Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Christmas Extravaganza

Alright!!! Indeed it has been a while, and I do apologise for that... but as you'll read these last few months haven't really been what you would call smooth sailing... thankfully everything with The Custard Pod is all good, but the same couldn't be said for Kim's car... but more on that soon :)

I realised I never actually got a photo of the amp mounting solution showing off its great feature of being removable whilst still being plugged in - rather happy with how the whole thing is working I must say! 

Anyways, onto business. Super Cheap Auto had a nice sale on oil and filters, so I decided to get onto an oil change just so I knew what the state of the oil was and where I was up to with servicing - kind of important as I didn't really know the state of what was in her. I was a little bit concerned when I saw the design of the sump though... anyone who knows anything about Physics and gravity and how fluid behaves would be able to conclude that with such a sump design, it would be impossible to remove all the oil from the car as it was. Normally you tilt the car to help push the oil towards the drain plug - but in this case, you would end up getting oil moving past the drain plug and collecting either side of it. Not the end of the world but certainly not ideal either. 

I began by jacking the car up to give me the most room... It was certainly a strange sensation to be working on the rear of the car for all of this =\

To my pleasant surprise though the oil filter was in an absolutely perfect position!!! No engines to reach around, no places for arms to get stuck, no hot exhaust manifolds to get burnt on... it just sits there ripe for the picking!

In the process of pulling it off however I managed to collect the 2 wires from the oil pressure sensor... whoops! I did a proper job of it too - wires pulled straight out of the terminals that were still sitting in the plug.

Thankfully I was able to extract the lot, and nothing was damaged to the point where it was going to require replacement. Putting my electronic engineering skills to use I re-attached the plugs, checked for continuity and re-assembled it all... Crisis averted!

While I was looking around the car checking things out, I found the fuel filter had a date scribbled on it - most likely the date it was put in. Very handy :) I think more people should do this, it would make servicing so much easier!

The next project for me was replacing the clutch fluid. While installing the amp I found the state of the clutch fluid both disgusting and incredibly concerning. You can see above just how black the fluid actually was (you are supposed to be able to see through it). The writing on the finger says it all! This is what I pulled out directly from the reservoir, to save me pushing all of this through the whole system whilst bleeding the clutch.

This is what it should look like. It's important when you're bleeding brake/clutch fluid that you sit the hose used for bleeding in more fluid, so that if the system manages to get negative pressure during this process, it's only pulling back fluid and not air.

This picture shows just how disgusting the fluid coming out actually was. You can see it exiting the bottom of the hose - it's thick, brown, and kind of resembles snot that comes from a child that's incredibly sick... but better out than in :) After nearly an hour of bleeding thanks to the engine being at the complete opposite end of the car in relation to the reservoir, I ended up with a clutch system that contained nothing but fresh fluid. What I wasn't prepared for though was the difference that the fresh fluid made to the pedal feel of the clutch! I didn't realise just how thick the old fluid was, and the effect it had on how heavy the clutch was. In hindsight it makes complete sense, as the clutch pedal simply pushes fluid around to move the clutch - but wow, what a difference! The pedal was lighter, the clutch action more defined, and a horrible shaking I once had was gone - winner winner, chicken dinner. Not bad for $10 of fluid and an afternoons work. On that note, it's about here where work on my car ceased and Kim's headaches began.


It all started with some dodgy valve stem seals. Kim had been blowing smoke out of his exhaust for quite some time, and it had been getting progressively worse. The likely cause was the valve stem seals weren't sealing correctly and the engine was burning oil - hence the smoke. What exactly is a valve stem seal you ask? In a nutshell it prevents oil from the top of the engine entering the combustion chamber where the fuel and air ignites and causes you to move. That doesn't seal properly, and you end up burning oil with the air and fuel, which while it isn't catastrophic, it certainly isn't ideal. With the right tool the job should take maybe an hour or 3, no more. Little did we know this was the start of 5 weeks of headaches...

Above is a row of valves (the black circles with the silver circle in the middle) and these are automatically opened and closed as the engine spins to allow the correct amount of air in to the cylinder. Without going into the whole theory on how an engine works, we were only interested in one of the many components at work here: 

You can see here the difference between old valve stem seal (right) and new (left). Yerp, that would certainly be the cause of 'yer fault right there! Although to be fair the old ones are destroyed as you pull them out... but trust me when I say they were knackered =P

We found a couple of interesting things along the way too - for one, the spark plugs are not meant to be swimming in oil! This kind of set the tone for everything that followed: things not being as they should...

Replacing the stem seals is actually pretty straight forward - provided you have the correct tool (which we did, thankfully). Unfortunately, valve #3 would not go back in, no matter what we tried. When we finally got it in, it wouldn't release. This was a pretty big problem... with the valve not moving, the engine would have one of its four cylinders doing nothing. The only way around this was to pull the head of the engine off... something neither of us particularly wanted to do, as it is a mammoth job to say the least. It's also something neither of us have ever attempted. What we do know is that everything has to get pulled off the engine, new gaskets are required, new bolts, the whole kit and caboodle. Luckily I own 2 cars, so undertaking such an ambitious job for the first time removed some of the time pressures as it meant Kim could still get around while we sorted this out.

You can see how the valve in the middle is wide open? Yeah. Big problem. For a number of reasons. First, no compression in that cylinder, so it's not possible to ignite the air and fuel to create the explosion that engines use to create power. Second, with the piston moving up and down thanks to the other cylinders still working, the likelihood of the piston hitting this valve became a certainty - and if the two collide, it's really bad news. Finally, it also meant there was no way we'd be able to repair it short of taking everything into a shop to get it pulled out and fixed by a professional... something that wasn't going to happen at 6 pm on a Friday afternoon. 

Kim conveniently had another head that was floating around which meant we could ditch this knackered head and put on a fresh one. He was originally saving it to build another engine, but at this point we had no choice but to use it. Thankfully it was all set up and cleaned and ready to go, so we took the opportunity to fix a few other things as well.

We did find this though... a bunch of oil sitting in cylinder 4! This also isn't normal... and would certainly explain why the engine was blowing so much damn smoke. It's pretty damn safe to say this engine was not loving life...

Needless to say our garage was a pretty sad sight and the mood sombre when we finally called it at about 9pm on Friday night... Half the engine gone, crap everywhere, nothing where it's supposed to be and the knowledge it wasn't really going to get better anytime soon... Gutted. The supposed 3 hour job just got a hell of a lot bigger.

The next day we did a massive supply run... yes beer certainly counts as supplies!! Fluids and oils were high on the list, as well as cleaning implements, specialty tools, new components where needed, and oil storage...

... because we go through a fair bit of oil at our place. These 20L buckets are great for it though, as it turns out the local tip allows you to dump 20 litres at a time - convenient! 

To say that the engine needed a good degrease was an understatement... 30 years of road dirt and leaking oil will do that!

Seeing the 2 heads side by side, I hope you don't need me to tell you which one was new =P It certainly made for an interesting comparison though, seeing one that had been fully acid dipped compared to one that has seen many, many years of use.

We set about transferring what components we needed from the old head to the new: head studs, various brackets and inlets/outlets, trying to get as much assembled as we could outside of the car.

Painting was also on the list, in the spirit of freshening everything up so it wouldn't need to be touched again for a while. The exhaust headers went from rusty rust to a nice matte black, and the tired blue on the engine covers became an anodized blue... I think it's scary how much we want to paint things... do we need help? Regardless, you cannot argue with the impact some painted items can have to something's overall appearance :)

From here we tried to make the most efficient use of our time. Kim started working on cleaning up the engine. Soaking up oil, removing the old head gasket, removing carbon where possible, basically anything he could think of to make the most of this opportunity...

... while I continued to attach various bits and pieces to the head. We used a spare engine block as a table, which gave me uninterrupted access to everything I needed. The thing spun too, which made accessing the bolts underneath very easy! I have to say, working on an engine outside of the car is so much nicer than dealing with cramped spaces, hot surfaces and an inevitable sore back... I just wish it was under better circumstances.

Beer always seems to make arduous tasks go faster, and make them more bearable :) Great work beer inventors!!

As we drew to the end of Saturday, things were starting to come together... The head (of the engine) was actually starting to look like an engine again. At least that's how I saw things, Kim was having a completely different experience!

He was busy taking the opportunity to sort out some teething issues with the gearbox that had been outstanding for some time. A while ago he replaced his gearbox with a newer item for the sake of getting gears that engaged freely and synchros that actually worked. For the record, synchros help bring the different gears up to speed as you change through them, to help alleviate the 'crunch' that happens as a slower gear mates with a faster gear.

Thankfully we had a tarp down underneath the engine... although I do feel sorry for Kim. He was the one that had to roll around in this disgusting oil/radiator fluid concoction that had pooled underneath the car, whereas I was able to lie on clean concrete and operate the jack from a distance while we sorted out the gearbox... yeah I was pretty smug about that!


Over the next few weeks, we attempted to piece the engine back together, trying to get it to a point where we could start the car. Headache after headache ensued, making sure there was always something that needed to be sorted out. In no particular order:

  • Thermostat was too big, so new thermostat had to be ordered
  • Thermostat housing cracked and sheared in 2
  • Gasket issues x 1,000,000,000 (all to do with the water pump)
  • O-rings not fitting correctly
  • Alternator belt sizing took a couple of attempts to get right
  • Perished hoses causing grief
  • Fuel rail o-rings
Long and short of it? It seemed like a list that grew more than it shrank, the goal of getting this thing started becoming more and more unobtainable.

Slowly but surely though it started coming back together...

... until one day we were finally at the stage where we were able to start her. Or at the very least, attempt to start her. There must have been a dozen attempts at getting her to start - no fuel, flat battery, leaking fluids etc. but thankfully nothing too serious. These are all normal teething issues as there's so much involved with working on engines that forgetting something is inevitable.

Eventually we got it to a point where it started - and boy did it sound rough. It sounded like a cross between a Subaru and a Lawn Mower on steroids! It was completely incapable of idling, and required constant attention so that it didn't stall. Check the video above... if you know anything about small 4 cylinder engines they're normally high-tuned screaming masterpieces. But, at least it started, and ran without blowing up :) That in itself was a massive accomplishment, and while it deserved a pat on the back, we were still a long way from a proper celebration.

And so the troubleshooting began... Adjusting the timing. Checking that the cam gears were set correctly. Making sure there were no vaccuum leaks. Ensuring the spark plugs were receiving a spark. Looking for fluid leaks. Seeing if all any sensor had been missed. Adjusting the timing again... and still no closer to making any headway. Nothing we did worked, so it was time to bust out the manual and dig deeper. The only thing that we were hoping for was that it was due to a rookie mistake we'd made along the way, as opposed to something seriously wrong with the engine.

The next thing was a compression check and lo and behold, no compression in cylinder 1! The good news was that the other cylinders all had perfect compression, so at least we knew once this problem was fixed, the engine would sing. Now that we knew what was wrong we could start digging deeper... We checked the torque settings on the engine head - all good. Kim noticed that one of the brackets holding the cam gear in was backwards, so that was swapped around, but no change. We then checked for valve clearances (the gap between the valve and the cam gear, which is responsible for actuating the valves). Toyota normally recommend a gap of 0.15-0.3 mm - so we're talking a bee's dick here... and on valve one, we had a gap of 0. What this meant was that the valve was being continuously held open - once again, air and fuel are not able to combust thanks to the cylinder not sealing properly. We tried swapping shims on the valve but it made absolutely no difference, so we decided to dig a little deeper...

... and found this. Rookie mistake :) WIN!!!! Originally, Kim had decided to replace the valve stem seals on the new engine head, as he had bought them and might as well use them - however after doing 3 he decided it was going to be a futile effort as the rest of the head was already in awesome condition. Lo and behold, one of the valve retainers accidentally got put in upside down. Whoops!!

After sorting that out, the engine went back together for the final time, and boy did she sing! So much tighter, so much more composed and the sound... absolutely awesome. We put the car fully back together and took her for a drive, and what a difference! The engine had a noticeable increase in both power and torque, in a car as light as Britney (Kim's AE86), that increase translated to a sublime driving experience. NOW it was time for those celebratory beers :) :)


A week on and we found a few more teething issues that will require some more attention, although hopefully not too many headaches. There were a couple of rattles that developed from a pretty hard shakedown, thankfully they only turned out to be loose bolts - nothing a bit of Loctite can't fix. She also has a bit of a high idle, but hopefully that's an easy fix as well. The main problem at the moment is the car overheats something shocking. We've noticed that the thermo fan in front of the radiator isn't running at all, but more importantly we let the car run for 40 mins, and the radiator hoses were rock hard. They were under that much pressure that some radiator fluid was actually starting to seep through the hose. Is it the water pump? Is it the thermostat? We have no idea... Alas it is Christmas, so this is a job for later. The good news is she starts, and runs, and moves under her own power. And most importantly, she doesn't blow smoke anymore :)


After that 5 week hiatus with Kim's car it was time to get back into mine. I must say it certainly is a nice feeling working on your own car again :)

While not necessarily a big modification ($8 from Autobarn), I found this cup holder that clips into your door card by hanging off the gap where your window sits. Voila! A cup holder in a holder-less car =P Sure it's not the prettiest thing, nor the most stable, but it works so I'm chuffed. The only real problem with it is because it sits in the window gap, if you put the window up it is capable of leaving a nasty scratch in your glass... bugger! Ah well, lesson learnt.

The big job for me was the brakes. It's been something I know I've needed to do ever since I bought the car, but due to time and money constraints it has always been put on the back burner. I set myself the goal of sorting them out before Christmas, so with 5 days to go I decided to pull my finger out of my ass and actually do something about it. After a quick inspection, I found that while the current brake pads still had some life in them, I knew they made a lovely groaning noise when cold, and the rotors where in dire need of being machined - time to do a full brake service.

I had no idea that things were this bad though! The idea with a brake rotor is to provide a fully uniform surface for the brake pads to work on... You can see on the photo above that there is actually a 1-2 mm lip on both the inside and outside of the rotor - I wouldn't want to even chance a guess at when they were done last. The problem with this is that the pad wears its own mark into the brake rotor over time, so if you put in new pads without sorting out the rotor surface, you will get a lot less life out of your brake pads, and also compromise your braking performance. It was to the extent that if you ran a finger nail across the surface of the rotor you could feel bumps and ridges everywhere =\ I had to laugh though, while trying to take everything apart (on a Friday night no less) I did make a pretty big booboo... I was trying to undo bolts and was baffled as to how tight some bolts were, only to find I actually had the ratchet set the wrong way.... *sheepish grin*

The next day I took the rotors to get machined. $80 and an hour and a half later, I had 4 fully fresh rotors ready to be put back onto the car :)

You can see just how much nicer this surface is compared to before. I do apologise, I should have actually gotten a photo of the rotors pre-machining in the day time so you could get a better idea of just how bad they were, but for all intents and purposes let's just say I was very much looking forward to getting these back onto the car!

The one thing I'm amazed with is how good the brakes are from the factory when Toyota made the car. The front rotor (in the foreground) is stupidly thick, and the rear rotor is actually larger in diameter than the front! In most braking setups the fronts are much bigger than the rear thanks to simple physics - as you brake, the weight in the car transfers to the front and therefore takes a lot more force to brake reliably and consistently, especially when you're driving hard. I'm guessing here it's a case of compensating for the change in dynamics that comes from sending the engine to the rear of the car... Either way I'm certainly not complaining, I won't need to upgrade rotor/calliper size for quite some time.

Pushing pistons back is always a fun job (not)... Effectively the piston is what actually moves when you press the brake pedal. As the pads wear down the piston comes out further and further, and simple common sense will tell you that if you try to put something larger into the same size gap it's simply not going to fit - you need to make the room. What has always baffled me though is the variety in setups I've come across over the years... even on the same car you need different tools/methods for the front and rear of the car, and the MR2 was no exception. This little silver tool I bought is a great addition to any tool set though - at under $10, it's a great way of pushing back pistons in callipers where the piston needs to rotate to retract. Plus it fits into a 3/8th" socket, so turning it is a breeze! Don't forget too to take a wire brush to the hub face before you put the rotor back on... the last thing you want is wheel wobble due to the rotor not sitting flat =P

You can see here the difference between the old brake pads (left) and the new (right). Much thicker, and actually stands a chance of wearing properly. FYI as you can see, the old pad had actually worn pretty badly on an angle - this is not normal at all. I'm hoping it was a case of poor workmanship from the previous mechanic, but I will have to keep an eye on this particular pad to see if the new ones wear the same. For those interested I went for a set of QFM HPX pads - I've used them on both Edna and Stacey and have been very happy with them. Great everyday driving performance while still standing up to the challenge of a much harder drive... a very good compromise in my opinion. They're also pretty damn good at not coating your wheels in brake dust, and are locally made here in Brisbane. Nothing like supporting local businesses - winning all around :)

Annoyingly enough the new pads for the rear of the car were missing some holes that held springs to help push the pads back apart after you release the brakes. It's a small gripe which was thankfully easy to overcome, even if I did go through 3 drill bits drilling these holes.

The pads were put back into the callipers, the rotors put back onto the hub and the callipers back onto the rotors. It's like that song 'The hip bone's connected to the, leg bone. The leg bone's connected to the, knee bone...' Or is that just me? At least you can see the springs I'm talking about! 

The front callipers were more or less exactly the same as the rear, although instead of using the wonderful multi-tool, these required a nice and crude block of wood and a clamp... just as effective but goes to show that it's far from a 'one size fits all' mentality. The one awesome bonus here is that the front callipers are actually 'twin-pots' - i.e. they have 2 pistons in them for better braking performance as opposed to just one on the rear. Love it! Thankfully the front pads at least had the holes for the springs drilled into them, which was awesome because I had run out of 2 mm drill bits =\

With everything back together it was time for the obligatory coat of paint. In my younger days it would have been yellow or red or something crazy to make them stand out, but I'm really starting to appreciate the improvement that subtlety can make to the appearance of the car. Gloss black it was :)

The finished product! From here it was a case of bleeding the brake lines to get rid of any air, but I also took the opportunity to completely replace the brake fluid. Thankfully brake fluid manufacturers are smart enough to produce 2 colours of the same specification fluid, so you can see once you've pushed all of the old fluid through the system. Wheels back on, car for a drive, yep so damn happy with the result! No noise, and the brake pedal has a much better feel too. I can't wait to put them properly to the test and see what they're capable of... but first things first I had to figure out why my handbrake isn't functioning properly... I got a rude surprise when I came outside and the car was sitting half on the road after rolling down the driveway by its own accord =\

Once again it was a venture into the multitude of plastic underneath the car. I eventually found the handbrake mechanism, which I thought was very strange because most handbrakes can be adjusted within the car itself. The one bright side was seeing a part of the car I hadn't seen before: the fuel tank, radiator hoses and various cables that ran down the centre console. The adjustment itself was pretty straight forward, tighten/loosen 2 locking nuts until I had it correct, without over tightening so that the brakes don't drag when the handbrake is off. Mission accomplished!!

I also took the liberty of capitalising on a sale and adding some seat covers. While I'll eventually get the seats re-bolstered or replaced (lumbar support is non-existent at the moment and is wreaking havoc with my back on longer drives), this is a great temporary fix for making the seats a little bit more comfortable whilst ditching the look that the lovely 90's carpet is able to provide. My belief has always been if you get more and more black in the interior (as opposed to faded navy with red and grey stripes), the interior becomes a much nicer place to be, and so far it has not let me down. The other issue I was hoping to address was how hot the seats get if left in the sun. Fingers crossed with a different kind of fabric they don't retain too much heat!

The final thing I wanted to sort out before Christmas was this - the power window module. What about it you ask? Well something quite small actually, while the drivers side has auto-down functionality, it does not have auto up.

Luckily for me (and all over MR2 owners), the circuit board is already set up for this! For some reason, Toyota decided to allow this functionality but not actually implement it. Bizarre! Using my electronic engineering skills (and also the help of an online DIY guide), all I had to do was add a Diode to the circled location and Voila!! Auto-up for the drivers window for the grand total of 10 cents.

Unfortunately I didn't read everything the guide properly and pulled the module apart more than I needed to... which resulted in the switch hardware (springs, rocker switches and plastic clicky bits) going everywhere... It took me the better part of 2 hours to figure out how everything went back together, and in the process I wrecked one of the springs so now I don't have the power window lock functionality. Not a great loss... I'll be honest I'll probably never use that functionality in the MR2 at all, but still it was a headache I could have easily avoided - especially given that it took me 5 attempts to get all the switches to work correctly. After a lot of persistence and a bit of cursing, I eventually got everything back together and it all worked! Needless to say I am luuuuurrrrvvving it :) I must admit I'm a big fan of these easy mods to get functionality that the manufacturer didn't intend you to have. Another great example is in my X-Trail.. I have steering wheel controls that have the capability to be lit up but for some reason they never implemented it in Australia. One wire and 30 minutes later and I can now see my steering wheel controls at night. Ah sometimes I love being an engineer :)

Well, I think I'm going to leave it there for the year!! What a journey it has been... from the headaches with Stacey to the headaches with Britney and the interesting shenanigans with Tegan/The Custard Pod. All I know is seeing this car in the garage, jumping into her and taking her for a drive... it always puts a smile on my face :) and that's what makes it all worth it.

To everyone reading this... Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! See you all next year!!!