You’ve got to cover that thing—the right way

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Yale Rachlin

Ah. The car cover. On the one hand, covering a car is an act of pampering something that’s precious to you. But it also can be a flag of abuse. I guess that requires some explanation.

Whenever I see a photo of a “barn find” car with cobwebs and an inch of dust on it, I can’t help but think about something I wrote about in my first book Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic. There’s a clear hierarchy to the quality of car storage. That is, a car sitting uncovered in a barn is preferable to sitting outside. Covered in a barn is better than uncovered in a barn. And stored inside a building beats stored in a barn, with or without the cover. (Actually, what I wrote was, “I’m sure every car guy who ever found a dusty car in a barn would give his eye teeth to go back in time, find the owner, hand him a car cover, and beat the crap out of him until he agrees to go out to the barn and put the cover on the damned car.”)

Even in non-barn environments, covers are good things. Of course, it’s best if you have museum-quality storage space with HEPA-filtered air and robotic coyotes to eat the mice, the cats, and the racoons, but for those of us who don’t, a cover keeps the dust off the car and helps prevent the paint from getting scratched by critters that may climb on it. And if you outgrow the confines of your own garage and rent either affordable private garage space or industrial space, there’s often flaking paint and other abrasive particulate matter. Even the sun coming through a garage window can create problems, as it can unevenly fade the paint. If it’s a car you care about, you cover it.

What I didn’t address in the book, however, is the issue of covering a car when it’s sitting outside. Is this also an act of love? There are two ways to look at it.

The simple view, the one closest to The Great Automotive Truth, is this—never rely on a cover to protect a car outside. If you feel that you need to, the car shouldn’t be outside. It should be given proper indoor storage. There is no universe in which sitting covered outside is going to be anywhere near as good for the car as sitting inside (well, OK, maybe under a carport in San Diego). And if you live in a place with real weather, you are literally in a state of denial if you think that you aren’t harming your car by leaving it outside under what amounts to a piece of cloth. Seriously. In my neighborhood, there are two Fiat 124 Spiders, three houses apart, both of which have been sitting under covers for years (actually, one of them is under—I can’t say it—a tarp). My knee-jerk reaction is to grab both owners by the scruff of their collars, get in their faces, and say “You’re killing this car. You should be reported to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Vintage Sports Cars. Either give the car the protection it needs or sell it.”

OK, I only partially mean that. I mean, I’m the guy who has a BMW Z3 that sits under a cover in his driveway year-round in suburban Boston. Because the other way to look at it is that life is complicated, most of us have finite financial resources, and letting a car sit outside under a cover is one of a hundred little balancing acts we do regarding passions and money.

The subject of putting cars outside and covering them got shoved to the forefront a few weeks ago when I elected to bring home the four cars that were in the garages I rented in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, instead of taking them directly to the new warehouse I’d lined up. I didn’t think they’d be here long enough for me to stress out about a little rain. However, the cars’ arrival at the house was roughly coincident with a week of rainy weather. I moved the most rust-prone one—the 1972 BMW Bavaria—into the garage, but that meant kicking the ’74 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special out onto the asphalt.

Although the Lotus’ fiberglass body isn’t going to rust, the car does have Lucas electricals, and a big part of the revisionist “maybe they really weren’t as bad as we thought” history of British cars is that they behave very differently when they’re kept dry and only used on sunny Sundays than they did when they were frequently wet daily drivers. Recalling all the electrical trouble I had with my Triumph GT6, I had a visceral reaction to watching the Lotus get rained on. It actually got hailed on once. I threw a generic cover over it, but it blew off in less than an hour. And that, in turn, sent me down the rabbit hole of car covers.

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Four hastily covered cars in the driveway. Rob Siegel

So, here’s the deal. You can read online about car covers, marvel at how they can cost $30 or $600 or anywhere in between, learn about the distinction between breathable and waterproof, and try to appreciate what the number of layers buys you (I thought it maxed out at six, but then I saw ads for 18-layer and 30-layer covers), but the single most important takeaway message is this: If the car is going to sit outside, and the goal of buying a cover is to keep the rain off it without damaging the car, what you probably want is a custom-fitted cover, and that’s likely to run you over 300 bucks. If it costs much less, it’s not a custom-fitted cover, and it’s unlikely to stay on the car in windy weather without straps holding it down. The fact that less-expensive covers tout grommets for bungie cords or integrated straps (or both) is essentially an admission that they don’t fit a car snugly enough to stay on without them.

Now, I’m not an expert. Far from it. Prior to this month, I only ever bought one cover. It’s the one in the cover photograph (bad pun) above, taken by my former Roundel Magazine editor Yale Rachlin over 30 years ago. I’d just had my 1973 BMW 3.0CSi repainted, was putting it away for the winter in our corrugated-metal, one-car garage, and figured I should cover it to keep the flaking paint and rust off the car. It was an inexpensive single-layer cover. That’s all it needed to be. I still have it.

However, over the years I’ve wound up with a surprising number of covers. Some have been in the trunks of cars I’ve bought. Others have been given to me by friends who have sold cars and found the cover months later lurking under a table in the garage, or by neighbors who are moving. I’ve also bought a number of cars that had been sitting outside under covers, some of them trussed up like Christmas turkeys with ropes and ratchet straps and bungies in an attempt to keep the cover on the car, and I’ve seen firsthand the damage the cover, the straps, or both, can do to paint. So I’m highly suspect regarding covers as real long-term outdoor protection.

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A BMW 2002tii sat under this cover for most of a decade. Underneath it … Rob Siegel
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… was damaged paint. Rob Siegel

During the initial years I had cars in the rented storage spaces in Fitchburg, they weren’t always covered. But then the roof in two of the spaces began leaking. In the short term, I covered all the cars as well as suspended a tarp above the ones in the leaky spaces to sheet the drips away. The landlord repaired the roof, but after it was done, there was a surprising amount of detritus that the roof repair shook loose. But still, the cars were indoors, without wind or rain, so inexpensive thin covers were fine.

The event that really baptized me, cover-wise, was buying back my old BMW Z3. As I’ve written, any soft-top convertible will eventually leak if left out in the rain, so if you value the car, it really needs to be garaged. When I ran out of garage space a number of years ago and had nowhere to put the Z3, I sold it to my friend and neighbor, who promised to garage it, and for a while she did. Then her son crashed the car, putting it up on a median strip, which bent the lower control arms and the wheels. To keep it from getting parted out, I bought it back. While I was fixing it, it stayed in my garage, but the following spring, I realized that I was right back to where I’d been when I sold it—that is, I had nowhere but the driveway to put the car. I first tried protecting it using one of the generic waterproof covers I had, but in anything other than dead-calm air, the cover would be off the car and at the end of the driveway in the morning.

My decision to keep the Z3 but leave it outside, even over the winter, was not easy. After all, I’d previously decided to sell the car rather than kill it with outdoor storage. Part of my new logic was that the car is a little on the ratty side and isn’t really worth much, so if I do affect its condition (more like “when I affect its condition”), I’m not committing a major automotive crime.

Fortunately, when I began searching for a cover for the Z3, I had a good role model—the cover from my BMW M Coupe (“the clownshoe”). When I bought the car 14 years ago, the previous owner had kept it outside, so it came with a proper CoverCraft fitted cover. I don’t rely on it much for outdoor protection as the car is usually garaged, but this was the cover that made me understand what a custom-fitted cover actually is. It’s one that’s designed specifically for every curve on your make and model. It’s snug. You can instantly tell what car is under it. In fact, it’s so snug that if you add a roof rack or a rear wing, it probably won’t fit anymore. In contrast, what’s sometimes called a “semi-custom” cover is sized for the dimensions of the vehicle (e.g., length, width, and height) but not the specific bends and curves of the body panels. The least-expensive covers are universal fit, sized only for a class of vehicle (e.g., sedan, SUV, or truck) and length.

So when I read rave reviews of CoverCraft’s fitted Z3 cover on Z3 forums, I understood. I searched locally and was fortunate to find a used one for a hundred bucks. Like the M Coupe cover, it fits perfectly. I’ve never needed to secure it with ropes, straps, or bungies. It’s never blown off the car, even in high winds. And it works great. No, it’s not as good as indoor storage, but as long as the cover sees sun, both it and the interior of the Z3 have stayed dry and mildew-free.

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The Z3 sitting outside under its CoverCraft cover in fair weather … Rob Siegel
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… and in foul. Rob Siegel

Although I didn’t want to pay the $300+ prices for a new custom cover for the Lotus, I’ve been so impressed with the two CoverCraft covers that I felt honor-bound to see what they had to offer. Unfortunately, they don’t appear to sell a cover for the Europa.

Amazon was no help. Nearly all the covers they sell are universal fit. I looked on eBay and found that Kono Covers, CarCoverTech, and TheCoverFactory all advertise a five-layer breathable indoor outdoor cover for the Europa for $45–$80. Now, I wouldn’t fool myself for a moment into thinking a $45 cover is the same as a $300+ custom cover, and the ads candidly admit the difference, but I didn’t expect the Lotus to live outside. So maybe this would be enough for occasional sojourns into weather. All three companies had stellar eBay feedback, and the model number for the Kono cover appeared to be used only for the Europa (that is, it didn’t appear to be one cover being sold for a bunch of small, low cars). I almost bought the Kono cover, but what stopped me was that, regardless of the company’s somewhat hyperbolic pumping of their eBay reputation (“#1 seller with over 300,000 sold since 2017,” and “We have many repeat Porsche customers via word of mouth in the Porsche Club of America”), I couldn’t find much on “Kono Covers” in a general web search. Also, their $45 cover wasn’t fleece-lined.

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Would a custom-fitted cover be required for the little slip of a thing that is the Lotus Europa, or would semi-custom be good enough? Rob Siegel

Then I found carcover.com (which is not to be confused with “carcovers.com”—that’s a different company). Their website was informative, with a section on the difference between full-custom and semi-custom covers. They were having a 50 percent off spring sale (of course, they’re probably always having a sale). But they did offer four covers for the Europa, including a “gold” five-layer waterproof fleece-lined cover. Reportedly regularly priced at $300, it was now $150, plus there was an additional 15 percent coupon code, dropping it to $127, shipped free. Web reviews of the company were plentiful and good, and their website said, “The car cover is guaranteed to fit perfectly or your money back.”

So I clicked and bought.

The cover arrived a few days later. When I unwrapped it, the first thing that I noticed was that the fabric was quite a bit stiffer than that of the CoverCraft, and the fleece lining wasn’t as soft. I shrugged. You get what you pay for, right?

But it was when I laid it on the Lotus that I was immediately disappointed. Although the cover seemed about the right length, with elastics that tucked it nicely under the nose and tail, the amount of fabric on the top and sides was laughable. It dragged on the driveway on both sides of the car.

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Man, that’s a lot of fabric. Rob Siegel

And when the wind picked up, it inflated the cover like a balloon.

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A-yo ho ho, a sailing we will go. Rob Siegel

That evening, a storm blew in. I was concerned enough about the cover blowing off that I used its integrated straps and buckle clips to secure it from underneath, something I didn’t want to do, as the Lotus’ paint is very fragile, and as I said, I’ve seen damage before from straps rubbing against paint.

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These integrated snap-lock strap clips at first seem cool. Unfortunately, when you throw the cover over the car, they hit the paint, and what’s left of the paint on the Lotus is pretty fragile. Rob Siegel

Now, as I keep saying, I wasn’t under the illusion that I was buying a custom-fitted cover for a fraction of the market price, but the yards of billowy fabric made this one so far off the mark from the website’s own guarantee “to fit perfectly” that I contacted carcover.com and asked if they’d sent me the wrong cover. (In truth, I said that I planned to write this article, had not asked them for a free cover, wasn’t asking for one now, but if they’d made a mistake, this was their chance to rectify it.) They asked me to photograph the cover on the car and its tag (it read UHD-C170). They quickly responded saying they’d send me another cover, although they weren’t specific about whether they’d made a mistake or this was a dimensional iteration based on my feedback.

The replacement cover, tagged UHD-C160, does fit noticeably better. Most of the billowy fabric on the top is gone.

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Carcover.com’s second attempt. Not bad. You can almost tell there’s a Lotus Europa underneath. Rob Siegel

So, is it worth $127? Other than the design of those integrated plastic clips, it sure seems so. I don’t plan to leave the Lotus outside semi-permanently like the Z3 (and, in fact, the acute cover emergency has passed, as I moved four cars to their new storage warehouse home—so the Lotus is back in the garage). But when circumstances kick the Lotus to the curb again for a few days, I’ll feel much better about it. I’ll just need to be careful about those integrated plastic buckle clips smacking the paint whenever I roll the cover on and off.

I still advise people that, if they have a fragile rust-prone car that is their pride and joy, it really should be garaged, not sitting outside under a cover, even an expensive custom-fitted one. But hey, I get it. There are lots of reasons a treasured car gets left outside. People downsize. Houses with garages get sold. It’s difficult to justify the cost for indoor storage in or near a city. “Just for now” turns into something semi-permanent. The question of whether or not it’s visibly damaging the car becomes secondary because you don’t want to face the repercussion that maybe circumstances are such that you need to consider selling your baby.

So, no, you’re not a monster. I’m not really going to report you to the SFTPOCTVSC. But if you see my precious red 1973 BMW 3.0CSi sitting outside under a cover for more than a day, really, stage an intervention. Something’s seriously wrong.

***

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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