Higher Ground: Great Lakes to the Great Smokies In BMW 2002s
Story and photography by Erick Orlando
With the sun quickly setting, a trio of BMW 2002’s rush along a remote section of the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Nantahala National Forest. A yellow ’73 gasps for fuel as its engine starts to sputter…out of gas. The 2002s coast many miles down the rest of the mountain – escorting their wounded companion to a rolling stop just yards away from a neglected Shell station. The feeling of relief is electric, but what we thought would be a quick fuel stop turned into hours of nursing a profuse gas leak. One of the many moments that makes you question your decision to drive 1800 miles from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Asheville, North Carolina and back in BMW’s iconic classic.
Since 2004, “The Vintage” BMW event has taken place just outside of Asheville, in Hot Springs, North Carolina. The annual attraction now brings hundreds of BMW enthusiasts from all over the country – not only to put classic examples of German engineering on display but to enjoy some of the best mountain driving in the States.
Our crew of BMW 2002s is varied – but each car celebrates the spirit that BMW originally envisioned when the early models were introduced in the late ’60s. Mitch Pollee’s yellow 1973 – a mild track build with a half cage, twin Webers, and semi-slicks is a perfect combination for mountain twists. Will Riethman’s red 1976 – a clean example of a work in progress, with just enough essential equipment reassembled in time to make the trip, and Sam Riethman’s fully restored Turkis 1975 – a car destined for the junkyard, saved by eight years of experimenting in the brother’s first garage restoration.
Trip prep starts with a few weekends of wrenching during the late winter months, Sub-zero Michigan weather, ten-hour days in the barn, and at least 20 trips to Autozone. Spring quickly approaches, and the realization sets in that you’re never actually “ready” to drive across the country in a 50-year-old BMW. Still, the adrenaline rush of cruising through the tunnels and hairpin turns scattered across the Blue Ridge Parkway relieves any unease.
The first 700 miles through the fields of Ohio and Kentucky were uneventful, and we made it to Asheville on day two with the entire afternoon left to explore. We set out to find the Tail of the Dragon, which is considered by many to be one of the most thrilling roads in the world. Consumed by 318 curves in eleven miles of road, the Dragon is bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cherokee National Forest with no intersecting roads or driveways. Paper maps and basic orienteering skills are still a necessity in these parts of the mountains, pair that with no cell signal and minimal turnaround clearance, and you could be in for a night under the stars. Shamefully we had no luck finding the Dragon, so we headed back to explore some local breweries and mingle with other gearheads.
Day two in the mountains brought a steady drizzle of rain and thick, cold fog, making for slick turns and limited visibility. For breakfast, we ate a speeding ticket served à la carte by the U.S. National Park Ranger, and for dinner, we survived on gas station snacks as we evaluated a leak from a gravity-fed fuel breather line. After attempting to collect the leaking gas with empty water bottles, we had no other choice but to repurpose the coolant breather hose to stop the flow. This allowed us to limp the car back to our hotel until the parts stores reopened in the morning.
Show day is a spectacular event – filled with everything from tiny Isettas to full-blown CSL race car builds. While much of the morning is spent admiring the spectrum of BMW’s classic models, the North Carolina heat had us antsy to get back on the road and explore a few local passes before the journey home.
An incredible weekend concluded with an all-nighter back to Kalamazoo. A partially cloudy sunset on the drive home set the sky on fire with warm tones and shades of pink, so we took advantage of the twilight and grabbed a few rolling shots that turned into some of our favorites from the trip. After spending 30+ hours driving over the past few days, our backs were sore, and our heads were ringing, but the buzz of such a wild adventure has yet to wear off. The Vintage to us is more than just a car show; it’s a weekend of endless twisty roads, and friends that turn into family. There is more to a journey than the final destination, and we can’t wait to see where our 2002’s take us next.