Motor vehicles in one form or another have been a source of recreation for me for most of my life. I have been tinkering, disassembling, rebuilding and modifying cars, motorcycles and ATVs since I was in my teens. Back in the late '80s, I decided it would be better to have a car that was dedicated to being worked on, rather than me keep disassembling and modifying the main family transportation. Just seemed to make more sense. So my first true project car was a '67 MGB - and boy was it a project. It needed most everything. (The pictures below are quite kind, it was in much worse condition than it appears.)
It was a successful project though, I kept it for 6 years, and drove it daily for most of that time. By the time I finished it, I had pretty much touched virtually every part of the car, except the differential.
But once it was done, I found myself getting bored with it. Driving and maintaining the MG was nowhere near as much fun as restoring it. I really missed hunting down those obsolete parts, figuring out what it really would have looked like when it was new, and trying my best to get close to that. So I sold it and moved on to other projects.
My other long-term project was an '81 BMW 323i. That car needed less work up front but was still fun to research and work on, and fun to drive as well. It prompted me to build a website - not about my car in particular, but these unusual models in general. (In fact, I don't think there was a picture of my particular car on the site while I had it at all.) I no longer maintain that site, I gave it to other enthusiasts of those cars.
Since I sold the 323i about 3 years ago, I haven't had any project cars. And as time progressed, I got more and more bored and fidgety. My wife Deanna and I finally decided that to maintain sanity (both mine, and especially hers), I needed to have something to tear apart, and hopefully put back together as well.
Why a Z?
Most of my prior projects were picked out more-or-less on the spur of the moment or by accident. This time I decided to give some thought to what might make a good project, and pick the car that way.
So I tried to itemize some things that make a car a fun project in my eyes.
- The car must be attractive... no, not necessarily, though it helps. But it can't be ugly, and its design should be clean and free of gimmicks.
- It should be fun to drive (in its restored form), and yet reasonably practical to use as daily transportation.
- It should have enough of a following that some parts are available, and should have a community of people striving to do the same thing I am. (Help and moral support, you know.)
- It should not be too common, a bit of rarity or eccentricity is good. It could have been common when it was new, though, as long as attrition has reduced the numbers so that you don't see one every day.
- It shouldn't be too similar to something I've already done.
- The initial cost must be affordable, because I know I'm going to end up spending a pile on it before I'm done.
Before long I had weeded it to a short list that consisted of '70-73 Camaros, Fiat 124 Spiders, Porsche 914s and early Datsun Z-cars. (Porsche 911s and Jaguar E-Types never made the short list because they violate #6. Dang!) Discarded the 914 because Deanna feels they violate #1. The Fiats have two strikes against them - parts are scarcer than I would prefer (#3), and the finished product is similar in concept (though not detail) to the MG (#5). That left the Camaros and the Datsuns. Both are viable, but in the end I decided that since I really enjoy driving a nice handling car more than one with quick acceleration I would be more likely to enjoy driving a Z every day than I would a Camaro. (Number 2 wins.)
I've recieved some questions and comments about how I'm going about this project, and so I thought I'd clarify my restoration method. It is a bit different than what many people do. Typically, a restorer-to-be buys their project car, brings it home, and immediately proceeds to strip it to the bare shell. Everything is removed so that the body and paint can be done. Then when the body is done, parts are cleaned, refurbished or replaced before they get put back on the car. Eventually, the entire car is done, and everyone is happy. This is the conventional "ground-up" method of restoration.
But over the years, I have seen numerous failures from this process. Let's say a person decides that they want to restore a car. They pick it out, disassemble it completely, pay someone a pile of money to do the body and paint, and then they find out they don't have the skills/tools to fix and reassemble the car. Oops!
Or once they get ready to put it back together again, they can't remember how it goes together - after all, they only saw it complete for a week or two before they tore it apart. Or worst, they actually do get it completed, only to find out that the finished product isn't what they hoped/expected it would be.
So I tend to do it differently. I buy the car, and then go through most of the electrical and mechanical systems first. Once the car is mechanically sound and drives well, then I can start to think about tearing it apart for the body and paint work. This way by the time I need to reassemble the car after paint, it's easy because I know the car well as I've already had many of the systems apart more than once. I also know pretty much how the car is going to drive when it's done - because after repairing/replacing a lot of the parts ahead of time, it already drives pretty much the way it will when it's finished.
Downsides? Well, I do spend more time assembling and disassembling the car in small chunks, rather than doing it just once. But since I enjoy working on my cars, that's not much of a problem. And I suppose it does cost me a bit more, as some things like gaskets, seals, fliuds, etc. will need to be replaced more than once. But that's about it. In the end, doing it this way works for me.
By early June 2005 I had narrowed in on a Z as my prime candidate for restoration. I had bought a reference book, was hanging out at various Z web sites, and generally just soaking up what I could before actively searching out a car. I knew I wanted a 240, but figured I'd look at early 260s as well, should the opportunity arise.
I also firmed up what it was that I wanted the car to be in the end. When I restored the MG, originality was my goal. That car ended up 98% stock. That is not the goal for this one, plenty of other people are restoring Z's to that standard. My goal this time is a car that looks visually period correct, but that may have any number of non-original parts or improvements.
So in mid-June I started checking the local paper, and the Auto Trader too. And it so happened that the first car I found in my price range was a 260, and not only local, but it was less than 10 blocks from home.
The car in question was an early '74 260Z, root beer brown with an automatic and the ubiquitous slotted dish mags. It was in so-so shape - fairly straight, and minimal rust. (Side note - here in Oregon we don't use road salt, so rust is less prevalent than in other parts of the country. Still, I discovered that there are two kinds of affordable early Z cars: those that have visible rust, and those that don't... yet.) The interior was a bit rough, and a rather unappealing orange-brown color. Being an early 260, it had chrome bumpers similar in size to the 240's. The universally despised "flat-top" emission-tuned carburetors had been replaced by dual down-draft Webers. The asking price was $1300. I didn't want an automatic, but a little research showed me that converting to a manual transmission wouldn't be too hard or too expensive. (Another side note - it appears to me, and has been seconded by others all around the country, that these days unrestored Z's with automatics are typically in much better shape than the manual transmission cars. I guess they haven't had as hard a life.)
It probably wasn't a bad car, but somehow I couldn't get excited about it. The seller had apparently been trying to sell it in various ways for some time, with little to no interest. I looked at it a couple of times, and then decided to put it on the back burner for a while and see what else might turn up. (It apparently finally sold in late August.)
Corresponded with several sellers via e-mail and phone over the next few weeks, but found nothing worth pursuing. Then in early August I came across a posting on Craigslist for a '71 240Z about 250 miles away in Washington. This one was yellow, another automatic, and had a 280ZX 2.8 liter with injection installed. They wanted $1500 for it.
I started corresponding via e-mail, and it sounded promising. It was reputed to be mostly straight, mostly complete, and decent shape. It took a couple weeks to get pictures, one of which is below:
The pictures showed a car that probably had potential, if it wasn't too rusty. (I had learned by now to take all rust assessments from sellers with a grain of salt.) It would be a long day's drive to go look at it, so I made plans to go there on a Sunday a couple of weeks from then when I had to get up really early anyway. (Taking our son to the airport to go back to college.)
While waiting for the day to go visit the yellow car, I saw another local 240Z on eBay. Turns out this car was in walking distance of my office. So I went to look. This one was a '73 240 with a four speed, and carbs off an earlier 240. It had originally been yellow, but was now an odd dark blue. Bits of yellow stuck out here and there, and the interior was not too good. It had been hit in the rear at some time, and the repair was of pretty poor quality. It had the normal rust in the lower front fenders, too. The seller told me he'd sell it to me locally for $3000. I decided to pass. (The auction never met his reserve, last I saw he still had it.)
So in late August we drove 260+ miles to look at the injected yellow car. Inspection in person showed a car that had been fairly accurately described by the seller. Quite straight, other than the driver's door. Amazingly, the nose was not all dented up. The car was an early model that originally came with a hatch with the small vents, but it had a later non-vented hatch on it. No bumpers on the car, but there was a rear bumper to be included. The interior was intact and much better than average. The dash had only one very small crack. The brakes were not so good, with a very low and soft pedal. The engine was out of an '83 280ZX, complete with the injection. It would run, although it was only firing on five cylinders. The sellers had done a compression test, which came out good, so they figured it had a clogged or bad injector. A set of original SU carbs and manifolds were to be included as well.
My only hesitation was - of course - rust. This car wasn't too bad on that score, but after looking it over I decided that the passenger floorpan, lower part of both front fenders, rear doglegs and both rockers would need to be replaced. We told the sellers we'd be in touch later and drove back home.
Early that following week, I decided to re-contact one of the sellers I had talked to earlier, but had not gone to look at the car. It was also an early '71, red with a four speed instead, and was only a bit more than 100 miles away. It was half the cost at $800, but the seller's description made it sound a bit rough. We talked on the phone a bit, and I arranged to meet him to look at it on Saturday.
Before leaving on that Saturday morning, I checked my e-mail only to find that there was another car in the same general area that the owner needed to dump fast. He said it was a '71, red with a four speed, straight and unrusted. (Yeah, right!) The front brakes were disassembled, but he would sell it for $500 provided the buyer could have it out of his garage by the following Sunday. If the car was decent, I could swing that, and was going to be within 20 miles of him anyway, so I called and made an appointment to look at it on my way to see the other car.
Looked at the $500 car first. It had a poor quality repaint, in a slightly different red than the original. Red paint covered everything, the suspension, trim, you name it. I found rust in the passenger floor, passenger rocker panel and the hatch latch tray. Lots of bondo in the right rear quarter. It also had a cheap aftermarket glass moonroof that looked like a leak waiting to happen. Turns out the car was not a '71, but was a '73 instead. The seller didn't have a title, either. I passed. (Someone else did take a chance on the title, and hauled it off the following day.)
Next stop was the $800 '71. Remember when I said it had sounded rough? I was right. Body was beat, the interior - what was left of it - was worse. Plenty of rust. Definitely a parts car in my opinion, not a car to restore.
The yellow car was really starting to look good in comparison. I was planning to call the seller and talk a bit more about it, when another one showed up in the local paper. It was listed as a '73 four speed with spare parts for $600. I went to see it that same evening. What a mess! Extremely thrashed, and the spare parts weren't much less beat. Rust in the normal places, some quite bad. (You could see daylight under the battery tray.) Another pass.
So I called the seller with the yellow car again, to ask a couple of questions that had occurred to me after looking at all these other cars. Talked for a few minutes, and mentioned that I would end up swapping a manual transmission into the car at some point. He said that he had a four speed box, and he'd throw it in as well. That pretty much sealed the deal for me, and I verbally committed to buying it.
Now I had to figure out how to pick it up and get it home...