Project Bluebird: The first 730 miles

I should probably do an update on Project Bluebird, seeing as I have actually been able to drive it. Hoorah!

As related last time, I was forced to park the Bluebird up after its first trip out, as the shock absorbers were dangerously shot. KYB kindly supplied a set of its excel-g gas shock absorbers, after I asked for advice about trying to improve things beyond standard. Gas shock absorbers, or dampers, use nitrogen gas to control the springing of the car – literally damping things down. Now, I’m quite used to the damping effects of nitrogen after many years of driving hydraulic Citroens. The main benefit is that the damping range does not change, whereas hydraulic dampers will suffer a loss of damping ability as the oil heats up, and the viscosity changes.

Bluebird gets some love, and DFTR Automotive, Dudley.

I visited DFTR Automotive in Dudley for the fitting, knowing that Dean has a good chunk of experience having worked on these cars when they were new, though Mazda rotaries are the main love of this family-owned firm. With a two-post lift and power tools, the front struts were removed, the springs compressed and the new dampers fitted in no time at all. The nearside front, as I suspected, was in terrible condition.

The rear was more involved, mostly because the rear seat needs removing to access the upper strut mounts – not an issue if the spec includes a folding rear seat, or if you have a hatchback. The seat clips really didn’t want to give up their hold on the seat, but we got there in the end. Removing the struts is also a bit more involved, with the multiple suspension links needing to be removed, and the brakes before you can pull the strut out. Still, a few hours work and the Bluebird was feeling a whole lot better.

Back seat needs removing on Bluebird saloon.

In fact, the difference could barely be more marked. I’ve just changed the dampers on the 2CV too, though that transformation was more marked. The 2CV is now limousine-smooth once more, while the Bluebird still rides like Bluebirds always did – a touch bouncy at times and you know about every bump you hit.

The transformation has come in terms of handling, though. I can now safely chuck the car into a bend and know it’ll track neatly around it, even if I hit a bump mid-bend. Even when you aren’t walloping into bumps, it still corners much more neatly. Body roll is better controlled, and its horrible habit of lurching mid-bend has utterly gone. Sure, it’s still no sports car, but I can once again corner with enthusiasm. I live in Wales. This is how I drive very often.

Today, there was further work to do, as I set about retorquing the cylinder head bolts. This should be done after 600 miles, but I thought 730 would do, as that’s what I’d covered. I imagine a lot of cars miss this essential step, which is perhaps why so many cars suffer head gasket failure after a repair. It isn’t particularly hard to do, though the fuel pump needs removing to provide adequate access to one of the bolts – just two nuts and it’s away.

With that done, I could check the valve clearances. Annoyingly, the head bolts should be tightened with the engine cold, but it’s best to check the valve clearances hot. That meant putting the rocker cover back on and running the engine up to temperature before taking it back off again. A couple of clearances were a bit slack, something given away by the slightly tappy nature of the engine. That’s perhaps because I’d set them cold initially, as I knew I’d have to reset them later anyway, after re-torquing the head. I’d set them a little on the generous side back then.

I also disconnected the manifold-to-downpipe joint, as the gasket on it is very poor. It didn’t have one at all when I got it, but the gasket I had in my gasket kit was a poor fit. I slapped a load of exhaust paste around and did it back up. The result is that it is now much quieter.

Looking good! A quick clean makes all the difference.

Having given the Bluebird a wash ahead of a local show, this really is starting to look and sound like a car that has been vastly improved since purchase back in May. There are still some issues – a leaky sunroof (the frame that holds the glass is rusty), a cracked dashboard and the heater matrix is still slightly clogged. Plenty to be cracking on with then, as the car settles in to shared daily driver duty. I think I might quite like it though…

Project Bluebird: Actual roadtrip

Finally, on Friday 21st July, I actually set off to drive somewhere further than 12 miles away in the Bluebird. It was time to test my abilities. Would the head gasket survive? Would the JB Weld Waterweld hold on the thermostat housing? Would I discover that the car was actually completely knackered?

The first destination was SNG Barratt in Bridgnorth, where I had to spend some time peeking at the underside of a 340 saloon.

Success! First destination reached.

That was dealt with quite pleasantly, though the Bluebird was starting to cause some concern over broken surfaces. The front end would shake alarmingly. It feels like the dampers are shot, so the front wheels are ‘pattering.’ This means they’re actually not in constant contact with the road, though thankfully it would still go around corners.

With the visit complete, I checked the coolant level. It had dropped only very slightly, though the heater output had once again gone horribly cold when I tested it. Oh. Bother. After an overnight halt in Buckinghamshire with some friends, it was time to head to Hagerty Insurance’s Festival of the Unexceptional. This is a classic meet I’ve long desired to attend, and it is chock full of the sort of cars I love – ie really ordinary ones. The Bluebird was ideal. Look in the background of the shot below and you’ll see such luminaries as a Volvo 66 estate, a Lada Riva estate, a Nissan Terrano II and a Patrol! People were dead keen to ogle the Bluebird’s immaculate* engine bay.

Bluebird engine

Bluebird at The Festival of the Unexceptional 2017.

It was a great show, though the Bluebird developed a fault, when the sunroof refused to close. Just as it started raining. UGH! An umbrella saved us from a soaking, and, with help from other Bluebird owners, we eventually managed to force the sunroof closed using a screwdriver and the manual winding override.

Oh dear! Sunroof jams open.

I’d been forced to ditch the spoiler on the driver’s wiper blade by this point, as it was fouling on the black trim at the base of the windscreen. Then the wiper started clicking quite horribly. I prayed it wasn’t the usual Bluebird wiper linkage problem, where it falls apart. I distracted myself by leading a merry convoy of Japanese metal to a Little Chef.

A fantastic convoy of rare Japanese metal. And my Bluebird.

Horrible weather, but a lovely mix of Japanese classics, including Dan Hirst’s fabulous Honda Quintet, and the green Sunny of Mark Ashbridge that won car of the show!

After that, I headed to Bromsgrove, for an overnight stay with relatives, before heading to Shelsley Walsh hillclimb and a very different event – Classic Nostalgia!

Parked up at Classic Nostalgia, Shelsley Walsh.

This was also a fantastic event, which I’ll cover in a video shortly. After that, it was just a two-hour drive home, with my sat nav choosing some particularly entertaining roads!

Well, they would have been entertaining had I not been in a Nissan Bluebird 1.6 with knackered shock absorbers. It wasn’t terrifying, but it wasn’t exactly fun. I eventually arrived home, feeling just as knackered as the shocks.

Back home, with milk for tea!

Overall then, a bit underwhelming, though very pleasing that an engine I repaired seems to work very nicely. We covered probably 360 miles, though it’s hard to be exact. The trip reckoned about 400 miles, but the tyres are the wrong size – 65 profile instead of 80 – which means an indictated 83mph is a sat nav-confirmed 70. This means the trip distance is also wrong.

But, I can’t help thinking there’s potential to explore here. Could some aftermarket goodies transform the Bluebird into a car that actually handles? It’s so utterly dreadful at the moment that I can’t help thinking it’d be an ideal guinea pig. I do actually like it, despite its drearyness. On motorways, it’s remarkably composed. Let’s see what happens…

Project Bluebird: Actually works!

Apologies for the delay in updating you on the Bluebird project. Things have been pretty crazily busy of late, especially now there are five vehicles on the fleet to try and keep in working order.

Sticking with the Bluebird, I decided to give it a bit more love before the MOT test. Liqui Moly recommended its mOs2 oil, in 10w40 flavour, which was certainly going to be a lot better than the 30 grade stuff I’d lobbed in as a flush – there was a lot of mayonnaise-like gunk to clear out.

Oil change! Thanks Liqui Moly.

With that done, I could finally drive to the MOT station. A steep downhill section allowed me to clean up the brakes ahead of the test, though I was disappointed to note that the engine was not holding temperature, despite a new thermostat. I’d worry about that later. Now for the test!

On the rollers! MOT time.

Unsurprisingly, it failed. I knew something was amiss up front, though oddly the inner track rod ends are not apparently an MOT failure. The tester didn’t like them though, so I got a dangerous advisory. Rightly so. There was also a split CV gaiter, a loose rear wheel bearing and an insecure headlamp (with the reflector insecure inside it for bonus points). Oh, and a split wiper blade I’d failed to spot.

I gave the go-ahead for the work, which added another £220 or so to the cost of this project, probably nudging me into four figures if I dared add it all up. To avoid upsetting myself, I shall not. However, this was it. I could drive home! So I did.

Project Bluebird has its first legal drive.

I decided shortly afterwards to investigate the thermostat. Sure enough, it had come slightly adrift the last time I took the housing off, so that’s my own fault. However, with everything back together again, the heater just would not get hot.

Today, I finally found out why.

Yes, that’s a lot of silt! Quite tricky to do while holding a camera, but the result is a heater that actually works. Hoorah!

Which leaves me with a Bluebird that now runs nicely, cools nicely and is ready for Festival of the Unexceptional this coming Saturday. I’ve covered about 70 miles in the car now, but this’ll still be the longest trip so far. Before then, I just want to be confident that my cooling issues are now resolved, before trying some Evans Waterless coolant. I’ll let you know how that goes in a future post.

Project Bluebird is ready to go!

EDIT – Now with another video update, including first drive!

Project Bluebird: Actual progress!

There has been progress with the Bluebird! In short, it runs again, holds coolant (after a bit of a leaky moment) and is ready and raring to go for an MOT, hopefully next week.

I haven’t got time to go into the details at the moment, but shall list my most recent videos for Project Bluebird below.

A lot has happened since this photo was taken…

The car arrives.

I start pulling it apart.

I start ballsing things up and generally not having a clue.

A miracle happens. Eventually.

 

Part Four – hopefully soon!

Thank you for words of encouragement and support during this project. It’s the first time I’ve partially-dismantled a four-cylinder engine, and it has certainly been a learning experience!

But what do I do with it once it is finished? I’ve got a Proton awaiting attention now…

 

Project Bluebird: Not progress

Well, that’s not entirely true. There has been progress. It just doesn’t feel like it.

Mostly, today has involved putting the engine back together. I decided the cam timing was fine, so set the rocker gaps, refitted the distributor, reassembled the timing cover and set about the truly horrendous business of reattaching the inlet manifold. The bolts would be a lot easier to access if someone hadn’t put an inlet manifold in the way. I was sweating buckets, and as I shed moisture, I decided it’d be a good idea for the engine to do likewise. So, I drained the creamy oil out of it and lobbed in some 30 grade stuff I had kicking about, watered down with some 5w30. It won’t be in there long. It’s effectively a flush. There may also have been tea.

Sun, tea, Bluebird, but little joy.

I then set about refitting the HT leads, though leads 1 and 2 are very similar lengths, making it hard to know which way around they should go. I cleverly marked them at the dizzy cap end, but had to refer to the manual to work out the firing order. It was time to get brave and actually operate The Starter Motor.

The resulting noise was slightly curious, but nonetheless, the engine seemed to spin merrily. I had already spun it over by hand a good few times, to ensure it would actually turn over without going CLANK. But, the battery was clearly rather low, so assistance was sought.

One small jump pack.

I now reconnected the coil king lead, and prepared myself for the truly exciting moment. Actually starting the engine! Only it wouldn’t start. Reasoning that the carb bowls were probably empty after several weeks of being open to the elements (well, air at least), I sloshed a little fuel into the carb and tried again.

It caught, blue smoke poured from the exhaust, but that’s fine – I deliberately left a little oil in the bores when the head was off. It screeched. Er, that’s not meant to happen! It stumbled. It generally sounded like it was running on two cylinders. I turned it off, swapped the two suspect HT leads and it was even worse. I was right the first time! But, it still screeches (stops when you apply throttle) and will not run on all cylinders.

I’ve since discovered that the pipe from the PCV (positive crankcase ventilation) valve was split. In fact, I then discovered there was a bodged bit of plastic pipe that was missing. Could that explain the screech? It’s either that or I’ve got a very slight leak on the inlet manifold, and that’s a horror too terrible to contemplate. I do not want to take the sodding thing off again.

At this stage, I completely ran out of time and had to go out to a meeting. Even worse, I had to take minutes, which I need to write up. Instead, I’m writing this. I’m now away for a few days, then seriously busy with work, so have no idea when I’ll get this sodding car sorted out.

This year is not working out very well on the car purchase front.

Project Bluebird: Slow going

Sorry for the radio silence, but getting the latest issue of Retro Japanese magazine to the print was rather more important than getting my Bluebird up and running. Mind you, it was good I was in no rush really!

Having discovered that the cylinder head was in no fit state to go back on, with very bad pitting and erosion around cylinder number four, I took the head down to Hargreaves Engineering in Carmarthen. That’s a bit of a trek, but they were recommended by people I know. Recommendations count for a lot in this game. I was impressed as Adam talked me through the work needed too, as per my previous post.

This week, I finally got to return and pick up the head. As the rain seemed to be keeping off, I decided to take the 2CV again, despite the fact the idle was iffy.

Elly at Hargreaves Engineering.

On arrival, the extra work was discussed, payment was made (about £150 worth of work here, the cost of the car keeps going up!) and Adam even cleaned out the idle jet on the 2CV after lending me a spanner to remove it. Very kind! Idle restored, I then drove home.

With the deadline out of the way, I thought I might as well crack on and get the head back in place. The new gasket was dropped on, and that was about as far as I could get until I borrowed a torque wrench (mine is a tiddler that isn’t up to head bolt torques).

Head reunited with car.

Then I discovered that the camshaft timing seemed to be out compared to the belt position. The camshaft pulley only fits in one place, and that place appeared to be three teeth out. Friendly folk have suggested this may be because the belt is still under tension from the ,er, tensioner. Ugh. This wasn’t going to be as quick and easy as I’d hoped.

So, the head is back in place, but I now need to work out how to get the crankshaft pulley off, all so I can remove the lower timing belt cover and access the tensioner bolts. The thought had crossed my mind that I could just drill a hole, but that’s probably silly.

Meanwhile, the Nippa has eaten its brakes, so that’s crying out for attention too.

Eesh! Not a nice discovery.

Bit ashamed of that one, though as low pads weren’t an advisory on the MOT, I suspect that one, or perhaps both of the calipers have begun to seize, hastening the demise. Indeed, Rachel told me it felt like they were binding on her most recent trip – you can’t afford binding brakes with only 40bhp! That is metal-on-metal there, hence the glitter and utterly ruined disc. I now need to source new calipers, or at least a rebuild kit. So far, not had much luck.

Which all means I’m not entirely sure when I’ll get the Nissan up and running. The next magazine deadline isn’t a million miles away, so my window of opportunity is small. Annoyingly, the MOT is up on Monday as well. Going well then!

Project Bluebird: Head off, issues…

I think I like this car. You see, it’s very easy to work on – apart from the horrible location of the spark plugs. That’s good, because I started dismantling the engine without a manual. It must be easy though, because I managed it. I must pay credit to Japanese-spec bolts. After years of working on British and French motors, I half-expect every single bolt to snap. Not Japanese ones though, seemingly the same even when the car is built in the North East of England. There’s a delicious crack, and then the bolt simply comes undone. Even the long bolt that goes into the ‘stat housing, and which looked like it had lived in the sea for 20 years, came out with very little argument. I like that.

No special tools were needed either, with most bolts and nuts 12mm, 14mm or 17mm, the latter just for the exhaust manifold-to-downpipe. Good penetrating oil (I like the No Nonsense stuff from Screwfix, even if it really does pong) helps of course. Before long, I was able to lift the head free and inspect the damage.

Here’s the old cylinder head gasket.

I suspected cylinder three was at fault, due to a mouldy spark plug, and I was not wrong. The surprise was that cylinder four had also blown. If anything, this one was even worse, and looked pretty old. The edge of the combustion chamber looked like it had been nibbled away.

Aluminium-eating mice have been here.

Damage such as this is often caused by water leaking in, then getting superheated by combustion, putting too much strain on the aluminium. As well as this, there was, as you can see, a great deal of pitting. This was after I’d deployed some ‘home-brew’ magic too – a sheet of sandpaper under plate glass, to keep it smooth and level. In theory, it would have been sufficient to clean things up. In practice, it did a great job of removing bits of old gasket, but the damage was too severe for that technique to work.

So, I headed off to a machine shop – quite a trek down to Carmarthen to find one recommended by friends. I’m glad I did travel so far, because Adam at Hargreaves Engineering was certainly very knowledgeable, and had no problems with me hanging around to take photos.

After removing the camshaft pulley, Adam loaded the head into the milling machine. A ferocious looking bit spins around a wide circle in this machine, which can be precision-controlled to take very small amounts away. The first rough cut left a crinkle-finish, but allowed Adam to confirm that we would be able to get deep enough to take out some of the low points in the head.

Rough-skim gets us started.

You can certainly see the wide arc the milling machine makes as it passes over the head – or, rather, as the head passes beneath the cutter. Having confirmed that all was ok, Adam could then slow down the table, to give the final clean finish.

Voila! Skimmed clean.

There’s not a lot that can be done about the corrosion around the water ports – that’s what you get when you don’t replace your antifreeze regularly. In fact, some of these ports were entirely blocked. Five years is considered a suitable maximum for OAT coolant, but older types should be changed every couple of years – and rarely are.

Next, Adam tested the valve seats. Put simply, if the valve can’t hold a vacuum when one is applied to the relevant port, then it isn’t seating properly, which means combustion pressure is lost, which means efficiency is lost – more fuel, less power.

Big breaths…

That’s a duff inlet valve being tested there. It could generate very little vacuum pressure. The inlet on cylinder four, and most of the exhaust valves, also gave a poor reading. This means the valve seats at least need cleaning up with a lap, if not recutting, which means all the valves need to come out. This job had suddenly got a fair bit bigger. All of which means it’s going to be a couple more weeks before I can actually drive my Bluebird. Oh well! See below for a nice shot of it, taken before the dreadful Daimler departed. Yes, it’s gone!

One day, I might get to drive it…

Finally, here’s a video of the first stage of the cylinder head gasket replacement tale.