Last week I felt paralyzed by the fact that winter had moved in while two of my cars were land-locked in the most important spots in my garage; my 635CSi was on my lift and my 3.0CSi was in the easy-access spot behind the garage door. I hadn’t intended to configure the cars and the space this way for winter—I kind of got caught with my pants down. While there is work I want to do on both cars, none of it is essential, and their presence prevents me from pulling other cars into the garage or onto the lift without pulling the 3.0CSi out into the elements. Doing that for a few hours on a sunny day is fine, but letting it sit outside in the weather is an act of violence.

This situation became more acute when my friend Tom Samuelson asked me if I’d help him sell his car.

Tom has a very nice 1988 635CSi five-speed. This is a unicorn-rare car; like the E30, the E24 635CSi switched to “world bumpers” in 1988, making the two years 1988 and 1989 highly desirable. Plus, those cars also got the new M30B35 engine, good for 208 horsepower, 26 more than the previous M30B34 motor.

But production of North American E24 five-speeds dropped to a trickle during those two years; only 246 were produced. So a world-bumper 208-horsepower stick shark is a very rare car. In addition, Tom’s car has a factory limited-slip, and if that’s not enough, it has retrofitted sport seats. No U.S.-spec 635CSis had sport seats in ’88 and ’89; if you wanted them, you needed to buy an M6.

This combination makes Tom’s E24 a unicorn that had a baby with a cyclops and produced offspring with a horn with a single eyeball at the end. The BBS RC090s with polished lips are by no means fantasy-creature rare, but they are, as they say, vahry nahce.

Tom initially put his car on Craigslist with a three-sentence description and a few cell-phone pics. I saw the ad and texted him, telling him that he needed to step it up and tout the car’s rarity. I then launched into the “one of 246” and “unicorn with an eyeball” thing.

“You’ve got a flair for this,” Tom said. “Why don’t I just pay you to sell it for me?” Tom is wicked busy and has too many cars. I’m unemployed and have too many cars—and thus can’t buy this one. He offered me a flat fee and I accepted—a marriage made in heaven.

A few days later, Tom dropped the car off in my driveway. I visually inspected it, took it for a quick run around the block, and wrote down the following list:

  • Airbag light on
  • Check engine light is on
  • Stumble coming off clutch at idle and onto gas
  • Odometer doesn’t work
  • Gearshift lever incredibly stiff
  • Light thunk in front end over bumps
  • White shift boot doesn’t match tan interior
  • Climate-control sliders missing one knob
  • Shift knob missing the five-speed label plate

Now, when I sell a car, either one of mine or someone else’s, I write up a very complete warts-and-all description, photograph the car to excess, and put it on eBay. One of the things I’ve learned is that when you’re writing up the description and itemizing the warts, you should fix anything you can, because then you can cross it off the list and no longer need to apologize for it. Obviously there are limits to this—you’re unlikely to say, “Oh, hell, now that I’m selling it, I’ll just rebuild the damn transmission”—but if you can take a few hours and knock off a few niggling problems, the cumulative effect on the value of the car can be significant.

Even though I was taking a flat fee to sell the car and wasn’t incentivized to put my time into fixing it, I automatically swung into sell-my-own-car mode and regarded the above as a punch list. I started with the most trivial: the missing or incorrect interior parts at the bottom of the list. These warts would be obvious in the photos, and since they all are dead-center in the interior, anyone who came to see the car in person would notice them immediately, as I had. In particular, the white shift boot, which Tom had ordered to match the car’s original Lotos-Weiss (Lotus White) interior, stuck out like a sore thumb against the rest of the interior, which may have been dyed to match the tan retrofitted sport seats.

I procured an aftermarket black leather boot, as the OEM dealer price was over $150. But I ordered the five-speed shift-label plate and climate-control slider knob from a local BMW dealer, as that way I had them in my hands in two days.

But then I ran into trouble. Well, not trouble, but a bit of reality.

I thought that, to find the source of the check-engine light and the stumble/hesitation coming off the clutch and onto the gas, I’d plug in my Peake code-reader. Remember, this is a 1988 car, so it’s pre-OBD-II, so a standard OBD-II code-reader doesn’t work. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the Peake code reader anywhere. I eventually remembered that I’d put it in the glovebox of my E30 325is, which is sitting in storage in Fitchburg—50 miles away. I tried the “turn the key to ignition and mash the gas pedal five times and count the flashing lights” thing, but for some reason I could not get it to work. So much for that being an easy fix.

And although whatever was causing the shift lever to be stiff was likely trivial—Tom said he’d installed a UUC short shifter kit and new bushings—in order to fix it, I needed to get the car up on the lift, and with my two cars marooned in the garage and weather forecast as moving in, there just wasn’t any easy way to deal with it. So, naught for two.

Okay, I thought, I can certainly deal with the broken odometer. I’ve fixed several of these, ordering the parts from Jeff Caplan at Odometer Gears. I even found a new set of gears in the glovebox; the previous owner had apparently procured them. But when I took the first steps to remove the instrument cluster, I immediately noticed that it was missing its clear plastic faceplate entirely; you could reach in and touch the gauge needles. Having replaced a cracked faceplate on my E30 a few months back, I know that the faceplate is not a part you can order; realoem shows it as integral with the cluster. There are enough E30s out there that the face plates show up on eBay, but no such luck with an E24. Strike three, and yerrrr out!

Plus, the weather report said that more snow was moving in within 24 hours. Seeing the short window of opportunity, I took the car down to the old Waltham Watch factory along the Charles River, my go-to place to photograph cars, and shot the exterior and interior.

I usually put cars up on my mid-rise lift and shoot the underbody, too, but while that’s crucial to accurately convey the condition of a car like a 2002, I don’t think I’ve seen an ad where someone shot the undercarriage of a 635CSi.

On the drive back from the river, both the thunk from the front end and the come-off-the-clutch-on-the-gas stumble seemed pretty pronounced. When I got home, I opened the hood and made sure that the battery was secured. It was. I checked to see if the intake boot was torn, generating the kind of vacuum leak that might cause the stumble. It wasn’t.

And then it snowed—and got very cold.

So: game called on account of weather. Other than replacing the shift boot, the shift-knob label, and the climate-control slider knob, I didn’t fix anything, and I didn’t shoot the undercarriage. Sometimes you just have to play the hand you’re dealt.

I listed the car on eBay. Almost immediately, I got a question asking if I had any photos of the undercarriage.


(By the time this piece airs, the auction will have closed. I’ll tell you what happened in Part II.)—Rob Siegel

Rob’s first book, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, and his new book, The Hack Mechanic Guide to European Automotive Electrical Systems, are available through Bentley Publishers, Amazon, ECS Tuning, and Bavarian Autosport—or you can get personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: