I have a complicated relationship with my Nissan Z. Since I inherited it in 2017, I’ve liked it enough to keep it, but not enough to spend serious money on it. When the pandemic encouraged home hobbies, I realised this was my chance to become a better mechanic! At first, I had fun working on the Z. Then I hated it. Finally, random dudes from the internet showed up at just the right time, and now I love a car I haven’t driven in months.
Auto repair isn’t easy… I don’t care what my more naturally dexterous friends say. But it is easier than ever to learn such skills at home. You have access to forums, YouTube, and Facebook groups.
I was a pretty active car forum user around 2005, when I was a newly-licensed adolescent, asking Honda-Tech.com about the biggest-diameter exhaust I could fit on my salvage-title Integra LS. (It was the A’PEXI N1 at the time, by the way, which I bought and delighted my neighbours with for a few months before that car was completely destroyed by yours truly. Expensive lesson, but a story for another time.)
Many of those forums are still active and new ones do still pop up (Bronco6G was huge on new Bronco info recently), but I have to say I’ve had the best luck getting car knowledge and assistance with local Facebook groups.
The “local” part is key for a few reasons, but I hypothesize that the most important one is simply that having touchpoints offline makes people more inclined to be friendly and honest. Put another way: When your Facebook car group uses the same mechanics, goes to the same spots, and can even hang out together in real life, the sense of community is stronger than it is on international networks where folks are more anonymous.
That’s a pretty loquacious way to say “people are nicer IRL than online,” but my objective here is to encourage you to look into locally-based online car groups for help if you haven’t considered that yet. And mostly, I want to share my Z story, because I straight up could not have gotten as far as I have without the SoCal Z Facebook group and another dedicated to Z31 Mods & Builds.
But let me back up just a smidge.
Years ago, a Jalopnik reader from central coast California sent me an email after I’d written some random post about a 300ZX. The gist was: “Do you want my car for $100?” I shrugged until I saw the whole equation: Running, road-legal, single-owner, clean-title, manual-shift, T-top-equipped Japanese GT car. For $100 and the price of a rental trailer? Uh, ya. One does not simply say “no” to a deal like that.
I got the car home, had a Z specialist baseline its fluids and fix a sticking brake caliper, rushed to Radwood, and this Z has pretty much exclusively just been mothballed in my garage or puttering around west LA ever since. Except for Christmas 2017, when I drove the car through an empty downtown Los Angeles and up an entirely unpopulated Angeles Crest highway. Best Xmas ever; I still dream about it regularly.
Yet, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to decide if I should give the car the love it needs to be a safe driver or just let its timing belt pop. I could still let the Z get junked and chalk it all up to a cheap random car experience.
Then that pandemic epiphany I opened with hit me. “To hell with it,” I told my wife Sydney, who’d become acutely fond of “Mary-Ann.” (The car gets its namesake from its previous and only former owner, a woman whose name is pinstriped across the rear liftgate like a tramp stamp. It’s one of the car’s best features.)
“I’ve got an almost-free car here that needs fixing, I want to become a better mechanic, why not use this as a training tool? If I go full FUBAR, I have so little invested that there’s really no risk,” I reckoned.
The Z needs many new bushings and new tires, it’s due for its timing belt service, and it has (had) leaky valve cover gaskets. The power steering pump’s got a nice layer of excretion around it. Lots of rubber’s cracked. And the engine bay is (was) scary-filthy.
Bushings are really annoying to do without heavy tools, and timing belts are scary to me because I still don’t trust myself to know when it’s done properly before turning the key. So I figured I’d try to change the valve cover gaskets first.
I watched a bunch of YouTube videos, scoured the Haynes book and factory service manual, made myself punch lists, got the parts, and got after it.
For those who aren’t into auto repair but want to appreciate the gist here: Valve covers are usually located on top of your engine. Like, right on top. An engine’s hat, if you will. Theoretically, removing one and replacing the gasket on it should be pretty easy.
This Z has a V6 so it has two valve covers: One at the top of each row of three cylinders, naturally. One is very easily removed, the other is under the car’s air intake plenum and wedged right up against a bracket that holds the air conditioning compressor and alternator to the engine block.
Pulling the intake plenum took days. And nights. I fastidiously labelled every hose and electrical connector I unplugged, threw my rubber mallet around in frustration, lost little washers and screws…
Every step of removing that big metal snout sucked. Even after every bolt was out, the plenum had been mated to the intake manifold for so long that it took two days of heaving just for me to get it clear of the car. Then, of course, the gasket ripped into a million places and chunks of it were left behind like old ice cream sandwich residue on a wrapper.
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I probably clocked four hours of labour on gasket removal alone. I’m not even kidding. That sucked badly enough to elevate my appreciation for professional mechanics considerably. But when it got too frustrating, I just took breaks. And that’s how my car ended up disassembled for two months.
Finally, a second epiphany: That Z31 Mods & Builds Facebook group I mentioned started a “mentorship” program where you could post your problems or areas of expertise and either get or give advice.
“How do I get the gosh dang driver side valve cover off,” I posted, and shortly after, somebody named Chris messaged me and started walking me through it. He got me pretty far, helped me understand how the A/C compressor could be moved without being disconnected and gave me other tips that aren’t obvious.
But I still hit a dead end when I couldn’t get my valve cover around a bracket. Chris’ advice wasn’t working, I got frustrated, and more time went by.
Then, another epiphany–I had entered the most dangerous circle of project car hell. My car had been disassembled so long that I was getting confused on how it was supposed to go back together. Meanwhile, I was still grumpy that I got so-close-yet-so-far to a dumb valve cover, of all things, and was going to have to re-assemble the car without properly fixing it or worse, get it towed in pieces to a mechanic who would certainly have to charge me beaucoup bucks unfuck my fuckery.
So I tossed out an earnest plea to the SoCal FB Group. I basically admitted my desperation, offered to pay cash to anyone who was willing to come to my garage and help me put my Z back together.
A dude named Kyle commented almost immediately, we chatted a little over FB Messenger, and he offered to come over on a Monday promising me we’d have the car buttoned up by lunchtime.
Hoping it’d be possible to stay sixish feet from him on opposite sides of the car, I agreed, and sure enough, he showed up exactly when he meant to, brought enough expertise to make major progress on the car, and even some cool red valve covers we could replace my grimey grey ones with while changing the gaskets.
We didn’t quite finish by noon when Kyle had to jet off, but his fresh eyes and Z experience got the car through the hard hurdles.
It turned out that the main thing holding me back was bad luck. When I shut the car off, a lifter just happened to be in the high position, making it impossible for my valve cover to clear both it and the bracket it’s mounted next to. Once I realised the engine had to be at top-dead-centre for this job, bumping the starter got it into the correct position. Kyle’s familiarity with VG engines was critical to helping me remember how the rest of the thing went back together, supplemented by my notes and labels, and I was able to finish re-assembly after he left on my own.
This was a really protracted way to learn how to do valve covers on a Nissan VG, but it was a cheap education. I think the car and I have earned outsourcing that timing belt service, though. Now that I’ve spent so many hours with it, I love this car enough to want it to live forever. And I need a break from wrenching badly enough to pay for labour again.
My impression of Facebook, in general, is that it’s a cesspool of lies and toxicity playing a part in the unravelling of human society that we’re currently living. But man, I’ve made a lot of friends through car groups there and received a lot of automotive knowledge I feel lucky to have access to.