The Urban Outlaw, the Hack Mechanic, and four old tires
As I mentioned last week, Hagerty’s Larry Webster put me in touch with a video crew regarding a future episode of Hagerty’s video series The Next Big Thing With Magnus Walker.
If you’re a car person, you likely have already crossed digital paths with Magnus. In case you haven’t, here’s his story in a nutshell. He’s a Brit who emigrated to the U.S. in 1986, began supporting himself by selling used clothing and turned it into a business. He bought a building in L.A., the building soon did double duty as a film and video shoot location, and with the money he earned, Magnus amassed a first-rate collection of vintage Porsches before air-cooled prices went nuts.
He’s an immediately identifiable figure, tall and lanky with dreadlocks, a big beard, and tats up and down his arms, and the combination of his iconic appearance, his non-concours approach to cars, his confidence, and his acumen made him the subject of the 2012 short film Urban Outlaw. The film received a lot of attention and turned Magnus into something of an automotive oracle, and he appeared on many automotive-related media channels in addition to being involved in ventures ranging from Hot Wheels cars to comic books.
The outline of The Next Big Thing shoot was that the team wanted to do an episode about the BMW M Coupe (sometimes referred to as the “Z3 M Coupe” to differentiate it from both the M3 coupe and the Z4 M Coupe that followed it, but those who love it call it “the clown shoe,” for reasons that are apparent when you see one in profile). Certainly there are M Coupes to be found in L.A., and when I spoke with Matt Hartigree, who was managing the video shoot, I explained that my M Coupe is a silver, driver-quality 1999 model with the 240-horsepower S52 engine, not a zingy-colored 2001–02 hangar queen with the 315-hp S54 engine like the ones that go for crazy money on Bring a Trailer, but a) Larry Webster thought Magnus and I might be a good pairing, and b) I have other interesting cars that could be used in the shoot.
Matt said that they were, in fact, interested in also using one of my older BMWs, framing it with “This is already an acknowledged classic, but maybe the next big thing is … this,” and then showing the M Coupe. They wanted to take both cars into Boston and get some footage in classic locations. I advised that it doesn’t get more iconic than driving east along Memorial Drive, with the Boston skyline and Beacon Hill visible across the Charles River. Initially Matt asked me about using one of the 2002s, but I said that as long as it wasn’t raining, my beautiful red 1973 BMW 3.0CSi E9 coupe was available and would be a great visual counterpoint to the M Coupe. He was very interested.
Matt then asked for my input on a location to shoot some enthusiastic driving in the M Coupe. I said that the best place I knew was about an hour west on roads that I’ve driven hundreds of times during my misspent automotive youth: the banked stretch of Route 202 and the heavily switch-backed part of the “Shutesbury Chute” that drops down into Amherst, where I lived and went to school.
So, we set it up. Arrangements were made for an advance video crew to come to my house on Sunday to do some recon work, then for Magnus and the full crew to swarm in on Monday morning, head into Boston in my E9—with me in the M Coupe—return to my garage for some banter, then zip out to western Massachusetts and carve corners in the clown shoe.
But there was something bothering me, and it wasn’t the M Coupe’s hazed headlight covers that I wrote about last week.
It was the tires.
Now, I am keenly aware that part of my appeal as a writer is that I’m brutally honest about my own foibles, shortcomings, knowledge deficits, and outright mistakes, and I’m willing to admit to things in print that others might only blurt out in confidence to a close friend after too many shots of Fireball. Sometimes that’s fun, as other folks become willing to come out of the automotive closet and own up to the same supposed sin. A few months back, I wrote about losing a wheel and having it pass me while I was driving, because I’d apparently forgotten to tighten up the lug nuts. The number of supportive “that happened to me too” responses was unbelievable.
Conversely, I’ve taken some heat here for other things, such as my budget approach to wheels and tires—I sometimes buy used rubber if it’s well-priced and in good condition, and sometimes I run my cars on tires older than other folks would advise. My philosophy is that part of being a person of modest means who owns 12 cars is that they never all get everything they need. Cost-conscious choices need to be made, those choices extend to tires, and safety has shades of grey. In a previous story, however, I described the time I went too far and bought a pair of used tires for my daily driver BMW E39 530i, and when I went to get them mounted, the tire shop people told me that one of the tires had cracks in the sidewall. I looked at it, didn’t think it was a big deal, and asked them to mount it anyway. Not long after, I had a blowout on the highway. There was no denying that the tire that failed was the one with the cracked sidewall I’d been warned me about. So, yes, I can be taught.
I learned from that, but the lesson isn’t automatically “every one of my cars needs a set of new, brand-name tires right now.” Tire needs vary enormously with how a car is used. For example, I’d have very few qualms about driving on cracked tires if I was going only a few miles at low speed to a cars and coffee. And if the tires aren’t cracked but are just old, tooling around on them locally or even on the highway at legal speeds is manifestly different than using them for high-performance driving events (HPDEs).
Case in point: My E9 3.0CSi has a set of General Altimax tires that I bought when I began distance-driving the car. That was in 2010, which seems to me like yesterday, but the tires are now 11 years old. However, they probably have only 5000 miles on them, zero cracks, and supple rubber from the car being stored indoors. Yes, I realize that you can read articles online that flatly say “after 10 years, tires are done,” but I feel that with the overall condition of the tires and the way I use the car, their continued use falls inside my comfort zone.
You can tell that I’m winding up to defend something that’s completely indefensible, can’t you?
During a lengthy phone conversation with Matt, the head of the video crew, I answered questions like how long I’ve had the M Coupe. I said that it’s been here for a while, even overlapping with my Porsche 911SC. I explained how selling the Porsche right before the big run-up in air-cooled 911 values was the worst automotive mistake I ever made. However, I sold it and kept the M Coupe because, although I loved the 911SC, in terms of its era and its technology, it felt not unlike my other primitive 1970s-era BMWs, whereas the M Coupe was several generations newer and felt like nothing else I owned. Matt said, “This is perfect. You’ll have to tell that story to Magnus. That’ll be a great thing to shoot in your garage.”
I figured that I’d owned the M Coupe for about 10 years. I remembered that when I bought it, the seller said he’d just replaced the tires. OK, so in my head, the ’shoe’s tires were no worse than those on my E9. Not great, but not hazardous endangerment, at least not in my book.
So, we’re good, right?
About a week before the shoot, I don’t know what made me check my folder of the M Coupe’s records, but there I found the previous owner’s receipt from The Tire Rack dated January 2007, and my title to the car, dated February 2007.
Fourteen years. Not 10 or 11.
No, no, no, no, no. I’m not going to have Magnus Walker shoot a video with a car that’s running around on 14-year-old tires. Even for me, that’s over the line.
I jumped on The Tire Rack’s website. There were 47 choices in the car’s staggered 245/40ZR17 and 225/45ZR17 sizes, ranging from $348 for Riken Raptors to $2178 for a set of Hoosier track slicks. Something inexpensive and well-reviewed, like a set of General G-MAX RS, was $464 and available for next-day delivery. Add in taxes and mounting and balancing from one of their vetted installers and it came to a not unreasonable $670. I put them up in my cart and was ready to click “buy.” And then I remembered …
The wheels looked like hell. They really needed to be refinished, and I’d been avoiding it for years. There was curb rash, yes, but the main issue was that the right rear wheel had taken on a goldish tint from the rear caliper having stuck a few years back, which got the wheel very hot and discolored it. I posted a photo of it on Facebook, and a friend of mine commented, “That’s just baked-on brake dust. CarPro IronX will take that off.” I bought the $28 bottle of elixir, and while it ran off the wheels in remarkable streaks of red, it didn’t touch the gold discoloration.
So, what to do? There was no possible way to get the wheels refinished and back in time, and I hated to pay twice for mounting and balancing. I checked the tires, found zero cracks, bubbles, tears, or gouges in the sidewalls. I measured the tread depth and found it at about 7/32 of an inch all around. I took the car out, threw it around a few entrance ramps with a good deal of enthusiasm, and didn’t feel any warning signs of dried-out slide-y rubber. Then I watched the episode of The Next Big Thing in which Magnus evaluates a BMW E39 M5, and while he was certainly getting on it, he wasn’t drifting the thing like Jeremy Clarkson or anything. No one was paying me to do this shoot, no one had asked me to prep the car as if it was going to be used for an HPDE, and my answer to my self-imposed question, “Would you drive it out on Route 202 this way” was: “You already have been, so, apparently, yeah.” Don’t judge me. OK, yeah, go ahead and judge me. I’m an idiot. This was indefensibly stupid. But, like mullets and leisure suits, it made sense at the time.
Let me cut to the chase, ruin my own ending, and say that absolutely nothing went wrong. The crew met at my house on Monday morning and instrumented a van with what looked like (and was) a hacked drone suction-cupped to the outside so they could take advantage of its high-resolution gimbled camera. We headed into Boston with the van, my red E9, the clown shoe, and another chase vehicle, and we got the iconic Memorial Drive / Charles River shot—we were even fortunate enough to catch the signature view with scullers in the river. Then we drove into downtown Boston itself and shot quite a bit of footage of the E9 and the ’shoe, separately and together, in classic neighborhoods around Beacon Hill and in front of old brownstone apartment buildings. The gorgeous red E9 got a lot of attention, and it was pretty cool watching Magnus get recognized in it more than once.
Then, back to my garage for the obligatory made-for-video “Hack Mechanic meets Urban Outlaw” scene, some ogling of my Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special (turns out Magnus owned one in exactly the same color brown), and me telling the story of how “I sold my 911SC at the worst possible moment.” Then into the clown shoe and out Route 2, about an hour to Route 202, the undulating road that cuts to the west of Quabbin Reservoir, which was built in the 1930s to create a water supply for Boston. Its location in this area was selected precisely because of these rolling hills. We stopped at the New Salem General Store, and the crew outfitted the M Coupe with cameras.
As I said at the beginning, there’s an aura to Magnus Walker. In addition to his instantly recognizable appearance, he has a certain swagger and confidence to him that isn’t unusual with media-savvy entrepreneurs. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s done well. When he showed up at my house, it was with big firm handshakes and handing out his Urban Outlaw Hot Wheels cars. So, at the start of the day, for a while, he was the guy he was supposed to be, and I was trying to be the guy that I’m supposed to be. But that lasted maybe 15 minutes, and after that, we were just two car guys riding in a very cool car while occasionally receiving walkie-talkie directions from the camera-equipped van, like “OK, now cut around us and nail it.” Magnus is a very nice, very interesting guy, and we talked about a wide range of topics while occasionally soft-balling the “So, Rob, what do you love about the clown shoe” questions, for which we were instrumented with mics and GoPros.
Then we did what you’re supposed to do in an M Coupe on a road with interspersed banked sweepers and straightaways. I did tell him about the old tires, but he wasn’t overly concerned. He drove the car pretty much as I would’ve, maybe just a tad harder and faster, but not beating on it, and in no way making me uncomfortable. His main complaint was that it had more body roll than he expected.
We then headed for the “Shutesbury Chute” (as I described it to the crew, “a very small tail of a very small dragon”) so they could get the kind of camera-on-the-ground shots they needed for the video. They shot a wrap-up segment in front of the Shutesbury Community Church, and, with drizzle encroaching, we called it a day. Nothing went wrong, except one law-enforcement-related incident for which I’m sworn to secrecy.
The film crew had already put away their cameras, but I said to Magnus, “You’ll have to excuse me; I need to ask you to do this stupid selfie with me.” My car had already been repositioned in front of the tiny Shutesbury Public Library, which had a completely unrelated “Thank You” sign hung on it. I asked Magnus to pose with me, back-to-back, James Bond style, holding finger guns. We commented that the sign seemed like the perfect unintended encapsulation of them thanking me for the use of my cars and my time, and me thanking them for a hoot of a day. I handed my phone to one of the cameramen, and he snapped this.
I then headed back to Boston, and they slogged out the 3 1/2-hour drive south to New York.
The next day, I looked at the DOT-mandated date codes on the tires. The rears read “1006” (the 10th week of 2006). The front ones were even worse: 1505. Ouch—15- and 16-year-old tires, used on a drive that I can’t pretend was anything resembling a low-speed pleasure cruise. What is seen can’t be unseen. What is known can’t be unknown.
Fortunately, nothing went wrong. There were no blowouts at speed and barely any tire squeal, but I was like the frog in the hot water who didn’t know to jump out, and I feel like an absolute idiot. My rationalizations that pliant uncracked rubber meant “not unsafe” made sense to me at the time, but the more I think about it, the more my poor decision-making astounds me.
I could’ve said no to the shoot. I could’ve made it contingent on a little money for tires. I could’ve—and should’ve—simply purchased them myself, which clearly needs to be done anyway. Instead, I allowed this foolish idea that I want to get the wheels refinished first (which, by the way, I’ve never paid anyone to do on any car, ever) be the stumbling block because that would mean paying for mounting and balancing twice, for which we’re talking $180, tops. I’m usually resolutely defensive about my scrappy penny-pinching ways, because they’re a major enabling factor in continuing to own these cars, but this was just beyond stupid.
So, yeah, don’t let this be like “the one where the wheel fell off the car”—where y’all chimed in “All right! I’m in the wheel-fell-off club too!.” We could joke about what a big happy bunch of hapless automotive bozos we all are. Instead, please go ahead and slap me around for this one. Because, apparently, I need it.
Magnus, if you need to borrow the clown shoe again, I promise that next time you’ll be greeted with fresh rubber. And maybe with one of my own new signature line of Hack Mechanic Hot Wheels. They all come with their original tires. And a surprising amount of body roll.
(Editor’s note: The M Coupe episode of The Next Big Thing With Magnus Walker is expected to air on YouTube sometime between July and September.)
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.