Last week, I described driving from Denver (read The Vixen That Wasn't, Part 1)—where I’m nearly through with a two-month geophysical survey—to Santa Fe in order to look at a BMW turbodiesel-powered Vixen 21TD RV being sold by somebody called Naza. The Craigslist ad showed a low $4,900 asking price, but the description literally consisted of the two words: “It’s trashed.” Lest you think I’m making this up:

Why, you may ask, was I interested in such an unappealing-sounding vehicle? First, there was the desire for an adrenaline-raising road trip in something that might not easily make it home. Second, I had a romantic desire to say, “Screw the rest of the world!”, run off with my darling Maire Anne, and become a touring singer/songwriter. And finally, you have to admit that between the Vixen and the dead Lotus Europa in my garage, there’s something compelling about owning the two most different vehicles on the planet that have a fiberglass body and a Renault five-speed transaxle.

The address listed in the Craigslist ad was that of a storage facility. The last muddy-end-of-the-pond Vixen I saw on CL was also at a storage facility, with the vehicle being sold for non-payment of fees. With that one, by the time I’d asked questions, requested pics, and tried to estimate shipping costs, the seller found out what it was worth and pulled the ad. I resolved that I wouldn’t over-ask and over-think this one; instead, I would simply go see it myself.

Fortunately, my middle son, Kyle, lives in Santa Fe. His in-laws, Mike and Jane, live there as well. They’re the nicest folks you’d ever want to meet, and Mike is a car guy who had already made me a standing offer that I could park any car I bought in the Southwest at their house until I figured out how to get it home. So one Friday after the geophysics work in Denver was done, I hopped in my rented SUV, pounded out the 5½ hours from Denver down to Santa Fe, and crashed at Mike and Jane’s.

In the morning, Mike and I drove to the address of the storage facility, arriving in a somewhat gritty part of Santa Fe. I peered through the fence and saw the Vixen sitting in a lot with a number of other trailers and RVs. It didn’t look too bad. The pop-top was raised, which I took as an omen of some degree of functionality.

After a bit, an elegant-looking woman about my age, with long silver hair and a long skirt, came out of a door at the corner of the facility and motioned me to pull my car through the gate. “I’m Naza,” she said.

Oh: Somehow I had figured that Naza must be a guy. I consider myself a sensitive new-age guy, largely free from the stain of sexism, but I have got to stop making these kinds of gender assumptions.

Naza invited Mike and I into the foyer of what was not a storage facility storefront; instead, it was obviously her home, nicely appointed with a new-age kind of feel. She handed me a piece of paper. “This is a copy of the title to the Vixen,” she said.

“Oh,” I responded, “you’ve already taken ownership for non-payment of storage fees?”

“No,” she said, “it’s mine. I’m the owner. I’ve had it for years.”

What I just said about assumptions.

“Do you know who Dean Shady is?” Naza asked.

“I’ve heard of him,” I said. “He was one of the Vixen gurus I’ve read about. Why?”

“He rebuilt the engine.”

Perfect, I thought. So the vehicle is trashed; big deal. It’s got a guru-rebuilt engine. Some fresh diesel, air in the tires, oil and filters, and I’ll be driving this baby eastward when my work in Denver is done.

Hope springs eternal when you haven’t got a clue.

Mike and I left the heavy items like the battery, the floor jack, and the five gallons of diesel in my rented SUV, took some of the essentials like the wrenches, the Tyvek suit, and the rubber gloves, and followed Naza out into the courtyard-like lot between storage units where the Vixen was sitting. The place was somewhat odd yet charming, sort of a hippie enclave with a vegetable garden and goats and chickens among a bunch of dead trailers and RVs, all nestled between the rows of storage units.

Naza said that she had appointments in town, but that we were free to stay and look at the Vixen for as long as we wanted. I asked her if she had the keys in case I wanted to tempt fate, dump a few gallons of diesel into the tank, and try to start it. She said, somewhat vaguely—perhaps even wistfully—that she hadn’t seen the keys in many years. I figured that with the vehicle’s ominous description, it was going to be whatever it was going to be—que Vixen Vixen?—and that lengthy questions and descriptions probably weren’t going to move the needle much, but I asked when the vehicle last ran. “About six years ago,” she said. Finally, I asked if she’d had any offers, and she said no.

That should’ve been the big tip-off.

As I walked toward, and then around, the Vixen, my heart sank. What had appeared largely whole and intact from my initial view from 50 feet away through the fence got worse and worse the closer I looked. Granted, the photos in the Craigslist ad did show the vehicle’s rough condition (and you’re a fool if you answer an ad that says “it’s trashed” and expect the car not to be, you know, trashed), and one person’s trashed is another person’s treasured, but trashed barely scratched the surface of the totality of the Vixen’s poor condition. The entire outside wore the scars from it having baked in the New Mexico sun for years. The fiberglass body looked like a cowering dog that had had all the moxie whipped out of it.

And I’m not just talking cosmetics, things like missing trim and dull finish and rock-hard rubber seals. This was way beyond that. It’s one thing for painted metal body panels to bake in the sun and for the paint to badly oxidize, but when fiberglass sits and bakes, if the gel coat with its UV protectant is gone, the fiberglass can warp, and that dynamic was present in spades. The Vixen’s hood, trunk, and most of the doors did not close correctly, and did not latch shut.

There was a wooden palette leaning against the right-hand door. I recalled seeing this in the CL ad, and assuming it was just some of the flotsam and jetsam of the storage area, but seeing it in the flesh, I realized that it was there because it was holding the right-side door closed.

The rear panels that enclose the radiators and cooling fans were hanging from the body at odd angles. One of the fiberglass panels that covers the access to the black-water tank was missing entirely. In addition, the rear window had a rock hole in it, and one side of the split front windshield was cracked. And with the Vixen’s low production numbers (fewer than six hundred were built), I assume these things aren’t easy finds at a pick-’n’-pull.

Next was the interior: oh my god. In the CL pics, it looked like a skanky mobile porn studio, but in the flesh, it was worse—much worse. Evidence of rodent activity was everywhere, and by “evidence,” I mean actual piles of rodent droppings on the bed. Mike literally and reasonably warned me not to go inside for risk of contracting hantavirus. The Tyvek suit and rubber gloves were insufficient; what I needed was Level A Hazmat gear with supplied air.

I didn’t even have a dust mask with me, so I’d take a deep breath outside the trailer, hold it while I went inside and poked around, then exit the trailer and get ten feet away before breathing again.

That said, it wasn’t that the vehicle emanated concussive waves of mouse urine like other cars I’ve looked at. It was just that the plainly visible rodent feces gave one, shall we say, pause. (Paws? Sorry.)

The Vixen’s nifty pop-top roof, hinged on the right side, appeared intact, and it was raised, showing the clever integrated screens and windows, but both the underside of the pop-top and the vehicle’s headliner were badly sagging and stained—with what, I dared not think. I imagined thousands of little hantavirus paratroopers sensing my presence, seeing the ample nesting material present in my graying hair, and commencing commando raids onto my head.

Rodent debris notwithstanding, I’m not sure there would ever be enough bleach in the world to convince Maire Anne that it would be safe to enter the bathroom.

Leaving the RV portion of the interior, I inspected the driver’s area. It, too, was a disaster. As was shown in the CL photos, the seats were torn, and wiring was hanging from beneath the steering column. But the disturbed wiring was quite a bit more extensive than shown in the pictures; the console and all the under-dash trim were either removed or hanging, and the area around the shifter had been exposed. Someone had likely been chasing some problem, and thus, any resurrection would require figuring out what that problem had been, undoing whatever partial damage had been done, fixing the problem, and then reassembling.

I tried to be objective. The RV-specific interior components—the wood-grain dividers, permanent bed, fold-out bed, bathroom, refrigerator, stove, and microwave—all appeared to be there, save the roll-down cover of the bread drawer. It’s just that, with the combination of the toxic level of filth, the non-toxic shabbiness, and the driver’s area’s partial disassembly, it was difficult to see things in a positive light. Which has to be one of the century’s great automotive understatements.

To me, the central question was whether the vehicle could be easily made to run, and the first step in determining that was seeing whether the engine was seized. So one of my breath-holding forays into Hantavirus Land was a mission to put the transaxle (or at least the shifter; it’s a cable linkage, so lord knows if I was actually shifting gears) into neutral in preparation for trying to rotate the engine. I exited the vehicle, oxygenated my blood, then lifted up the engine hatch—which was missing one hinge and its support mechanism— and propped it up with a nearby piece of wood. There was the BMW M21 turbodiesel engine—kind of fun to see it in there.

But I immediately noticed that the timing belt was completely exposed, the belt was off the water pump and alternator, and the bolts surrounding the thermostat were backed out. Someone had been in here, probably trying to fix whatever caused the poor Vixen to be parked.

I took the socket set I’d brought and tried to affix a 22-mm socket and wrench to the harmonic balancer on the crankshaft pulley, but I found that owing to clearance issues in the engine bay, I couldn’t get the ratchet and socket on the nut. I switched to a 22-mm end wrench and used another wrench on the end of that for leverage. Crawling beneath the vehicle, I put my foot on the end of the second wrench, but I could not budge the engine. Now, this did not absolutely prove that the engine was seized; the transaxle could’ve still been in gear, and diesels with their high compression are harder to spin than gas engines. But it didn’t bode well.

I had brought a battery and jumper cables, and crawled under the vehicle to look at the starter and solenoid location, but they were way up high. Besides, without being able to budge the engine by hand, engaging the starter didn’t make sense. If anything, if the engine was actually bound up, it could cause damage.

While I was poking around in the engine compartment, a young man walked up. “You’re interested in the Vixen?” he asked.

“Yes. Naza said I could look at it while she was in town.”

“Naza? Oh, you mean my mother, Sally.”

The young man then rapidly gave me the Vixen’s backstory in detail. He explained that his mother had actually given the Vixen to his brother, that it had died in California six years ago, and had been towed back to Santa Fe. He said, with some amount of bravado, that he was a mechanic and never met a system that he couldn’t fix, and that when the Vixen was towed back from California, he discovered that it was leaking diesel fuel out the intake manifold, but that it was his brother’s, not his, and he didn’t have the time to deal with it. He also offered that his brother was still very attached to the vehicle and didn’t want his mother to sell it.

He then said that the Vixen had a boat engine in it.

I said that I was generally aware that BMW diesels had a marine heritage, but did not know which boats used an M21 engine.

“No,” he said, “I mean that this engine that was put into this Vixen came out of an actual boat.” How that related to Naza telling me that Dean Shady had rebuilt the engine, I hadn’t a clue.

I listened intently to Naza’s son, not quite sure how to react. Finally I said, “Obviously, you have a lot of information that would be very important to any potential buyer. Could I have your e-mail address in case I need to ask for clarification?” He declined, essentially saying he was giving me that information here and now. I didn’t push it.

I later researched the whole BMW marine-diesel thing, and learned that in the 1980s, BMW bought marine-diesel engines from the company VM Motori in Bologna, Italy, and re-badged them as BMW engines. Coincidentally, I found a quote from Bill Collins, the Vixen’s designer, saying that he had considered using a VM engine in the Vixen, but that one of the reasons the BMW M21 was selected for the Vixen “was the rub-off of the BMW mystique and reputation. I would much rather expound on the virtues of the BMW diesel to a prospective dealer or customer than to try to explain who VM in Bologna, Italy, was.”

I am not terribly familiar with BMW’s M21 engine, but from the photos I took, the engine in Naza’s Vixen sure looks like an M21, and I can find no web trail of M21s being used in marine applications. If her son is right that the engine “came out of an actual boat,” I can only assume it was a one-off installation.

While I was at the back of the vehicle, I noticed a decal for North Cedar Repair in Mechanicsville, Iowa. I later found information on the web indicating that this had been Dean Shady’s shop. At least something made sense.

I held my breath and went back inside the vehicle one more time to address the question of why the CL photos showed a spare steering column lying on the floor. There it was, at the base of the driver’s seat. I grabbed the steering wheel—the one that was still attached to the vehicle—and began to turn it. The entire upper section of the column flopped like a broken neck on a baby giraffe. Whether this had anything to do with the AWOL keys, I didn’t know. Like any isolated repair, this wasn’t the end of the world—I replaced the steering column in my 3.0CSi—but jeez, Louise, was there any part of this coach that was intact?

It had been perhaps only 30 minutes since I was naively wondering if I could pour in some fresh diesel, hook up a battery, and jump-start the long-dormant Vixen. It felt like a week had gone by.

There wasn’t really much else to do. I circled the Vixen one final time, seeing if I’d missed something that would allow me to reclassify it as something other than the disastrous money pit and health hazard it so clearly was. Mike pointed out, “With all these unique pieces missing, you’d need a parts car.”

I deadpanned, “Mike, this is the parts car.”

As Mike and I drove back to his house, I do what I so often do: I let the image of the vehicle wash over my mind. It was a pretty disgusting image. I wanted to wash my mind out with bleach. If I were to buy this Vixen, not only might the CDC come down on my butt for importing hantavirus into the eastern United States, there was real risk that Maire Anne might never set foot in it, much less sleep with me in it, which, you have to admit, takes away a good part of the appeal (I mean, if there’s no vixen in the Vixen…).

Okay. Let’s step back and assess if there is any opportunity here whatsoever.

With these hobbled vehicles, bad overall condition is often greater than the sum of the individual problems. If the Vixen ran but the interior was trashed, I’d be all over it. If the glass was broken, and unique exterior parts were missing, and fiberglass doors didn’t close or latch, but the engine turned and the car didn’t have the specter of contamination with a fatal pulmonary disease, I could probably deal with it at a fire-sale price. Or, if it was in generally good shape but cheap because it needed an engine, the whole road-trip-it-home thing would be out the window, but it might still make sense to ship it.

But other than the interior being largely complete, this one needed everything. It hadn’t run in six years. The engine appeared to be seized. Major and minor parts were missing. Wiring was hanging. There were no keys. The steering column had some major mechanical problem. It had been open to the elements. There were visible piles of mouse turds, which was more than simply gross because it was being sold in the state with the highest incidence of hantavirus in the country. From a relentlessly practical standpoint, if you took the tack that a flamethrower would need to be taken to every porous surface due to the combination of stains, smell, and hantavirus risk, that decision alone would render the vehicle un-buyable. And I hadn’t even attempted to assess the state of any of the RV’s electrical, climate control, or plumbing systems.

The very thought of opening up the gray or the black-water valves was terrifying. Hell, some new life form may well have evolved inside the tanks.

I look at a lot of challenged vehicles. This one was world’s worse than those two $4,000 beat-to-hell 850i six-speeds, and was rivaled only by the Turkis 2002 in the junkyard in Wendell, Massachusetts, whose body was solid but was missing its drivetrain, and whose interior smelled like it had been submerged in a swamp. (Granted, I did buy the Lotus knowing it had a seized engine, but it had 20,000 original miles and was stored indoors). Even I have my limits, and the Vixen exceeded them.

And, to get back to the original topic of my road-trip craving, the idea of parking it at Mike’s house—staying for a week after my survey in Denver ends, sorting it out, and driving it home—was utter fantasy. Mike was more direct. “If it was free, and they offered to tow it to my house for free, I still wouldn’t take it,” he said.

Given that Mike is my son’s father-in-law, and the person upon whose good graces I would be relying if I tried to do the sort-it-out-in-his-driveway thing, while he wasn’t directly saying, “Don’t you dare buy this pile of pooh and leave it at my house,” it was clearly an opinion that I needed to listen to.

Still, there’s cachet in owning a Vixen. And if anyone should own the Worst Vixen in America, well, it’s this guy.

So I bought it anyway.

Had you going there for a moment, didn’t I? Maire Anne, too; that was the exact text I sent her. And you have to admit that “I bought it anyway” would make a great story. As I said in my first book, many times I’ve looked at a car, thought, “This thing is overpriced junk,” swung around to, “But I’ve never seen one this cheap; wonder what they’ll take,” and wound up with, “What did I just do?!” in my driveway. And it often works out okay. I find myself thinking that my 3.0CSi was not, in fact, in much better condition than the Vixen when I bought it (my neighbor looked at the collection of paint, bondo, primer, accident damage, and missing glass, and memorably said, “Is that supposed to be worth something?”).

I disagreed with Mike. I certainly wouldn’t pay the $4,900 asking price, but I would take it for free. Of course, it wasn’t free.

So what was the play? Was there one?

Here’s how relentlessly rational I am about decisions like this that are fundamentally irrational. Here are my actual notes from when I was trying to decide why I shouldn’t roll the dice, call up Naza, offer her a thousand bucks, and deal with the aftermath:

So what would make me buy it?

  • If it made any kind of sense.
  • If I thought it wasn’t a fool’s errand.
  • If I thought there was any reasonable chance that it could be fixed at Mike and Jane’s and driven home (although I’d look funny driving on the Interstate wearing a moonsuit).
  • If I thought it made sense paying for shipping back to Newton.
  • If I thought I wouldn’t lose my freaking shirt.
  • If I was home and it was near my house, it would be very different.

If shipping to Newton, how do you transport a dead motorhome?

  • Uship: estimates from about $800 to about $1,600. You should always assume the higher estimate.
  • Do the doors have to shut to ship it? Do the steering wheel and the e-brake have to work? I don’t even know if it goes in and out of gear, or if it rolls, or if it stops.
  • Could I have Kyle manage the process of dragging it out of the yard and preparing it for transport to Newton?
  • I would need to move Old Blue and the Suburban to put the dead Vixen at the bottom of the driveway. That alone might take a day. And all three dormant cars would eat up nearly all the driveway space.
  • How do you safely unload and position a 6,000-pound RV with unknown brakes, a malfunctioning steering column, and no keys?

If I have it shipped home, it abrogates the whole idea of the road trip, so it had damn well better make sense.

What is the cost of a 524td engine?

  • Certainly more plentiful and cheaper than a Lotus-Ford twin cam.
  • Engine was also in the ’84 and ’85 Lincoln Continental and Mark IV.
  • Found one on CL in California for $800.

Naza probably won’t sell it for a thousand bucks—maybe more like $2,500. With tow and engine, bare minimum of five grand. Still have to deal with the interior, the steering column, the wiring, and all the unknowns of a dead RV that hasn’t moved in six years.

So you already know it makes no freaking sense, but you want to do it anyway. How well did that work out the last time you tried it, Lotus Boy?

Are you shying away from it because you think Maire Anne won’t ever sleep with you in it?

  • The thought had crossed my mind, yes.

Does it make sense to make another trip to Santa Fe and try again to rotate the engine? Is that really the gating function? Because there’s little realistic hope of getting it running and driving it home if I have to put an engine in it, but there’s some hope if I don’t?

  • Take out the injectors or glow plugs to reduce compression. Need to do that from the engine-access hatch inside the car. That involves pulling up the mattress and spending time where there’s no air circulation. I don’t think so.
  • Verify that the transmission is in neutral.
  • Try rotating the engine again.
  • Am I willing to take another weekend and drive back and forth to Santa Fe to do this? And would I buy it if the engine rotated?

With all the things going on in my life (and in the country), and with the dead Lotus still glowering at me from the corner of the garage, awaiting its engine, is this where I want to be spending a metric ton of my time?

Direct questions are great because they can often be answered directly:

No, it doesn’t.

No, it isn’t.

No, I’m not.

No, I probably still wouldn’t, unless it was dirt-cheap.

And no, it isn’t.

We’re done here.

But I found it hard to accept “We’re done here” as the answer. I kept checking to see if the CL ad was still up. Oddly enough, I thought about a show I watched years back on NOVA about the resurrection of the B-29 bomber Kee Bird that had been sitting on the Greenland ice sheet since 1947, only to catch fire and burn down to the airframe as it was taxiing, about to take its maiden flight. Darryl Greenamyer, the person in charge of the project, said that after the disaster, he kept thinking that there was something else to do up there on the ice sheet. But there wasn’t.

That’s how I felt about the Vixen—that there was something else to do.

Around this time, another Vixen 21TD showed up on Craigslist. It was on the Chemehuevi Reservation in Lake Havasu City, Nevada, in the middle-of-nowhere triangle between Los Vegas, Phoenix, and LA. The asking price was fifteen grand. It looked pretty nice. But there’s a big difference between $4,900 and fifteen grand—exactly $10,100 I don’t have right now. And it was a thousand miles from where I was in Denver, beyond the go-have-a-look-at-it-over-the-weekend limit imposed by my work-related travel, and without any easy cheap fly-in. In a few days, it was off CL, clearly having been snatched up.

Then another Vixen appeared in Portland, Oregon, for five grand—a running GM-powered 21SE with the inside completely gutted and the fixed roof partially removed in preparation to yank it off and install the lower tilting roof from a 21TD. Buy both and put the TD’s pop-top and interior into the SE? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense: the world’s first hantavirus transplant.

I found myself asking one final central question: If the ad for Naza’s Vixen came down off Craigslist, and I learned that someone else paid a thousand bucks for it, would I regret it? I had to think hard about that one.

I decided to lob Naza a hypothetical softball. I texted her, sending her the link to last week’s article, telling her that she might start getting calls from people who had seen it, and saying, “If the vehicle was near where I live in Boston, and cost a thousand dollars, I would probably make it happen, but the logistics of buying it remotely and trying to get it home don’t make sense. Plus, I’m finding needy but running Vixens in the $5,000 to $15,000 range.”

She didn’t take the bait, saying only, “Dear Rob, thank you very much for your kind consideration.”

There is one final twist to the story. After Part I was published, I received a Facebook message from Dustin Cross at AFAB in Belgrade, Montana, the company that operates the website They sell and service the coaches, and have a stockpile of Vixen parts. Dustin had seen Part I; he asked if I had bought the Vixen, and said, “If you need some help sorting out what you have, or what you need, let me know.”

I spent an hour on the phone with Dustin, and learned a ton. Vixens are AFAB’s business, so it was no surprise that Dustin was not only aware of the coach, he had in fact already been in contact with Naza. He confirmed that if I couldn’t turn the engine with a long wrench, the engine was probably seized. He said that rebuild parts for M21 engines are getting very dear, and good used engines are becoming hard to find. He advised that using the motor from a Lincoln is a fair amount of extra work due to the different pan, oil pump, and accessory-mounting holes; he told me that it’d be much easier to buy a coach in this condition if I already had a good M21 engine ready to install.

Dustin added that windshields are available, but a front and rear pair, shipped and installed, would set me back around two grand. He noted that in the CL photos, the clutch pedal is on the floor, so the vehicle probably needs clutch hydraulics. He told me about the Vixen’s troublesome Powermaster brakes that come from a Buick Grand National, and how exciting it is to experience booster failure while driving a 6,000-pound vehicle. He advised me that the hantavirus risk dissipates within days of removing the mice and cleaning the debris, but that rodents can leave behind a lot of chewed wires. And he told me that the guy who bought the $15,000 Vixen in Lake Havasu City was about to fly in, pick it up, and drive it to his shop in Montana, and that he’d lay even odds that it comes in on a flatbed.

To say that I owe Dustin a few beers is a massive understatement.

Finally, Dustin said that he thought someone should save Naza’s Vixen, but that its value is severely capped. My gut-level reaction of “a thousand bucks if it was around the corner, but shipping it cross country puts it at the edge of sensibility” sounded about right to him. He didn’t rush out and buy it, but he hoped that a customer of his would.

The honest—and I believe the final—answer is this: At some point, your head and heart meet, and together they make a decision. But not making a decision is a decision as well—to paraphrase William James—because if you make no offer, you don’t wind up with the goods.

This was the longest, hardest think-through about a potential purchase that I can recall. Finding a 524td engine within pick-up distance of my house in Newton would probably be enough to tip the scales. But absent that, the only positive of this coach is low cost, with a complete (though trashed) interior—and that’s just not enough.

I deeply and sincerely regret the entertainment value that I will be unable to provide for my readers. I love you people, and I know that you’re rooting for me to buy this thing—hell, I’m rooting for me to buy this thing—but I’m sorry; that’s just not enough, either. I’ve bought my share of dead cars and brought them back from the brink. Some made sense; others didn’t. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody.

I’m going to do what everyone advises with cars and try and find one that’s in better shape—meaning any other Vixen on the planet—paying more money in the short term to save money and a boatload of frustration in the long term. And I’ve joined the Vixen forum, and read with interest about one coach with an M20 engine, and another with an M50.

So, we’re done, right?

Yeah, we’re done.

(Next week: See if we’re done.)

(But, yeah, we’re done.)

(But I bought it anyway. Just kidding.)—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: