The Isetta Saga, Chapter 15: Documenting the Body Restoration Progress

Jody Fitzpatrick, proprietor of “The Shop” in Maplewood NJ, was my choice to oversee the body restoration of the Isetta for many reasons: he was personally recommended, the business was nearby my residence, his pricing was fair, we had a mutual understanding of what “done” looked like, and his estimated timeframe was reasonable. Another reason is that Jody assured me that I could visit and observe the progress whenever I desired (sort of like conjugal visits for the incarcerated).

Having read more than one “restoration shop horror story” (the car gets pushed to the back, 6 months pass with no progress, the shop demands more upfront money, they lose your car keys, or worst, they close the business and lock the doors with your car inside), having visitation rights was refreshing.

So visit I did.

Three times during that hot July of 1995, I stopped in to have a peek and to snap a few snaps. Jody was always very accommodating and genuinely happy to see me, and gave me free rein to walk around my car and chat up the crew doing the actual labor.

During the first visit, employees were using homemade scrapers to remove the paint. They had decided against chemical dipping or media blasting, fearful of inflicting further damage. They also hammered out any dents and other rough spots, in preparation for some minor welding and an eventual skim coat of putty in spots. (From my own research, I had come to learn that any talk of body repair that doesn’t involve some small use of plastic filler is fantasy.)

THE SHELL IN THE PROCESS OF PAINT BEING REMOVED:

During this visit, Jody and I also finalized the choice of paint color. There was no known “official 1957 BMW Isetta paint code chart” we could refer to, so we did the next best thing. Sampling the unfaded paint we found under the BMW roundel on the door, we matched that to the closest shade among the modern paint code charts in Jody’s possession. We both agreed that the 1995 Ford Mustang shade of “Performance Red” was it. Jody stressed another advantage: should the car need touch-up or repair in the future, the correct paint would be readily available.

Just a week later, I saw the body with all the original paint gone, and the metal work beginning. I had given Jody a recommendation from John Jensen’s Isetta Restoration book for a method to reinforce the rearmost body panel at the tail lights and rear bumper. This section of the shell was not directly attached to the chassis, and was a known weak spot. Jody stated he would use the printed suggestion to add some additional metal in places.

HAND-SANDING THE FILLER AND THE GUIDE COAT:

During this 2nd visit, I pointed out a number of drilled holes which needed to be filled. These included where the dealer-installed mud flaps and luggage rack had been, neither of which were to be reinstalled. (I would later discover one which I missed, requiring the purchase of a somewhat pricey accessory in order to cover it!) Jody’s suggestion of grinding down the visible factory welds at the body panel joints was rejected by me, as I had every desire to keep to an original look.

Like a proud papa, I posed alongside the work-in-progress:

The third visit found the body in full primer. With the metal work done and its flanks as smooth as new, it was not difficult to visualize a freshly painted body shell. Jody had the door and all the other exterior pieces at The Shop, but he also generously offered to hang and align the door for me, something that was not part of our initial negotiation. I brought the freshly-plated door hinges with me so that he could do just that.

THE BODY IN FULL PRIMER, JUST PRIOR TO COLOR COAT:

Perhaps the most exciting aspect was that the work was closely adhering to the originally estimated timeframe. Jody said that it might take a week longer than he hoped, but everything looked to be on track for a final pick-up by the end of July. And there were no “pricing surprises” either. Jody had gotten a $2,000 down payment upon drop-off, and he said that all I owed him at completion was the $2,000 balance plus NJ state sales tax.

A few days later I got the call. “It’s ready whenever you are.” That Saturday, I hooked up the trailer to the car and grabbed my checkbook. We were on our way.

 

All photographs copyright © 2019 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 14: Prepping the Body for Delivery to “The Shop”

Happy New Year! The most recent posting of the Isetta Saga was Chapter 13, way back in May 2018 (it was a busy summer and fall). It’s time to resume the Saga, with intentions to post subsequent chapters more consistently through the winter months.

Chapter 13 ended on a high note: I had found a somewhat local body repair place in Maplewood NJ, “The Shop”, run by Jody Fitzpatrick, who agreed to take on the job. Jody and I had a verbal agreement that for $4,000 in materials and labor, he would perform all needed metal repair work, plus prime and paint the exterior and interior using a single stage paint. (He offered to clear coat it, but I declined, wanting to keep to the factory appearance.)

Notably, for that price he would NOT paint the underside, and his interior work would be limited to paint only. He would perform no metal prep to the interior (and it really didn’t need it), nor would he cut and buff the interior paint.

He suggested that my prep of the shell should include removing all glass, sunroof, and trim; removing the existing “tar paper” soundproofing; priming the interior panels; and painting the underside with whatever top coat color I chose.

Jody estimated that this body and paint work would take about three to four weeks. If I got the shell to him in June, I’d have it back sometime in July, giving me all of August and September to complete the reassembly of the car. In the grand scheme of things, I envisioned an “Isetta Party” for some time in the autumn. There was a lot to do, but it seemed within reach.

Stripping the body of its mechanical and trim pieces was straightforward. I had had practice with the two other body shells which got similar treatment through the years. Out came all the glass, followed by the bumpers, headlight and tail light buckets, and steering wheel & column. Then the wiring harness was removed as a complete assembly, taking care to tag as many of the terminal connections as possible.

The interior was tackled next. The heavy black tar paper lining the inside of the shell was certainly original. The 38-year-old glue gave me a fight, and I fought back using a heat gun, a putty knife, and lots of grunt work. The final bits were broken loose using a wire brush chucked into my trusty Black & Decker electric drill. Given the age of the car, I went so far as to remove the paint from the floor and wheel wells, so that fresh paint could be applied to bare metal.

Floor in process of being stripped; broomstick holds door open.

The only rust-through in the entire body was a hole in the battery box (as the lowest part of the interior, any water which leaked in was going to settle there.) Since this wasn’t an appearance concern, and I’m no body man, the fix was a thick piece of sheet metal stock, bent to shape, glued and riveted into place from the inside. This was done as opposed to covering the hole from the outside in order to provide support for the battery.

Sheet metal repairs done while you wait

Once the inside was stripped down to bare metal, the body was tipped up onto its door opening (door removed of course), which provided full access to the underside. I’m not sure how the factory finished off the bottom of the body (if they did at all), but I faced a floorpan completely covered with old paint and surface rust. Like the interior, the underside was brought down to bare metal with wire brushes mounted in an electric drill; tedious work, to state the obvious.

James Nanry, having assisted with body tilts, poses with his accomplishments

I decided on a multi-coat approach to provide maximum protection for the sheetmetal. Certainly the car was not going to be driven in inclement weather, but there would still be times when it would be outside in damp and humid conditions.

Midway through the messy job of stripping the underside

First coat: Bill Hirsch zinc paint prep/converter, to neutralize any remaining rust, and to help convert the surface to accept the paint:

Metal prep applied

Second coat: Bill Hirsch’s Miracle Paint in sliver (2 coats):

Bill Hirsch silver Miracle Paint

Third coat: Rust-Oleum primer in brown.

Fourth coat: Rust-Oleum red gloss top coat.

Extraneous parts were delivered along with the body

The body (along with the door, headlight buckets, engine cover, and instrument panel, all to be painted the same red) was ready to head to “The Shop”. I bought two 2x4s, glued strips of carpet to them, and bolted them to the underside of the shell using existing mounting holes. I then bolted the 2x4s to the wooden floor of my trailer. It was secure. Photos document my dear departed friend Chris Beyer who so graciously and generously accompanied me that day.

My Isetta log book contains this entry for Saturday, June 24, 1995:

Took body to “The Shop” in Maplewood NJ for body restoration. Est. time to complete =  3 wks. Est. price = $4000.

 

Deposit of $2000 paid at dropoff; balance due at completion

 

Now it was up to Jody. I think I went home and had a stiff drink.

 

 

All photographs copyright © 2019 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

Alfa Romeo Reverse Lamp Assembly Refurbishment

My Alfa is a mostly completely original car, meaning that it’s never been “restored”, not in the sense that classic cars are restored with all-new cosmetics and completely overhauled mechanicals. Yet with 65,000 miles on it (and counting), there have been maintenance and wear items needing attention.

 

The car is wearing about 90% of the paint and 100% of the interior with which it left the factory. The engine, gearbox, and rear axle are likewise the same assemblies that Tony, Vito and their fellow factory workers installed. During the past 51 years, the car has gotten new tires, brakes, belts, hoses, bulbs, shocks, clutch, tune-up parts, and fluids. I’m very conscious of my role as “steward” of this car, and hope that when it eventually moves to its next owner, the preservation efforts will continue.

 

As you may know from reading this blog, I’m not shy about putting several thousand miles a year on it, and if the paint gets a little worn or slightly chipped from my enjoyable time behind the wheel, so be it. But I would never consider repainting the car. Likewise, should a major engine component fail, I’ll repair it as necessary, but I’m not going to seek out a larger engine from another Alfa. I’m continually striving to maintain that balance whereby I get to enjoy the car while only fixing what needs fixing.

 

Earlier this year, I discovered that the reverse light didn’t work. The truth is, in the 5 years I’ve owned the car, I don’t think I had ever checked the back-up light. Its inoperative status gave me the impetus to remove the light assembly (there’s only one, below the rear bumper) and get it working again. The overall goal was not to replace it, but refurbish it, reusing as many of the original components as possible.

Bezel, housing, lens, and broken hardware after removal from car

The first challenge presented itself when two of the four fasteners snapped during removal. The clear lens was held in place by two Philips head screws, and half of one stayed in the housing. The housing itself used two studs with nuts, and one stud broke in half. Unlike the recessed screw for the lens, the broken stud projected far enough above the housing that a pair of locking pliers got it out the rest of the way.

Closeup of housing. Note broken screw on left, and hardened white gasket.

The gasket beneath the lens had been some kind of rubber that had turned to stone. It’s likely that it had never been disturbed until now. The chrome housing was somewhat pitted, and looked like it would respond to some metal polishing. The rubber bezel, mounted between the housing and the painted rear valence, would be treated to a trick I successfully deployed during the Isetta restoration: using Meguiar’s #40 Rubber Reconditioner, the bezel would be submerged and soaked for several days, hopefully returning some of the rubber’s pliancy.

I had my doubts about salvaging the lens; the old gasket was that hard.

While that sat in its bath, I tackled the removal of the old gasket. This was more of a fight than I anticipated. Not wanting to damage either the housing or the lens, I started with a plastic scraper, but made little progress. Next, I tried various solvents, attempting to soften the material. WD-40 had a minor effect on it, so I kept at it with that, fearful that anything stronger would also harm the lens. The most effective removal tool turned out to be a single-edge razor blade, but this took time. Eventually, both surfaces were rid of the hardened white material.

The lens did clean up nicely

Instead of purchasing a replacement gasket, I fashioned one from sheet cork which I keep just for such purposes. I tacked it in place using non-hardening gasket glue. Three days in the conditioning bath brought the rubber bezel mostly back to its former glory.

I’ve had great success with Permatex #2 non-hardening sealant; note LED bulb in place

My best shot at finding the metric hardware I needed was the local ACE Hardware store, Post Hardware on Route 22 in Somerville NJ. They had the correct screws for the lens, but not the studs. So instead, I bought bolts with the right thread pitch, and hacksawed off the bolt heads. Viola! Metric studs.

There’s a reason they say that ACE is the place

The broken screw was drilled out, and retapped with my metric tap and die kit. The studs were installed with a dollop of thread-locking compound. The old incandescent bulb was replaced with an LED bulb from CARiD.com. As the repair books state: “reassembly is the reverse of disassembly”.

I may use the tap & die set infrequently, but it’s great to have

As you can see, the back-up lamp burns brightly. There’s just one more thing to report, but before I do, I must ask you to think like an Italian. You see, when I first tested the refurbished assembly, it still didn’t work. And that’s when I remembered: in 1967, as far as the Italians were concerned, a driver didn’t need the back-up light to illuminate every time you put the car in reverse! After all, it would provide little or no help in daylight. But if the headlamps are on, indicating it’s dark out, THEN a reverse lamp would prove helpful. So the back-up light is wired to come on only when the light switch is on. I’ll be taking a night cruise just to confirm how well I can see behind me….

Nice and bright (as long as the headlights are on)

 

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

 

 

 

 

 

Replacing the Alfa’s Alternator

I just recently came across these photos, which I had frankly forgotten about, which is why this technical procedure, performed in May, is only getting its own blog post now.

 

If your memory is good, then you’ll recall reading back in May’s report on this year’s New England 1000 that the Alfa’s alternator failed us in the middle of the rally. If your memory is not so good, or if you’re just joining us, you can read about it here.

The truth is, I should have been wise to an impending failure, as even with the Red-Top Optima battery on trickle charge, the car would still occasionally need a boost. Alternator output measured at the battery was barely 13 volts, a weak statistic which I rationalized to a low idle.

As mentioned in the rally write-up, the drive to our starting destination was done in a steady rain, with lights blazing and wipers flailing. It’s likely that was enough to seal the fate of the battery.

Tuesday morning, we bought a NAPA-brand battery, and leaving the Optima in its place in the trunk, we simply swapped the cables onto the new unit, using bungee cords to keep it from sliding around. The alternator wasn’t completely dead, just on life support. With the new battery, we had zero starting issues the rest of the week, and coasted home on Friday.

Once again I must give a shout to my friends at Classic Alfa in the UK. A new alternator, ordered Tuesday afternoon after they had closed for the day, arrived at my house on Thursday evening. I dare say that most U.S.-based suppliers would not have been able to get me one with such speed. So Memorial Day weekend was spent in part performing the alternator-ectomy.

Old alternator and attendant wiring connections

Access to the unit in the engine compartment was quite good, improved by the battery’s relocation to the trunk, performed by the previous owner (PO). The PO had also removed the factory generator (which I still have) and installed this alternator plus an external voltage regulator. My new replacement alternator has an internal regulator, and it’s a so-called one-wire job.

 

Old one again. Note alignment of upper bracket.

I photographed the wiring to help with any reinstallation questions, then removed the two components. I noted that the alternator’s upper mounting bracket was at a slight angle, and vowed to focus on improving that geometry when putting it all back together.

With everything hooked up, I measured a steady 13.8 volts at the battery (yet another new Red-Top that I purchased to be on the safe side). I was able to recover the old Optima by very slowly trickle-charging it, and both that battery and the barely-used NAPA one were sold to a young man in my office who is always working on 3-4 project vehicles at a time. (And for the record, both the old alternator and regulator were put in the trash. I don’t keep worn-out parts around.)

New alternator in place, and better aligned too

The only issue, and it’s the smallest of nits to pick, is that the one-wire alternator needs to be ‘excited’ after initial start before it will charge (much the same can be said about me). The ammeter reads zero until I bring engine revs above 3,500 rpm (waiting a few minutes so that oil circulates), at which point, the amp gauge needle jumps to life. It’s a small price to pay to be secure in the knowledge that the battery’s got the juice to crank that 1300cc monster to life.

 

A good number

 

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 13: The Quest for a Body Shop, or, Third Time’s the Charm

Welcome back to the Isetta Saga!

In Chapter 12, it was early spring 1995, and the blog post contained video evidence which proved that the “thumper”, as one-cylinder engines are sometimes called, would start and run. You could say that this completed the mechanical portion of the restoration. Of course, there were “mechanical” elements to be addressed once the body and chassis were reunited, such as pedal and shifter linkages, gauges, lights, and so on, but, the running chassis was essentially done.

Now it was crunch time. Now, a fear crept into me because I was about to embark on a path over which I would have much less control. I am a technician, an automotive repairman, by trade. The nuts and bolts were, if not easy, at least resolvable by me. As I looked at the forlorn Isetta body, I was reminded of how little I knew about body and paint work. There was also an element of procrastination in play here. I could have sought out body estimates in 1994. However, it was easier to tell myself to push forward with the chassis work, and allow the bodywork to wait until it was absolutely necessary to move on it. That time was now.

 

Left front: lots of scars along side

 

Right front: door is OK, but strange circular gash above engine door opening

As had been my habit for this entire project, I grabbed my trusty Nikon EM, loaded it with a fresh roll of Kodak ISO 100 (or 200) film, and photographed all the details of the red body in its “before” state. This was done both to document its current condition as well as to provide a guide during reassembly. The body was still complete, with door, glass, sunroof, lights, wiring harness, and interior panels in place. There was no sense in disassembling any of it until I understood the next steps, which would only happen after speaking with several body shops.

 

Left rear: metal is split at wheel well

 

Right rear: rear bumpers have left gaping holes in sheet metal

The body was loaded onto my landscape trailer, and the trailer was hooked to the back of my Volvo wagon. Off I went to visit two different restoration facilities in northern New Jersey. As both these shops are still in business, and as I have nothing to gain by presenting potentially disparaging remarks about them in this public forum, I shall refer to them as “Shop A” and “Shop B”.

Interior left front showing shifter & linkage, wiring, factory sound insulation (which was to be removed)

 

Interior right front: VIN plate, but rust along bottom of wheel well

Shop A is a first-class enterprise with a stellar reputation in the hobby. They are known for their award-winning vehicles, and even market their own line of automotive paint. The patriarch of the business greeted me personally, and invited me to sit with him so we could discuss my progress and my intentions.

I told him that I had essentially completed the drivetrain, and wanted a shop to take on only the body shell. “You have done an excellent job managing your own restoration”, he said to me, and I wasn’t sure if the comment was a compliment, or if he regretted that I hadn’t handed over the whole stinkin’ pile of parts for him to sort out. He continued: “We can restore this body, certainly can. Our process will be, you leave it with us while we do our research and preliminary work, and we will send you an itemized bill on a monthly basis”.

My next question was obvious, or so I thought: “What will be the total cost of the body and paint work?” He replied “Oh, we have no way of knowing that. Besides, that’s not how we work. As I said, we will perform a certain amount of work every month and bill you accordingly. You are also welcome to stop by and see the progress first-hand”. I told him that I would think about it. The walk back to my car wasn’t complete before I had concluded my thinking about it. This was the traditional model of automotive restoration. The owner trusts the restoration shop to proceed at a fair pace, and pays the bills with no clear end date in sight. This shop was not getting my business.

 

With seat out, note spare tire witness mark, shift linkage

Shop B was introduced to me when its proprietor visited my office for an evening’s “hobbyists’ gathering”. He was fairly new to the business, and wanted to introduce himself to a wider audience. He spoke in a friendly and down-to-earth manner, and explained that his shop was the restoration place of choice for the common man. At the end of his presentation, I approached him and asked about paying a visit. A short time later, I trailered the red body out to him for his inspection, and he promised to get back to me ASAP.

This was 1995, so we used fax as a speedy means of communication. The first page of the fax was a cover sheet, and the second page had a detailed line-by-line estimate for metal work, fabrication, priming, sanding, and painting. I knew I was in trouble reading the first line of his cover page: “Dear Rich, I hope you’re sitting down!” His estimate for total parts and labor? $11,150. That only meant I needed to keep looking.

This is behind passenger seat. Removable panel is for spark plug access.

 

Parcel shelf with factory interior panel still in place.

A work colleague, friend, and all-around great fellow hobbyist Dennis Nash was someone I sought out for advice. Dennis said that he knew someone through the Rolls-Royce Owners Club who ran a collision shop but also fit in a fair amount of restoration work. He was in Maplewood, about a 20 minute drive from my house, and much closer than either Shop A or Shop B. The person’s name was Jody Fitzgerald, and the name of this business was The Shop.

I called. Jody answered, “This is …. The Shop”. (This is how he always answered the phone, with a purposeful delay between “this is” and “The Shop”.) We had a pleasant initial conversation, and he invited me to visit with body in tow. It didn’t take him long to look it over and for him to tell me that this was something he could handle. He made himself very clear that there were certain things he would, and would not, do. He said that he would:

  • Expect me to deliver the body with glass and soundproofing removed.
  • Paint the body in a single-stage urethane, and color-sand and polish the exterior.
  • Paint the interior to match, but not color-sand or polish it.
  • NOT paint the underside of the body. (He suggested that I paint it before bringing it back to him.)
  • Complete all the body and paint work in an approximate 3-4 week time period.

Jody said that the total cost in material and labor would be $4,000. That was a very acceptable number to me. Before we signed any papers, Jody said he had one more item of importance to discuss with me:

“I will take on this job, which will cost you $4,000, only if you verbally assure me that you understand this cost exceeds the total value of the car.”

In retrospect, I don’t blame him one bit for wanting to ensure that I understood the price/value relationship. We both knew that good, but not perfect, running and driving Isettas were available for around $3,500 in 1995. There was too much emotional attachment in this project for me, so I was more than willing to spend what I believed was a fair price for the body shell restoration. Jody simply didn’t want to start this job and have me remorsefully abandon the car with him.

I rushed home to begin the disassembly so that I could deliver the shell to Jody. It was June of 1995. There was no time to waste.

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in the Isetta Saga, as the shell is prepared for delivery to The Shop.

 

The Isetta Saga, Chapter 12: The Engine Starts for the First Time

Dear Readers,

Those of you who have followed this Isetta Saga have endured 11 chapters of a story that has covered parts of three decades. You’ve read about the initial discovery of these tiny cars, first in a magazine ad, then in a Vermont barn. You learned that I’m very good at letting a few years (like, ten) go by without any work transpiring. You saw that getting my own garage gave me the work space I longed for. My pictures illustrated progress with dismantling and restoring major components such as the chassis, engine, and rear axle.

At what point, dear readers, did you ask yourselves:

WHEN IS THIS THING GOING TO RESEMBLE A CAR?

Can’t say as I blame you. If you didn’t know better (and I have yet to prove that you will), you might conclude that the freshly-painted engine is destined for a museum display cabinet. And “rolling chassis”? Please. The cynics out there (I know who you are) are thinking “just throw a sheet of plywood on it and use it as a garden cart”.

But are we any closer to actually taking it for a drive? Let’s recap the two most recent chapters. Chapter 10 included the story of the combo starter-generator known as the Dynastart. Its renewed wiring was complete, even if it was yet to be reinstalled onto the crank nose. And Chapter 11 displayed photos of a Dynastart-less engine bolted to the chassis, with a complete transmission and final drive axle right behind it. The next steps were to install the Dynastart, obtain a voltage regulator and battery, and pick up a quart of fuel at the local gas station. Oh, and then try to start it.

Any book about the internal combustion engine will tell you that provided your internals are mechanically sound, only three things are needed to start an engine: air, fuel, and spark.

I made a checklist.

  • Air: check. (My backyard had an abundance of it, and there were no obstructions in front of the carb.)
  • Fuel: check. (The Isetta has no fuel pump. Someone just needed to hold a funnel higher than the carb, and pour fuel into it while a hose ran to the carb.)
  • Spark: check. (If I was correctly reading John Jensen’s Isetta Restoration, touching certain wires from the Dynastart and the voltage regulator to a 12 volt source would crank the engine and deliver spark to the plug.)

 

Heavy red cable feeds Dynastart; voltage regulator is temporarily clamped to chassis

 

On Sunday, March 26, 1995, I rolled the chassis out of the garage and into the backyard. Enlisting the help of my friend John M and his 10-year-old son Nick, we poured fuel into the funnel, and touched wires to the battery.

John not only lent the services of his son, perched as he was on a step stool for this grand experiment; John also had a video camera set up, ready to record the scene live as it happened.

This long-hidden VHS tape was recently rediscovered and transferred to DVD. Please click on the YouTube link below so that you may verify the results with your own eyes:

I assure you that these moments were not rehearsed. Once I remembered to supply sufficient fuel to the carburetor, the engine actually started on the first try. The fist-pumping at the end was a spontaneous display of exuberance, a reflexive reaction to the sheer joy of the moment. The feeling was indescribable; it certainly energized me to keep pushing myself to complete the car in the few short months I had remaining to meet my own self-imposed deadline.

 

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

The next chapter in the Isetta Saga starts the hunt for an affordable repair shop to take on the body and paint restoration. Note I said “affordable”.

 

 

 

The Miata’s Manual Gearbox is Refreshed

The PLAN was to spend free time during this past winter working on the Miata. What happened? Where did the winter go? Of course, I ask that based on the CALENDAR, not on the actual WEATHER. (As I sit here composing this missive at 7:24 p.m. EDT on April 15, it is 38 degrees F outside, and the rain and wind make it feel like 31F. Clearly, it does NOT feel like spring!)

The to-do list for the ’93 Miata, drawn up last November, included: rear brake service, transmission service, new lights, new tires, and an engine compartment detail. I haven’t gotten very far. The first item to be tackled, the brakes, wasn’t started until March, and still needs bleeding and parking brake adjustment before it’s crossed off the list.

Since e-brake adjustment requires removal of the center console, I combined that with servicing the shifter. Here was a case where online forums provided information not to be found in a service manual.

My Miata service book, published not by Mazda itself but by an independent publisher, is quite good. However, it says nothing of servicing the shifter “turret”. The turret is an oil-filled box at the rear of the transmission, in which the shift rod connects to the external shift linkage. It does not share its oil with the rest of the gearbox.

The turret service info was found at www.miata.net, and I’m grateful to the contributors who provided both a step-by-step tutorial, along with a list of suggested replacement parts. I was also greatly helped by the YouTube video posted by Miata Mike, self-proclaimed King of the Miatas.

Under the leather faux boot is the real rubber shift boot. Old (L) and new (R) side-by-side.

Once the shift knob was unscrewed and the center console lifted out of the way (the leather boot attached to the console is but a decorative item), it was obvious that repair work was overdue. (This is what happens when you drive the same car for 21 years, and the small deteriorations are not noticed.) The large rubber shift boot was shredded, and the flexible rubber cap, bonded to a metal plate which forms the top of the turret, was equally damaged. Removal of the cap allowed the shift rod itself to be extricated. The plastic bushings at the bottom of the rod were worn but not broken. Most of the turret’s gear oil was gone.

Bottom of shift rod, with old plastic bushings still attached

One of the major forum findings was just that: “You’ll find the turret to be empty or almost empty. Service it by refilling it with oil”. The mystery remains: where did the oil GO? Using a turkey baster which has been appropriated to the garage, the scant remaining oil was sucked out, and fresh 75W-90 gear oil was added until it almost reached the top of the turret.

Peering into the now-empty turret

It was time to rebuild the shift knob. The aftermarket replicates all the needed plastic and rubber parts; however, scanning the various online listings convinced me that spending a bit more and getting OEM components was the wiser move. A Mazda dealer in Vienna VA, Priority Mazda, runs an eBay store and had the best combination of price/availability/shipping cost/delivery time. I placed the order and had all my parts, in Mazda bags, at my house in 3 days.

Old (bottom) and new (top) service parts lined up

The new pieces went together quite easily. With the turret full, everything at the center console was reinstalled. While I was there, I drained the gearbox oil, and again using a recommendation from the forum, refilled it with Valvoline “Manual Transmission Fluid”, GL4, NOT GL5. After visiting 3 auto parts stores looking for this stuff, I had to order the Valvoline online also. What did we do before the World Wide Web?

Valvoline MTF, hard to find in stores

 

The trick to getting 75W-90 gear oil to flow in 50 degree weather

 

Rebuilt shift rod reattached to now-filled turret

 

The Miata is still up on 4 jackstands; just as well, because it ain’t goin’ out in this weather just yet. Once it warms up, I’m excited to take that first test drive and try out the shift action. With fresh tranny oil, refilled turret, and new rubber booties, I have great expectations. But I better put a hustle in my bustle. The NJ Region AACA annual car show is Sunday May 6, EXACTLY 3 weeks from today, and my now-25-year-old Miata will be making its AACA debut there. It’s at the Mennen Arena in Morristown. If you’re in the area, I expect you’ll come by.

All photographs copyright © 2018 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

The Isetta Saga has many more chapters to go before reaching its inevitable conclusion. With the help of some colleagues, I’m working on a big surprise, and hope to have it available for your viewing pleasure soon.

FUN FACT:

Road & Track magazine, in its July 1989 edition, ran its first full road test of the new 1990 Mazda Miata. A sidebar article crowned it one of the “World’s Best Cars”. Here’s what they said about its manual transmission:

“…. performance is further enhanced by a close-ratio 5-speed that rates nothing less than a 10 for its smooth, positive operation. With the feel of a Formula car, this tranny is fun just to run through the gears.”