Posts filed under “Buying shit I don't need with money I do need”

The title of this category is shamelessly stolen from Sam Hard of Hard Up Garage.

I regret nothing.

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Introducing Project Penny

I've been thinking about a backup car for Amy, my Mazda 323 GTX, for quite a while now. Not because I don't like her. She rules. She also doesn't work all the time. I've been wanting to take her off the road and get her indoors for a while now. I'd like to modernise & rationalise the turbo setup and the engine management. I'd also like to get her bodywork sorted once and for all, rather than the remedial work that I am doing now.

And also...a tiny, ridiculously rare turbocharged hatchback with poverty-spec features (wind-down windows, no air conditioning, no safety features at all) isn't exactly what I need in a daily. I'd actually like to make it to destinations, and get there in comfort, without spending three million pounds on fuel.

So. I needed something cheap, economical, sensible, modern, reliable, easy to find parts for, and with at least a few modern creature comforts as well. And that is why I bought

a three-litre Rover P5 from 1964, which might work, because Lewis Logic fucking rules. Say hello to Penny the P5!

(The car purchase is real, but the narrative may or may not be. All I'll say, is that when I first started writing this the narrative hook was along the lines of "I realised I could not officially be an old man unless I was driving a Rover". It's up to you to decide whether I was completely making shit up.)

This car spent most of its life in South Africa. The chap that owned her brought it over here about four years ago, then got ill, and died. Penny made her way to a dealer, who then advertised it on Car and Classic. Car and Classic's Chris Pollitt did a "Project Profile" feature piece, which was a great article that you should definitely read for more background on the P5 in general and the 3 Litre in particular.

I saw the article, and I immediately knew I had to have that car. I've had a bit of a soft spot for the P5 since I saw one at the end of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but I do not think I have ever been emotionally affected by one. I don't think any car ever has affected me as much emotionally as this one did via mere pictures on the Internet.

I sat on those "I need this car" thoughts for an entire work day. When I clocked off, I called the chap and provisionally reserved it. Exactly one week later, it was delivered to my driveway. And she is every bit as beautiful as she was in the photos.

So what's the plan?

My immediate plan, as in tomorrow lunchtime and this weekend, is to make everything watertight. Brand new door seals are included with the car, but not fitted. I'd also like to make the boot latch work (it does not work), and the bonnet to close (even better if I can open it again).

Next up, of course, I want to make it solid underneath. Because the car spent most of its life in South Africa, I am hoping that I will not have too much to do. South African weather is much kinder to cars than our own climate is. But the car is 57 years old, so no doubt I will be able to poke some holes in it.

In the meantime, I will have to go through some paperwork and some small amount of arse to get it registered in the UK. The guy who imported it never did. I am hoping this will not be too difficult. While this happens, I will not make any modifications to it - and by that, I mean not even replacing any parts with functionally identical modern ones. My reading of the rules for getting an age-related plate when "naturalising" a car is that every component must be original. My reading might be unreasonably strict, but I'm erring on the safe side because I do not want to end up with a Q plate.

After that, will be the slow process of recommissioning; replacing every consumable part, checking every safety-critical part, getting the engine working (it may or may not work, though it does turn over by hand), source the very few bits that didn't come with the car, and eventually getting it to a state in which I can MOT it. (I'm quite aware that at its age I don't have to MOT it, but with the amount of money this will cost me it would seem foolish to not spend an extra few dozen quid for an extra set of eyes to ensure that I have not done something stupid). My hilariously-over-optimistic timeline for this is to have this done before the end of Summer.

After that, let's talk about what I will not do. I want to do nothing that will change the car's character. It was designed to be a big, boaty cruiser for important people, and it will continue to be a big, boaty cruiser for some idiot from Norfolk. It is a silent straight 6, so it will stay a silent straight 6. (And if I was going to do a 3.5 litre V8 swap I've got one kicking around which is much more interesting to me than a Rover one.)

I also don't want to change the car's history. There are dents and scars on the body, and those are part of the car's past. I don't think I should attempt to do much with them. I probably will stabilise those scars where they are showing surface rust, so they don't turn into something worse. And even though the metallic paint is almost certainly not its original colour, that too is part of the car's history and not something I want to change. Plus, I love that colour.

What I will do are some tiny modernising touches. I'll definitely convert it to use an alternator & to have negative earth electrics, and replace any invisible electronic components with modern solid-state ones. It will definitely get seatbelts at some point, because I do not want the tiniest low-speed shunt to cause a brief, very exciting trip through the windscreen. I might do something about the distributor having points, and about the fact that viscous fans are wank...and probably a lot else, but you get the idea. Tiny modernising touches, as I said, that will make her a more viable daily.

That's all for now. Onwards!

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.


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.



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.


They're here

The "ouch, that's money I didn't really have" K-Sport suspension is, finally, here. I expected it to take a while; these are made to order in Taiwan, and then are shipped to the UK on an actual ship, and I am okay with that.

First impression: Crikey, these things are heavy.

Second impression, after getting them out of the box: Crikey, these things are actually really heavy. The size of these things!!

Yeah, maybe I should have had something more universal than my hand for scale; just trust me that these are beefy. They're so over-engineered that if I didn't know better I'd have guessed that they came from a Toyota factory. I'm actually a tiny bit worried that I might get some clearance problems. We'll see; I'll get them fitted this weekend, and if all goes well I'll spend a week with them and write a proper review of them.


A parcel shelf!

It took me five years to find one of these in usable condition. And even then I could not find one! Instead, my brother did, because he has a weird skill of finding parts that don't exist. Back when he owned it, he somehow managed to source rear seats for it (the owner before him removed them and binned them, because racecar), and what might have been the last three 323 GTX rear arch repair panels in the country. And Alex delivers again! He managed to find a parcel shelf in the United States, priced at $100 (plus the usual horrific shipping costs).

The interior, then, is now complete, other than the boot carpet situation, which the parcel shelf allows me to ignore. The parcel shelf definitely needs a clean (that'll be my lunchtime project for tomorrow, because working from home is pretty great), but otherwise it's in awesome condition.

Today's episode of "shipping from the US is madness" thing (previously): I have still not worked out whether and under what criteria I will be paying import VAT for anything I import from abroad. I had to pay £28 on this $100 parcel shelf, yet paid none on my short shifter & bush kit, or on my as-yet-unfitted digital dashboard (all of which are worth substantially more than $100). If it's not actually random, the criteria are obscure enough that it may as well be!

Unrelated story from today: A chap spots my car outside the shop - as I learned, he is a mechanic by trade and a petrolhead - and told me that he's heard it driving around but can't work out whether it's turbocharged or whether it's supercharged. Yeah, maybe I really should stop ignoring that timing belt whine...

Biting the bullet

So, that was expensive, but what can you do. (Other than not owning old shit that is nigh-on impossible to get parts for. I should have thought about that five years ago!)

My car is running a fairly horrible mongrel suspension setup. Shortly after she came off the road in 2007, she gained some custom-made rear shocks from Gaz, as part of my brother's work to get her road-legal after her last MOT failure. These were, and still are, very nice; as good as you would expect from tailor-made stuff by Gaz. They're still on springs of unknown provenance and unknown age, which I intended to replace at some point.

The front ones, on the other hand, are awful; they look like budget coilovers from a completely different car (quite possibly a Mark 2 VW Golf) that were bodged to fit. In other words, they were shit coilovers, that are now old and shit coilovers that feel terrible. They also sit far too low. Weird, I know, someone with a modified Japanese car saying such a thing; except I actually like driving my car on the road, and me driving anywhere means driving some distance on Norfolk back-roads. As much as I like "the lows", I like not having a smashed sump even more.

As you may have guessed, with the GTX being a very rare car and the suspension being specific to the GTX, I do not have many off-the-shelf suspension options; there are only K-Sport and D2 coilovers available for it.[1] Bear in mind that the UK market for any 323 GTX part is about five people, myself included.[2]

I was kinda ignoring the suspension issue, mostly because I'm cheap and it handles well enough (tiny wheelbase, 4wd, and good rubber goes an awfully long way). But after multiple painful bottoming-out incidents on the back roads, and with everything being vague on those roads at very high speed, and seeing these selling for about £200 less than I had last seem them sold...this had to be done. It's overdue.

I'll update when they are here and fitted. I suspect this is going to be a massive improvement; you'll probably get a review out of this.

Aside: yeah I've done this one before, but what is the deal with shipping from the United States? I did notice that these were available from the US, for significantly less money, and I might have been tempted to save a few quid by waiting roughly six years for these to make their way across the Atlantic. And then I looked at the shipping costs:

OK, so this one was a bit of an outlier, but all of the coilovers that came up in my searches (only one of which was actually for my car) had shipping costs not far off £200. It's so strange.

[1] Fun fact: I'm told that D2 and K-Sport are made in the same factory, branded differently for different national markets.

[2] And I know that one of those people already has K-Sport coilovers fitted...