In my 35-odd year career as an automotive journalist, I reckon I’ve driven – conservatively – at least 2500 different automobiles. Of all kinds; from honkin’ huge off-roaders, to diminutive econboxes, to high-end supercars, to gas-sipping hybrids, to opulent luxury-mobiles. In conditions ranging from hair-raising high-speed race tracks like Laguna Seca and Elkhart Lake to pant-soiling off-road situations, like Slick Rocks in Utah.
Some I loved, others I hated. It’s all in here.
I’ve also, over the years, owned several dozen cars of my own….Again, some I really liked and wish I’d kept, others, not so much.
But the one that I’ve managed to hold onto for the past 25 years remains my favourite: a 1976 BMW 2002 that I picked up in 1992. Since then, I’ve driven it – oh – at least 300,000 kilometres and it remains the most reliable automobile I’ve ever owned. During my ownership it’s broken down once: a fan belt shredded itself on the freeway and the car over-heated. Fortunately, I had a spare in the trunk and fixed it roadside, in about 10 minutes. So, technically, it’s never left me stranded….not once in 25 years of ownership.
It began inauspiciously enough. I was out minding my own business, riding my bicycle (!) and there it was, sitting disconsolately in someone’s driveway. I had a quick look, made a mental note and continued on my way. But I kept thinking about it….I’d owned an Inka orange 2002 back in the 1970s and it was definitely one of those that I wish I’d kept.
So back I went, knocked on the door and asked if the car was for sale.
Turns out, it was. The owner, a commercial pilot, had bought it new and planned on restoring it with his son. But sonny-Jim had zero interest in things automotive and it was slowly sliding into rusty oblivion.
We dickered and I picked it up for $400. Definitely a pig in a poke since it hadn’t run in about five years and I literally didn’t know what I was getting into.
After a few weeks of cleaning things up – including a nasty little wasp’s nest in the air cleaner – I managed to get it running, and lo and behold, it was good. I had to ashcan the ridiculously uncooperative Solex carburetor and freshen up the electrics, but it had good compression and everything worked.
But, as they say, sometimes getting a car on the cheap is more expensive than buying one for full price that’s already been done. Once I got things sorted out, I had to repair/replace just about everything in the car, excluding the body, which was weathered but solid. Here’s a quick list of things I’ve done over the years:
- Weber 32/36 downdraft carb. That was probably the first thing….just to get the damn thing running. Bought it – rebuilt – off eBay for $175. Also fitted a new fuel pump….about $100. Lots of guys go to electric fuel pumps here, but I’ve stayed with the stock mechanical set-up. Why? Participate in any long-distance rally and you’ll quickly discover that one of the most common sources of breakdowns is the fuel pump….most electric units fail under the strain.
- Pertronix electronic ignition. Again, eBay…. for $85. This changed everything. No more straying ignition points and the engine runs steady, strong, and predictably.
- New radiator. About $200.
- New water pump….about $100 from Repco.
- New hoses. The ’02 has weird plumbing and these had to be ordered directly from the plant in Munich. Fortunately, BMW has kept in touch with its roots and parts for the 2002 are readily available…if pricey.
- New cylinder head. The original cracked between one of the coolant passages and oil channels. This didn’t stop the car from running, but it had to be dealt with. Luckily, I’d picked up a spare engine/gearbox along the way, and the new head just bolted on. For those who care about these things, the “new” head is from an earlier model – a 1972 – and is of the E12 variety, as opposed to the stock E21.
- New clutch. About $800….installed, including slave cylinder.
- New exhaust system. Front to back. Ordered directly from BMW, it arrived with a faulty weld inside the muffler - unfixable, short of replacing the entire thing - which of course I didn't discover until it was put in place. That means I've had to live with a rattling exhaust ever since and probably will for the life of the car. Really annoying.
- New gearbox. The original input shaft bearing was funky and since I had a spare, I replaced the entire transmission when the clutch was re-done. Incidentally, I’d owned the car for about 15 years up to this point. I’d like to have put in a five-speed, but I simply didn’t have one and the four-speed has worked out well enough. Second gear synchro is a bit fussy when the car’s cold, but I can live with it. Also replaced the engine and transmission mounts and guibo bearing while I was at it.
- New Bilstein shocks front and back. About $300, but worth every penny. If you’ve ever checked out the innards of Bilsteins compared with others, you can see why they are so popular with enthusiasts. The internal piston rod is at least three times as thick as those found in other makers, such as KYB or Sachs. Installing the Bilsteins (Sport) gave the car a new lease on life and it’s more stable than ever…..if a little rougher riding. I also fitted new rear springs, to bring the back end down a little.
- New brakes, front and back. Picked up some used rear drums for $40, and rebuilt front calipers (again, Repco). New front hoses as well.
- Tires. Over the years, I’ve tried everything from Michelin to Bridgestone to Hankook, with 14-inch and 13-inch wheels. Currently, I’ve just fitted some Pirelli Cinturatos onto 13-inch BMW “Turbine” alloy wheels ($400, Craig’s List) to keep the traditional look without sacrificing handling. I don’t baby this car and expect it to keep its end up when the spirit moves. So far, so good with the Pirellis.
- New interior. The inside of the car was pretty ratty by the time I got to it and needed a complete re-do. Imagine my delight when a local 2002 buff was selling the exact same colour seats in almost pristine condition. What a score that was…$125 for everything. Fortunately, the headliner was/is in perfect shape.
- New windshield sealer. This involves taking out the old windshield, cleaning out the crud, painting the channel and re-installing the rubber seal. I really had a hard time finding a glass guy that could manage this and ended up doing it myself…with string. Not a perfect job, but it doesn’t leak anymore and you have to look hard to see the imperfections. This vintage of ’02 is prone to leaky windshields, and if you don’t deal with it, the car will eventually rust away from the inside.
- Paint. This has been the single biggest expense I’ve had to deal with. Unfortunately, any schmuck with a spray gun thinks he’s Picasso and the cost of a decent paint job has gone through the roof. Not helping things was when the paint lifted off the doors after I slapped on a rally sticker a couple of years ago. Pulled the sticker off and the paint came with it. That’ll be $2500, thank you very much. I’m still not 100% happy with the paint, but it is what it is.
The car is far from perfect. I’ve always kept an eye on my budget, and over the years, I’ve had to be on the alert for rust. I maintain the car religiously. But it’s solid and doesn’t look half-bad if you don’t examine it too closely. More importantly, there are many areas that I haven’t re-done simply because they don’t need it. All the suspensions bushings are original, for example, and in amazingly good condition. Ditto with rear diff and half-shafts, and bottom end of the engine…it still runs strong, idles smooth, and uses no oil whatsoever….doesn’t even leak it. In everyday use, when I drive the car, I rarely take it past 4000 rpm….there is no point, even though the tach goes up to 6500. Its happy place seems to be from about 3000 to 3500 rpm, and, in fourth gear, at 3500 rpm, it’s doing around 75 mph. That said, I’ve had the car up to and over 100 mph countless times, and, occasionally, will run it for awhile at 4500 rpm – around 90 mph – if the red mist has descended, but that doesn’t happen very often.
I think the reason I’ve held onto this car for so long is because of its dual nature. It’s a competent city car, comfortable schlepping to the mall and around town, but it can get down and dirty if the situation calls for it. During a local rally/touring event that I participate in, I once caught up to a guy in a Jag E-type on a back road. I chased his ass for about 30 miles….right on his bumper, and, although I didn’t have the power to overtake, the ’02 matched the Jag in braking, cornering, and out of the apex acceleration every step of the way. Maybe it was just because he was a weak driver, but for a car that was built primarily as a people-hauler, it acquits itself admirably.
Comfy too. Those Craig’s List seats I bolted in are among the most accommodating I’ve ever parked my backside in….easily on par with today’s breed of luxury sedan. Having said that, the gas pedal is a little on the stiff side and the steering is heavy, and after a full day of driving, I’ve definitely got a sore right leg, but, hey, the car is 40 years old.
And one more thing. The car returns around 30 mpg on the highway and will run happily on Regular.
I do put Premium in, though….just because.