The supercharged Corolla that we featured a few months ago struck us as an excellent example of a car effectively modified on a budget. It had performance, good looks inside and out, and reeked common sense. When so many modified cars don't have any of these (let alone all of 'em!) we wondered about the decision-making process that Gavin Messenger - owner and builder of the car - had made. Why'd he gone for an engine swap rather than working the engine that he'd got included in the price of the car? Why those wheels rather than just better tyres?
There's a whole host of financial and technical decisions that need to be made when modifying a car - here's some of Gavin's reasoning.
Gavin, tell us a little about yourself and your automotive background.
I'm a 23-year-old mechanic. I did my apprenticeship for 6 months at Old Port Toyota, 1½ years at CMI Toyota and 1½ years at a small family business - and then I moved to Solitaire Automotive (Audi and Jaguar dealer) for the rest of my apprenticeship. And I've been here almost 2 years now.
What previous cars have you owned?
My first car was a Hillman Hunter Royal - an absolute piece of crap. Then I moved on to a TE Cortina 4.1 litre with mags, exhaust, suspension - and my mates dubbed me the "burnout king". It was a bit of a good fun car. Then I bought a '63 Beetle convertible - it was lowered with wide guards an all that. And it was actually three hours after I bought it that it got defected. One headlight was out, the steering wheel was 6cm too small and it was too low, too wide - the whole lot. I've still got that - I'm trying to sell it at the moment. And then I bought the Corolla. It was either that or an ET turbo, but I found out that the Corolla was a bit quicker than the standard ET anyway. Plus it was four and a half years newer, and being a Toyota - well, I'd worked on them for a few years. The quality of finish in the Toyota is good and it was a lot more high-tech. Better dash, better fitment - everything.
Was performance your main priority?
Yeah, but being an SX it had a 4A-GE to start off with, air-con, power steer, central locking and everything - I wanted something with luxury as well.
And how much did you pay for it?
I got it for 10 and a half (thousand dollars) when the market value was 15. A guy I worked with at CMI wanted to sell it to buy a Landcruiser and he'd just had a huge argument with his brother. He was going to buy it for 14 - so he just cracked the shits and came up to me and said I could have it for 10 and a half. He's regretted the day ever since - his wife cried for a week straight!
Did you do any mods to it straight away?
No - I drove it. That's all it was.
So what got you into modifying it?
I always wanted to, but it was a case of other monetary priorities at the time. Although when I came here (to Solitaire) Danny with his Datsun and Shane with his Pulsar really influenced me - a bit of peer pressure.
Your first mods were to lower the car and put an aftermarket muffler on it - was the appearance of the car a big priority?
For starters no, the paint wasn't the best in the world - it looked alright until you got up close. They've got absolutely a shit-load of body roll to start off with and so that's why I put in the lowered heavy duty springs to start off with - and to enhance the appearance of it as well.
Do you plan to get aftermarket shocks to go with the lowered springs?
Not for the moment - but if I can find the right ones for the price I would. I did have the option of getting TEIN coil-overs at one stage for $1000 - but they're second hand. One thing I don't really believe in is getting second hand shockers. The standard ones are still going okay and they work fine for the car - so why stuff with it? If they start leaking or sagging I'll upgrade.
The Sebring rear muffler is much more expensive than you average Super Turbo muffler or the like, why did you decide to go for it?
I'd seen it up on Mark's wall at Exhaust Tech for God knows how long and always loved the look of it. It'd seen a few shows and received a couple of small dings, but he gave me an offer that I couldn't refuse - on the proviso that I put the car in Eurotech Small Car Sunday with a big Exhaust Technology sticker on the back.
Why did you go for a 2-inch exhaust not the trendy 3-incher?
Originally I was told that if it had under 300 hp there was no need at all to go for anything over 2 inch. And I thought if it saved a bit of money and I don't need it... But if I knew I was going to spend 10 grand or something on the motor I would've gone bigger.
Why did you choose to fit a superchanged engine rather than a 20 valve or perhaps modify the existing 4A-GE engine?
One of the reasons was cost. Twenty valves started off at $3000 for the complete unit - mine was $2000 - and even as it was I struggled saving. I had a few other monetary priorities. Looking back now, if I wanted to spend all my money at one time I would have got a 20 valve and put a turbo on that. If I had lots of dollars and was in the right frame of mind. But what I've got now I'm very happy with.
Why did you buy a complete engine package complete with ECU rather than buy a bare engine and get an aftermarket injection system?
I knew to start off with that if you've got an aftermarket you still need to pay to get it set up.
At least this way I knew I could definitely do it myself. I can read a wiring diagram and I'm used to Toyota wiring diagrams. But with something aftermarket like Autronic I'd get the professionals to do it. The factory computer is already tuned and I already knew that it could handle up to 14 psi fine. In the end, it was only $700 difference and I got the computer, loom, intercooler and gearbox as well. I've got absolutely everything there. Another reason I kept the factory computer is for reliability. I mean, I did the conversion and kept the air-conditioning, power steering and retained everything. All the little luxuries I've still got - I need my magic buttons and things.
Were you worried something might go wrong during the conversion or it might end up costing you a lot more than you thought?
When I first got the motor I had 2 weeks to do it - nice and easy. I had the old motor out in about three hours and the new motor bolted in - every mount bolts straight up. Half the wiring loom just clipped straight into the factory fuse box. That saves about 30-40 hours of worth of wiring!
I was expecting to do all the wiring myself because I'd already found out that it would be fairly easy. They gave me absolutely everything and when it was all in I rang up, and that's when they're supposed to give you the computer - and then the warranty starts. But because I did it over the Christmas break, there was no one there - so I had a week of driving around in Dad's 1950s LandCruiser, chewing through about 40 bucks a day in petrol. And it ended up coming with a half-Japanese, half-English wiring diagram with only a few days left in my holidays.
Where did you do the conversion and where did all of the equipment come from?
My Dad's got a large yard with an absolutely massive shed, so I took over a hefty chunk and had it sitting there. We also have a forklift, so we didn't need any block and tackle - so that helped a lot. And it was just a case of loading my toolbox into the back of the car when I left from work.
What was the reason for going for a convoluted tube fed airbox instead of a ram-pod?
Eventually I would like to do ram-pod, but for the time, once again - cost. Ram pods even second hand are about $150 and the last thing you want to do is buy a second hand filter - you want something new. And I'd have to build up a box to shield away all the engine heat. I picked up the convoluted tubing for like a dollar or something like that, and it was a just few minutes to pull away the inner guard and pull out the huge intake system. And it just so happened that the tube fit perfectly through the factory holes and into the airbox. Originally, the pick-up just sat below the bumper, but it was a little bit too low at about 3 inches off the ground. So I pinched a hole-saw for the weekend, drove it through the bumper and made up the aluminium dress ring. That works fine.
Why did you go for 17s rather than perhaps cheaper 16s?
Absolute horn factor. I also had a friend who was a mag rep who got me them for only $240 a rim - dealer rep price. Stoked with that.
And were you concerned about the cost of tyres as well?
Yeah, I knew he had tyres on his Laser (with 17s) that he wanted to get rid of. So I paid $50 each for them - which I thought would last 6-12months. As it is, the front ones went down and again I went through his contacts to get a pair of new Falkens for the front. And I'll do that again for the rears.
And if you couldn't get those wheels and tyres so cheaply, what would you have done?
I wouldn't have bought them. More than likely I would have bought 16 inch - something a little bit cheaper. Seventeens were a pretty big leap - tyres are an extra $50 each (a fairly hefty whack for a bit of rubber) But I'd never go back. I've still got the 14s with some retreads at a friend's if I ever get defected.
You've chosen to go for a single 12 inch sub and two pairs of 6 inch speakers - why not twin 12s and go crazy?
To be honest, I have no idea when it comes to stereos. I know I like it loud and so I can feel myself moving off the seat. I knew if I went twin 12s, a 15, or 18, that I'd need some heavy duty amps. And at the time I had the opportunity to buy a decent amp for the sub - which was still in the cardboard box and pretty cheap as well. It had all the directions to make your own box, and that was sort of a weekend project - my own MDF subwoofer box. I made the rear parcel shelf myself with a 6 inch speaker template. Originally, I had a 10 inch sub and two smaller speakers on the deck but I junked that for a skinnier one - also just for weight. One of my friends that works at Cartronics did a homey for me and made up my custom door pods for the front splits - I got away with that for $100. Then I simply laid out all the cabling where I wanted them to go and that was it. It didn't cost me that much in the end.
Tell us about how you scored the bargain CD/tuner head unit.
Looking in the paper one day I came across a Police stolen items auction. It's just stolen and un-claimed items available with no reserve - so if no one bids against you, you can get it for a dollar! And that's a good place to look at when looking for a project car too - the ex-Government cars come up dirt cheap.
You've told us recently that you got the Momo F1 wheel and shifter at a good price - would you have bought them otherwise?
No way in the world. I mean, you go into Eurotech, Sprint, Autobarn anything like that and see a gear shift knob for $130, and you think "for Christ's sake, you put you hand on it move it and it changes gears". I got the gear knob for $50 - it's still a Momo brand name - but it's over $120 new. To me that's the wank factor. Steering wheel comfort is better now with the Momo. But, I mean, $400 is the recommended retail and a boss kit is $90. I got both for $150 and they looked about 2 months old! But the SX model came with a leather bound steering wheel and gear knob anyway - there's nothing really wrong with them and they're still at home.
What was it that attracted you to the Toyota Levin front seats?
Cost was the main thing. Even second hand Recaros are still 600-700 dollars each. I just went down to the one of the local wreckers - A1 on Grand Junction Road - and saw them sitting there fully adjustable. I got them down from $100 to $85 each and I grabbed the tape measure, looked at it closely, borrowed a spanner and it turned out they bolted straight in.
Do you think it would be worthwhile getting the car resprayed?
If I knew then what I was going to do, I wouldn't have spent any money at all and then got the whole thing done in one hit. I mean, I've gone through two bonnets - one with a scoop put on it, and one wrecker bonnet that got resprayed and later cut up to fit some vents. The bonnet got so hot you could hardly touch it. I had one side of the car done and then there was a little biff on right hand front and I had that one done. I could have done it in one hit, but I guess that's between 1 and 3 grand sort of thing.
Are there any intentions of getting a full body kit?
Ah, a big hunk of it is I don't like any of the kits. I faxed around Australia trying to find different kits - like I did trying to find the best price on the motor - and I've only come back with one or two. And I don't really like the look of them. There's one made locally, but when I saw one car driving around with it I almost threw up when I saw the back end. For the time being, mine's got the factory splitter on it (which I've reset a bit lower), the front air intake and a mesh grille that cost me all of $15 to do myself. The Corolla's a beautiful shape to begin with and the SX has got the factory rear spoiler anyway - I don't really see any need to do a full kit. That's the advantage of using an SX from the beginning.
Do you think it's worthwhile upgrading the brakes at this stage?
If I were going to do the brakes, I 'd also do the gearbox and driveshafts all at once. I've never had any problems with fade with the standard 4 wheel discs, but I guess they do feel slightly under-powered now with the blower boost up though. If the gearbox goes, I'd spend that bit extra and get the caliper set-up as well. But until then, I won't do anything about it.
Did you start the project off by getting an engineer's approval?
I rang up a couple of moths ago and said I was "considering" putting 4A-GZE into a Corolla, and all he said I had to do was prove that the brakes on my car were the same as the same size as those on the supercharged car. It should be no worries, other than that. I do know the Levin brakes are slightly larger, so as soon as the brakes, gearbox and driveshafts come together it'll take the car straight through - for peace of mind.
So the legalities of the conversion haven't bothered you?
It's always in the back of my head. Like when I got defected for the old exhaust - the heart rate was going 500 times a minute. But the first thing he said was love your car, it looks great! He didn't bother to pop the bonnet. Most young males are a bit that way with the Police anyway, no matter what car they're driving - a bomb or some sort of $60,000 car - you get a bit jittery when you see them. It would be nice for piece of mind to get the certificate though.
What purposes do you use the car for?
Everything, absolutely everything. Every Thursday down to the shops, everyday go to work, go for a weekend cruise when I feel like it. At Christmas time I go to Victoria and see my Grandma, it goes to Victor Harbour - everywhere. It's my everyday car.
How many kilometres does it cover in a year?
Around 16-17,000, I suppose. Average mileage for a car.
Is the car comprehensively insured?
Not at the moment. That's one of the things I'm gonna do in the next few weeks. It was insured and they didn't know about it (the supercharger) but I got a phone call the other day from the insurance company who was updating their details. They knew about the exhaust, suspension and wheels - but very stupidly I said "do you need my modifications again?" So I told her and she said, "sorry we don't accept any more than three modifications; goodbye". So I'm looking for insurance at the moment. It'll definitely be an agreed value policy, not a market value one.
So if you're expecting a large premium bill, where would you draw the line?
I'd be pretty scared if it was over a grand - but I'm sort of expecting that because of my age. But I'd be jumping out of my skin if it were over $1000! I'd be happy with 0 up to $700, but I wouldn't be that happy with over $700. But if it helps me in a crash... But I'm not like the Hyundai Excel and Daewoo fraternity where they think they've got a fast car and ride up everyone's arses. I'm a sensible driver - I like to think I'm a sensible driver. I'm always careful, but I guess you can never avoid an accident.
What would you do if the premium was over a grand?
I'd probably get another car - but then the problem again is that would probably be a conversion car too. So I'm gonna run into exactly the same difficulties. It's nice to have that sort of coverage - but that's a hell of a lot of money.
Do you take any measures to protect the car?
Yeah, that alarm was in there when I bought it thank God. And when I got insurance before, that got me 10% off. It's very much for piece of mind. I'm not going to buy a $300 boonga to drive and leave in the carparks. What's the point of driving a $300 car when I've got a car like this?
Would you leave the car parked in the city at night when you go out?
I've done it before - albeit in one of the high-rise carparks. I'm wary of where I leave it obviously, I try to leave it in well-lit areas and all that - but the alarm does give me the most piece of mind.
How much have you spent on the car all together?
Including buying it, it would be about 17 thousand.
How would that cost break down?
$10,500 for the car, $1300 initially for the wheels and tyres, $2300 for the motor, the stereo was about $500-600 (with a lot of second hand parts) and the suspension was $180. The exhaust was a bit of a killer. I've probably gone through five exhaust systems trying to sort out different resonators and rear mufflers. All up it would probably be close to $800 for that. Paint wise it would be around 700-800 dollars - a friend did one half of the car and Claridge (we use them for all our work) were good for some cheapies on the side. Like the grille and the vents and whatever. There's been other costs too - like the intercooler and a couple of other wank-factor things.
And about how much would it have cost if you had everything done by a workshop?
Oh, over 20 - easy. The engine conversion alone is about $5000, and I paid $2300 all up - that's including a new cambelt, new spark plugs and the whole lot. It also helps to keep an eye on prices of everything - making sure nothing is stolen - and knowing people in the game helps a lot too.
Have you waited around for the right parts at the right price in the classifieds or have you just spent up as money came in?
No, I don't look through the Trader or anything - there isn't much late-model Corolla-ish - but I've got a good friend who's a wrecker and I know all the other wreckers fairly well. So it's case of every 2-3 weeks going for a run-around and finding out when they're getting the next container in.
At one stage I spoke to a wrecker in Melbourne who put me in contact with a local guy called Colin. I've used him as a source for a lot of parts and info. Knowing the right people helps.
Are you a member of a car club to help you find parts and get contacts et cetera?
Yeah, I was in one but that didn't help me.
If you had all that money at the beginning, would you have gone ahead and spent it knowing that you wouldn't recoup much of it when it came time to sell?
Probably not - I'd just get a different car.
When, or how, would you know it's time to stop spending money on the car?
Unfortunately you don't. It's a case of, well, I've got a couple of grand in the bank, I can afford to use a couple of hundred dollars and you've got this list of things you need to do or you'd like to do. You think, yeah, I can afford that muffler or that cold air box - no worries. And there's always that little bit more a few weeks later. It does add up, but I'm still happy with what I've spent - I was expecting it to be about that much - but, of course, it'd be nice if it was a lot less.
Would you stop chasing more power if reliability became a problem and you started blowing gearboxes or something?
If I ever got to that stage, I'd know I was spending too much money on the car. I would definitely turn the boost down if I was going to keep it, but if I sold it I'd probably keep it at that same power. I'd just tell them, "look, at this power you're gonna start breaking things". I guess first of all, I'd look for a stronger second hand gearbox or something like that.
What plans are still in store for the car?
There's a few little things that I need to do that I can get away with fairly cheaply - like putting the battery in the boot. And there's other things too - like I wouldn't mind a little 50hp nitrous kit or aftermarket injection - but that's if I come into money.
How long do you think you'll own it?
Um, I'd like to get everything sorted out. It's a case of you think "I'd like to sell it now" but then, oh, "I wouldn't mind fixing that rattle first or I wouldn't mind fixing this little problem". And you end up spending more and more money - unfortunately it's a very compulsive thing. But if someone came up to me with a car at the right price, I'd put mine in the paper the next day. It's sort of hard to answer. My spending limit is getting fairly close now, I don't really want to go over $20,000.When it comes down to it, it's still a 1990 Corolla - a ten year old car.
How much would you expect to get for it?
I'd like to think I'd get between 12 and 13. They're still holding their value at about $11,000, and with the extra mods - obviously I'd need to attract the right person looking for those mods - but there's a lot more potential in the car, it just depends how far someone wanted to go with it.
And what would you like to replace it with?
My ultimate sleeper would be a 1992-93 Toyota Cressida with a straight six twin-turbo Supra motor in it. I love that shape, and I also found out Colin brought one back from Japan for his son to do. They're a virtual slot in and not many people do it. In the Grande edition you've got leather interior, electric everything, cruise - it's just an immaculate car and they're so classy. Eighteen inch chrome wheels, tint and lower it - that's all you'd really have to do to the outside.
So engine conversions are the way to go in your view?
Yeah - not so much being a tight arse - but having no money it's really the only way. I'd love to get an Audi S3-S4 but they're sort of $60,000 upward. It doesn't help going for a road test and you jump into your local Falcon or Holden and you think "Oh my god". It would be nice to own something like that, but I know right now that it's not going to happen. I'll just stick with my lower budget cars.
I'd recommend that before you buy a certain car, just sit down and think about what you want to do to it - and what you think you might do to it. Then work out how much it might end up costing as opposed to something you might already be able to buy. If I had the chance to buy a $15,000 car back then with just as much power, I might have gone for that. Think about the final cost. Even if you now think it's stupid to do something, you will do it. I mean, you're always after more power - I don't care what you say. Like, I'm sort of used to the Corolla's power now.
At any stage if you can afford to get the right thing at the right price - get it. And, of course, the more you can do yourself the more you can save to spend on other things. I saved literally thousands doing the mechanical work myself. But always make sure you know what you're gonna do - even although a couple of times there's been some guesswork for me. Like, yeah, this wire looks the same colour - let's see what happens! Try to avoid circumstances like that....
Intelligent Performance, Part 1 - Starting Points
Intelligent Performance, Part 2 - Exhausts
Intelligent Performance, Part 3 - Intakes
Intelligent Performance, Part 4 - Engine Management
Intelligent Performance, Part 5 - Turbo Cars
Intelligent Performance, Part 6 - Engine Swaps