Project Auto Recycler Part 2 - DIY on a dime

Recycling an old car is hands-on, including the time spent on the keyboard doing internet research. But what seems overwhelming at first is not so bad when you look at the big picture: the right car already exists; you just have to buy it and fix it and there's no car payment.
datsun 510 wagon
photos by Eric Simpson
by Amanda Savercool

Part I of Project Auto Recycler showed off the dirty under-hood of my 1971 Datsun 510 wagon, a "before" look at saving, not scrapping, an old car.

It's easy to understand why the "Cash for Clunkers" program might make sense when you see a car like this wagon chugging along in the slow lane, spewing black smoke, emblazoned with a Slayer sticker reminiscent of its more youthful days. But when you consider the environmental cost of a new production vehicle, and compare it along with the monetary cost of fixing up an old car, keeping a car out of the crusher starts to make more sense.

Overview

Everything with an old car is hands-on, including the time spent on the keyboard doing internet research. This can be the down side to recycling a car–whether you do the bulk of the work yourself or pay someone else to do it, you still have to line up all of the details. But what seems overwhelming at first is actually not such a big task when you look at the big picture: the right car already exists; you just have to buy it, fix it, and drive it until it doesn't owe you anything. With no car payment, you don't owe anything either.

rebuilt datsun 510 engine

Now for some details about those costs—first in time and money, the ones we feel directly. If the chosen car is the right one, it will re-use parts and thus reduce waste while transforming the junk yard, swap meet, and internet forum into a thrift store shopping trip. My Datsun wagon cost $2,500 from an auto swap meet, and came powered by a recycled late-'70s engine from another Datsun and a transmission I could carry home in the hatch. I hadn't a clue what to do with the thing.

That engine, as it became apparent, was leaking from every seal and ring, and the valves sounded like a handful of marbles in the dryer. I think it got somewhere around 18 mpg. I talked to people about it on forums, from clubs, at swap meets. I happened to work with a legend in the Datsun Geek Squad back in the day and he hooked me up with parts. I had the five-speed transmission installed by a Carlos at Classic Auto Repair, who worked at Sun Datsun in SoCal back in the day and was willing to do the repairs. It's too involved to recount all the details, but the point is, do-it-yourself driving requires spinning a web then waiting for the all the details to stick.

engine in back of truck

With the machine shop picked out, I dropped the engine off for a $1,200 rebuild. I chose the place based on recommendation from another Datsun fanatic, but also because I didn't have to source any of the parts myself—these guys rebuild these engines all day, and have all the parts needed lying about. With the bulk of the work out of my hair, I set about collecting all the other necessary parts.

Pros – The sum of its parts

When it comes to the "right" old car, such as my Datsun, you will find many passionate, knowledgable experts. You will also find, however, that everyone has an opinion since there are many different ways to go about playing Frankenstein. Some enthusiasts are engineers who can recite information about the car like a Chilton's manual. We beginners love these people, especially when the car doesn't start and you're left banging your head against the hood.

Keep in mind, however, that oftentimes you will receive advice about the perfect way to fix something–the way you "should" do it. In my case, I'm not building a race car, or even trying to be the best 510 at a show. I'm on a budget, and want to make a daily driver out of a gross polluter. For instance, most people would tell you that while the engine is out, you should go have the bay painted. Well, that probably costs over $1000, but a little scrubbing, heavy sanding on the really rusty parts, and buying a can of primer and color-matched spray paint costs $33. Behold, the before and after (please ignore the melted strut cap, the real improvement is the elimination of rust down low).

engine bay before and after

The transmission handed to me with the car ended up needed a rebuild, and when it finally fell apart, I discovered the parts were very hard to find. Transmission replacement in a recent production vehicle usually means thousands of dollars. With my Datsun, however, finding parts like these means going back to the forums, and finding the guy who has it in the back of his garage or shed. That's how I found transmission for $175. With the engine in the shop, I had the old radiator resealed, cleaned, and painted at a local radiator shop for $50.

datsun starter

I went down to the local auto parts warehouse and spent $36 on a new starter, $25 on a new fuel pump, $12 on a clutch part, and $250 on every single hose, clamp, wire, plug, filter, belt, fluid and oil I needed to put the engine back in. All that adds up to $550, making for a grand total of $1,750 in parts before installing. Add in a bit more if you want to pay someone to put it all together. In my case it was a mixture: I ended up paying someone $300 to finally get it started. Once it fired up, I've driven it every day since without any spewing of old-car smog.

Cons – The Five and Dime will nickel and dime

Of course, my work here is not done, and truth is, it will never be done. Now that I have a strong engine, things like suspension and brakes go to the top of the to-do list. The wiring in the car is a tangled nightmare. Also, I haven't figured in the cost of all the "little" things–repairs you have to do monthly, sometimes weekly, when the "extra" noises become louder and impossible to ignore. You can't keep track of those things, because you will nickel and dime yourself to insanity. But none of those costs outweigh a monthly car payment. And if you pay attention, your "new car" will not leave you stranded. That's the major downside to driving an old car: you must be in a constant state of awareness.

After I've done some more extensive motoring with my new-old engine, I will give you the long-term wrap up in the next installment. With some tuning, added creature comforts and styling touches, my Datsun 510 wagon will get much more than the usual thumbs-up on the freeway–it should get better gas mileage!

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