Good morning! For this week’s Shitbox Showdown contenders, I’m braving the wilds of Facebook Marketplace, instead of my normal Craigslist hunting grounds. Today I’ve found two sporty cars near me that are both dirt-cheap, but that’s a good thing, because they both need a lot of work.
In other words, they’re completely different from the good-running but pricey classics we looked at on Friday. I wasn’t sure which way this one was supposed to go, between an “ugly” survivor Thunderbird and a highly-messed-with Dodge Lancer, but in the end, originality prevailed, and the Thunderbird won handily. I think that would be my choice as well.
And I remembered it too late to include it, but the “Squarebird” style Thunderbird had a celebrity owner: Cassandra Peterson, better known by her stage name Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Her famous ’59 Thunderbird, nicknamed the Macabre Mobile, actually started out as a hardtop, but was Sawzalled into a convertible early on. It was later restored twice, once by George Barris’s shop, and once by Danny Koker of Counting Cars fame.
Today’s choices have similar tenuous celebrity connections: One is kinda-sorta K.I.T.T., and the other is a dream car of some guy named Matt who apparently is kind of a big deal in certain (small) circles. Neither one of them is ready to hit the open road, but fortunately, they’re cheap enough that there’s room in the budget for repairs. Let’s check them out.
Engine/drivetrain: 1.8 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, four-speed automatic, FWD
Location: Portland, OR
Odometer reading: 143,000 miles
Operational status: Runs fine, but won’t shift past 2nd gear
Actually, I am in complete agreement with Matt about this one: the second-generation US-market Escort GT is a really neat little car. It’s based on the Mazda BG platform, and powered by a rev-happy Mazda BP-ZE twincam engine. It’s a fun, zippy little car that also happens to be built like a tank. What’s not to like? Well, unfortunately, a four-speed overdrive automatic was on the option list, and it’s a box on the form that got checked far too often.
The BP engine in this one runs great, and is up-to-date on its critical timing belt changes. Unfortunately, the transmission only has first and second gears. I did a little research, and it sounds like this could be something simple like a bad electrical connection to one of the shift solenoids, or a faulty or worn-out neutral start switch/transmission range switch. Of course, there is another sure-fire way to fix this problem – a manual transmission swap.
Apart from the transmission issues, it’s in decent condition. It’s a little grubby inside, but it should clean up all right. Outside, it’s the worst color, but it’s straight and clean. The seller is the second owner, and put the bulk of the miles on it themselves, so they should be able to tell you all about it.
Really, for eight hundred bucks, I think this car is worth a shot. Even if you just fix the automatic, it would still be a fun car to drive, and I can vouch for the practicality of this generation of Escort in general. They’re getting rare, and they’re worth saving.
Engine/drivetrain: 305 cubic inch overhead valve V8, five-speed manual, RWD
Location: Battle Ground, WA
Odometer reading: 77,000 miles
Operational status: Engine is disassembled, camshaft broke
Certain cars are so tied up in cultural references that you almost can’t escape them. Mention a ’69 Dodge Charger, and immediately everyone pictures an orange one jumping over a riverbed. Ford Torino? Minds immediately go to two dudes, or maybe one. Or maybe that other one. And of course, you can’t discuss the Pontiac Trans Am without mentioning a certain fast-talking beer smuggler, or for the third generation, a car that talks.
Pop culture associations aside, I like the Trans Am. It’s an honest, straightforward machine, an attainable fantasy for the working class. It exists only to go fast and look cool doing it. Horsepower went up and down over the years; this 1985 model has a “High Output” Chevy 305 small-block under the hood, good for 190 horsepower, enough for some fun, especially with a five-speed stick. This one doesn’t look stock; it has an Edelbrock carb in place of the stock Quadrajet, and probably some other tweaks as well.
But unfortunately, someone had a little too much fun with this one, and broke the camshaft. I’m honestly not sure how that happens, unless something else went catastrophically wrong, or it was cracked or defective to begin with. However it happened, the engine is now disassembled. The seller says it’s all there and ready to put back together, but I’m not sure I’d trust it. What condition are the cam bearings in? How is everything else? There are too many unknowns with this engine now, for my taste.
Luckily, small blocks aren’t hard to come by, so you could drop a known good engine and hit the road. You could even step up a generation in technology and install an LS V8, if you were so inclined.
So yeah, you can’t exactly hop in either of these and hit the road. But someone who’s handy with a wrench should be able to whip either of them into shape in short order. So which would you rather do – troubleshoot a transmission and maybe swap it for a manual, or drop in the small-block V8 of your choice?
(Image credits: Facebook Marketplace sellers)