Saturday, September 5, 2009


The dude's asking $3500 for this '71 Camaro with the typical array of muscle car add-ons: carb, intake, headers and minor rust.

This car's not good, it's not pretty, it might be fast, and it's not cool. Only one word properly describes a 2nd-gen Camaro: Bitchin. Luckily, someone wrote a song to expand on this idea. Follow along.

Rod - Well, that's another story; the important thing here is you gotta ask me how I'm gonna get down to the shore.
Joe - Uh, how you gonna get down to the shore?
Rod - Funny you should ask, I've got a car now.
Joe - Oh wow, how'd you get a car?
Rod - Oh my parents drove it up here from the Bahamas.
Joe - You're kidding!
Rod - I must be, the Bahamas are islands, okay, the important thing now, is that you ask me what kind of car I have.
Joe - Uh, what kinda car do ya' got?
Rod - I've got a BITCHIN CAMARO!

I ran over my neighbors
Now it's in all the papers.
My folks bought me a BITCHIN CAMARO with no insurance to match;
So if you happen to run me down, please don't leave a scratch.
I ran over some old lady one night at the county fair;
And I didn't get arrested, because my dad's the mayor.
Doughnuts on your lawn
Tony Orlando and Dawn
When I drive past the kids, they all spit and cuss,
Because I've got a BITCHIN CAMARO and they have to ride the bus.
So you'd better get out of my way, when I run through your yard;
Because I've got a BITCHIN CAMARO;
And an Exxon credit card.
Hey, man where ya headed?
I drive on unleaded.

"Bitchin Camaro" By the Dead Milkmen.

\m/ \m/

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Team Unknown Fluids: Debrief Part 1: Reflection


We scrambled to finish it, we scrambled to fix it, and we scrambled around the track to end up at 74th place overall. For more summary, see my post on Bimmerforums, Aaron's writeup at, or Jeff's Part One (ever gonna finish that?) at

I didn't start this blog to summarize, I started it to analyze and reflect, so let's get to the analysis and reflection, shall we? Let's start with confession. Of the six things that went wrong (exhaust falling off, mirror sucking, fuel leak, hood pins, guibo failure, wreck), four were easily preventable.

Not long into having the car, I'd found a decently cheap source for a multi-element "wink" racing mirror. I never got around to buying it, and we ended up picking up clip-over wide mirror on the last weekend before the race. we never really tested it, and it turned out to be utterly useless as it pulled our factory mirror down to pointing at the floor.

Photo Courtesy Jeremy Jozwik

When installing the muffler u-bolt clamps, I noticed there was still a little wobble in the system, but a gentle tug didn't seem to dislodge anything; "good enough" I thought. Not so much. I could've tightened them more or at least thrown on a tack weld once my welder showed up.

That Can't be Good...

I didn't install the doomed guibo, but it was my job to check it. I noticed it seemed to have some warp-age to it, as if the driveshaft was too far back from the transmission output. " hey, it's designed to flex, right?" I thought. Again: not so much. It bit the dust a few hours into the race. After being more careful with the second one, it lasted at least twice as long as the first, and looked pristine at the end of the race. Funny how that works.

We must've installed and removed the hood 20 times in the last week before the race. My father-in-law Mark and a few of the guys on the team took care of installing the 4 hood pins, and did a great job of it...except it doesn't seem the nuts holding the pins in place were ever really torqued all the way down. I noticed them as being kinda loose pretty late in the build, and never did anything about it. Lock washers or loctite were probably in order.


As for the other two failures, I swear I would've noticed if the fuel lines were anywhere near the axle shafts, so I'm gonna claim they magically migrated downward at some point in the race (possibly when Ted (Dad, to me) decided to go offroading). Speaking of things that happened when Ted was at the wheel, we're gonna go ahead an blame team Magnum P.I.G. Racing's driver for pulling back onto the track after blowing it on Lost Hill. We're not that bitter...but if you mysteriously find your valve cores missing at the next race, it definitely wasn't us.

The moral of this little session? It appears people trust me to be vigilant (but not a vigilante) when it comes to catching stuff that could cause problems. If anyone reading this is putting a car together, take heed: 2/3s of your problems will be the little things you should've taken care of.

The true root cause being just how badly we (I, really) procrastinated pretty atrociously. It all began back on January 6th (I just looked it up), so there's really no excuse for having to scramble to get it together in the last three weeks before the race.

That said, we've got roughly 11 weeks to get the car up and running for Thunderhill...
See ya there.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Team Unknown Fluids!

In one of the zanier spur-of-the-moment moves I've ever pulled, I found myself as the primary caretaker of a 1982 BMW 633csi. Not just any '82 633, mind you, but one coming out the other end of a "Donate Your Junk Car" lot.

This 3-speed automatic equipped, non-starting gem of mid-malaise German engineering will be the trusty steed of Team Unknown Fluids at the 2008 24 Hours of LeMons at Buttonwillow, CA. I assure you, this wouldn't have been my first choice, but team Captain Jeff (aka FatBraff) bought it on an even more spur-of-the-creating-marital-strife-moment move.

I won't be going into any of the details of the build here, as that's what the Team Blog is for. I will occasionally use this space take some time to reflect on what it all means (man).

For starters...
"No start" specials can be a great opportunity if you've got a trailer and some ingenuity. Our car had a bad starter switch and a dead battery. It took 1 day to get it running.

BMW loves complexity. For example, rather than use a set screw on the throttle body to set the idle speed (like almost every other fuel injected car on earth), our car uses an idle control valve, which is a solenoid-controlled valve that serves as a bypass for the closed throttle plate. They use a whole non-adjustable electromechanical doohickey where a set screw would do.

Additionally, in place of a mass air flow (MAF) sensor to measure how much air is coming into the engine, BMW saw fit to equip our car with a big aluminum box with a big aluminum flap in it. Said flap is pulled open with airflow and actuates a sensor. Said flap is also a failure-prone restriction in the air intake path.

Given that the car is rife with things like this, it's no surprise that a car that cost over $35k in 1982 was down under $500 26 years later.

Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of BMWs (if I've gotta go German, I'll take Audi, please). When I see the few BMWs I am a fan of (M Coupe, e39 M5, assorted M3s), I can't help but think back to the pile of wires I've pulled out of this older (theoretically) simpler Bimmer, and wonder at what maintenance horrors await me with these newer models.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

My Autobiography, Part 4: The Present

Last you heard, my 2nd 4Runner had been stolen.

Like something out of an ad

My dad, taking pity on me after having three cars stolen in three years, decided to offer me a bailout of sorts. He sold me his Jeep at a significantly below-market price. That was fall of 2004, and I've managed to hang onto it since then. For extra piece of mind, it's equipped with Lo-Jack's Early Warning System, which calls my cell phone if the car moves without the Lo-Jack keyfob present.

The Jeep has served me well over the years. With a relatively small lift and 33" tires, it's no taller than a stock fullsize pickup and makes a great city car. With 4.10:1 gears and ARB air-locking differentials in the axles and a 4:1 low-range transfer case it's quite the mountain goat. It's such a good match, that The Missus has forbidden me from ever selling it, no matter the justification; she knows that six months later, I'll just either want it back, or would just go buy a replacement Jeep (isn't she great?).


Speaking of The Missus, marriage to my lovely wife in May '05 brought her '00 Dodge Ram in to the fold. Her V6, 2wd, short-cab, short-bed pickup (basically as wide as it was long) never failed her in the 101k miles that she had it. Once you live with a truck, it's hard to give up the utility it offers. Finding a great deal on a drill press, giant suitcase and/or a stoplight at a garage-sale never presents a challenge.

Exterior 1

Between the Jeep and the Dodge, we never really had the ability to carry both people and things. That all changed with a semi-spur-of-the-moment response to a Craigslist ad for a 1967 Ford Country Sedan. There will be many more posts to come on The Wagon, but here are the basic facts: 390ci engine, seats for 10, needs lots of little things done, and it always starts (after a couple of tries).

Wagon in the Campsite

After I finished grad school at USC, it was off to the salt mines. Without giving up too much detail, The Missus and I commute from Glassell Park (just north-east of downtown LA) to Sylmar, and then Valencia. It's 45 miles one-way, which was a lot of miles to be racking up on a 101kmi Dodge pickup. Alas, the truck moved on a more purposeful life with a contractor down in South LA, and was replaced by a 2006 Subaru WRX wagon.

Our Subaru (2)

We couldn't be more happy with our purchase. Bought 1-year used with 8k miles in August 2007 for roughly $6k off the price of a new one, its now got creeping up on 60k miles. The blessing/curse of a compact sportwagon is that it's the right car to take for almost every trip. It'll haul four people and their snowboarding gear for a weekend no problem. Less burdened, it'll haul ass through some of southern California's best driving roads. Since we've had it, we have to make excuses to drive the other cars, because the WRXagon can pretty much do it all.

Wrapping up, I've got a mental image of the teacher turning on the lights after a riveting nature film, only to find the class half missing or asleep.

We've made it to the present fleet of cars...but I suppose there is one more thing I could bring up...

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Worth Reading: Classic Jalopnik

Chances are if you found your way here, you came by way of now very-big auto blog

In pulling up the El Camino link for my Auto-Biography, Part 3, I knew right where I wanted to go: the El Camino SS was the 50th out of 50 cars in the now-dormant Jalopnik Fantasy Garage.

Somehow that led me to the sign-off post from Jonny Lieberman, who used to write there, which contains a pile of links back to great posts of the early Jalopnik 1.0 days. We're now on Jalopnik 2.0, which has its appeal. But it's no Jalopnik 1.0. Dig around in the archives, there's many a precious nugget to be found.

My personal favorite: Murilee Martin's comment on the Mazda MX-5.

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 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.