Project Car Ownership is an Emotional Rollercoaster

Last weekend, I hopped in the Ecotec Miata, fired it up, and drove to MT Motorsports for a tune. The car had a persistent misfire; when at 4000 rpm for a prolonged period (I.e.: highway cruising) the check engine light would flash, and I’d get a random/multiple misfire code. I did everything: new plugs, tested coils, new timing chain, new tensioners, new balance shaft chain, new fuel filter, you name it. By the time I got to MT Motorsports, roughly 40 km away, it wouldn’t start. Every time we’d turn the key, the starter would produce an echoing click and nothing more. Once we cleaned off the starter and battery terminals, it would turn over, but the engine wouldn’t fire. Then, we discovered that the ground wire coming from the fuel pump relay came off its post. Once that was fixed, it fired up and I discovered a massive exhaust leak in the header.

A friend of mine named Sadiq is the proud owner of a 2016 Mazda Miata. Before that, he was a huge project car guy – specifically, he was into engine swapping 240sxs. This past summer, he did a road trip of epic proportions, driving from Toronto, across the continental United States to San Francisco, hitting up virtually every state on the way there and back; over 16,000 kms in a road trip. He documented the whole thing on Facebook, and I vaguely remember him joking that his old 240sx would have been on its second engine swap by the time he reached Michigan. 

Photo: Sadiq Awosanmi
Photo: Sadiq Awosanmi

The debate between factory reliability and aftermarket potential is as old as time; someone will brag about their Mustang making 400 hp out of the box, while some kid will counter with the fact that a 20-year-old Supra can make 600 hp with ‘light tuning‘. I think about Sadiq’s ND Miata whenever mine is giving me trouble. Here’s a car that is arguably much less track capable than my Ecotec Miata, but unlike the Ecotec Miata, it’s quiet, comfortable, and as well equipped as a Mazda CX-5. More importantly, it’s reliable. I’ve driven around 2000 km in the Ecotec Miata and I’ve had to bump started it half a dozen times, replaced my radiator twice,  had to rebuild my header twice because of leaks, replace my transmission as a result of said header falling apart, and as of this moment, my downpipe is in pieces.

But that’s only part of the story because when it works, it’s incredible. The car is a bonafide track weapon. It’s 200 ft-lbs of torque comes on as early as 2000 rpm making acceleration effortless compared to the stock BP motor. Unequal length exhaust runners, polyurethane engine mounts, and aggressive tuning mean the car sounds better than any GM four banger has any right to, and it’s XIDA coilovers are a gift from the suspension gods. In short, this car feels like more of a go-kart than most go-karts. 

There’s also this indescribable bond that develops when you pour your soul into a several month-long build. Finishing a build like this is as rewarding as it is exhausting. I’d like to imagine that firing your engine swap up for the first time is akin to seeing your child’s first steps; it magical. This thing that you put together with bolts and a Frankenstein of different manufacture parts actually works. Better yet, it’s fast and retains OEM comforts. All the gauges work, it retains power steering, it’s lighter than a factory Miata. There’s also a practicality to it all. When you know everything about a car down to the brand of brake fluid used, diagnosing problems is easy. Best of all, it was cheap, at least compared to something like an ND Miata.

In short, I think I finally get project cars.