Sentra 87

The perils of owning a classic misfit.

Unlikely Pet

Over the years I have had various vehicles and to this day I own four but only two actually run. Of those two is this car and although its rusty, small, and has a seat belt as its only safety device, I find it to be the best car I have owned.

I have put so much into this car over the last few years that I felt I needed to express the highs and lows of not only the function, repair, and short comings but also the adventures I take with it. You can read more about the car’s specifics in the “About” section but from here on out, it’s just going to be banter about the things I have done and will do with this now 30 year old toy.


Featured post

Rust Rocket

Where I am at I take the Interstate system into the local  major city where the speed limit is 80mph and some people drive it at 90mph. Usually going to work I will keep it around 75mph but on the way home I take it easy at 65mph. The Sentra can easily handle the faster speeds and still gets better mileage than my other car but I don’t need  to go fast all of the time.

Sometimes when I’m driving along I will notice something that happens more with the Sentra than my other car when dealing with traffic. Typically traffic doesn’t really stand out as anything unique until you attempt to pass someone and on the Interstate you have a second lane to make that task a little easier and less imposing on the other drivers but every once in awhile there will be someone that doesn’t want to be passed. This person will speed up when you attempt to overtake them and maintain a speed to force you back behind them. And really, I’m guilty of this myself from time to time if I notice that the person passing me has been driving badly because I don’t want them doing something stupid ahead of me.

But with the Sentra, I’ve noticed that a LOT of people do this to me. Today I had to show someone, nicely, that the car isn’t just some pokey old rust bucket. No, this thing can be a Rust Rocket (with enough time to accelerate) and hold its own on the Interstate.

So I’m merging into traffic and the guy behind me is in a newer vehicle with California plates. I clearly should have waited a bit longer for him to pass but there was no traffic beside him and he had the ability to move over if I was going to be a problem. Just as expected he passed me as I was trying to get the car up to speed but eventually, at 75mph, I was getting close enough to him that I needed to pass him. Just as I was about to do this, then he suddenly surges ahead when before there apparently was no reason to.

Normally I would just let this go but I saw no harm in showing off a little so I sped up to match him at 80. I calmly drove and ate my lunch as we moved along and I kept my eye on the traffic around the car. Eventually though I guess he wanted to go back to his slower pace and I happily passed him and kept going this way all the way to town.

What I think that helped is that it was some guy from out of state that was being careful but still thought I couldn’t maintain that kind of speed in this old car. But, I expect to see this continue to happen as I drive the Sentra especially in the area I am in where egos are high on the road. No self-disrespecting cowboy is going to allow a old import car pass him …

Quick Note

I have been just really busy and that is why this has been so dead lately. However, there are a couple things I wanted to note about the car until I get a moment to talk more about it.

On May 5th I went out on an excursion with the car to see some new towns and spent the day tooling around on back roads and taking my time with no real need to go fast. The weather was great and there was no wind to speak of so the car performed phenomenally. The Sentra got in 39 MPG that day, a new personal best for something that was originally rated to get 25 MPG according to the old documentation on it.

But on May 28th I go an even better result and I think it just took in a lot of factors including weather, terrain, a tail wind, the right gas, the right oil, and my conservative driving. I’m sure if I really thought about it, I could do better yet but for this last trip it got 43 MPG!

Pretty wild considering that it still uses a carburetor instead of fuel injection and that the head is leaking oil as it is always burning blue.

Positive Thinking

It’s been awhile because the car has been running really good so there hasn’t been much to report. Despite this, there are a few problems that have come up and I’m just waiting for Winter to end so that I can start working on them.

The rust on the doors has come through the repairs I made mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing in the first place. I’ve since taken in some more information on the whole process and will try to at least stop the rust that is trying to eat the car.

I had some new tires put on and I got to see why the rear bumper cover hangs down strangely. Turns out that the strip of metal that holds up the plastic was not the only piece of metal that was eaten completely by rust but also the bumper support that the strip attached to. Using the same source that I got my new front fenders from, I was able to get a brand new front and rear bumper support which will get installed someday.

The rear bumper itself is misshapen because it has not been secured properly and some of the clip points are broken. I can get a brand new one of these as well but the shipping is pretty high as it has to come on oversize freight. It makes a $30 part become a $200 part pretty fast. I just hope they still have one by the time I can have the money ready for it as they appear the be really trying to close out their inventory on these old parts.

On my last oil change my mechanic noted that one of the inner axle bearings was failing and that it was starting to leak oil. Fortunately NAPA still carries the bearing so the only problem will be the cost of getting it replaced.

Something related to the oil change is that the engine is burning up about a quart of oil every 1,000 miles. Although I understand engines I don’t really work on them enough to understand all of the signs and issues that can arise with their performance. I’ve been told that the valve guides or seals may be leaking despite my fears of the rings being bad. This morning when I started the car, the concept finally clicked in my mind and I understood why the problem was in the head and not the block. That blue puff of smoke this one time finally made me see that the only way that could happen was if the oil has leaked down into the cylinders overnight and that has to come from the top, not the bottom. And once again, I have to credit NAPA because I see they still carry those parts as well.

So a lot is still to come and as the days get a little warmer and I can do more with the car, then I will have more to share.

Kiss My Ass Popsicle

Last night as I was leaving work I got the little reminder from one of the ladies that works there “You shouldn’t let your car idle for too long, it will ruin your engine!” But then she said that because I have a carburetor car, that it isn’t as bad. I was trying to make light of the situation but she kept going on about it and I’m just not impressed.

People tend to forget that their little words of advice that they picked up on the internet need to be put into a little greater context. The typical information states that letting your car idle, in the cold mind you, causes unnecessary wear on your engine which can lead to more problems and costlier repairs. This then makes the average person a master mechanic with the knowledge on all engines and the environment to which they can espouse this as their way of helping you out.

But, when it’s -20 outside where my car is parked then it’s about -5 inside my car and if I were to just get in and drive off with it a few things would happen. 1) I would be uncomfortable until the engine warmed the coolant enough to have the heater on and warm up the cabin 2) I would be fighting with my defrosters while my breath was freezing on the windshield until the heater got hot enough and 3) the engine has to work harder while the oil in both the block and the transmission were trying to warm up as well.

These articles state that a “modern” car only needs 30 seconds and you should then go. I have 2013 Malibu with 260,000 miles on it and I don’t think idling it for a few minutes is really going to harm it. But here is where I really have a problem with these articles:

  • How much time does your car idle while sitting in traffic?
  • How much time does your car idle while waiting for your kids?
  • How much time does your car idle while in a traffic jam?
  • How much time does your car idle on a 90 degree day with the A/C on?

The articles are all centered on idling in the cold but they fail to cover all the other times your car is just sitting there doing squat.

And then there are those people talking about the added pollution.

Well, I don’t know the numbers, but how many semi-trucks are idling right now cold or not? How many diesel generators are just running but not going anywhere? How many engines total are burning fuel everyday and not moving in some way? How much pollution is that?

I’m all for improving the environment by reducing pollution but rather than just pointing out what people are doing wrong, provide some solutions that could be better for both them and their transportation. Invest in renewable fuels, improved vehicle efficiency, and recycling and advocate for better mass transit and cargo transit systems and the world will be better off. But people need to take some time and read up not on just the article in front of them but also the source information, the components of that information, and the context that it is presented in before regurgitating it upon others.

Round and Round

After doing some digging and checking with someone on a forum, I found out that the distributor rotor for the car that actually fits properly. The problem stems from the issue with the car being one of the very first ones produced on the line in that instead of being built in 1987, the car was manufactured in January of 1986 for the 1987 model year.

Initially I was going to make a sleeve to fit the new part on the old rotor shaft and I had at least the outer dimension figured out at 17mm. It’s a little cold out to be working on the car outside so I had to wait before getting the measurement of the inner dimension but I had estimated that it would be about 15mm. Before I found that the car was built in early 1986, and after thinking about it and looking online at numerous parts, I thought why not try to get a rotor for a 1986 version of the car. NAPA ordered me one that was produced up to April 1986 and I waited the week or so for it to be delivered.

In the meantime the car still ran fine but I worried that it would still cause problems and I was cautious about driving it. Eventually both the part and the weather came together and it was perfection. The new part fit perfectly and securely and the car starts and runs great once again. Well, as great as it is going to get anyway.

Upcoming enhancements that I still need to tackle are putting in a new radio and speakers, tinting the windows, and fixing rust. The downside of where I live is that the car is under constant environmental attack and so the rust is eating the car up slowly. Chances are that I’m not going to beat it but I’ll be documenting how it goes again and again.

Dirty Deal

The most recent upgrades have given new life to the car and for a few weeks it was great to not only have the car back but to have it run so reliably. But all of a sudden the fun ran out and the car stopped idling and would die at every stopping point.

At first I was worried something had come lose and then I wondered if maybe the mechanic didn’t get something set quite right with the timing. The days had turned colder since I had gotten the car back so maybe something with that was affecting it but what I really needed was a little free time during the daylight to try and diagnose it myself. My mechanic had mentioned that my spark plug wires needed to be changed and I also knew that my Oxygen Sensor was getting a little old so either one of those could be the source and both are simple enough to do on my own.

After a few days I was able to take a closer look and saw that everything was where it should be and even saw something I had never noticed before, but more on that on another posting. I adjusted the existing plug wires to make sure they were all connected to the plugs correctly and then I pulled off the distributor cap and saw that the contacts where all dark. When I pulled off the distributor rotor I could see that there was carbon deposits on the top left of the main contact as well which I thought was odd. After doing a little further checking I found that there was a new problem I had never seen before.

When I first got the car I replaced the plugs, O2 sensor, wires, cap, and rotor just to be on the safe side. What I didn’t notice at the time was that the rotor didn’t sit level and instead angles lower than the cap contacts which explained the strange buildup on the rotor. I ordered a new one and was able to pick it up the next day with a new set of wires as well. The new rotor was similar but different to the old rotor but both fit the same way. I tried doing some research on this and have come to one of the ugly realities I have had to deal with in the past and that is that the part is for the second production run of the car and I have a first production run, which is slightly different.

What is happening is that the shaft in the distributor that the rotor sits on is slightly smaller than the rotor and also the upper part of the shaft is stepped in slightly where the screw hole is and when the rotor is fastened on, the rotor leans into that narrower space and it sits ate the aforementioned angle. My only method of resolving this was to create a metal sleeve of some sheet copper but even that is not quite perfect. I either need to have a harder sleeve milled out or find the actual part that goes on this car.

The sleeve did help some and when I installed the new wires and cleaned all of the contacts in the cap, the car returned to its previous excellent running state with some improvements in responsiveness that are surprising. I’m working on getting the new O2 sensor to top it all off and see what I end up with.

But not that I think about it, I have access to a metal lathe but I just need to get a digital caliper and some brass round stock and then I think I could make my own sleeve. We will just have to see how that goes.

Back in Business

After nearly a month, I’m back in the car again and the repairs have made it a whole new (30 year old) car. Granted, I have put enough money into it to buy a new used car but I’d still be stuck with a vehicle that would need repairs then. This way I have something that will just need basic maintenance for at least 50,000 miles and even then it won’t be too much work even by that point.

Although the new axles and bearings are a great help, the new brakes and carburetor are by far the best upgrades I could have made. It stops so much better than it has in a long time and the parking brake feels really good. The engine runs so much better and it does stuff that have been described in the shop manual that I had never experienced with it before. Since the engine idles properly, it switches from high idle to low idle at the correct times such as when I take it out of gear or when I shut off the high-drain items like the headlights or heater blower. Best of all it doesn’t stall anymore when I push on the brakes.

Of course there is improvement in the mileage as well and in my couple weeks of having it back I can see that the numbers are more stable than in the past by far. Right now I’m getting about 30 in the city and 36 on the highway. That’s 36 mpg with an average speed of 70 mph typically.

So now I’m going to take a break from doing repairs on it until I can get some financial issues squared away. Once I have that issue handled I will start with a few simple items including tinting the windows and installing a stereo system. After that I will tackle the rust repair and body panel replacements with an eventual repaint back to the original red.

I’ll still have stuff to write about though so check back from time to time and we will see what happens.

Soak Time

I’m trying to be patient while my car gets the upgrades it needs and even though I have told my mechanic to take the time needed to work on it, inside I just want it back so I can drive it again.

He did find that the one part that I could not find new was nearly shot and doesn’t have long for this world. That part is the left rear backer plate that holds all of the hardware for the brakes. It was rusty when I last changed the rear brakes and right now the rust is not living up to the job of the steel that was there. He asked if I could find a replacement.

I searched for another new one but despite finding sites that listed them for sale, either they didn’t have one in stock or they have some purchasing issue where I cannot get one from them. I resorted to trying to locate a used part and even that proved to be difficult. However, I did manage to find a used one from a salvage yard in Nebraska and that will have to do until I can find a new one someplace else.

On the flip-side, I had submitted paperwork to have the state do a title search on the car so I could get more of it’s purchase history. After waiting two months, I finally got a response but it was less than exciting as all they came up with was the title I had from my grandparents when I got the car from them.

So, going from the information that grandpa wrote down, I have sent out an inquiry to find the person that previously owned the car to see if I can find anymore details about its origin. My uncle told me that the car may have come from Arizona and after looking online, those information services that tease you with partial details do hint that the person has lived in Arizona so there might be something to that. I just don’t know if the guy bought it new or if he had bought it from someone else as well. I just think that if I can get some more information about the car’s history, I might as well try.

Right now the only thing I could think of was to try to contact the town he was from and see if they know how to relay my information to him or his family and get some details about the car. It’s kind of a long-shot but I had to try it at least.

In the meantime, I just have to be patient a little longer.


One night I was over at a friend’s house to take care of their dogs and I watched cable TV to pass the time. That night I came across Terminator 2 and didn’t think too much of it because I’ve seen the movie a number of times but after being so involved with this car, I was surprised to see a version of it in this movie.

The nice thing about cable these days is the use of the DVR to let you go back and verify that you actually saw what you think you missed. But sure enough, in the insane asylum when the guard is letting visitors out, there sits a Sentra sedan in the lot.

That discovery alone was just great but from that I found a website that has cataloged every car that appears in every movie and of course, they have a screenshot of the Sentra. After looking at the site a little more I see that there is another Sentra in another scene but it is a different year than my car.

Other than that, the car has been in the shop for a couple weeks to put on the final repairs. When I get more information, this will be updated of course.

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