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

The 5th Gear

I’m going down the road and I touch the shifter just a bit and all of a sudden the engine is racing and I’m in neutral. It was an easy recovery and I made sure not to have my hand near the stick while going down the highway.

Sometime later though, while heading into work the car popped out of high gear all by itself at two different times. Now I knew something was wrong and had to take a little time to figure out what to do next.

So at this point the car is parked until I can have a transmission shop look at it. I want to have it fixed, but there are financial and time considerations I am working on with other projects.

Crushing It

I recently took the car in to get an oil change from the mechanic that has done most of the heavy work on this car and he asked me something that I was kind of taken aback about. He said that he didn’t understand why I drove this car.

Now, aside from the great gas mileage (I got 47mpg out of it just recently) and that it used to be my grandparent’s car, I have found that it is just a fun little car to drive. The more I think about it I just love how much this car fits me and my personality but also I have an attachment issue and I cannot bear to just let go of something. I think it should be obvious after all of the repairs that I have made to it and have planned for it that I just love this car. But I don’t think that really satisfied him.

Despite the great fuel economy, there is a problem that is growing worse and in order to fix it I have to perform a couple different surgeries in order to keep the car running. The main issue is that the oil seals on the valves are leaking more and I’m burning a little more oil with it and since the car has about 195,000 miles on it now, replacing them is not a simple answer. Without coming out and saying it directly, my mechanic eluded that the engine would need a complete rebuild to properly fix it. But in that answer was another concern of his and it was the ever growing rust that is eating up the car. Sure, we can rebuild the engine but what good is it if the car falls apart around it?

Although I don’t have a shop of my own, I do have friends that have the tools and space I can use to maybe remedy these two issues. One friend has a shop with a hoist that I can then get under the car to knock loose and remove the rust and not only resurface but also repair the weak spots. Another friend has a shop with an engine hoist and stand where I can do the rebuild on my own. I just need to figure out the times to set up in those spaces and get the work done.

With the car being just on the edge of repair-ability, the last bit of magic is getting the engine rebuild kit for it but I won’t know exactly what is needed until I have the engine apart. I guess that is going to be the scariest part despite it would be the very first time that I had done an engine rebuild of my own. I know I will get help with it but if I can’t get the parts that fit it after machining the head and block, then I see where my mechanic has that thought in the back of his mind that I should just give up on it.

But like I said, I love this car too much and there is no crushing in its future for a very long time.

Playing in the Mud

I will admit that I’m no expert when it comes to cars but I am willing to do what is needed to get them to work for me and if that means getting dirty then that is just fine. The Sentra isn’t getting any younger and the climate I live in really makes it show its age with all of the rust forming on the body and although I don’t have the money to have a full restoration done to it, I can at least try to prevent it from dissolving from underneath me.

Since I have new fenders and a hood sitting in storage, I am able to experiment with a new skill on the parts that are rusting away. I got myself a small can of Bondo, some scrapers, sand paper, and worked up some courage to dive into a new project. These parts on the car are basically sacrificial so if I screw it up, I can just look forward to having the whole part replaced later on. The reason for learning this is to repair the parts of the car that I can’t replace and with this vehicle, there is a lot riding on me not to hurt it more than I have already.

This isn’t completely a cold start project though. I am friends with the local body shop owner and I’ve watched him work on metal, apply body filler, sand, prime, and paint for many years. I’ve also made sure to watch others on YouTube give out their techniques for performing this work but nothing quite matches the feeling of doing it yourself.

I tried to fix a bunch of the rust one the driver side last year but eventually it rusted through the paint again bring me to Lesson One: You have to get rid of ALL the rust before covering it up.

This time, working on a sacrificial fender, I used a wire brush on a drill to get deeper into the rust spots and really make sure there isn’t anything hiding in them. Then I mixed up a little blob of Bondo and some of the hardener and began spreading it onto the bare metal. That’s when I learned Lesson Two: You don’t need much hardener in that blob of mud.

Yep, got it all mixed up, put one creamy pass onto the metal, and just at that moment the rest turned into a rubbery chunk. It was a mess but I got it to work somewhat. I managed to sand off the excess and drop some sandable primer on it all but that’s as far as I took it. I will need to sand it down better and take another stab at it later and then move onto another patch of rust.

I don’t expect a miracle to happen anytime soon but I will take it to my friend to see how it ranks. If it looks as if I’m getting the hang of it, then I will look at fixing some of the smaller rust issues on the main body of the car. After those I need to work on more severe issues that involve welding before mudding. I just might be able to make the car survive indefinitely.


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.

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