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Posts filed under ‘Our Cars’

The RX-7 Story, Part I: Black

September 19, 2012 by Matt

Black RX-7

Acquired mid-October 1999, this was my first real project car. It also doubled as my first eBay purchase. On a whim while at the State Fair in Raleigh that fall, I decided to really go for this car. Aaron owned an ’86 model, the first year of the 2nd generation and a very different machine, albeit with the same “heart”—a rotary engine. I bought it in the days before eBay had a separate section of their site devoted solely to cars, so killer deals (read: bad listings) could be found by trolling the search fields regularly. Aaron happened upon the listing for the black RX-7 and tipped me off to it. There were no pictures and a very terse description of the car.

I won the auction with a bid of around $500. The car was in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania. I talked my friend Jonathan into driving up there with me to retrieve the car. It wasn’t that difficult, seeing as how a friend of his (and unbeknownst to him at the time, his future wife) attended Messiah college nearby and he was eager to visit her. We drove the family minivan north through the night, stopping only for dinner at a roadside Blimpie’s. I left him at the college and drove back down the highway to a motel near Shrewsbury, intent on picking up the car the next day.

The following morning, after a few wrong turns I found the house and the car. The actual owner of the car (a student) wasn’t present, so I did the title transfer with his parents, who were a little perturbed at having to sacrifice part of their Saturday morning to get rid of a front yard eyesore.

Paperwork squared away, I turned my attention to the car. It hadn’t moved in a year or so and was a bit rough, with a mismatched silver front right fender. Amazingly, it started well enough and ran, at least until I got the car about 50 feet out of the driveway, at which point it went completely dead. No cranking, no dash lights; nothing. I panicked for about 10 seconds and set about trying to solve the problem. I wasn’t keen on having to tow the car from PA to central NC, so there certainly was a sense of urgency. I knew it was an electrical problem, so I rooted through the minivan to see what I could find to aid diagnosis. After some searching I came up with a spare taillight bulb and a pair of twist-ties. I rigged these together to function as a test light and poked around the engine bay of the RX-7 looking for the break in the system. Turns out a fusible link, one of the main fuses protecting the electrical system, had broken from the strain of not having had current flowing through it in some time, so I twisted the two halves of the link together, tried the car again and it fired right up. I drove the minivan back up the highway, picked up Jonathan from Messiah, and we booked it back down I95 and I85, going 80+ mph the whole way. We made excellent time, and returned home that night.

At the time, I was 20 and had very little experience working on cars, though I had a considerable amount of “theoretical” knowledge. With Aaron’s assistance and encouragement, though, I started to tear into the RX-7. A project day at his house cured a couple of electrical bugs, and he showed me how to prep and paint the fender to match the rest of the car (though I later “got happy” with a can of spray paint and ruined the day’s work). I bought a high-flow downpipe and catalytic converter to install as well, and while we were able to get it on, the rest of the exhaust system crumbled as we unbolted it, having been exposed to many northern winters. I drove it home with no catback, and marveled that such a little engine could make so much noise…

Continue reading with “Part II: Red.”

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from a “car history” post I wrote on an older blog of mine some years ago. The photo above does not depict the actual car; the only image I have of it resides in one of my parents’ photo albums and will be added once scanned.


The Flaws in My Cars

July 9, 2012 by Matt

I’ve owned each of these at one point or another. I’ve loved them all, and miss them to varying degrees. But as much as I pine for one or more on any given day, they all have an Achilles heel. There isn’t a car, no matter how beloved, on which I wouldn’t change a thing.

Mazda RX-7 FB First 1st Gen Generation 1985 85 Red

First-generation Mazda RX-7: Recirculating-ball steering. Yes, I could go after the archaic live axle rear suspension, but somehow that becomes as much a part of the car’s charm as the notoriously vague steering and huge dead spot on center are disappointing. C’mon Mazda, really? It’s not even like the obsolescent British roadsters whose market you helped upend were still fitted with recirculating ball boxes. Not only that, but the 2nd and 3rd generation RX-7s’ steering remains among the sharpest and best in the world. Tell me they couldn’t have rolled that out a bit earlier and given us 1st gen enthusiasts a few model years of rack-and-pinion-y goodness. Unfortunate.

Audi 4000 quattro 4kq 4000CS Type 85 Silver Zermatt

Audi 4000 quattro: Weight distribution. There’s so much right with this car that I just hate the fact that the engine hangs way out in front of the axle line. You certainly feel it when driving. Four wheel disc brakes, AWD, a close-ratio 5-speed, a raspy 5-cylinder engine, responsive rack-and-pinion steering, a commendably low weight of 2,800 lbs…let down by incurable understeer. The factory engine’s 110 hp may feel anemic, but a whole host of stronger Audi 5-bangers drop right in, more or less. It’s just a shame 65% of the weight over the front axle can’t be “modded away” as easily as the power deficit.

Datsun Nissan 240Z 260Z 280Z Z-Car Tires Wheels Slotted Mag BF Goodrich Radial Comp T/A

Datsun 240Z: Rear drum brakes. Yes, perhaps expecting a non-premium car made in the early ’70s to sport discs on all four wheels is a bit much. Still, Jaguar at least had been doing it for 10 years by that point, so is it really an unreasonable demand? The Z’s drums, while competent, are a massive pain to service, increase unsprung weight over discs and just look ugly. Mine are coming off as soon as I can afford the (expensive) disc conversion bits.

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 White 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE

Mark 3 Toyota Supra (’86-’92): Weight. This car would be perfect…if it went on a 400+ lb diet. 4-wheel discs, smooth and powerful 6-pot engine, double wishbones all around, 5-speed, RWD, rack-and-pinion steering, great looks, and a few hundred pounds of unnecessary pork. I could really do without the power adjustable side bolsters. And the targa roof. And the gimicky electronic dampers. And a whole load of additional stuffing. If Toyota had put as much effort into weight control as they had the rest of the car, they’d have had a true world-beater.


The Joys of a Paid-Off Car

February 15, 2012 by Matt

Mazda MPV 05 2005 LX Grey Gray Gunmetal

We paid off our minivan yesterday. It was our first—and to date only—car to have been financed, and after 2 years and 10 months, I’m proud to say we’re in the clear again, considerably earlier than the term of the loan. The extra money in our pocket will be helpful for a whole host of things, from kid activities to home improvement and assistance in paying off other debts. It’s incredibly liberating and satisfying to know that we now hold our cars’ titles, not the bank.

It also makes me want to take better care of the minivan. It’s an ’05 Mazda MPV LX, powered by a 3.0l, 200 hp V6, and it’s been incredibly faithful. 3,000 more miles to go to hit the big 100K, and our only failures to date have been:

  • A PCV hose around the back of the intake manifold a year ago. $50 worth of parts and tools later, and it was good as new.
  • The door handle cable inside the drivers’ door. Found a gentleman online (I love the internet for sourcing car parts) with a spare and was able to fix it for around $20.

Mazda MPV 05 2005 LX Grey Gray Gunmetal Rear Taillights Back

Other than that, it’s been bulletproof, with a couple of trips to the beach and many, many errands around town under its belt. It does have to sleep outside, unlike its siblings (the 240Z and the BMW get the garage), but it doesn’t seem to mind too much. It does need a good wash and wax and clean-out, though, along with a potential transmission service at 100K. Debating about that last one.

Having the minivan paid off makes me think about the ways in which car acquisition and ownership have changed since my parents’ day. My dad always paid cash, and almost always bought new, even if he had to sell some stocks or dip into his other investments to do so. To my knowledge, my parents have never had a car payment, and I have a feeling it was like that for many more families than just mine. New car prices have increased significantly over the past 30 years, and not just because of inflation—modern cars are packed with electronics and safety features, a dozen airbags, traction and stability control, navigation systems, and so on. It makes me wonder how far the avalanche of features and gadgets can really go, how far the market can really sustain the one-up-manship between automakers.

Mazda MPV 05 2005 LX Grey Gray Gunmetal Interior Inside Cockpit Dashboard Dash Console

If I had to put forth a prediction, I really do see car ownership going in the same direction as home ownership in the sense that 20-30 years out, everyone will finance their cars; they will simply be an investment on the same level as buying a house. Debt coaches will advise their clients on another type of “acceptable debt” besides a home loan: the car loan. Between cars’ rapid increase in sophistication, the growing complacency (the past few years excepted) toward consumer debt and the looming specter of federal regulations that threatens to hike the price of the average car even more, only a very small percentage of buyers will pay entirely out of pocket for a new car. It’s unfortunate, really, symptomatic as it is of the decline in the average consumer’s purchasing power, even as the shift has the potential to be a boon for the used car and auto repair industries. I really don’t think we’d be surrendering a great deal by shifting our buying habits toward smaller, simpler, less expensive cars and simply taking more responsibility for ourselves behind the wheel in terms of driving safely, entertaining ourselves and finding where we need to go.


The Supra Story

February 14, 2012 by Matt

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 White 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE

Other than my current ’95 BMW 525i, this is really the only “modern” car I’ve owned.

It was an ’88 Toyota Supra Turbo with a 5-speed manual transmission. Power everything, double-wishbone suspension and a 3.0l, 24-valve, DOHC, turbocharged and intercooled straight six were just some of its features. It was smooth, powerful, reasonably agile and a class act. I felt confident taking this car on dates. I purchased it sight-unseen in while living in St. Augustine, Florida; the car was located in Atlanta and I bought a one-way plane ticket, flew up, got the car and drove it back down to my home on the coast.

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 Maroon Brown 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE Interior Inside Cockpit Cluster Dash Dashboard Momo Steering Wheel

I miss it very much. I have fond memories of driving it along Florida State Road A1A beachside at dusk with the targa top removed, stereo cranked and enough heat directed at my feet to keep me warm. It was a perfect trip car, with wonderful seats and enough power to pass at will and cruise effortlessly at 75 for hours. It might be an odd thing to miss, but the instrument layout in particular appealed to me. It was a Toyota, and as such there was a clarity and precision to the instrumentation: The needles were thin and seemed to pivot along their arcs with a kind of reassuring accuracy.

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 White 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE Engine Swap

I bit off more than I could chew, or was willing to chew, in modifying the Supra. Aside from the odd repairs it served me well for over a year when I decided it needed more power. I pulled out the tired 7M-GTE engine (whose turbo seal had failed) and through divers transactions acquired a Japanese-only, never-imported-to-the-US twin-turbo 1JZ-GTE engine that had about a third again as much power as the original and was much more responsive to upgrades. At the time I was one of only about a dozen guys across the country who had attempted the swap, and liked the feeling of being a trailblazer, even as I knew troubleshooting would be difficult without the advice of guys who had gone before me.

You can read much of the story here. The car ran well for about two days before the bugs set in anew, and during those two days was far and away the fastest car I had ever owned. But in the end the Supra became too much of a money pit, and with its increasing potential would have been a source of constant temptation in terms of upgrades. It would have been very hard for me to be content with the car, even with the new engine, so I pulled out of the “power rat race” while I still had some money left in my bank account. At least, that’s what I told myself at the time…

The real bummer, as I found out, was how close I really was to having it running properly again. During the winter and spring of ’04, I spent countless hours combing through the car’s wiring harness trying to resolve intractable engine management glitches. I sold the car with the understanding the new owner could use my apartment complex garage for as long as it took to get the Supra into a state where it could be driven to its new home. A few evenings and he had it eating out of the palm of his hand, having simply connected the knock sensors (which I had neglected, thinking they weren’t essential to the engine management system’s well-being for the purpose of just getting the car to start) and swapped a few more wires. Granted, he was a Toyota tech, but still… Bygones.

Mark Mk 3 MkIII Mk3 Toyota Supra Turbo JZA70 MA70 MA71 White 1JZ 1JZ-GTE 1JZGTE

I do miss it. I felt confident driving the car. I don’t know how to describe it… Maybe the feeling you get when you’re dressed to impress—something superficial like that. But I enjoyed it. Something about the combination of the power, the smoothness and the targa top made the whole experience more than the sum of its parts.

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from a “car history” post I wrote on an older blog of mine some years ago. It includes a few of the only pictures I have of the car, some of which are stills from a video. I apologize for the poor quality, but it’s all I got. Carry on.

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Unforgettable: My 1982 Toyota Tercel

August 5, 2011 by Matt

1982 Toyota Tercel 5-Speed

First car. First whiff of true freedom. First opportunity to bond with a machine and develop hard opinions about makes and models. First taste of the “me versus the world” rush when you’re driving alone at night, tape deck stereo blaring, windows down on a cool fall evening, the soft glare of the dash lights and piercing stare of the streetlights merging to bolster the rhythm of the music in your mind. There’s something to it.

My conveyance for all those experiences was the chariot pictured at the top of this post: a 1982 Toyota Tercel. 1.5l SOHC 4-cylinder. 60 hp of fury. 5-speed. Twinkie.

Yes, Twinkie. Other than our present minivan (the Minkevan), it’s the only time a car of mine has acquired a name and it stuck. It was so named ostensibly because it was sort of Twinkie-shaped, light brown with white stuff inside. Yeah… The nickname was so apt, actually, that for a time Twinkie was more well-known in my social circles than I was. “Oh, you’re Twinkie’s owner,” was a phrase I heard more than once.

1982 Toyota Tercel 5-Speed

The car saw me through everything. It knew more about me than literally anyone. And it was the epitome of faithfulness: Over the six years and ~75K that I owned it, it broke down exactly once, when the timing belt snapped northbound on I95 near Roanoke Rapids. Even then, $45 and two hours repair at a local gas station later, it was back on the road, running as well as ever. Longitudinal, non-interference engines FTW.

The car’s time with me spanned my last two years of high school, and all of college, amassing countless stories, but I’ll just share this one. When I moved to Florida right out of school (early ’02) and got my first real job with a boatbuilding firm, I knew Twinkie was nearing the end of its time with me. Its paint was fading, its silver wheels were darkened and the rust spots here and there were growing, its deterioration exacerbated by the hot, salty climate in St. Augustine.

With the acquisition of my Supra Turbo a month or so after I arrived, I started looking for a new owner for Twinkie. Fortuitously, a coworker of mine, Bob (incidentally, my favorite person in Florida), needed another car. Bob was a ponytailed, chain-smoking ex-hippie who lived in a trailer that looked as if he had constructed it himself entirely of plywood sheets. He had an assortment of farm animals in the backyard and even kept two or three peacocks. He was handy with tools and had built his own catamaran when he lived in Clearwater, on the Gulf side of the state. His family was the most functional imaginable; his beautiful wife and two boys were beyond polite and hospitable.

He was also a VW Beetle enthusiast, with around a dozen rusting Beetle carcasses in his backyard along with some other projects like an old MGA roadster and a Triumph motorcycle in his shed. He drove an orange Beetle to work every day, but complained regularly about how hard it was to start in the mornings. He mentioned offhand to me how nice it would be if he owned a car that would start for him every morning. I told him I was selling Twinkie and we struck a deal.

1982 Toyota Tercel 5-Speed

It was hard to watch him drive away from my apartment in the car that had borne me on so many adventures, but I knew it was in good hands. The ultimate confirmation of that came a few days later. Walking from my usual parking spot into work, I passed Twinkie sitting in the lot and did a double take. Bob had completely cleaned it up. The rust spots were gone, filled in temporarily with some putty awaiting a sanding and respray. The wheels had been cleaned and polished. The front speakers, the little paper cones I had meant to replace for years, Bob had yanked and put in new 4″ Sonys. And the whole car had a nice coat of wax and was shiny and beaming. I knew I couldn’t have passed it on to a better new owner. It brought my time with Twinkie to a fitting close.