How Can A Normal Person Own A Fleet Of Vintage BMWs?
Photography courtesy of Rob Siegel and Brian Ach
I said in an earlier column at Petrolicious that after reading Rob Siegel’s book, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, that I found the “hack” title the author hoisted upon himself with his often oil and grease-stained hands to be a bit of a misnomer. Siegel may be familiar to BMW enthusiasts from his authorship of his longtime column The Hack Mechanic in the BMW Car Club of America’s magazine, Roundel. Regardless of the the medium—be it online or the dead trees version—the former geophysical engineer often dishes up humorous stories about buying, selling, and keeping his fleet of Bavarian beauties in operational order.
That takes quite some doing when you have an eleven car collection literally shoehorned on your property, and if you’re wondering how he accomplished that, that’s yet another story that’s in his book. They currently comprise of a 1972 BMW 2002tii, 1973 2002tii, 1974 2002tii, 1972 BMW Bavaria, 1973 BMW 3.0CSi, 1979 BMW Euro 635CSi, 1987 BMW 325is, 1999 BMW Z3 roadster, 1999 BMW Z3 M Coupe, 2003 BMW 530i, and just to keep things extra interesting, a 1974 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special that all need regular attention, and of requisite amounts of time, money, and patience.
Through it all though, Siegel offers up on-point advice about fixing things, while often weaving in anecdotes about his family that enable his prose to deliver an uncommon level of insight, and ensures it delves far deeper than might have ordinarily been possible. Along the way, he comes off more along the lines of a modern day MacGyver…
Benjamin Shahrabani: How did your passion for cars begin? That seems like the most natural place to start.
Rob Siegel: I was just wired that way. I remember when I was five years old, seeing a split-window Corvette parked on the street (these, and E-Types, were the moving poetry that filtered down to white bread Long Island), and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. In the late 1960s, we moved to Amherst, MA. A few years later, a Hampshire College student who was living with us had a new BMW 2002. It was the car on which I imprinted, and I’ve been doomed to follow it around ever since.
BS: And so began a lifelong passion currently numbering at eleven, not counting the Suburban and your wife’s Honda Fit. Speaking of your wife, how did you find such an understanding one?
RS: I ask myself that all the time. When people ask her why she “lets” me buy all these cars, most of the time she’ll shrug and say “it seems to make him happy.” But that makes it sound so passive, and it’s not. We give each other the space to pursue our passions. And that’s really what it’s all about. Many men go off the deep end with cars, spending too much time and money. There are limits. But as I write about in my book, provided men don’t go overboard, the car thing can actually be incredibly useful in a relationship. Don’t chase women. Chase cars. Everyone will be a lot happier.
BS: Amen to that. How did you get your start in automotive journalism?
RS: Like other BMW CCA members, I wrote and sent in unsolicited articles to Roundel Magazine. I’d edit them for weeks, burnishing the verbs and whatnot, and send them in only when I was good and ready. One day in 1985, the phone rang. It was Yale Rachlin, who’d just become Roundel editor.
“How’d you like to write for me every month?” he asked. The first month was easy. The second month, harder. The third month, I panicked. I called him up.
“Boss,” I said, “I got nothing.” “You do fix cars, don’t you?” he asked. “Uh, yeah.” “Did you fix anything this month?” “Uh, yeah.” “Well, write about that.” This was the start of my Hack Mechanic column. Initially I thought I was shortchanging readers. I thought that people wanted to read, “use 10mm wrench to put bolt B in slot X” sort of stuff. It took me years to understand the power of story and shared human experience. Roundel’s current editor Satch Carlson is the one who explained it to me. “People don’t read you to learn how to fix things—they read you for the story of getting into (and hopefully out of) BMW-related trouble.”
BS: For the uninitiated, what might be the best way for an amateur would-be mechanic to become more skillful? How did you get your start, and what was the first repair you made?
RS: Buy something you love that you can afford. It will break. Fix it. Repeat as necessary. And it will be necessary. Like many folks who came of automotive age in the early ’70s, I owned something British. A Triumph GT6+. I still think they’re gorgeous cars. They look like little E-Types.
I was a bicycle guy before I was a car guy, so I was familiar with fixing mechanical systems. The first repair on the GT6+ was when it started pissing coolant everywhere. I looked at it. Well, there’s a belt that goes around a pulley, and this thing has hoses connected to it, so it must be a water pump. Gee, looks like it’s held on here and here. Take it off, buy another one, put it on. It was the blueprint for everything that came after. And there was a lot that came after.
As I say in the book, it set up a rhythm. It broke, I fixed it. It broke, I fixed it. Regular as time and tide. Finally, it broke once too often. I sold it. But I do owe the car a debt of gratitude. Without it, my fingernails would be cleaner, and my life would be much less interesting.
BS: What projects are you currently working on?
RS: I just bought a ’74 BMW 2002tii that I’m using as a daily driver until the snow falls. It has a vintage Alpine/ADS sound system I’m trying to resurrect that must’ve been the shiznit back in 1982. But all the horsehair padding had fallen off the underside of the 2002’s back seat, literally burying the power amplifiers in horsehair. I vacuumed it all up, but when I turned on the amps, a few minutes later the burning stench from the powdered horsehair that had found its way inside the amps made me think that some Lucas electrical system somewhere was having an out-of-body experience in my tii. I’m also working on another tii, owned by a friend of mine, that’s the second one I’ve seen in the past few months with systemic rust contamination of the fuel system (more on this below). Tiis are kind of my thing.
BS: Hold up a second. In your book you said you wouldn’t do any repair jobs for non-family members again (after the Volkswagen Passat incident), so have you gone back on your word?
RS: Only utterly and completely. While driving to the BMW event “The Vintage” in Winston-Salem last Memorial Day, I happened upon a guy with a ’73 2002tii that had running issues. Poor guy was 300 miles from home (NYC) and the car was stumbling like it was intermittently running on three cylinders. And his wife was with him. She was the most reasonable helpful level-headed spouse a car guy could hope to have, but still, I’m sure it was stressful for the both of them. I spent all afternoon in
a hot parking lot trying to help him, and couldn’t. Finally, with about seven hours of driving still ahead of me, I had to leave. I didn’t abandon them by the side of the road; they were troubleshooting the car in the parking lot of a Comfort Inn. He arranged to have the car towed back to NYC, but asked me to think how I would trouble-shoot the car if I had it at home. All possible because I owned the same car.
I became obsessed with the fact that I was probably the only person who would ever make this guy this offer, and told him that if he got the car to me in Newton, I’d fix it for him for free (for the cost of parts only). So this guy who only knew me for one afternoon in a hot parking lot had his prized tii towed to my house. It turned out the fuel system had rust contamination issues – rust in the fuel tank, fuel pump, fuel lines, and injectors. And, in addition to that, one injector had a broken spring.
But these issues made themselves known one at a time. Every time I thought, “this must be the problem” and fixed it, the car still ran like crap. The broken injector, though, was the “eureka” moment. It was all way more work than I expected, but the joy I got out of it was something on another plane, and the response from the owner (Brian Ach) was incredibly satisfying. Brian and I are now good friends.
BS: What do you do for work when you’re not wrenching on cars, or writing about them?
RS: For 30 years I worked in technology development for unexploded ordnance detection (long story), but these days, my day job is at Bentley Publishers, the people who write the repair manuals for German cars, and not coincidentally, the publishers of my first book. I’m writing another book for them. I’m also helping them with their repair manuals. So right now, there’s not much I do that isn’t related to wrenching on cars, or writing about it, or both. I am, however, also a singer/songwriter, so I’m out and about in coffeehouses. In addition, my wife is a drummer, and we’ve been in and out of bands together for over 30 years. These days it’s mostly an excuse to get together with old bandmates, drink too much beer, and play too loud in the basement. But good god, what fun.
BS: I’m sure you still aspire to own yet another vintage car – what is your dream find if the car gods reward you for your kindness to others?
RS: High-dollar Italian exotics don’t really do much for me. I’ve gotten very good at wearing blinders and not lusting after things I’ll never be able to have. Like any living breathing car guy, a Series 1 E-Type does it for me pretty good, but price-wise, those have, sadly, rotated out of an orbit in which I could snare one. Two summers ago, at a car show, I saw my first Lotus Elite. The purity, the simplicity, the shapes on the dashboard and the door panels… what a beautiful car. I’ll also admit to rubbernecking TVR 2500s.
I’d also love to get myself into another Porsche 911. I’m still kicking myself for selling my ’82 911SC. I bought it for ten grand about 14 years ago, and drove it for ten years. Very little went wrong it. It was the bullet-proof 911 that an SC is supposed to be. But when I lost a bunch of storage space and thought I was going to get laid off, I sold three cars, including the SC. And then, almost immediately, SCs began their rise. I couldn’t buy that car back for twice what I sold it for. But what are you going to do? Woulda, shoulda, coulda. All we can do is make the decisions that make sense at the time.
BS: If only we all had DeLorean time machines. Tell me about how the hobby has changed between when you started and now?
RS: I love many cars, but I keep coming back to BMW 2002s. They used to be cheap practical daily drivers. Now, of course, round tail light 2002s, particularly tiis, are zinging up pretty substantially in value. And that brings in a whole different demographic of owner. I realize that caterwauling about the good old days when cars were cheap gets old, but… damn, when I’m selling a 2002tii and get five calls in a row from guys who have probably never sat in a 2002 in their life and who want to know if the car is “investment quality” and, if not, what it would take to get one that is, it turns me off.
Anyone can spend big money buying a pretty shiny car, or restoring one. There’s no challenge in that, and it’s not interesting to me. Now, the person who has always wanted a 2002 (or any car), and buys one he can afford, and loves it to death and keeps it going on a shoestring budget…that’s interesting to me. That’s a person who deserves my help.
If I’m about any one thing, car-wise, it’s about trying to be the guy with the shit-eating grin on his face driving the car he’s always wanted. If that means buying an imperfect car, geez Louise it’s better than craving the perfect car and not getting it, or anything, because you can’t afford the level of perfection that you crave. I try to proselytize for this, to actively convince people to buy flawed cars within their budget rather than walk all the way up that ladder and buy nothing.
I think that, in many ways, the car shows on cable have done people a disservice by raising their expectations to impossible levels. The cars they show are the supermodels of the automotive world. For most people, real life isn’t like that. I know that, as values rise, it leaves people behind, and that can’t be helped. There is no public service program to shore up the income levels of automotive enthusiasts, nor should there be. But it really drives me crazy when nearly all of the chatter on the forums is about “correct” this and “underwater” that. Every buyer has a budget, every car has a value, someone selling a flawed imperfect car isn’t necessarily a charlatan, and someone buying one isn’t necessarily an idiot.
I know that’s a roundabout answer to the question of how it’s changed. To put it more directly, things lose a lot of their appeal to me when it becomes all about the money. I had an argument over the winter with a friend—a shop owner—who said that Porsche people show their passion when they fund open-checkbook restorations, but that BMW people don’t show that kind of passion. I took a lot of umbrage with that. In my mind, the person maintaining a car himself on a shoestring budget, doing as much of the work himself as possible, is certainly showing his passion.
So that’s what’s changed. 20 or 30 years ago, people didn’t so easily equat passion with the sucking sound made by the checkbook.
BS: What’s the largest length you’ve gone to, to get your hands on a particular car?
RS: Probably the ’79 Euro 635CSi. I’m a very cost-conscious guy. I fish at the muddy end of the pond, so to speak. So I don’t usually pay too much attention to color. I can’t. Beggars can’t be choosers. But I saw an early E12-based Euro 635CSi, Polaris with black stripes on the body and on the air dam, with the short Euro bumpers and no side marker lights, and a black sport interior, at Sharkfest a few years ago, and thought, damn, that’s the color combination I want.
Then I found one in Berlin CT, only a few hours from me, so I went and looked at it in the flesh. It had had its Euro motor and dogleg trani removed, and had 220k and no a/c, and the guy wanted too much money, so I walked away. But I kept coming back to the look. I negotiated with the guy for three months. He’d put on an expensive set of refinished BBS RA wheels, an Optima battery, an M steering wheel, a few other bits, that were worth more to him than to me. We both walked away from the negotiation there times. Finally we sniffed some common ground and I got him to agree to split the wheels and the other parts off. I literally bought the car without wheels, a battery, and a steering wheel, and drove down there with all those bits and had to install them before loading the car on the trailer.
I’m big on being able to see cars with my own eyes and make a decision on the spot, so anything I want that’s within striking distance of a tow home has a lot more allure to me than something on eBay or BaT on the other side of the country. Four hours, 200-ish miles, is a good practical driving distance. Half a day to get up there, a few hours to look at the car and, if you buy it, load it up, half a day to get home.
BS: Have you instilled the car passion in your children to any degree?
RS: Not really, no. My youngest boy is one of those kids you read about who just isn’t that interested in cars or driving. He doesn’t even drive a stick, fer chrissake. My oldest boy is the kind of kid who doesn’t maintain things and uses them up. Any car I loaned him would come back missing entire
body panels. My middle boy comes closest. He has an early ’90s Toyota Tacoma pickup, and does call me from time to time when it needs mechanical attention. But there was never any greasy mechanical father-son bonding in the garage. I left the door open, emotionally and physically, but they had their own passions, which was great.
BS: Wow, that’s surprising. If my father had eleven cars growing up I don’t think I could have avoided being influenced into becoming a car enthusiast. It’s been a couple of years since your first book was published, do you have any new nuggets of information you can share with Petrolicious readers?
RS: The Hack Mechanic philosophy can be summarized thusly: life is short and cars are cool. The advice you often read to spend as much as possible to buy the nicest car in the best possible condition is well-meaning, but often misplaced. People overthink it. “But if the car needs this rust repair, and that paint, I’ll be underwater.” I hate that word.
People spend way too much money and time chasing perfection in cars. For some people that’s fine, but… wouldn’t you rather be the person with the shit-eating grin on his face driving the imperfect car than never buying one because you couldn’t afford a perfect one? Damn, I would.
Don’t cheat on your wife and you may actually be able to get away with this foolishness. Do, and game over. To say that it helps to marry the right person is the biggest understatement since…well, it’s a big understatement.
The biggest epiphany for me is that, if you work on cars, it is so much more relaxing to have a clean separation between your daily driver(s) and your project car(s). Monday morning comes like thunder. It’s one thing to squeeze a brake job in over the weekend, but it’s easy for a car to stray from DD to project without you realizing it.
BS: What’s your next book called, can you share that?
RS: My forthcoming new book for Bentley Publishers, The Hack Mechanic Guide to European Automotive Electrical Systems. It teaches everything you need to know about working on the wires on your car, from using a multimeter to check battery voltage, to the signals used by modern sensors.
BS: Thank you for your time, Rob.
In addition to Siegel’s monthly and online column at Roundel (https://www.bmwcca.org/roundel_mag), you can find more of his musings at his personal blog, thehackmechanic.blogspot.com. Both Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic and or Rob’s new book, The Hack Mechanic Guide to European Automotive Electrical Systems can be ordered from Bentley Publishers at 30% off the retail price. The promo code is PETROELECTRIC
This interview has been edited and condensed.