What Did You Have To Learn The Hard Way?

Photo: Patrick George

It’s been more than a month since I bought a 1984 BMW 733i, and I’m happy to report that despite holdups from weather, travel during Thanksgiving and a lengthy and frustrating (but ultimately fairly cheap) repair, it’s finally fully road legal and working better than ever. But it took a while to get there.

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As I mentioned before, this is a combination project car and daily-ish city car. The brakes, suspension, motor and gearbox are all very solid, but the car needs some work. The driver’s seat motors are janky, leaving it permanently leaning back. The HVAC has a mind of its own. There’s a minor exhaust leak up near the headers. It has a little bit of rust. It’ll never be perfect, but it’s solid and I want to keep it that way.

However, the realities of not having my own garage here in New York City are hitting me hard. When I lived in Texas, where I drove an E30, I could stash it in my garage if something came up. I could wrench on it at my leisure. I didn’t really depend on it to get around, as we had another, newer car that ran great. I could take my time with it.

But when you park your car on the street and face alternate-side parking—and potential tickets from that—and a harsh New York winter looming, it changes the equation. We’re quickly running out of days where it’s easy and nice to do work on a car outside.

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After changing the oil, getting an alignment and acquiring my plates, the 7 drove wonderfully, and I planned to get it inspected right away. But then an issue arose with the radiator fan. It would wiggle when you touched it, and when the motor was running it would shake and hit the plastic covering over the distributor cap and the underside of the hood. My coworkers and I assumed the issue was that the fan was replaced at some point with a wrong-sized one.

Needless to say, it couldn’t be driven like that—not for very long, at least. So I street parked it and timed it around Thanksgiving so I could avoid any alternate side tickets; the city suspends that around holidays.

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I knew I needed to change the fan, so I picked up a specialized 32mm wrench set from Autozone and the fan from FCP Euro. Based on everything I read and watched online, it seemed to be an easy job and something that could be done on the street. (Bear in mind the car didn’t have a sticker, which left me open to getting a ticket—something that did end up happening.)

But something was wrong. The fan clutch setup didn’t look right. I couldn’t get the wrenches in there right to get the nut off to remove the fan and clutch. Hell, the nut was supposed to be between the fan and the clutch, and it wasn’t there at all.

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A friend and I debated taking the radiator off to get to the fan, but what if that wasn’t the issue? Then we’d have another set of problems to deal with. We were running out of daylight and nice weather, too. Did I really want to rip out the radiator on a car parked on the street to get at the fan when something else could’ve been the source of my misery?

I eventually caved and took it to a shop nearby, just to get it off the street. Turns out the issue wasn’t the fan or the clutch, though I had those replaced too—it was a flange off the water pump that was the wrong size. I have no clue how it got on there, or how long it was, but it caused the fan and clutch to not fit properly.

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I got the new flange on, along with the new fan and a car inspection. Total damage: about $300 for labor, parts and inspection. Not too bad, I figured. I’ve definitely had far worse before.

The 7 now runs fantastically, and she’s legal to boot.

The source of my problems.
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The good news is I now have a garage for it, a place in downtown Brooklyn that is, by New York City standards, reasonably priced. The contract didn’t start until December, which is why I was stuck street-parking the 7 before. Now I’ll have somewhere to do stuff like this without having to worry about street parking and racking up tickets from that.

Truth be told, I’m disappointed I couldn’t diagnose this or fix it myself on the street. I bought the 7 with the goal of doing most of this work myself, and I still plan to. The fan replacement would’ve been an easy job if not for that damn flange. Down the line I plan to circumvent this whole issue by just swapping an electric fan instead of a clutch-driven one. Now I have a place to do it.

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Most of the stuff I’ve learned in my life, I’ve learned the hard way, and that has been true of my forays into wrenching as well. So here’s what I take away from having a project car in the city so far: Maybe don’t buy one right before winter. Get it road legal and inspected right away, before a problem pops up that makes it not drivable. Get your garage situation squared away before you get the car, not after. Don’t overbook yourself on a street repair.

Oh, and one more thing: Alternate-side parking is a scam. I’ve never been more sure of that in my life.

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What about working on cars did you learn the hard way?

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About the author

Patrick George

Editor-in-Chief at Jalopnik. 2002 Toyota 4Runner.