In 1992 I had just finished college in Calgary, and had moved back to BC to continue my education. I had gone a year without a car (I had not been without a car since I was 11), and needed one badly. I scoured the classifieds for some beater, envisioning a rusty Datsun 210 or aged Corolla, but instead found this beautiful 1985 Pontiac Firefly for the appealing sum of $500.
It was rough. The former owners were heavy smokers, and the inside was coated with a yellowish goo. It reeked something fierce, and my eyes watered just standing near it. I took the entire interior out and steam cleaned it with almost a full bottle of ammonia. After hours of scrubbing, the only time you would smell cigarettes was on a very hot day if the windows were up.
The brakes were shot, so I put all new brakes all around, including replacing the seized e-brake cables. The catalytic converter was rusted through, and since AirCare didn’t exist in the Okanagan at the time, I removed it (this is illegal), intending that if it failed AirCare once I moved to the coast, I would put one back on. I bought new tires, tuned up the engine and started driving it to college.
It was a great car – park it anywhere. Turn around in one lane. Vancouver to Kelowna cost $10 gas. Everything was cheap on it, the tires, the 3.5L of oil, everything. I loved the car. Here are a few short stories from it’s history with me:
The car had been in a small accident prior to my ownership. I say small, because anything other than a small accident would total one of these cars. The front grill was pieced back together by the owner with a hot glue gun. The grill finally disintegrated in 1993 at 135 Km/h on the Coquihalla highway.
I bought an amplified 8″ subwoofer tube. Ran it for a few days and was so disappointed with the sound I took it back.
I bought two Pyramid 10″ subs and built a 3 cubic foot sealed box for it. Drove the speakers with a dinky Alpine amp that couldn’t handle the current and would shut off for a second during heavy bass notes. I also added a passive EQ that I had in the previous car, and bought Blaupunkt 6.5″ door speakers. Those were hard to install. The doors aren’t deep enough, so you have to pop rivit in sheet metal to mount the speaker, bend the door-holder-inner (??) so the door can close, and remove the grill so you can unwind the window. Although the Blaupunkts sounded nice, once I moved to the coast the rain would run past the window seals, drip down inside the door, leak through the foam speaker surround and into the floor of the car. Never was able to stop it…
I tried the subs in a variety of configurations before I sold them.
Then I tried a ported box with two 8’s. Then I tried a ported box with two 12’s. Then I bought a Blaupunkt Dual Voice Coil Pro Component Velocity Subwoofer. Built a perfect ported box and installed a Kenwood 741 Mono Sub amp. It sounded absolutely outstanding. Everything shook. And, if you know the whereabouts of these – I’d like them back, no questions asked.
I became quite good at knowing the perimeter of the vehicle. Primarily because I found out just where the car did not fit. The car had enough ground clearance that you could physically drive over a small median to turn around. Bumping up onto a curb helped get past larger vehicles when you wanted to turn right. I got lost one night at UBC and had to drive across someone’s lawn (sorry!) to get out. The car could go down stairs better than up them.
The battery was pretty bad when I got it, and since I didn’t have much money, I bought a “rebuilt” battery, which wasn’t much better. Listening to the stereo, it would be totally dead in an hour. Since I lived on a hill, I parked at the top of it and bomb started the car in the morning. The college parking lot was flat, but the car barely weighed 1500 lbs and only had a 1L engine. I could bomb start it myself. Except if it got cold. One winter dipped to -30°C and the battery froze. I was working really late at my job, and when I went out to my car there was nobody around. I tried to bomb start it in the parking lot, but I had 80W90 gear oil in the transmission and the oil was so thick at that temperature that the friction of trying to get it in gear slowed the car so much that I couldn’t get it to start. I pushed it myself for five blocks to an all night gas station to find that there was no other car from which to boost. I figured I would flag down the next car that happened along. The next car was a cop, who was more than happy to call a tow truck, for which I had no money. Thankfully he did boost the car (possibly since I had cables) and I was on my way.
With a solid back axle, the car seemed to have a tendency to oversteer in emergency maneuvers. Not that I would know.
Top speed is 150 Km/h. Max. Not that I would know.
I backed over a garbage can once. The can came away unscathed.
The engine started to wear out at about 150,000 Km. Actually it started to use oil if you drove over 110 Km/h. Then it started to use coolant rather quickly and overheat regularly. I ordered a rebuild kit, and pulled the engine out. If you remove the head first, you can pull the engine by putting your left knee on the cowl, and your right foot and the bumper and lifting the engine out by hand.
I sent the head out to a auto parts/machine shop saying “what ever it needs – do it.” It returned with all new exhaust valves, knurled guides (yuck), machined seats, and what looked like a draw-filed head surface. I assumed this must be the right technique, and installed it on my finished engine.
The new engine consumed oil, and overheated constantly. Turned out the head gasket was a fault and so I rebuilt the engine again three months later. I sent the head to a Cylinder Head Rebuilder who rebuilt the head for me, commenting that everything was shot. Since then, I am reluctant to purchase anything from the original shop ever again. This was not the first time things went wrong with their stuff, either.
The newly rebuilt rebuilt was much better. Smoother, more powerful, and only overheated when the headlights were on. No, I never figured that one out either.
I had the radiator re-cored to a custom oversize two-core rad. In the overheating days, the thing would still overheat, even with the big rad – a clue that something major was wrong.
In the end, the engine was great. Never missed a beat (even when I missed a shift), and always passed AirCare with flying colours even without the catalytic converter.
I got adventurous one summer and bought a Turbo Chevy Sprint sway bar to put on the front, thinking this would improve the handling. I figured I would also install hard bushing in the front as well. Unfortunately, no one makes them – so I made my own. I machined new bushings from solid aluminum and installed just them when I found that the front of a Turbo ’87 is longer than my normal ’85, and thus so was the sway bar. The handling was indeed tighter, but much much more rough riding.
I also hacked half a coil off the front springs, which didn’t make it sit really low, but it did bring it down to a nicer looking level. I wanted to really drop it, but never had the guts to actually do it.
I went through a pair of front wheel bearings about once a year. I kept replacing them with bearings from the aforementioned shop. I concluded that either I drove the car far, far to hard into the corners, or the bearings were made out of butter.
When I did the brakes, I cheaped out and rebuilt the front calipers. They lasted a year before they began to seize themselves together. I noticed that when my mileage dropped. That, and I would slow down rolling downhill. I didn’t replace the pads though, even after I had put the new calipers on. They lasted about a year before they began squeaking incessantly due to massive heat damage.
I spent a long time trying to chase a clunking noise from the front end. I replaced some motor mounts, ball joints, wheel bearings, checked CVs, bushings, everything. I also felt the front struts were a little soft, so (like a fool) I bought new struts from the same aforementioned autoparts store. They were no better, and also were manufactured so cheaply that the front brake lines couldn’t mount onto the bracket. I had to MIG weld an additional bracket onto the strut to hold the brake lines.
The clutch was starting to chatter a bit, so I purchased a “New, Not Remanufactured” clutch, again from the same stupid shop. I paid $50 to have the stepped flywheel turned and took my time to do the job right. Removing the transmission invariably bumps the engine coolant tube running along the back of the engine block. This breaks the o-ring seal resulting in a coolant leak. I bought a new o-ring to make sure I had a good seal. The pressure plate didn’t fit quite right and I had to gently enlarge some of the holes so that I could use it.
Putting transmission back in, one of the last bolts to do up slipped out of my fingers and fell into the bellhousing through the starter opening. So off came the transmission and in went a second new o-ring. Putting the transmission back in again, a 10mm socket fell in through the starter hole. Off went the transmission and in went a third o-ring seal (why so many seals? I could never get a used o-ring to seal properly).
By the time I finally got the whole thing back together, I was getting pretty good at pulling FWD. transmissions. I filled the transmission with real GM Synchrolube transmission oil and went for a rip.
The new clutch chattered worse than the original.
I try not to twitch now, when I am around that parts store. Either the parts I get are always garbage, I am a horrible mechanic, or I have some unusual Midas touch – where everything I touch turns to something other than gold.
When the body started to go, I knew the Firefly had reached the end of it’s useful life. It wasn’t bad for rust, but it was going to be. The hatch was leaking water onto my speaker box. The doors leaked water onto the seats. The windows leaked water through the speakers onto the floor. The back wiper motor seized solid. The front wipers popped off the motor. The only way I could fix it was to hose clamp some of the rods together and have only one windshield wiper – luckily on the driver’s side. The heater had only one speed – full. The dash lights would work intermittently – usually a smack on the instrument cluster returned them. The water getting into the seats and floor started to rot the upholstery. I had to leave the windows down all the time – even if it was raining – because it stank so badly inside.
Although all of the ailments were fixable, I was just tired of fixing the car and owning the car. I just didn’t want to bother with it anymore. I would definitely buy another one. They are excellent, cheap, durable cars. I still miss the abuse it could take. It was a beater, but it was my beater. It was great.