Which winter project is space worthy?

Hack Mechanic Garage lead
Rob Siegel

As winter quickly approaches—in some places, it’s already here—I’m trying to decide which of my cars is “space worthy.” Every car nut knows that it’s an act of violence against a vintage car to expose it to the snow and—gak!—salt if it leaves its cocoon and crawls out onto the street here in New England or in similar climates. So, I find it’s best if I really think through which cars are going to have the privilege of over-wintering in my garage.

I’ve written repeatedly in this space about, well, space—the constraints imposed by being a car nut who’s accumulated 13 vehicles while living on one-sixth of an acre in suburban Boston. The basic parameters are that there are seven must-garage cars (the six 1970s-era BMWs and the Lotus Europa), as well as two should-garage cars (the BMW Z3 and her hardtop hatchback clown shoe brother, the M Coupe). Then there are the daily drivers whose lot in life is to sit in the driveway (my wife’s Honda Fit and my BMW E39 530i stick sport). Last are the big, rarely used vehicles, the Winnebago Rialta RV and the Silverado 3500HD (aka “The Mouse-Infested Truck”).

Obviously, my garage—a 31×17-foot box attached to the back corner of my house—can only hold a few of these. Two small cars fit easily in the garage nose-to-nose. A third can easily back in, execute a dogleg turn, and nestle in the left rear corner. It is possible to fit a fourth by putting a car on wheel dollies and sliding it sideways. I’ve done this many winters, but the consequences are that the two cars on the left can’t move for months, and it eats up all the floor space, making large projects difficult.

Rob Siegel - Which winter project is space worthy - IMG_8294_enhanced
By cleaning up the stuff on the lefthand side, my garage has enough space to fit four cars. Rob Siegel

For a brief time after the garage was built, I used a fifth space under the porch, accessible via a sliding door on the wall of the garage, but it’s so overrun with the stuff of life—the lawnmower, snowblower, generator, engine hoist, a spare BMW 2002tii engine, four transmissions, etc.—that it’s been years since it has housed a car.

Rob Siegel - Which winter project is space worthy - IMG_8400_enhanced
Hard to believe I used to fit a car in here. Rob Siegel

Years back, as the number of must-garage cars crept up, I found a guy renting individual bays in an old five-car garage at rental property he owns in central Massachusetts (Fitchburg). I first rented just one space, but as others became available, I snagged them, and now rent all five.

Rob Siegel - Which winter project is space worthy - IMG_7732
Mine, all mine! Rob Siegel

As I wrote about here, two automotive events pushed things over the edge. One was last November when I bought back Zelda, my little BMW Z3 roadster, from a friend whose son crashed it into a median strip and bent the lower control arms and wheels. The other was that Hampton, my 49,000-mile 1973 BMW 2002, didn’t sell on Bring a Trailer. These unexpected two garage inhabitants, combined with the already high number of cars and a life-long craving to live out in the country with a thrilling view, caused me and my wife to seriously consider moving. During the height of the pandemic, I spent endless hours pounding on Zillow looking for car-centric properties (that is, something with a big outbuilding that could swallow all my present cars plus some unreasonable number of future cars), but in the end, my wife and I didn’t fully agree on an acceptable distance from family and friends, and financing without first selling our house in Newton was problematic, so we had to back-burner the move. I was philosophical about it. I mean, it’s just cars and space. I can always have fewer of the former or rent more of the latter. But unfortunately, I haven’t pulled the trigger on either of those options.

On paper, if I do the wheel dollies thing and pack four cars into the garage in Newton, I have exactly the right number of spaces for the winter. There are three problems with this.

The first is that, as I said, with four cars sardined into the garage, there’s very little room to work. Even sliding a floor jack under a car’s nose and getting it in the air is difficult. Using an engine hoist is out of the question.

The second problem is that I’m really at my best when I have a good-sized project to tackle. Something I can think about, plan, and execute. Something that occupies endless amounts of my time and generates endless amounts of content. Something where I can walk into the garage and either do 10 minutes a night or get sucked into for four straight greasy hours. Last winter, the unexpected project was rescuing Zelda the Z3, which not only needed the front end rebuilt from the curb strike but also needed a clutch. The previous winter, the big project was Round II of sorting out what was then my recently resurrected Lotus Europa. Right now, I don’t really have one big identifiable winter project. It’s more like a series of small hunt-and-peck projects on multiple cars. That was fine for spring through fall, but with the cars split between two garages and separated by 50 miles of snowy salty roads, it’s less than optimal for the winter.

The third problem is a bit less defensible but also completely understandable. I believe that it was racer and car guy Bobby Rahal who coined the phrase “the fresh rattle syndrome,” which refers to getting tired of all the thunks, clunks, and rattles in your car(s) and deciding that the solution is—you guessed it—another car with a fresh rattle. And there’s no garage space for a fresh-rattle project car.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, there are 13 cars, but, well, shut up. That doesn’t matter. Humor me for a moment. What matters is that I don’t feel like I’ve bought an enthusiast vehicle in over two years. I bought back Zelda the Z3 last year, but I’d already owned it previously, so that doesn’t really count as a fresh rattle (and I really only bought it back because it was dirt cheap, and the insurance company would’ve totaled it otherwise). Then I bought the mouse-infested truck this summer, but for all its utility—no disrespect—it’s just a truck. The last car I bought was barely even a car—the 2004 BMW X5 triple unicorn SUV (six-speed stick, sport package, tow package) that I purchased in November 2019. I drove it for a while, liked it but didn’t love it (which must be the very definition of “not an enthusiast vehicle”), and sold it in the spring of 2020. To go back to the last purchase of a true enthusiast car, I need to rewind the calendar to September 2019 and Hampton, the BMW 2002.

It was against this backdrop that an ad for a partially disassembled 1972 BMW 2002tii showed up on Facebook. Actually, it wasn’t even an ad—it was a second-hand post on the non-public Nor’East 02er group page that read, “Posting this for a member who is not on FB—a ’72 tii project that came to a stop a few years ago. He says, ‘Looking to sell my car due to unforeseen circumstances.’ And he reports that he has all the parts to complete the project, as well as all service records from day one. He’s asking $15K.” The car was in Milford, Connecticut, about two hours from me in Boston—maybe two and a half with traffic. The 13 photos certainly piqued my interest, showing a car with most of the trim off and the interior out, but there was also a video of the original mechanically injected engine running like a sewing machine.

Rob Siegel - Which winter project is space worthy - milford 2002tii right rear
OK, I’m interested. Rob Siegel
Rob Siegel - Which winter project is space worthy - milford 2002tii interior
Yeah, literally some assembly required. Rob Siegel

While I had the post up on my computer screen, a comment popped up from the car’s actual owner, reporting that he had regained access to his Facebook account. He added, “It’s a two-owner tii from California via Colorado. Recent poor paint job but solid California car. Rebuilt Kugelfischer [injection pump], new seat covers and headliner, BWA wheels with center caps, also have original wheels, new carpet (partial), new battery, Recaros, Nardi wheel, Euro turn signals. I also have all the receipts for all the service done on the car back to 1972.”

It always amazes me when the word “rust” isn’t mentioned in an ad for a vintage car. I immediately texted the seller, asking him the “R” question. He responded, “There’s absolutely no rust ANYWHERE.”

In my world, this is the kind of car I’d normally drop everything for. While $15k isn’t cheap, it’s a very good price for a running, purportedly rust-free ten-footer 2002tii that just needs some exterior and interior reassembly. And, in these times where 100 percent of my income is derived from automotive endeavors, isn’t this exactly the sort of thing I should buy—a car that, if it’s as advertised, I’m virtually certain to make money on, that I know like the back of my hand, that I have a heap of spare parts for, that’s drivable, and that I could get months of articles out of?

Anyone who works like I do, and rarely buys anything unless he sees it with his own eyes, knows that there are two ways to deal with these “crime of opportunity” cars that are close enough to go look at. If the car is less than an hour away, you do drop everything, throw yourself and a little cash in your car, and drive out to see it. If you like the car, you leave a deposit, run to the bank, take out the rest of the cash, and transact the deal. Then you figure out how to get the car home. If it runs, maybe you register and insure the car and have a spouse or friend drive you back there so you can legally drive the car home. Or if you own a truck, you arrange to rent a $60 U-Haul auto transporter and return to the scene of the crime a few days later and haul home your prize. Or you pay a few hundred dollars for a local point-to-point tow.

But if the car is hundreds of miles away, you really hate to make that drive twice. So you try to get as much up-front information about the car as you can, and if you think you’re likely to buy it, you show up with the truck and the trailer and the cash as I described here, when I bought my ’73 2002 in Bridgehampton, Long Island, a few years back.

If you’re really lucky, you thread the needle—identify a U-Haul store near the car, verify that they have an auto transporter there on the lot, reserve it, find a branch of your bank near the car, verify the hours of both the bank and the U-Haul dealer, drive the truck to look at the car, and if you agree to buy it, then pick up the cash and the trailer, pay for the car, and haul your prize home. I successfully did this about 10 years ago buying another 2002tii up in Maine. It worked so seamlessly that I didn’t realize how aligned the planets need to be to pull it off. In practice, it’s very difficult to thread the needle like this, as if you’re relying on a reserved U-Haul auto transporter to be there, and you’re screwed if the person who has it simply keeps it another day.

Rob Siegel - Which winter project is space worthy - u-haul transport
Until I live somewhere with oodles of space, I’m doomed to be at the mercy of available U-Haul transporters. At least they’re cheap. Rob Siegel

In the case of the 2002tii in Connecticut, I knew that what I should do is take enough cash for a credible deposit, toss a Tyvec suit, floor jack, and jack stands in my E39 BMW daily driver, and burn rubber and oil down to Connecticut and have a look. If I had to drive back later with a truck and trailer and drag the car home, it wasn’t that big of a deal.

There were two problems. The first was, as described above, there was zero space for a project here at the house. But the other was that, with my wife and I having decided not to move, we were having the house painted (not for resale—for us), the painters were coming that very morning, we hadn’t chosen a color yet, and it really needed to be selected stat. My wife’s saint-like qualifications are beyond reproach. She did not deserve my running out on her when ladders were literally being raised on three sides of the house. So, I didn’t. (We can play a fun mental game by asking, “So, what car at what price would’ve made you run out on your wife with the painters scaling the sides of the house,” but it’s best not to go there.)

As a background mental task while dealing with the painters, I wondered if I could thread the needle like no needle had been threaded before. A few months earlier, I found a guy in Monson, Massachusetts (located on the Massachusetts-Connecticut border), who was renting inexpensive over-winter warehouse space for vehicle storage. Monson is off I-84 on the way to Milford. Boy, I thought, the trick here would be to take the formerly mouse-infested truck, rent a U-Haul transporter, load it with my Z3, drop the Z3 off in the warehouse in Monson to get it both out of my driveway and out of the elements for the winter, continue down to Milford, buy the 2002tii, drag it back, and squeeze it into my garage. I even confirmed that there was an available U-Haul transporter not far from where I live, and a Bank of America in Milford so I wouldn’t have to drive with $15K worth of Benjamins on me. But then I remembered that the truck was still sitting on six cracked tires. It’s one thing for me to use the truck to run cardboard boxes and scrap metal down to the local recycling depot, but quite another to knowingly tow a trailer and a car with a truck riding on tires that clearly need to be replaced.

It was at this point—when Plan A and the two versions of Plan B ran into molasses—that something surprising happened. I asked myself a simple question about the 2002tii in Connecticut: “Is it space-worthy?”

The answer, which came from both the left (rational) and right (emotional) sides of my brain, was surprising.

On paper, the car was exactly what I should buy, but really, the overriding factor for going to the expense and effort to bag a winter project and sardine it in the garage was that it should be something thrilling, something that I’m excited to see whenever I open the garage door—something that makes me think, “I can’t believe that I own this car.” Would I be excited to see the partially disassembled 2002tii? Not so much. I’ve owned nearly 40 2002s, including 12 tiis. Hell, I currently own three 2002s, one of which is another 1972 2002tii. I love the cars, but another disassembled one wasn’t ringing the space-worthy bell.

What would be space-worthy? Well, that’s another story, but maybe … a Lotus Elan 2+2 coupe. Maybe the right looking C3 Corvette. An Opel GT. A Studebaker Avanti. If I’m feeling particularly masochistic, a Triumph GT6. I’ll know it when I see it. And this wasn’t it.

And just like that, I knew what was going to happen. I’d keep thinking about the tii in Milford, but I wouldn’t drop everything to go see it. And in a few days, someone else would pounce on it. And that was exactly how it played out.

Now, I’ve joked for years that these things are a test from the Automotive Powers That Be, and if you don’t respond appropriately, they convene the APTB high council and declare, “Well, we were going to drop that ad for the rust-free ’67 Porsche 911S Targa on him for five grand, but he didn’t respond to the tii, so to hell with him.” So, by not responding, I may well have triggered an automotive drought where no crimes of opportunity present themselves for years. I guess I’ll take my chances.

In the meantime, the Lotus has an ever-lengthening winter punch list, including making the camber adjustable, eliminating the play in the rear axles, and removing and cleaning the heater box. My BMW 3.0CSi also needs to have adjustable camber plates installed. And I’ve been driving my 2002tii for years on a cracked head (cracked in the upper corner, not through the combustion chamber). I fixed it three years ago with J-B Weld to make it home from a road trip. It’s time I pulled it off and dealt with it properly. So, I’ve got lots to do this winter.

But boy, I’d rather open the garage door and see a ’63 Avanti. Now that would be space worthy.

1963 Studebaker Avanti R2 front three-quarter


Rob Siegel’s new 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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