Not all classic BMW’s manage to retain their innocence. Like everyone and everything else, I suppose this can be an especially daunting challenge if you end up in Sin City.
Las Vegas is all about America – a place like it doesn’t and couldn’t exist in Europe. So from a classic car perspective I should have possibly stuck with V8’s during my visit, but the deep-rooted BMW enthusiast got the better of me, and I simply had to experience Sin City BMW Service. I knew that Chris Willett is a diehard 02-enthusiast and as such I knew we would have plenty to chat about, just as I simply wanted to see which projects he currently had going in his workshop.
From the outside it’s just your standard grey block of industrial estate – except of course for the utterly bizarre Dune-Buggy-meets-BMW-2002-Frankenstein which greets you as you approach Sin City BMW. Stood next to it is a four-door Neue Klasse 2000tilux so Rat Rod that it just about defines the very term. But we’ll get back to that one later, as the desert-storming 02 almost manages to make the Neue Klasse look normal – relatively speaking. The cut, chopped, lifted and modded 2002 is having a rather abrupt impact on all of my senses. The Original Polizei in me is heavily offended; the Bavarian blue blood which runs through my veins almost sizzling with disgust. Yet at the same time, I just can’t help myself from laughing out loud. It’s hilarious and perfectly bonkers! I’m confused as to how I feel – on the one side desperately needing to despise this Frankenstein, yet on the other I think I might just love it a little bit…
Chris steps out and interrupts my state of confusion. I think he senses that I’ve already thoroughly lost my BMW-bearings, so he promptly drags me out of the beating sun and inside where he offers me a glass of cold Bavarian beer from their BMW-roundel-topped draft beer dispenser. Ahhhh… that’s better.
Chris is a car-guy through and through! However, he will happily admit that he wasn’t always a BMW-guy. It all took off while he was still living in San Francisco – fittingly – in the year 2002. Chris was at the Brainwash Café washing clothes and drinking coffee, with his home-resto ’69 droptop Cadi parked out in the street. Another guy visiting Brainwash approached Chris and started talking classic cars. Soon enough the subject turned to BMW 2002’s, and the guy spontaneously offered Chris his own 2002 for whatever Chris had in his pocket at the time – which was all of $138. Needless to say, Chris – somewhat puzzled – accepted. The 2002-owner was moving back to Johannesburg later that evening and just needed to get rid of it. Oh, and there was of course the slight detail that Chris had to save the 2002 from somewhere up in the hills where it was still parked after breaking down. So Chris handed over a bit of pocketmoney and lint, and in turn received the title and keys for the 2002 along with instructions on how and where to find it. Chris was now a 2002-owner!
Chris duly spent the next couple of days travelling between the city and the hills as he brought spares up to the 02 and proceeded to fix it at the roadside. Once running, he started using the car and quickly found that he absolutely loved the tight little Bavarian package! Eventually though he sold it and ended up making a decent profit too. All of this cash was spent on buying five other 02’s – all in need of work. These were also restored on the street, enjoyed on the road and again sold at a decent profit. Chris was having an indecent amount of fun with these classic BMW’s and it all snowballed from there.
In the meantime, Chris had moved to Las Vegas. Seeing as he knew no one there, he joined the BMW Car Club of America and rocked up at one of their club events, only to find it hugely boring. He then tried a second club night which was just as bad. But rather than giving up on them, he instead shook things up a little and ended up performing what he defines himself as a coup! Sure enough, Chris soon enough found himself as the President of the Sin City Chapter of BMW CCA.
This is where he met BMW Master Tech, Patrick Barnett. They started messing about with classic BMW’s together in their spare time, and soon enough started up Sin City BMW as a small hobby workshop purely to support approximately 50 club members. Not even two years later, pressure from their club members pushed them into upping the game significantly. Chris bailed from a safe, secure but utterly staid worklife in the corporate world, and instead turned Sin City BMW from a small hobby shop to a proper company. He jokes that he has never before worked more hours for less cash, but he’s having too much fun to want it any other way. Two years ago they moved to their current and bigger premises, and the full Sin City BMW team now counts five talented BMW enthusiasts – all of which are part-owners of the company. In Chris’s own words: “If everyone cares about who left the lights on before leaving, the customer experience will be better”.
Today about 80% of their work is regular servicing of BMW’s, while the remaining 20% is restoration work. The servicing of course secures a quick turnover, but there’s currently a one year waiting list if you want your classic BMW restored in Vegas. So, let’s have a look at some of those projects.
We proceed deeper into Aladdin’s Cave and enter a small showroom with a subtly modified and hardtopped gunmetal metallic MGB tucked away in one corner, a few very clean reconditioned engines lined up in the other end of the room, and not least three 02’s in varying states of mid-restoration. First up we have a beast of an 02 sporting a wide Group 5 bodykit with the deepest of frontspoilers. Chris tells me that all the body panels are NOS Schnitzer parts which they discovered in Chicago where they had been lying in a basement since the mid-seventies. They had originally been a spare kit for a race car which was campaigned extensively in the US, but when that car was heavily crashed, the kit was simply forgotten in a basement along with a multitude of other 02 race goodies. Now they will finally come to their right as they form the outline of a full racecar build – the Jägermeister bottle on the rear parcelshelf a clear indication of which livery they will be going for…
Then there’s a stock 02 shell which has been resurrected from serious flood damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans back in 2005. Chris admits that he actually tried his upmost to talk the owner of the 2002 out of commencing the restoration. The damage was just too severe and will never be financially viable. But the customer had purchased the 2002 brand new and was still the only owner. He had driven and enjoyed his 2002 everywhere. Not just that; he had lost his virginity in this 2002, and needless to say, you can never put a price on such an emotional attachment. The basic tub of the car was luckily salvageable, but it’s been the biggest body restoration which Sin City BMW have yet taken on. But Chris is proud that they managed to complete the body restoration without using one single reproduction body panel, which are always of a much inferior quality to how they were made in period. Instead, as they are Las Vegas based, the desert environment has offered them a vast stash of utterly rustfree but otherwise scrap donor cars, so every body part needed to resurrect the flood damaged 2002 was taken from an old shell and is thus of true OEM quality. Now it awaits a fresh coat of paint as the next step before reassembly begins.
At the far end sits a beautiful Polaris silver early 2002 nearing completion after another full body restoration. Looking over this one, the Original Polizei within me is happy again. But there’s a twist – this is after all Sin City, and this is after all Chris Willett. This isn’t a customer car either, but one which Chris bought more than 10 years ago back when 02’s were still cheap. It’s a 1969 car which happens to be Chris’s favourite year, and it will in fact be restored to look totally stock and standard. Only, it won’t be. When Chris went to pick up the car, the seller threw a S14 M3 engine in the deal as well. All of which sounds thoroughly insane as these iconic 16V twincam engines now trade for silly money, but that’s how it was back in the day. Well, to Chris that meant the two – car and engine – had to stay together. Of course we’ve already heard and seen these 02 engine transplants leading to what has popularly been dubbed the M2. But there’s another twist to the plot. Rather than just dumping a late 80’s engine into a late 60’s car, Chris has had an epiphany: He’s going to attempt to bring those two era’s a little closer together! So the S14 will lose its fuel injection and instead gain a set of big rorty sidedraught Webers. Chris and his team are even currently contemplating whether there’s a way to fit a cam-driven distributor to the S14 engine in order to go proper oldschool, as it would have been on the stock M10 engine. Yes, the S14 engine will of course loose power as a result, but Chris and his team are perfectly aware of this and they’re quite happy to sacrifice a bit of oomph for a more authentic feel. This is one 2002 which I personally look forward to experiencing once they have it back on the road…
From here Chris leads me into their workshop. A fifties Bentley is hanging over a MGB, and three 02’s immediately catch my eye. Further down there’s another MGB but this time it’s an early GT on wire wheels. Then there’s the myriad of parts scattered all over the place – more engines, transmissions, various chrome trim, seats, dashboards, you name it! I could spend hours here and I’m quite happy to snoop around on my own, taking in all the details, while Chris has to see to a customer. I eventually migrate towards the early Schwarz 2002 which belongs to Chris. Soon enough he is back by my side, passionately telling me about his personal 02. Obviously it’s a ’69 – his favourite year. This is in fact one of the five cars he bought back in 2003 after selling his first 02. It was a $500 car abandoned in the dessert, and as with the four others, it was first resurrected in a colourful two-tone colour scheme. In hindsight, Chris confesses that he probably kind of ruined it. But he loved driving it, and because it’s one of the cleanest and straightest 02 shells he has ever seen, he eventually decided to start over with it in 2014. They brought it back to a bare shell and this time it was restored properly and sporting some truly delicious parts – mechanically it’s all 2002ti spec, a car which they never got on the US market. The Sin City team finished the car just in time for the 02 models 50th anniversary in 2016, and the cars very first trip was to Monterey where it took part on the lawn for the BMW celebrations.
We turn a corner in the workshop and there are two big first-generation 7-series BMW’s being worked on. The design has aged well, and it’s a car I’ve always held in high regard, even if it’s not a model which has much of a following. Then both Chris and I end up in stitches as we approach a typically insane project for Sin City BMW. This isn’t just any BMW 600 – the larger 4-seat version of the Isetta bubblecar. Nope, Chris and his team are transforming this one into a Beach Car in the spirit of those built by several Italian coachbuilders during the sixties based on various small Fiats. Only in Vegas would anyone dream up a Bavarian Beach Car!
From here we proceed back out into the baking sun to have a quick look in their outdoor lock-up where they keep various shells, donor cars and projects. Besides the expected BMW’s, the deep and diverse automotive passion which runs through the whole workshop is proven by the presence of a massive Lincoln, two Cadi’s, open Triumph’s, a Datsun 510 and more. But my eyes are constantly drawn back to the insanity of that Rat Rod NK and Dune Buggy 02 which I can see again from here. I simply can’t postpone it any longer…
The exterior of the 2000tilux Neue Klasse is rough to say the least. It’s like patina put on steroids for a decade or two! But its attack on your senses is so much more than skin deep. As Chris pops the hood, the sparkle in his eye tells me that I’m in for a surprise. He’s not wrong either! There in front of me is the massive lump of a 4-litre V8 engine out of a late-90’s 5-series shoehorned into the poor unsuspecting sixties saloon. We’re talking near-on 300hp and oodles and oodles of torque. That’s double up on capacity, almost two and a half times the horsepower and almost three times the amount of torque. In other words, just pure evil. Chris quickly admits that it’s a work in progress and there’s still some fine tuning to be done to the suspension and instrumentation. But the project is up and running as he proves by turning the key and the big V8 jumping eagerly into life with a deep and vicious grumble which is utterly alien to the subtle late-sixties saloon. I marvel over the bizarreness of this monster and eventually move on to the craziest 02 I have yet encountered in my 26 years as an 02-owner and enthusiast.
The Dune-Buggy-meets-BMW-2002 is truly something else – even for Sin City BMW – and I can sense that Chris is quite proud to have given birth to this Frankenstein. They call it the BMW X2, but in reality it has nothing to do with the modern day BMW X-series SUV’s. Chris rescued the 2002 from a junkyard in California. It was running at the time, but it was a test rig for transmissions and was thus in a terrible state with both the nose and the rear off another car. Initially, Chris’s modifications were merely cosmetical and slapped together in one day as a bit of a joke, when Chris turned up with it for a Show & Shine event with BMW CCA. As you would expect, it received a fair amount of attention and Chris was ironically even given a prize for his efforts. From there the project eventually evolved to the next phase where it needed the capabilities to back up the looks. Today it is the bizarre unison of the floorpan, drivetrain and suspension from a late-eighties E30 BMW 325ix with the 2002 body grafted onto it. In other words, you get all the off-road capabilities of the four-wheel-drive E30, the power of the 2.5-litre straight-6 and not least the lower weight of the 2002. Chris ensures me that it’s much more effective in the dessert than is his Jeep Cherokee, and that it’s off the scales for smiles per mile. I believe him!
Chris and I wrap up the day with another cold glass of Bavarian draught beer while we swap anecdotes of BMW ownership. I may have him beat on number of years in this game, but I don’t stand a chance when it comes to tales of shenanigans. I guess that’s just Vegas for you…