Screech and bang!
Story of the BMW 518i
When you hear the screech and the bang you cannot help but look that way. Unless you are sitting in the car on the receiving end of the bang, in which case all you can hear is your heart throbbing in your ears.
It all began on a murky, rainy April evening. One of those days when it gets dark half an hour earlier than the day before. I was in Budapest, Hungary, just across the Budapest Amusement Park, on the gloomy side of the Circular dividing the City. Street lamps were bobbing in the wind, there was a mother ushering her mackintosh-clad children home from the afternoon classes, her umbrella turned inside out by a gust. And there I was, waiting for Zsolt, a colleague and a friend, to go and see the dead man's car. It was all quiet and the air smelled of Spring. Drizzle. We went inside.
She broke down in tears as she opened the garage door. Memories came rushing. She began to tell of all the places they'd visited. How much he cared for it. Their car for twenty years. They bought it in Switzerland after the Iron Curtain fell, it was five at that time. Their children grew up in that car. It would have been wrong to ask her questions, we just let her let it all out. And we were looking around. At the car, at each other, at the ivy wall.
Users' dents, an expired MOT, a flat battery and a cracked windshield. The car was telling the tales of love. The seat cover, the cassette player, the rare green interior. And not a drop of oil, even after having been out of use for six months. She put a three-digit price on it. It was our neighbor – he used to import these back in the days of the Regime. He was a musician. He was not allowed to bring cash over the border, but cars were a different story. So he imported and then sold them. That's the way it was. The point being, I knew the model from my childhood, Zsolt said it was in a sound shape so I bought it.
This was just around when Totalcar turned ten. As the leading publication of the market we set up a little exhibition as part of the Oldtimer Expo, an annual feast of vintage vehicles. I must have visited the site a dozen times that week, getting our booth ready, and every time I arrived organizers would direct me to the parking lot reserved for classic cars. My car was no classic, though, just a four-cylinder Sharknose BMW, an E28. Green paint, moonroof, five-speed gearbox.
All I really wanted was a reliable small car, so I certainly had no need for a shiny classic car. As soon as it got back in daily circulation trouble struck. I lost the exhaust, the thermostat blew, the cooling fan would not make contact and the speedometer was telling me all sorts of silly readouts because of the incorrect tire size. There was an audible whine coming from the gearbox. The car would not run straight, and certainly not brake straight. The local BMW community helped me to locate replacement seats for the broken ones, thank you guys. And... that was about it.
It was at this Totalcar anniversary event that I met Peter, or rather, he met me. He fixes and restores Beemers, and he said he would happily take a look at mine if I didn't mind. We soon hit a deal. He said I should use it as it is for a short while, checking all irregularities, and he'd fix everything in one go while I am on my summer vacation.
I ended up driving the car 8000 km. Took us in style to the Motörhead concert that took place in the home of the one-and-only Tokay wine, took us to Lake Balaton twice, we visited friends and family all around the countryside. Each trip was a time travel experience, a journey consumed in exquisite comfort and at a dignified slow pace, much appreciated by the (smiling) onlookers. It didn't take long before emotional ties were cemented and we experienced the revelation of 'the road is life' feeling. Suddenly everyone had someplace to go and had to take this car.
In the midst of this all I was compiling the list for Peter. A long list of the exhaust system, suspension arms, tie rod, clutch hydraulics, fuel hoses and more or less every seal and gasket there is on the car.
If Peter had only known the can of worms he was opening up with me I am certain he would have mauled me to death with a drive shaft. Because Peter is a perfectionist. Obsessively so. But he would honor the budget which was set at 2000 Euros. I wanted a reliable old car that could serve me well in everyday use, no more, no less. Looks have always been of secondary importance.
What was originally conceived as a two weeks' checkup ended up swelling into a six-week project or gargantuan proportions. It did involve certain surreal moments like when I was notified in a Beijing hotel room that the engine has been removed from my car, alongside the gearbox and all related machinery. And the rear suspension, of course, together with all other components that showed wear. I still cannot understand how he managed to stay within the budget. And all this time he kept me up-to-date via e-mails and helped me out if we came to a tough decision point.
And one day, the BMW was finished. With differential and engine freshly sealed, gearbox bearings replaced, running gear fully restored (everything was brand spanking new in there), transmission properly set up, shift rods straightened out, alloy wheels with sizeable tires, and an instrument panel with actually functioning lighting. Starts at first try. If you ever longed for presents as a child you can fathom my enthusiasm when I received the keys. An unspeakable feeling. I wanted to drive everywhere, including the loo. It ran for 20 000 km without missing a beat. But it was no beauty. Weathered would be a good way to describe it.
So I was thinking to myself as I was leaving home in the morning, these wheels look swell. I really should do something about the rust that developed over the last two winters. The car is mechanically perfect but the sills, the front suspension towers and the wheel arches are kinda ugly...
And then... screeetch, screeeeeetch, and bang.
That was to be the final thought of the sunny but cool September morning when my dreams of providing my beloved car a peaceful and undisturbed old age were shattered. I did want my 1984 518i to keep its rust spots, its weathered looks, to preserve the dents its former owner put in it. It was not to be. This lady, a harbinger of doom riding in a white Ford took it all away from me and from the car.
So, what next? Should I start a complete restoration? It has already cost me more than its worth, let alone adding a complete metalwork and paintjob to those. And what should I drive until it is finished? Like they say, the bigger the challenge, the sweeter the victory...