Posts filed under “Project Amy”

Stories from the recommissioning of a 1987 Mazda 323 GTX. The GTX is the incredibly rare four-wheel-drive, turbocharged hooligan edition of the Mazda 323.

This particular one came off the road in 2007, I purchased her as a rotten restoration project in 2015, and she finally returned to the road in July 2020.

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In which I make an uncharacteristically sensible decision

The weekend before last, Mazda Amy started making a scary knocking noise at about 2000 RPM upwards when the engine was warm. By "knocking" I do not mean pinking; I mean that scary kind of knocking that hints at a piston being prepared for a journey into earth orbit, and hinting at a full engine rebuild about 300 miles since the last one. Yay, time to throw some more time and money at a 34 year old hatchback.

I love this car. I always will. I'll never sell her, because I know I would regret that forever. She's too rare and she is too special - special in both a "special to me" way and in an "unlike any other car ever made" way.

But...not now. Not this engine rebuild right now, days after I've spent a frightening amount of money on parts for the P5. I made the tough decision to send her away into secure, insulated and dry storage for a little bit.

It broke my heart having to do this. But if I am going to get the P5 done in any reasonable timeframe, I need to sink every spare penny I have into it. And in the meantime, Mazda Amy needs to go some place where she is not going to deteriorate from disuse. This is not goodbye to Mazda Amy; I am kicking the can down the road, and I hope to catch up with that can at some time about six months to a year from now.

Although...even though I knew this wasn't really a goodbye, I will miss her desperately.

I think I only avoided an emotional moment while she was being put onto the truck because I was having a lot of fun talking to the recovery truck's driver. He was a fellow petrolhead who really understood why someone would have so much love for one forgotten rally-homologation variant of a forgotten 1980s hatchback; while he was loading up my car we had wide-ranging conversations about petrolhead topics like the Vauxhall Calibra, the joys of the Rover V8's unique noises, and even our favourite local drift racing drivers. (Quick shout out to Farrow Auto who moved the car for me; I will entirely recommend them to anyone in the area of King's Lynn.)

All of which left me without a working car. And also without a lot of money, by which I mean no fucking money. A brief quest ensued for something on the really really low-budget end of budget motoring.

I wanted something that costed significantly less than a grand. Making it more difficult, I had a few criteria, which would rightly open me to accusations of being a bit of a prima uomo given the price constraint:

  • It must already work. There are huge bargains to be had in the sub-£1000 and especially sub-£500 market, if you feel like doing a bit of work on a car. I don't mind doing any kind of work on cars in the general case, but after three "barely made it home" incidents in Mazda Amy and one bonus "took my chances and can't gauge how lucky I was to make it home" incident in Mazda Amy...I'm tired. I don't mind sinking everything I have into cars. But right now, I just want a working car that gets me to places and then home safely.
  • I must be able to get parts for it, cheaply. Here's a good metric: can you get a pair of brake discs and pads from multiple vendors for less than £35?
  • There must be no modifications. A car with modifications that is worth less than £1000 is modified in ways that have made the car worse. Returning that to standard costs money. I don't want to spend money.
  • Nothing French, because if I had to drive any French car made since about 2003 I would be irresistibility compelled to hate-drive it into a wall.
  • Nothing British. There's no shortage of old Jaguars going for very little money, and those are cheap in the same way "Doberman puppy, free to good home" is actually free. There is also no shortage of cars from MG Rover out there for very little money. They are massively underrated, but good luck getting parts for them.
  • No automatic gearboxes, because I don't like them.
  • No Diesels, out of a misguided sense of principle. (Ask me about that some day.)
  • Not a Honda Jazz, because I am not old enough to legally own a Honda Jazz. The law is what it is; complain to your MP if you don't like it, not to me.

Despite me being too fussy...I found something!

You've heard this one before: Lewis has plans to get a sensible economical daily driver, with a few creature comforts and ends up with...

...something that is actually completely sensible and economical, which was not how you expected that one to end. Meet The Shed!

The Shed is a Ford Fiesta 1.4 LX from 2004. It came with 8 months of MOT and half a tank of fuel. I saw it advertised on Saturday, and I viewed it an hour later. After looking it over for about five minutes, I told the owner I was satisfied it did in fact have four wheels and a working engine, and I handed over her full asking price of...six hundred pounds.

£600! For a working car with no obvious problems! Even if it fails its next MOT, and I decide that it is not worth fixing, that would allow me to have a car for about £75 a month. That is cheap motoring!

It's not just cheap to buy. It should be cheap to own as well. It uses almost no fuel, because it has a tiny 1.4 litre engine and weighs as much as a skateboard. Parts are ridiculously cheap and all of the important stuff is still available brand new, because it is a Ford. And because it's neither fast nor expensive nor desirable, insurance is really cheap too (about half the cost of Mazda Amy).

The Shed is not in bad condition at all. I realise that anyone who knows me, knows that I set that bar quite low, but I think by any reasonable person's standards this is rather good for the money. It is cosmetically imperfect; there are no major dents, but it does have several little scars caused by its time in use as a workhorse for a young family.

The silver colour hides a multitude of sins; I'd call it "20 foot good", in that the £600 car looks like at least a £650 car at that distance. It had a slightly frightening MOT history, but the previous owner's husband is a mechanic; he fixed any advisories & minor faults immediately after they came up.

Most importantly, it is completely solid; there is not so much as a hint of surface rust that would shortly become something much nastier.

The interior is in much better condition.

I was expecting The Shed, as a car that had been used as a child transporter, to have parts missing or broken, and to smell strongly of Fruit Shoots and Marathon bars (or whatever they're called these days). It does not. The Shed is tidy inside and there's minimal wear everywhere.

The Shed is even quite comfortable! It has air conditioning, electric windows, electric mirrors, and a working (original!) stereo. To most people I'm sure that reads as someone pleased that their hamburger includes bread and meat. Do bear in mind that Mazda Amy had none of these things; The Shed is practically a Bentley in comparison. It's also extremely quiet...compared to a mental turbocharged 1980s rally homologation special with minimal sound deadening and a fucking drainpipe for an exhaust. I reckon if I had someone in my passenger seat I could talk to them without raising my voice!

I'm...somewhat liking The Shed. Or maybe I'm just liking the fact I have a car that works, or maybe those likes are the same thing.

So what's next for The Shed?

I think...pretty much nothing. I will not make any modifications, because modifying a £600 car will make you slightly poorer, increase your insurance costs, and leave you with a £500 car. Except, maybe, if I can find some at the right price, getting some alloy wheels to replace these...

...because wheel trims always look bad. Genuine Ford alloys, like those fitted to the Mark 5 Fiesta Zetec, would look much better and would not look "modified".

Otherwise, I want The Shed to be a car that transports me and objects between places, and it does that just fine, just as it is. I'm unwilling to spend much money on it. But, even though it is The Shed, it still deserves some cosmetic attention. It'll never be an interesting car, but it may as well look as good as its completely-stock slightly-dull self can.

I've set a budget of £100 to improve it cosmetically; if only for my own entertainment, I want to see how I can make the maximum possible cosmetic impact with almost no money. I might even document it here as I go!

One more job from the giant pile of necessary jobs

Mazda Amy has a new windscreen. This could have happened several months earlier. More about that in a moment.

My windscreen was not broken. It was, however, severely fogged in the corners, where water had made its way into the laminates and had started to separate them.

This is not an MOT failure right now, though it may have become one in the future as the fogging spreaded. It may have weakened the glass in the corners, though for many other reasons I'd be so completely doomed in an accident with the modern artillery tractors 4x4s half the country drives these days that I don't think it'd make any practical difference in an accident. I was not convinced that it was watertight. It definitely looked terrible, and was for some time on my list of things to fix.

The used market for vehicle glass is tricky. Whenever I've stripped a car for parts, the glass has always been nearly impossible to sell (and for windscreens, that can only happen if one manages to get the glass out intact, which only ever happens on non-bonded windscreens from very old vehicles). There's usually only a small time window available; you generally try to get rid of the glass at the very end, right before you send the shell off for scrap. That means when you're looking for glass you'll almost certainly not find it.

Not that I really wanted a used windscreen, but going used is often the only option for very old and/or rare cars. I certainly did not think that one of the mainstream glassmongers would be able to obtain one, so I did not try. It was as a last resort that I thought to try Autoglass, whose site claimed they were able to do a replacement. It seemed implausible to me at the time, but I rolled with it.

I originally booked this replacement in October. I heard nothing back for a couple of months. When I poked them last month the very nice lady on the phone explained that it entered their system, and then nothing happened, for unclear reasons.

Not to worry. Autoglass Lady quickly made things right, and Autoglass went about sourcing a new windscreen. When they got back to me, the same Autoglass Lady (or at least sounded the same) used the definite article ("the windscreen") in quite a precise fashion; a fashion that implied the windscreen they had sourced was the only one they could find in the country. So if you've come here from a search engine because you're trying to source a windscreen for your BF 323 in the UK: I probably took the last one. I'm sorry.

The windscreen has a blue tinted sunstrip, which the original did not. My car is blue, and will be staying blue even after I get it into a bodyshop, so I am okay with that. Even if I wasn't okay with that, I'd have to deal with it, because it is the windscreen and I will take whatever I can get.

I can't even remember whether I have windscreen cover on my insurance, and I do not care to look right now. But even if this was eligible for an insurance replacement, which is unclear, claiming for it would have felt fraudulent as I knew about this problem long before I insured the car. So, I paid for this out of my pocket. The cost was a mildly eye-watering £431. That included fitting, of course, as this is definitely not a job I would consider doing myself, but still...

I won't fault Autoglass for this, because this is an exceptionally rare car (even in non-turbo, non-4x4 form) and I would expect the price of the windscreen to be priced accordingly. I'm actually very happy with them, because once the disappearing-booking mistake was rectified their service was outstanding, and because they managed to source the windscreen, which is something I never expected.

So that's one more pile of cash in the furnace, and one more job out the way. This also means I can tidy up the trims that normally cover the very visible gap you can see and get those fitted, too.


The Suspension: the final episode

Today, I decided to take a look at the Gaz rear suspension that I removed a few days shy of two months ago.

I know, it looks like shitty old suspension and maybe that's because it is. But this was a nice and rather expensive bit of kit in its day. Back in 2007, when my brother owned the car and had some intention to get it back on the road after a failed MOT, he replaced the rear shocks with two of the custom-made Gaz shocks seen here. These cost £250 for each shock absorber back then (about £300 inflation-adjusted).

Before the K-Sport "biting the bullet" episode, I had the idea that maybe I would also get Gaz to custom-make some front ones too. I decided not to; even at the non-inflation-adjusted price, that would have been £500, minus the desperately-needed new springs both front and rear. Each corner also needed new top mounts (which would have been another very expensive custom job) and even that would have left me unable to adjust preload and ride height separately as I can on the K-Sport setup, so they had to go.

That made me sad, because I knew these shocks, as old as they are, had maybe 100 miles of driving on them, if that, and that it was top-quality stuff in its day (and still is). So today, I decided to give them both a bit of a cleanup to see what they looked like. Top is before, bottom is after:

Tools used: Brillo pads! I'm not kidding. If you need to remove tarnishing or crap from any metal, a slightly damp Brillo pad is your best friend. The steel wool is only slightly abrasive, and with the built-in soap and a bit of water they glide over whatever you are trying to make pretty. On top of that, I used some electrical contact cleaner (for when I needed to quickly blast away the soap residue to see where I was with the cleaning), paper towels, and a little WD40 to lubricate the threads on the shocks to make it easier to get the bottom nuts on.

It's a tribute to Gaz that even after 13 years of disuse and only a hundred miles of use that they are still in really rather good condition. There's a tiny bit of pitting on the shafts but otherwise these shocks are close to perfect and still feel great today!

I don't know if these will make any amount of money that is worth my time to list them on eBay. I am not worried if they don't. They're just too nice to go onto the scrap pile, and I would rather see these go on a car again rather than being recycled.


Backroads are fun

The backroads were rather fun this weekend. For whatever reason the tractors around here have been busy this weekend, and deposited a ton of mud onto the wiggly roads around here. Which is fine, because that's where our food comes from and all. The tiny 4wd Mazda was bothered by it even less than I was. I'm amazed at how well she handles on greasy roads!

This weekend's blasts were mostly about debugging a whole lot of squeaks and rattles coming from Mazda Amy's interior trim. I bought a huge box of assorted varied trim clips that might help with this.


Coming soon: Banging choons

Edit (March 2021): Change of plan. I decided against having any kind of stereo in my car. Without cutting up any panels, I would never had a stereo that sounded really good, and also because hearing the engine is far too important to me. The latter isn't just because I like the noise, though I do; it's because I need that feedback to instantly know when something is not right with is. This head unit has been sold and was posted off for its Forever Home in a Porsche 928.

This is a Blaupunkt Vancouver SQR 45 head unit. As I am told, it was originally fitted to some expensive, high-end German cars. I believe, but do not know, it would have been fitted to the Porsche 944, and possibly the Porsche 911. Hopefully, someone coming here via a search engine will be able to correct me some day.

I got this for free, some years ago. Via some chain of events that I'm probably better off not knowing about, it ended up in my mum's 1988 Suzuki SJ410. A few years ago this Blaupunkt was, while still functioning, acting a little erratically, so it got replaced by a much more modern unit with a CD player, USB, and all those other things that people in the 1980s did not know they needed. This head unit was going to go in the bin. I thought it was too nice to go to landfill, and that some day it'd be a nice addition to Mazda Amy (which lacks a stereo), so I saved it.

Then some time passed, and with my car mostly working as it should, I decided I should actually do something with this stereo, so I got in touch with Bal from Retro Car Audio UK who did a refurb to bring it back to life. This cost me £285, which for most people doesn't resemble "cheap". I would not want this work to be done cheaply, because you get what you pay for. And this work was done on a rather rare head unit that I have seen selling for £200+ in working condition (not "refurbished by a pro and works exactly like new", as anything is when Bal is done with anything), I think the price was extremely reasonable. I could probably make a small profit selling it, though I don't plan on doing that.

The failure sheet, quoted directly from Bal, was this:

Power supply stiffening circuit malfunctioning

Radio PLL synthesizer circuit failure

Capacitor failure throughout - I will replace all electrolytic capacitors.

Cassette mechanism needs a full service

Volume pot oxidized

So it goes. Hey, Lewis-logic says it was a free stereo! Just like that time I bought a "cheap" Mazda 323, ha ha...

Anyway. It's here. It's lovely. Bal has done an extraordinary job. There are some practicalities I need to work out, though.

The UK edition 323 GTX had the stereo as an option in the "Lux" version of the car (that edition also including a body-coloured bodykit and alloy wheels). This stereo system only had two tiny speakers in the dashboard. The Rallye edition never had a stereo, but retains the two places where speakers would have been. Now, this car is extremely loud, because of its minimal sound deadening and 3" straight-through exhaust, and might get even louder in the near future via a tubular manifold and probably an obnoxious, totally illegal external wastegate. I'm not convinced that two tiny speakers are going to supply sufficient loudness, even with today's speakers being vastly superior to anything that existed in the 1980s.

But, I will not cut 6x9 holes in the parcel shelf I spent years trying to find (though I did briefly troll my brother, who acquired it for me, into thinking I would do just that, which was fun), or cut speaker holes in my even rarer original door cards. I need something stealthy. I think I can use the space under the front seats for a couple of compact subs, and maybe use the coin/random shit holder below the diff lock switch in the centre console for a small mid speaker.

There's also the small matter of getting the head unit to fit into the hole where a stereo should be. This may require home-brewed brackets!

Something that is not a practicality concern is the lack of an aux jack. Cheap tape adapters that you can buy for so little money that they may as well come free in your Corn Flakes are, by all accounts, remarkably good. Technology Connections from the YouTube explains why:

And because I like physical buttons, because I have a huge MP3 collection, and because I like not farting around with my phone while I am driving (it goes in my glovebox, on silent, and yours should too): this is probably going to be paired with a 5th generation iPod, running Rockbox. Or maybe I'll start a tape collection instead!

I'm also not totally happy with the backlight of the LCD on this one being green, when the illumination for the rest of the dash is consistently yellow/orange, but I'll park that one, for now.

Ah well, I'll poke around things this weekend. One expensive thing at a time.


Sitting pretty

So the alignment is done, and the figures in the photo showed that I didn't do a terribly bad job with my bottle-jack alignment. But, lacking a level surface, let alone all the tooling and knowing what the fuck they're doing that a real garage has, I took my car to Autoleys in King's Lynn.

They normally work on BMWs, and it was quite fun bringing down the tone in their car park with a shitty-looking 1987 Mazda 323, but bringing down the tone wasn't why I picked them. It was the first place I found that would do alignment that didn't involve me driving on main roads. Not that I don't trust this car or anything, given that I'd already sorted out the horrific bump steer and the dangerous understeer, but.

Anyway, this got done. I found a way to kill two hours in King's Lynn while Autoleys did what they did. And this car is better than she has ever been. I only write about this today, rather than on Wednesday, because I've had a chance to take her for a proper hoon two days in a row. Which means I can talk about how good the K-Sport suspension setup is now!

So, I've got my ride height exactly where I want it now:

Which partly happened by accident; from a previous episode, I took some dimensions from my collapsed former front suspension and used that as a baseline for my new suspension. Turned out that when you put not-collapsed brand-new front suspension following the old dimensions, the ride height is where I want it. No sump-smashing. There are no more "lows", but there are no also more scary noises when I hit a bump too fast.

I must say that the K-Sport suspension is awesome. It was horrendously expensive and I am happy with every penny I spent on it. The K-Sport suspension combined with good Toyo rubber means this car runs out of cornering ability long after I run out of bravery. Because this setup is okay with back roads and their corners at any speed, that also means that there are a lot of bits in the interior that are rattling at speed and it's quite hard to debug those rattles. That merely annoys me; maybe I'll find someone to ride with me and help me with that some time.

This chapter concludes with this: Everything is great. My car is still my favourite car in the world except that part where she's now both burning oil and leaking it from the front crankshaft seal. But that, is a thing to be solved another day.



This week's problem: extremely low engine idle speed. It wants to sit at about 200-300 RPM, which is so low that it stalls or near-stalls the engine. This happened out of nowhere yesterday. This, only takes a few minutes to fix with a screwdriver.

So, instead of solving that problem I got a Bad Obsession Motorsport sticker for my horn push! And doesn't it look good.

It's actually lovely quality (it's very thick), and I reckon that's given me about another 15 horsepower. Or maybe it hasn't, but it's definitely a good idea to represent the greatest angle-grinder engineers in the world.