Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My Autobiography, Part 3: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Picking up from my last exercise in narcissism, I'd just had the rug pulled out from under me with my basket case 1985 Toyota 4Runner. "The Compensator" (as my sister called it) was gone, never to be seen again, so where to go next?

With roughly $7000 in insurance cash burning a hole in my pocket, I was back in the market. For some truly bizarre reason, it was a toss-up between another 4Runner and an El Camino. As Captain of the (top 10 in the nation) UC San Diego waterski team, I frequently found myself driving all over hauling stuff. Either vehicle was a good fit, and the El Camino had the extra dose of awesome.

Any incoming Jalopnik readers are hoping this is where I dive into my El Camino phase. Alas, it was not to be. I looked at one semi-seriously, and while very reasonably priced, it needed lots of love. I was pretty burnt out on Project Car Hell from my previous 4Runner, and managed to locate a mildly lifted 87 4Runner that was in super good shape.

With 250k on the odometer, it had about 100k on a complete new engine. Yes, this line of reasoning bit me in the ass last time, but this time I was there to see it in person. I'd never before seen such a clean engine compartment. The previous owner was a mechanic, and had dutifully taken care of the car for several years.

It was in great shape, and only gave me trouble early-on with a sticky temp gauge that decided to read A-OK while I climbed the 4000' grade out of the desert back into San Diego. A-OK, until it suddenly unstuck and pegged to the red just in time for me to see the steam coming from under the hood.

After addressing that little issue, it needed a few things if I was ever to get those 33" BFGs dirty.

The 4" lift was a typical mid-90s crappy "let's quintuple the spring rate" special that I had to swap the springs out of. When the lift was put on, they re-geared the rear axle to 4.88:1, but not the front. Luckily, the whole Toyota IFS front axle assembly is a pretty easy swap.

The final modification I would make on it is exemplary of why I love Toyota trucks: the electric locking rear differential from the TRD Tacomas is a near bolt-in item to earlier Toyotas. I managed to pick one up for a whole axle drum-to-drum and swap it in over a weekend.

1987 4Runner 2

It was just a matter of getting the wiring sorted out. Unfortunately, before I finished that, or ever got an opportunity to test it out in the dirt, the 4Runner was stolen.

There's nothing quite like that sinking feeling when you come out in the morning and your car's not where you swear you left it the night before. It's particularly distressing when it's the third time in as many years. Calling work to let them know you probably wouldn't be able to make it because your car got stolen ("Again?") is no fun, but calling your insurance is even less fun.

This time around, having done most of the upgrades myself, on the cheap, it was hard to get my adjusters to recognize the value I'd added to the car. After weeks of negotiations, I got $500 less than I'd paid for it, roughly 14 months (and $1200 in upgrades) earlier.

So what's the take-home message from The Second 4Runner? The Missus jokes that I should be careful spending a bunch of time working on my cars, as it was stolen on a Monday after I'd spent all weekend working on it. Beyond that, there's not much to be said...it was a good little truck that got swiped. Bummer, dude.

The story does carry a bit of epilogue: While my 85 4Runner disappeared without a trace, the Fastrak toll road pass that was in my 87 when it was stolen was still being used occasionally. I tried to contact the CHP to see if they could use the system in place to ticket non-paying drivers to pick up whoever was using my pass. No dice. Essentially, it came down to the fact that the CHP has no interest in actually fighting crime.

As great a car as The Second 4Runner was for me, I find myself wondering if the El Camino would've been the better choice...

Next up: The Modern Era.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

My AutoBiography, Part 2: "Buying the 4Runner"

Working on my '85 4Runner

Just as "jump the shark" and "nuke the fridge" have special meanings in pop culture, to "Buy the 4Runner" has a special meaning for me and my family.

When we last checked in with a younger and stupider me, I had three summers of simplified professional wrenching experience under my belt and was just wrapping up my sophomore year of college at UC San Diego.

With ubiquitous internet access and lots of time between classes, I was spending countless hours on 4x4 forums. Funny thing about spending 100 times as much time online talking about something as actually doing it: You can lose track of what matters.

I'd become convinced that my Jeep, (now upgraded to 35" tires, a 5" coil conversion and dual air lockers) was underbuilt. The axles would snap at the slightest hint of a hill climb and the transfer case was woefully under-spec'ed. I was doomed. What I really needed to do was sell my Wrangler for the high prices that they could bring, then build up a solid-axle Toyota 4Runner from scratch to be the hardcore wheeling machine I really wanted. After all, you could get a great used specimen for like $4,000, and that 22RE motor would run forever.

None of this was true. As long as I didn't make a habit of bumping my way up rocky hillclimbs under full throttle, my drivetrain was been fine. Busy with school, I wasn't doing all that much offroading to begin with. I'm not sure how I thought a 17 year-old 4Runner was going to be a reliability upgrade over a simple Jeep with a 2 year old motor.

Regardless, a grandiose plan was hatched: I'd sell the Jeep for a bunch of cash, and use it to build a 4Runner into exactly what I wanted.

1985 4Runner Parked 4

While searching for something to buy, I came across the example you see above. 5.5" All-Pro Offroad lift, 5.29:1 gears, 35" Super Swampers and a winch. Sure, it had 160k miles, but it really only had 50k on a rebuilt engine, so it was fine.

There were a few small problems...
Instead of the $4-5k that I was looking to spend, the guy was asking $9k (but it already had lift/tires/gears that I wanted, so it was really a bargain!).
It had an exhaust leak at the manifold-to-head surface (and easy fix)
The driver's seat was busted.
The transmission was in need of a 2nd gear synchro (but good, used replacements were only a few hundred bucks)
The clutch was warped (but I could get it when I did the transmission)
Lastly, it was in Sacramento but I was in San Diego. No problem, I'd just have my dad check it out for me, as he was in SacTown at the time.

Everything in italics came back to bite me.

I'd like to believe if I'd been there in person, to hear the exhaust leak, to drive it and realize just how gutless 100ish horsepower feels when yoked to 35", 50lb tires, and recognize the generally neglected state this thing was in, that I wouldn't have told my dad to pull the trigger. Alas, I wasn't, and he didn't want to be the bad guy and tell me this was a terrible idea, so I bought it.

The spread between the $12k I sold the Wrangler for and the $8k I paid for the 4Runner disappeared quickly. Straight away I paid for sales tax, 1st insurance premium, a new driver's seat, a (used) replacement transmission and getting the exhaust leak (mostly) fixed.

Winter break of that year really epitomizes my ownership experience.

I had two weeks to swap the transmission and transfer case to the new (used) tranny and dual transfer case setup I had ready to go.

On the way from San Diego to my parents' place in the Bay Area, the front main oil seal went from bad to worse. I added at least 5 quarts of oil over the trip, most of which proceeded to spray down the undercarriage and up the back of the car.

After burning a day fixing the oil seal issue, the drivetrain swap was longer and more difficult than expected. My lovely future wife had come up to join my family on a skiing trip, but instead she had to stay back an extra day and help me bench-press 300lbs worth of drivetrain into place.

On the way back to San Diego, I had the pleasure of learning that my 4Runner had been equipped with a rear-seat heater. It turns out the previous owner hadn't bothered to remove the coolant lines that fed it, and instead put a "U" hose right were my newly installed second transfer case would rub right through it. This was determined over the course of 4 hours and several hot-coolant baths in a parking lot at the base of the Grapevine.

Sidehill 1

Later that spring, the head gasket blew.

Without the time, money or skill to do a head gasket, I ventured into my own personal Bailout Plan. The Bank of Dad granted me a $3k, 5 year loan to get the better part of the engine rebuilt at an expert shop. I was in debt, but my 4Runner was finally running right.

It was stolen 3 weeks later, never to be seen again.

Insurance paid me more than I could've sold it for, but nowhere near the total I'd paid into it over 10 months of ownership.

For years, I beat myself up over the whole fiasco. Really, the whole thing embarrassed me.

In my family to "Buy the 4Runner" came to mean entering into a financial boondoggle with delusions of coming out ahead of the game, when in reality you're just biting off more than you can chew.

Five years later, I'm still frustrated by the experience. But when I think about everything I learned as a result, I'm not sure I wouldn't wish it upon myself again. I learned a lot about wrenching, but even more about just how much time, money and space it takes to take on a real project. I'm glad I had that learning experience on an $8,000 4Runner than a $30,000 BMW or a $300,000 money pit of a house.

Monday, March 9, 2009

My AutoBiography, Part 1: Whatayamean, Water Doesn't Compress?

In a nearly-shameless ripoff of tribute to Paul Niedermeyer's Auto-Biography series on The Truth About Cars, I've decided to chronicle the vehicular history that's led me to where I am today (and where I'd like to be tomorrow).

The combination of good grades and wealthy parents lead me to a lifted 1991 Jeep Wrangler for a first car. With the 4.0L I-6, 4.56:1 gears and 32" tires, the thing was the 0-40 drag champ and pretty capable offroad...to say nothing of its popularity with the ladies.

Awww Yeahhh

Unfortunately, the nut behind the wheel wasn't really up to the challenge of a certain bumper-deep water obstacle at the local semi-legal 4-wheeling destination. It turns out the YJ Wrangler has a cold-air intake that pulls in from below the headlights, rather than the near-hood-level that one might expect on an off-road vehicle.

It also turns out that water doesn't compress.

Now I know that if your engine dies due to water intake, you should pull your spark plugs and crank the water out. At the time, I just cranked it. It turns out the OEM Jeep starter has enough torque to bend the connecting rods in this situation.

Nearly $4000 and a new Mopar remanufactured engine later, and I needed a job.

Goodyear Shirt

Being a car fan and possessing enough skills to remove and re-install bolts myself, I got a job at the local Goodyear Service center. I worked not-quite 40 hours a week mounting tires, changing oil and delivering parts and customers over the southwest Bay Area.

That job was pivotal in turning me from a car fan to a gearhead. Being in, out, around and under hundreds — if not thousands — of cars, I got a feel for 5, 10, or 15 year old examples various makes of cars — how they were built, how they aged, and how painful they were to work on.

My time left me with a severe disdain for the following: German lug-centric wheels, GM plastic lug nut covers, and all things Corvette (wheels, tires, pressure sensors and especially their owners).

All joking aside, it's a job I'd highly recommend to any budding car fan. You'll make better money than almost anywhere, occasionally get to play hero mechanic for a damsel in distress, stay in shape heaving tires around, and occasionally pick up some pretty good perks in the form of parts or favors. The techs (real mechanics) will teach you a lot if you're willing to listen. The experience will teach you all kinds of skills and random knowledge when it comes to cars. You'll know so much more from working on cars than Motor Trend can ever tell you.

Of course, mounting tires and changing oil doesn't make you an ASE Master Tech. In fact, having an optimized set of tools and supplies for a very limited range of jobs can lead you to believe all automotive maintenance is as easy as 4 tires on a Civic. Alas, this is not the case, as we'll learn in my next segment...