Meeting a Hero

By Wendell Diefenbacher in Motors

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They say you should never meet your heroes. And I’m on my way to meet one of mine.

I’ve loved the classic shape of the BMW 2002 for years. For me, it all began when I was 14 and spotted one on the road; I thought it was perfect.

On the outskirts of Wellesley, I find the road I’m looking for. I start watching the house numbers. 14,12…  aflash of orange catches my eye. I’m definitely at the right place.

I park my car at the curb and climb out, in awe of the garage before me. There’s a very nice Porsche 911, but my eyes are on the 2002. It’s a 1973 model, and I love this car already, from the round, chrome-rimmed taillights to the iconic kidney grill.      Walking past the garage, I step onto the porch and ring the doorbell. The front door opens and I meet Dave. His eyes sparkle as he grips my hand in a firm handshake. At 61, he’s retired, but he’s not old yet.

Dave hops into the car and rolls it out of the garage. The Inka-orange paint glistens in the sunlight. At 166 inches long, it’s not a tiny car, but still a small one. For reference, that’s about halfway between a modern Mini Cooper and a modern BMW 3-series. However, it’s only 62 inches wide- 6 inches less than a modern Mini, and almost a foot narrower than a 3-series.

I slide into the passenger seat, and the car feels surprisingly large inside. There’s lots of space for my legs, although anyone with mild claustrophobia wouldn’t want to sit in the seat behind me. The tall, boxy design leaves lots of headroom as well; my 6′ frame folds inside easily. The large windows do their part to make the car feel bigger inside than it really is.

Dave jumps into the driver’s seat and we head out of town. It’s a beautiful evening for a cruise. We roll down the windows and open the sunroof. The car has a period-correct radio, but Dave doesn’t turn it on. Our only background noise is the wind and the hum of the little 2-liter.

As we drive, Dave tells me about his history with cars. He’s been a mechanic all his life, and he owned a small garage for 30 years. He’s had lots of cars over the years, but this one, purchased last summer, was his first BMW.

“I really wasn’t planning to buy it,” he explains. “I just kind of fell into it.”

The car had been owned by an acquaintance, but it needed some work to get it back to showroom condition. Dave, newly retired, wasn’t sure what he was going to do with himself in the winter; so he decided to take on the car as a project. He hooked up a heater in his garage and spent his winter pulling the car apart, sourcing parts, and putting it all back together. And his hard work has certainly paid off- the car feels like it’s new again.

We come to a small intersection and stop for the red light. A middle-aged man in a minivan  catches sight of us as he drives through the intersection. His head swivels almost 180 degrees, as he stares at the little coupe. Dave waves. “It gets a lot of attention,” he comments.

We turn into a local park. Evening sunlight filters through the trees. I take a few photos. Then it’s my turn to drive.

“You should never meet your heroes”. It’s an old adage, with a lot of common sense behind it. The truth is, a famous person probably isn’t the same person in real life as they are on a stage or a screen. A brief interaction with them will most likely be very forgettable, far from the fun conversation you probably imagined having with them.

For similar reasons, I’m a bit nervous about driving a BMW 2002; this car is, to some degree, one of my heroes. I know a lot about it. I can tell a 1973 from a 1974. I know what makes a 2002 different from a 2002 tii. I’ve read that they’re fantastic cars. But I’ve never so much as been inside one before. And now I’m about to drive one. And I don’t want to be disappointed.

I strap into the driver’s seat, step on the clutch, and turn the key. The engine kicks in with no hesitation. I grab the long shift lever and shove it toward reverse; my first attempt gets first gear by accident. I try again, and the shifter falls over into reverse.

I let out the clutch- which is surprisingly easy to operate- and back out of the parking spot. I instantly notice the absence of power steering. This is not a flick-the-wheel-with-one-finger car; parking lot maneuvers require two hands on the wheel.

I pull out onto the road and take the car through its gears. There’s a bit of gearbox slop, but it’s not bad. Dave mentions that a many 2002 owners swap the original gearbox for a 5-speed, usually from a  BMW 3-series. He kept the 4-speed manual, choosing originality over an extra bit of usability.

I thread the car through some gentle curves, and the unassisted steering feels just right. It takes a bit of effort to turn, but it’s tight and communicative. In our heavy modern cars, power steering may be a necessity; in a car barely over 2,000 pounds, you don’t need it.

From my vantage point in the driver’s seat, I begin to fully appreciate what Dave’s done to the car. He’s been careful to keep the car as original as possible; aside from an upgraded Webber carburetor, the experience I’m getting is almost exactly the same experience a young driver in 1973 would have gotten when he drove his brand-new 2002 out of the showroom for the first time. I feel like I’ve traveled through time.

All too soon, we’re back in Wellesley. I pull the car into Dave’s driveway and turn it off with a twinge of sadness. In the back of my head, I’m already wondering if I could somehow buy a 2002 of my own. Today, I met one of my heroes; and my hero, in its own unique way, was absolutely perfect.

 

1973 was the last year of the round taillights for the 2002. These early cars are now worth significantly more than later square-taillight models

1973 was the last year of the round taillights for the 2002. These early cars are now worth significantly more than later square-taillight models