DSM or: How Ruining My Life Was The Best Decision That I ever Made, Part 6: Toledo on A Tuesday

Quite the contrast, but neglect makes cars cheap enough for me to afford so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much...

In the previous installment I told you about how I got out of DSMs entirely and got into a Miata named Rusty, but there is much, much more to the story. First up is the third car in three months that I didn’t get to last time.

Rusty was shaping up to be a decent car. Over the next two paychecks I had installed an OE exhaust and catalytic converter to replace the side exit straight pipe (Oh how I hate cat deletes). It got a radio and some cheap speakers and I had ordered a speedo cable to replace the broken one. It was still slow and very much a pile of crap, but beyond the clutch slave cylinder that had failed on my way home from buying it, it had proved to be very reliable. And I liked having a car that I knew wasn’t worth anything.

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But seriously. Why do people keep removing these things? This is the third one that I have had to install.

One day, I was scrolling through Cragislist as I am apt to do, and came across a 1997 Miata in Toledo that looked immaculate. I don’t know what drove me to contact the seller, but I sent him an email anyway. I essentially told him that his car was beautiful and I was very jealous, and if I had anything close to his asking price I’d be extending an offer right now. I didn’t expect a response but I got one anyway: how much do you have?

I called him to explain that I didn’t intend to buy his car. I only had about half of his asking price to my name and I’d need that money for other expenses. He said that he accepted my offer. We went back and forth, me saying that I wasn’t offering to buy his car and him saying that he’d accept that amount. Finally I stopped the cyclical argument by asking that he at least wait until my next paycheck so that I would have more than half of his asking price to offer. He politely but (very) firmly declined and offered that he was available this coming Tuesday to meet me and sign the paperwork. This was going to be a very awkward conversation with my boyfriend.

As we had now moved in together, he was keenly aware of my financial situation. He rolled his eyes as I recounted the phone call that I had had minutes earlier, but he surprisingly didn’t object to the thought of me getting another Miata. My boyfriend worked as a housing inspector for the city and was thinking about a dedicated inspection vehicle to save his beloved Fiat 500 from the baseball bats that went swinging every time he told someone that they were being evicted and their property condemned. He was not happy with my plan to take off of work on Tuesday to pick up another car, but I offered Rusty as an inspection vehicle to appease him.

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The friend from the townhouse agreed to come with me to Toledo on Tuesday and so off we went. It was a long drive and, well, Rusty is a piece of shit. We were happy to arrive. And this new Miata was even better in person. The seller had repainted the car two years prior and had then put it in storage. The top was new and the body was pristine. It was stock save the installation of a Magnaflow catback.

The seller tossed me the keys and told me to take it around the block. And at this point I should pause and mention that the thrust bearings on the 4G63 are a known weak point and as a way to prolong engine life, it is standard practice to disable the clutch safety switch. DSMs are always started in neutral with the clutch out. So I stand next to this guy’s pristine Miata , just intending to start it and let it warm up a bit, but of course it doesn’t start when I turn the key. The seller reminds me of the clutch safety switch so I stick one foot in the car just enough to depress the pedal to start it, then dump the clutch. However, the Miata was not in neutral; it was in Reverse.

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So here I am, awkwardly standing outside the Miata which I know I can’t afford, which is parked next to an enclosed trailer and whose door is open, and it is running and in gear. The car jerks backward and the force opens the door far enough to hit the flared fender on the trailer. And as I am not in the car to stop it, it continues to roll backward, putting a large crease in the side of the trailer and pulling the leading edge of the door back. Fresh red paint flakes off and falls to the ground.

I jerked the parking brake handle, stalling the engine and putting an end to the calamity. I had no idea what to say. The seller, somehow showing no emotion at all, simply states, “It’s in gear.”

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So I guess I have to buy the car now. I was holding out hope that there would be something wrong with the car and I would be forced to walk away from the deal, but there was no way out of saying goodbye to my life’s savings now. I did the test drive. The exhaust was obnoxiously loud but the car was otherwise flawless. I pulled back into the driveway to see my friend and the seller pointing and laughing at Rusty. We sign some papers and he leads us to his bank to get the title notarized because Ohio.

I love how small it is. My boyfriend is not amused.
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My friend gets in Rusty and I drive the new Miata back. We had barely left Toledo when the Check Engine light illuminated in the Miata. We pulled over in Napoleon, OH to have it checked at an Autozone. It turned out to just be a rear O2 sensor which I could ignore. The rest of the drive was unremarkable for Cody, but I was having a blast in my new Miata. It was so much faster than Rusty and proved for the first time that Rusty had truly lost a significant chunk of its power. I would casually accelerate up an on-ramp and Rusty would fall behind. My friend was at wide open throttle trying to keep up with me and still couldn’t.

Upon arriving in Indianapolis, Cody makes me promise to never road trip with him in Rusty ever again. That promise wouldn’t be difficult to keep. Rusty was old news, and I had big plans for this new Miata.

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And you can’t convince me otherwise.

A turbo kit. Everybody knew that it was coming. I just don’t do naturally aspirated cars. I planned it in stages. First, I installed a wideband sensor and got that set up. Then, a month later, I ditched the stock ECU for a MegaSquirt one and upgraded to some fancy EV14 fuel injectors. I taught myself to tune speed density and set up a VE table for the stock engine. Three months later, it was go time. My living room became an explosion of boost-related goodness. That Thursday I started putting the big pieces together so that I’d be ready to hit the ground running Friday as soon as I got home from work.

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How can such a small package create so much fun?

It was shockingly easy. Everything was like new. There were no broken bolts. Nothing was rusty at all. Everything came apart that first night and I was already dropping the turbo in by Saturday morning. Oil supply and all of the coolant lines went on that day, as did the exhaust. Sunday, though, I finally hit a snag.

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Yeah, that radiator hose isn’t going to bend to the left no matter how much I want it to.

How the hell. The stock coolant routing through the block is very inefficient, so as soon as you raise the power above stock levels, you have to do what they call a coolant reroute. All that this really means is that instead of connecting the radiator inlet to the spout on the front of the head, you route it to the left around the intake manifold and to the back of the head. And I would have loved to do that, but this charge pipe configuration was not designed with that in mind.

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Um, good enough. What could possibly go wrong?

That was a trial fit, but it worked so I kept it until I could come up with a permanent solution. I drilled the oil pan for an oil return line and bolted everything else into the engine bay on Sunday. By Monday, all that was left was to figure out how to route the lower radiator hose through the tangle of A/C and power steering lines. With that complete, it started right up and I spent the rest of the day tweaking the tune to account for the newfound positive manifold pressure.

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What a perfect week.

The Miata went on a roadtrip that weekend and was a fantastic daily driver despite the massive modifications, but I couldn’t bask in the reliable glory for too long because I had a run in with a Semi. Or, more specifically, that part of the trailer that acts as a stand when it gets left somewhere.

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You know, this thing.
Image: Reddit, original source unknown

It had fallen off of a semi somewhere on the highway and the car in front of me had kicked it up. I didn’t have time to swerve but fortunately it didn’t go through the windshield, instead impacting the passenger front wheel and slashing my tire. That newfound power was very quick to overwhelm the crappy no-seasons that had come on the car anyway, so I was ready to upgrade my rubber. Star specs, here I come!

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Pep Boys: never again.

Unfortunately the Dunlop tires still weren’t enough to keep that rear wheel horsepower in check so I also sprung for a full set of coilovers and sway bars. I hadn’t started out thinking that this Miata would become my project car but at this point I was fully embracing it. Upgraded pads complemented new rotors. A fancy crossflow radiator finally solved my coolant routing issue. I even upgraded the lighting with a Morimoto FX-R retrofit that finally let me dump those crappy sealed beam headlights. But then, I was done.

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This is why sealed beams should be illegal

There wasn’t anything else that I wanted to do to the car. It was exactly how I wanted it and it was dead reliable, too. Well, except for one particular incident. My boyfriend and I were coming back from an event that had been rained out. An underpass was flooded and blocked by police, so we set out to find another route home. We came to a second underpass. Michael and I both agreed that it looked clear, so I drove down toward it. Before I could react, water was over the base of the windshield and rushing in through the HVAC vents. I got out and told my boyfriend to help me push the car back out of the water.

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We got it back on dry land on our own and left the doors open to drain as much water as we could. I used the starter to carry the car in reverse back up the hill, then flushed out the flooded cylinders until it started again.

But I was out of gas. And I should point out that the ECU is on the floor behind the driver’s seat, so every time the car accelerated, the ECU would get submerged in water and die. The car would decelerate, forcing water to the front and drying the ECU. The engine would start running and the oscillations would continue. It wasn’t until I had managed to limp to a gas station that I realized what was happening. But water was still rising in the streets and we had to seek higher ground. I had my boyfriend raise the ECU by the serial cable while I sought refuge. I stopped on a raised concrete pad in an abandoned alley at the top of the hill where I decided to wait out the weather.

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Moist.

There were only two casualties from that incident. The first, perhaps obviously, was the carpet padding, which I was never able to get dry after days of trying. The second was the knock sensor circuit for the ECU. I had installed a knock sensor but had never set it up in software, so that wasn’t that big of a deal. I just kept my spark map conservative and soldiered on.

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It did take a hell of a long time to dry out, though.

It’s worth mentioning that Rusty also sank in a flash flood in Indianapolis that month, and that story is much more amusing. I was on my way from my work to my boyfriend’s as we were in the habit of going to the gym together after work. The weather was nice enough that I had the top down, but a blue skies nearly immediately turned into torrential downpour as I got near my destination. Rusty had no AC and I had no way to keep the fog off of the windows. I actually missed the turn into his office because I wasn’t able to see. Recognizing how dangerous this was, I pulled over into a church parking lot to assess my options. I took off my shirt to wipe down the windows and that was when I discovered that water had been coming up under the car and had already reached the level of the door sills. It came rushing inside the car and so I rushed back to the road, still clutching my shirt in my hands. In Rusty’s case, there were enough holes in the floor that the water drained immediately and I didn’t have to deal with a flooded ECU. I made it to my boyfriend’s work and ran inside. The security guard gave me a “why do I always get stuck dealing with such trash” look as I ran through the front door of a government office with no shirt and absolutely refused to believe me when I told him that I was here to see a housing inspector. The gym trip, obviously, was cancelled.

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The view of that flood from my front porch. That white car was a brand new 7 Series, still wearing temporary tags.

Back at the beginning I said that I’d get to the biggest mistake of my life. And, shockingly, neither of these Miatas was it. Instead of promising even more content to come in the next release and continuing the cycle of overpromising and underdelivering, Part 7 will only be about my next car. And to tell that story I have to back up quite a bit.

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