Love for Life

A thirty-seven-year-old 2002 tii in unrestored yet perfect condition is rare these days, and one in the possession of its original owner is rarer still. Meet Ray Sterbens and one of the loves of his life.

Photo: Love for Life 1
May 25, 2010

Ray Sterbens is cleaning his Malaga Red 2002 tii when I arrive at his house in Huntington Beach.

As we hang around his three-car garage—which also contains an M635CSi—he tells me the story about how his wife borrowed the tii for a trip to college while they were still dating.

“You let her borrow your tii?” I ask incredulously, noticing how gently the man caresses his car with a soft cloth.

“Let me tell the story,” he says, continuing with the tale and the caressing.

He lent her the car, and after three days and one of those intense rainstorms that sometimes hit Southern California, his future wife brought it back.

No worries, she told him, I covered it with the tarp like you told me to. Relax, not a drop of rain got on your car.

“The car is all shiny,” Ray says, “and then I open the trunk and there’s the tarp, all sopping wet and crumpled up.”

He swallows hard at the memory.

“I mean, she just put the dripping wet thing into my trunk and left it there for days!”

Photo: Love for Life 2

Knowing Ray, the wet tarp incident must have put a tremendous strain on the budding relationship. It’s a sign of true love that he overcame the shock and ended up happily married (with two kids, mind you) to the tarp-wielding wife.

All that happened a few decades ago, and the maroon-colored 2002 tii hasn’t needed the slightest cosmetic surgery in the thirty-seven—count ’em, 37!—years since.

“Actually,” says Ray, wiping a dust particle off the meticulously clean fender, “I had to fix some rust in the driver’s side door some time ago, but other than that the car has never needed restoration of any kind.”

Original and complete, from the antenna on down

To find a 1973 round-taillight tii in Malaga is always a treat for any 2002 nut like me. But leaning on the hood—oops! sorry, Ray!—of one in all its splendid, genuine glory takes your breath away, especially when you’re talking about a car that looks like it could have rolled straight out of the showroom. How often does one find a completely unrestored beauty like this, and in the hands of its first and only owner? I mean, even the antenna is spotless!

“And it has this red little top!” Ray exclaims, pointing out the Bakelite ball that crowns the aerial. “That alone is worth a lot among collectors!”

In 1973, Sterbens had just outgrown his teenage years and scraped the money together for a cool ride. He bought the car new from 4J-BMW in Huntington Beach for a tad more than five-and-a-half thou, and he still has the original window sticker, all the warranty papers and even the Bic pen he got when he purchased the automobile.

“They threw in the CocoMats for free,” Ray adds with his wide, friendly smile, “and look at ’em now!”

Look at ’em, indeed. They’re so clean and fresh, I wouldn’t dare wipe my feet on those babies. 37-year-old CocoMats, like new. It’s as if Ray drove in socks all those years.

“I used to have a muscle car back in those days,” he remembers. Being the practical man that he is, he traded it for a Volkswagen Beetle. “But what I really wanted was a Porsche, a 993.”

Photo: Love for Life 3

As in so many cases, the Porsche dream was beyond the aspiring young man’s financial reach. He made do with the Beetle until a friend took him for a spin in a Ford Cortina, hooking Ray on speed and handling.

“I knew I wanted a BMW then, and I thought a 2002 would be a fine machine. But when I got to the dealer, the guy says to me, ‘Ray, you don’t want a 2002. You need a tii!’”

Sometimes all you need to be happy is a prophetic car dealer who recognizes a real car nut when he sees one.

Still spotless after 148,000 miles

There were some minor complications, though. Ray put his name on the list for a new tii, but he didn’t want one in Golf Yellow or Inka Orange and so had to wait a while.

“I put in the order in April of ’73,” he says, “and the dealer called me in July saying he had a car from the second load that came in, but only one without a sunroof, and it was maroon.”

Take it or leave it, the guy from 4J told him. There’s a waiting list for rides like this.

To compensate for the missing sunroof (we’re in Southern California, remember) the dealer offered his young customer dealer-installed air conditioning. He also offered a pair of Carello driving lights.

“They wanted to drill holes in my bumper,” Ray says, still a bit outraged over the intended violation. “Instead, I had special brackets made.”

This was Ray’s car, and nobody was going to put a hole in it.

Photo: Love for Life 4

He wasn’t crazy about the color, but Ray Sterbens drove away in a brand-new Bimmer that day. 148,000 miles later, he’s never regretted that decision.

“I’ve put in a new starter, one alternator, and I needed a set of Bilsteins,” he recounts. “Originally, the car was on 165/80-13 Michelin XAS tires, and my spare is still the original Michelin. Later, I put on same-size Phoenix Stahlflex, but I switched to 205/60×13 Sumitomo HTR200s. They seem to run nicer on the car.”

Not much else was needed, and no aftermarket parts besides those Carellos ever altered the looks of his tii. Where a lot of ’02s have had their Kugelfischer injection replaced by Weber carbs, this car remains original.

Ray says he’s always taken exceptional care of his cars, and looking at the all-original Bimmer I don’t doubt it. The exterior shines like it’s straight from a high-end paint shop, and the interior is so spotless I wonder when—and how—he put on all those miles.

Even the roof lining is still soft and smooth, and there’s not one bit of discoloration in the creamy white material. The door trim is exceptional, and the seat upholstery is without the tiniest scratch. That can only mean that neither of Ray’s spry little Dachshunds were ever allowed to ride in the vehicle, or that they only did so in slippers. The gearshift knob looks like it has never been touched by human hands, and so does the handbrake. Even the OEM clock only runs about six minutes late.

“All original!” he beams.

How do you keep a car spotless for all those years? I ask, admiring the truly black dashboard and the scratch-free glass of the instrument panel.

At that point, Ray Sterbens looks at me like he wants me out of his car…and pronto.

The loves of his life

Instead, he actually lets me drive this beauty. And it is exactly as I remember the 2002 when it was new.

Photo: Love for Life 5

“I had the compression checked, and it’s fine,” mutters Ray, a tad subdued by my rather nostalgic driving. We’re cruising along one of Huntington Beach’s main arteries until we reach the spacious parking lot of a major U.S. defense contractor, where I can test the car more thoroughly.

It is amazing.

The fun of the original Ultimate Driving Machine hasn’t diminished in three-plus decades. When put through its paces, it feels astonishingly tight, and the brakes grip like they did in the good ol’ days. The engine might not rev as high as it used to and may have lost some of its original 130 horses, but it’s a lovely old lady nevertheless.

“She’s still got quite the pick-up-and-go, hasn’t she?” he grins.

Oh yes, she has, say I, kicking it smoothly into third and thinking for a split second what Ray would do if I tried to relive my drifting days.

“This is fun!” I say instead, adding half-jokingly, “How much do you want for this car?”

What follows is another of Ray’s astonished and disbelieving looks. It’s as if I’d asked to go on a date with his wife.

“I would never let it go,” he says.

But what if….

Photo: Love for Life 6

The car would be worth between thirty and forty grand, he finally concedes.

But no. Never.

I could have the M635CSi, though.

I change the subject quickly. Does that mean his kids want to drive it, then?

He smiles his Ray-smile again. Yeah, he says, they ask for it all the time when they want to impress the opposite sex. But his son drives a truck and doesn’t take care of his cars well enough to meet Ray’s standards—remember the tarp in the trunk?—and his daughter doesn’t drive stick shifts.

“I don’t go to concours events very much any more,” he says, anticipating my next question. The judging is a bit too, shall we say, arbitrary for his taste. Instead, Sterbens drives his baby on the weekends around L.A.’s South Bay and goes to the friendlier meets like SoCal Vintage.

When he takes the wheel again, I can see the joy on his face as he pilots his wonderful toy. Ray Sterbens found both his partners almost 40 years ago, and he still loves ’em.

Just like the license plate says, this is “HIS TII”!

“That’s another funny story,” Ray says as we roll into his three-car garage. As he commences the tale, he’s taking a cloth to the tii, wiping off any traces that another guy has been driving his car.

“My wife borrowed the car one day…”

Again?

“…and I got it back on my birthday. With those license plates.”

Obviously, the tarp incident has been forgiven.

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