Category Archives: Cars

You know, shit about cars. Damn.

That being said…

I do have something to write about, but it probably won’t interest most of you. I bought a truck, something to play with, a 1967 Datsun 520 pickup. It’s ugly, it’s tiny, but it’s fascinatingly japanese and inappropriately fun to work on. It’s slow, noisy, the windows leak (well, I finally fixed THAT part with some junkyard window trim out of a GMC Jimmy), it’s got a spring that goes directly where your right ass cheek needs to be, and the carburetor is a fucking tragedy. It has 4.8:1 gears in the back (!!) and a four speed, which combines with it’s lack of any soundmat and the oddball exhaust leak to make it howl a pretty horrible tune at 50 mph. I don’t know what it sounds like going faster because I simply do not “do” that.

But, there’s a small, insanely talented, and incredibly passionate group of amateur tinkerers dedicated to these little trucks, and while most of them are interested in making them drag frame, there’s plenty of stop-good and go-fast knowledge out there. I’ve gathered parts for the first few upgrades, a 70a alternator (out of a Nissan Pathfinder), a remote reservoir, 7/8 plunger dual master cylinder out of a Mitsubishi Max (this thing is trick as shit, it’s gonna help with all kinds of intake possibilities), and a pretty nice looking electric fan plus shroud out of a Mercury Mystique (or something else domestic, boring, and saddled with a transverse V6 which wants for serious cooling power). Combined with some brackets that let you put Isuzu Rodeo vented rotors on all four wheels, I should have plenty to keep me busy during the winter months making sure that it can stop _really_ well. (For all values of “really” that include no power brake booster).

There’s a short term plan that I like to call “Get it safely drivable”, which… I dunno. It’s “Safe” now. But it’s too slow to really get out of it’s own way and the little stamped-tin Nikki carb that is on there has backfired on me a few times and drivability is waaay down. And I want to get the electrics all relay-ed and modernized. Also, the carb has gotta go, and while converting to fuel injection just isn’t going to happen on this engine, it IS, as it turns out, just a japanese clone of an MG BMC A-Series engine. So there are hop-up parts available (including headers and aftermarket intakes). Of course, in the face of a wall of aftermarket parts, what have I chosen? To buy some Keihin 35mm carbs from a motorcycle and try to make my own intake and throttle linkage. Because I’m an idiot. But I do have an ebay bid in on an MG heater-line heated intake manifold which will be the basis of my MC carb intake. (Hee hee hee.) Anyways… I also want to get the interior up from “swamp buggy” to something more like “daily driver”. Plus I want to get the stoppers and suspension ready for the inevitable engine swap.

Which brings us to the long term plan. The inevitable engine swap.

I’m still entirely open on this. Of course the Ratsun community is largely dedicated to putting more modern Nissan motors into these trucks (mostly the KA24DE which is cheap and plentiful, but also the SR20DET and the occasional enthusiastically-started-but-as-yet-incomplete VG30E swap (this engine is coming out on Craigslist as all the mid 80’s 300ZX’s stop being economically viable – It’s just too long AND too wide to fit in the 520 engine bay without some serious tunnel/firewall/radiator relocation shit). However, I’m Datsun agnostic. Though I have a Nissan car (a 2007 Nissan Versa), and think that the engine in it, the 1.8 liter MR18DE, is ultra satisfactory, quite fun and would whip the half-the-weight-of-the-Versa 520 around like a little fucking go cart, it’s a FWD only block and nobody has whittled up an adapter to mate it to a Nissan 5 speed. I really don’t care much for that kind of undertaking, so I’m going to go with something someone has already adapted.

That leaves the RWD Nissan motors. The KA24(E/DE, the E designating mEh and the DE designating Double mEh), the SR20DE(T/TT/TTTTT or how ever many turbos they ever made these things with – Fun fact, you take the number of T’s at the end and multiply by $2000, add $1500 to the total and that’s the price of these engines), the L16/18/20B (boooorrriiiinnnnggggggg gg ggg), the VG/VQ six cylinders (which would exhaust my patience for sheet metal work in about three weeks and take possibly YEARS to sort out but a VQ35 would be fucking hilariously fun, I have to admit), or… something less Nissan-y.

I went to the junkyard to measure some engines, just to see what kind of RWD pickings there were to be had. In a word: slim. The BMW baby sixes are too big by juuuust a skosh, and combined with the fact that there’s no such thing as a cheap BMW engine fix, and I think it’d force me to adapt a jointed steering columnt – they’re kinda out. Though if I could source one of the little ETA sixes from a late 80’s 3 Series I’d… I dunno. If it were cheap enough it could make it worth it just on the “you put a what into where” novelty. The Volvo red-block motors would fit, but… you know. Why. Nobody is gonna go “OH SHIT YOU GOT THE FOUR CYLINDER OUT OF A MID 80’S 700 WAGON, SNIP SNAP”. Plus they all put out about one-hundred-and-Zzzzzz horse power and don’t really get great mileage at all. And the transmission options all suck.

I could be the 8932nd person to make an electric Datsun. Eating up the entire bed with batteries which I’ll just have to replace in four years anyways. That’d be cool. Cough. Anyhow…

@conoat did suggest the VW TDI motor, which is really shit hot, and there is an adapter to RWD (toyota transmission pattern), but diesel? Do I want to go to all that trouble just to pay 45c more per gallon for fuel on a good day? Do I want to have to adapt a urea-injection device to get the particulate emissions down? No I do not. I’m gonna stick with what I know for right now and stick with gasoline engines.

Enter and their little oddball adaptor business. Now, fuck a dickload of putting some mid-80’s GM-conceived-and-built Quad4 motor into my truck. I want it to run and NOT leak oil. I’m not interested in shoddy wiring or impossible to source bullshit belts. Plus if your engine is known for running rough, rough enough that you had to put a fucking balance shaft in? Sigh. I could go on about the Tempest Indy4 and how GM should have learned from that shit two decades before the Quad4 (like possibly when engineering the notoriously lumpy Tech4/Iron Duke) was ever built but I won’t. I’m no fucking engineer but just go ahead and fully counterweight your cranks people. But what I _am_ interested in is the Mazda MZR0based, Cosworth-racing derived Duratec motor that Ford has been putting in Rangers and… the fucking Ford Focus. They’re cheap as shit (I can probably pick up a 2.0 L Focus motor for $250, complete from wires up tippy top to oil sludge down in the pan, today, in any state of the union), they’re peppy (newer models are making 136HP/136lbft in stock trim) and easily upgradable (from more-modern intake manifolds to “how fast is your credit card feeling” bolt-on turbo kits), and thanks to Quad4Rods, adaptable to the ubiquitous, capable, and easily located T5 transmission. I’m going to have to get a custom drive shaft made anyways and Driveline Specialties don’t give a fuck if I’m having them balance a shaft with a Nissan end on the front or a Ford one. Plus the Ford Ranger came with the 2.3 liter, and there’s even a 2.5 liter four out in the wild today (probably won’t find one as cheap as a 2.0 right now but still). That’s a 171hp/171lbft naturally aspirated four. With proper inhalation-assistance that could be a half-size half-weight 302 slayer, and I won’t have to do anything more than hammer-dolly the transmission tunnel.

Why I bought a new car…

I’ve been reading a lot of fancified productivity and frugality blogs lately, and almost all of them suggest the same thing when it comes to buying a car.

Buy used.

More specifically, but a used, unpopular vehicle that you know all the KBB values of in an unpopular color, so you have optimal leverage to negotiate down the price. Have no brand loyalty, and ideally purchase a domestic car instead of an import (this part I disagree with entirely, but whatever), because the maintenance costs will be lower. Don’t get the extended warranty, be ready to walk away at any point, buy before your current car is broken so you have the advantage.

I went out initially looking for a used car, intending to follow most of these guidelines, but I had a series of setbacks along the way, which led me to buying new instead. Here’s my math on it.

I went out with a budget of $10,000-12,000, and the constraints of a car that was newer than 7 years old, had less than 100,000 miles on the clock, got good gas mileage (no trucks with 8mpg, something in the 25+ range as EPA rated), and felt fun to drive (I like cars, and I like to drive briskly on occasion). I didn’t care what color it was as long as it wasn’t lavender, and had four doors (avoid sports car insurance premiums or anything crazy like that).

I did research constantly on the internet. I found models and brands I was interested in, found out that lot inventory for used cars on the internet is much more accurate than for new. I found cars I wanted to look at and went out to look at them. I went out ten times to used car lots, six separate trips, spending 4-6 hours per trip looking.

By the end, I was ready to stab somebody in the fucking face, until I went to Ron Tonkin Nissan and talked to Jeff Williamson, who treated me like a human being, and seemed to know something about what the fuck they had on the lot. He talked to me about cars he owned, he talked to me about the things he liked about them, the things he didn’t. The big problem was that they had no used cars I was even partially interested in.

They had a couple of ginormous Toyota Tundras and Nissan XTerras that would have gotten horrid gas mileage. They had a Nissan 350ZX, brightass red, which would have taken another $100 a month at least in insurance. They had a Nissan somethingorother from about 1994 with 200,000 miles on the till. The 350ZX looked fun to drive, but failed every other test. The Somethingorother had been depreciated fully, it was a zero-value car, and they wanted $5000 for it. The trucks were, well, trucks.

Faced with giving my money to this guy versus giving it to the guy who treated me like shit for trying to buy a car at KBB value, it was an easy choice. Here were my justifications in no particular order.

  • I felt good giving money to this guy.
  • I liked the car.
  • It fit all of my criteria.
  • The sticker price (not the purchase price, more on this below) was only $2500 more than my stated budget for a used car.
  • The cost of legal defense for attempted murder (through face stabbing) would far outweigh the $2500 premium.
  • The car would extend the range of my job-seeking possibilities, making it easier for me to negotiate pay increases.

Here is the bad end of this.

  • My purchase price ended up being significantly more than I wanted to pay. $17,000.
  • I made the mistake of not haggling. This could likely have saved me $2000. (A “dealership interest fee”, basically a tax for buying a popular car that I could have pretty easily negotiated away, by starting to walk away instead of being in the “I’m buying this car today” mentality) This would have saved me $42 a month, or $2500 over the course of the loan.
  • I got the extended warranty. This cost me $1500 (the only part I haggled on, down from $3500). It has saved me $400 (airbag replacement and wheel sensor replacement). This might end up on the positives list, but for now, it’s a negative.
  • I am suffering the full value-depreciate of new car ownership.
  • Because I am suffering the full value-depreciation of new car ownership, I had to pay for GAP insurance.
  • I have to pay for full coverage insurance at $500 deductibles per my loan terms. This is another mixed account, as I believe in the importance of having uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage and more than pure liability, but I’d rather have the deductibles be at $1000 instead, and pump the $20-30 a month it would save me into my IRA.
  • Because of my impatience, I was unable to qualify for a loan at the bank I work for, which would have saved me 2-2.5% interest. By itself, I could have saved $25 a month on my payment ($1500 over the course of the loan). Combined with negotiating out the $2000, it would save me $62, (not $42+$25 because of the reduced principal), or $3700 over the course of the loan.

This is still a net benefit, because the car I was relying upon as secondary transportation (primary being my bicycle) broke down just two months into new car ownership, plus a workplace reorganization caused me to have to go to an office 16 miles away instead of 8, and my days stretched from a consistent 8 hours to a fluctuating 8-14, making biking to work difficult. The car really saved my ass in the first quarter of the year, and my ability to perform those long days without being utterly pooped got me a small raise (very small, about $2500 a year) and a moderately significant bonus ($4000, almost half going straight to the tax man). This allowed me two things,

  • It gave me enough money to get my eyes corrected with LASIK.
  • It gave me the inspiration and fiscal “cushion” to purchase a house. (Which, despite a lot of rumbling right now about how great renting is, is a benefit.)

So, buying the car was a very important change in my lifestyle. I had spent much of the past 10 years afraid of credit (having been burned early with a $300 credit card turning into a $1500 collection). Now, I am still wary, but I am coming to credit on my own terms. I carry no outstanding credit card debt, all collections on my credit report are closed and paid, and the only things I am using credit to purchase are, in the long run, a net benefit to me, the car (because of the mobility, and the leisure, business, and personal options that mobility offers) and the house (because of the likely-but-admittedly-not-guaranteed value appreciation, tax benefit, and leisure, business, and personal options that it offers). Now that I’ve done the math on the whole thing, I’d have definitely walked away from the dealership interest fee and bought a less popular car if need be. And I would probably have waited for my credit rating to get up to the standards that would have let me get the lower interest rate, though in actuality, that would have left me pretty fucked when the Honda broke down, it doesn’t make it any less of a good idea. Stay tuned for later when I go over the crazy finances of buying a house! Whoa, all the fun.

I love my car dearly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to do a full analysis of it from time to time.

Nissan Versa

I bought a Nissan Versa, by the way, after a series of worsening experiences at dealerships that left me thinking I would rather drive a tractor than deal with the idiots at the dealerships. Then the fantastic Jeff Williamson at Ron Tonkin Nissan went out of his way to provide great service and whatnot and some other bullshit and got me a car I wanted and got me financed without me having to stab him. It was great, and so is the car. I took it in for it’s first service Monday and now I’m good for another three months or some such whatnot. It gets like 33 miles to the gallon in town and I can chirp the tires if I try hard and am on level ground. It also has fantastic drunk-blinding high beams that really make driving Saturday nights a pleasure. I wish that it had auto-raise on the drivers window, as when I’ve used auto-lower to drop the window and spit on someone driving like a retard downtown, I want to be able to auto-raise it too, but that’s pretty much my only performance bitch.


I laughed and cheered while reading the very entertaining Ben Stein : How Not To Ruin Your Life installment about trying to purchase a Cadillac (very worth reading if you haven’t checked it out yet). I teased people I knew who were buying cars about how much fun they were going to have. Like the grasshopper to their abused but diligent ant (both Ben Stein and my sister successfully purchased vehicles), I played and was lazy all day – Not noticing as the days got shorter and greyer. Never paying attention to the fact that I would soon have to buy a car myself.

Then it happened: I realized I needed a car. So I started reading reviews and road tests and previews and checking insurance numbers and fiddling and farting and doing all those greatly annoying things you have to do in preparation for car shopping. And then on to the main event: Fucking Car Shopping.

My criteria for a car are simple: It must get decent gas mileage (average over or around 25mpg in mixed driving), it must have a manual transmission (anemic engines need a little bit more fine control over the power band to be anywhere near fun), and it must not offend me absolutely. Everything else I’m negotiable on. So I meandered and I checked, and I looked. And I started thinking that maybe a used car would hit the spot. Something in the 2-5 year old area, under a hundred thousand miles (preferrably something under seventy five thousand), and in the eight to eleven thousand dollar range. Moderately sporty would be nice, but the mileage trumps this, and my tastes tend to lean to the coupe and hatch range instead of the sedan and wagon end of things. I have been a Honda driver pretty religiously through my driving career, but their current lineup of cars is either way too expensive for what it is (Accord) or has been recently redesigned from interestingly sporty to Mercury Grand Marquis clone (Civic). So the old standby being out the window, I accepted that I would probably be buying a marque that I wasn’t familiar with.

After some fits and starts, I began to realize that most dealerships keep their used car inventory fairly up to date on their respective websites, and that made searching very easy, no need to drive around to a dozen places when I can pick the four cars I’m interested in and go take a look at them, right? So I go look at a Mitsubishi Lancer ES (Pretty sure it was an 05). Short Answer: Anemic, noisy on the road. But what really took the cake was the salesman. He was probably a little younger than me, say 25, obviously uncomfortable with people. Came over and asked me what I was looking for, and when I mentioned the Lancer, we walked over and he tried to open it up, but it was locked. He ran off to get the keys, and had almost nothing to say about the car. I told him I was really looking for a manual, and he almost ran off again, but I stopped him, and instead suggested we take the Lancer out. After trying to get in, he stops me, tells me that he’s going to back it out and to go stand off to the side. He backs out of a spot, and drives about 30 yards away and then waits there for us. Shaking my head, I wander over to where he’s waiting. He stutters something, I’m not even sure what it was, and I just assume it was “take the keys”. I hop in the front, my mom (who has been nice enough to join me on this hell-cruise), hops in the back, salesman hits the passenger side. We pull out into fairly unpleasant traffic, and he asks me if I live around here or know the area, and I say that I do, and he doesn’t seem to know how to respond to that. I wonder, quietly, if he would have had any way to follow that up if I said I wasn’t from the area. I aim to take the car up the road and down a residential area I know about so I can see if the suspension is OK (lots of speed humps and a fairly bad paving job), when he blurts out “TURN HERE”. Stunned, I did it, because I was convinced there was some kind of emergency vehicle following us or something. Looking back, I realize there is nothing wrong, and as I try to pass a truck on a very gentle hill (and the car decides it can only possibly do this in first gear at 6200 rpm), the salesman begins randomly poking at buttons, showcasing such features as the sunroof and the emergency blinkers. The very next street he is gesturing for me to turn and when it looks like I might not comply, he again yelps “TURN RIGHT HERE”. We get up to 40, at which point the din in the cab from the tires would impinge even the most raucous conversation. He begins to look distressed again, and begins turning on the stereo, which he turns up and begins asking me what station I want to listen to. I reached over to turn off the radio and it caused him such distress that he almost missed a “TURN HERE” which took us onto the next major street, at which point I had completely disengaged from the vehicle. “TURN HERE” and we were back at the dealership. He instructs me to park it just inside the lot and that he’ll take it back to it’s spot. He asks me how I liked the car, and I reply quite honestly that it was anemic, and that I didn’t like it. So I ask him to identify the cars on the lot that were manual transmission. He says he’ll be right back with the information, so he heads off and I begin to idly fondle some early 90s BMW in the lot. The salesman returns with, who I can only assume is “the closer”.

The Closer is covered in pancake makeup to “hide” a particularly bad skin condition around her lips and cheeks. She comes out, introduces herself, and asks what I’m looking for. I tell her I want a manual, and she begins walking around and looking into windows (very efficient). She then indicates two Kia sedans as manual transmission (both automatics), and mentions that almost nobody is making manual transmission cars anymore. She then points over at a late 90’s Camry or Maxima, and mentions that it’s a more powerful car than the Lancer I drove. I ask her if it’s a six cylinder, and she says she’ll go get the keys (I assume to pop the hood and count spark plug wires). After she leaves I notice the signs of a long dragging collision on the side and that’s enough, this car shopping experience is _done_.

I had test driven one car before this, a Scion xB at a Toyota dealership (Short answer: fun, kind of feminine), and I’m not sure if I just drove so erratically that the “TURN HERE” never started up, or that this Honda dealership was an abberation. I also thought that the level of service was pretty low, all of the salesfolks seemed a little miffed that I was there, making them walk out around the lot. I thought that the quality of service could only go up. Little did I know.