I bought a race car

I know, that… thing is not race car. It barely deserves it’s “car” title. But it sure as hell feels like it, so it’s a race car. IT’S MY STORY AFTER ALL!

Don’t be fooled. It’s solid.

This is the second part of the chronicles of my toy/moneypit. Part 1 can be read here.


Anyway, I floated the idea of buying the aforementioned race car to its owner in October of 2015. The car had been for sale on various relevant social media groups for a few months already, with no real buyers showing genuine interest. He was interested by my interest (woah…), since it would allow him to wrench and drive the car without worrying about the whole “paying” part.

Picture from the social media ad. Not promising.

The car finally changed hands after settling on a very good price, considering the all the money sunk in parts and the time invested. In February of 2016, I was the proud owner of a right-hand drive 1992 Nissan 180SX. In Quebec, a Canadian province where it is now impossible to register and newly-imported right hand drive vehicle. Interesting phone calls to insurance companies followed.

As soon as the weather and the winter tire law allowed it, I went to my brother’s place to pick up the car. The car had been stored in a shed for the winter. The battery was disconnected, the fuel laced with sta-bil. After the battery was reconnected, I simply had to turn the key, let the fuel pump prime, and go for it. Being Japanese, it went. 5 seconds of rough idle was the extent of the drama. It settled into a smoky idle. I blame the sta-bil and the old gas for the smoke. This is a project car for beginners.

Wakey wakey!
It liiiiiives! Zero effort required.
Warming up. Diesel oil is thick when the snow has yet to melt.

I drove the car home, wearing a tuque, gloves and sunglasses on a glorious late-march morning. The looks I got on the way home were incredible. The car was parked in my parent’s garage for the next steps of the project.


One of the first things to be done was an oil change. At 5-10 C, 15w40 oil doesn’t really want to drain out of the pan, so it took a while. In went 4 liters of 15w40 diesel oil, and an oil filter listed for a 1992 Nissan Sentra SE-R (the one with the 2.0L SR20DE). It’s hard to find part at part stores when your engine was never sold in North America.

The car’s ECU was then sent to a shop a few hours away to add a new daughterboard that allows the ECU to be reprogrammed with a laptop. Bad timing and my crazy work schedule meant the install took about three weeks longer than initially discussed.


After a long wait, the ECU came back. After 900$ and 3 months, the ECU allowed to run COMPLETELY NORMALLY. No the best investment, but it got handy later. The car was aligned, then the wrenching began.
The car came with a laundry list of things to fix or reinstall. My pet-peeve was the missing power-steering system, so I started with that. A few busted knuckles, an ATF stain and a belt, and voila! The car now had power steering. Creature comforts, I tell ya’. The car felt much lighter, which is good, because it’s a light car. The car was driven spiritedly every week throughout the summer.

Next on the list was the smell. The smell comes from the mismatch between the fuel map from the stock ECU and a larger, slower-to-respond turbocharger. The engine ran rich when transitioning to boost. Which was and still is often. I had two options to fix that rich condition: tune the thing properly, or install a catalytic converter to burn off the extra fuel. So I chose the converter. Car guys all around the world would remove that heavy, expensive cork in the horsepower bottle in a heartbeat, but I replaced the existing test pipe with one.

Love that engine bay. Red, shiny, and roomy.

Allow me to explain: the closest respectable dyno shop is a 2 hour drive from my place. A dyno session costs a minimum of 1000$, and the car wasn’t ready for punishing dyno pulls. So I called up a very well rated exhaust shop in my area. For 400$ with parts, he fabricated a custom 3 inch converter to fit the 3 inch exhaust, and he installed the bung required to fit the wideband oxygen sensor. In my opinion, a good deal, and a good thing for this car-guy-with-a-conscience.


I drove home in non-toxic, light-steering, right-hand-drive turbo car. With all the creature comforts added, one was missing: music. My trusty portable Bluetooth speaker was an OK workaround, but I wanted more. The radio connector was missing in the dash board. Fortunately, reverse connectors were available on eBay. Both connectors were ordered. The reverse connector was spliced in, the wideband controller spliced in the radio’s 12v power. I then went to Canadian Tire (the very foundation of Canadian culture) and picked up a Kenwood Bluetooth head unit and 2 sets of Sony 4x6 speakers for 200$.

The car now has a sound system (not a great one, but still).

The car then developed a misfire when being fed positive pressure from the turbocharger. Counterproductive in a turbo car. This is where a learned a very valuable lesson: Do not throw parts at the problem without troubleshooting.


The initial diagnostic was a bad coil pack. Plausible, since the coil packs were factory Nissan parts. An aftermarket set was ordered for 200$. While waiting for the new coil packs, I tried to start the car, which led to a really hard start and poor idle. Poking around with a multimeter led me to find an electrical fault with the fuel system. An electrical fault on a 25-year-old Nissan. How unlikely! A 12v relay was all it took to hardwire the fuel pump to the convenient trunk located battery. The fuel pump is now running at full power, all the time. No more misfire. The coils were installed anyway, along with 4 11$ spark plugs, one of which I lost. So make that 5 11$ spark plug. 200$ is steep for peace of mind, but the ignition system is now checked off the list.

Which brings us to the present day. Keep in mind that everything written above happened over the course of the summer, with the being driven as much as possible between repairs.


I recently attempted to replace the restrictive mass airflow sensor with a larger unit from a 300ZX. This is where my trusty laptop connected to the ECU’s trick daughterboard then came in handy. Because of my manhood, I read the instructions wrong, then proceeded to wire the sensor backwards. Once the changes were applied to the ECU, the car was started. The burnt sensor made the engine so rich it smoked out of the tailpipe. Not good. The sensor then stopped sending a signal altogether. The wiring was then corrected and a new eBay-sourced part installed. The laptop confirmed the new sensor was sending a signal.

Accurate decal is accurate.

Still, the car refused to idle or rev cleanly. Misfires where frequent and violent. But I knew better than to throw parts at the car this time around! So I started by pulling a spark plug. What I found was the deepest shade of ever recorded by mankind. Some of you may know a black spark plug doesn’t really spark anymore. So new spark plugs were in order. This time around I used cheaper plugs, 11$ for a pair.

15 minutes and 4 new plugs later, the car started and idled perfectly. Success? Nah, but still, it’s progress.


The car was then test driven all the way to the brother’s shop for an appointment. The reason for the appointment? Take a good look at the car with a dispassionate mechanic’s eye and give me a list of all the boring stuff that needs to be done to the car. By boring stuff I mean maintenance, wear items and parts that don’t improve performance.

He came back with quite a list:

  • Subframe bushings
  • Sway bar end links and bushings
  • Rear lower control arms
  • A new clutch

That last one was shocking and painful. As I write this, the control arms are sitting in a UPS store in upstate New York. A replacement transmission was sourced and inspected by a local transmission shop earlier this summer. The car should be put back together with new bushings, control arms, a new transmission (now with synchos!) and a new clutch later this week.


I cannot wait!

Other fixes applied over the summer:

  • Added a spacer (an extra flange) in the exhaust to prevent contact between the exhaust and the floor
  • Added a missing sway bar bushing
  • Added missing brake pad clips
  • Replaced the tired carbon hood with a metal one
  • Replaced the windshield washer fluid pump
  • Replaced the eBay blow-off valve with a used HKS SSQV unit
  • Removed all the bubbling window tint
  • Added an appropriate “Under Construction decal”

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