Spring is flirting with the breeze here in Kansas City, and we’re digging ourselves out from under piles of melting snow to stare at the sun like it’s some kind of benevolent liberator. I love winter- the coats, the sideways hoonage in the snow, the warm fires, and the Christmas gifts. But spring is always welcome, and with it generally comes an itch.
Now if you’re reading this, you’re probably a) a gearhead, or, b) someone to whom a gearhead is trying to explain him- or herself. If you fall into the latter group, you might have trouble understanding why one of us would spend thousands buying, restoring, and tuning a car, only to sell it and start all over with another heap of rusted crap we found on craigslist for $200 and a tow. You’re under the impression that we travel with a destination in mind, that once we’re finished with the car, we’ll be happy. You need to realize that the journey is half the destination.
We love the building process itself. There’s a joy in clicking over a torque wrench, in popping off a door panel, in soldering wires and wrapping them up tight in a fresh, tucked loom. This is our art, and we love it so much we take thousands of pictures a week and post them on forums with “56k WARNING” in the tread titles.
I have an itch to start such a project myself. I want to get oil under my fingernails and create a pyramid of empty brake cleaner cans. The funny thing is, I’ve never really had a project car. But I almost did.
In the summer of 2011, I was a desperate man. I had just bent a valve on my beloved 1990 Honda Accord coupe with 235k miles, after rushing a spark plug tube seal replacement. I had nothing to drive to work and back, and just a fistful of cash. And then an unlikely character swooped in to rescue me.
Well, swoop isn’t probably the right word. It sortof waddled into my path via Craigslist, and I found myself the enthusiastic owner for a 1989 Toyota Tercel hatchback, bought for $900. Unfortunately, the previous owner had been some sort of human-troll hybrid, and it was filthy. The back seats had been replaced with a (frankly handy) cargo tray, the carpet was inundated with what was hopefully three gallons of iced tea, and the whole of everything had been dusted liberally with untold years of cigarette ash. I found seed shells between the headliner and the roof. How does that even happen!?
So I pulled out the whole interior for cleaning. I was going to keep this little hatch, lower it on a proper suspension, beef up the 1.5 liter, 78 hp four, and tint the windows. So everything came out. The seats, the panels, and that disgusting carpet. And I cleaned. Since I’d only taken a single day off work to register the car, I did the entire job in a blistering hurry, and it was only in a barely drivable condition for weeks afterward. Also, it was summer, not the pleasant season I mentioned above, and kneeling in a metal and glass can all day, scrubbing, was not the least bit comfortable.
I soon discovered that the whole aftermarket for an ’89 Tercel could fit in a single example of that car. I couldn’t find any replacement seats or decent suspension components, and I couldn’t hope to tune the carbureted mill.
I finally got the car back together and sold it for $900, which I put toward my current WRX.
It ended up being a nightmare project with no AC or radio, no cruise control, and very little fun, despite the four-speed stick. I was miserable with the car almost the whole time I owned it.
And yet, today I find myself missing that little hatch, which I geekily deemed Samwise. (All my cars get Lord of the Rings names.) It achieved superb gas mileage, and though the suspension made it roll like a cheese wheel down a Gloucestershire hillside, it was very light and maneuverable.
I don’t think I’ll get another Tercel, but I’ve been itching for another project. One I can take my time on and enjoy. One I don’t have to worry about driving every day. I have a few ideas, most of them for a practical daily I could beat around the city to keep from putting too many miles on my WRX:
-An EF, EG, or EK Civic. They’re great on gas, have a growing aftermarket, and can be fixed with a Leatherman and a paperweight. A Civic hatch would make a great daily driver, even if I tuned it. They are, however, front-wheel-drive, and while FWD is great, I’d really like my tuned car to be RWD.
-Which is why I’ve also been considering a Miata. The MX-5 is also a mileage pro, though I’m not thrilled about owning a convertible. Also, the NA Miata is about the only one I could afford- and the only one I can’t fit inside.
-A motorcycle would be perfect. I’d like a mid-‘70s Honda CB, or the equivalent from one of their competitors, which I could find for a few Bennies and slowly transform into a stylish but comfortable café-inspired daily. It is not, however, a year-round reality in Kansas City.
-And I’d also like to build a kart. Believe it or not, this would not be the cheapest of the options, as I’d likely be spending no less than a shiny grand on one. But I could go racing, and that part, at least, would be cheap.
Which project would you vote for? What else should I consider? And what projects are you working on this year?