What’s more important than fall’s last drive? The next one

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Rob Siegel

There’s a special poignance when you do something for the last time. The last time you drive a beloved car before you sell it. The last time you’re in a house or apartment before you move away. The last time you see a loved one before they pass.

The last drive of fall before putting the car away for winter isn’t quite up there with the above list—the seasons are at their very core cyclical, so you know the layup is only temporary and that spring will push the shoots out of the ground and the car out of the garage. But still, here in New England and other similar climes, “The Last Drive That Isn’t Really The Last Drive” is a ritual.

Maybe you’re putting the car away in far-flung storage. Maybe it’s in your garage, but it’ll be blocked in by other vehicles. Maybe there’s a big project you’re planning that you know will take the car out of commission until spring. Maybe it’s none of those, and with good weather and salt-free roads, the car may see use all winter. But even if that’s the case, it doesn’t make the drive any less poignant or feel any less special.

I just went through this with Lolita, the 1974 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, and Rene, the ’73 BMW 3.0CSi. I had very different reactions to both.

Lolita had two separate goodbyes. The first was an absolutely wonderful leaf-peeping trip to western Massachusetts. A few years ago, I wrote about driving the car out to Amherst to the very spot I first saw a Europa. I began following that same path out Route 2, but this time, just to change it up, I got off the highway onto smaller Rt 2A, something I’d never done in the hundreds of times I’d run back and forth between Amherst and Boston. I was astonished by what I saw.

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The foliage visible from the highway was beautiful, but that wasn’t the main show. Rob Siegel

It’s one thing to see whatever selection of trees happen to be visible from the highway. It’s quite another to drive through the centers of small New England towns where many of town squares or commons are populated by prized maples. Every New Englander knows that the maple is the Lord God of autumn, and to drive through one little town after another and see the maples on fire with foliage left me so mumbling and weak-knee’d in oh-my-god, oh-my-god, oh-my-god adoration that had there been anyone in the car with me, they would’ve thought I was having a series of When Harry Met Sally  (“I’ll have what she’s having”) experiences. I was so totally in the moment that I didn’t stop and take any photos until I was nearly in Amherst and took in the iconic overview of Quabbin Reservoir.

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The Lotus above Quabbin. Rob Siegel

Unfortunately, on the drive home, something odd happened. The Lotus’ brakes began feeling spongy. They’d pump back up firm, but the next time I hit the pedal, even if it was just a few seconds later, they felt soft again. I stopped, verified that the fluid level in the reservoir was full and that there wasn’t brake fluid dripping anywhere. I did, however, find that I’d left the handbrake on for who knows how many miles, so maybe I’d heated up the rear brakes enough to boil the brake fluid.

Of course, you don’t want to be driving if you think the brake master cylinder is failing. The classic symptom is putting your foot on the brake pedal and having it go slowly to the floor. The Lotus wasn’t doing that, but it was still odd and unnerving. Weighing the risks and the options, I drove home very carefully, taking the Mass Pike back instead of curvier Rt 2, figuring that the interstate route would involve less braking.

When I got home, I ensconced the Lotus up on the mid-rise lift, figuring that that was it for the fall. As I wrote about here, bleeding the brakes on the car has proven troublesome, as my Motive power bleeder doesn’t have a cap available for the Lotus’ odd Girling master cylinder, and as a vacuum-style bleeder didn’t prove useful. So, I tried something new—I ordered a set of Speed Bleeders. These are bleed nipples that have a little check-valve in them that allows one-person bleeding. That is, you don’t need to have someone like your less-than-thrilled spouse pumping the brake pedal while you open and close the bleed nipple. I installed the Speed Bleeders, pushed a reasonable amount of fluid through the system, and the pedal felt firm.

Speed Bleeders to the rescue. Maybe. Rob Siegel

Then, a few weeks later, I was invited to give a talk on the Lotus’ six-year-long resurrection at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, Massachusetts. It was basically a live synopsis of what’s in my book The Lotus Chronicles. The museum folks said that, if possible, it’d be great if I had the car with me as a live prop for the talk. The lure of actually having Lolita inside the museum was too good to pass up. I guess Lolita wasn’t done for the season after all.

The evening of the talk, I took the car down off the lift. When I backed it out of the garage and stopped at the top of the driveway, the pedal was alarmingly soft. Oh. Right. Forgot about that. I’d installed the Speed Bleeders and ran a bunch of fluid through them, but never actually test drove the car to see if it fixed the soft pedal.

So, I drove the Lotus several circles around the block, jamming on the brake pedal to the point where the brakes locked up, basically daring the system to break. I then went through all the same fluid inspection steps again, and again was convinced that the car was on the safe side of the line—that is, that the pedal was soft but would pump right back up. It never ever went to the floor.

And, with that, I decided to drive the car the eight miles over to Larz Anderson.

It was the least-relaxing drive I’ve ever taken in any car. I rarely drive the Lotus at night, as it’s so little and low that I’m not convinced that people see it. I’d never driven the car in rush-hour traffic before, and the amount of stopping complicated the issue of hitting the brake pedal to pump it up before I needed to actually brake. And the car has so little suspension travel that hitting any bump or pothole feels like you’re about to bend the front wishbones, which you probably are, and in the dark, I wasn’t able to see the potholes. So, imagine the joy of experiencing all three of these in one drive. The entire drive over to the museum I thought, “Idiot! Idiot! Idiot! You’re driving a car with potential brake failure, and for what? So, you can have it as a prop for a talk? Idiot!”

But safety-wise, it was fine. I’d checked the car thoroughly before I left. I wasn’t really driving a car whose brakes could fail at any moment—I was driving a car that probably had a little air in the lines. I made it there and back without incident. It was wonderful having the car with me inside Larz Anderson for the talk, and it generated a lot of attention.

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Lolita as a spectator at the talk dedicated to my passion for her. Why am I thinking of Carly Simon singing, “You probably think this talk is about you. Don’t you? Don’t you?” Rob Siegel

However, I was relieved when I got the car home and was more than happy to put it in the garage and back on the lift, this time knowing it’d stay there until the problem was found and fixed.

Fast-forward a few weeks to two days before Thanksgiving. The temperature had dropped to the mid-40s, but the weather and the roads were still clear. My middle son, Kyle, was in town from Santa Fe. We were assigned the task of picking up the turkey my wife had ordered at Verrill Farm in Concord. As I say over and over, part of the joy of owning a cool car is that driving it turns any mundane task into an occasion. So, Kyle and I drove my favorite car—Rene, the ’73 BMW E9 3.0CSi I’ve owned for 34 years—to pick up the bird. This wasn’t a foliage drive, as any leaves with color had already dropped, but the stark pre-snowfall browns and the hard sunshine made the E9’s Signal Red paint positively pop. Again, I was living in the moment, and forgot to photograph the turkey in the box in the trunk, but we did stop for an impromptu photo shoot.

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Me, with the jewel in the crown. Rob Siegel

The only thing more flamboyant than the car was Kyle. He’s always marched to his own drummer, and that’s only accelerated in his adulthood.

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Don’t you hate it when your kids become cooler than you are? Rob Siegel

The drive in Rene wasn’t long, maybe a half hour each way, but I’m intimately familiar with these roads in the leafy suburbs west of Boston, as I regularly exercise the Lotus there. We had a delightful hour piloting the beautiful E9 coupe along the gentle curves and through late November’s bare branches.

When we returned, I put Rene back in the garage and under cover, but I left her in the easily accessible spot just behind the roll-up door. After all, I still need to take Kyle to the airport. Maybe that will be the E9’s last drive of fall. But who knows? As long as the roads stay salt-free, I’ll continue to turn errands into events for as long as I can.

***

Rob Siegel’s latest book, The Best of the Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon. His other seven books are available here, or you can order personally inscribed copies through his website, www.robsiegel.com.

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Comments

    I had put the car away for the winter just before Halloween. I have a few things to do on it over the next few months, so it hadn’t gone into DEEP hibernation, but it was close. Then, I was invited by a local car club to add my Pontiac to their entry in the Holiday Parade in a nearby city last Saturday. I took the car cover off, wiped the car down, check tire pressures, and removed the battery tender. Fortune smiled on us, and we had a sunny – albeit chill – day, bare roads, and good crowds along the parade route. I enjoyed the day (except for the tense moments when some dude ran out onto the street and thrust a terrified baby into the passenger window so she could “look at the tiger in the back seat – r-o-o-w-w-w-r-r-r!”). For the most part, the onlookers were appreciative of the club members who brought their rides out on a December weekend, and the club actually took home a trophy.
    Within 24 hours after I pulled back into the garage, snow hit. I live in a hilly area on the north (thus shady) slope. We don’t get terrible snowfalls in this area, but we also don’t have great road-cleaning either, so often the streets are kind of nasty for days. I do expect that there will be days to come before spring when I’ll get the chance to take the car out again, but with the projects I’m contemplating, it may actually be “down” when the nice days hit. So, I’m going to hold onto the memories of cruising on a downtown parade route past our state capitol building until/unless a better opportunity comes along! 😊

    Larz Anderson Museum is one of the coolest places I have ever visited. Only been once (it’s not 5 miles away for me… more like 20 hours). It’s not huge (arguably rather small) but it took me hours to get through it.

    What’s more important than fall’s last drive… Winter’s first drive. I personally don’t stop driving them until the salt hits the road, and start right back up again as soon as the first good rain washes the little white demons away

    One of the un-intended benefits of global warming here in the Northeast is the ability to keep driving well into December. Unless you live at the business end of Lakes Erie and Ontario.

    What a great line, “the joy of owning a cool car is that driving it turns any mundane task into an occasion.” That pretty much sums it up every time I drive my 2000 BMW Mcoupe.

    Love how Rob shares his experiences in a way that even we non-wrenchers can relate to. All part of the experience of loving and being lucky enough to own a special vehicle. (Mine’s a 2007 S2000)

    Rob, you had me going there for a minute – I was waiting for the “Ahh-Ha!” moment on the brake item, thankfully it never arrived. Also, you need to get a pair of those checkered pants that your son has – you could totally pull that off.

    Rob – You don’t mention if you re-adjusted the rear brake shoes. (and perhaps the hand brake) Have you considered that you may have worn down the brake shoes enough to introduce extra play, requiring the extra pump? You don’t mention if you re-adjusted the rear brake shoes.

    Roger G, the rear shoes were my first thought, but a) they’re self-adjusting, and b) I checked them. They’re not the source of the problem.

    This article makes me both happy and sad as my ’86 300SDL is down for the season with a severe transmission leak.

    But as I suit up to go rip it apart in the garage, I’m excited to see it’s over winter transformation. Hopefully I’ll enjoy it even more next year.

    Yes, Rob, it’s annoying when your kid becomes cooler than you.
    But you know what? Deep inside, you are delighted.
    I bet you agree, too. Looks like a nice kid.
    Bill S

    I drive Ludwig, my ’73 2002 until the first salt–or the more insidious brine–hits our local roads. Given SW Ohio weather, that could be any time between Thanksgiving and the first week in January. So far, so good. No road salt, no brine.

    When driving around town it’s amazing how much attention it draws. Yesterday two elderly ladies (even older than I) were climbing into their Lincoln parked next to me and just thought my car was so cute and perfect (perhaps the former, definitely not the latter.) To me it’s my fun spring/summer/fall daily driver. I never think of it as old, although it’ll turn 50 next week.

    It’s dry here today, so I’ll be running errands in my “cute” little car.

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