The Hardest Part of Driving an Old Car Across the Country

All Photos Credit: Raphael Orlove

DETROIT, MI.—The moment I heard the plan, I knew what I figured would be the hardest part. Driving this 1970 BMW 2500 from Seattle to NYC meant crossing the Cascades and the Rockies. But that ended up being easy. What was hard was, of all things, getting from Minneapolis to Detroit.


The day we did our big passes seemed like it was going to be the daunting one. First we hit Lookout Pass, a climb up to about 4,700 feet, then we crossed the continental divide at 6,375. Clay, the new owner of Sam Smith’s old car, feared that the dual carbs might find themselves gasping for thin air up there and need to have their jets swapped, lest we be crawling up at trucker pace. I was more worried about overheating up the long and unbroken grades.

But the car monstered it up and down the mountains, then glided down and through the rest of Montana and North Dakota without issue. We took the days easy there. Only did six to eight hours of driving time (as Google would calculate) per day, and enjoyed the scenery. We made it to Minneapolis, our first big city after leaving the suburbs of Seattle and Olympia, Washington. That’s when we heard The Noise.

Do not fear The Noise.

Understand The Noise.

The Noise is with you.

The Noise will not leave you.

Make peace with The Noise, or fix it.

It squeaked, but not like the other squeaks. Those were in-dash squeaks. They were, like, little blower fans and slightly loose wires bumping around, obviously not stuff to worry about. If we hit the horn, we found, the temp gauge hopped up a quarter of its travel for a second there.


No, The Noise was the one belt on the car squealing away up front. It’s called a v-belt and it runs the cooling fan, the water pump, and the alternator. We texted the last owner, Sam Smith, with a little video. Not a big issue, I figured, we’ll just keep driving and keep an ear on it.


Nah dude, intoned Sam, stop that car.

So stop we did, diagnosing with Sam through texts and pics. We checked for play in the water pump and the alternator but didn’t get any, then put some Rain-X to lubricate the belt to see if that stopped it squeaking, if it would stop the squeaking altogether. If it did quiet down with the Rain-X on it, we’d know it’s just a loose belt, not the water pump or alternator bearing. The Rain-X went on, the squealing stopped. Off we went again.


But this only started two new games that we would play: What’s That Noise? and What’s That Smell?

We were always listening for The Noise. Was it getting worse? (No, not really.) Could we hear it at high speed? (No, not really.) Could we only not hear it at high speed because it was getting drowned out by the music we had on? Turn off the music. Can we still not hear it because of the road noise? Let’s stop and check the belt. It’s just a quick stop. Get off at this exit, let’s just check it.


Progress slowed.


What was going to be a 10-hour drive turned into 14 and a half by the end of it. We were making it through the night, in high-speed traffic of I-94 across Michigan, getting blown around the wind of the Great Lakes, in the rain, with no windshield wipers. We were advised that the wiper linkage was so sloppy that it was bound to break, to just Rain-X the windshield and keep it moving.


Hour after hour, it was just making it past one truck then the next, watching for who was passing on the right like an idiot, watching which Chevy Cobalt driver was pushing someone else out of their lane merging into their spot, trying to stay safe while not losing too much time. The hours had already dwindled out.

And wait, what was that? Was that The Noise?


Again, we figured that the hardest part of the drive would be the mountains, and a physical strain on the car. But by far it was just driving an old car in crowded highway and city traffic, doubting ourselves about whether or not the belt was so loose that it would slip off and we’d have to swap our spare in on the side of the road, in the rain, or if it was fine. We could just stop in this town and do it ourselves, it’s an easy fix. But it’s also late and getting later...


It’s morning now in Detroit, finally. The rain has stopped. The weather’s clear through to New York by the looks of it. By light of day, everything is much more relaxed.

If we want to stop and change the belt, it’ll be easy. If we want to motor on as far as is safe, that won’t be hard either. But it’s worth remembering that the hardest part of driving an old car like this isn’t mechanical. A direct mechanical problem is just something to take stock of and fix. The real challenge mounts as the hours grow long and doubt sets in, as you contend with other drivers who can afford to be less safe than you can. The hard part is keeping your head on straight.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

About the author

Raphael Orlove

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.