My dad has a mantra he repeated a number of times throughout my childhood: “Never get rid of a guitar.” His theory was that the price you’d get for parting with one of your instruments would never be worth the regret you’d eventually feel for not being able to pick it up and give it a strum. It’s advice that I’ve lived by; I’ve never been a particularly gifted musician, and despite playing in a band in high school, I let my dedication to the art lapse through college. And yet, even now, I have seven (eight? eh, let’s call it seven and a half) guitars strewn throughout my house, all of which I have either bought, built, or been given. Some of them I haven’t played in years, and even the ones closest to hand only get the dust brushed away once every few months. But every time I think to pick one up, I’m glad I have it, and my dad’s words continue to ring true.
I successfully flipped my first car last night. I bought it knowing that I would be selling it (even though, for a while there, I was pretty sure I’d be keeping it), so I don’t think the emotion I’m feeling now is the opposite of how I feel when I play one of my guitars. No, it’s not regret. Nor is it sadness. But I’m definitely feeling something. Maybe I’ll figure it out by the time I finish writing this up. But whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s Tavarish’s fault.
The first time Jalopnik featured one of Freddy’s Art of the Flip series, back when he was still posting them up on APiDA, I fell into the rabbit hole. Within 40 minutes I had read all of his success stories, and I wanted more. I love working on cars, I like making money, and flipping cars seemed like such a simple, obvious fit, that I started Craigslist shopping right away. 2 weeks later I was the proud owner of a very dirty, very not-running e36 318i.
This is not the story of that car.
I would say that the BMW was “a learning experience.” My wife would say that it was “a disaster.” All I know is, the car is gone, and I still have cylinder heads (yes, plural), a timing chain tensioner, and a dog-hair covered valve cover sitting in my basement. Maybe I’ll get around to telling that story someday.
This is the story of my second attempt at a flip. 5 months or so after the BMW found better pastures, I got the Craigslist itch again. (Should I find a better phrase for that?) I started spending nights and weekends scrolling past Maximas and rusted-out F150s. Among the dross I managed to find some pretty promising candidates, even got pretty excited about some of them. I went so far as driving to Philly or Long Island to check a few out. An e46 wagon here, a Scion xB with a blown trans there, a R129 Merc SL500 (I still wish that one had panned out)... the possibilities were endless.
Then I found a 2006 Mazdaspeed 6 posted for a shockingly low price. The ad monotoned in a non-punctuated run-on sentence, “mechanics special need front differential just did timing chain in December good car turbo awd”
It sounded perfect.
I texted him immediately, then hopped online for some research, quickly finding that MS6's don’t, in fact, have a front diff. Well, technically they do, a little pineapple-shaped gizmo that’s integrated into the front transmission. But most likely the car needed a Power Take-Off, otherwise known as a transfer case. At least, that’s what I hoped, since junkyard PTOs ran about a grand less than a junkyard trans.
Despite the fact that this could very easily have turned into another exercise in futility which would more efficiently be accomplished by pulling out my wallet and dropping it down a sewer grate, I set up a time to see the car. By a small miracle, it was in the next town over, and right on my way home from work. I checked it out by the light from my cellphone (this was early March, after all), and offered him $400 less than he was asking. He accepted and, since the car was at his brother’s shop/tow company (I just kept lucking out!) he offered to tow it to my place free of charge.
And so I found myself the proud owner of a fourth car to shoehorn into my 3-car driveway. Not a bad problem to have.
Time for diagnosis. When I drove the car more than, oh, 200 feet, it would emit the gnarliest grinding, popping noises from underneath. So I drove it about 250 feet, parked it, and walked back to find a little stain of gear oil at the stop sign at the end of my street. Well, that doesn’t help, it could still be either the trans or the transfer case. But something’s broke fo’ sho’. Looking like it was about time to crawl underneath and start poking around, I called a tow company and had them drag it across town to my parents’ house. Did I mention I have a gravel driveway and no garage?
Their two-car open bay garage is a much more inviting place for wrenching; in fact, it’s there that I was brought up on cars, learning how to change the oil on my dad’s old Accord, then brakes on mom’s Volvo (did they trust me too much when I was a teenager? Maybe I shouldn’t ask...) and then trying my hand at easy mods like a short shifter on our Legend coupe, that magnificent beast. Somehow I haven’t worn out my welcome, and my dad willingly made space for the Speed and I had a warm, clean(ish), dry place to work.
After wedging the sedan into the already overstuffed garage, I put it up on the stands that would support it for the next month and a half, and started pulling drain plugs. Trans fluid still smelled sweet, a little low but still had a nice pink shade. Phew, one bullet dodged. Transfer case fluid came out measuring about 6 ounces, black as sin, and smelling like the burnt-up nectar of the banquets of Hades. Oh, and a few rounded off gear cogs rolled their way out too. I may have found the problem.
Over the course of the next month, I sourced a CX-7 transfer case from a junkyard (turns out, after you swap out input shafts, it bolts right up to the MS6 trans, and is about 1/3 the price of a true Speed case), dropped the subframe, and, with the help of some friends and family (my mom even operated the jack when I was installing the new transfer case), got the car all buttoned up. I changed the fluid in the transmission and rear differential and put new fluid in the transfer case. It was, of course, far more complicated and difficult than this paragraph makes it seem, but if it paints a better picture, imagine lots of swearing, crawling around tweaking my back on the floor, and storming downstairs to the computer to look at the service manual online for the 15th time, and you’ll just about get the idea.
I gingerly rolled the car down the driveway and took it around the block. Not hearing any atrocious explosions or obnoxious screeching, I felt ready to take the next step: new shoes. I figured new tires would help the car sell, so it was off to the shop where the car was fitted up with some fresh rubber, and it was finally time to take it for a real drive!
I told myself I was going to take it easy for a few hundred miles while the transfer case breaks in. I told myself I was going to be responsible, I didn’t know the car very well yet, let’s just see how it does on the highway and local roads. I told myself “oh, this is going to be properly quick” as I ignored my promise to myself and felt the turbo spool up. I wasn’t thrashing it, not by a long way, but already I could tell that the “Speed” in the name was literal. It was already noticeably faster than my Cooper S, and the noise of the upgraded Mazdaspeed cold air intake blended beautifully with the whine of the turbo. Oh, blow-off-valves, you make me happy to be immature. Pshew, pshew!
And my goodness, was it comfy. Being accustomed to the jarring, crashy ride of the Mini, I was impressed with how smooth the Mazda felt on the highway. Potholes didn’t gobble it up the way they do the Mini. I suppose the wheelbase had a great deal to do with that. But when I got on some twistier backroads, the suspension was still wonderfully taut, and it felt like when I was ready to push it, it would be happy to accommodate me. So you can imagine my excitement when I pulled up to work and brought some co-workers out to see it. And my dismay when one of them poked their finger into the engine bay and asked, “hey, what’s that, transmission fluid?”
When closing time came that night, I limped it home, and, I kid you not, as the first raindrops started spattering the windshield, the engine light came on. I’ll deny this if you tell anyone, but the phrase, “I’m never working on cars again” was most certainly uttered a few times on the 25 mile trip. When I got home, I dashed inside to grab my el-cheapo engine code reader and dodged the raindrops the monsoon was throwing at me heading back to the car. I plugged it in and it displayed only one code: P0401 - insufficient exhaust gas recirculation flow.
As for the leaky trans, it turns out that IT WASN’T MY FAULT!!! The leak was coming from a bad pivot seal, a part at the shift linkage that is commonly known to wear out, which the dealership will tell you requires a completely new transmission. But it turns out that a DIY-er can replace not only the seal but also the breather and shaft bearing for a total of $50 in parts from the dealership and a few hours sitting on the curb in front of their house.
Having determined that the EGR code wasn’t indicative of a dangerous or harmful condition, I spent a few weeks figuring that out. First I removed and cleaned the EGR valve and tube leading to the intake manifold. The annoying thing is, that once you clear your codes, the car needs 25-100 miles of driving to re-acclimate to itself before it will throw the code again. Which it did. I finally pulled off the intake manifold and found that the port in the manifold was completely, 100% caked shut with built-up carbon. A few jabs with a wire coat hanger, and a couple passes with my handy Harbor Freight walnut blaster, and the car had never been breathing better.
The manifold was reinstalled, the hoses were all hooked back up, and the car was running better than ever. It passed inspection with flying colors and I got to drive it around for a few weeks uninhibited. Meaning, I liked it so much that I was seriously considering listing the Mini for sale instead of the Mazda. It was fast, fun, and invisible. Seriously, no one gave me a second look; to everyone else in the world I was nothing more than just another grey sedan. No one knew that I was packing a 274-hp bombshell, the 15-psi boost monster ranking in Ward’s 10 Best Engines in 2006. And 2007. And 2008. There is something wonderful about hiding in plain sight. And knowing you’re just a blip of the throttle away from the AWD hooking up and hurtling you toward the horizon.
And hang on a second, can we just discuss proper cloth seats for a second? My MS6 was the “Sport” model, meaning it got a dinky switchblade key instead of the fancy transponder keyless system. And no sunroof. And... CLOTH SEATS! The closest I’ve come to owning a car with cloth before this was my parents’ Volvo 850 with this funky, fuzzy faux velour garbage, which made for a very strange and mildly unpleasant interior. I’ve always just assumed that leather is better. But, after seeing this car, with 183,000 miles on it, looking basically showroom fresh, I am convinced that there is a case to be made for cloth seats. No rips or tears, no cracking or discolored leather, just a soft, sturdy, easy-to-clean fabric; magnificent. If only you could have gotten them with seat heaters.
But I had to make a choice eventually, and after driving both the Mazda and the Mini back to back, chucking them down some of my favorite Delaware Valley roads, and making a pro/cons list and cost analysis spreadsheets galore, I decided to complete my mission: buy a car, fix it, and sell it.
And so the preparations were underway. I polished the passenger headlight, which had a worse cataract than a grizzled retiree. I vacuumed all of the junk, grass, leaves, and debris out of the interior, and cleaned all the surfaces with Griot’s interior cleaner. I hit the grimy wheels with wheel cleaner, polished all the glass, and cleaned the paint. I followed that up with clay bar, and finally a coat of wax to make it shine. My wife and I took it out for a photoshoot and came back with some shots that looked really nice.
Then I wrote a few nice sentences about it, proofread them, adjusted it, tweaked it, and posted the ad on Craigslist and Cars.com.
I got dejected quickly when the only responses I got were scam artists and a guy who wanted to trade for an 03 350Z. I knew how great this car was, why weren’t people flocking to me?!?
I thought I had it sold last week, when someone texted about it, asked all the right questions, said he loved how clean it looked in the pictures, and set up a time to come see it. I was excited until right about the time he was supposed to show up, and he stopped responding to my messages. As my father-in-law once sort-of remarked, “the beauty and misery of Craigslist is that it asks nothing of you.”
And so I was surprised when, at 8pm last night, my phone rang and 10 minutes later a guy from Queens was on his way down to come see it. It was a very Craigslist night; I had trekked up to North Jersey not 2 hours earlier to buy a rototiller for my garden (wouldn’t it be fascinating if someone could plot on a map the trips people take for Craigslist finds?)
So at quarter-to-11 a big SUV pulls up and the buyer steps out, a built guy with a pleasant accent... something Caribbean perhaps? I’m terrible at calling those sorts of things. He pulled out his cell phone light and went around checking out under the car, we talked about the rust on the hood, which I had noted in the ad and sent him pictures of, and he checked out the engine bay. When he started it up, the engine emitted a slight rattle, and his head sunk a little. I had never heard it do that before, the traitorous wench. He said it was VVT rattle, and from a little research I have done since then, it’s a fairly common issue with these engines. I suppose the timing chain service that the previous owner had done didn’t include the VVT actuator.
Anyway, my buyer took the 6 for a short test drive around the neighborhood, and as I stood in the yard and watched him pull away, I heard the intake and turbo spool from outside, a vantage point I had never experienced before. Man, it sounded cool, and I wished vaguely that I had the space and the cash to hang onto it. After a minute or two he pulled back into the driveway and commented, “needs motor mounts.” I imagine it does, having driven 3/4 of the distance from the earth to the moon.
He made me an offer, not near my asking price, but above the minimum I was willing to take, and I accepted. He was meticulous about the paperwork, saying this was his 29th car, and the NY DMV was very particular about the right lines being signed and all the information being correct. I appreciated that. He was also happy to sign a Bill of Sale, which made me feel comfortable that we were on the right track. After the paperwork was done, he handed over the cash, we switched out the plates, and that was that. I had gone inside by the time he pulled out of the drive, which was probably for the best. I doubt I would have gotten emotional seeing it pull away, but I wouldn’t bet it would have made things easier.
And so here I am, the day after, knowing that I’ll drive the Mini home and be able to park in the driveway for the first time in months. And the drive home will be a blast; the Mini can absolutely thrash some backroads and it’s a joy to drive. But, like I said in the title of this rant, I’m still feeling a little weird. And I can’t really figure out why.
The 6 didn’t owe me anything. I literally got PAID for driving it around for a few months. It was a hoot and a half to drive, I got plenty of compliments when I showed it off, and I learned so much about drivetrain components, AWD systems, and DI turbo engines from working on it. I met a couple cool guys at the local Mazda dealership who knew me by sight if not by name when I went to grab another random gasket or bolt.
Perhaps I am concerned about its future. Will the new owner be as enamored of it as I was? I certainly can’t expect that a buyer would be a perfect replicant of myself, but I hope that he will see it as something more than just his 29th car. I hope he will smile when the boost kicks in and the blowoff valve chirps. I’m sure it’s not the fastest car he’s ever driven, nor the best-looking, nor the best-kept. But in my months of ownership, I discovered that there was something subtly right about it. And subtlety is important; I hope, wherever it ends up, someone can look at it and see what I saw.
Unless you are a wealthier person than I am, I don’t think my dad’s “guitar rule” applies to cars. The whole time I had the Mazda, I understood that I couldn’t just tuck it under the guest room bed for safekeeping. I knew that it was going to leave my life as abruptly as it had entered it. So, maybe what I’ve been struggling to say this whole time is that I appreciate what it did for me. I’m grateful that it was so easy to work on. I’m thankful that it was so enjoyable and reliable to drive. I’m amazed at how much I learned from it, and, if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that, the next time I’m bit by the need for a project, I’ll happily be going through this whole process again.