The last straw—and I mean, there were several “last straws” in my mind but this was the very last, final straw—was when a Port Authority cop kicked my car out of a tunnel.
The old BMW sedan was limping home, as it had been for several weeks, lurching forward and slowing to a crawl like a runner out of breath. I stood on the gas pedal, made my shifts as smooth and seamless as possible. No dice. No power.
I had just paid about $500 to a shop in Queens to fix this problem, and in the end drove away with a new fuel filter and no guarantee from said shop that said repair would, indeed, fix said problem. From there I drove into Manhattan and approached the Battery Tunnel to go home to Brooklyn.
When the cop flagged me down, I immediately knew I should have taken the BQE.
“That car struggling?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I said, realizing what was about to happen. “But she’ll make it. She’s got this. Trust me.”
He pointed to the West Side Highway, right in front of One World Trade Center. “Nope. Get out.”
“What do you want me to do? Take the bridge?” I asked him. “How’s that any better?”
“Not my problem,” he said, and I limped away to park on the street and wait for a tow truck. It’d only be a mere three hours until it arrived, after all.
I couldn’t be mad at the cop. I got it. I probably would’ve made the same call in his shoes. Tens of thousands of cars use that tunnel every day and one stalled vehicle inside is enough to ruin a lot of people’s commutes.
No, I was mad at the car, at the city, at myself and my continued hubris, thinking I could ever make this work.
A few months ago I bought a manual-gearbox 1984 BMW 733i, a half-project, half-daily driver (we’ll get to that one) for use in New York. I figured it wouldn’t be that bad. I owned another old BMW, an E30, when I lived in Texas. I largely didn’t have many problems with it, and when I did I fixed nearly all of them myself, in my garage. They’re robust cars that run forever when they’re maintained right. I figured I knew what I was doing, that I could handle it.
And I reasoned I could make the same thing work in New York, wrenching in a Downtown Brooklyn parking garage when I needed to, living the enthusiast life, taking it to Cars and Coffee meets, spending weekends working on a cool old car and getting it in great shape to enjoy the upcoming spring and maybe a Radwood show or two.
It was all very romantic, in my mind.
That is not what happened. After too many shit-the-bed breakdowns, expensive repairs and a growing sense of frustration that the car would never function as a car, I gave up a few weeks ago and sold it to a very excited young man from upstate New York. A guy, I’ll add, who has his own garage.
This is the story of owning a project car in New York City, and unlike some of our successful wrenching stories, it doesn’t end great. Well, it kind of does. I’m confident the car’s off to a good home, all I’ve ever wanted for my old cars. But besides a lighter wallet, I’m mostly left with some lessons that I hope you can appreciate.
Come now, as I recount all the ways I was thoroughly owned by this old BMW over the last few months, and how you—a smart person—can avoid my fate.
Have a Hook-Up
Perhaps we should start with the problems involved with the BMW. Initially it seemed like a clean example of the car, though one that had been sitting for a while. The interior was in great shape. The clutch and shifter worked perfectly. So did the electronics. The engine bay was super clean. The known issues were some rust, a broken door handle, broken driver’s seat motors, a hole in the exhaust and an HVAC system that showed up to work when it wanted to. That’s a known pain-point on these cars. The BMW was an ’84, and I guarantee you that thing was acting up by ’86.
(As a side note: We need a name for used cars that look clean but are full of secret problems. For a new car, that’s a lemon. What about old stuff?)
The problems started, and continued, anytime the car was... well, driven at length. The engine fan had to be replaced twice. The fan clutch had to be replaced, twice, at least once due to a faulty part. Eventually I swapped all of them out, along with the water pump, after the fan came loose and trashed the radiator and left me stranded by the side of the road. Then there were the random stall-outs at low speeds. Then this acceleration issue started—I never quite nailed down what those were. I suspected an airflow issue somewhere. After that and some other continual breaks, expensive ones, I was just done with it. My wife, even more so.
In the end, over the span of about six months, I probably spent two grand in repairs on a car I bought for a little over $3,000, and it just didn’t feel worth it.
Maybe it would have been different if I had expected this laundry list of repairs going into the project, but it all looked like a well-maintained BMW. I figured the important stuff wouldn’t break, break over and over.
Hell, it might be different if I loved the car, or felt some great attachment to it, or loved driving it, or if it could succeed even once in leaving my neighborhood without a breakdown. But that was not the case. I just got tired of dealing with it.
In all the repair shop visits and curbside wrenching projects, I quickly realized I needed a hookup—a guy. Someone with a house, or a garage, or a fuller set of tools than me, or a vacant gas station. Somewhere to fix the thing properly that wasn’t a street and maybe someone to help.
The Yugo had a guy. Aaron Brown has a guy. Raphael Orlove says he has between four and 12 guys. If you don’t have a garage of your own for a project in the city, you need a guy. My closest guy is in D.C., which was a limitation. FaceTime-guided repairs only go so far.
Your guy doesn’t even have to be a guy, or a male-identifying person, of course. At least two or three of Raph’s are women. You just need someone who you can call, who has had that problem before, who can square you away on the cheap and easy.
An outsider would be amazed by how much of New York runs on “I know a guy.”
Don’t Buy a Project Car Before Winter
Easily the stupidest, most avoidable mistake I made here. A rookie mistake from a Texan, who comes from a place where winter means 55-degree highs and “reckon it might rain this week.”
I had no problems wrenching on this car on the street. Early on I did that plenty, and right now, as we enter the nice weather season, it actually sounds like a nice way to spend the day.
But in November in New York? Or December? January? Absolutely not. And while some of us may have heroic stories about rebuilding a motor in subzero temperatures, next to a snow bank, I had little patience for it. And “Well, I guess I’ll take it to a shop this time” led to another visit, and another, and eventually the whole thing snowballed—pun intended—out of control.
Buy your project car now, or in the summer, and get it running great so you don’t have to deal with it much in the colder months.
Don’t Buy a Car With Rust If You Want To Re-Sell It Quickly
It’s hard to find an old car up this way that doesn’t have rust somewhere. It’s even harder to keep your existing rust at bay. Whenever the roads were salty, I kept the 7 Series parked. I think maybe it got driven a handful of times with snow on the ground, and I was fastidious about washing it after. I was Montgomery and the rust was the Afrika Korps. I took that shit seriously.
But the car did come with some rust, namely on the inside lower part of the driver’s door. And I think that, while it sold eventually, that kept it on Craigslist for a long time. The E30, I had that turned around in a day, complete with one offer to trade it for a custom AR-15, because Texas.
The E23 took a lot longer to move. Many prospective buyers were turned off by the rust. All the while I was paying for more garage space and, yes, dealing with more stuff breaking.
The point is this: You may look at a rusty car and say “No big deal,” because to you it isn’t or because you think you’ll keep it forever and ever. But the truth is that rust should really be avoided at all cost, especially if you someday want to move on from that car. It’s as big a sale-deterrent as you can find.
At least keep the rust minimal. Again, the stuff’s hard to avoid in the northeast.
Your Project Car May Not End Up a Daily Driver
As I mentioned before, my E30 in Texas lived a charmed life. (Until it died violently at the hands of someone else, anyway.) It didn’t have many problems, and the ones that surfaced, I fixed. It was a fine old car daily driver. Your Craigslist acquisition, however, may not be so lucky. And it may take a lot of time and effort before you can treat it as such.
This is why many of Jalopnik’s most-read reviews are for Subaru Crosstreks and Toyota RAV4s and so on. In the end, sometimes even the most hardcore gearhead simply needs a car to get around—something that’ll actually start when, to their great and stunned surprise, that Bring a Trailer Lancia Scorpion is acting up yet again.
You can daily an old car. I’ve done it myself. Tons of our readers do. But there’s a good chance it’ll take a lot of work to get it to that point, and that’s work you may not have the right resources to do. Expect too much, and you’ll be left disappointed. Or unceremoniously booted out of a tunnel.
It’s OK To Call It Quits Sometimes
This is perhaps my biggest takeaway here, and my strongest advice to you.
I can’t find the exact tweet, but a while back my friend Matt Farah of The Smoking Tire said something on Twitter to the effect of, everything in your life should bring you money or happiness. Ideally, both. And while we can’t always cut out all the bullshit that makes us miserable—family or work obligations, for example—I’ve thought about that a lot since then and I think it’s a good mission to strive for in general.
The E23 wasn’t bringing me happiness anymore, and it certainly wasn’t making money. Very much the opposite! So when your car is more of a burden than a joy, it’s time to cash out.
It doesn’t make you a bad enthusiast if you decide to move from something that didn’t work out. There’s plenty of areas in life where you have to be beholden to old mistakes. This doesn’t have to be one of them.
I have now been car-free in New York for about a month, and I miss having a car already. I also don’t, to be completely honest.
After all that it’s a little nice to not have to mess with parking and repair bills, just constantly tracking where it needs to be and how broken it is. I don’t explicitly need a car here—I have the train, and my job puts me in new cars all the time—but I feel like the guy who runs Jalopnik should own one and not depend on press testers. Still, I won’t lie and say it’s not a weight off my mind for right now.
I’m taking some time, though, before I move on to a new relationship. Focusing on me, you know? I’m working out, taking cooking classes, trying to practice mindfulness. Reading books about people I admire. Haven’t even been on the apps much to see what else is out there.
But I’m starting to get curious again. Seen anything good on Craigslist lately?