As a quick refresher the general idea of the Great Beater Challenge is as follows: buy a cheap vehicle ($700 or less all in including repairs), come up with a team theme, drive it on a road trip while completing a scavenger hunt, and have fun. This year was supposed to top last year’s effort in terms of vehicle selection with a 1984 Innocenti SE replacing the 1961 Pontiac Laurentian of 2018. Due to a variety of factors including a new job and a lack of motivation to fix endless electrical issues meant a last minute swap to plan B; a more mainstream car but with a more of a costume theme this year. Our car came from the Nineties, had a manual transmission, two doors, DOHC engine and well under the price cap. Follow along to see what we choose.
I never meant for this Tercel to live long. Once I had the Innocenti home and had assessed its overall poor electrical condition I actually was shopping for a drivetrain to swap into it. I know that sounds silly but the initial assessment of the Innocenti I found that it would only briefly run even after swapping multiple fuel pumps both mechanical and electric, nothing electrical worked beyond the starter and ignition, small TRX “metric” tires that were impossible to find replacements for but on the plus side it had an almost completely rust free body shell. If the car were to receive a new driveline from a donor then perhaps a large chunk of the wiring could come along from that same donor. Any engine had to be compact (very small in every dimension in fact) which restricted the shopping list to only a few contenders. Given the Innocenti’s rarity in completed engine swaps and its Mini roots (although differing details like gearbox placement and suspension type) it made sense to look at what others had used successfully in classic Minis without radical surgery. The go-to candidate is the Honda Civic B-series engine with some other dark horse candidates like a Suzuki G10 turbo from the Chevrolet Metro/Pontiac Firefly turbo, Toyota Echo 1NZ-FE and Toyota Tercel/Paseo 5E-FE. A Civic would be a common donor but the car itself is a bit wider than the other candidates and I never did come across the right donor. While quite rare to find I did come across a turbo Firefly but it had its own share of electrical issues and looked rather tired. The Echo was appealing with an all aluminum DOHC engine but a lightly crashed and mechanically sound example for a reasonable price proved elusive.
The end of the run Toyota Tercel offered a very physically small 93hp DOHC engine and five speed manual gearbox shared with the Paseo. A Japanese market turbo version of the engine was available if I ever wanted more power. If I went full hog on the project and swapped the suspension components as well for better parts availability (and more common wheel bolt pattern) the Tercel offered struts up front like the Innocenti and an easier to narrow beam axle at the rear. While the engine was an iron block the Tercel promised to be electrically simpler than an Echo. I managed to find one for sale offered at a somewhat nearby rural location. Given buyers’ general reluctance to travel to smaller centers in general when buying I hoped to snag it for a song.
Since I was buying it as a donor I threw away most of the usual car buying advice. The seller could only meet after working hours which meant in the dark during the Alberta winter. He only spoke a little English as I believe he might have been some variation of a Hutterite or Mennonite which meant he could not explain where his rural location was so we met at a gas station. Once there I did not overly concern myself with the condition of the body, interior, tires or suspension. He explained he only used the car to drive back and forth on a back road to his work assignment. It had an expired plate on the back. Lots of red flags …
Both the engine and interior were filthy. Through gestures he got the point across that he had accidentally left the oil cap off after filling it with oil thus the mess under the hood. A paint mark from a scrapyard on the oil cap backed up that story. The interior also looked like it had been used to transport an animal or two at various points. On top of all of that it the car had almost 350K kms (217K miles) on it which is quite a lot for a northern climate area car. So lots and lots of red flags for a reasonable car purchase however the engine ran very well and the gearbox felt good so we negotiated on a price of $480 Cdn. I figured I would recover a decent portion of that selling parts and scrapping the shell.
As I drove it the roughly thirty kilometers home I realized that while the interior was a very smelly place to be it drove extremely well. Annoyingly it was not a bad little car and had a remarkably solid body. It was a Sport model on top of it which meant a tachometer, body cladding and a front roll bar. Once home I made the mistake of mentioning this fact to my wife and she immediately jumped on the idea of replacing the kid’s Honda Civic (as used in the 2017 GBC) with the Tercel. This did two things for her; removed the battered and scarred Civic from in front of our house and killed my engine swap project which she was never keen on. Grumbling a bit I took to a more in-depth assessment of reviving the Tercel to street duty which initially involved a lot of cleaning. A huge amount of cleaning in fact. It was now that I also noticed that the tires were almost bald which is remarkable as it drove home in the snow just fine. Credit goes to light weight and narrow tires I guess.
The interior was partly stripped for cleaning to remove hay, animal droppings as well as a huge amount of mud and dirt. It had an unhealthy helping of general grossness that does not show in photos but did come remarkably clean. Eventually.
The underside was also coated with a thick layer of farm dirt which took several attempts to penetrate.
The engine compartment was completely coated in a layer of oil and was cleaned with many, many workshop towels and rags. Once clean I had to admit it did look pretty nice and certainly looked miles better than the Civic with its paint peeling off the trunk, hail and accident damage combined with a recent addition of another dent from hitting a dumpster. When the alternator died on the Civic that sealed its fate. While an alternator replacement is a straightforward and not massively expensive the Civic had a whole long list of other needs which made it non-economical to repair even for someone with low standards like me. In the end I was okay with it as the Tercel had an appealing cheerful nature to it.
In the next installment we will turn the Tercel into the daily driver for the kids and prep it for the Great Beater Challenge 2019. Maybe the Innocenti can make the 2020 edition.