Preview: He fixes cool cars, one engine at a time


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To earn a living, geophysicist Rob Siegel thinks of ways to improve the technology that detects unexploded ordnance on shuttered military bases. To maintain his abiding passion for cars, the author of "Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic" recently bought a brown 1974 Lotus Europa that hasn't run since 1979.

"There's not a lot of risk in buying a car with low mileage and a seized engine because the value is really in the condition of the car and the low mileage," Mr. Siegel said during a telephone interview from his home in Newton, Mass., where he has lived with his wife and three sons since 1991.

Vintage Grand Prix

Where: Schenley Park, Oakland.

When -- Today: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.: International Car Shows and British Car Day on the Schenley Golf Course; 150 vintage racers will compete on the track to qualify for Sunday's featured races; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Vintage Race practice and qualifying heats, Schenley Park.

When: Sunday -- 8:15-10:15 a.m.: Warm-up and practice laps; 11 a.m. to noon: Opening ceremonies; noon-5 p.m. Vintage Races. Free to spectators; 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m.: International Car Show on Schenley Golf Course.

Information: Because roads are closed for the race, the best way to reach it is to enter the park at Schenley Drive and Darlington Road. Free shuttle buses are available to take spectators to the race course and the exhibition of vintage cars.

The 55-year-old writer will read from his book and sign copies of it today from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in The Waterfront in Homestead.

Mr. Siegel spent part of his boyhood on Long Island. At age 13, he worked for a guy who owned a red Lotus Europa. Now, he's thrilled to be taking one apart.

"The roof line is 42 inches off the road. It's like a little race car. It's like a go-kart. They are not that expensive. They are starting to become collectible," he said.

Now that he has managed to un-seize the Lotus' engine, he's rebuilding it. "It's my first repair on an unfamiliar car. I should probably have my head examined for this."

He likes to do what he calls "rolling rejuvenations," not complete restorations.

"I fix what it needs while not taking it completely apart down to metal. It's just too long a row to hoe. I don't have that attention span, that level of commitment. I get enjoyment out of fixing things. I'm not a guy who seeks perfection."

Besides offering useful advice on what to do when your car won't start, Mr. Siegel explains why men are drawn to smokin' hot cars:

"To a man, a cool car provides a whole range of sensations on demand. It's a very uncomplicated relationship. Friends with benefits. And the car never asks you to come shopping at Ikea. In some ways, it is like that notorious 1998 'SNL' sketch "Mercury Mistress," except that they got the car completely wrong. It should have been a curvaceous Italian exotic. Who the hell would want to make love to a Grand Marquis?"

Nor is he a fan of overspending to fix a car.

"The overwhelming population of 'car guys' try to keep their cars running without risking the tuition money, without risking the nest egg," he insisted.

For 27 years, Mr. Siegel has written a column for Roundel, a magazine for the BMW Car Club of America. He owns a 1973 BMW 3, a 2002 BMW and a 1999 BMW z3 coupe, which, he says, is "by far, the nicest, quickest and sexiest" of the three. His daily ride is a 2001 BMW 325 xi all-wheel drive wagon. His wife drives a 2008 Honda, and they vacation in a 2000 Chevy Suburban that has 180,000 miles on it.

While none of his sons share his passion for fixing cars, Mr. Siegel said, they saw their father passionately engaged in several pursuits, including geophysics, auto mechanics and playing guitar in several bands.

"I would like to think that that is a gift," he said.

neigh_city - lifestyle

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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