I was all set to launch into my new thirteen-part series on Conditioning The Shark (retrofitting air-conditioning into my Euro ‘79 635CSi) when someone gave me a free ’85 635CSi—which you have to admit is a pretty good opening line.

To provide the appropriate thread of context, the story starts about seven years ago when I bought a different ’85 635CSi, a rust-free but badly sun-oxidized five-speed with sport seats, from a guy who’d moved it east from California. It had died on him several times, the victim of an undiagnosed electrical malady. The seller and his wife recently had a baby, and the car needed to be gone.

He was asking $500.

I spoke at length with him on the phone. He seemed to be a competent backyard mechanic, and was convinced that the car needed an ECU. I told him that if the car was indeed rust-free, I’d buy it. I was so interested that when I hopped on eBay and saw an ECU for an ’85 635CSi for $60, I bought it, even though I didn’t own the car yet.

The next day I inspected the car, found it to be as rust-free as claimed, and handed over the Benjamins. When I asked the seller for the key to drive it into my borrowed trailer, he said, “You understand that it’s dead, right?”

I laughed and said, “Well, I might get lucky, right?” I turned the key. The car started right up.

Steam almost literally rose off the seller’s head. He walk away, waving his arms and swearing. I approached him, put my hand on his forearm, and gently said, “Look, you know that if the car has an intermittent electrical issue, it will recur, right?” He calmed down.

I got the car home and ran it in circles around the block while gradually increasing the electrical load. As some point, with the headlights, air-conditioner, and rear-window defroster on, it died. Gotcha! All the car needed was a voltage regulator! When I removed the old one, I found that its brushes were worn down to nubs.

In one of my Boy Scout moments, I called the seller and described what I’d found. I said, “I haven’t filled in the title yet, so I’m going to do for you what I’d want someone to do for me if the tables were turned, and ask you if you want your car back.”

He paused and said, “I am so grateful for you having the consideration to ask me, but with the new baby, the car needs to be gone. Whether it’s you for $500, or the next guy for $1,500, it really doesn’t matter. But really, thanks.”

I kept that 635CSi until the Great Mini-Cleansing of 2011 when the 12,000-square-foot warehouse in which I worked (and in which I stored several cars) abruptly closed and I thought I was going to lose my job. I sold the 635CSi, a ratty 2002 I had, and my ’82 Porsche 911SC, an error in judgment from which I have never quite recovered.

I never opened the ECU I’d bought. It sat on a shelf in the basement.

Until about a year ago: My youngest son’s girlfriend told me that her dad, Carl, was having trouble with an old BMW he owned, and wanted to know if he could bend my ear. I spoke with him and learned that he was mainly a Mercedes guy, but in an odd bit of parallelism via children’s significant others, he’d bought an ’85 635CSi (not the same one I’d sold) from the father of his son’s girlfriend. He liked the car a lot, but it had died on him several times and was now at the shop that worked on his Mercedes—and reportedly they were stumped. Carl initially asked me if I’d be willing to talk with the repair shop. I explained that I’m not a pro, that I don’t really know mid-’80s Motronic cars all that well, and that I’m really hesitant to act in the role of sanity-checking a professional who almost certainly knows more than I do.

However, it dawned on me that if the shop reached the point where they suspected the ECU, I did, in fact, have a spare ECU somewhere in my basement, and Carl was more than welcome to it. He was very grateful. I located the ECU, and he wound up swinging by to pick it up when I wasn’t around, so I never actually met him, although Maire Anne did (yes, handing over an ECU is now on my wife’s résumé).

I didn’t hear anything else about the car or the ECU until about a week ago, when I got an e-mail from Carl. As his daughter and my son have become “more serious,” he was looking to arrange a time when both families could get together for a cookout. But at the end of the e-mail, he said, “It looks like my 1985 635CSi continues to defy my mechanic, so I’m probably close to pulling the plug. If there is any chance you might have a use for it, or parts of it, I’d be most pleased to transfer the car to the Siegel garage as a gift. You have all been so good for Abbey, and this will be our very small token of appreciation for your generosity. I’m sure we could easily have AAA tow it to Newton, or you could assess it here before deciding.”

Well, damn.

I had two reactions. The first is that, through Zen, paying forward, all that right living I did in the ’70s—whatever, I am grateful to have come to a place in my life where people are offering me free 635CSi’s. The second is that the only thing more expensive than a free car is a free boat (kudos to Delia Wolfe for reminding me of this truism). I am not a boat guy, so Carl’s car might only be rivaled in its ability to suck money by the other dead car of the domicile, The Lotus Of Which We Dare Not Speak.

I knew that Carl’s car was a five-speed, and thus, on paper, it would be worth taking even if it were rusty beyond redemption, but with everything else on my plate, the idea of parting out a car, even a quick hit-and-run, pulling a Getrag 265 out of it and then having it hauled off as junk—particularly when I didn’t need a transmission—was less than appealing. So I thanked Carl for his generosity and very tactfully explained that, not to look a gift horse in the mouth or anything, I thought that the responsible thing to do was to lay eyeballs on the car and see what I’d be signing up for. He understood perfectly, and offered that we meet at the mechanic’s shop. That way I could see the car and have the mechanic explain everything he’d tried.

So last Wednesday I drove about an hour to where the car was in Rowley, Massachusetts. I found the repair shop and met Carl for the first time. Lovely gentleman! The car was sitting on the edge of the parking lot.

Diamond Black with a black non-sport interior, it looked better than I expected on a walk-around. Though a little forlorn and the worse for the wear, with a sagging front air dam, there was a positive spark of energy between us (as opposed to an animal-shelter-like situation where the dog is snarling in the back of its cage while the manager is trying to convince you that it’s “good with children”).

There was a little rust bubbling on the rear wheel arches, and a little rust around the plug on the passenger floor, but clearly it wasn’t a parts car. The ECU—was it mine?—was hanging in the glovebox, and the fan and viscous clutch were in the trunk, but other than that it seemed largely together. There seemed to be ample space between this car and the cliff.

Then Mike, the shop owner, came out. First he nearly bowled me over when he said that he was reading my book. Then he explained everything he’d tried; the car, he said, was presenting two different problems. Initially there was a no-spark condition, which they’d largely solved by fiddling with the main relay and changing both crank sensors. The second problem was that once the car started, it ran eye-wateringly rich.

Mike explained that they made sure that the cold-start valve wasn’t stuck open, the wiring harness to the injectors wasn’t grounded, and tested the pinouts on the ECU (yes, they’d swapped mine—it was in fact what was in the car now—to no avail). Whatever was wrong with the car, clearly it wasn’t going to be as simple as swapping the voltage regulator was on the last ’85 635CSi.

Carl and I then hung around for another hour talking about life, kids, and cars. At the end of the conversation, I needed to make a final decision. I did what any of you would’ve done: I said, “Well, clearly it’s not a parts car, and it’s got a good vibe to it, and I can’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t take you up on your gracious offer—so, yes, I’ll take it.”

And this is how the car that he got from his son’s girlfriend’s father went to me, his daughter’s boyfriend’s father. We joked that in German, there must be a deliciously long, complicated, and very precise word describing the relationship that the previous previous owner and I have through the car (“gift from my son’s girlfriend’s father’s son’s girlfriend’s father” translates as, if you remove the spaces, to geschenkvonmeinemsohnfreundinvatervatersohnfreundin, which may not be technically correct, but has the right mojo).

Sometime next week, a dead black-on-black five-speed shark will grace my driveway, putting my vehicle counter back up to twelve. I’ll stick it down at the end of the driveway, in front of the Rialta, until I have the time to deal with it. The plan will be to finish installing the solar panels on the Rialta, then the a/c retrofit of the other 635CSi (which is currently occupying the prime spot in the garage on the mid-rise lift), then pull the black shark into the garage (which means towing it up the slight hill on the driveway, then rolling it back down into the garage). Then I’ll suss it out, see what’s what, and begin the process of engaging the giant sucking sound associated with a free car. That should occupy my early fall.

Unless someone, you know, gives me a free boat. Or another Lotus.—Rob Siegel

Rob’s new book, Ran When Parked: How I Resurrected a Decade-Dead 1972 BMW 2002tii and Road-Tripped it a Thousand Miles Back Home, and How You Can, Too, is now available on Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.