Want to learn to wrench? Jump into the deep end with a difficult car.
'Jump in. The water is nice', they said. They didn't say the sight of these pictures could give me PTSD years later.
Do you want to be a mechanic?! A god of all things geared, sparked, and fueled? Where to begin? Something easy you say? F#&% no! Learn to drink from the fire hose of knowledge! You might get injured, but the hazard pay is well worth it. I chose this difficult path when I bought a Z32 300zx with a few issues.
I can't believe I had both of these cars at the same time. My plastic toolbox of Craftsman tools and a Z32 intake manifold can be seen in the middle of the image.
It might be a difficult car, but it's MY difficult car.
There are few more difficult to work on automobiles than a Z32 300zx. I'm sure you can name a few? Plenty of VW/Audi cars are well-known headaches, old Jag V-12s, the Ford Powerstroke diesel, Alfa Romeos, but while all these cars are good contenders, I chose to work on a 1992 Nissan 300zx 2+2 NA.
While not as hard to work on as the Twin Turbo cars, the NA engine in mine still proved quite the challenge as neither engine is known for its reliability. I made the crucial decision to buy my Z32 at the 'wet behind the ears' age of 17. Why choose such a difficult car to work on right off the line? Well, there were two big reasons:
1. I didn’t know any better.
2. No one steered me away.
The fuel pressure gauge was a cheap addition to diagnose a suspected bad fuel pump.
Forget the Shallow End of the Pool: Swim or drown!
Most people will tell you when starting out with any hobby - start with an easy project. While this is good advice for the majority; it isn’t productive for those with steely-eyed stubbornness that can fight through any mess.
If you’re one of the few rough and tumbled, and determined individuals, I suggest you start with a difficult project. The car I chose had a body that was completed before they figured out how to fit the engine - VG30DE(TT) was fitted at the factory with a shoehorn due to the 'oopsie-daisy' engine compartment.
The car was needless to say, an engineer's delight. The Z32 is simply jamb packed with confusing mechanical layouts, early technological advances, and expensive unique parts. The ribcage looking intake manifold was made to stretch across the engine bay so as not to interrupt the design of the front end. Its compact shape makes almost any repair an absolute nightmare. In the event you need to remove it, you'll either come out as a hero or a zero.
I got rear-ended and sandwiched between two Toyota trucks which led to getting the JDM 99' spec front bumper.
It builds character! +10 points to dexterity, -60 points to the wallet
When I found my 300zx it was in decent driver condition, but with a ton of angry gremlins slowly causing destruction on all four corners. I drove the horse-piss out of it. I enjoyed it every day to school, work, and when driving to a part-time gig at Thunderhill Raceway.
I drove it in a NASA High-Performance Driving Events (HPDE), and thoroughly encouraged the Gremlins to work harder to make me cry - and I almost did cry. I had so many issues with this car that I nearly spent all my scholarship money the first year at college.
No one told me how difficult this car would be to work on and how often it could break. I had several adventures removing the intake manifold. The fastest I ever completed the removal was in 1 hour and 45 minutes. This is an eternity when you considering other vehicles and the ease you can remove parts. The removal was necessary to replace three of the six injectors (ethanol eats 300zx injectors alive), the knock sensor was bad, and a second removal was required when the timing belt ate itself alive.
Luckily, I found a world of knowledge in an online forum. The individuals online knew their stuff. Nearly everything was already documented with writeups and photographs. I became a forum lurker and occasional poster of many 300zx woes and desires. I studied my 300zx FSM with much vigor - probably more than I studied my actual college classes! With each completed task my hands became more controlled, my patience calmer, and my wallet drier.
What I didn’t realize then, and I do now, is every single car I’ve owned since has been easier to work on than my 300zx. I’ve owned 26 vehicles at this point. None have rivaled the 300zx on the level of cluster-f*#%-kill-me-now frustration. I mean, I did own a 6.0L Powerstroke, but it was a late build and all prior owners were competent enough not to 'poke the bear'.
The Mechanic’s Thousand-Yard Stare
I sold my beloved, loathed, and molested 300zx after three years of ownership and thousands of dollars spent in maintenance. From injectors, knock sensor, MAF, IACV, Air Regulator, brakes, master cylinder, timing belt, vacuum leaks, PCVs, heater core (huge PITA!) numerous nuisance fixes, and some tasteful upgrades, I was spent.
Of all the mechanical repairs needed, the worst two nearly submitted me on my knees: First, the heater core went out. I discovered the issue when hot coolant shot onto my leg one summer day. It was bypassed until winter when I nearly crashed due to a frozen windshield. The process to replace the heater core required removing the engine dash - 8 hours of work inside the car. I still can feel the rug burn.
Second, the car told me it hated me when it tried to eat its timing belt. A nut on the timing belt tensioner fell off (?!!!) and wedged itself between the belt and case. I caught the issue by ear and confirmed it by cracking the cover open enough to see the mess. I have no idea how the nut came off as I had never opened the timing belt covers prior to catching the near-disaster - the Z32 has an interference engine and any timing belt bends valves or worse.
I had seen a thing or two after a few short years of ownership. I was tempered by my 300zx to the point where I felt like a hardened backyard-mechanic - nothing could scare me anymore. Even though I eventually sold the car to get a much-needed pickup, I became nostalgic for another 300zx. I still am, even after I bought a second Z32; stripped and caged it, and sold it too - should I get my head checked?
From Pee-on to Cock-Strong, Mechanic-God .
Owning and learning to work on a difficult car 'right off the bat' proved to be a blessing, not a curse. It gave me the courage to take on projects I ultimately would not have, had I not had some crap experience with a temperamental Z32.
The broken parts I accumulated were trophies - proof of tenacity, proof of moxie. The noises of broken car parts directly translated to future cars I've owned - hey I've heard this before! The experience was invaluable to growing as a backyard mechanic.
I encourage you to take on your automotive dreams! Take on the world in a difficult car. Go buy that V10 TDI Touareg, 3000gt VR4, Audi Allroad, P38 Range Rover, or Ford Powerstroke diesel. Buy the car you want and never look back. Become the expert you'll need to be to keep it on the road but make sure you have a couple of bucks in the bank when the inevitable happens.
I would recommend checking for a decent forum related to the project you’re wanting to tackle. For any new mechanic, I cannot stress enough how much the online forums helped me with fixing my Z32 300zx.