Thursday, December 20, 2012

Parts-Bin Aston Martins

Not only is the 1989-2000 Aston Martin Virage an ugly car, but apparently they also stole the steering wheel from my parents' 1992 Ford Aerostar. 

Aston Martin Virage interior

Standard Ford steering wheel from the '90s (Crown Vic pictured)

Notice the placement of the horn buttons, and the Aston logo in the exact location of the Ford logo. The Aston's interior wouldn't be so hideous were it not for that glaring black contrast of a steering wheel and its cheap, plastic turn signal stalk.

The Virage hit the market not long after Ford took a stake in the brand. This was the time when they started picking up premium brands like Land Rover, Volvo, and, as you can see, Aston Martin. I don't know their exact business strategy in doing that, but we can clearly see it involved some parts-bin cost reduction strategies. 

I can understand sharing components that are out of sight like, say, a steering rack, wheel hubs, differentials. But a steering wheel? That so clearly diminishes the driving experience, and its poor quality is apparent the moment the customer plops into the seat. Not what you want when you're considering shelling out 200 grand. Maybe that's why they didn't sell many of these. Hey, that makes them rare and valuable! 

Today, Ford doesn't own as much of the brand, and Virages are worth about $35,000. Which means you can still buy a nicer Ford Fusion—with a better steering wheel—for less money.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Off Topic: Repairing Champion juicers

My fiancee manages a health food store, and they have for a long time been using Champion brand juicers. These things are basically 1/3-horsepower electric motors with a proprietary attachment. Recently the store upgraded to a crazy twin-screw type (it reminds me of a supercharger) because their Champions were having problems. One would hum, but not spin up. The other vibrated like an unbalanced clothes dryer. I suspected that these residential-grade units couldn't stand up to the heavy use of the store's cafe (Champion does sell a commercial-grade model), and that they had worn bearings. So I took them apart in our kitchen. Electric motors are simple.

By removing the four screws on the back cover, the front cover also comes off. The bearings lightly press into the front and rear covers, so removing them means the rotor (the middle part that spins) easily slides out of the stator coils. Once out, I could test the bearings. They wiggled a little when I tested them, so I decided to replace them. Thankfully, bearing part numbers are universal. I punched it into McMaster-Carr. They're less than six bucks apiece. I ordered a handful of these #6203 bearings.

On the model that wouldn't spin up, the bearings were worn enough that the rotor was rubbing against the stator. You can see the contact marks here.

The bearings are pressed to the rotor shaft, though, which meant a trip to the nearby Harbor Freight store for a cheap set of gear pullers.

Once they're off, the new bearings can be hammered into place. The bearings bottom onto a clip on the shaft.

It's easy to reassemble, but you must remember the orientation of the front and rear covers. They're marked on the back side. Putting it all back together meant our kitchen was no longer a horrible disaster. Zoe is very patient with my silly projects, and this one, thankfully, ended with two like-new juicers.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Top Gear: 50 Shades of Green

If you are a real racer you will probably say that British Racing Green (BRG) brings you bad luck. (Because it really does, but that's for another post.) I personally wouldn't mind racing a BRG car even if it meant I would quite probably die a horrible fiery death, but do so while looking simply fa-bu-lous.

When I was a kid my dad gave me a BRG 1:18 McLaren F1 and I LOVED the damn thing. It was so beautiful, such a classy color that caught all the right lines and reflected light on all the right curves. My silly friends that knew nothing about what's good had silver, black, and orange little McLaren F1s, but those cars just didn't look as pretty. It was such a potent shade of green that it made the McLaren F1 into one of my favorite cars of all time. And as a result, BRG remains as my favorite color ever, for anything. Yes, even spoons.

See, if I could paint my house Brunswick Green outside and British Racing Green inside (with some white walls here and there to contrast) I would die a happy man. But very dead, because I am sure my fiancee would chop off my head as an offering to the gods of common sense. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Senna Series

Autobahn Country Club recently started a new competitive racing championship called Senna Series. The series just finished its first full year. What really attracts spectators and drivers to the growing lineups of rotary-powered formula racers is that drivers are required to race cars painted to resemble F1 machines from the 1980s and 1990s, like this "Lotus" painted to resemble the John Player Special, F1, followed on the grid by a Benneton B190 lookalike.

This one resembles a Williams FW-12.

Guess what this one is supposed to be?

The damn things seem to be a blast to drive, too! Enjoy a rather moist race in the cockpit of a McLaren MP4/4 quasi-replica.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A fast turnaround

Sometimes a project is a bad decision. In this particular case, I was convinced by a friend that this car was one helluva deal, and that I'd be stupid not to buy it. It's a rare 1979 Volvo 242. The last of the flat-nose coupes! I didn't know what that meant, but it sure sounded like he thought it was important! And R-Sport gauges, don't forget. Very trick.

I'm not exactly a guy who's owned a zillion cars, but I have had a good number. Most of them have been some sort of basic transportation that I've managed to spend some time on, but I've had the occasional fun toy and nightmare project, too. This is more along the lines of the latter. 

Short story: I bought, for $1000, this Volvo with a small-block Ford engine in it. And then I realized that this weaksauce, 165-horsepower 302 was a bad answer to any of my car questions. I could swap the drivetrain into a good wagon shell, but the engine's mated to an AOD automatic trans. A five-speed makes more sense, especially compared to this epitome of slushboxes. So this car had to go.

Problem is—and that was an especially infuriating problem, souring me on the whole car—the sucker wouldn't start. The foil-hat wearing survivalist loonie decided that a points ignition was better than an electronic one because, duh, EMPs. If the car gets hit by one, it can keep right on running! Well, if it runs. Also, points ignitions suck. They produce shitty spark and require regular maintenance. They're so shitty, in fact, that no one makes them for automotive use anymore. The guy used a Mallory dual-points setup for marine applications. And it worked like shit. Oh, and did I mention this guy's wiring job was a complete, unfused clusterfuck? Connections were awful and grounds were barely adequate. What a mess.

Pertronix and other companies make high-energy retrofits for lots of applications, but those cost a couple hundred bucks. I wanted to get this thing running for as cheap as possible so I could sell it. They sell these cheap ones on eBay for right around $50. They're imitations of the General Motors HEI design, so it's a coil and distributor all in one. Shit, a replacement coil at the local parts store is $35 bones alone, so this sounded like a screamin' deal. 

I ordered one up, and waited until my dad came to visit on Thanksgiving. We lined up all the important bits, took out the old unit, swapped in the new one, and fired it up. Boom, right on the first crank. Immediately. No hesitation, no sputtering, a good, solid runner. We couldn't find a timing mark on the crank pulley, so my dad adjusted the timing a bit by ear. That was good enough for me.

It sure did sound nice, though. Made me reconsider keeping the car. Briefly.

I posted a video on the internet of it running (to accompany my craigslist ad), and sold the car two days later. The new owner is going to yank the drivetrain and stick it in his 1970 Mercury Cougar. His Cougar has a bad cylinder head, and he's always wanted to put an AOD in it anyway. Perfect.

All in all, I lost about a hundred bucks, a bit of driveway space, and a bit of time with this car. Not too shabby a price to pay, in the end. And now I know what I really want: an XJ Jeep Cherokee. They make more power and similar torque to that 302, there's more aftermarket than I could possibly imagine, they're practical, durable, and available in a five-speed. Also: Have I mentioned I love that two-box shape

When I sold my old Mercedes 240D, I told myself I wouldn't buy another car that's older than I am. This Volvo only served to reinforce that notion.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Busted-ass Miata brakes

Not too long ago, I took my Miata to a track day. I had been driving and autocrossing on a set of Porterfield R4-S pads for some time and I figured they'd be good for a few sessions at a track with relatively short straights. The fronts were not so happy about this.

I'll admit the rotors had seen a lot of Chicago road salt and the fins were pretty rusty to begin with. That likely didn't help their cooling ability. After about a 15 or 20-minute session at The FIRM, I felt the pedal getting soft. I came in and let them cool for a spell before the guy who came with me that day took a stint. The turnout for a FIRM track day is so low that you can go on and off the track as much and whenever you want. My co-driver said the brakes were still soft when he went out, and he came back when they got softer. Another 40-minutes of cooling and I decided to have another go.

Nope. There were bad noises, and the pedal required some serious pumping to generate a response. We popped off a wheel real quick and saw the above: A cratered rotor. When I took it home, I noticed also the burn mark on this brake pad; that a couple of the front pads cracked; most of the wear material was gone; the fluid, too, was cooked.

Because my budget is low, I got a set of pads from Autozone for $20-something and a set of their front rotors. I've had good luck with Autozone brake rotors, having run them for 3 races on my LeMons car. Some whiny bitches are picky about brand and will only buy Brembo rotors. I'm not one of those guys.

The Autozone pads are way not-grabby. I can't lock up the fronts without extreme pedal pressure. These pads will be going bye-bye soon, in favor of some real track-worthy material. These cheapo things are barely street-worthy.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Introducting: A new contributor to TSM

Up until now, The Sentimental Mechanic has been a singular entity: Alan Cesar and his crazy (and overworked) brain. Joining the fold is a fellow crazy Brazilian who has a similar love for ridiculous engine swaps with cross-charging. His name is André Molina, the man behind Sprokt (which I have always pronounced with a German accent, shprökt). Say hello. He's responsible for that hand-made carbon fiber intake tube attached to that 2JZ.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Suzuki Swift GTi: Burning the Four-Wheeled Suzuki Torch

Suzuki’s North American operations just rang their death knell. The maker of many a widow-making sportbike never could quite get its four-wheeled vehicles to gain as much recognition in the broader American market. Its last significant effort was the stylish, mid-size Kizashi sedan. There hasn’t been much in the brand for enthusiasts to latch onto.

We’d say it’s not for lack of trying, but really, it is. While the Samurai has its own cult following in the off-road community, Suzuki only brought one pavement performer to the U.S. in recent memory—something small enough that maybe it didn’t seem too foreign to its sportbike people. It was the Suzuki Swift GTi, sold from 1989 to 1994.

You’ve seen its sibling around, usually in the hands of a hypermiler or merely being neglected. The Swift GT—known as the GTi for only the first year, thanks to VW’s trademark lawyers—is the Geo Metro’s faster brother. That’s a low bar to leap, but that doesn’t make the GTi a poor performer.

The Swift is swift because it’s light. A cool hundred horsepower come out of its high-revving 1.3 liter engine, and has just under 1800 lbs. to move around. Unassisted steering means more power to the ground.

It’s one of the champions of the drive-a-slow-car-fast ethos (but it can make tons of power—see the tips on the next page). It’s tiny. It’ll squeeze anywhere in traffic, revs to the skies and is a hoot to wail on, even if all that wailing means you’re still side-by-side with that minivan you just drag-raced from the stoplight. Keep the revs up; this engine has a sportbike’s spirit and a 7500 rpm rev limit. Stiffer springs and four-wheel disc brakes round out the chassis package.

It’s unique from the Metro in cosmetic ways, too: flush aero headlights and different bumpers gives it a sporty look. Suzuki tried to make this a significantly nicer car than the Metro, so it has better—and heavier—interior materials, and racier bucket seats.

If you’re looking for the nicest one in the States, $5000 is about the top of the market. Decent runners can go for $1000 or less, but the sweet spot appears to be about $2000-$3000.

Buy the nicest one you care to afford, and put a little effort into keeping it looking good. The community will thank you for not letting another one of these little toys descend into disrepair, and maybe you’ll earn a little good karma for keeping the four-wheeled Suzuki torch burning after the brand departs our shores.

 Shopping and Ownership
Mike Cove is a long-time Swift enthusiast and the owner of 3Tech, a company that specializes in the Swift and its rev-happy engine. Jen Imai won first place in the Performance Stock class in the 2011 California Rally Series with a Suzuki Swift GT. We mined their minds for these tips. 

The Swift community is small, but active and resourceful. Look to the TeamSwift message board to answer your questions and help you find high-performance parts. Group-buys come around regularly for custom-made bits.

The engine is remarkably robust, and can make a lot of power on stock internals; It has a forged, nitrided crank, flat-top pistons, robust connecting rods and great head flow. A set of camshafts—available through 3Tech—will let it rev to 9000 rpm without problems. The intake manifold, header and pistons from the overseas Suzuki Cultus GTi are the hot commodities for naturally-aspirated horsepower, but the easy upgrades are a larger throttle body and a cone air filter.

Ready to blow your mind? Add a turbo. These little 1.3-liters can handle lots of boost, and can push 200 to 250 horsepower. Using pistons from the ’98-2001 Swift/Metro 1.3-liter drops compression to a boost-friendly 8.5:1.

Expect to break transmissions with high power or off-road abuse. Third gear is weak, and the second-gear synchro tends to wear out. Don’t be surprised with a 1-2 crunch on a high-mileage car. Rally racing will tend to bust the differential’s spider gears, but a robust limited-slip is available from Gripper. If you’re adding a turbo, the whole box has to go (though as of this writing, a group-buy on straight-cut gears is available on TeamSwift). A stronger transmission from a 1.6-liter Suzuki Esteem can be adapted.

Most chassis components and body panels will interchange with the Geo Metro. The GT’s unique bumpers—which changed for 1992, too, along with the interior fabric—can be hard to find in some areas, but Metro parts are plentiful in every junkyard.

For a great street suspension upgrade, pair the KYB GR2 shocks with H&R Springs. The cost is low, and it works very well. If you want to go racing with a hardcore setup, Hot Bits sells a full coil-over setup. Rear pillow-ball suspension mounts from an Eagle Talon can be adapted to the rear shocks.

The four-wheel disc brakes are capable enough, but good brake pads can be hard to find. Lucky that Honda CRX front brake calipers are a direct replacement for the Swift’s. Upgrade to the CRX calipers—they fit with the stock Swift rotors—and a world of pad options open up.

Look for rust on the rocker panels, and on the front frame horns near where the lower control arms attach. It can be hard to spot. The chassis is rather flexible, too, and cars with weak frames can exhibit cracked windshields. Look carefully.

The driving experience is very sensitive to weight; what’s great fun alone becomes a chore with a passenger. Likewise, weight reduction is the easiest way gain noticeable performance. The spare tire, jack, and back seat weigh a combined 100 lbs.

Avoid fitting heavy wheels. The stock alloys are a mere 9 pounds. Getting heavy rolling stock only adds rotating mass, which will make the car feel sluggish. Still feeling sad off the line? Consider using a 4.39:1 final drive from a ’95-up Metro. It’ll feel a bit better than the Swift’s 4.10:1 gear.

1989-94 Suzuki Swift GTi
layout:      front engine, front-wheel drive
engine:     G13B-spec 1.3-liter DOHC four-cylinder, aluminum block and heads
horsepower:        100 @ 6500 rpm
torque:     83 ft.-lbs. @ 5000 rpm
transmission:       five-speed manual
suspension:          strut front and rear
brakes:     four-wheel disc
wheels:     14x5-in. alloy
tires:         175/60R14

3tech: valvetrain and engine performance parts,
Feal Suspension: coil-over suspension (Hot Bits U.S. distributor),, (909) 477-3030
Gripper Differentials: limited-slip differentials,
Hot Bits: coil-over suspension,
John’s Foreign Engines: engine-related parts,, (800) 450-3177

TeamSwift: enthusiast forum,
Redline GTi: enthusiast forum,

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Miata CAS doesn't like water

Don't hose off under the hood of your Miata if your cam angle sensor has a bad seal. That shit gets wet and your car becomes disabled because of a No G Signal fault code. I stuck it in the oven for a little while at a low temperature and was all better.