The Ska Barge improvement program.
My good friend Tom Bromley wrote a piece for his blog, Tom Bromely talks cars, about emotion as a driving factor in the purchase of a vehicle. Tom’s articles are definitely well worth a read, but on this occasion for the first time, I was left in total disagreement, as he suggested that emotion would be the primary reason for buying a Mercedes G Class. I’m a fan of the Gelandewagen. It’s an aspiration of mine to hook up an Airstream to one and drop off the grid and see how far east I can get. I know the AMG tuned G Class has become quite a status symbol in recent years and Tom’s description of it as a ‘tremendously ostentatious, militant middle finger to the conservative and practical’ is not without merit. Like the land cruiser VX, the G wagon’s reputation is built on simple, durable, engineering. If I were to break a coil spring in downtown Kotor, Montenegro, I would stand a much better chance of having the local garage being able to repair my G Class than if I’d rocked up in a Range Rover Vogue.
I felt Tom had really missed a trick in choosing the G Class as a vehicle to tackle this topic. I simply felt that what he had discussed was the pursuit of status. I told Tom this and he said the idea was to compare the AMG G wagon’s trend bucking swagger to that of Donald Trump’s frightening success in the American elections, showing how emotion can override logic. After a constructive debate I still couldn’t buy it and it got me thinking about my own emotional attachment to vehicles, so what follows is a very personal account of an emotional automotive purchase, my 1985 732i, which I affectionately refer to as the Ska Barge.
In 2012 I attended the Retro Rides gathering with my good friend Matt. Retro Rides is such a fantastic show for me because of the diversity of largely forgotten and unusual retro vehicles. Where else would you see a tobacco green Cavalier SRI parked next to a Fiat Strada. The car that first grabbed my attention was a gold BMW E23 730i, and as we walked along discussing this amazing retro exotica I began to tell Matt that as a child I’d admired a two tone black and silver E23, that belonged to the village doctor. As a child I thought it was amazing and that I wanted to buy it one day. Matt responded by saying, “Like that one over there?!” And there it was, bold as brass, the very car I’d walked past on my way to school everyday, bruised, battered but, most importantly, for sale.
Standing in the morning sun majestically like a crumbling stately home, I couldn’t believe it was the same car. I rang a friend who lived locally and who I was sure would remember the registration. He recalled it being an S reg and this was wearing a B prefix. I ran my eye over the car and the passage of time had not been kind. The panel above the lights had rusty holes in it and somebody had obviously tried to break into it by levering a crow bar between the two doors on the passenger side. There was lacquer peel all over the bonnet, the body was covered in deep scratches and the interior was ruined! There it was though, and it had to be the same car. As Matt pottered up behind me, I looked down to see etched into the glass the private registration and remembered it immediately. The whole car was badly damaged tired and rusty but I couldn’t walk away.
After I had been stood by the car for about 10 minutes a bright, jolly character wearing hideous sunglasses appeared. Tim introduced himself and explained he’d bought the car from the Swindon area to break it for spares because it had a rare E28 M5 gearbox and flywheel. “Hang on a minute,” I thought, I glanced through the window whilst desperately trying to seem unimpressed and noticed the car was indeed a manual. In all the years I’d walk past it as a child I’d been unaware that it was a rare factory manual car. Tim had researched the car pretty well and discovered the car had been ordered in Polaris Sliver and then the Diamond Schwartz had been added at the dealer in Inverness where it had originated. Tim had bought the car from a guy local to me who had saved it from the back of a scrap lorry. The story went that the doctor had become ill, the car had ended up being parked in the pub car park opposite his house. The pub closed, concrete bollards where put in place to stop entry and the poor 7 series had remained trapped in their for years. Most of the damage had been caused through vandalism but in an odd sort of way being trapped in there had probably also saved it from being scrapped much earlier until the land was sold for development.
Tim was well aware of its value as parts, and knew that the car was worth a lot more in bits than the £1100 he had advertised it for, but he admitted that the charm and character of such a striking motorcar had worked its magic on him. He said it just gets looks everywhere you go, people love it. A phrase my cousin had once said to me after a particularly lavish day out in London sprang to mind, “Just a couple of gangsters doing some gangster shit”. I took his number and agonised over it for the rest of the day, three days later I called. My ears were met by the sound of loud music and Tim screaming down the phone that he was at a festival, and that he’d call me back in a couple of days, he never did.
Rob slid out from under an E34 535i SE, to confirm my fears that the exhaust manifold was indeed cracked. Where the hell am I going to get one of those? Try Tim, I tried everyone else first but later that day I found myself dialling Tim’s number, he recognised me immediately and the first thing he said was why didn’t you ever call me about the E23? I was taken aback, I did, I exclaimed, you never called me back. He was adamant that he had and recited the number he’d been calling, it wasn’t my number.
It took me another month to find a reason to buy the car, thankfully my then daily did its crank seal and started leaking oil all over the clutch making it almost impossible to drive. I immediately decided the most sensible cost effective alternative to my stricken daily which ran on LPG was to buy a battered unknown 7 series which did not run on LPG. Christmas was coming and it seemed the ideal car for winter.
I grabbed my long suffering road trip buddy to drive me up to Northampton and parted with £950 for my very own crumbling stately home. Tim warned me the fuel gauge lied, the ABS didn’t work and the heater was terrible, he wasn’t wrong. It turned out that even though he was knee high in M30 spares he’d never bothered to change the failed thermostat. I drove home feeling like the lord of the manor with a smile running from ear to ear. Less than a week later the failed thermostat theory was proven on the way to see Rancid perform in Bristol on a freezing cold evening in December, after having frozen all the way down we hit some traffic and as the needle rose the car got very warm indeed and had to pull over on the M32, windows down, sunroof open heater running full tilt so we could cool the engine down, we certainly got a lot of looks both admiring and confused.
A new thermostat was not the only thing on order by the end of the first week. I had been watching a bright red leather interior on eBay, which had been inaccurately advertised as being for an E24, it was in fact a cardinal red leather electric interior for an E23. Two tone… red leather… none more gangster I hear you say! The only problem was, the breaker with the interior had long since scrapped the car it came out of, this left me with my original green carpet and green plastic’s and a bright red leather interior giving a horrendous overall effect. This particular breaker also yielded a good nose panel and a rear blind. Despite the nose panel being black it turned out to be the wrong black so I had the bonnet and the nose panel re-sprayed.
Shortly after realising I was going to have to get a black interior from somewhere to deal with my ‘gnomes underpants’ interior, I remembered seeing a wreck of an E23 735i Highline for sale on the Retro Rides forum with an immaculate cherry leather interior with nearly all the optional extras one could wish for and the all important black carpets and plastics. I scrolled back through months worth of posts until I found it and sent the author a message, he said I was just in time, he was planning to scrap it that week. The problem came when he said it had to be gone by the end of the week. It was his grandfather’s car, which had been sitting in the yard of the family business, and the business was sold and they were clearing the place. At the time I was doing an access to higher education course at college, aged 26, so I could put myself through university. I was coming up to the final exams but the guy was insistent that it went by the end of the week and either I took it or it went to scrap. It was a no brainer…
Just in case you find yourself dead in Newton Abbot
So the guy had been a little cagey about what the family business was, and it was a funeral parlour. I went halves on what became known as the Devon 7 with my long suffering road trip buddy Paul, who’d had an E23 back in the day. The Ska Barge had rekindled his interest and he’d ended up buying an equally kronky 728i sport. The Devon 7 offered us both loads of bits we needed as both this car and Pauls where Diamond Schwartz. Another majestic wreck, this poor old 735 had once been the car the funeral director had used to visit clients. His grandson with whom I was dealing recalled being collected from school in it by his now infirm grandmother. Unfortunately despite being complete and in very good condition in a lot of respects, it had been parked on badly draining gravel and you could literally reach up inside the wheel arches and pull great chunks of rotten bodywork away, sealing its fate forever as a parts car. Despite not being started or moved in 3 or 4 years with a fresh battery we fired it up and drove it onto the trailer.
The Man from Eastbourne.
I don’t actually remember how I got in contact with Phil but initially he was my go to guy for all things E23. Phil had a bit of an obsession with 23’s. I think at the time he had 4 at home and 2 or 3 more squirreled away. He wasn’t mechanically minded or so he said, but he had had most jobs done and was very knowledgeable, he also had tons of spares. Three out of the 4 doors on the Ska Barge were trashed. The passenger doors were damaged as mentioned above and the rear driver’s door had rusted out at the bottom. Amazingly it transpired that within Phil’s stash he had a set of excellent Polaris Silver doors. I jumped into my dad’s estate car and hoofed it down to Eastbourne one weekend to acquire these much-needed parts. E23’s are the great forgotten of BMW’s 80’s range. They sold far fewer E23’s than E28’s and as with all 7 series cars they tend to be come obscure and less valuable more quickly than the 5’s or 3’s. They also become cheap engine donors when the cars reached the doldrums of their value and are the last to catch on when the values start to rise. Controversially I actually prefer them to E28’s and unsurprisingly I suppose being the flagship of the range they are better built and are much more car for the money. Their relative obscurity and at that point lack of value meant I was very lucky indeed to find such good doors in the right base colour.
In 2014, sadly just before the Ska Barge got its makeover of new doors and corresponding paint, I had the great honour and compliment of being asked by some dear friends if they could use the Ska Barge as their wedding car. Now, make no mistake, this is like cat nip to a petrol head. You actually said, “Steve we’d love to use your 7 as our wedding car because it’s so odd and quirky.” I heard, “It would make our day and probably be the most exciting and important thing that happens all day if you would be willing to let us use your insanely cool and quite possibly the greatest car in history as our wedding car so we could play some small part in the story of this wonderful machine, oh and if you could talk about it incessantly the whole time we are in it as well, that would be awesome!” I graciously accepted. On the day, the bride was radiant, the groom handsome and the car, well just look at it!!!
The Ska Barge did however get its revamp in time to once again steal the show. Fast-forward about 3 years and after a period of being laid up whilst I was at university, my newly acquired stepdaughter asked if she and her boyfriend might be able to use it as a prom car. This was music to my ears, finally an excuse to exhume it from storage, do a little work (welding) that was somewhat overdue and once again be able to stalk the roads in this awesome machine.
After replacing a brake calliper and fulfilling my prom contract I drove straight to my father’s house just south of Salisbury for the weekend. The return journey was akin to what dreams are made of… comparatively empty fast A roads with plenty of overtaking opportunities to really benefit from the torque the 3.2 M30 engine delivers. It was a rapturous journey home where I don’t mind saying I was spanking it all the way to the M30 in G major, that was until I turned into our street yards from the house and the timing chain tensioner let go! Luckily the chain didn’t jump and other than a hideous clattering sound causing me to shut the engine down immediately, no serious damage was sustained. The reality, sadly, was that I was a broke university student who had already spent well beyond my means to get the car back on the road for the prom. It therefore had to go back into storage once again, after being taxed for less than 72 hours.
Finally in 2018 as a present to myself and after issues with brake callipers I managed to once again return the car to the road. My girlfriend and I have both built up our own businesses since 2015 and in that time we have found the sanctuary and generally poor network coverage one experiences when camping, to have been of immense help in maintaining a good equilibrium. Anyone who has built a business will understand what I mean. We both however, like to sleep well and be warm, so our caravan suits us to a tee… What had always frustrated me however, about these wonderful trips, was that exploring the lovely British countryside, pub lunches, nice walks, trips to the coast, fancy restaurants etc were all done in my Jeep, which spent most of its life lugging the car transporter around and smelt like gearbox oil. After seeing a Mercedes 123 TE towing an equally 80’s caravan on a campsite in Abersoch, North Wales, I decided there and then that the thing to do was get a tow bar fitted to the Ska Barge ensuring that holidays would be more gangster from now on.
So my ownership of the Ska Barge started out with a romantic childhood notion and rose tinted view of what in reality was a rusty, beaten down, uneconomical and poorly maintained relic. In all honesty I used to leave it unlocked in the collage car park and ran ridiculously large wheels that de-geared the car making it terribly slow. Despite its panels and paint upgrade I have never really tried to make it perfect although it is now far more presentable than it was and that is because I love to use it. The joy I experience from driving it and the fact that I see it as an extension of my alter ego just makes me feel like a boss every time I get in it. It turns heads and generates conversation and I love it. In 2017 I turned down an offer of £10,000 for it. I did have to think about it and if I had really needed the money it may have been another story but ultimately how would I replace it? What could I ever own again that is quite so perfectly me? A good friend of mine once said to me, if you don’t turn back and look at your car in the car park then you’ve bought the wrong car. I normally find reasons to go back and look several times. On the day I went to collect it, I was up ready and sat waiting on the sofa coat and shoes on for Paul to arrive, he still tells the story with amazement that for once I was not only ready, but I was waiting and that is the sort of excitement you just don’t get from a G-Class.