Updated: Aug 2, 2020
Most car enthusiasts agree that a project vehicle is in many ways a reflection of self. We mold a base, production vehicle into our perfect, idealized image. We attempt to capture what we raced in Gran Turismo games or watched rip up the touge in Hot Version or saw grace the cover of Super Street in our childhoods, but with a personal spin on it: something that is indelibly your car.
If the project car is such a work of passion (and frequently, money, and time, and incredibly difficult labor), how is it possible to ever move on to another platform? Where is the line drawn when it’s time to move on, start over, and build a fresh car?
The first night
I have six months of college left, and a job waiting for me at the end of the dark tunnel that is my college years. I have the sweet sensation of expendable income for the first time in my adult life and it is absolutely burning a hole through my pocket, begging me to experience freedom. My parents have ruled out world travel. It’s too risky, they simply won’t allow it: I’m 20 years old but I still listen to their rules and I live in their world. The next logical choice in these college years, before I have bills and rent and expenses, is a project car. I have played with Matchbox cars since I was two years old, I could name every common model and make on the road by three. From ten to twenty I collected Hot Wheels, I played racing games, I watched every car show I could find, I met other enthusiasts and watched as they got their perfect blank canvases, ripe for the brushstrokes of modification. It is absolutely destiny for me.
The second night
The constraints are simple. Definitely a manual transmission, hopefully rear wheel drive, and preferably an import. Over the course of the next several months, I had test driven:
a horribly plastidipped orange Miata
a Mazda MX6 with gravel-sized rust holes in the unibody
and a 4AGE swapped AE85 Corolla with rust that made the MX6 look like a Pebble Beach Concours award winner.
My parents, it should be noted, are not keen on any car I look at. I should graduate. Then I should work for a couple of years, or a decade, or whatever is long enough to Be Successful, and then consider purchasing a toy. I have been A Good Boy for 20 years for them, and I want this first car bad enough I will end that streak in order to own one.
On a friend’s suggestion, I add Supra to my list of search terms for Craigslist alerts. A week later, I get an email. The price is good. The car runs. It has a manual transmission. Why not? I check it out with the friend who implanted the idea of a Supra in my head to begin with. I pull the spare - no rust. I hit boost once, barely able to use the clutch and row gears, but it’s intoxicating regardless. I make an offer the same night. A week later it’s parked in my parents’ driveway.
Until recently, I looked at the events that happened to me sort of like they were a movie. I was the protagonist of my own story just as other people were the protagonists of their own internal events. Character development had always been a possibility, a hope, and I strove for the Happy Ending, but I had an inflexible view of myself. I was always going to remain me. Whether through a combination of nature or nurture, the base ingredients of my personality and self image were set in concrete, and I could only change the chalk drawn on top of it.
I have driven the car once since purchasing it. It snows and I refuse to subject the new love of my life to road salt. My parents argue with me about the purchase, but ultimately, it sits in the driveway until spring, and I stare at it every day. I change a battery for the first time in my life when the roads are finally clean. I do not know what the fuck I am doing, and my future girlfriend walks me through it. She’s not a girl yet but she is my best friend, and I cannot imagine how exasperating I am to deal with. I move out in the summer after graduation; I want space to wrench on my new car and my parents don’t want me to make an absolute mess of the garage.
The ideal, rendered by Dave Love, WideOpenThrottle
I learn to wrench, painfully and slowly. I replace worn-out parts by the Rock Auto crateful, trying to restore Mikuru (yes, I name the car for my favorite anime girl) to the glory of the imagined ideal I have of her in the showroom in 1988. I am content to drive with the roof off on the highway at the speed limit. I cry when I break things. I buy a set of what are the perfect wheels to begin my path toward executing my ultimate vision for this perfect blank parchment. I am infatuated.
The sense of self
Retaining an inflexible sense of self in my teens and through my twenties is perhaps the dumbest thing I’ve ever tried to do. I felt like I didn’t change during college but, in retrospect, I would be entirely unable to function in adult life if I hadn’t. I didn’t recognize any of these massive changes at the time and used the fog of memory to convince myself that I had always been this way: I was simply getting better at expressing myself to others. This was a cop-out because I was, and still am, terrified of the idea of personal change on such a deep, complete level.
I meet other Supra owners. I become a Supra Owner. It’s not the Supra everyone wants, and that’s why I like it. The MK3 bears underdog status, which means I can make it something more than it is expected to become. I now have disposable income, and I am excited to blow it all on my car. It’s not a way to flaunt. It’s simply what else do I need money for other than to make my car better? I buy carbon fiber parts, interior and exterior add-ons, excellent tires, high-tier coilovers. The vision continues to become reality.
I realize that I’m not straight. I begin dating my friend who helped me change the battery over the phone the year before. She’s phenomenal at fixing cars and her home-built supercharged Honda Civic Si convinces me that I can do more myself. I install a welded diff and go drifting, and I have the absolute time of my life.
The fun. Image by Brian Stoneman
Coming out as bisexual was a watershed moment for me. This should have been the death of my inflexible self. I was an altar boy and homeschooled as a Greek Orthodox Christian my entire life, and these experiences were absolutely not something that could be meshed with that background. I chalked up my revelation of myself to ignorance of my own thoughts and fear of the truth. These weren’t entirely false reasons, but the real truth was that I would never have come out if I had been the same person I was when I bought the car two years before. I know this because I hadn’t come out two years before.
The camaraderie deepens
I move from Ohio to Texas to live with the girl I love. I am still the Supra Owner - perhaps more than ever. Owning a MK3 Supra - specifically this MK3 Supra, the one on the trispokes, with the good straightpipe and the sparkling Bride seat - is inextricable from my sense of self. The car is my only vehicle I keep when I move. My girlfriend and I drive it with no heat in the worst cold snap the East USA has seen in a decade. We make it 800 miles to the halfway point of the journey, and the car blasts coolant all over the interstate in Tennessee in the middle of the night. I abandon it at a Toyota dealership on the back of a flatbed. I have the worst panic attack of my life to date.
The panic attack
I very seriously consider selling it to the Toyota dealer I left it at over the phone, but I don’t want to ruin my good memories by selling it on such a low note, and I think I can still make it perfect. The car is shipped to Texas. I jack it in the air, powerwash it, and my girlfriend and I replace the hoses. A mistake happens as we reassemble and the radiator is shredded. I try to upgrade the brakes, and I order the wrong parts, and I almost kill myself inadvertently when they fail at 70 MPH. The radiator is a stroke of bad luck, the brakes are my own fault, and I hate myself for failing to be a good mechanic The car is putting me under relationship-ending levels of stress and self loathing, because the car is now just as meaningful a part of me as the fact that I am tall and thin or that I am a photographer. It is a fact about me. We survive the stress, and get it fixed, mostly because she is more patient than I deserve. I take it autocrossing with my girlfriend in her ever-perfect Civic, and I do indeed have an amazing time again with it.
Really, I wish that I had forced myself to write this article about three years ago. I had changed so drastically so rapidly that I lost moorings of who I was and who I wanted to be. I survived for 20 years thinking that I was religious, straight, masculine, not a disappointment and sense of shame to my family, and a car enthusiast. Only one of those traits ended up sticking, and so I simply clung to it, trying to prove to myself and others that I was the same as I’d always been, even though I really was not. I just couldn’t accept that changing was alright.
The vision completed
It is 2019.
My car finally matches, roughly, with my vision for it. I have beaten 25 year newer Evos at autocross with my suspension and braking modifications. I take it to Radwood, and I am the Advan Supra Guy; I see pictures of it in almost every review of the event. People recognize me driving down the street and I get tagged in posts from completely random people. I’m daily driving it, and it’s beginning to become a lot less fun. It still has no heat, the welded diff makes it a total bitch to park, and it leaks enough fluids to keep an AutoZone singlehandedly in business. I accomplished most of what I wanted to do with it, but I need to keep it; I am the Supra Guy. I decide to get a new daily driver.
A friend of mine sells me a 1988 Honda Prelude 2.0Si to daily drive . I have always owned at least two cars while owning the Supra, but none of them are worth mentioning until this one. They were economy cars or compromises I bought for dirt cheap. I’ve been through seven other cars, either secondary projects or daily drivers, in three years. This one is different. For one, it actually successful makes a 1400 mile drive across America as I bring it home. For another, I actually love to drive it in a way I had never experienced before. It’s slow as hell but it’s still fun. I can actually redline third and not be going arrestably fast. Slow Car Fast is incredibly appealing, it turns out.
An actual image of yours truly
I begin to make myself match, roughly, with my vision for my life as I understand it now. I very quietly at first, then more loudly, come out as nonbinary. I change my wardrobe and I wear makeup and get my face lasered and I do not obey the rules of gender as I previously understood them. I feel more confident than I ever have. I didn’t know I was like this all along - maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t - but I’m living what I feel is my truth and I feel better for it.
The last time out
I put the Supra in the garage to begin repairs. My grandmother dies and it sits in pieces as I collapse into depression. I have a three, or four, or probably five month gap in my year I choose not to remember well. I begin to feel better, but I don’t fix the car, and I don’t miss it anywhere near as much as I used to when I would garage it for the winter or have it parked to modify. I have a light, flingable Honda to drive, and a list of cars as long as my arm I wish I could put in the garage instead of this one, but this one is stuck with me, right?
The perfect cockpit
Obviously, I am writing this article, so I have realized that owning a car does not make a person who they are. I’ve met people in the past year when my car was sitting and collecting dust who like me for things that are more intrinsic to my personality. Most of them didn’t even know I owned a Supra, and it was a cool surprise, rather than some indelible aspect of their mental image of me. They have been incredibly kind and helped me to realize that while a car is an expression of self image, it does not define anyone, any more than I have been able to define what a 1988 Toyota Supra is by modifying mine.
I don’t know what’s next.
The MA70 Supra is a flawed, but impressive, vehicle. It’s heavy, has poor steering angle, understeers like crazy at the limit, has a motor that runs very hot and tends to blow head gaskets. On the other hand, it was faster than the Corvette when it came out, actually could hit 140 MPH in 1987, had electromagnetically adjustable suspension, and HKS built one to run a 7 second quarter mile. More importantly than any of these things, it’s not what I want anymore, and it’s not because of any flaw of the car itself. I will always love that this specific car was here for me when I needed it to discover who I was, but the me that bought it is gone. I have always valued experiences over possessions, and treating my time owning this car as an experience makes it a more valuable memory than it could ever be as an object I own. The time to move on is when you change. It shouldn’t have taken me over two thousand words to say that, but it also took me four years to figure it out, so at least I’m consistent.