Winter was past approached and my daily driver for spring and summer had been my lovely 1973 Mazda 808 Coupe. It would be criminal to drive the well preserved vintage Mazda in the snow so I needed a winter beater. Not a bad thing as many of you have undoubtedly found out in this series I enjoy the character of older, cheap cars.
My current searched started out a bit late that year, with warmer than usual weather allowing me to ride the bike to work well into traditional winter months. My requirements were pretty modest:
1. Must be able to pass a safety check with minimal work. I don’t mind replacing a set of brake pads but don’t want to be rebuilding an engine.
2. Must be cheap. On the road for well under $500 is the goal. We’ll see how it goes.
3. Decent parts supply in the local junkyards to keep running costs to a minimum.
A few other factors would help as well, like simplicity, which limits the number of things to go wrong and helps with the ease of fixing them. Fuel economy concerns probably take out any big land-barge style cars or full size pickup trucks. There were a number of reasonable candidates locally, with most being late 80s to early 90s economy cars or small, rear wheel drive trucks. This is in the sweet zone for my requirements as anything older has usually disappeared from the junkyards and the newer stuff often is more complex and expensive to buy.
Initially, I think I did the semi-reasonable thing and bought a 1987 Toyota Corolla sedan. Dull, potentially reliable, with a still decent parts supply in the junkyard. The car ran reasonably well and with a price of $80 left lots of room to fix a few issues and still be comfortably under my self-imposed budget. I actually spent a decent amount of time and a very small amount of money fixing and cleaning it up but soon came to the realization that oh my gosh this is one dull automobile. I soon realized that I’d rather own something with a little more character than play of a game of getting the cheapest possible car on the road price. So I sold off the Corrolla for $180, netting, after parts costs, perhaps $0.10/hr for my time.
With the Corolla cleared out of my garage, the hunt resumed again. When shopping at scrap value prices you need to be a little lucky and a more so, quick. After scanning the local classified ads for a couple of weeks a nice contender appeared. It was outside the city in a smaller town which was good. For some reason people ignore the ads that are even minutes outside the city even when it is a great deal. Odd, but their loss.
The contender was a rather sad looking 1989 Nissan Micra,a car that is interesting, at least to me, as they were sold in Canada but not the US. And on the plus side, it was equipped with the five speed manual gearbox. The Canadian Micras (and a few other smaller markets like Malta) feature sealed beam headlights unlike ones sold in other markets like the UK or Japan. Like a lot of Canadian market cars not sold in the US they have largely disappeared due to parts supply issues. Most chain stores here carry US market catalogs so parts aren’t impossible but it does take a bit more work. A co-worker from years ago had a series of Micras and swore by them as “only add only gas and drive cars”.
I made an appointment with the seller, and as usual I’d pretty much sold myself on it even before I got there. The car itself ran well, was reasonably clean and the asking price was only $200. On the flip side it had some front collision damage, non-working horn and four bald tires. Three others were thoughtfully included in the hatch and rear seat but were a slightly different size than the spare so still one short of a full set. Given that 12” tires are not easy to source any more I figured a used set of a 13” ones already on rims would be in order. A common bolt pattern of 4x100mm made this task a little easier.
After agreeing to $160 cash price I came back the next day to very carefully drive it home. Unfortunately by the time I got a plate and the family to give me a lift out, it was night time. Combined that with bald tires, high winds, unknown car and a winter conditions on the highway it made for a white knuckle journey home.
The Micra itself has always reminded me a bit of a 2/3 scale Volkswagen Golf. That same iconic two box shape, but made with some of the thinnest sheet metal around. The aluminum hood flexes about alarmingly when open. According to the Canadian market brochure I found the two door model like mine weighs in at 1,490 lbs, and probably the best size scale I can give you for comparison is a first generation Chevrolet Sprint (or any other variant on the Suzuki Cultus).
Canadian market cars were only offered with the larger MA12 1.2L engine with a five speed manual or three speed automatic. Other markets had a base MA10S 1.0L with four or five speed manuals and the three speed automatic. The all aluminum engines still featured an electronically controlled carburetor, and the larger engine managed 59hp. That doesn’t sound like much but it is quite zippy around town although it does run out of steam on the highway if you attempt to exceed the posted speed limit.
In Japan the Micra was known as the March, and there was even a performance version called the Super Turbo. Larger wheels, mild body kit with fog lamps give it a distinctive look.
That pocket-rocket was equipped with the MA09ERT 930cc four cylinder engine that featured both a turbo and supercharger as well as fuel injection. The supercharger helps with low end torque while a relatively large turbo produces the peak horsepower at high rpm when the supercharger disengages. The Super Turbo engine produced 108hp and even features a limited slip differential.
Perhaps even more wild than the engine was this very odd kitty-cat key that was standard issue for all Super Turbo cars.
I always start with a decent clean on any car I buy. Most cars at this price range are pretty dirty and giving it bit of a clean gives you a good chance to see what you are working with. I like to think of it as bonding time as well. The engine was absolutely filthy and I had briefly considered sending the previous owner an oil funnel for Christmas as well as instructions on its use. The interior wasn’t too bad, and as a nice bonus I found $5.12 in change cleaning it out. Not bad and it worked out to slightly over a 3% discount off the purchase price! The interior is definitely bare bones, which exactly how I like it. No toys mean no toys to go wrong.
I was able to straighten the front bumper a bit. I used the sophisticated method of attaching the tow hook on the one side to chain and then wrap around a suitable cemented in steel pole. After that all you need to do is just reverse back and forth a few times. With some minor whiplash it was much less lopsided looking.
The previous owner nicknamed it “The Dragon” after this and another decal (spells out Dragon on the rear window). A rather grand name for an unassuming little car. It is a brand of snowboard/ski goggles. A little bewildering to me that a brand of goggles can inspire such loyalty, but practising minimal cost motoring likely seems odd to other folk. I’m was tempted into keeping both the name and the decals.
I have to admit the car grew on me as it was indecently fun to drive. One can toss it around in the corners with abandon as well as zipping in and out of small spaces. Probably too much body roll to be an auto-x contender, but the larger 13″ tires made a massive difference by helping it feel more planted. Around town you flog the engine by driving it flat out all the time. No traffic laws are broken and the engine seems to love being pushed. Rather similar to what I’d imagine a classic Mini is like to drive.
I had a great time driving my little Micra with its cheeky and willing character. Soon my old nemesis, the safety inspection, loomed darkly overhead. I took it to a local garage which made a list of demands including a new ball joint (that it did not need). The bill was more than the price of the car but likely less than what I would face taking it to a couple more garages in search of a reasonable inspection. I decided to bite the bullet and get the work done figuring at least that nightmare would out of the way. Wrong.
First off, there was a great deal of complaining and hand wringing about sourcing the ball joint from the shop. The bill escalated as they had to source a part from British Columbia. I figured I was out of woods when picking up my Micra and paying the blood money to the garage. Wrong again. It had run like a top before going in, but it stumbled badly as I drove away from the shop. It managed about two blocks before dying. The shop claimed that it was an old car and could experience troubles at any moment. Absolutely true but the timing was more than suspicious. I am sure they were banking on the fact that no one retains a lawyer for a cheap banger and were hoping that I would pay them even more to fix it. The shop went out of business a couple years later so there is some karma for them.
I wanted no more to do with them as I had essentially paid them handsomely to destroy my car. It might be a cheap piece of garbage car but I enjoyed it. I towed the car home were I was able to diagnose a no-spark fault. The Micra had a strange computerized coil for the Canadian market only and no wiring diagram existed. I tinkered with no success on and off for a month. I even took it to a (different) shop but they had no luck. I eventually found that certain years of Sentras shared that same coil and sourced one (and a matching rotor for good measure).
Swapping it over did nothing to help the situation. I eventually traced out all the wiring and found a ignition relay type device. Suspiciously it looked like some had messed about with it. Again I searched the local supply of Nissans in the scrapyard and found a similar one in a Nissan pickup truck. I swapped this and the Micra again ran but not well. By this time my patience was wearing thin and my wife’s had long run out. Reluctantly I listed the Micra for sale and took a loss on it. An ignominious and unnecessary ending for such a fun car.