A Single Step
This tired, old 5.2-liter Magnum still has some life in it – but just barely.
They say that every adventure begins with a single step. For years, the adventure I dreamed of was having a project car. As everyone’s favorite tuner said, “there’s just something about engines that calms me down.” Project cars are methodical and restorative. I love the idea that what’s broken and disused can be brought back to life. If there’s hope for discarded cars, maybe there’s hope for all of us, too.
Taking on a project car is a big undertaking. It requires space, time, equipment, money, and expertise. For a long time, I had none of those things. Today, I still don’t have all of them. Some days, it seems like I have none. What I’ve decided, though, is that this adventure is never going to happen if I don’t take that scary first step.
Picking the Right Project
A few months ago, I opened the garage door and surveyed my choice.
Parked inside, leaking oil and struggling to fire up for monthly trips around the neighborhood, was the first car I ever called my own. The Dodge Ram I drove to high school in 2004 was my pride and joy. Through the years, it shuttled me back and forth to college, completed multiple coast-to-coast road trips, and served as my daily driver for more than a decade. It plowed through bumper-deep New Hampshire snow and carried motorcycles across the Nevada desert. When I got back from Afghanistan in 2012, my parents tied yellow ribbons to the mirrors and met me at Camp Pendleton. It got oil changes, a few upgrades, and a fresh coat of paint along the way, but time had taken its toll. Time, as it turns out, is not merciful.
Most people I know reminisce about their first car and wish they could have it back. For better or worse, I’ve always been determined not to be one of them.
I figure I owed that old pickup a second lease on life before bringing a different project on board. I have the space. I have the time. They have equipment at the store and money doesn’t do any good in a bank account.
I did myself a favor and started working on my expertise with something easy. A simple brake cleaning turned into replacement. Axles were cleaned, universal joints were replaced, and differentials were flushed. Ball joints were pressed into place. Rams from that era used a bizarre vacuum actuator to engage the front axle, and that got a rebuild as well. My first foray into the world of amateur wrenching introduced me to things like 1-11/16-inch socket scavenger hunts and invoking the nuclear option, otherwise known as a Dremel.
Before the engine broke loose from the bell housing, I’d honestly never seen a torque converter before. I’d read the Haynes manual and watched hours of video online, but every step was a first for me. PB Blaster, wire brushes, and assorted cleaning chemicals quickly became my favorite tools.
Old cars need new parts, but every piece I can salvage is a little victory. Replacing rust and grime with a fresh coat of paint is incredibly satisfying. I even tried my hand at porting the throttle body. When an entire replacement engine can be had for $250 or less, learning on a component here and there won’t hurt.
Words to the Wise
Working on this pickup was a lot easier when it was five years old.
This is an ongoing project. It’s still possible that you’ll find me under a pile of car parts, sobbing in the fetal position. I’m optimistic, though. In the meantime, I want to share some of what I’ve learned so others can learn from my mistakes.
Trust yourself and take the first step. Set a budget, pad it with some wiggle room, and dive in.
Take your time. It’s exciting to think about the end result, but that result won’t be near as good if you’ve smudged paint and cut corners to get there. Besides, sanding rust off a starter solenoid housing is a great excuse to sit on the porch with a beer.
While-I’m-at-it disorder is a real thing. The truth is, though, most jobs will never be easier than they are when everything is disassembled, so make the most of it. Replace every gasket, seal, and hose you can find. If it’s rubber, it goes. Bearings are cheap, so don’t bother putting a fresh motor with 20-year-old bearings back in your car.
Ask for help. I’ve texted family and friends with all kinds of questions, and they’ve all been incredibly helpful. The motor never would have come out were it not for a friend with a hoist, decades of experience, and bottomless generosity. Local car enthusiasts I’ve never met responded to a Facebook post within minutes and provided me with a dozen machinist recommendations.
Invest in a kiddie pool and cat litter. You’ll thank me later.
I’ll keep you updated throughout this adventure, with plenty more test drives and automotive pondering mixed in for good measure. Until then, you know where to find me.
Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the 90’s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. Scott works as a freelance marketer for Dingo Productions in Fort Worth, Texas. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.