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A Treasure Trove of Japanese Imports

May 9, 2016 by Matt

Japanese Classics Richmond VA Website

This has become of one of my favorite internet hangouts lately.

Japanese Classics, a car importer based in Richmond, VA, has built what appears to be a thriving enterprise catering to the pent-up demand for JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) vehicles recently unleashed by the 25-year import rule. The essence of the law is that for most states, any vehicle over 25 years old (as of this posting, that would be MY 1991) is exempt from crash and emissions testing and can be freely imported and registered. For the enthusiast market, it means that a whole crop of heretofore unavailable Japanese machines can now be bought and driven in the US. Vehicles we lusted after from afar are here. And Japanese Classics’ website, more than simply showing the outfit’s current inventory, really pulls out all the stops in creating very nicely photographed and detailed listings:

Japanese Classics Richmond VA Website

For car nerds like me who’ve had trouble finding pictures of, say, a Mazda JC Cosmo’s interior, or the engine bay of a Nissan Silvia K’s, the site is a veritable encyclopedia of obscure JDM cars. For anyone who’s ever played (especially the early editions of) the Gran Turismo video game series and wondered how all those cars we’d never heard of actually look in the flesh, it’s a revelation. I’ll be revisiting the site regularly. And while I’m quite content with my E46 for the time being, who knows; I may actually spring for one of the featured cars one day. Maybe in a few years when the R33 Skyline hits our shores?

Editor’s note: I have no affiliation with the Japanese Classics.

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Datsun 240Z Restoration:
The Teardown Begins

April 18, 2016 by Matt

240Z_noseoff1

Finally, some progress.

So I obviously haven’t made a lot of headway here in the past couple of years. Our previous installment took place in the spring of 2014, and since then, the Z has just been up on jackstands, languishing in the garage.

With the acquisition of the BMW back in January, I’ve been motivated to move the Z project forward so that, eventually, I can move it out of the garage to make room for the Bimmer to take up permanent residence. First, though, I had to put in place the element missing from the project for years, and one of the main things holding me back: Storage space.

Zstorage1

That’s the utility room off the back of our garage. On the opposite wall (not pictured) are a whole other swath of shelves holding household items, and the shelves shown in the picture are exclusively for Z parts. Disassembly essentially doubles the amount of room needed for a car, so without space for bumpers, fenders, seats, mechanical bits and the like, progress was stifled. What’s more, without a concrete organizational system, I just wouldn’t have been ready to dig into the project in a methodical fashion, an absolute must for a restoration effort.

240Z_noseoff2

By today’s standards, the Z really isn’t that complicated. But it’s complex enough—there are a number of overlapping subsystems, fasteners and other components. The storage space has really taken a load off my mind re:moving forward.

The actual disassembly so far, undertaken this past Saturday and Sunday, was quite straightforward and incident-free. I will sing the praises of the world’s best penetrant, PB Blaster, until my dying day. Most of the rubber weatherstripping and other pieces like hood bumpers and brake and fuel line grommets disintegrated, but that’s to be expected after 44 years. I broke a couple of bolt heads, but nothing terminal and the whole process felt a bit like an archaeology dig as I peeled away layers of peripheral parts like the brake booster and wiring harness. I was disheartened to see more rust than I had anticipated (there’s always more than you think there is), but encouraged by the fact that, upon inspection, both fenders may be usable in their entirety. We’ll have to see what the body guy says when he takes a look.

Editor’s note: This post is Part 22 of an ongoing series chronicling my efforts toward the restoration of my 1972 Datsun 240Z, originally my father’s. Read the other installments here:

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The Best 1950s Cars to Restore

April 16, 2016 by Our Sponsors

Have you always dreamed of restoring a 1950s classic car? Today, the cars of the 50s are considered great restoration projects because most of the replacement parts are being reproduced again. When finished, certain cars of the 1950s are quite valuable today too. In this article we will look some of the best 1950s cars to restore.

1956_chevy

1955-1957 Chevrolets
We have to start off our list of 1950s cars with the famous “Tri-Five” Chevys – the 1955, 1956 and 1957 models. These are tremendously popular cars and you can buy just about every single part of these cars today. The service guys at Bob Pulte Chevrolet in Lebanon, OH say the Tri-Five Chevys are not only easy to work on, they have huge following of enthusiasts worldwide ensuring that these cars will always be in demand.

1953_Packard

1950-1954 Packards
It used to be that the only desirable Packards were the cars of the 1930s and some of the 1940s. Today, the 1950s Packards are becoming sought after mainly because they are good looking cars too. As far as replacement parts are concerned, nearly all mechanical and electrical parts can be bought new. Body and trim pieces are still tough to locate so look for a vehicle that that is in pretty good shape to begin with.

1955_Caddy

1953-1957 Cadillacs
Finding a good, restorable example of these Cadillac models isn’t a hard task because so many were made. All Cadillac sedans made this year were of the hardtop body style, so they all have that fantastic long Fifties look. (Just Google 1955 Cadillac and take a look at length of the trunk!) Unfortunately, these year Cadillacs weren’t simple cars. Most all of them were loaded with power features so you have a lot of sub-systems to take care of. Fortunately, there is a very active club, the Cadillac-La Salle Club, that currently has thousands members that can provide assistance.

1956_StudebakerGoldenHawk

1956-1958 Studebaker Golden Hawks
Studebaker’s classy Golden Hawk is just a great looking car. Plenty were built, so you should have no trouble finding one to restore. At one time, restoration parts for Hawks were few and far between but that’s changed now. The Studebaker Hawks were relatively simple cars so they aren’t any more difficult to restore than your average Chevy or Ford. Thanks to their upscale character and smashing good looks, a well-restored Golden Hawk will make you a nice investment vehicle.

Image credits: cargurus.com, wallpapers.com, bluechipmotorcars.com, oldcarsweekly.com

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Forever Car: 2002 BMW 330i 5-Speed

January 16, 2016 by Matt

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Orient Blue

This might be it.

I’d been wanting something interesting for a while, and I bided my time over the holidays, scanning Craigslist and Autotrader. I was looking for something German (BMW or Audi), made from the mid-’90s to the mid-2000s, with a manual transmission. Most of the cars in decent condition that fit that set of criteria were a couple of hours away, and I even roadtripped with my son to go see a B6 Audi A4. It was nice, but had a number of cosmetic defects that would have been expensive to fix, and the seller (a dealer) wanted too much for it already.

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Orient Blue

Then, last Saturday, the car featured in this post popped up not 15 miles down the road. A 2002 BMW 330i, 5-speed, Orient Blue over gray interior, with only 135K on the odometer. I jumped on it. The seller was a local auto mechanic specializing in BMWs and other German cars. He’d just bought it off a trade-in at another dealership and hadn’t even had a chance to drive it yet before he put it up on Craigslist. It drove very well, had good power and was in great shape cosmetically outside a baseball-sized dent in the lower passenger side of the urethane bumper. The windshield was cracked all the way across, and there was a clunk coming from the right front wheel area at low speed. The car pulled slightly under braking and the shifter bushings were completely shot. Furthermore, the interior had that faint whiff of having been a smoker car. Still—none of the issues were terminal, the car’s mileage was low and the price was right. I bought it.

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Gray Grey Interior Inside Console Cockpit

A week later, I’m still in love. The car has been debadged (removed the “330i” emblem), the windshield has been replaced and the front control arm bushings are new. The car is tight as a drum and—with the exception of the shifter bushings—drives perfectly. It’s a hair faster than my old 540i 6-speed and feels much more compact and nimble. I installed Koni yellow dampers in the 540i, and while they certainly benefited the larger car’s agility, the ride they provided could only be described as harsh. In contrast, the 330i, on its OEM sport suspension, strikes the perfect note, with a supple ride over the choppy stuff and a good set in the turns. Oddly, it doesn’t feel quite as balanced as my old 525i, but much more controlled and maneuverable. I’m starting to think the 525i’s handling feel was more a case of a big car with a smaller engine up front, with all the weight distribution advantages that offered, but that’s a post for another time.

BMW Engine Motor M54 M54B30 E46 330 330i

The E46 (1999-2005) 3-series was, at the time, BMW’s most popular model ever, and was offered in myriad different flavors, from convertibles to wagons to sedans to coupes, with a plethora of option packages and a number of styling variations and refreshes. I told my wife that if I could have ordered any non-M BMW new in 2002 and optioned it exactly the way I wanted it, it would have been this car. The air dam and rear apron: Perfect. The Style 68 wheels: Right on. The color combination: Love it. Even details like the sunroof delete (extremely rare for a US-bound E46), the heated seats and the premium Harman/Kardon stereo are precisely what I would have chosen. The original owner, who clearly special-ordered the car, had exquisite taste. I can’t believe I’m fortunate enough to be able to own it, drive it and work on it. I’m notoriously fickle when it comes to my affection for various cars, but if any car was a keeper, this is it. There’s not a thing I would change.

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Mazda’s New Ad Campaign Shines

September 15, 2015 by Matt

Mazda MX-5 Miata Ad Advert Advertisement Desert Track 2016 ND

Via Autoblog, I have next to no hope that this will gain them any traction with the buying public (of whom a vast majority are simply interested in basic transportation appliances instead of a vehicle they would actually enjoy to drive), but Mazda’s new marketing campaign resonates with enthusiasts. Supplementing their long-running “Zoom-Zoom” tagline, the automaker recently rolled out a new slogan: “Driving Matters.” Greeted by a collective “YES!” from car buffs everywhere, the new campaign explicitly reminds us how closely Mazda’s car-building philosophy aligns with our priorities in choosing and enjoying our vehicles.

And yet, as much as I want to preach Mazda’s slogan from the rooftops and shout it to the unenlightened masses, I realize that it takes more than just a fun-to-drive car to derive pleasure from the act of driving. The right road is an equally essential ingredient, and therein might lie another obstacle in the Japanese automaker’s attempts to convert their enthusiast-first philosophy into sales success. Put another way, it would do me no good to insist that a friend is selling himself short from a driving perspective by buying a boring car when his daily commute consists solely of 45 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic. He may heed my advice and buy something dynamically enjoyable, but have nowhere to use it aside from forays onto winding back roads. And those excursions take a level of intentionality even harder to expect from someone whom I’ve already had to convince to buy something he wouldn’t have normally chosen.

The antidote to all this, of course, is to build compromise-free cars; in other words, cars that function equally well whether being used as commuting appliances or back-road burners. And as Mazda’s recent string of comparison-test wins indicates, they’re the current undisputed masters of that formula (6 straight outright victories in Car and Driver alone). Here’s hoping their new ad push can bring more buyers around to that fact.

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Too Much Is Not Enough:
A Car Interior Fantasy

May 11, 2015 by Matt

Millennium Falcon Bridge Cockpit

I alluded to this in my “3 Interior Likes” post, but I think it bears fleshing out. The above picture, a shot of the Millennium Falcon‘s bridge from the film The Empire Strikes Back, represents my holy grail when it comes to car cockpit layouts. In a nutshell: The more instrumentation, gauges, readouts, lights and switches, the better. And it should have a certain ad hoc quality, cobbled together in such a way that only the owner can understand its intricacies.

The desire for such a look and feel is rooted in a few factors:

  • The need to personalize. Other car buffs express themselves through gaudy body kits and coffee-can mufflers; I’d rather my car distinguish itself (and its owner!) via a kind of über-tech interior layout—but one tied, naturally, to a high level of customization under the skin. If I had to give it a label, maybe it’s an expression of the nerd chic aesthetic philosophy.
  • It’s also related to the broader appeal of sleepers, Q-ships, cars that look humdrum but have “got it where it counts,” to borrow Han Solo’s phrase. There’s an appealing drama to a vehicle that has all the outward markings of a loser but sucks its rivals’ doors off when the light turns green. Call it the Susan Boyle effect; it speaks to the underdog in all of us.
  • I might be unique in this, but I derive a degree of comfort from being surrounded by lights, readouts and switches. Maybe they provide a feeling of control? Or perhaps I’m reassured by the fact that they’re passively providing me all the information I need to make a positive decision behind the wheel? On a quasi-primal level, I almost feel like the lights are “watching over me,” that they’re illuminated and vigilant even when my attention lapses, and that thought gives me a sense of security—warranted or no.

Boeing 747 Cockpit Bridge Controls

It’s understood that when they leave the factory, car dashboards don’t resemble the Boeing 747-400 cockpit shown above. The ideal path to achieving the goal, then would be to at least start with a car blessed with ample instrumentation out of the box and add from there. When I look through the steering wheel, I like to see at least 3 secondary gauges (fuel, coolant temp, oil pressure, etc) in addition to the requisite speedometer and tach. I’ve been fortunate to have owned several cars with a total of 6 gauges staring back at me—a great starting point.

The closest I’ve come so far to my ideal layout occurred when I owned my 1988 Supra Turbo. Toyota gifted the car with 6 factory gauges, and to start with I added an air/fuel ratio and boost gauge on the A-pillar:

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

In addition on that fairly standard instrumentation, I decided to go a step further and install some overhead switches and lights. As with many ’80s Japanese performance cars, the Supra was fitted with dampers (shock absorbers) with 3 settings—soft, medium and firm—controlled by servos placed atop the shock towers. The driver was able to toggle between soft and medium using buttons on the center console, but the car itself would automatically set the dampers to firm when a sensor detected sufficient acceleration in any direction. I wanted to be able to activate the firm setting manually, so I wired a pair of Radio Shack rocker switches and LEDs lights inline with a couple of override pins on the diagnostic connector under the hood, and placed them up in the plastic trim panel between the sun visors. It wasn’t very sophisticated, but it was satisfying to be able to reach up, flick an overhead switch, see a green LED illuminate and hear all 4 servos click in unison as the dampers firmed themselves up. Further instrumentation would have probably required at least the installation of a piggyback fuel computer, and a complete standalone system at the most, which is a tuning goal I’ve pursued for a long time. Who knows; one day I may be able to geek out in my very own Millennium Falcon cockpit.

Image credit: telegraph.co.uk, berghem.tweakdsl.nl

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Obscure ’80s Wedge: The Bitter SC

May 4, 2015 by Matt

Bitter SC

I hadn’t heard of the Bitter SC until recently, and as I checked out the car’s attributes, I wondered why I hadn’t sooner.

After all, it seems tailor-made for me:

  • European? Check.
  • Incrediblly rare and obscure? Check.
  • Wedgy, boxy ’80s styling? Check.
  • Straight-6 power? Check.
  • GT body style and ethos? Check.

It even has an Opel tie-in: Its construction uses the contemporary Opel Senator’s floorpan as a starting point. I’m in love.

Bitter SC

So what in the world is a Bitter? The brainchild of a German racing driver, Erich Bitter, the automaker released a couple of cars—the SC featured in this post and its predecessor the CD—which were essentially rebodied versions of the largest Opel on the market at the time. Produced in extremely limited numbers (there were only 488 SCs made in total) they were sold in Europe and in Buick dealerships here in the States, much the same way Opels had been back in the early ’70s.

Bitter SC

The SC’s styling hews very closely to that of the Ferrari 400/412, with which it roughly shared a model run from 1979 to 1989. To my eye, the Ferrari is a fantastic car to copy, but the proportions are so similar it could communicate a bit of laziness on the part of the Bitter design crew. I won’t complain, though—there are far uglier cars they could have chosen to emulate.

Bitter SC

Available with either a 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic transmission, the SC used a standard 177hp, 3.0l version of Opel’s CIH straight-6 engine, bumped up to 3.9l and 207hp by the end of the car’s model run. Motivating around 3,400 lbs, a 0-60 time in the mid 7s was very respectable by the standards of the day.

Values today are about what you’d expect for such a rare but not particularly exotic piece of the ’80s automotive scene; good examples can be found for around $20K, but be prepared to wait for the right example to pop up. Fortunately, the Bitter Owner’s Club is an understandably fanatical, tight-knit group, clustered as they are around so few examples of their obsession, so insight into the cars’ quirks is easy to come by for those seriously interested.

Bitter SC

The SC doesn’t threaten to displace any residents of my top five automotive objects of lust, but it’s certainly earned itself a spot on my ever-growing wish list.

To read more about the SC, check out excellent articles over at Autoweek and Jalopnik.

Image credits: auta5p.eu, bittercars.de, autobild.de, motortrend.com

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