I’m barreling down Interstate 35 just south of Austin, Texas in a sand-colored 1969 BMW 1600, headed for a long weekend of questionable choices and hazy recollections on South Padre Island. I had only owned the car, my first old BMW, for six months or so, and I was still getting to know the eccentricities, but the tinge of burning oil seemed a bit distinct among the other odors that come with a car that had been on the road a full decade before I was born.
“You smell that?” I asked my roommate in the passenger’s seat, just before glancing in the rear view mirror and seeing the secret agent level smoke screen that the car almost immediately began billowing out onto the road behind me. Shit.
I yanked the little sedan off the road and squealed to a hasty halt in an empty parking lot. I yelled at my passenger to open the hood while I threw the luggage out of my trunk, desperately searching for the fire extinguisher. Once located, I pulled the pin as I rounded the side of the car in time to see flames darting up from the exhaust manifold. Shitshitshitshitshitshitshit.
I doused it with everything the extinguisher had.
As it turned out, the upper exhaust stud on the No. 4 cylinder met an oil passage. When that stud loosened and backed out, it allowed hot, pressurized oil to splash into the exhaust manifold. Thankfully, the result was mostly smoke, and mercifully little fire.
My incredible naiveté allows me to set out on this trip with no tools, but my luck allows me to have this happen to me in the parking lot of a pawn shop, in which I found a combination 12/13mm wrench that I used to carefully re-tighten the nut and stud.
For the past 16 years, I’ve driven BMWs that are older than I am. I get a lot of thumbs-ups, interested stares, and probing, yet respectful questions like, “What year is it?”, and “How many miles are on it?” After years of happily answering the same questions and receiving the same quizzical stares, I’ve come to understand that what they are really asking is, “What’s it like, and how can I do it?”
Driving a car that was built during the Nixon Administration sometimes leads to spending an unplanned weekend in a rural town, waiving off mechanical advice from a casually racist biker in an AutoZone parking lot.
When you take your first drive in a vintage car, it’s almost impossible to not notice your new admirers. People get excited and nostalgic, and they want to share in the experience. They will pelt you with questions and elbow each other in the ribs. This might sound annoying or bothersome, but it’s really not. After all, you’re the one driving the UFO through downtown. What did you expect? Be patient with your new fans. They like you, and your only job is to respond kindly.
One of the common questions that I get is, “How hard is it to find parts?” For the most part, the answer is, “Not hard at all; the internet is a wonderful thing.”
Some of us are old enough to remember the days of wastefully hoping Jimmy at the local parts counter could thumb through his encyclopedia of parts phonebooks and locate wheel bearings for our 30-year-old car without too much trouble. Somehow, the local, independent parts stores carried a ton of random parts that were often available that day. Mail-ordering parts was kind of a gamble, and was almost never done for common maintenance items.
Then, the internet showed up. Over the course of a decade or so, online parts suppliers ultimately produced a competitive and knowledgeable parts market, from which almost any car part can be purchased with relatively quick delivery to your front door.
I have a BMW parts supplier in Minnesota from whom I can order plastic trim clips for a 1987 BMW 325e on Monday, and they’ll be on my doorstep by Wednesday. Hell, Amazon has even gotten into the game. GM vintage car owners have Original Parts Group, and other groups have their own localized parts sources. (For what it’s worth, Mercedes-Benz will produce any part, for any car that has ever borne its mark—for a price.)
Of course, I’m referring to companies that still exist and do their best to support their vintage car community. If you decide to daily drive a 1960 DeSoto Fireflite, you might have a few issues finding OEM brake shoes.
When you get your vintage car, you’ll be tempted to keep it as it left the factory, assuming that it’s drivable. For the most part, they aren’t that complicated, so it doesn’t seem that difficult. Adjusting a distributor is relatively simple, and carburetors hold a deep nostalgia for many. Torque specifications on a 40 year old automobile tend to be more of a suggestion than a requirement. For vintage parts, assuming they can be easily sourced, simplicity is your friend.
Inevitably, you may begin to miss modern comforts. You may have made peace with the fact that a lack of airbags is an acceptable risk, but you probably miss the reliability of electronic fuel injection and the sweet, chilled embrace of a functioning air conditioner. You may also just choose to benefit from modern technology because there is no reason for a V8 to make 180 horsepower.
So, while you may choose to leave some things vintage, upgrading is often a sensible option for both safety and fun. (There’s a lot to be said for airbags and modern safety equipment, at the end of the day.)
It’s also wise to remember that a vintage car isn’t as fun to own if you don’t fully enjoy driving it. If you choose to modify or upgrade, do so wisely and with caution. Upgrade suspension and brakes before making it faster, and try not to chop the wiring harness into an indecipherable mess when you’re adding electronic conveniences. While your more sophisticated friends and family are honing their senses to discern nearly undetectable hints and flavors in fine wines and whiskeys, you’re going to develop a very sharp nose for the smells of burning oil, electrical fires, boiling coolant, and unburnt hydrocarbons in your car’s exhaust. Magnifique!
There are, of course, the two camps of vintage car owners: DIY-ers and Check-Writers. I absolutely have no problem with the guys who pay a shop to keep their car on the road. That being said, I am a devoted member of the Church of the Less Than Immaculate Garage Floor, as well as its masochistic and hopelessly optimistic sect, “Hey, I Bet I Can Do That.”
Once you’ve got the maintenance covered, you need to understand what you’re really in for. Many enthusiastic owners think that their new purchase will instantly transport them back to the decade in which their car was produced.
Suddenly, drive-up burger joints will appear and Elvis songs will resonate sonorously from the single, 50-year-old paper cone speaker that the dealership installed in your 50-year-old Mustang.
While the euphoria of driving your vintage car for the first time is truly wonderful, it is destined to fade, especially and specifically if you drive the car more than twice a year.
Soon you or your passengers will begin to notice the rattling interior parts, the crumbling upholstery, the special aromas of exhaust and coolant leaks, weak lighting and electronic capability, and, most immediately, the roasting humidity of a car without a working air conditioner.
If you intend to keep the car, my advice it to attack these issues with veracity and honesty. The goal is to civilize the car as much as possible without losing its character. Replace worn suspension bushings. Upgrade to halogen headlights. Read up on the right way to fix things.
You’ll never get a vintage car to drive and feel like a new Hyundai, but you don’t want or need to. What you do need to do is make it bearable for you and your passengers. There are sins that can be ignored, but a seat spring jamming into your ass cheek isn’t one of them.
On the other side of the coin, you shouldn’t chase perfection. Unless you’re preparing your ‘34 Packard for Pebble Beach, you don’t need it to be perfect. Believe me—you and everyone who sees you are going to be happy to see a 30+ year old car on the road. After 16 years of driving a vintage car, I have yet to have anyone point out dented trim or that spot in my hood where the paint has been buffed through. Even the show car squad at the local Cars & Coffee enthusiastically praises the owners of rusty, yet roadworthy, cars.
What about a backup car? For more than a decade, I had exactly one car, and it was my vintage daily driver. I never had air conditioning, and I’ve certainly had to bum rides, borrow other people’s cars, or suck it up and walk from time to time.
Of course, like many of us, my 20s were a decade of poor life choices and lowered expectations. Now I’m married, have a family, and need to show up to work not looking like I just ran a 5K through a rain forest, so we own other cars. However, I seemed to survive, one way or the other, when it was just me and my 1600. I once punctured a radiator six hours from home and overheated before getting it repaired on a Friday afternoon before a long weekend.
Do what you have to do, but there’s a certain freedom in not having the option of taking your spouse’s newer Subaru if you can’t get that oil pan gasket done over the weekend. Of course, that kind of freedom is easier to chase when you don’t have to worry about driving your kid to daycare the next day.
More to the point, there’s an important issue to absorb here: You’re going to break down. Your car will have problems; you’re going to fail. Sometimes it will be out of your control, and sometimes it will be the direct result of your actions. If you delay maintenance, you might make it a few more days, weeks, or even years on the wearing part, or that wheel bearing might decide that the Bay Bridge is the only acceptable place to grind itself into oblivion.
That valve adjustment you were hesitant to dive into? It’s going to leave you in a parking lot. When you do break down, rest assured that every spare part and tool that you carried with you will be exactly the wrong ones to help you out. It’s going to happen.
Of course, you’re going to survive. Unless you’re incredibly negligent or completely un-handy, chances are that you’ll make it out with a good story. More importantly, you’re going to find out exactly how capable you are.
Owning, driving, and maintaining a vintage car is the most honest relationship you’ll ever have. Some cars bear the scars of previous abuse; some come from better pedigree than others, and some were always a poor choice. But even the best cars won’t treat you any better than you treat them. Listen to them, give them what they need, and, perhaps most importantly, choose your partner wisely.
So, where to begin? The first place to start is to join the community. Whether you have bought your vintage car yet or not, you need to start by diving into an online forum. There’s a web forum for everything; find the one that centers around your model. Read up on known problems and their fixes, potential upgrades, and parts resources. Read like you’re preparing to write a doctoral thesis on the model. Avoid the temptation to out yourself as the new person and just listen.
In addition to learning about your potential new car, you’re also going to be learning about the crowd you’re joining. It may sound superficial, but the people with whom you share your hobby will have an effect on your ability to remain sane when you inevitably interact with them.
Every car model fanbase has a range of personalities, but some are generally younger or older, richer or poorer, nicer or stupider, active or cricket-filled. You need to get an idea of how to interact with “the others.” If you find yourself in love with a car that also happens to attract super aggro gym bros, you’re going to have to learn how to talk to them if you have any hopes for getting parts and advice. Or you could choose a different car.
I suggest that you take the opportunity to drive as many cars as you can. Go to your local Cars & Coffee. Talk to enthusiasts. At this point, most cars have online enthusiast groups that are going to be relatively honest about their experiences. Be nice and ask a lot of questions. You’ll likely have to shift your expectations on some level, but that’s part of the process and the fun. You might find out that you’re a British car lover, or even a Volvo person.
Eventually, you’ll find a car that speaks to you, and the money and time that you spend on it won’t be wasted. My vintage BMW is just the right mixture of classic styling, capable suspension, and reliable, yet fixable engineering to satisfy me. The acts of cleaning, repairing, and/or upgrading it are all cathartic and rewarding elements in the balancing act of keeping my car fun to own, see, and drive.
When you finally do get yours on the road, you’ll get the approving smiles from people when you drive, but you might not even notice because you’ll be too busy listening for that weird engine tic or trying to figure out where that gasoline smell is coming from.
It’s going to be terrible. You’ll love it.
Clay Weiland is a ham-fisted shade-tree mechanic when he’s not managing construction projects in Washington, DC. He has owned, driven, and modified vintage BMWs for 15 years, and one or two of them have even had nice paint.