(My Son coming home from the hospital in my STS prepared Saturn in 2006)
I started writing this for my son. He loves cars and is currently 7 years old. For most of his life I have been working (slowly) on a project car. He can't remember when I got it, he doesn't remember all of the work put into it. All he knows it that with some help from a few friends I've built it and now it runs. Now that it runs he loves to ride in it. Like any project car, my project is far from done. But now it is a safe, working car. In about a month my 4 member family will be taking this car and my Lotus on a 3 day 1000 mile tour of the state with a bunch of other older cars.
My son doesn't even know about the cruise yet. He doesn't know I'm pulling him out of school for a day and making a long weekend to take him on it. But I know that when he gets to be older he will probably remember this trip. If he is ever wondering how the car we are taking on the trip came to be, this is his answer.
With the car's transformation from driveway art to car. I feel like I should write this down while the memories are still fresh. I've decided that not only should I put it down for him, but perhaps others would like to hear the tale too.
As you can see this is going to be a multi-part thing. I'm putting it all together from memory so things sort of come out in blobs. Some folks may or may not enjoy that. Also, I'm going to refrain from talking too much about the cars make. If you can't stand that, feel free to look at past posts of mine. But I don't think the make of car is important. This isn't about one make. This is the story of a car, a story made for a boy who may one day want to know more about the car his dad built.
A close friend I worked with sacrificed his lunch to help me go buy the car and bring it back. It barely made it the 15 or so miles back to the office. But that didn't stop us from doing what any car nuts would do and went out on shake down run. Without surprise in the 2 days since I drove it last absolutely nothing on the car worked any better. The engine still ran poorly, the car still wandered around so much that a sober person would be charged with a DUI and it still had a musky stink. But it was my poorly running, wandering stink bucket.
I drove the car to that night's SCCA meeting eager to show off what I had bought. One member was certain he knew one of the past owners; A guy that once worked at our local National Laboratory. As the group looked the car over I think more than one member had been in the shoes I just slipped on. Even then though they were nice enough to hold their tongues rather than tell me I had made a huge mistake.
At home I starting going through the couple of boxes that came with the car. There was a factory service manual, which would prove to be invaluable in the future. A new set of plug wires that were in the box got paired with some new plugs that I bought. Sometimes it is surprising what a few minor maintenance items will get you; This isn't one of those times. After plugs and wires, the engine ran a bit more smoothly which gave me a bit of pride, but was still very very wrong. It still made little power, still rang like a bell as RPMs dropped, still made a horrible turbine whine and still failed to rev at times. And now having really got under the hood with light I found that everything was oil covered.
New parts started arriving. A few weeks later the engine bay was looking relatively clean. Oil lines had been replaced and at least things looked better under the hood.
To match the now cleaner engine bay I took a steam cleaner to the interior. If Starbucks had existed in New Mexico in the 80's and 90's there would have been hundreds of dollars worth of coffee spilled in the passengers foot well. After 7 shampooings the water had finally become about as light as iced tea. Some people say that the sign of a proper drivers car is a lack of cup holders. I find that I don't need cup holders, but I'd be alright if the previous owner would have had a cup holder or two
The interior was now decent enough to sit in for a few minutes at a time. I started trying to make the thing run properly. I found several leaks in the intake piping and replaced some parts to get rid of the leaks. Small steps were made daily, but honestly some of the improvements was just a on the surface; An attempt to clean and handle maintenance items left undone in hopes that there was a perfect car under the oil, dirt and neglect.
My wife's sister and fiance were over visiting one day and came out to the garage to see the car. My wife had told her I bought a car for $1200 and was working away on it. My sister-in-law, Mary, knows little about cars, but is a constant source of positive energy. Like I said in the big picture, I had done very little. The car was a slightly less oily hunk of crap with a new plugs and wires, but she was certain I was some sort of genus and had scored a great deal and was only a few hours away from transforming the car into a world beater. But the truth was finally finding a home in my head; I had bought a nightmare.
The technology used in car while reasonable in its day is far obsolete today. Throttlebody injection was hardly cutting edge in the mid-eighties. Going multi-port is everyone's dream with this car. I found myself on a forum and tripped across a group purchase. Group purchases are probably the easiest way devised to talk yourself out of money. You get the opportunity to buy something a a good price, but the pressure to do so quickly before the slots are all filled and you are out of luck. This buy was for some state-side very rare parts to be imported form the land of kangaroos and boomerangs. A spot in line meant an intake manifold and head from a Australian market car which used the same engine was yours. These parts form the base to upgrade to multi-port fuel injection. I scrounged the money and got in line. But right after I sent my money we started looking at moving to a new house. My group purchase was the last of money I had to spend for a while
We found a house we liked a few blocks away, the move would be easy. I sold my motorcycle to put towards down payment on the house. The car ran decently enough to get to the new house under its own power; Dying right as it got to the new house.
The new house made money tighter. But I still thought about the car a lot. I'd go out every week or 2 and start the car up. I'd let it idle and charge the battery. Then one day I came back to turn it off and my stomach sank. A small lake of coolant was under the car. I turned the car off popped the hood and saw the upper radiator hose was blown up like a balloon. Coolant was coming from somewhere in the depths. Once the pressure dropped I looked around, but couldn't find a leak.
A few friends came over to help me with the leak and replace the upper strut mounts and front wheel bearings. The water had come from a busted hose down by the water pump. New hoses replaced all of the old ones. The car was still not any better running than it is was before, in fact the overheating was pretty worrisome. Afterwards, when cold the car seemed to smoke a bit, showing of a blown head gasket or a cracked head. It was parked back at the side of the house.
The project went into deep freeze. I could say that other things got in the way, and maybe that is true. But I think a larger factor was I just wasn't ready to make the next step. I knew that motor was hurt and I wasn't really ready for that. It needed at least a head gasket, and that would at most only solve the coolant burning at startup. The car still had a lumpy idle and all the other driveablity issues.
I kept autocrossing the Saturn and had gotten a raise or two. I had the chance to buy my dream car and did so. Money tightened up as funds that could have gone to the project went to a car loan. The “Red Racecar” as my son called it sat. When people asked how many cars I had I'd place it in the count, but I didn't drive it. It was was little more than an oddity in the neighborhood.
It drew folks looking for cars to scrap with the high price of steel. A few folks pulled into the driveway telling my that they once owned one and wanted to have one again if I ever wanted to sell. At times I thought about actually doing so.
But in my head the project hadn't died. As said I bought my dream car, and while that drew funding from the project; I can't help but think that is also helped me understand what the project was really about. My dream car had always been a Lotus Esprit and I had gotten one. It was great. It had presence. It was quick. It was a blast to take on our local mountain roads. There was really only one problem with it, it could only fit 2. While this obviously wasn't a deal breaker for ownership, it was a limiting factor for its use. A factor that served to define exactly what I wanted and exactly what this car was to be.
While my son still called the car “The Red Racecar”, I developed a different name for project. I started calling it “The Picnic Car”. It seems like a sort of odd name, but it described what I wanted the car to be. It was to become a car that a family could ride in. We could throw everything needed for a picnic into the rear, pile the family in and head to the mountains. Most importantly that trip would be as fun for the driver while hauling that family as the Lotus is with only 2.
With an real idea in hand on what I wanted, the car now had a shape to take on.