About two years ago, when I was underemployed at my geophysics job, but hadn’t yet taken the position at Bentley Publishers, I had a lot of time on my hands. I’d search endlessly on Craigslist and go and look at virtually any inexpensive, promising-sounding vintage BMW within two hundred miles. I also took two- and three-thousand-mile road trips to MidAmerica 02Fest, Sharkfest, and the Vintage. As a logical combination of these two activities, I became obsessed with the idea of buying a mechanically-challenged vintage BMW sight-unseen on eBay or Craigslist, flying in to pick it up, doing the minimum necessary sort-out, road-tripping it home with the appropriate Hack Mechanic intravenous bags attached, and writing about the adventure.

If you think about it—which I did, quite a bit—there are two goalposts between which you need to kick such a car. If the car is dead and clearly past the point of reasonable expectation of easy resurrection, thinking that you’re going to occupy some driveway or parking lot for a few days and simply lay your hands on it and resuscitate like the Red Woman did to John Snow and then pilot it cross-country is unrealistic. But on the other hand, if the car is fully mechanically sorted out, or if you pay a local wrench to go through it and address its foibles prior to your big trip, where’s the challenge, much less the article, in that?

After much thought, I determined that there is, in fact, a Goldilocks Zone, a magic set of enabling of just-right criteria to pull off such an adventure. First, the car has to be capable of being started and driven off the property, or coaxed into doing so with minimal (e.g., several hours) work. Second, you need to have a friend or relative within a hundred-mile radius; fifty is better, ten is better still. Together, these two things should enable you to buy the car, get in it, aim it at the first night’s destination, hit the gas, and pray to whatever gods look after you.

During the first half mile, you’ll likely be frantically scribbling down notes or dictating them into your phone, and accumulating a punch list of parts you need to order, and things you need to do—with luck, increasing your life-insurance coverage won’t be one of them—in order to avoid, or at least forestall, death by the side of the Interstate. If the car makes it the hundred miles to your brother-in-law’s house, you can begin ordering parts, crash on his sofa, and figure out which repairs are immediately necessary and which can wait another 500 or 1,000 miles.

Of course, your brother-in-law will begin pondering whether it was indeed a smart idea to marry your sister, when her brother is clearly such an untethered whack job.

Now, my friend Tom Samuelson, with whom I have discussed this notion quite a bit (we have a fantasy in which I buy a 2002 and he buys a Volvo Amazon in the same city, and we hopscotch them home and see which one dies first), says that I’m massively overthinking this situation. In Tom’s view, the worst that happens is that the car dies, and you wave your magic electronic wand and turn your cell phone and credit card into a U-Haul box truck and auto-transporter, and simply load the hobbled purchase and keep driving. I regard this is a worst-case contingency plan, akin to stockpiling bottled water and ammo, neither of which is my style.

But as far as overthinking it, guilty as charged; I overthink most things. But with age come wisdom, and part of wisdom is trying to avoid things that you know are going to suck, or at least be massively inconvenient.

A few years back, I found what I believed was a good candidate for this madness: an early 2002, maybe a ’70, on the West Coast, painted powder blue with two yellow stripes down the center. I referred to it as the Bathmat. It had no gas tank and smoked like a chimney, but a video showed it being driven around the owner’s property with a rubber gas line stuck into either a 2½-gallon gas jug or a can of Monster energy drink. (At that time, I was looking at several mechanically-challenged cars jury-rigged in several creative ways; now they run together in my mind).

But there was another problem: the Sierra Nevada. In my first book, I wrote extensively about how to make a vintage car dependable, going on at length about how cooling system, fuel delivery, ignition, and charging issues are the most likely things to cause your trip to come to an abrupt halt, and how things like brakes, exhaust, and suspension are important, but are unlikely to flip the binary switch from car-goes to car-doesn’t-go. However, the route from the Left Coast to Boston would literally take me right over Donner Pass—in winter. So first, the brakes need not only to work but to function well enough to forestall swerving, fiery mountain-pass death. Second, it’s one thing to make sure a 2002 isn’t riding on cracked 40-year-old Michelin XAS tires, but with the Sierra Nevada in winter, we’re talking chains.

Third, Donner Pass carries the hovering specter of cannibalism, so one must choose one’s travel companions carefully.

The Bathmat’s seller may have had this and other things in his mind when I e-mailed him, telling him of my plan to poke and prod his 2002 on his property for a few hours and then aim it at Boston and hit the gas, because he responded—and I am not making this up—“This e-mail must be spam, because no one would possibly propose something so stupid.”

While my Donner Pass concerns are all valid, in fact, you can’t have it both ways: You can’t have a hair-brained gonzo devil-may-care adventure and simultaneously rationalize all the risk out of it. So, not surprisingly, someone else swooped in and bought the Bathmat.

Then, in January 2015, Bentley Publishers hired me full-time, and with gainful employment went the ability to drop everything and follow fool’s errands—for about two years, anyway. Fast-forward to now: I am no longer employed at Bentley. I am in Denver, out on the prairie east of the Front Range, more than halfway through a roughly two-month stint of geophysical surveying for my old job. There’s a bit more geophysics work for me in the new year, but it’s less than full time. So, metaphorically, I have my whole life behind me, and an uncertain future ahead of me.

And a thought hit me: It’s all downhill from here.

I mean, to get back home: It’s all downhill! The Rockies are literally behind me; I watch the sun set over them every evening. To the east, there’s nothing but the Kansas cornfields that drove the late great Dan Erwin to detail the deleterious effect they have on a motorist’s sanity. This means that if I buy some hobbled beast somewhere around this neighborhood, it’s literally all gentle rolling downhill from here to the freaking Mississippi river. No tire chains. No swerving, fiery mountain-pass death. No hovering specter of cannibalism. Just a hell of a lot of corn and a steady throttle.

So I’ve been doing what any red-blooded car guy would be doing: looking for bottom-feeder vintage BMWs.

I have, however, been finding few in the Denver area. So I widened my Craigslist search, taking it as far south as Albuquerque, and expanding it to some of the odder cars that blow my skirt up: Lotuses. TVRs. God help me, Triumph GT6s. Vanagons. Vixens.

Wait, what?

Ah, the Vixen! Designed by Bill Collins after he designed the Delorean, the Vixen was an aerodynamic, lightweight, fuel-sipping driver’s RV with an innovative space-efficient interior design. The roof is low, allowing the vehicle to fit into a standard garage, but it’s hinged on the right side in a triangular pop-top arrangement that lets you walk around inside the Vixen while the vehicle is parked. The roof is raised pneumatically via the compressor that runs the vehicle’s air-ride system. Lower than most RVs, and looking something like the transporter from the television show Space 1999, the vehicle’s low weight and 0.295 drag coefficient allowed the manufacturer to claim 29 mpg and a top speed of 100 mph. Those figures were reportedly optimistic for most real-world driving, but the Vixen—technically the Vixen TD21, the “TD” standing for turbodiesel and the 21 connoting the length, barely longer than a full-sized Suburban—got rave reviews and developed a small following.

And why, exactly, are we writing about it? Because the Isuzu turbodiesel that Collins originally wanted to use wasn’t available in time, so instead he used the BMW M21 turbodiesel—the engine found in the 524td—mated to a five-speed Renault transaxle in a rear-mounted “pusher” configuration. Other than the M21 engine and the Renault transaxle, most of the Vixen’s components are from the GM parts bin; the front suspension, steering, brakes, heater, and air-conditioning are GM. The air-ride system is from a Cadillac. Only the clutch master cylinder is from Ford.

Unfortunately, the Vixen 21TD was never more than a clever, oddball niche RV. The sleek exterior and clever interior design were not enough to make up for the fact that they were underpowered and ill-suited to the longhill climbs that are part of real-world RV-ing in the American West. Fewer than 400 TDs were produced before low gas prices rendered the vehicle’s fuel efficiency a moot point. The 21SE followed, sporting a conventional GM gas engine, an automatic transmission, a taller fixed roof, and roof-mounted a/c (goodbye, garageability). A total of 587 coaches (376 TDs, 39 XC M21-powered non-camper limos, and 172 SEs) were built before Vixen bought the farm in 1989.

Despite the fact that many 21TDs now sport a non-original blue-and-white BMW roundel affixed to the back or the nose of the car—a few have even had kidney transplants—make no mistake, M21 turbodiesel or no, the Vixen is not a BMW RV. But the combination of the M21 engine, the novel design, and the very low production numbers have made the car something of a prodigal stepson in the BMW world. When an M21-powered Vixen shows up at a vintage BMW event, it draws crowds.

So, yeah, I want one. Besides, I thought, that Renault five-speed transaxle could keep the one in my dead Lotus company.

Plus, with the political turmoil roiling the country, you never know when you’ll need to head to Idaho in an RV and, uh, stockpile bottled water and ammo. (Or, in my case, head home to Massachusetts and stockpile Perrier and NPR podcasts.)

Like many other low-production vehicles, Vixens seem to bifurcate into two classes: examples in excellent condition and basket cases. Clean, well-maintained coaches have asking prices of upwards of $30,000, so this is not whim-able money.

Despite the coach’s rarity, there is a parts network. When Vixen went belly-up, many of its assets were purchased by enthusiasts who avidly support the Vixen Owner’s Association. And there are a few shops which specialize in repair and resale of the coaches.

Now, I should say that Maire Anne and I are not RVers, but we owned a ’69 Volkswagen Westfalia camper, and an ’80 Vanagon Westfalia after that, so we understand the appeal of a well-designed, minimal, fuel-efficient vehicle you can cook and sleep in. Since then, however, despite the considerable nostalgic pull of VW campers, I haven’t bought another, because, in truth, both Maire Anne and I like hotel rooms.

Having said that, imagine my surprise when I showed Maire Anne photos of a Vixen, pointing out the well-designed interior space (including the bathroom and shower), and she reacted with interest. Part of the appeal of the Vixen to both Maire Anne and me is that it appears to be just large enough to give you actual living space instead of simply being a cramped place to crash, while still being much more compact than a behemoth RV.

I wouldn’t quite say that the hunt was on, but the eyes were opened, and the Craigslist searches flowed.

It should be said that there are other boutique RVs that also have cult followings. If you want to go vintage American, the GMC Motorhome, built from 1973 through 1979, has a cult following. It uses the front-wheel-drive transaxle and Olds 455 engine from the Toronado. Despite the fact that it’s a “puller” (front engine, front-wheel drive), and the Vixen is a “pusher,” Bill Collins credits the GMC as a design inspiration for the Vixen, although he wanted to make the Vixen smaller than the GMC’s 26 feet.

If you want to go space-efficient and foreign, the Winnebago LeSharo is a similar size as the Vixen; it’s built on a Renault Trafic chassis, and, like the Vixen, it’s available with a manual transmission. And the LeSharo’s successor, the Winnebago Rialta, is based on a Volkswagen Eurovan. Like the Vixen, both the LeSharo and the Rialta have a reputation as being underpowered (though not the later VR6-powered Rialta). Because both of these are pullers, the slanted cab translates into less actual interior space than the Vixen.

Last winter, a muddy-end-of-the-pond Vixen showed up on Craigslist in Indiana. The ad said “starts and runs but does not drive.” I called and learned that the car was at a storage facility. The storage fees had gone unpaid, so the coach was now the property of the facility’s owner. It was being sold for him by his property manager. By the time I’d peppered the fellow with questions, requested photographs, and estimated transportation back to Boston via UShip, the owner learned the potential headroom in the car’s value and pulled it off Craigslist, continuing the long tradition of my attempts to exercise financial due diligence on these insane projects resulting in my losing them. (I cry to the heavens Don’t you understand that I’m really quite rational about all this, and the heavens smirk).

So you can imagine my interest when a Vixen popped up on Craigslist in Santa Fe for $4,900.

The ad had the following absolutely priceless I-swear-I-am-not-making-this-up two-word Hemingway-esque description: “It’s trashed.” The photos showed the exterior missing some of the unique fiberglass trim panels, turn signals, and headlight covers, and an interior that would’ve made a mobile porn studio look like a Radisson by comparison—but, hey, at least it didn’t look like it had been torn in half by a backhoe. One reaches for any justification when one is considering doing something profoundly stupid.

I googled the Santa Fe address listed in the Craigslist ad, and it mapped to a storage facility. A-ha, I thought, another Vixen being sold for unpaid storage fees! I won’t make the same mistake with this one that I made with the one in Indiana. I won’t call and ask a thousand questions, I’ll just go see it. My son Kyle lives in Santa Fe; I was planning on taking the weekend and driving down from Denver to see him anyway. Kyle’s in-laws, Mike and Jane, live in Santa Fe and had already invited me to stay with them. In addition to their being absolutely lovely people, Mike is a dyed-in-the-wool car guy, having owned a full assortment of Speedsters and Morgans. Plus, Mike had already offered that if I found a car in the Southwest, I could leave it at his house until I sorted it out and drove it home.

The more I thought about it, the better this was sounding.

One rather odd photo in the ad appeared to show much of the under-dash wiring exposed, and the steering column lying on the floor. But above it you could see that the column was still installed. Was the second column a spare? And why was a bunch of the wiring ripped out? But, hey, I thought, I’m the guy who wrote an auto electrical book. I’m not going to be scared off by a few hanging wires.

I need to add one more bit of spice to the pre-story. Before the end of my job at Bentley and my return to field geophysics, I thought that this was going to be the year that I rebooted my erstwhile singer-songwriter career. I’d already begun recording my long-delayed third CD (and if I weren’t here in Denver, it would be complete by now). I had this it-won’t-happen-but-it’s-fun-to-think-about fantasy of buying the Vixen and touring the country with Maire Anne doing singer/songwriter shows. The fact that I could fix it when it broke and submit my required quota of quasi-BMW-related Roundel content seemed like a perfect situation.

I swapped text messages with the seller of the Vixen, someone who identified himself as Naza. We set a time of 9:00 a.m. Saturday morning. I loaded up my rented Hyundai SUV (coincidentally, a Santa Fe) with some tools I have in the survey trailer. I also threw in a spare battery, a jug of Rotella diesel motor oil, and a five-gallon can of diesel in case I felt it appropriate to try and jump-start the long-dormant Vixen.

When Friday’s geophysics work was done in Denver, I beat a hasty exit and knocked out the 5½-hour drive to Santa Fe with ease, largely due to the 75-mph speed limit on I-25 most of the way down. The Santa Fe—the SUV, not the city—cruised nicely at 82. I arrived at Mike and Jane’s at about 8:30 in the evening.

Mike, car guy that he is, was interested in the tale of the Vixen, and asked if he could tag along when we went on Saturday morning to look. I suspect that his real role was to try to keep me out of trouble—that, and gently try to exercise veto power if the thing in fact proved to be a rat so hideous that it might endanger his property values.

When you’re faithful to your wife, when you don’t abuse alcohol or drugs, when your driving habits have become sedate, you have to get that rush of danger from somewhere. For me, it’s looking at hobbled cars, seeing what they really are and what they really need. I went to bed thinking Vixen-related thoughts. The next morning, as Mike and I headed off to the storage facility, I had no idea what was in store for me.

(Next week, the answer to the burning question: Is Rob really this stupid?)—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: www.robsiegel.com.