The magic in a first car is undeniable. The anticipation, the freedom, and the utter financial devastation. Even for someone who had been driving for years in a car loaned by their parents, buying a car that was 100% unarguably theirs is a magical moment for a young gearhead. Suddenly the freedom to modify and customize the car to their hearts content was available. All of the crazy power-adders and wacky suspension were available at the click of a button in exchange for the local currency. A tempting proposition by any measure, and one that the lowly Honda Civic finds itself often submitted to.
For me it was the love of the manual transmission that led to me buying my first car. A few hours in gracious friends’ manual-equipped cars had me hooked on the concept of rowing my own gears instead of letting the miserable GM 4T65e in my parents LeSabre do the work for me. For two months I feverishly did odd jobs and sold off parts of my unused and frankly obscene collection of old computers and equipment until I had $500, the exact sum needed to buy this.
A 1998 Canadian market EK Civic LX sedan. Base model. It might not look like much, and by any measure of the word “much” it wasn’t. I only drove the beast a matter of feet before plonking down my cash, and those few feet were enough to know I had one hell of a project ahead of me. The exhaust terminated at the end of some eBay longtube headers, the perfectly adequate stock lights were replaced with projectors that were foggier than the mind of an octogenarian, there were no tail lights, the fourth cylinder had run off on holiday somewhere, and the transmission made a horrendous noise.
While it was a complete heap the car did drive well enough presuming one didn’t go above 4000rpm. The consequence for ignoring this rule was the large quantities of blue smoke that would come from the exhaust right underneath the firewall. A symptom of the MIA fourth cylinder, I presumed. Fortunately, I quickly found the solution to having a car with this amount of problems. Buy another one.
Enter the parts car. $300 netted me this EK sedan from the same place I bought the black one. The rough exterior contained all sorts of goodies, such as:
- An engine
- Full stock exhaust
- Steering wheel
- Tail lights
And I was on my way…
Initial cost: $500
Parts car: $300
Having never attempted a project of this magnitude, it took me a full day and well into the night to get the D16Y7 engine moved from the parts car into my black EK, and it was during all of this I discovered the subtle but annoying differences between the Canadian and American models of Honda Civic, including but not limited to:
- Strange variations in bolt head size
- Completely different options on the same trim level
- Different fuse boxes
- Different computers
- Slight variations in emissions/exhaust equipment
After comparing consumables of the two engines and choosing the best plugs, wires, distributor cap, and intake (I went with the stock intake), we slapped the engine together and drove away. Throughout the next several months I toyed around with the car trying to diagnose a rough idle and surging acceleration. Eventually the problem was tricked down to a sticky Idle Air Control Valve which was fixed by removing and disassembling the valve, removing the plastic electromagnet housing, and working the valve manually until the crud that had accumulated was expunged. This, children, is why you use protection. And a good air filter.
Speaking or airy things, one curious thing that happens to iron when exposed to oxygen is the formation of iron oxide, which was beginning to happen on the peeling paint surface of my black steel wheels. A few coats of whatever spray paint I had handy and I had a Honda Civic WRX STi
At this point the car was getting pretty close to perfect. I blacked out some of the trim, got rid of the seat covers, upgraded the broken stock speakers with some salvaged Pioneers and wired it for a subwoofer with salvage wire, had the leaky exhaust professionally repaired, and continued to gleefully daily drive it through the summer.
At this point, being the owner of a sedan, I decided to take a few people along with a ride and discovered a rather large problem: My rear springs. More specifically: the lack of springiness in my rear springs. Even the slightest bump would cause the rear suspension to bottom out, and after the trip the rear sat noticeably lower than it did before. An inspection revealed the shocks had puked their guts up in dramatic fashion, and the springs were dangerously rusty and worn out. As luck would have it a local ricer-filled Civic-loving facebook group had a “for sale” posting of some stock EK Civic coupe struts fitted with lowering springs for a price slightly cheaper than buying OEM. In the interest of handling, I aquired them. I also grabbed the original wheel covers off of my parts car and refinished them in brilliant white. The results of the lowering and the white wheel covers over freshly-painted black steelies was dramatic.
From here I simply enjoyed the car and fixed a couple remaining problems it had. Being a Canadian car there was, well, a significant amount of rust on the suspension components, and a completely seized bushing meant replacing both lower control arms. While I was at it, I took care of the broken front lower torque motor mounts.
Shortly after taking those photos an unfortunate accident occurred while I was parked at a car show and resulted in a Porsche being neatly sat upon my passenger front tire, crumpling my fender into nothingness,scraping some paint off of my door, and putting a slight dent in the upper unibody. After a quick appraisal by the insurance company I opted to keep my car and take whatever the remainder of the offered check would be, and ended up with a rather nice $1980 check and a salvage title for the car. Somewhat weary of the Civic I began looking for takers, and ended up trading it to a guy with a slight Honda obsession, with $1000 of the insurance money on top, for a 1991 Mazda Miata.
Initial cost: $500
Parts car: $300
Struts/Lowering springs: $160
Paint/Cleaning supplies $20-ish?
Lower Control Arms: $60
Motor mounts: $40
Insurance check: +$2000
So in the end, over the course of roughly a year, what I ended up doing was paying $80 for an actual sports car, after a few enjoyable months fixing and driving the best of 90s Japanese econoboxes.
Not a bad job.