A Colorado exo (Part 2)
Part 2 - The build: A tired miata gets a new life.
This is Part 2 of a 3 part series around my experience with my Exocet so far. If you missed Part 1 it is available on my tribe "A Colorado Exo". Part 2 will cover the majority of the initial build, and Part 3 will cover the inspection and registration process as well as my first track days, autocross, and a road trip in the Exocet.
After finally deciding what my next project should be, I got my order into Exomotive. When I ordered my kit the wait time was about 20 weeks. They were backed up because of a new body style. It seemed like an eternity to wait, but these days I believe Exomotive gets them shipped in about 8-10. So, I had 20 weeks to kill. I began searching on Craigslist for the lucky Miata that would become my donor. I had only 2 requirements- the car needed to be a 1.8 and must to have a limited slip differential. I found out very quickly that if you are in the market for a cheap Miata- have cash in hand and you must jump on it immediately. I found several that had already been claimed only minutes after being posted. Eventually I found the perfect '94 classic red Miata. It was completely stock with 150,000 miles and an LSD. It needed a new top and the interior was pretty worn so it was only $1200. I called the seller immediately and was lucky enough to be the first to call and I scheduled to see it. A couple days later I drove 3 hours southeast to a small town in eastern Colorado. After a quick test drive I was sold. A friend came along with me and helped me test the LSD in a dirt parking lot while we were test driving the car. He also drove my Explorer home while I drove home in my new project. After a long drive home listening to the wind whipping through the worn top, all I could think about was getting it into the garage and getting started. I would have put the top down but it was only 40 degrees outside and very windy.
Three hours later, I got home without incident and no notice of any real mechanical issues. Sure, the top flopped around in the wind and the speakers cut out everytime you hit a bum or turned left, but those things didn't matter. I finally had a donor and could start my project. With the Miata in the garage, I decided it was time to start tearing apart the poor, unsuspecting, little Miata. Being that the car was in pretty good shape, I didn't want to destroy all the good parts that were left in the process of my build. Feeling that these parts and the body could have a new life, I contacted a local Miata specialty shop made a deal. I gave them everything I deemed as unnecessary, and they would come and pick everything up. This made it much easier since my garage was quickly being filled with boxes of parts that would be a huge pain to sell individually. The local shop wanted to create a V8 car and all they really wanted was a decent body to start with. So, we made a deal and I sold everything I didn't want/need for $600. That included the entire body, interior, ratty old top, and several boxes of little miscellaneous stuff. Basically everything except the harness, steering, suspension, fuel tank and drive train. I would say that it was a great deal for both parties.
My son (3 at the time) checking out the new toy.
Striping the car down took a few weekends worth of work and really only about 3 wrenches. It's amazing how far into a Miata you can get with a 12mm and 14mm wrench. The wiring harness was the most difficult, with trying to get it through the firewall in one piece. After some wiggling and convincing, I got it through. Separating the body from the sub frames below was also a bit of a challenge. I used an engine hoist and some straps to try and balance the body and my wife and I were able to get the body removed and ready for pickup. Once the car was stripped, body gone, and the garage cleaned up, it was time clean. 150,000 miles worth of grime proved to be stubborn. After several rounds with a pressure washer and wire brushes, it was finally clean enough to get to work.
My focus at this point was to perform some basic maintenance. I replaced the leaky valve cover gasket, replaced the motor mounts, replaced all fluids, installed a new brass bushing on the shifter, and installed new spark plugs and wires. I also painted the valve cover, re-routed the coolant hoses to bypass the now gone heater core removed the AC and power steering pump, de-powered the steering rack, replaced the front hubs, and swapped out the brakes for new PowerStop rotors and carbon ceramic pads. From there it was time to focus on the suspension. I took apart the sub-frames and control arms and replaced the bushings with poly bushings and painted everything black. I also replaced the shocks with stock replacements. You might be wondering why I would replace the shocks with stock replacement parts rather then upgrading to something better. Well, I didn't want to invest in coilovers until I found out how the car would handle. My concern was that the Exocet, being a few hundred pounds lighter than the Miata, would have different characteristics. So, I decided to wait and run the stock suspension and see what would happen. After a couple more weeks of tinkering and waiting, I got the email I'd been waiting for. UPS was shipping the kit and I could pick it up in a few days. Finally, it was happening!
Valve cover painted and MSD wires installed.
With the thunderstorms of late spring in Colorado rolling in, I went down the UPS hub to go pick up the Exocet chassis. I had the chassis loaded onto an old trailer that had been sitting in my Grandfather's field for the past few years, and finally it was headed home. My Father helped my untangle the plastic and un-earth the chassis as it started to rain. The chassis was light enough it only took two people to lift the chassis and set onto jack stands. We got the chassis placed into the garage but not quick enough to avoid the chassis getting wet. I immediately started trying to wipe all the water off but I knew I'd see the rust the next morning. Sure enough, it started to get a little bit surface rust within a couple hours. So, I took a couple days off from work and got started prepping and painting.
I decided to go with paint for one big reason. If it scratches, or gets chipped, or I decide to weld on it, it's easy to touch up. I used a hammered style paint and did most everything with a brush to keep the paint dust down in the garage. For the tight spots I used a rattle can. The hammered paint is great for hiding imperfections and has proven to be pretty tough. After 2 days of prepping and painting, I riveted in the aluminum panels and was ready to join with what was left of a 94 Miata. It took a little patience to get everything to line up, but eventually all 8 bolts were in and the car finally started to take shape.
The first task after bolting everything together was to start running the brake lines. The Exocet kit came with a roll of hard brake lines so I borrowed a bender and flaring tool from my Dad and started getting the brake lines in. The brake lines were easy to shape and work with and really the only issue I ran into was a tight spot in the rear passenger side where the single line splits left to right. After moving the mounting point of the fitting over a little bit, the rest was pretty simple. After mounting the pedals and master cylinder, I bolted up the new braided stainless steel brake lines to the calipers and the brakes were complete. In the same fashion, I ran a new line down to the clutch with at braided line at the end.
Next on the list was to mount the fuel tank and run the fuel lines. I went to the hardware store and picked up some bolts and washers to mount the tank. I needed to space it out off of the frame since it cannot sit on the chassis itself without hitting the subframe. After mounting the tank and plumbing up a fuel filter, I began routing the fuel lines. Exomotive sells a braided fuel line kit but I decided to try something a little different. I decided to re-use the hard lines from the donor. 90% of the shape of the stock lines are the same for what is needed in the Exocet. I did need to bend a few areas, but it was actually very simple. After getting the hard lines mounted to the chassis using some stock style snap mounts, the rest of the fuel system was plumbed using new fuel injection hoses.
While getting the fuel system in place I received my wheels. I chose to go with Bassett lightweight steel racing wheels. These are technically not DOT approved but I've never seen anyone actually check for a DOT stamp on wheels. These are 15x8 4" back spacing (-12mm) wheels. At 17lbs they are on the heavy side (although only slightly compared to ebay wheels like XXR) but they are inexpensive and I really like the look of them. It doesn't hurt that it adds a little bit of circle track flavor into the build. They are wrapped with 205/50 Dunlop Direzza DZ102 tires which are a great performance summer tire (even in the wet) but as I would find out later, not quite as sticky as I was hoping.
Bassetts mounted. Lookin' good.
With the fuel system complete, brake system hooked up, and now wheels and tires mounted, I installed a new aluminum radiator, and decided that it was time to start the wiring harness. I was terrified that I might have cut a wrong wire or that I was missing something important. I labeled everything which was mostly still there, but a few labels were lost from sitting in the garage for a few months. I draped the harness over the car and plugged everything in. This took a few trips the the Haynes manual to figure out which connection was which, but eventually got everything connected. For the grounds, I managed to get them all in one place and used a jumper cable to ground the wires to the chassis. With everything I could identify hooked up, I put a gallon of gas in the tank and turned the key. It cranked and cranked and fired to life. This was probably the most exciting part of the build so far. I raised my hands in the air in celebration, but it was short lived. There was still a lot of work to do but there was a new source of motivation. It runs!
Wires everywhere, what a mess. But it runs!
With about 25 pounds of wiring spread all over the car, I went to work starting to cut out the pieces I knew I didn't need. The airbag harness and computer (and airbag light form the gauge pod), the stereo and speaker wires, defroster, and AC. Each time I cut a chuck of wires I would start the engine just to make sure I didn't cut something I wasn't supposed to. After cutting out all the obvious stuff, it was time to to figure out a home for the rats nest of wires. A wiring tray is available as an option with the kit but instead I decided that I would build one and make it large enough to house all the relays and ECU. So, I went to a local aluminum scrap yard and found a sheet of black coated aluminum. After a few templates were made I went to my Dad's and borrowed his metal brake to get the shape I needed. Once installed, I tried to hide as much of the electrical mess as I could. This also made a great place to mount a 12 volt USB charger/voltmeter and a new hazard light switch. With the relays and ECU mounted to the tray, I coiled the wires into the tray and would finish the rest of the electrical later on.
It was now time to turn my attention to the interior (if you can call it that). The pedals, NRG quick release steering wheel, and gauges were mounted but nothing else. I didn't want to use the stock battery from the Miata, so I got a more compact Odyssey battery. These batteries are used in power sports and also, Mini Sprint racing. I also ordered a battery mount that bolts to the rear panel and floor. With the battery mounted up, the next project to tackle was the seats. There are many options for seats from full aluminum racing containment seats to re-using the stock seats. I chose to go with Corbeau Clubmans. Due to the lack of room in the Exocet, most sports seat stick out past the side of the car. I didn't like that so the Clubman's were a good fit. I made some mounts out of steel bar stock and bolted them directly through the chassis with grade 8 bolts. From there, I installed a couple five point harnesses and the seats were ready to go. With the engine running, and now the seats and battery installed, I was finally able to get into the car and actually move it under its own power in and out of the garage and a small trip down the street and back. Without an exhaust, the trip was kept short so as not to draw unwanted attention. This was just the motivation I needed as the finish line was now in sight.
Corbeau Clubmans mounted up and ready for five point harness.
The next step in the build was one that I admit I was a little nervous about. It was time install the body work. The body work contains of 2 side panels, a hood, and a fuel tank cover. I also ordered additional side panels from Flyin' Miata. The side panels are very straight forward and required drilling holes into the mounting tabs on the chassis and bolting them on. The hood however, needed to be trimmed to clear the radiator. I removed about 3 inches from the underside of the nose and marked where the dzus fasteners and areo latches would be. After getting everything marked I started cutting out the holes for the aero latches using the template, a couple hole saws, and a jig saw. The dzus fasteners required only getting everything lined up and drilling the 4 holes. Next was the tank cover. Like the hood, it is mounted with 4 dzus fasteners. It was a little tricky to get it all lined up, but once the cover was in place I marked the holes and it was good to go. However, there was still more work to be done on the tank cover.
The fuel filler turned out to be an area where you needed a little creativity. Everyone has done this part a little bit differently. I chose to cut down the stock fuel neck and weld up a new location for the vent. I ordered some flexible fuel filler hose and a few reducers and clamps and started piecing it together. I also used a marine style, non-vented filler cap. I kept the stock evap vent hose and routed it from the top of the tank to under the tank and out the side of the car. With the fuel filler sorted out, I turned my attention to the lights. I got some universal LED tail lights with built in reverse lights. After spending a few nights with a wiring diagram, all the connections were created and viola- lights! The last lights to wire in the rear were the license plate lights. I used licence plate bolts with built in LEDs commonly used by motorcycles. These worked out really well since I didn't want to mount a separate light. Once all the lights were mounted, I mounted up the tank cover and the Exocet was one step closer to being ready to drive.
With the tank cover mounted. I finally made a decision on the wing. This car looks too much like a dune buggy without it. Exomitve partnered up with APR to make a carbon fiber wing specifically for the Exocet. However, APR wings are not cheap. So instead of blowing my budget on an $800 wing, I decided to do something a little more cost effective. When I ordered my kit I got the APR wing mounts that bolt to the chassis but just needed a wing to be somewhat close in size and I could figure out the rest. After searching all over the aftermarket worll I decided to get a 56" Megan Racing aluminum wing. I chose aluminum specifically because I knew I'd have to move the mounts. After getting everything lined up I got the mounts moved and riveted on, plugged the old mounting holes and ordered up some hardware to mount it all up. I had to be a little creative but it actually turned out great and and the price fit into the budget at around $200 for the wing and hardware. The supports are made from 4" radius rods from Speedway Motors with heim joints on each end.
It was time to figure out what to do with the exhaust. I kept the stock exhaust manifold but the cat wouldn't fit in the frame. Instead of running a smaller cat, I took advantage of a perk that goes with building a kit car in Colorado. There are no emissions testing. Instead of running a cat, I got a replacement test pipe with a built in resonator. From the cat back, I found an aftermarket 2 piece exhaust from a guy on Craigslist. It was brand new stainless steel and had another resonator and muffler. This worked out well since I could use the mid pipe and my Dad and I cut up and welded the muffler to shorten everything up. It fit better then I expected after some modification and has been a great low-buck solution to a custom exhaust system.
With the body work, exhaust, and now the wing mounted up, it was time to start looking at getting an inspection to get plates. I called up the State Patrol and took the earliest date they had available. However, the inspection would still be a few weeks away. I was anxious to get out and drive so I signed up for a track day at High Plains Raceway. I spent a weekend mounting a hitch to my old Explorer and dug out the old race car trailer from my Grandparent's field. With all the bolts triple checked, I took it in to get an alignment, and after about a year from when I picked up the donor, it was time to load up and see if all my hard work had been worth it.
First track day. My buddy Joel driving in this session.
I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge just how lucky I am. My wife has been very supportive throughout this process. She put up with the late nights and weekends of me wrenching away in the garage, and didn't blink at the financial investment. For that, I'm very fortunate and thankful. Follow A Colorado Exo for more about getting it road legal. registration and all the fun events so far in Part 3.