Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Small Pickup : The Vanishing Unicorn

Our "New" Mazda B2300 110k Mile Truck

A Unicorn.
Got a hobby that's physically bigger than stamp collecting or watch repair? You'll probably need a pickup truck at some point. It's a fact of life. Recently we needed to schlep my Kawasaki AR80 motorcycle to have a new exhaust fabbed in Houston. Then we needed to get it down to San Marcos for some dyno time. Now we need to go to Temple and retrieve my Honda CA77 Dream from a four year delay in its restoration at the hands of a well meaning procrastinator. I've found borrowing a friend's truck to be a royal pain and most people drive trucks that are thorough overkill for small projects anyway. What to do? Easy. Buy the vanishing unicorn of trucks: the small, four cylinder, 5 speed 'compact' truck.

Go to any dealer today - Japanese or American and try to buy a small, efficient pickup truck. Now, while you're off on a fool's errand I'll break it down for the rest of you: they don't exist any more. As far as I can tell people would happily buy them but nobody makes them anymore. I think this might be a bit of collusion between oil cartels and America's auto manufacturers, but more than anything it's this one dirty secret: it doesn't cost appreciably more to manufacture a larger truck than a small one, the cost differential is vanishingly small even if the perception of value isn't. So for a captive, domestic market bigger is better. Unless you're the consumer and you value efficiency.

As I typically don't use a sledgehammer to hang a picture on the wall, we similarly don't need a 15mpg Ford F-150 Super Crew behemoth to cart tiny motorcycles around. Our needs were crystal clear: small, four cylinder, five speed manual transmission and late model either foreign or domestic. I implored two close friends who own 90's Toyota Tacomas  to sell theirs to us as both kept dropping hints they were looking to unload. Naturally they resolved to keep them upon detecting our fanatical interest.  I remembered my friends Les and Hilde who drove a Ford Ranger truck for more than a few years on the mean streets of New Orleans and never ever had an issue with it. Their experience opened my eyes to the non-crappiness of Fords, at least since the late 90's. A bit of Googling revealed that they cost a bit less than their Toyota counterparts, had two decades of development on their chassis and if it meant anything, we could get one with the word MAZDA emblazoned across the tailgate even if it was really a Ford in a tailored shirt.

So I hit Craigslist and made calls. Lots of choices. But as a longtime user of CL I know that the good deals are snapped up within hours of posting and that trucks with a few days or weeks hangtime were probably not worth my effort. There's a rule of thumb: buy the best you can afford, usually that's cheaper in the long run and we didn't want a project. Other buyer's shorthand exists too. If they say "just add freon" that means a $1000 repair minimum. No receipts for upkeep? The oil's never been changed and it'll crater in your first week together. Dirty ass interior in the photos? Same thing.  I specifically wanted to find one that was a one owner truck. The first owner is the one most likely to care about the welfare of his car.  Amazingly on my first evening of calling, I found it: one owner, receipts, and garage kept with recent BF Goodrich tires and a tuneup. The next day (9/1/14) we were face to face with Raj, an Indian semiconductor engineer looking to unload his 2003 Mazda B2300 with 110,000 miles. He'd used it for commuting to work and it looked like it had lead a pampered existence despite the burst stitching on the grey vinyl seats, a typical problem.

The test drive revealed a problem that Raj hadn't noticed: at any throttle setting above easy-does-it the engine would stumble and miss.  I reasoned that if he hadn't noticed this problem that he similarly probably had never driven it spiritedly, or perhaps even any faster than 55mph.

I had Luu Auto Repair do a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) which I can’t stress enough the importance of. One should always invest in this. It revealed that the truck has excellent compression on all four cylinders but needed new brake pads, rotors, drums and shoes. It needed all fluids changed, a new coolant expansion tank and a right front sway bar link.

Initial crank on each cylinder as well as continuous cranking scores:
#1 95psi, 190-200
#2 90psi, 190-200
#3 95psi, 190-200
#4 93psi, 190-200

Raj then inexplicably followed Luu’s recommendations & spent $375 replacing the inner and outer valve cover gaskets as the spark plugs wells had oil in them (its a dohc) as well as the intake gaskets. He also replaced the ignition coil as the car had a check engine light, returning codes P00301 and P0316 for missing cylinder #1. On top of this he also changed the oil! As we were going to offer him $3200 for the truck before these repairs, this was like getting a $200 better deal than we’d hoped to get. Woot!


Despite having lead a pampered life, miles still = wear and tear. We took our B2300 to Austin’s Alignments and Brakes where my pal Matt runs a tight ship and threw some Benjamins at it. Here’s the breakdown: (9/5/2014)

   * Front Ceramic Pads x2    $45.49
   * Front Wheel Seals x2    $$17.94
   * Front Hub & Rotor Assy x2     $135.92
   * Rear Brake Drum x2     104.90
   * Rear Brake Shoes      $33.88
   * Shop Supplies (aka tip)     $5
   * TOTAL $686.03 (parts $343 - labor $315)

The labor included tire rotation, brake fluid flush and bending the slightly cockeyed front bumper straight. Hopefully this is the last we’ll hear from these brakes for another 100k miles.

Then, feeling that we hadn't blown enough money on the B2300, we went back and had a front end alignment and fixed the worn out sway bar end links which also silenced the sleigh bell jingles from the front suspension. (9/18/2014)

Sway Bar Link Kit x2 $40.64
Shop Supplies (cigarettes & booze) $5
Alignment Labor .70 hour $63
Sway Bar Labor 1 hour $90
TOTAL $201.99


Next stop, bumping’ music and dark tint at CustomSounds on Burnet Rd. We literally took it straight from Austin’s Alignments to CustomSounds, heeding the axiom “no time like the present”. Mike Guerrero greeted us and remembered me as being that pleasant guy who asks probing questions then buys from Amazon. Well, not this time. Jennifer has a tendency to do things right now, so dorking around with delayed gratification was not in the cards. Our needs were complex: the fidelity had to be top notch, the stereo couldn’t intrude on the limited space in our single cab pickup and the head unit had to quickly read a 1tb hard drive, have bluetooth as well as a parametric or multi band equalizer. Here’s what we picked:

Kenwood CD KDCX998 - $230
JL Audio Amp KD5003 - $280
JL Audio Basslink control - $35
JL Audio Box Sub CP108LG - $230
Hushmat Ultra Door Kit - $100
Rockford Fosgate 5x7 Speakers R168X2 (2 pairs) - $140
Ford Multi w/ Pocket - $20
Ford Harness ’98 Up - $20
Step Up RCA 12 Ft - $30
25ft 16 Ga Spkr Wire Pack - $18
8AWG Power Kit 600 Watts - $50

Plus these additional charges from our two visits that I find maddening, inscrutable and wildly inflated:
Shop Parts     $44.25 + $8.25 (% labor heat shrink screws paint wtf)
Shop Charge $19.17 + $3.57 (% labor covering same stuff wtf)
Audio Labor  $350 + $55 + $25


Years ago I pieced together a complete headunit, amplifier and custom built sub enclosure sub installation for both my Scirroco as well as my '85 Civic, and did a decent job too. So I looked around online at what we would've spent if I'd been just a bit more motivated and had searched out the lowest prices and done the installation myself. It's REMARKABLY cheaper.

Me, buying online would have cost: $682 vs $1829 from CustomSounds. I'm not knocking going the dealer install route: it's a package deal and there's a warranty. No knuckles get scraped and there's no surprises, other than spending triple what a talented DIY'er would.

Sub $220 Crutchfield
Speakers $70 eBay (both pairs total)
Headunit $220 Rakuten
Hushmat $60 Amazon
Bass Knob $30 Amazon
Fascia single din $15 Amazon
Amp Wiring Kit $12 Amazon
Spkr Wire 14ga $11 Amazon
RCA cables 2x $24 Amazon
Incidentals, Solder, Connectors $20
TOTAL $682


The mechanic at Bill's Complete Auto Service is an older epically bearded gent who works at a glacial pace and often stops to stare off into infinity, I guess contemplating how he wound up in a trade he was so unsuited for. He left a rubber grommet off the firewall and we drove around with a loud whooshing noise in the cab until we could get the truck back to him.
Radiator and Clutch Master Cylinder Repair 12/20/2014:
Clutch Master Cylinder $104.86
Radiator $261.99
Antifreeze $16
Labor $225
TOTAL $639.43

A few weeks later I bought and installed these parts myself as I'd rather not pay someone to do a worse job than my own bumbling attempts:
Coolant Expansion Tank - $49.23
Heater Vacuum Valve $20 (Murray Climate Control - Vacuum Bypass Closes Heater Valve
Part # 74809 make sure you get the right one, either 2 or 4 port)
Ford coolant expansion tanks were made to fail. What shitty plastic. The only upside is that the expansion tank and the valve are replaced using basic hand tools and an afternoon of spare time.


Used, green bed topper. Smells of mold, doesn't match the truck's color and its clear coat is mostly gone. Pros: keeps the rain off our stuff and is lockable.


Custom Sounds of Austin also did the tint. How Raj drove this truck for a decade under Austin's baking sun without tint completely mystifies me.
Pinnacle Ceramic Tint 30% sides and 15% rear + eyebrow - $168
Pinnacle Labor - $110
Pinnacle Tint Labor Parts (huh wtf) - $3.19 


The pilot bearing suddenly decided to commit seppuku (or is it hari-kiri?) resulting in a truck that often refused to go into any gear unless the engine was first switched off. Similar to my contentions that the stereo install's cost was greatly inflated by usurious labor, so too is the installation of a new clutch - but not nearly as much of a drubbing percentagewise as the stereo. Where the stereo component's cost were roughly a third of the final overall cost, in the case of the clutch it's closer to 50% so not as much of a bitch-slap to the bank account.

The cost to do the clutch includes replacing the slave cylinder on a just-in-case basis. This is proactively done as the engineers at Ford (obviously high from sniffing glue) thought it made sense to mount the slave cylinder at the center of the output shaft, necessitating a transmission removal when it fails. For such a well designed and thrifty truck this is a big, stupid booger of a mistake. But it is what it is. While it was all apart we went ahead and tossed a new clutch in too. If you're smart enough to change your hydraulic fluid every five years it likely will never have any issues. Unless ... while changing the fluid you screw up and introduce air into the system. Then the only way to bleed all the air out is to do a voodoo dance while removing the transmission so that you can turn the slave cylinder upside down while introducing fresh fluid to it. So don't do that.

Clutch Slave Cylinder $67.50
Clutch Kit $214
Gallon Oil $32
Labor 5.10 hrs $382.50
Labor Resurface Flywheel $65
TOTAL $792


New shoes for the truck were needed as the BF Goodrich Comp T/A's were older than we realized, tired and quite the hand full in the rain. New kicks ran a bit pricey with most good tires being roughly $100 per. Being of a frugal bent we checked Craigslist & found 4 General Grabber AT-2 225/70-15 tires with an asking price of $250. Adam posted the ad and stated that they were only a couple years old and had approximately 1000 miles on them. He'd removed them after noticing a slight loss of fuel economy on his 70 mile commute but wanted to keep them for an impending move to a snowy climate where they'd work well. Eventually he replaced the Ranger they were on with a Wrangler, so it was time to let them go. A slight haggling took place and we acquired them for a piddling $220.

Discount Tires mounted and lifetime balanced them for $76. Total cost = $296. Contrast this with if we'd bought them through Discount Tires with all their ancillary fees, disposal charges and taxes of $542. Thanks to Craigslist we have $240 additional dollars to spend on pizza and beer.  Re. the Grabber AT2's the drive home was quieter than before as the prior tires would really sing. These are a bit more muted despite their very blocky tread design. Also slightly evident is the additional strain their 7 additional pounds per wheel puts on the engine. As the truck is not going to be used for long distance commutes, their lack of LRR "low rolling resistance' credentials is not as important. Overall they're good and we look forward to how they perform in the rain and eventually in the snow.


What initially looked like a great deal turned out to be a mirage - but it was just bad luck rather than ignorance on our part. The clutch throwout bearing could've happened any time, same too for the coolant system that waited until it was in our hands to puke. When buying any used car one should set aside a stack of Benjamins for all the consumables and assume they all need doing. I'm tacking this bit on in July 2017: we've had to remove the transmission again to replace another coolant line. Seriously. There's a plastic coolant line that snakes behind and around the engine that can't be replaced without removing the transmission, so that was another $500 labor bill. The alternator died while towing our TR6 across the country. Then a friend of ours destroyed our air conditioner compressor using a ham fisted technique to lever off the old a/c clutch, so there's that too.

Would we buy another Ford Ranger / Mazda B2300? Probably not. On a positive note, we're pretty confident that we've covered our bases for the foreseeable future for sh*t that might break. If you buy one of these trucks, find a pampered one and bargain hard on the price.

Or make your friend follow through on the promises to sell his Toyota truck to you.