By on September 19, 2012

Sam writes:

Dear Sajeev,

I am an aspiring shade-tree mechanic and I’m itchy to do some work on cars. Unfortunately, I own a 2006 Acura TSX, that needs basically nothing. Changing my oil twice a year isn’t enough for me so I need something else to work on.

My dad owns a 2002 Honda Accord V6 with 175k miles. Out of boredom, I recently changed his spark plugs. He was still on the original plugs. I also changed his transmission fluid (it was dark). I also had to change the transmission fluid line that goes to the radiator because it had rusted and started a slow leak, which was fun. I’m thinking the next project will be to do a valve adjustment (also never done). The engine doesn’t seem to idle with noise, so I’m not sure how necessary a valve adjustment is. I’m wondering if you think I should do this or if have any ideas for optional work (mods) for my TSX. Also, I’ve been toying with the idea of buying an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider. Something about it appeals to me, and I’m hoping an old car will be simple enough to do a lot of work on without needing much help. Ebay seems to always have one or two rusty project Giulietta Spiders. Anyway, I’m curious what suggestions you may have. Thanks!


Sajeev answers:

Mister Sam, you are one seriously cool dude.  Or maybe you are too much like me…which means you are a seriously goofy dork.  Either way, I like what I’m reading here.

That said, do you really need to touch the valvetrain on Dad’s Accord? Leave it alone, get a project car.  I’d caution you on damn near any European project car for a newbie, the price of parts and availability will be tough: especially a car as ancient as that Alfa. While there are a few worthy VWs, they aren’t the easiest to repair and diagnose. You are better off with something American or Japanese.

I see you as a potentially hard-core Honda person. And Honda made some great cars. They deserve more publicity these days. You really, really need to run with this, um, fabricated notion of mine.

Why the hell don’t you want a beater Civic?  A Ricer-Resto project!  Save an “old school” vintage tunerboi Honda from the crusher! The third, fourth and fifth generation Civics are cool cars. Listen to the guy pigeonhole’d as a Panther fanatic: the vehicle posted below is way, way cooler than any Alfa.  ANY Alfa!

OH YEAH: check out those wheels. You need to hit that Civic sh–…SON!

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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36 Comments on “Piston Slap: The Project Car Beckons?...”

  • avatar

    First Gen Miata. You can find one not all spent (good luck on a CRX), Aftermarket is great and unlike the CRX, it is RWD.

  • avatar

    First question: How old are you? That’s important. I’ll give you my reason, but of course, you’re not me, but here goes:

    At 23, out of the service, in school, drove a 1972 Nova (2 yrs. old) that car also needed nothing – it just ran and ran. I got bored and bought a project car – a 1957 Chevy. I always wanted one to restore and here was my chance.

    Well, after a year and a half and little progress, life began taking over. I got a real job, met my future wife in 1975. The car sat. A body on frame, the rest in boxes. Marriage, a house and a son came along and I sold it in boxes and the body on frame in 1979, untouched for three years.

    In other words, life and other priorities got in the way, plus not having much money killed that project.

    Of course, I did it all wrong, too many details to include here, but if you decide to go the fixer-upper route, follow some advice that was given me I didn’t heed: Buy a car that still runs!

    In any event, good for you in your interest in cars. I wish you success and have fun!

    • 0 avatar

      Great advice- Buy something that runs.. and if you want to keep costs down, go with an old Chevy or Ford small block anything to learn on. Cheap and you will learn much.

      • 0 avatar

        I was going to say 89-93 Mustang, practically every component on the car can be swapped out and the cars are very easy to work on and with a little research you can dig up a reasonably priced car in good shape ( although unmolested cars are rare as hen’s teeth).

        Another boon is the large internet and magazine support.

        The two downsides to the car are its rear suspension architecture in stock form which leads to quirky handling and the beer can nature of the light weight chassis – definitely not a car you want to be in when things go horribly wrong.

  • avatar

    Get a project motorcycle, not a project car. I can’t even stand to wrench on cars now that I started on motorcycles. Everything is just so much easier to get to.

    • 0 avatar

      I second this notion. I think that deep down, all car guys are motorcycle guys, some just don’t know it yet. Project bikes are much more manageable in terms of cost, ease of working on, and even in terms of how much space they require. Plus bikes are FUN! Everything good about a old roadster but for less money. I just started a new project, a 1975 Suzuki T500 2 stroke twin. Nothing beats wrenching on an old bike in the evening with the garage open and some CCR on the garage boombox.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s sort of true. But for some odd reasons motorcycles are always more finicky than cars. There are always a lot more motorcycles that ‘ran when parked’ than cars. Somehow the little carburetors gum up a WHOLE LOT easier than the bigger car carburetors. The forks and shock seals always leak. The fork legs rust. In fact on the classic motorcycles- everything leaks. The head and swingarm bearings need to be disassembled and greased.

      A beater car is at least driveable while you are fixing it up. A beater bike will kill you.

  • avatar

    I also second the idea of buying something that’s in running order. Life has a funny way of getting in the way of these kinds of projects.

    Since this is apparently your first time at it I strongly advise that you buy the best condition model of whatever your after and focus on keeping it running first and improving it second. Believe me when I say that this will get you more than satisfactory quality wrenching time. Anything more at this point would either turn into a money/time pit or simply take up a lot of space in your shop for nothing.

  • avatar

    “Ebay seems to always have one or two rusty project Giulietta Spiders.”

    I would avoid rusty cars if possible, it’s the hardest thing to fix.

    Zackman’s advice is good as well – don’t start with an overly ambitious project. Your best bet is probably to get something that runs with a solid, rust free body, and start fixing it up.

    As Sajeev mentions, parts price and availability is a big consideration – although if you are looking for an Alfa Spider I doubt you want something American or Japanese. An old British car such as an MG or Triumph might be worth considering – excellent parts availability and aftermarket support, plenty of reasonably priced projects out there, simple enough to be easy to work on, and sort of similar to the Alfa.

    Good luck!

    • 0 avatar

      I didn’t think about old British sports cars, but that is, indeed, a good suggestion. One thing to remember about these, and probably other old fixer-uppers, is that it’s usually considerably cheaper to buy someone’s already-fixed old car than it is to bring a bad one up to the same level. Of course you don’t get the satisfaction of doing the work yourself. But it means you should choose your project car carefully. See what replacement parts cost for various things like convertible top snaps or polished aluminum trim pieces compared to engine or suspension parts. You can build an entire MG-A from parts but it would end up costing far, far more than it would be worth.

    • 0 avatar

      I think it’s a popular misunderstanding that the old british cars are ‘simple’. They are not. They have SU carburettors with oil-filled dampers and needles that regularly wear out. They have lever shocks and not the usual tube shocks. They have wire wheels with splines made of cheese.

      If you want simple- I would say the contemporary air-cooled VW’s are simpler than the british cars.

  • avatar

    I second the warning about rusty cars. A coworker bought an old Alfa (not as old as you’re considering) and found it eaten up with rust. He ended up essentially giving it away. You might consider an old VW Beetle. They’re pretty easy to work on and find parts for. They aren’t what you would call an enthusiast car, but it would be good for cutting your teeth on.

  • avatar

    The alfa is actually a good idea for a project car, as parts are available, and its very easy to work on. I have an 87, because they have injection after 85 and the SPICA fi and carbs are more than I want to deal with. I would avoid major rust, but any old car will have some. The engine is virtually indestructible – I have taken 3 to over 250 K. All of the major mechanicals are fairly straightforward, as is the electrical system. There is something to be said for a car with everything easily reached, and rwd.

  • avatar

    “the vehicle posted below is way, way cooler than any Alfa. ANY Alfa!”

    Except for the Alfa that inspired its design.
    (that would be this one:

  • avatar

    Do you want your Dads car to break or something? I’m all for someone learning some DIY on cars, but if you got a good problem free car you should appreciate it more.

    I would suggest a Volvo but this owner clearly wants something a bit less practical, so how about a VW Karmann Ghia? Its pretty much a Beetle with a fancy body.

    I could never suggest a CRX, they are cool but they’re also cramped, very weak in 5mph bumps, rust like old Vegas, overly expensive, and usually riced out (to hide the rust yo). You can fix mechanicals all that you want but not so much rust.

    • 0 avatar

      I disagree with you about the dad’s car. A 10-year old vehicle with 175K miles that sounds like it has has zero preventive maintenance done on it is a failure waiting to happen (if the plugs haven’t ever been changed, what are the chances that it still has the original timing belt and water pump?). It’s a perfect car to work on.

      Get a Honda manual, check the internet forums, and get to work! The car is already paid for, OEM parts plentiful and reasonably priced online, and the work will benefit a family member. Win – win – win.

  • avatar

    Seconded on avoiding old Euro cars as a first real project. I would suggest something that already runs and drives but could use some TLC. Take your pick from 80’s/90’s performance/pseudo performance cars, Miata, Mustang, Camaro, Corvette, 300Z, 240SX, Supra, RX7 etc. to get your feet wet in the sea of project car hell before you dive into something over your head.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 – As a newbie to playing with a project car, I looked for something distinctive, but not too far out. I ended up with an ’82 Honda Prelude that, admittedly, isn’t a high performance vehicle, but has enough pep and old school cache to be worthwhile. Parts aren’t easy to find, but they are there if you look. Lots of Honda fanboy sites and support. I think 80’s and 90’s Japanese performance/sporty cars are a great value right now, as well. You can come by a decent Celica, Prelude, 240SX, etc without breaking the bank and still have some money left for repairs. And, IMHO, Japanese car collecting is the future of car collecting as the boomers move on and Gen X/Y folks harken back to the cars of their youth.

  • avatar
    C. Alan

    I have been in the same condition. I have a bunch of modern cars, but I like to wrench. I have had a few project cars over the years, and the one’s I have been most happy with were the ones that: 1. Had lots of parts available; and 2. Had an active web forum where I could go for advise.

    My last car was my favorite: a 1961 Corvair Station Wagon. The car was very ugly, and even had been painted with house paint at some point in it’s history. Parts were cheap to the point that some folks just down right gave me what I needed! When it started to use oil, I met up with a guy on a forum, and over a weekend we rebuilt it. When I sold it, it still looked terrible, but it ran great. The 6 cyclinder air cooled engine was different, but that was one of the reasons I liked it.

    That said, life will get in the way. The only reason I sold it was because we needed a pickup for the ranch.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d second this bit of advice. Older vehicles, the 60s and 70s in particular before the onset of pollution control devices, are remarkably simple and are great places to figure out the basics without having to deal with electronic this and power that. They also tend to be exempt from smog testing. A car with some following is good also as internet-based advice greatly speeds the learning curve. Having said that, virtually every car has a small group of enthusiasts so pick something that moves you (and that moves under its own power), the more off-beat the better, find a rust-free example if possible , and go at it. One more thing- dont expect to make money on this effort. It’s your hobby. If the car that moves you is a ’64 Mustang, your hobby is going to be much more expensive than if you like old Ford Falcons (or Peugeots as is my case)

  • avatar

    Whatever you choose to restore, look for the rare over the mundane. Pick a car you like that has that rare factory option that gives the car a cachique a lesser model would not have. A 2000-02 Honda Prelude Si with AWS and T-tops comes to mind. Have a friend who shows his and gets much more attention than a more pedestrian Prelude. Another wows the crowd with his 1957 Ford Fairlane hardtop convertible that takes nearly a full minute to see the sun, but is so amazing to see in real life.

    Myself, I found a lovely 1995 Mustang Cobra Convertible a few years ago. I choose it for several reasons, but foremost for the rarity of the factory installed removeable Hardtop, one of the last of the 302 V-8s made in Cleveland, the subdued SVT treatment, and the ‘peanut butter’ interior (black and tan). The combination of details makes it a very rare Stang and always picts interest when I show/drive her.

    I still get the enjoyment of tweaking the engine to boost performance, lowering and enhancing the suspension, widining her stance with a different wheel combination, and do all the oil and fluid changes, tune-ups, and general maintenance myself. Mustang’s also benefit from a huge repository of parts so you can go with whatever direction you feel.

  • avatar

    A Honda CRX is cooler than ANY Alfa?!?! Bite your tongue, Ford-obsessed heathen!!

    Actually Alfa parts are very easily obtainable – probably FAR more so than for that Honda, especially in regards to the non-greasy bits. Also MUCH easier to find a decent one. I do agree that unless you are an ace with a welding torch AVOID anything that is really rusty. The mechanicals are simple, reliable, and not too expensive for the twin-cam four cylinder cars. The V6s are more of a world of hurt, as is anything that was low production – thus GTV-6 restoration is a bit painful. I have an ’86 Spider and had until recently an ’86 GTV-6. The Spider is extremely well supported for parts, just as well as my Triumph Spitfire and almost as well as the MGB. You can get pretty much anything short of a new body shell – you can get THOSE for MGBs.

    Like the British cars, they built them FOREVER with relatively few changes, and the mechanical bits are mostly shared with a bazillion shopping trolley sedans. Though in the Alfas case, those sedans were pretty damned cool too! The parts ARE more expensive than for the British cars, and because the cars are FAR more sophisticated there are more of them. Don’t forget, back in the day the Alfa Spider cost as much as an E-Type Jaguar, and was considered in the same class of car, though obviously not nearly as fast.

    • 0 avatar

      About every 80’s Honda that I find is either:

      A. Riced out and in terrible mechanical shape.

      B. Very Rusty, and in terrible mechanical shape.

      As crazy as it is, I have to agree and say to go with an Alfa Romeo.
      You won’t need a CD player to hide a decent engine noise.

  • avatar

    Routine maintenance on a 2002 Accord is nothing compared to getting a 30+ year old car serviceable. Based on my year and a half getting a BMW 3.0 roadworthy about ten years ago I’d say never buy someone else’s project unless you have a lot of time, tools, space and money on your hands. Spend more for something that works and works well, where the biggest issue will be the kind of simple maintenance you’re used to doing.

  • avatar

    You have to get something that you really want otherwise you won’t work on it. So don’t get an International Harvester if you really want a Fiat.

    One thing I’ll throw one there is that I’d much rather deal with mechanical issues than spending months scouring eBay, forums, swap meets, and junkyards trying to find missing interior parts.

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      Now an old Scout with a tractor level interior and overall tractor-like finesse with AstroTurf carpeting and the optional soft top would be way cool. Repairable with a rock, flat head screwdriver, crescent wrench, and duct tape. Buddy of mine had one he was given in HS and restored after he got out of college.

      • 0 avatar

        Scouts are great to learn on, they are cheap to buy, tough as nails and parts are easy to find and cheap, but they are one of the most addictive vehicles out there, says the man with 6 running and driving IH’s and 3 more parts vehicles.

  • avatar

    I have a soft spot for the Alpha Junior. I pulled the carbs of one once, stripped and cleaned them including the jets, put it back together and the car ran… Surprised me! Tuning twin carbs by ear is NOT for the faint of heart.
    I would not steer anyone away from old Alphas but I recommend making sure there is one of those crazy, old school, preferably Italian mechanics near by that can be called in emergencies…
    I will never forget watching an Alpha Romeo Junior racing a Corvette stingray… The Vette won by a hair after spending most of the lap chasing the Alpha, I kid you not.

  • avatar

    Everyone should own an Alfa once-it will cure you of ever owning another one or you’ll be hooked forever. The Giulietta Spider is a wonderful little car, but buying a basket case Alfa won’t be a project, it will be a career. Whatever you buy, get one thats running and doesn’t have a lot of body rot. No matter what, always always always start with a solid car, even if you’re paying more you won’t regret it later.

  • avatar

    Decide up front what degree of restoration you are aiming for. Fun weekend runabout or looking like it’s still on the showroom floor? I’ve seen collectors/restorers almost having a nervous breakdown trying to achieve the later. It can become an OCD form of insanity.
    Also, get something that’s running, even poorly. That way you’ll know why and where to start when it isn’t.

  • avatar

    I don’t think there’s any Honda cooler than an Alfa. More practical yes but cooler???

    There is absolutely no problem with getting spare parts for a Giulietta Spider as almost everything is re-manufactured including some body panels.
    This is a highly valuable sexy (Pininfarina styled) 50’s roadster that was way ahead of it’s rivals like MGs. It had an all alu light weight twin cam, claimed to be the world’s first mass produced one. Monocoque when British sports cars were with Iron push rod engines and separate chassis and Honda was still in diapers.
    The hardest part of the restoration would be the body. So buy the best you can. These highly desirable cars should grow in value.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Choose a car. Choose an engine. Choose SAE. Choose Metric. Choose Whitworth for added pain. Choose restoration. Choose restomod. Choose points. Choose HEI. Choose fuel injection. Choose a carburetor. Choose Solex. Choose Zenith. Choose Stromberg. Choose Rochester. Choose lots and lots of metering rods. Choose Weber. Choose mismatched serial numbers. Choose matched Webers. Choose bodywork. Choose paint. Choose suspension. Choose brakes. Choose paint again since you touched the body while working on the brakes. Choose wheels. Choose wheels, 4x98mm this time. Choose wiring. Choose a new fusebox. Choose a multimeter. Choose to hire the half blind drunk who knows how to work on ISO wiring systems. Choose reupholstery. Choose leather. Choose foam. Choose hog ring pliers and an imperial $#!+load of hog rings. Choose a headliner. Choose to ask the drunk if he knows someone who can help install a new headliner. Choose weekends. Choose a year of weekends. Choose to not go to the game because you’ve almost nailed down that last wiring gremlin. Choose wrecking yards. Choose Hollander. Choose the steering box from a ’62 Falcon because it works. Choose an A/C compressor from Ford because its connector fittings make more sense than GM’s. Choose blood, pain, sweat, tears. Choose to turn the key. Choose a road. Choose to drive.

  • avatar

    The most imporant rule of home mechanics: If it aint broke, dont break it. Leave those vavles alone unless there is actually a problem.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I put together Bugs for daily drivers for 20 yrs. Drove 5 Grand Wagoneers for 20 yrs. I shade tree my daily drivers. Latest car is the BMW 528e. They were made from ’82-’88. Bosch EFI is very robust and easy to work on. Much preferred to points and carbs. Ive had 5 as family DDs since ’96 Has a world wide group of enthusiasts. 300 k miles is not unusual on a maintained 528e. Cheap parts, accessible tech info. Rust is an issue of course. In stock form, it has 121 HP in a 3200 pound car. So it is not very fast off the line. Once you get it up to highway speeds, it will just cruise. Perfect commuter car. The 535i is the hot E 28, it has 180 hp. I know a guy with 540 K miles on his 535i.

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