“If you don’t want it then I guess we’re just going to junk it, but mom really doesn’t want to. She loved that car and bought it new,” an old friend told me about her mom’s “busted, old yellow car,” which immediately alerted my auto rescue spidey-sense and had me immediately intrigued. Here’s how my unhinged Autopian thoughts turned at that moment:
-Less than 1% of all cars produced in North America are yellow
-Old cars rule
-This sounds like it will be cheap to buy
-I can save a car from the scrapper
-I can save a yellow car from the scrapper
-She hasn’t told me what type of car this even is
-I’m already sold
This was the Spring of 2020 and the entire world was just about to close down for a hot minute, and though I didn’t know this at the time, I did know one thing: I love saving old cars from demise (I’m coming up on car #111, saved from certain death), love a challenge, love yellow and would’ve said yes even if I could look into the future.
[Editor’s Note: In case you’ve forgotten, Stephen Walter Gossin is the cool-dude musician from North Carolina who loves to fix up old junkers — really crappy ones, and that’s coming from me — and get them back on the road. He wrote an awesome piece about why the much-maligned Pontiac Grand Am is actually better than you think, and another great one about how he got six years of service from a Dodge Stratus Coupe (actually a cool car!) that he fixed up. -DT).
My friend didn’t give me much more detail than what was conveyed above, so in my head I started thinking of which models came in yellow around the early Aughts to narrow down what this mystery car might be. A sweet-ass Stratus Coupe? Nope, didn’t come in yellow. A Grand Am? Nope. A Jaguar XK8 (foreshadowing!)? Not even close to yellow, ever. A Civic? Who knows what happens to those cars by the time the 3rd owner gets to them. The mystery was still intact until I arrived at the address I was given.
The car turned out to be a 2005 Chevy Cavalier Coupe “LS” with a 5 speed manual transmission. Yes, you may remember this car from the first article David and I ever did on Ye Olde German Lighting Site here. Already I was over the moon. Usually when someone offers a car in these types of scenarios it has:
A) the wrong number of doors (4)
B) the wrong(ish) transmission (auto) and
C) the wrong color (silver, white, black, grayscale, gold, rust, wallpaper, rattle-can, camo, meh, etc.)
This car, however, did not. It ticked all the boxes for me. Its timing chain tensioner had failed, which caused the interference engine to have an internal conflict (piston, meet valve; valve, meet piston) and was then subsequently parked in a backyard for about six years. The tires went flat and turned into semi-squares, the paint’s clear coat burned off in the Carolina sun, an errant riding lawn mower dented the right quarter panel, the dash plastics cracked, the headliner adhesive heat-failed, and more.
None of that mattered. We’re not here to lament maladies caused by Father Time and poor engineering. We’re here to kick ass, drink lemonade and save some cars. And we’re all out of lemonade…er, uh, something like that.
Scrap value for the car was about $120, but the yard deducted $50 to come pick it up. $70 frickin’ dollars of scrap value – a pittance (it helps if you say it in the Dr. Evil voice). Knowing how quickly costs add up on a rescue like this, I said I’d beat the scrap offer, but not by much. My friend didn’t care – she was just glad it was going to be saved. I made a promise that they’d have first refusal once it was rolling again, handed her $100 for the keys and the title and started down the path to save it with a big smile on my face.
If only that smiling guy would’ve also had a Delorean Time Machine and 1.21GW of electricity/a flux capacitor/some plutonium so that he could see that the same guy would not have the same smile a few weeks down the road.
A quick background refresher on these cars for the poorly-informed. The GM “J Body/J Platform” came out in 1982 and replaced the H Platform which spawned such notable-yet-beautiful losers as the Monza and Vega. The J Body came in every flavor of body out there (except for shooting brake and pickup): two, three, four, and five doors coupes, convertibles, wagons, sedans and hatches. Plus it had four and six cylinder powerplants and auto and manual transmissions. J-bodies were sold as Opels, Vauxhauls, Pontiacs, Chevys, Oldmobiles, Cadillacs, Buicks, Isuzus, Holdens — literally every brand under the GM umbrella, except for GMC — and lasted for 24 years. 16 different models were “on the J” up until 2005. The last two standing models on the J, the Cavalier & Sunfire, were made from 94-05 with a refresh happening in 2000.
There’s enough substance to the under-appreciated (and frankly, over-maligned) J-Body to cover this entire website for a week, so here we’re just going to focus on the final models in the final years of the J in North America: the 3rd generation of the Cavalier and Sunfire. Hell, even just covering these last two nameplates on the J, you can still take a weird detour and end up at the Toyota Cavalier or the 4th and 5th gen Chinese Cavaliers (still being sold!). David had requested some background on these cars, but man, there’s a ton to be said about the “J.”
My busted 2005 “LS” was the last year for the North American Cavalier and the last year for the J Body. The LS model featured the new “Ecotec” (nascent “green” cred through marketing before that was even a thing) motor with 140 hp and 150 lb⋅ft of torque mated to a Getrag F23 5-speed. Honestly, it’s a good pairing. After towing mine back to my place, I immediately started piecing the puzzle together and saw a receipt for a diagnostic charge from Firestone in the glove box indicating that the engine had internal damage and an estimate that was the shop equivalent of the Heisman Trophy (pushing you out the door with a very high integer). I sent a text and confirmed this with my friend: She said her mom was driving the car and it suddenly cut off and that was it. They towed it to Firestone -> Heisman -> here we are.
These engines aren’t that complex, and there’s a ton of room in the engine bay, so popping the head off was almost as easy as the 17 times David has done it on an XJ 4.0 engine, which is world-renowned for never having any engine problems. (Is slightly talkin’ smack to your editor and boss OK? Taking chances here; possibly due to the Stanley Tucci Tuscan Negroni in hand). [Editor’s note: I can’t fire anyone who wrenches on shitboxes. I don’t have it in me. -DT].
Wrenching On The J
I placed the car on ramps and started removing the front cover, exhaust manifold, intake manifold and all the rest, and realized that this wasn’t going to take very long or be very hard – I was breezing through it! This was a key element to this repair, since the yellow car on ramps with its hood up screamed “Heeey HOA!”
I believe the paint color on this car is indeed what caused the brutal, unforgiving, unreasonable gaze of my HOA to be pointed my way, which then caused me to reach out to David for advice, which then caused him to realize that his celebrity influence extended past Torch’s zone-of-residence in NC (all to the way to coast, in Wilmington NC), which ended up bringing me here with a few car stories in hand to you fine folks. Thank goodness for “Rally Yellow” and HOA-peril, I guess?
Popping the head off was probably the easiest head-repair job that I’ve done. I was actually quite proud of my lukewarm driveway wrenching skills and with how seamless it went. I sent the head to the machine shop, cleaned it up and popped it back on the following weekend. Everything went back on about as easily as it came off, so I prematurely cracked a celebratory beer and went about torquing and fastening up the final bits whilst thinking in a self-congratulatory/wholly unwarranted manner that one day I should write for an auto website about my car rescues.
Well, Icarus flew too close to the sun out of hubris and melted the wax off of his wings, and S.W. Gossin drank a bit and didn’t notice that he failed to align the last roller-rocker on the head (see photo). After twisting the key with baited anticipation, sheer horror/terror befell me. The sound of the cam thrusting the roller into the side of the head (cracking it) was probably ten times worse than Icarus’ screams as he fell from the heavens to his demise.
“Just walk away” is probably the best advice any wrencher can give another. I put down the beers and hung my head as I closed the hood and started thinking about all the time and agony my dumbassery and half-drunk hubris had cost me.
Nothing motivates like failure, though. I ripped that cracked head back off the following day even more quickly (since now I knew this engine fairly well at this point) and sent it straight to the metal yard for a sweet $7. Then I hopped over to the local Pick-N-Pull, found a seemingly well-cared-for J, and grabbed its head in about two hours (again surprised with how easy it was).
I paid wicked close attention on the 2nd head install, poured about 3 gallons of fresh gas into the tank, and got the car to fire up without any drama for the first time in six years (see video). It was a great moment that taught me a lot about humility and about not getting ahead of yourself. Especially not half drunk. Was the fact that this rescue required two heads my fault and not the car’s? Absolutely. Could GM have designed those roller rockers to fit on their respective boss/perch a little better? I think so. Am I still a little burnt by this? Perhaps.
Once you complete a rescue like the above, the first thing on your mind is: “How the hell is this thing firing on a 50/50 mixture of fresh and six year old gas?!” The second thing you think about is, let’s take it down the block to see how it drives!
Well the square tires immediately let me know that this drive wasn’t going to be an enjoyable one and that my dental fillings might not make it back to my house with me. The initial reaction to the engine torque and power was that they were both actually not bad at all, and the trans shift feel was OK as well. Then the GM cost-cutting legacy hangover from the 80’s/90’s that persevered into the mid aughts also reminded me why few out there truly covet these cars. Everything about the interior felt like state-funded high school cafeteria-grade levels of seating comfort, and the ride had more flint than Flint, MI or than a noncrystalline sedimentary rock made up of silicon dioxide (SiO2). [Editor’s Note: I don’t know what “ride has flint” means, but I’m excited for Stephen to enlighten me in the comments. -DT]. The weirdly low beltline made the car seem like it had a huge greenhouse and that you were sitting on it, not in it. Add the rubber-band steering feel, rock-hard plastic everywhere, and the car felt thoroughly depressing. A first drive in a new-to-you car should be exhilarating. This was the opposite.
It made me actually question why I did two head jobs on it, made two trips to the machine shop, made one to the DMV for the title, paid for a tow, spent a day at Pick-N-Pull, bought two new head gaskets, etc. for such a bummer ride.
Look, I completely subscribe to the Mercedes Streeter Church of Acolytes, and love anything with a motor. But loving these wheels and this motor cost time, effort and money, and yielded nothing of the magic that was found in Mercedes” Smart/bus/VW/etc travails. I just wanted a little magic, that’s all.
This isn’t by any means a put-down of the J-Body or of the Cavalier; they’re fine for what they have always been: cheap transportation. It’s just that this particular car just couldn’t bring the payoff I was hoping for considering all the investment it required.
I ended up spending about $900 to get the car up and running (including the purchase price), and sold it to a very weird dude who was way into Cavaliers for $2,550. Granted this was in the “before times,” and the used car market is much different now. I didn’t do this for money or profit, I did it because I love saving old cars, and love the ecological impact of getting the most miles out of the carbon expenditure that was involved with creating the vehicle. But I had to ask myself: Would I want to go through the whole rescue event again (all the time, effort, mistakes, and ripped up knuckles) for $1,650 in profit? I’m not so sure. Time is the most important factor – there’s only so much of it for each of us, and I’m not certain that this yellow plastic-fantastic was the best usage of mine.
Here’s the final tally:
-$50 head gasket (x2)
-$30 head bolts (x2)
-$25 valve seals
-$25 window motor
-$50 junkyard fuel rail to fit 2nd head (they were oddly different)
-$30 spark plugs
-$175 machine shop costs
-$115 title work at DMV
-$75 AC recharge
-$20 new cam bolts (should be replaced when removed)
-$45 Dex Cool, fuel filter, gas etc.
The above begs the question about ensuring that you’re choosing the best candidate for your project and time. Honestly, I’m still conflicted over it. The same feeling David expressed as he walked away from the then-perfected black XJ for the last time after years of toiling over it. As you may have pieced together by now, I’m not the greatest at separating emotion from purchases since…
The Fire of the Sun
…I found another J-Body in a similar state of disrepair shortly thereafter and started down the exact same path once again. An “Arrival Blue” 2003 Pontiac Sunfire coupe that was listed on the local Wilmington, NC Craigslist for a paltry $600! The thought was that the second time will definitely serve as redemption for all the dumbassery I foisted upon myself with the Cavalier.
This poor car, an automatic, was the quasi-property of a poor woman, who had purchased it as her first car as a teenager. The guy who sold it to her signed the NC title incorrectly and promptly moved out of state to New Mexico. The poor woman was stuck with a Sunfire with a bad title, and by extension, no fire-from-the-sun to share and exhibit on NC roadways. She sadly and reluctantly parked it in a backyard after trying to contact the prior owner without any luck.
And there it sat. And sat.
It sat long enough that the tires went square, the battery died (does this sound familiar? See “Cavalier” above), wasps started nesting in the crevices of the body work, mold, mildew, pollen, the works. Regardless of all of the above, the “Arrival Blue” paint still caught my eye on the ad. I’m a sucker for any non-grayscale tone and blues are awesome. I thought to myself: “Self, how many blue coupes are you going to find (that still surprisingly run!) for under $1K?!” The car was posted for $600, but I was able to grab it (without a valid title) for $400. That’s a straight-up David Tracy-style cheap car superscore. Granted this isn’t a 4×4 in Michigan, but to each their own.
The bad title meant that the first order of business was to bond the title through the state DMV. This is a process that is entirely wrapped up in state government red tape and one that scares most buyers off from purchasing a car with a title issue. I had never bonded a title before, so I figured that it would be a good learning experience to do so. One meeting with a DMV officer with both the woman who sold it to me along with Yours Truly, one vehicle inspection, one notarized affidavit, one $100 bond from my insurance company, one four month wait, and a new title was all mine.
Wrenching On The Sunfire
Well this certainly didn’t go as planned since the car had sat for so long that the rear brake lines had rusted out. Any stopping would have to be done via e-brake. That meant towing was involved. Once the car was home, there was an internal conflict about whether to run new rear brake lines or just to take it to my usual shop. Doing the brake work on my back, in my driveway, in the winter didn’t sound too fun, and I’d purchased the car for so cheap that I decided to let the shop run the new lines from the master cylinder back to the wheel cylinders.
This was actually an excellent idea even though it cost twice the amount I paid for the car ($800).
You can always tell when a repair job is annoying and not fun at all when the shop calls and gives you a higher bill than expected and says “everything was rusted and snapped off/broke/gave us hell!” I like wrenching but I really don’t like drilling and tapping snapped wheel cylinder bolts.
[Editor’s Note: I’m not saying Stephen’s call to go to a shop was the wrong one. This job is rough, but as a veteran Michigan wrencher who has snapped far, far too many brake line fittings into wheel cylinders, I can tell you: The answer is to just buy pre-bent lines and new wheel cylinders. The lines will be a bit pricey at around $200, but the wheel cylinders are affordable enough despite being beautifully anodized. -DT].
Upon picking up the car from the shop, my first drive started off with the expectations I had from my Cavalier experience. That completely changed when the front suspension tried to emulate The War of 1812 and send a very loud BAM(!) into the cabin about 600 yards from the shop. The right strut assembly spring had snapped in half from rust/sitting. At this point my faith in J-Bodies was almost cemented. “Wow, The General definitely doesn’t deserve a salute on this one” say I on the drive home with a busted spring.
After painting the fading clear coat on the hood, replacing the right strut/spring, fixing a bad AC line (Schrader Valve), replacing the battery, dealing with the bonded title, snagging new wipers (they’re not cheap anymore!), adding fresh oil and gas, and dealing with cleanup, I was more than ready to part ways with it (and thrilled that I didn’t have to do any engine work). There was that same feeling that I had with the Cavalier of just needing more from the car. There was just no magic.
I posted it for a price that made it the cheapest running, inspected car with AC and no Check Engine light for sale in Wilmington ($2,400) and readied myself to show it. That showing took a hot minute, as I received a very tepid response to the ad (even after FB “boosting” it for $15).
I realized that a car like this has a very limited market penetration. So many buyers want four-doors; they want crossovers; they prefer a liftback/hatch. If it’s a 2-door then they want speed. This car had none of those things.
After playing text-tag with a few buyers for a few weeks, I finally sold the car to an aspiring 15 year-old Honduran rapper as his first car (his mother bought it for him). He told me that he was going to write a rap song about the car. As a life-long rock music genre aficionado, I told him to follow his dreams. There was a self-aware moment that had me holding back from impressing my 42 year old musical tastes on a 15 year-old, and telling him that rapping about a Sunfire was a bad idea.
So, after saving two J-Bodies, here’s what I have to say: If you really, uncontrollably love them (like the quirky buyer I sold the Cavalier to does), then go for it. If, like me, you think they’re pretty cool but not the greatest out there, have caution. These cars have a $2,500 sales ceiling even in the best market (which is the current used car market) and sometimes the cost to get a ~15-20 year old GM economy car (read: plastic) to a decent condition exceeds that. Especially when you factor in your time.
Like I’ve said above, I’m not in this for the money, but rather for the love of cars and for the ecological aspect. Many cars (once rehabbed) will have a market value that makes the time you invested in them worthwhile. These cars have a hard, sad value cap. Of course, top examples can get more in certain locales, but let’s be serious here – how many top-shelf Sunfires and Cavaliers do you really have access to in 2022?
Saving cars is a worthy endeavor for any Autopian. Saving coupes, even more so, as they’re slowly going the way of the Spectacled Cormorant. When you cut a couple doors off, there’s a little bit of “extra” baked into the ethos of the vehicle. Saving a fun-colored coupe with a stick (Cavalier) ticks off a good many boxes on The Autopian List of Boxes. “Arrival Blue” is wicked radical.
I’ve rescued about 110+ cars from backyards at this point over the past 20 years and I can’t wait to save the next 110 cars over the next 20 years. If you can get them cheap enough and if you’re also good with a wrench (at least 50% David Tracy Level – yes it’s an actual scale of wrenching ability), then these cars are a fantastic cheap buy for transportation, fun, horse-trading or whatever. If you don’t have the skills, the time, or the love for these excellently-painted and handsome cars, then go get yourself a sweet-ass Dodge Stratus Coupe or a solid-buy Grand Am. I don’t think too many dirt-cheap GM J-bodies will be around for the next 20 years, but I’ll certainly approach the next one with the battle scars and the hazed-over, glassy-eyed hangover from those last two.