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Project Subaru Justy: It Could Be Zero

Alan Cesar February 6, 2015 All Things Hoon, Project Cars 28 Comments

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Old cars break. I keep forgetting this fact.

I’ve been chasing a rough idle and rich running condition ever since I bought this Justy in… October. Alright, a few months isn’t forever, but I am a little disappointed to have bought a rolling restoration that gets 20 mpg instead of a finicky-but-economical daily driver.

I had changed the spark plugs, cap and rotor, and bought a new fuel injector for cylinder No. 2. None of this made a difference, so, I thought, there might be a problem within the distributor or somewhere else in the engine. It came time to run a compression test and discover the exact “somewhere else.”

It’s just a compression test. How bad could it be?

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Zero. It could be zero.

Well, if you look closely, it did register something. There was Justy ’nuff pressure to move the needle off the peg.

I had to let that sink in a bit. The only possible causes for this are a broken or bent valve, a hole in the piston from contact with either a valve or debris, or both. Regardless, further investigation required pulling the cylinder head, so I started with the valve cover.

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I immediately noticed that the Justy does not use hydraulic lifters. These are adjustable, and therefore require adjustment every 10,000 miles or so. I checked the valve lash on cylinder No. 2 first.

The exhaust valve on that cylinder had no gap. The rocker arm was holding the valve open constantly. Small wonder there’s no compression. I adjusted that valve and checked the rest—they were all more or less within spec—and ran my compression test again. To check the condition of the piston rings, I ran both a dry and a wet compression test. (A wet test means adding oil to the cylinder via the spark plug hole. The results should go up a little; If the oil makes a big difference, the rings are shot.)

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Keen observers may have spotted the results in my article this week about installing a huge whiteboard in your garage for $14. With the exhaust valve adjusted, compression increased dramatically. It’s still terrible. But, outside of the big spike for cylinder 3, I was feeling optimistic that this would just be a valve job. Pop the head off, lap the valves, reassemble and call it done. Then I got to the part of the job where you remove the crank pulley to get the timing belt cover off and loosen the timing belt.

Do you know that sinking feeling? That one where you suddenly realize that everything you’d hoped would be true were just that: furtive nothings. Best-case scenarios. Unrealistic expectations.

What I was hoping would be an engine-in repair has suddenly become a complete overhaul. I’m lucky that some eBay merchants are selling allegedly complete engine rebuild kits for less than $200, or this thing might be headed to the scrap heap. It would certainly hurt if it was; it’s hard to throw away a project I’ve sank more than $1,500 into (purchase price included).

The plan right now is to reassemble what I’ve taken apart so far and return the Justy to at least a drivable condition. It’s depressing to consider having two immobile project cars. The Justy should run quite a bit better than before, and it might even be kind of quick now. After all, even running on (barely) two cylinders, the car still can pull to 80 mph better than the naturally aspirated Mercedes diesel I used to own.

For the near future, I’m going to focus my efforts into getting that AMC Eagle project mobile. Once the Eagle can start and pull out of the garage under its own power, then I’ll consider the Justy’s ultimate fate.

What do you think? Do the Hoons approve of Justy little engine rebuild, or is it time to cut my losses and Justy throw it away?

(Groan all you want at those puns. I’m not sorry.)

Photos and awful Justy puns copyright 2015 Alan Cesar/Hooniverse.

  • seat safety switch

    The Justy engine is pretty similar to the Suzuki G13, isn't it?

    That's a pretty common engine (it was in the Metro), and you can upgrade to a healthy later model engine with hydraulic adjusters for less than a rebuild costs, I'm willing to bet.

    • Felis_Concolor

      If the bellhousing will accept a well running alternative, it may be the better option. Hmm, are there bolt compatible 4s which will fit that engine bay?

  • "The only possible causes for this are…."

    Oh, never say that. The engine will then feel itself obligated to prove you wrong.

    Anyway, my advice from years (decades!) of personal experience is to rebuild what you've got, sinking into it far more time and money than the vehicle could ever be objectively worth. Eventually, when it's more or less squared away, you should sell it at a loss. That's what I do. I, by the way, am an idiot.

    "It’s depressing to consider having two immobile project cars."

    Agreed, but perhaps not in the quantitative direction you mean.

  • CapitalistRoader

    Drive it for a while. That tight valve might have carbon all over the seat and driving it with the correct clearance will slam the carbon out of the way. If you're lucky.

  • racer139

    A few years back I acquired 4 of those sabaru boxer industrial engines that are popular in light aircraft. All for where brand new and still strapped to the shipping crate, I paid $000 for them and made $0 on them. I wish I still had one as I would ship it to you and you could see if it could bolt up to the trans in your justy. It would be an interesting swap if it could be done on the cheap.

  • Piston Slap Yo Mama

    At first I though you were making a Fixx reference but then sadly realized you were not. While perhaps a Daihatsu engine is not easy to obtain thanks to the long-ago demise of Daihatsu in the USA, maybe this other video might inspire you? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMgxXLp6KNM

    [youtube JOiZP8FS5Ww http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOiZP8FS5Ww youtube]

  • stigshift

    You can't quit on it now. You justy can't. Plus, you already love it. Yes, you do. Plus, at least you have a garage that actually has room for cars in it…

  • cap'n fast

    pull the valve cover again, remove the rockers and stake the valves with a hammer and use a block of wood to cushion the valve stem. the violent seating of the valve could cause any crud or gradue stuck to the seat or valve to loosen and drop off thus restoring the poppet valves proper function. this worked well on R-3350s back when I was doing some serious wrenching and may just work for a justy. what the heck, it only cost a gasket and some time and whoever complained about fresh gaskets? if you pulled the head and found the cylinder walls roached, don't bother boring it out. save a lot of time and money by turning it into a three hole high speed planter

  • Lastws6

    Gsxr 750 power

  • nanoop

    Rebuild kit for USD 200 is not too bad – and available!

  • Rene

    Slap it back together and drive it. Change the oil to Mobil-1 15W-50.
    Re-adjust the valves in 500 miles.
    Drive it (locally) until it dies!

  • Van_Sarockin

    Sound like a terminal ring condition. And time for a rebuild or a replacement motor before too long. But some of the suggestions above to improve the valves sound pretty simple and cheap. There's also the Italian Tuneup. Unlikely to make things much worse anyhow. And there's always STP.

    • dukeisduke

      Or Motor Honey.

  • Sid Troon

    Have you ever rebuilt an engine? It's a process that I enjoy immensely, it's fun and a great learning experience. It seems that the three cylinder engine is about as simple as a modern (in my reckoning, post 1960) engine can be. Come the nice weather, get some friends together, rent a cherry picker hoist, and see what's going on in there and fix it. The sense of accomplishment when it runs well again is worth far more than the parts and machine shop fees.

    If you do rebuild, consider getting it balanced. I've found this makes a HUGE difference in the sweetness and driveability of any car.

    • 1slowvw

      There is something fantastic about working on engine internals. One day I hope to find a way to be paid to hang around an engine building shop and learn how to really do a proper job.
      I've done simple top end rebuilds, and even replaced pistons/rods/oil pumps and such. I've always found it to be very rewarding.

    • Alan Cesar

      I've rebuilt two engines—a Subaru EJ205 (WRX) and a Mazda B6-ZE (1.6-liter Miata)—and I do love the process. It's tempting to go that path with this engine, which is much simpler than either of those other two. Never dealt with a balance shaft before, so that'll be a fun new part of the challenge.

      What I don't like is the mess and hassle of actually pulling an engine out.

  • Brian

    Van_ may be on to something. At ~110k miles, my '90 Miata developed on oil consumption problem, guzzling a quart every 400-500 miles, and fouling the #4 plug every 2k miles or so, Checked the compression dry, and #4 was lower than the other cylinders. Wet compression was better, so I pretty much knew it was a ring problem. But I didn't think that the rings could be 'worn out' – I suspected that maybe the ring lands were gunked-up with carbon and oil. So I filled cyl #4 with Marvel Mystery Oil, letting it soak through the ring pack and into the crankcase for a few days, then I drained the oil and started running 25% MMO/75% Mobil 1 … and the problem was much improved. And the more I drove it with that 25/75 mix, the better it ran and the oil consumption was much improved. Now, 4 years later at 150k, the plug goes 10k or more without fouling, and the oil consumption is around 1500 miles per quart. I can live with that (and I didn't have to tear the engine apart to fix it.) So if the valves on your engine (damaged because no one every bothered to adjust them) can beat themselves back into shape, and if a healthy dose of MMO in the crankcase could free-up the ring pack on cyl #2, you might be able to drive it for a while as-is.

  • LS3 conversion.

    Oh, alright. Total rebuild. As total rebuilds go this one surely can't be too hideous an undertaking. If the rest of the car is fine and it's just the small matter of it having no actual motive force to propel it along, fix the motive force.

    Or LS3 conversion.

  • dukeisduke

    How about a used replacement engine? This outfit I found has them for $599 to $929, depending on year and trans:
    http://www.lowmileageparts.com/1990-SUBARU-JUSTY-

    • Alan Cesar

      Thaaaaaat is very tempting. I was having a hard time finding a used Justy engine. Thanks for the tip!

      • dukeisduke

        No problem. My concern would be that after replacing the engine, it wouldn't be worth what you had in it. The used engine idea was a shot in the dark, since the car's almost 25 years old, and you wouldn't exactly trip over low mileage JDM engines for something like that. I was surprised to find any used engines.

        • Alan Cesar

          That's true, but pretty much any investment into this car puts me upside down. I estimate a rebuild at probably $600 including all the extras. This used engine would put me at $800 including extras (clutch, hoses, belts). A 5-year warranty for a Justy engine is practically an eternity, so this sounds like a good deal. I just need to save the money to do it and get the Eagle mobile before I can actually do it.

          Hopefully, when gas prices go back up, this would be a fun commuter that would eventually have some degree of return on investment—at least from an operating costs standpoint when compared to my WRX.

          Also: Justy rallycross.

  • craigsu

    How about a Seafoam treatment? Another cheap fix if it works and it certainly won't hurt.

  • cap'n fast

    is setting it afire at the low tide line and allowing the sea to slowly dissolve it back into it's original elements an option? in Japan they called this the "viking funeral" as so many of the cars from that part of the world have a built in supply of rust, just as products from Morris Garage did.
    I had found this to be an immense stress reliever when trying to decide whether or not any automobile repair valued more then 500 yen would be worth doing. picture the peaceful, calming image of the orange tinted carcass of a burned out sube slowing drowning beneath the corrosive waves of curling surf as the tide comes roiling inshore.

  • Rod Bender

    Yank out that sewing machine and drop in a big block with a 'Glide. Straight axle under the front and a 9" diff out back. Then, go trolling for pink slips.