The low-mileage car gets a road trip
I’ve written repeatedly about “Hampton,” the remarkably original survivor 1973 BMW 2002 that I bought in Bridgehampton, Long Island, from its original owner 3 1/2 years ago. Part of the appeal of the car was that, when I bought it, it had 48,125 documented original miles that aligned with its intact survivor vibe.
Now, 48,000 miles is a funny number. It’s not remotely in the same league as the sub-thousand-mile cars that get bid up to crazy prices on Bring a Trailer. But a BMW 2002 with that mileage is a rare beast. When I bought my ’74 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special nine years ago, it had 24,000 miles on it. That’s not why I bought it, but I did think that the mileage made it something special. I was completely wrong. There appear to be a fair number of Europas, particularly Twin Cam cars, with that kind of mileage on them, because a) They were generally bought as third, not first or even second cars, b) The water pump is integrated with the front timing cover, the seal leaks from sitting, and because of the mid-engine design, the engine has to be removed to rebuild the pump, which is part of the reason behind c) the widely-repeated saying that Lotus stands for “Lots Of Trouble Usually Serious.”
But a BMW 2002 isn’t like that. These cars were bought as primary transportation, owners drove the wheels off them, and they were and continue to be generally quite reliable, making sub-50,000-mile 2002s pretty uncommon. When I bought Hampton in the spring of 2019, it had been sitting in a barn for a decade due to a change in family fortunes. I don’t usually flip cars, but I saw dollar signs. I cleaned it up, sorted it out, put it on Bring a Trailer, and was surprised when it didn’t meet a reasonable reserve. I think the main reason why was that although folks say that they love original survivor cars (“It’s only original once,” and all that), BaT’s click-and-bid-bid-bid machinery is more hospitable to eye-candy cars with powder-coated subframes and dry-ice-blasted engine compartments, neither of which Hampton has. I wasn’t planning on keeping the car, but when it didn’t sell, that seemed to be my lot, at least for a while.
During this unexpected second act of the play of ownership, I’ve been very conscious not to rack up the mileage. Virtually all the 800-ish miles I put on the car was running it back and forth to the warehouse in central Massachusetts where I rent space. I never really “pleasure-drove” it anywhere. While some component of that was that the nearly-bone-stock Hampton doesn’t have the snap of my fuel-injected 2002tii or my other 2002, with its high-compression twin-Webered-and-cammed engine, the bigger reason was that I was adamant about not rolling it over to 49,000 miles (“le petit rollover”), much less 50,000 (“le grande rollover”).
However, over the past few months, there was a shift in my thinking. First, the idea of hoarding mileage—owning a car and not driving it because of worry that that will affect its value—is antithetical to everything that I do. The value of Hampton will be increased by a) detailing the engine compartment and undercarriage (the latter of which will likely never happen), b) wire-brushing, treating, and repainting the little bit of seam rust on the hood and the door bottoms, c) having paintless dent removal performed on the little dings, and d) the passage of time. I now realize that zeroing in myopically on the mileage and saying the car be worth $Y with 49,000 on it but only $X with 51,000 is just plain silly.
Second, even though the other 2002s, the Lotus, the BMW M Coupe, and other cars are well-ahead of it in the pleasure-driving queue, Hampton is the prettiest 2002 I own, and its survivor vibe gets under your skin. The original paint and bone-stock interior are often conversation pieces. I had a guy chat me up recently outside a liquor store and ask if he could smell the car’s interior. Rather than look at him askance, I understood the request completely. The horsehair padding (“Gummihair,” as the Germans called it) of the seats has a very characteristic smell. He opened the door, stuck his head in, inhaled deeply, and smiled. “That is exactly how a BMW 2002 is supposed to smell,” he said. He was right.
And so I began to use the car more. After identifying and fixing a long-standing hard-starting problem, I focused on another carburetor issue, that of lean-running. Using a portable exhaust gas analyzer I bought 40 years ago in a pawn shop in Austin, I verified my suspicion that the car’s hesitation at even throttle and numbness on modest acceleration was indeed accompanied by the meter on the gas analyzer swinging well into the lean zone. I ordered an assortment of idle and main jets, and with a little tweaking, was able to a) get the needle on the gas analyzer to sit much closer to the middle, b) the hesitation to go away, and c) the car to wake up when I squeezed the throttle.
But while iteratively doing that, I was running the car a few exits up and down I-95 and put another hundred or so miles on it. As I homed in on the final jetting, I didn’t cringe as the odometer did le petit rollover to 49,000 miles. Instead, I smiled at the fact that I’d largely let go of the “I shouldn’t be driving it” issue and was actually performing useful tuning that would increase my driving enjoyment.
Since my usage of the car was increasing, I installed a spare Recaro-like Konig driver’s seat I had in the basement. While I absolutely love the look of BMW’s 1970s seat pleating, the big wide, flat horsehair-padded seats are uncomfortable for anything other than short drives, and with my back injury in August, I need all the lumbar support I can get. Plus, for enthusiastic driving, the bolstered seat held me in place much better. Not that I was sliding the car around entrance ramps. That would be pleasure driving (haha).
I was so pleased with this shift in tone and purpose that I decided that Hampton deserved something of a coming-out party. After all, even close friends of mine in the vintage BMW world had never seen the car. One good friend joked that the car was an urban myth. So, I took it to “BMW Day” at the nearby Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, Massachusetts. There were any number of cool cars there, including a survivor 1935 315/1 roadster, so it’s not like Hampton was the belle of the ball. But enough of my local 2002 friends laid eyes on it to retire the “urban myth” joke.
In fact, it got the gears turning in my brain to something bigger:
The following weekend, my wife, Maire Anne, and I were planning to drive up and see some close friends in Manchester, Vermont, one of whom is a former bandmate who had asked me to sit in with his band in a gig they had during Columbus Day / Indigenous People’s Weekend outside the Orvis building. Road trips in smelly, old, vintage cars aren’t really my wife’s thing, so I was planning on taking my smooth and quiet 2003 BMW 530i. Plus, rain was forecast, and as much as I love pounding out big miles in the vintage cars, driving them in drenching rain is stress-inducing to the driver and rust-inducing to the car.
However, the morning we were planning to leave, I looked at the weather radar, and it showed that the precipitation bands were predicted to head well north of our destination, so any rain was likely to be episodic rather than drenching. I ran the smelly-old-vintage-car question past my better half, and she signed off on it, so into the trunk went the Tech21 guitar amp, and onto the back seat went the Peavey T-60 and the Taylor GS guitars. The projected 150-ish-mile trip was a Goldilocks-just-right distance, as I felt comfortable bringing a toolbox and a few reasonable spares (fuel pump, distributor cap, plugs and points, fan belt) but eschewing the floor jack, two gallons of antifreeze, timing light, and more that I’d take on a real road trip.
We had a picture-perfect drive up through fabulous foliage. The windows were down and the sunroof open for most of it. As we approached Manchester, we could see the storm center hovering ominously off to the northeast, but although the temperature dropped about 15 degrees, there was absolutely zero rain.
The only problem we had on the trip was that my supposed hard-starting fix last month wasn’t the magic bullet I thought it was. With the colder overnight temperatures, the car had trouble starting in the morning. Adjusting the automatic choke so it rotated hard closed didn’t fix it. Then the problem started happening even when the engine was warm. Fortunately, I brought a battery jump pack just in case I ran the battery down and needed to self-jump, which I did. Curiously, starting with a fully open throttle turned out to be the magic trick. I’m still not sure what the cause of the problem is. But all in all, it was no more than a minor annoyance.
One of the reasons BMW 2002s had a cult following when they were new is that they were small sports sedans that did a lot of things well. They were stout, had an acceptable amount of power, could seat four, had a real trunk, and were almost criminally smile-inducing on a curvy road. All of that is still true. Further, while there’s no pretending that you’re not in a 50-year-old car in terms of wind noise, the car’s two-liter engine, snickety four-speed gearbox, front disc brakes, McPherson strut front suspension, and fully independent rear suspension still make the 2002 a joy to drive. That can’t be said of all vintage cars. I may have missed the extra power and the wonderful wind-up of the 2002tii when I wanted to squeeze the accelerator to keep pace with traffic up a hill, or the roar of the dual Webers and the hot cam when I wanted to mash and pass, but what Hampton lacked in snap, it more than made up for in panache.
In addition, not only were Maire Anne and I happy road-tripping the perky little 2002, Hampton seemed happy. Before the car was put in storage in 2009, it had been a summer car in the Hamptons, used only to tool around between a vacation home and the beach. This was probably its first road trip in over 20 years. Deciding to drive the car, to use it as intended instead of hoarding its mileage like virginity in a 19th century British novel or vintage scotch seemed to lift a pall that had descended upon it after it didn’t sell on BaT and I stuffed it away.
The roughly 310-mile round-trip ticked the mileage up to 49,365. I can’t say that I’m going to start planning road trips in the car to Nome or Seattle or even Asheville. It still is likely this car is sojourning with me rather than a long-term soulmate. And I have other cars, and they all get their turn. But that’s the point—Hampton is now getting its turn with the rest, and I will now use the car for what I want instead of feeling like keeping the mileage down is the single most important thing.
After all, when le grande rollover happens, the car and I should be livin’ the dream on some road trip, not running cardboard boxes down to the recycling depot. Or getting an inspection sticker. Or tweaking the jetting on I-95.
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.