Where I Should Have Stopped

A few weeks ago, I sold the one constant thing in my life for the past four years. While it was a hard decision to make, it was the right thing to do if I was every going to preserve my truly southern Jeep while living in upstate New York. Its now vacant parking space has left me with a set of juxtaposed emotions that would leave any gearhead spinning – what do I buy next?

My old 1999 Jeep Cherokee XJ Ruby. This was her “fuck you” side.

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New York to Windrock: Prologue

As a wheeler, or someone who partakes in off road activities with a motorized vehicle, your hobby is often defined by your surroundings. The goal of modern infrastructure and bureaucracy is to eliminate what you find appealing – near destitute areas with landscape in need of low range and contemplation – so you tend to post up in more rural facets of America than a mecca of hipsters and iPhones. Knoxville, Tennessee is borderline as it houses a large, state-supported university, old money, new money, and good old fashion rednecks all within a 20 mile radius. Plus, on its outskirts are a number of dedicated areas where other wheelers can gather and talk about off roading before driving off road, all without bothering ordinary people and their iPhones. It’s a nice place for gearheads who like to go slow rather than fast.

Wild Wild West Knoxville

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The Camry Conundrum – Why Every Gearhead Should Make Friends with One

Let me make one thing clear – the Toyota Camry is by zero means an enthusiast vehicle.  It doesn’t matter how many “Sport” badges, fog lights, lower body moldings, or paddle shifters are added, the midsize Japanese namesake simply does not have the panache to match even the the slowest motion handbrake turn an edgy commercial can capture. Despite the car’s vanilla demeanor, there is a big question mark surrounding the Camry and its relationship to the people with grease under their fingernails who’d rather ignore it – why are we ignoring it? Isn’t it time we put aside our differences and tap into the Camry’s potential?

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Project Hot Rod Apocalypse Part 2 – Skip to The Middle

Two years after taking over responsibility for Ruby, she now looks at me with glassy eyes and a bruised face – but that’s mostly from pushing her into a tree… er, three trees. Whatever the number of trees this Jeep has hit, I still own it and have sunk so much money into fixing and upgrading various parts that I now have a slightly worse truck than when I first bought it.

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Here’s the abridged story of how Ruby, the 1999 Jeep Cherokee, first went from a SUV to a questionable deathtrap smile machine.

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Can You Have a Car for Your Entire Life?

Recently, I received an email from a good friend asking,

“So, theoretically, you can have a car for your entire life. But, from a practical perspective, how likely is it that if everything is done right and the car is not involved in any accidents, that one could in fact keep a vehicle for their entire life?”

Let’s look at that first part – can you have a car for your entire life? The simple answer is yes. Take for example Irv Gordon. In 1966, the Long Island native purchased a Volvo P1800 brand new and now, the retired teacher continues to drive it everyday. To anyone, fifty years of uninterrupted operation can safely be considered a lifetime.

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Now for the second part – how likely is it? Is Irv Gordon just a rare case? The sad truth is, such a milestone of vehicle longevity isn’t as likely with today’s automotive offerings. Older vehicles, like Irv’s Volvo, are are up to the task of outlasting you because they have less parts that can break catastrophically. The P1800 used as an example doesn’t have an engine computer and its fuel delivery system is mechanical. Everything is mechanical and all Irv does is maintain it. It’s possible to replicate Irv, but rare given the increased complexity of modern cars and trucks.

“Okay, so it’s possible. I’m assuming though that someone would need to have the means and knowledge to fix the car and then use it frequently if they wanted to keep it that long.”

Having the means and knowledge to fix a car just means your repair bills will be lower. For any car to last a long time, it needs to be maintained and it doesn’t matter who does it. Simple items like fluid changes and nearly instantaneous repairs of mechanical faults can prolong the life any vehicle. Oddly enough, so can regular use.

Irv’s Volvo has more than three million miles and that might be the key to its health. Think about this: by being an active person and not a sedentary one, people are able to lower their risk of developing diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle- like diabetes. The same ideas apply to a car. It takes in air and fuel just like we do and when we’re idle, joints fuse together and we become “out of shape.” The same is for a car. The p1800 is pretty enough to be locked away but if it was, it wouldn’t be as reliable as Irv’s.

“Okay, but in terms of practicality, how often would major parts need to be replaced? In one’s lifetime, would the parts become impossible to find?”

Replacing major parts depends on the build quality of said major parts. You’d be more likely to keep an older Honda Civic for your entire life than say, a Land Rover. Unless the car was built in unnecessarily low numbers, you also shouldn’t have an issue finding parts. Volvo P1800s aren’t that abundant after all. If one was to try and replicate Irv, it would be wise to pick a vehicle built in high volume – like an older Honda Civic.

“So, if an older car, say 12- to 15-years-old, came into your possession that was in decent condition, and you had the desire to extend its life beyond normal expectations, what parts/problems/issues would you direct your attention to first? What factors would be your first concern?”

Personally, I’m doubtful to ever own a vehicle that’s less than 10-years-old and currently, my fleet consists of a 2000 Honda Civic and a 1999 Jeep Cherokee. Both serve entirely different purposes but both are intended to outlast me – even if I ever part ways with them. I’m going to use these as an example to answer the question.

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The Civic came into my life in December 2014 with 177,000 miles. Today, it has 197,000 and I intend for this car to see 300,000 miles before I ever consider a major repair or replacement. My plans to get to that goal are minor such as drive it and change its fluids. Listen to it. Address any weird noises and determine if they’re detrimental to the car’s functionality. The reason for the simplicity in maintenance and upkeep is the car was so well made 15 years ago and so well maintained by the previous owner (my sister) that even with a slight oil and exhaust leak, it runs like it just rolled off the factory floor. This is where original build quality plays a role as major as general upkeep.

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The Jeep is a bit different and perhaps a better illustration of what one could do to extend a vehicle’s life. Now, Cherokee XJs are notorious for being tough as nails, but anyone who has ever owned one knows that despite reliability, overall build quality is, after all, pure Chrysler. Knowing this, I make sure to change its oil, differential fluid, transfer case fluid, transmission fluid and coolant as recommended, or when I “feel” a change is warranted.

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U-joints get replaced the moment they make noise. If I feel an irritating vibration, I address it. Engine mounts, the transmission mount and even driveshafts have been replaced. At one moment, the truck’s cooling system began running at operating temperature if not higher. A new thermostat, flushed radiator, and new cooling fan with an auxiliary switch was installed. All the aftermarket parts on the Jeep were picked because of their higher than factory quality.

Jeep 4.0 Thermostat Change

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People can poke fun at Jeeps, but mine has been the most reliable vehicle I’ve ever owned – especially given the abuse I’ve put it through. Mind you, this is a vehicle that has hit three trees, bounced off rocks, stalled in mud, and driven in places where it shouldn’t wisely be driven. Bought with 129,000 miles, two and a half years later it has 163,000 and will start at the first lick in single-digit temperatures. I have zero doubts that it will follow in the path of Jan Richey‘s 1988 Jeep Cherokee with more than 600,000 miles on the original engine.

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Keeping a car for your entire life is possible, but it depends on your dedication to general maintenance and the vehicle’s willingness to survive. Because most newer cars have had their personalities engineered out of them, my suggestion is to buy an old Honda Civic, give it a name, and watch it outlast you.

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Three Questionable Names at the 2016 NAIAS

Today marks the second day of the North American International Auto Show 2016 and with it, automakers from around the globe have unveiled their next superstars, volume leaders, unknown concepts, and ground-breaking technologies. As a skeptic with an affinity for vehicles unveiled at the 1962 Detroit Auto Show, here’s a snippet of unbiased truth aimed at three of the 2016 NAIAS’s hottest vehicles.

Ford’s Raptor – will it off road? 

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In 2004, Jeep built what would almost instantly be known as the most capable, factory off road passenger vehicle ever – the Wrangler Rubicon. Since then, Ford has been scrambling to overthrow the king with the F-Series Raptor. Born around 2010, the Raptor has battled the Rubicon on internet forums for years, but on the trails, the Jeep hits more trees, bangs more rocks, and finds new summits more often than the lifted Ford. The reason is simple – the Jeep is simple. Six years ago, the Raptor had fairly straight forward running gear with a basic 5.4 liter V8 and some high-quality Fox Racing dampers. Now, the 2017 Raptor with its four full doors will sport a 10-speed automatic transmission, a twin-turbo 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6, and a torque-on-demand transfer case with Terrain Management System. While exciting on paper, a truck marketed as an off roader for pedestrians should be simple as there won’t be a hundred-thousand dollar support team to fix anything that breaks.

Here’s the problem with the 2017 Raptor: it’s too complicated for its own good. Off road equipment needs to be simple, strong and dependable. Chances of things breaking are high when push comes to trail and repairs needs to be possible with basic hand tools and a high-lifat jack. The Raptor seems like a complete nightmare to work on at a fully-equipped shop, let alone trail 60 at Windrock ORV park. While the Rubicon has advanced since 2004, it still remains with solid, Dana 44 axles that anyone can upgrade and repair, a standard, multi-port engine and standard, 5- or 6- speed transmissions, and a standard, two-speed transfer case that is manually actuated. If these seem crude to you by 2016 standards, it’s because you don’t off road. The Raptor probably won’t either.

Chrysler Pacifica – Bring Back Pluto

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In the 2000s, when Chrysler and Daimler still sat at the dinner table together, a crossover was created as a “merger of equals.” It was called the Pacifica and it quickly could be found at most Enterprise, Hertz and other rent-a-car establishments around the nation. Annual sales were projected to reach 100,000 units, but higher prices, questionable quality and poor performance lead to those numbers struggling to be reached. In fact, the last full year it was produced, the Pacifica barely broke half of its targeted figure.

Why bring up a failure of Chrysler’s past? Because FCA, the brand’s Italian parent company, has decided to throw away a name established nearly 30 years ago to revisit a name no one wants to remember. For 2017, the time-tested and well-loved Town & Country will be dropped in favor of the Pacifica, a potentially game-changing minivan that will alter the entire segment. Chrysler knew going into this the gamble they would make by renaming a beloved vehicle and ignoring the history of their brethren, i.e. when Ford renamed the Taurus the 500 and then the Taurus again. Even if the Pacifica will be great, Minivan shoppers buy based off word-of-mouth, or, name loyalty. Playing around with the name Town & County and soon, Caravan, is a recipe for a complete overhaul with marketing, money spent and probably, money lost.

The Honda Ridgeline – Repeat Offender 

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Truck owners battle each other, but at the end of the day, even Tundra owners can get behind the collective hate of the Honda Ridgeline. Sized comparably to the Toyota Tacoma, the Honda “truck” was essentially a Pilot with a bed small enough for a lawn mower and annual sales to match. At its lowest, 2011, the Ridgeline found less than 10,000 new owners and for 2017, Honda plans to revamp the name with… the exact same formula.

When you challenge conventional thinking in the U.S. pickup truck market, you’re going to fail. Even when Ford and Jeep did it in the 60s and 80s respectively, their unibody trucks were left to the history books. While the new Ridgeline may look tough, it is still based off a front-wheel drive platform and will even come standard as a FWD model. Weight transfer is apparently lost on Honda and the 2017 Ridgeline will surly continue to be outsold by pre-owned Tacomas.

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Car Tech: The Subaru Headgasket.

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The Subaru boxer engine is a very unique machine. Its flat design layout and odd firing order give it the feel and sound of absolute legends. Unfortunately, certain variations of the boxer engine do carry some undesirable traits and none are more pressing than the head gasket issue that plagues the Phase I EJ25. This engine, which was Subaru’s first DOHC EJ series four cylinder, can be found in the second generation Legacy GT sedans and wagons (96-99) as well as the Outbacks of similar vintage. Even though it was innovative, light (due to its all aluminum construction) and enjoyed being revved, Subaru must have been excessively drunk on sake when they decided to install the gaskets that separate coolant and oil. The OEM head gaskets on the EJ25D have a tendency to fail just as much as the sun has a tendency to rise in the east. If you have one and the head gaskets have NOT been replaced, here is what you need to do to remedy a tragedy.

First things first, you must decide whether or not to do the job with the engine in or out of the car. Now, it is possible to do this with the engine still mounted in place, but in all honesty, it isn’t worth it. The trouble you might save will just come back to bite you in the butt. It is best to remove the engine as this way you have a lot more room to work and you can accomplish a few more maintenance issues while you’re at it. I hate to say it, but if you have any doubts (and I mean ANY) about pulling the engine, you do not need to be doing a head gasket job yourself. Save up for a shop (average head gasket job is $1200 total).

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(Please note: the engine being pulled in the first few pictures is a single cam EJ22)

Pulling a Subaru engine is actually fairly simple. The Legacy/Outback bell-housing (connection of engine to transmission) has eight bolts. There are another two bolts for the engine mounts and a total of six for the exhaust headers. That’s 16 bolts to be unbolted and your engine is free. To start, disconnect the fuel pump sender to relieve the fuel pressure (attempt to start the car with this disconnected to “flush out the fuel”), remove the accessories (alternator, power steering pump and air conditioner) as well as the air box/intake.

Drain the coolant (lower radiator hose works fine) and make sure that when you remove the intake components to label (or take a mental picture of) the vacuum line system. This will be vital when putting everything back together. It seems best to remove the intake manifold while you are at it, but this is not a must. It will free up space and let’s face it; the EJ25D is a big engine.

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With the accessories, intake components, fuel and radiator disconnected, you can begin removing the bolts that hold the engine in place. The engine mounts are simple enough and I’d advice to jack the car up a little to allow some working space. You can easily spot these two bolts on the cross-member. While under the car, remove the exhaust bolts on the headers (PB Blaster is your friend). Once these are all disconnected, you can tackle the bell-housing bolts. The lower passenger bolts can be accessed from the top (as well as the upper bolts) but the lower driver side bolt is best accessed via underneath. We found it to be easiest (if there ever is such a thing) to remove the driver side tire so a plethora of extensions can gain access to the bolt.

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I’m going to state this one more time: if anything in the above two paragraphs seems foreign to you, you do not need to be doing this job. Learning is great, but there is a reason most of us start out small. This is a big job and if done wrong, can turn your engine into an all aluminum paper weight.

With the engine unbolted, it will take some convincing to be removed. If you have access to a jack, this can be used to leverage the transmission away from the engine while it is being pulled by the hoist. Position the jack under the transmission and then bolt up the engine to the hoist. Depending on what type of hoist you are using, you can use common sense as to where to bolt the hooks to the block. Make sure nothing will strip or cause damage to the block when stress is applied. And remember, this isn’t a race: take your time.

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So, your engine is out and on an engine stand (or dangling in the wind if you’re lazy/cheap), now what? Get some sleep because you’ve got some real concentration ahead of you. Gather your tools and set up a clean area to safely place the long block components.

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If you removed the intake manifold already, the next step is to remove the heads.  This means removing the timing belt: this is where it can get kind of scary. The timing belt IS the most vital aspect of this engine and must be removed properly. Gain access to it by removing the crank pulley and the front timing belt cover. This will allow you set the timing safely so no damage will be caused to the valves and pistons. A Haynes/Chilton or the FSM will be your greatest asset here: follow each step TO THE DOT.

Once you have the crank pulley and timing belt cover removed, you can properly set the timing so the pistons are fully recessed inside the cylinder walls. There are two marks on the crank sprocket: one for Top Dead Center and another for recession. DO NOT set the timing to Top Dead Center: this could cause the valves to open and “kiss” the piston tops, potentially bending the valves. The cam sprockets have timing marks as well to indicate the recessed setting. When this setting is achieved (and you’ve double checked and double checked again) you can begin to remove the timing belt itself.

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(Picture source: Warrior, SL-i.net)

Removing the inner tension pulley will allow for the timing belt to be safely removed so the crank and camshafts stay in place. Work from one end of the belt to the other and be very gentle: this isn’t a race. Once the belt is removed, the camshafts must now be taken out in order to reach the head bolts.  Start by removing the cam sprockets which is another task that is made easier by an assistant. There are camshaft locking tools out there that will hold the sprockets in place while the bolt is removed, but they come at a cost. With a heavy-duty crescent wrench held by a strong-armed friend placed on the hex portion of the camshaft itself, the cams should stay in place while you attack the sprocket bolts. This will take a few attempts, but it should work. Start with the passenger side head first as this side is not under pressure. The driver side cams however are, due to the cam lobs holding the valves open.  If the camshafts are rotated too much, the release of that pressure will send the cams in frenzied rotation. This can be dangerous if the engine’s timing is set to TDC because the valves can potentially interfere with the pistons. But, if the timing is set right, you will not need to worry too much.  Do each camshaft one at a time and make sure that if they need to be rotated that they are done so in the proper direction.  (See picture).

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With the camshaft sprocket removed, it now becomes fairly straight forward.  Remove the camshaft journals (two for each cam) and then carefully remove the camshafts themselves.  The lifters will probably want to slide out, so be careful not to allow them to simply drop out.

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Set the cams, lifters, and journal caps neatly aside and label everything so it all gets put back in the exact location it came from. Next, go for the head bolts. These are aluminum heads, so they might make a funny noise but that is normal. Make sure to organize these too as each bolt must go back in its original location. This is all that holds your heads from the block itself.

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Once removed, you will clearly see the gasket. In the pictures provided, it is obvious that the OEM gaskets are not up to snuff, even on a low mileage engine as the one pictured. It is a complete mystery as to why Subaru would manufacture these this way, but it now seems to be water underneath the bridge. With your engine torn down to its short block, now is the time to have everything inspected. Make sure the heads are not warped in any way and check the pistons and cylinder walls for any abnormal wear. You should be able to still see and or feel the cross-hatching on the cylinder walls and the tops of the pistons can be cleaned in a careful manner.

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Work backwards to install everything back as it should be: making sure to follow the 8-step torque process to reinstall the heads. The cams should be properly aligned and a new timing belt should be installed with the absolute correct number of teeth from each timing mark to next.

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