that.

Another factor is that the more my wife and I talked, the more it became clear that her existing circle of friends and family is crucially important to her, and the idea of moving several hours away made her uncomfortable. Sure, it’s possible that we might find a property 20 miles from here with a Morton building or a solid attached barn or a well-engineered big garage, but the closer you are to the city, the smaller the lot sizes are, the more that search becomes threading a needle, and the more the idea of a “thrilling” property drops off the list.

Of course, there’s another way to look at this: I—gasp!—simply have too many cars. Like the frog in hot water not knowing when to jump out, I’ve allowed the number of vehicles to creep up past a supportable number. There’s a story of a cocaine-addicted Wall Street stockbroker in the 1980s who said, “I didn’t think I had a drug problem; I thought I had a cash-flow problem.” Similarly, I’ve steadfastly said that I don’t have a car problem, I have a space problem. Heck, in April I even trumpeted that I should be doing more, not less higher-risk car investing, which would essentially require a good secure storage space at or near my home. Perhaps the quaternion of events affecting storage is the universe slapping me for my hubris. Perhaps it’s time for a reality check and a reckoning. Maybe I should sell everything except the ’73 BMW 3.0CSi and buy a Subaru and Suburban. Maybe that and a pair of Bernie mittens are the secret handshake to get into Vermont.

Yeah … no.

Joking aside, there are a number of ways to move forward. The first is to evaluate my not-a-collection and play the what-would-I-sell-if-I-had-to-sell game. It’s ironic that I’d already gone through this several months back and decided the time was ripe to sell Hampton, but when a car doesn’t meet reserve in such a public way (e.g., being on BaT with 18,264 page views and 1078 watchers), the high bid can be rightly or wrongly be etched in potential buyer’s minds as the car’s true market value, and the best thing to do can be to just sit on it for a while instead of trying to insist that “the market” was wrong.

When you play the what-would-I-sell game, the results are sometimes surprising. While the ’73 E9 3.0CSi that I’ve owned for 35 years will be the last car when the creditors are at my door with a crowbar, everything else is pretty fluid. No car other than the E9 stays forever, some stay longer than others, some are just sojourning with me on the way to another owner, and last year’s sacred cow can be this year’s cash cow. Just last July I stepped through this process, fixed my sights on my ’79 Euro 635CSi, brought it home, buttoned up a few things, photographed and shot video of it, wrote up the description, and was about to pull the trigger on it when I decided it was simply too cool to let go.

So I went out to Fitchburg, drove the four cars that are currently out there, and this time, the one that emerged under the microscope seemed to be my ’73 Bavaria—a car that I love but is one of five early 1970s BMWs I own, so there’s no denying that there’s not a redundancy of in-the-seat sensory experience between them. I drove it home and am now clocking through an in-case-of-sale punch list.

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The next car under scrutiny? Rob Siegel

My second priority is to come up with a cost-effective “plan B” in case I get booted out of the four spaces in Fitchburg. With a little sleuthing, I found a guy out in western Mass who advertised indoor space rental, $30 per month in ten-foot increments, with a photo showing a big warehouse building housing mostly RVs and boats. It’s restricted access, not the 24-hour access I have in Fitchburg, but, as I said, plan B. I emailed the gentleman explaining my situation, and he responded, “We have plenty of space. We do have a rule that your cars must be unusual. Otherwise, they won’t fit in. Just kidding. Anything is fine. Access is something we can discuss.” I then swapped a few absolutely delightful emails with him.

“BTW, my cars are mostly vintage BMWs, but are bookended by a ’74 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special and a Winnebago Rialta. So unusual I got.”

“Cool. I’m storing my uncle’s 2002 and I have a ’67 Europa S1 myself. My daily driver is a Citroën CX diesel wagon. I drive a ’69 Citroen Mehari when I’m feeling particularly invincible. And there’s a small flock of Simca coupes. (I do not have a French car problem.) A friend has a Renault 15 and a 17 here. In my other business at this complex, I have a well-equipped shop where we can fix or build practically anything. If you can catch me, you’re welcome to stop by.”

So, it looks like I’ve got a viable plan B, which makes me feel like that space-related sword of Damocles now has the safety catch engaged. The Bavaria will probably get a stay of execution, but it’s good not to get caught flat-footed by events.

So my dream—moving to a house where I can walk out the front door to sit on a porch with a thrilling view of mountains or water and play my guitar for hours and sip scotch, and walk out the back door to a 50×80-foot metal outbuilding that holds every car I can reasonably afford, and I can go inside and pick one and drive it on winding country roads—is delayed. Instead, I have to continue to live my wonderful life with my wonderful wife in our nice house with its three- or four-car garage (depending on how they’re packed) in the highly-desirable town of Newton, Massachusetts, and have the number of cars upper-bounded by storage issues. This isn’t hardship. It’s what my mother would’ve called “a happy problem.”

But in the meantime, how am I supposed to respond to this ad for a rust-free BMW E46 3 Series rear-wheel-drive wagon with a transplanted ZHP engine, six-speed transmission, and sport seats? Or the TVR 2500 with the Ford 302 that just needs finishing?

If this is a happy problem, I can’t say that I’m feeling the happy part. I could console myself by sitting on my porch, looking at the mountains, playing my guitar, and drinking scotch, if I had all those things. Wait, I do have the guitar. And the scotch. I guess two out of four ain’t bad.

***

Rob Siegel’s new book, The Best Of The Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon. Personally inscribed copies of any of Rob’s eight books can be ordered on his website, robsiegel.com.

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