Spannerhead Dot

Posts filed under ‘Tinkering’

On Unfinished Car Projects

March 20, 2013 by Matt

Toyota Supra 1JZ Swap Wiring Harnesses

I miss my previous cars. I think about them often, reminiscing about overall qualities and specific situations, snapshots from my experiences with the RX-7s, the Supra and the Audi 4000, among others. From time to time, though, my nostalgia for a particular car seems to spike, and I think I’ve identified at least one possible culprit: The feeling of an unfinished project.

No, not open-ended projects currently in progress—outright failures. The images at the top of this post represent arguably my biggest failure when it comes to automotive projects. They’re a before-and-after of the wiring harness of my 1988 Toyota Supra Turbo, whose engine, during the fall, winter and spring of 2003-2004, I decided to replace with a Japan-only, half-as-powerful-again 1JZ-GTE unit. The physical swap itself went perfectly smoothly and was complete within a couple of weeks, but the necessary wiring harness lengthening operation wasn’t. The harness I acquired had already been hacked by a previous tuner, and in the process he had made a complete hash of it, to the point where, with everything connected, the car would barely start and stay running for a couple of seconds. After a few experiments and rabbit trails, I eventually decided to completely pull the harness and clean up the wiring, the result shown at right. To my great dismay, although the overhauled harness improved the situation to the point where the car was (barely) drivable, it didn’t solve the car’s fundamental running problems, and after struggling with it for several more months and losing motivation (and running out of money, natch), I decided to unload the whole project.

The right decision it may have been at the time (I was in the midst of some pretty major life changes during that period as well), but in retrospect I desperately wish I had at least had the persistence to overcome the car’s problems and sell it as a fully-functional driver. The new owner, a Toyota tech from Charlotte, camped out in my apartment complex garage for an evening or two, sorting everything out, and drove the Supra home, fueling the immediate feeling of regret by demonstrating how close I had been to a solution. Even now, it just bothers me that there was a car project I didn’t finish. The car was not complete. I didn’t have a chance to experience it at 100%, to assess it on its merits after having been swapped and make an decision about whether to sell then. Yes, I probably would have kept it, at least for longer than I did, but there wouldn’t be any loose ends dangling in my personal car history.

What about you? Do you have any unfinished projects or unsolved problems lurking in your automotive past? If so, does it bother you?

No Comments on On Unfinished Car Projects

The Tuning Lore of the
Nissan/Datsun L-Series Engine

February 20, 2013 by Matt

Nissan Datsun L28 L-Series Engine Motor Rebuild

During Tuesday night’s Triad Z Club meeting, I listened to one of the older members give a quasi-dissertation on early Z-Car history.

Nudging my way into the vintage Datsun world as my 240Z restoration progresses, I’m amazed at the depth of knowledge about the cars and their engines.

Other makes have their tuning gurus and accepted bodies of expertise when it comes to performance enhancements, but in my mind, a few things set the vintage Datsun tuning scene apart:

  • The Datsun 510 and Z-Car were the first performance cars from Japan that captured any kind of mass market appeal. From a tuning/racing standpoint, no Japanese import goes back farther.
  • The racing Datsun was an institution in the ’70s and early ’80s, akin to the success of the Miata in recent years. If you wanted to get into racing, it was practically the only cost-effective choice.
  • The cars themselves and their engines were, and remain, very robust and responsive to a wide variety of upgrades. Yes, there are preferred “paths” to unlock additional power, but the L-series engine also rewards creativity.

Thumbing through the classic How to Modify Your Nissan/Datsun OHC Engine reinforces the sense of standing at the foot of a giant accumulated mountain of knowledge. The book naturally covers tuning tips, tricks and rules of thumb in exacting detail, but the illustrations of vintage Datsun racers from the early ’70s through the present day really convey the impression that there are decades of L-series lore to draw from.

Nissan Datsun L28 L-Series Engine Motor OS Giken Cylinder Head Twin Cam DOHC

One of the “legends” covered briefly in the book is the part shown above, arguably the holy grail of vintage Datsun tuning: the OS Giken DOHC, 24-valve cylinder head. Produced in tiny numbers and only available in Japan, the OS Giken head will set you back north of $30K today. From a cost/benefit standpoint, it’s far from worth it, but just the fact that it exists supplies the vintage Datsun scene with one its “mythical beasts,” so to speak, a necessary pillar of any classic car tuning lore.

Image credits:, Dino Dalle Carbonare

1 Comment on The Tuning Lore of the
Nissan/Datsun L-Series Engine

Datsun 240Z Restoration: Beginnings

January 3, 2013 by Matt

1972 Datsun 240Z S30 901 Silver

Click the image to enlarge.

My dad dug these up recently, and during a visit home for the holidays, handed them to me.

Along with the photography information like F-stop and exposure, the date written on the back reads “Nov 1972;” in other words, they were taken one month after my dad purchased the car from Cardinal Imports in Jacksonville, NC. This is genesis, folks.

1972 Datsun 240Z S30 901 Silver

Click the image to enlarge.

The photos were taken somewhere in the Raleigh, NC, area (my dad was finishing his studies at NCSU at the time) and to my knowledge remained hidden, moved from house to house in a nondescript box, up until this past weekend. During the handover, another tidbit of family lore emerged: My dad actually proposed to my mom in the Z in mid-December 1973. Talk about a car with family history; the Z has it in spades.

Aside from a couple of details, the pictures represent exactly the state to which I want to restore the Z. The only deviations from the condition shown above will be the wheels (the hubcaps have been replaced with slotted mags and meatier tires), the bumper overriders (deleted) and the hatch lid (debadged). Otherwise, the 901 Silver color will return and everything else will be as you see it. Once it’s all done, I’ve a good mind to find the actual spot those pictures were taken and shoot another pair in the same pose. Before and after, 40+ years later.

Editor’s note: This post is Part 19 of an ongoing series chronicling my efforts toward the restoration of my 1972 Datsun 240Z, originally my father’s. Read the other installments here:

2 Comments on Datsun 240Z Restoration: Beginnings

Kevin Thomas and His Homebuilt F1 Car

November 7, 2012 by Matt

Kevin Thomas Homebuilt F1 Formula 1 One Car BAR Lucky Strike Honda 2001

To clarify, that’s homebuilt, not homemade. Kevin Thomas isn’t constructing some kind of replica Formula 1 car from scratch; he’s assembling an actual F1 racer from actual F1 racer parts.

In his backyard.

As with many projects, it all started with an eBay purchase. A longtime F1 fan, Thomas was browsing the popular auction site one day when he stumbled across a listing for a pair of chassis constructed by the now-defunct British American Racing (BAR) team. On a whim, Thomas contacted the seller after the auction had ended and secured the foundation for his project.

Intended for the 2001 F1 season, the BAR chassis Thomas ended up with was relegated to testing duties, but has all the bells and whistles of the cars driven in anger by Jacques Villeneuve and Olivier Panis on circuits across the globe. Thomas has had considerable difficulty sourcing parts specifically for his chassis, so he’s had to cobble together subassemblies from other F1 cars when they come up for sale—a slow, painstaking process that requires more patience than I would have.

It also demands a decent amount of mechanical ability, or at least a willingness to learn. The car’s sidepods, for instance, are from a later Williams F1 car and adapted by Thomas to the BAR tub, and a contemporary Benetton racer lent certain suspension bits. As for the engine, Thomas plans to source a Formula Renault 3.5l V6 engine—much easier to come by than the BAR F1 car’s original 3.0 V10. The Renault engine’s output of “only” around 480 hp is less than two-thirds that of the engine the chassis was designed around, but more than enough to tax the abilities of 98% of amateur racers like Thomas, or you and me, for that matter.

It’s an amazingly ambitious project, and I wish Thomas the best of luck as he tinkers away in his backyard shed on his F1 race car.

3 Comments on Kevin Thomas and His Homebuilt F1 Car

14-Year-Old Kathryn DiMaria’s
Pontiac Fiero Project

October 26, 2012 by Matt

Stories like this are why I drag my kids to car shows.

Well, I like the cars too, but I continue to hold out the hope that one or both with take the torch of my car interest, so to speak, and run with it the way 14-year-old Kathryn DiMario has in the clip above.

When she was 12, Kathryn approached her parents with an idea: She would take all her saved babysitting money and purchase a project car to fix up and learn on before she was able to legally drive. Her parents, to their credit, agreed, and worked with her to locate a clapped-out Pontiac Fiero. They expected Kathryn’s interest to wane and the endeavor to peter out after a short time, but the girl persisted, and insisted on doing almost all the work herself, learning about the car’s mechanicals as well as upholstery, welding and other restoration techniques in the process.

Needless to say, if my son or daughter decide one day that they’d like to embark on such an adventure, I’ll have their back 100%. For a more detailed account of Kathryn’s project and to keep abreast of the latest updates, visit her project thread.

2 Comments on 14-Year-Old Kathryn DiMaria’s
Pontiac Fiero Project

In Defense of Manual Chokes

July 24, 2012 by Matt

Choke Knob

Thought about this whilst mowing my lawn Sunday afternoon. The mower had run out of gas in the middle of the back yard, and after a refill, it took me a good minute and a half of yanking on the cord to restart it. The reason for the difficulty? The automatic choke on the mower’s carburetor had reset itself and was delivering a rich mixture to an already-warm engine. Well, that and the float bowl was drained from having run out of gas… But I digress.

It used to be the case that almost all carbureted cars were fitted with a knob or lever somewhere in the cockpit that gave the driver control over the carb(s)’ choke. What does a choke do? In simple terms, it controls the ratio of air to fuel entering the engine. A cold engine needs a rich mixture, and a warm engine needs a lean mixture. Upon a cold startup, the driver would engage the choke, richening the mixture, and gradually back it off as the engine warmed.

But modern engine management has superseded all that. A fuel injection system’s electronic brain controls the A/F ratio far more precisely than a human ever could, and in response to the direct needs of the engine, not a driver’s vague sensing of those needs. Also, unlike another “holdover” from days when drivers had more control over their vehicles—the manual transmission—with which there are substantial, objective benefits over an automatic, there’s absolutely no downside to computer control over the mixture. From an engineering and practical standpoint, EFI is a lock.

So what’s the point? Well, truth be told, this post really is the equivalent of an audiophile pining for the added character of a vinyl record over the cool sterility of the thoroughly superior compact disc. As with carbs in general, the patina of a manual choke control’s presence engages the driver with the car in an irreplaceable way. Yes, it helps to know a bit more about the inner workings of the engine, and no, I wouldn’t pine for the good old old OLD days when drivers had to manage non-synchromesh gearboxes or control spark advance, but so help me, I do miss that little plunger knob on my old RX-7’s dash that read “CHOKE.” Heck, it even had a vacuum servo to retract it in case I forgot to when the engine warmed up, but just knowing it was there…

With respect to how much we let our cars “do for us,” I’m convinced everyone has their sweet spot. Again, there are certain functions I’m more than happy to let automated systems handle. But for my part—and maybe it’s a comfort/security thing—a few more buttons and controls, such as the aforementioned choke knob, would be welcome.

2 Comments on In Defense of Manual Chokes

Datsun 240Z Restoration:
VIN Discoveries

July 2, 2012 by Matt

1972 72 Datsun 240Z S30 Registry Snapshot

I’ve never seen this before.

A helpful Spannerhead passerby commented on an older post in my 240Z restoration series, shedding some light on my engine block / VIN mismatch mystery.

To recap, although my dad, the Z’s original owner, swears up and down the engine in the car is original—and I believe him—it remains that the engine’s block number, and the number stamped on the car’s shock tower ID plate do not match. The number stamped on the engine block is 118555, and the ID plate’s number reads 110555. Up until this point, the going theories were, in decreasing order of likelihood:

  1. The original engine was somehow defective before my dad bought the car new, was replaced before he bought it, and the installer made a mistake when applying the number to the block.
  2. The engine was surreptitiously replaced when my dad had it rebuilt in the mid-’90s, and once again, the installer screwed up when scribing the block number.
  3. The Nissan factory made a mistake.

What made that last theory particularly improbable is simply the fact that the block number and ID plate have no other purpose but to match. I mean, that’s their only job, and it stands to reason that the dozens, if not hundreds of pair of eyes that saw the numbers between the time the car was being assembled and the time my dad drove off the showroom lot would have caught something.

However…it now appears the ID plate, not the block, is wrong. Check it out: My car’s VIN is 93069, and according to the registry information provided by the helpful commenter, 118555 would mesh perfectly with the block number range the VIN corresponds with. So, wonder of wonders, the ID plate, stamped from the Nissan factory in Japan, an item with no other purpose but to match with the block, is wrong. It’s like waking up one morning to find a misspelling on your driver’s license… Just bizarre. And surprising.

Editor’s note: This post is Part 18 of an ongoing series chronicling my efforts toward the restoration of my 1972 Datsun 240Z, originally my father’s. Read the other installments here:

26 Comments on Datsun 240Z Restoration:
VIN Discoveries

Amazing: Stop Motion Engine Rebuild

June 30, 2012 by Matt

Here’s a little edutainment for a scorching Saturday afternoon: One of the most incredible car-related videos I’ve seen. As much as we admire guys who meticulously chronicle their restoration or upgrade project, the builder of this Triumph Spitfire engine is on a whole other level, stringing 3,000 pictures together into a 2-and-a-half minute snapshot of his project.

One of the best things about the clip is the fact that’s it’s informative as well. Any seasoned shadetree mechanic has at least a basic understanding of the major jobs that go into rebuilding an engine, but there’s something about seeing the whole process packaged, as it were, into a bite-size morsel that helps bring the endeavor into perspective. As different as it is from my own restoration project, I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to the clip for inspiration more than once.

6 Comments on Amazing: Stop Motion Engine Rebuild

Datsun 240Z Restoration: The Bad News

June 18, 2012 by Matt

This is where I get depressed. Or overwhelmed. Take your pick.

The video above represents a brief walkaround of the Z, and touches on many of the issues to be addressed in the restoration, including the visible rust and some interior problems.

It’s…daunting, to say the least. I posted the video on a reputable Z-car forum and while most of them agree it’s salvageable, the process will invariably entail a significant amount of time, effort and money. No less a mainstay of the Z community as Carl Beck chimed in with figures of 650 hours and $30,000, though admittedly, those were his numbers for this concours-quality restoration. I don’t want a show car, just something clean and completely rust free in which I can have fun on the weekends. The Z obviously won’t see a snowflake ever again, and if I can help it, nary a raindrop either. So that figure could potentially be revised downward, but…it’s still enough to cause sticker shock. I’ll have a better handle on the real figure in a couple of months when I start disassembling the car and all the hidden rust comes to light. Onward…

Editor’s note: This post is Part 17 of an ongoing series chronicling my efforts toward the restoration of my 1972 Datsun 240Z, originally my father’s. Read the other installments here:

6 Comments on Datsun 240Z Restoration: The Bad News