How To Make A Long-Distance Road Trip In An Old Car Not So Intimidating

Photos: Raphael Orlove

I’d love to tell you that our voyage across the country in a 1970 BMW 2500 has been fraught with danger, stress, ingenious repairs by the side of the road, and last-minute wrenching heroics just as we run out of daylight.

But the truth is — and I’m trying desperately not to jinx us here — everything’s been going well so far. In fact, it’s left me nervous, wondering what will go wrong.

For me, this trip has also been about confronting some of my more irrational deep-seated fears and anxieties.

When my friend Clay told me he was buying Sam Smith’s old BMW sedan but was reluctant to just have it shipped from Seattle to the DC area where he lives — where’s the fun in that? — I immediately jumped at the opportunity and signed up to drive it to the US East Coast. Why the hell not? It’d be a great story, one way or another.

But when I actually got there and started driving this ancient machine eastward through Seattle’s midday traffic, 4500km ahead of us in a car nearly half a century old, the only thing going through my head was: What the hell was I thinking?

Deep down, I knew I could do it. It’s just driving, steadily and carefully, with some fixes when needed and a good sense of when to throw in the towel. But the fear-brain can be a powerful thing. Doubt is a powerful thing.

That was before my co-pilot Raphael Orlove and I got to know this car, and what a impressive machine it is. It’s a tough road-trip tank, built and made ready for just this kind of thing. And so far, it’s done great. We’ve crossed almost half the country at this point with no problems but a broken speedometer needle.

Of course, no old car can just do this out of the gate. We’ve had a ton of help. Sam worked on the car to get it ready. So did Jalopnik reader Jay Swift, who fixed its ignition issue and installed an electric outlet box to charge our gear. And Raph and I prepared extensively, filling the trunk with tools, tape, coolant, oil, hoses, clamps, and just about anything else we’d need.

When I texted Sam last night to tell him I was worried what could happen, he told me this:

“Oh stop. Don’t be silly. Old BMWs just go. The car was prepped to go long distance by me and at least one person before me. The things that I told you are true! It’s either going to be fine or have some stupid small thing that hurts it. Just check the oil and watch the water temp and keep driving. And enjoy it.”

He added: “Road trips in old cars aren’t scary if you make a list of the shit that can fuck you and then address it.”

Which, I think, is exactly what we’ve done so far. We check the oil and coolant level fastidiously at every stop and are ultra-conservative on filling up (the petrol gauge doesn’t really work). We double and triple check with each other that that noise or that smell isn’t something new or weird or bad.

The weather has certainly helped so far too — no rain, no snow, and plenty of nice, cold air to keep the engine running well. I want to pull the spark plugs today too just to make sure they look alright.

So preparation is of course huge, both on the front end and the equipment side. But Raph and I figured this out too: A huge trip across the country isn’t so intimidating when you think of it as a series of steps, of smaller goals to accomplish.

It isn’t a drive to New York City. It’s a drive to lunch, yesterday afternoon. Then to the North Dakota border. Then to Bismarck. Then a few hours to Minneapolis today.

One step at a time, that’s all it is.

I’m not getting cocky here. I refuse to. But I’m feeling good about things, and I know we couldn’t have asked for a better partner than this machine.