Scrolling through my Wheelwell feed as I often do, I came across a few postings that brought something to mind about project cars, including my own RX-7. There were a couple of other folks that were having issues with some recently rebuilt cars, in the form of various mechanical and/or electronic break downs, and another sharing a link to a vehicle feature on SpeedHunters. The vehicle feature in question is the 1988 Mustang belonging to Matt Farah of The Smoking Tire. It is a feature that captures 80’s nostalgia perfectly with Larry Chen masterfully photographing the Mustang on actual film, it looks like it could be a feature piece run on the car when it was brand new in 1988. What that feature, and the laments of some of the previously mentioned enthusiasts illustrates particularly well, is the ugly truth that really does not get mentioned about many project cars. This ugly truth is a period of ownership I would call the “Trials”.
There are many types of project cars, but by definition it typically means a car that is having some fairly extensive and major overhauling. That means a completely new suspension, rebuilt engine, rebuilt transmission, swapping in a completely different drivetrain, bigger turbos/superchargers, adding turbos/superchargers where there weren’t any before, or any combination of the aforementioned. If you add to all these changes an aging platform, ten, twenty, thirty years old or more, it further adds to the complexity. The more things being changed at once, whether DIY or done by a shop, the greater the liklihood you will be confronted by, the “Trials”. Ominous sounding? Yes, but rightfully so. The Trials is a dreaded period of project car ownership where all the work is seemingly done, it looks like a finished project, it may even start up like a finished project, but it’s not really finished at all. Much like a Chicago spring that officially starts in April, but still punishes with weeks of thirty degree temperatures, and as I write this, even more snow. The promise of spring is a cruel tease seemingly meant to break your will and test your resolve. It is Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, preaching of poisoning one’s soul with hope, as he tries to break you physically and mentally. The Trials are much the same, teasing you with a car that appears physically complete, even moves under it’s own power, but it hides several gremlins beneath the surface. These many gremlins make themselves known in often unpredictable ways: Your brand new tune-able ECU will cause the engine to run with varying degrees of terrible until it is tuned properly. It may even cause it to stall and not want to restart; you get a tow truck on the phone. Oil leaks will sometimes surface, did you replace that gasket? Forget some RTV? Not enough RTV? You’ll find out some little solenoid is not doing it’s job properly and you can never go full throttle without being being scolded by the engine’s computer nannies, cutting your gleeful romp to redline far short. A clutch you thought was up to task, will explode under newly realized power from your upgraded engine; you get the tow truck on the phone. A wiring harness will have a small break in it; requiring needle-in-the-haystack search and diagnose for weeks on end. A pilot bearing will go un-greased, or misaligned, maybe both; exploding and preventing you from getting the car in gear. You get a tow truck on the phone. These Trials are what no one really talks about when it comes to project cars, it takes quite a bit of time and effort to get a “finished” car into something that resembles the ultimate form you envisioned for it. Like Chicago snow in April, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, but it does.
Of course it would be a difficult task to shake out issues once a car has been extensively revamped, it takes manufacturers years to develop new models, with much greater budgets and resources than any enthusiast can muster. It takes years still for those same new cars to get further refined, addressing additional hiccups that even years of R&D, testing, and a team of brilliant engineers could not foresee; these come in the form of recalls and TSB’s. Yet our lizard brains want to set the car on fire when all these new components refuse to cooperate. That is the reality though, in our rush to upgrade and overhaul, we have on a small scale essentially re-engineered the car, without the benefit of years of painstaking R&D and testing.
That is what the Trials are, a period of shaking out any quirks that exist within all the new systems on the car. It is a painful process, and for anyone that has been through it, they will tell you it can test your patience. You find yourself questioning the whole endeavor at times, maybe even contemplating selling off your whole project (usually at a considerable loss). You will start to grow incredibly mistrustful of your car, calculating tow costs in the distance you travel, and hesitant to take it much beyond walking distance from home. The Trials will test your resolve, but if you make it through the pain of this phase, you are rewarded with a car that is a sorted, and a fully realized version of whatever crazy dream you had for that precious project. So if you are out there reading this now, and you find yourself in the midst of the Trials with your own car, I say to you: I know it looks bad now but do not give up! You have gotten this far, and like the hope of spring, better days are just ahead, even if it does not seem that way now. I’ve endured the Trials myself, and now I have an RX-7 that puts a smile on my face every time I drive it, now that it’s finished…well, it isn’t finished just yet, there’s a couple things I want to do yet. Nearly finished, we’ll go with that, nearly finished.
-photos and writing: Robert Sixto