I stood in the tiny gravel lot behind my apartment building, staring in appalled disgust at my 2002 WRX wagon, my dream car. My dreams were dead. The wagon had betrayed me, locking its engine, and I was so broke from the previous repairs that I couldn’t afford to fix anything else. I would have to sell it. The next few days were raw, desperate, and depressed. I needed a car. Through red-rimmed eyes I scanned Craigslist, looking to replace my car not with another WRX, that was out of the question, but with another copy of the best car I’ve ever owned: A 1990 Honda Accord Coupe with a manual. Those had been the good days, when the most work a car had needed was an oil change or new brake pads. But I found nothing. All Accords were either carbureted, out of my price range, or worse: automatic. I was downgrading, not retiring, and the last thing you need when you’re depressed about losing a car is to drive an automatic. As the days passed, I broadened my search. Anything. Nothing. Then I found a car. A temporary car. A beater, to get me through a financial rough patch. And now I want to keep the little punk forever. What happened? How did I get here?
Sometimes love takes time.
When I bought this ’87 Honda CRX Si, it didn’t matter that the body was in such bad shape, that it didn’t want to stop, or that the steering wheel rested at a perfect 45 degrees off center. It ran, and I (sortof) had the cash to buy it. But I wasn’t thrilled. Yes, I had always wanted a CRX. Who hasn’t? But it drove like crap, I didn’t know anything about the early Honda fuel injection (only the Si models were injected, with the other trim levels settling back on trusty carbs), and I was worried I couldn’t keep it on the road. That’s what I told myself. Really I just missed my wagon. I hadn’t managed to sell it yet, and the rotting carcass still sat in that gravel lot, reminding me of what I could have had, if I’d been richer.
With shaking hands, I started to prep the car to pass the Missouri state “safety” inspection, which ranges from NASA-stringent to “Bubba says you’re good,” depending on who you know. But even Bubba tests the horn, and mine wasn’t working. After a fuse check, I pulled the old horn off and tested it on a battery. Silence. Since I had to fix it that day, I ran to the parts store and bought a cheap horn (a little more time and I would have ordered one of our excellent Hella Supertone units). Two wires and a bolt, and it beeped merrily again.
That’s when I began to feel a peculiar warmth. You’ve felt it when you’ve fed a stray dog or put a Band-Aid on a kid. I had just cared for this car, and however pragmatic my motives, it felt rewarding. I thrust my fists in the air and put on my best Clarkson impression: “I’VE MENDED SOMETHING!” By some miracle of science or magic, I passed the inspection, and I set to work keeping the CRX roadworthy. It was still in terrible shape. It ran poorly, the brakes were bad, and it spat oil. Okay, I can do this. I replaced the valve cover gasket.
I finally sold the Subaru, paid off what I still owed on it, paid my friend back for the cash loan for the Honda, and paid the government all the money I owed them for the right to own a car. (I was about two years behind on my
extortion payments property taxes.) The car left and my landlady was happy again. I was broke again.
Things were still bad, even after I gave the Honda a tune up. This car just hadn’t been cared for. It was supremely out of alignment and the tires were bald, some more than others. Then there was the rust. Wheel arch rust is familiar territory for old Hondas, but the disease had spread. I learned this when I jacked up the car to check on the rear brakes, which were making a weird noise. A weirder noise was the crunch the jack point made when it collapsed upward, cracking a fuel return line and leaking go juice all over the parking lot. My landlady was no longer happy.
My fragile car guy confidence shattered anew, and I fell back into Condition Orange Panic Mode. I’d have to sell this thing, and quick. The rust was bad. Really bad. Why hadn’t I looked before I’d bought the thing? Why hadn’t the seller told me? (We ask ourselves stupid questions in situations like this.) Who would even buy it? No one. Not with a busted fuel line that doubled as a fire hazard. There was nothing left to do but fix it.
I rode my bicycle to the parts store and bought a tiny tubing cutter, some rubber fuel hose, and some clamps. After a few calls to my uncle, who lives two states away but is a master mechanic, I somehow fixed the line. The leak stopped. Over the next few days, the heady smell of raw gas even dissipated from the cabin. And there was that warmth again. That reward. I think it was that fuel line repair that convinced me to keep this thing, at least for a little while.
I won’t say it was fun to drive. Not yet. The suspension, steering, and tires were still in horrible shape, and even with stock power, which I’m sure it wasn’t making, the little D15 1.5 liter four only made 91 hp. It was slow, floated like a ’70s Cadillac, and slid all over the road. If you think you can’t make tires spin with 91 hp, you need some like these.
I made a few repairs over time. As I looked for replacement parts, I began to realize how rare these cars are. We’ve all seen CRXs, even Si models. But to the car, every CRX I’ve seen on the road has been a second generation car, 1988-1991. These were far more popular than the 1984-1987 first generation. Second gen cars have front coil springs rather than torsion bars, steel fenders instead of plastic, and a much more powerful and tunable D16 engine. Some even had a B16 V-TEC (yo). Second gen CRXs became the go-to first car for the Fast and Furious generation. As a result, many were riced, raced, or otherwise destroyed beyond recognition, but there were plenty to go around. Honda made over 250,000 of them. But they never released production numbers for the first generation, and it is estimated that the US saw relatively few. Fewer still in Si trim.
As this impression of rarity solidified, I began to feel not only a desire, but also a responsibility. There aren’t many of these left. If I sold it to some bonehead kid, he would run it into the ground, wrap it around a telephone pole, or try to tape it together with flame decals and tribal tattoo stickers from Pep Boys. I was a member of the global automotive enthusiast community, and they had given me so much. I couldn’t throw that in their faces by selling off such a neat little find to some behoodied miscreant who would only send it to the crusher. After all, there’s a Petrolicious video about this car. There are none of those about my WRX.
About the same time, I started taking a Dave Ramsey financial management course. Dave hates car payments. So did I, after the WRX. He recommends driving a beater until you can save up the cash to buy the car you want. You might have to learn to work on it a little, and put up with some discomfort, but you’ll save big. Well, I already had the beater taken care of. That sealed the deal. I could fulfill my responsibilities to gearheads and to my wallet at the same time I was keeping the CRX.
Getting to Work
But it would need some work if I was going to keep it on the road forever. First I had to deal with the tires. They were downright dangerous, and if I’m saying they’re dangerous, you’d say they were mass murderous. But I knew that if I bought new tires, they’d only be erased in a third of their lifespan by the horrific alignment. And to get the car properly aligned, it would need suspension, steering, and drivetrain components. And if I was pulling the CV axles, I might as well swap the failing clutch. I made a plan, saved up, and began to stock parts in my garage for The Big Job. I would have to do everything all at once, because, as you recall, this was my only car.
I took care of a few minor things, Hella Optilux headlight bulbs and Anco Contour wipers in the interim, but soon my parts stack was complete: Front shocks, rear struts, tie rod ends, an inner tie rod, CV axles, front control arms, front wheel bearings, rear wheel hub and bearing assemblies, a clutch, flywheel, oil pan gasket, rear main seal, and the car’s only performance mod, poly bushings from Energy Suspension. Plus oil and a filter, and oil of a different weight for the transmission. And two service manuals. And zerk fittings for the bushings. And other things, probably. I was going to knock all of it out between Thursday afternoon and Monday morning. I did not.
In fact, my efforts to install the rear parts: struts, hubs, and swing arm bushings, stalled out to cover the whole weekend. Did I mention the rust? Rust hampered and slowed the entire process. I quickly learned the value of drenching everything in PB Blaster an hour before I would work on it. I ended up cutting metal until my garage looked like Chinese New Year. A borrowed angle grinder became my best friend. I still haven’t gotten the left swing arm bushing in there.
Okay, take two. The following weekend I tore into the front end. More rust. Torn boots. Filth. Surprisingly stable wheel bearings. The right side sway bar end link looked to have broken around 2003 and had since sharpened itself into a handy prison shiv. The shift arm spring pin refused to come out, and I broke a C clamp trying to dislodge it.
But for the most part, things went smoothly. I removed the transmission in the middle of the night, the second time I had done that, but the first time I’d done it by myself. I lost a great deal of sleep, but I kept my parts, tools, and hardware well organized, for once, and by Saturday morning I had gone all the way down to the rear main seal, which keeps the oil from draining out around the engine’s output shaft. Some fighting pressed it in, and I bolted up my shiny new flywheel.
I was mounting the clutch when I realized I’d forgotten something. Right. The pilot bearing. The transmission’s input shaft passes through the clutch to rest in the flywheel, and the pilot bearing reduces friction between shaft and flywheel. Sometimes there’s a bushing instead, but there’s always something. I pulled off the clutch and got ready to press in the new pilot bearing that came with the Exedy clutch kit. It wouldn’t fit. In fact, there wasn’t even space for one. The hole in the center of the flywheel was just big enough for the output shaft. No pilot bushing.
I lost a couple of hours looking for another flywheel. I thought of milling out the center of the wheel, but there are no machine shops open on Saturdays. Machinists are all at home working on their own rusty Hondas. In short, I decided to have my old flywheel resurfaced, and I didn’t get it back until Wednesday. I borrowed rides, rode my bike, and didn’t get the Honda back on the road until the following Monday, and I lost so much sleep working on the car that I caught a cold.
But by the mighty rusted pillars of Honda heaven, did it feel better to drive. Especially after I got my new tires and alignment that Monday. I had a new car.
Well, not really. It was still ugly, it squeaked like mad, and a vacuum leak persisted despite my best efforts to find it with a can of carb cleaner. But now it was running, it was reliable, and it could take me anywhere. As long as it didn’t rust in half first. Driving it home from the alignment that day, I knew I needed to keep this car, not just while I got rid of my debt, not just temporarily. Forever. I would someday do a complete, frame-off restoration of the little monster. I would take the unibody down to the metal, have the rust repaired, and rebuild it bolt for bolt.
Someday. For now, I just needed to keep it on the road, and maybe do something about the looks. I got a chance for that early last month, and with all this momentum working on it, I knew I needed to take it.
A first gen CRX’s side skirts, fenders, and header panel (the panel between the headlights) are made of plastic. Or maybe that white crust you find around the joints of very old copper pipes in musty basements. The stuff that dissolves into negative matter when you touch it. This meant the car was very light, at just over 1,800 lbs. It also meant that the last of these panels shattered against an overconfident deer somewhere in Pennsylvania during the second Clinton administration. They are impossible to find. Fiberglass reproductions are available, but with demand so low, the company that makes them does so one at a time, and they’re extremely expensive.
My car came with a shattered header panel and right fender, dashed against a similar deer at some point, and I hadn’t been able to find replacements. I had made a fender out of Gorilla Tape for my trip back to Indiana last Christmas, and it had held up reasonably well, but it looked like a joke.
My friend Jaron, who is weird like me and likes to hang out at random junk yards, spotted a first gen CRX HF, complete with a header panel and a slightly damaged fender, at Ray’s Metal in Iola, Kansas, about an hour and 45 minutes south of where I live in KC. I left early the next Saturday I could, and after a couple of hours at Ray’s excellent and fascinating enclosure, I had the parts, along with a new column switch and two bumper covers (mine had sagged and warped after 30 years in the sun and cold, and HF bumper covers are slimmer and closer fitting than the Si’s).
Now I needed to mount everything up, and I had a deadline. Our next Cars and Coffee event was coming up, and I needed to at least get these body parts on by then. But there was damage to the fender, header panel, and front bumper cover, and none of them were red, like the rest of my car. I had never seriously painted car parts, or done much body work at all. It was time for a new adventure. Well, two new adventures. The first was trying not to poison myself with fumes while learning to use the cheap plastic welder I bought at Harbor Freight. The second was learning to paint body panels.
So maybe the hole in the front bumper is sealed up with “drift stitches,” zip ties bracing up broken bodywork, and maybe Ace Hardware’s red spray paint shade is a little off, and maybe there’s a huge panel gap on the right side of my header panel, and maybe now my entire garage is tinted with red dust, but I’m reasonably happy with the result. And so was everyone at Cars and Coffee. I got more than a few complements on my rusted old hatch. Several people remarked that they’d never seen one of these before. Jaron didn’t even think it was mine, remarking that it was “too clean.” He was being kind, of course. There’s still the rust. The side skirts are still cracked. The phone dial wheels need to be restored.
But it felt good, not just to be complimented, but to have provided a little restoration, for the car, for myself, for the car community as a whole. The warmth was back.
As humans, we’re wired to love restoration. You’ve never seen a thing lifted from the mud and rust, cleaned and repaired, and put back into service, without feeling good about it. That’s why you watch ridiculous “reality” shows about car restoration. That’s why you read build threads. From tools to furniture to houses, you just have to smile when you see a thing come back from the dead.
But when you have a hand in that restoration, the joy is multiplied, because you grow in the process. You gain skills and confidence. You learn to see value in something once cast away as garbage, or resigned to hard labor at the end of its life, a beater. You learn to start dreaming about it again.
When you restore a car, it returns the favor.
Andy Sheehan is a blogger, aspiring novelist, and relentless hoon. He plans to will his 2002 Subaru WRX Wagon to his firstborn, plans his daily commute around the swoop of its roads, and doesn’t plan to ever buy an automatic. A cool-car omnipath, he loves the common Mustang or Chevelle, but hunts for the weird and wonderful Velorexes and Cosmos of the autoverse. And when he can afford a garage, he’s going to turn an MX-5 into a race car.