Trash to Treasure

By Tim Suddard
Jan 1, 2018 | Mazda | Posted in Restoration & Renovation | From the June 2007 issue | Never miss an article

We love used car lots, but we’re not the type of people to look in the front row. Nope, we’re back row kind of people, always cruising the nether regions of the dealership to see what’s either too screwed up or too old for dealers to stick out front for a quick sale.

Used car dealerships survive by quickly turning cars. Each car on the lot represents tied-up cash, and every person driving by is a potential buyer. Do the math, and it’s pretty obvious that giving the prettiest cars prime exposure is going to help maintain cash flow. The sows–cars taken in on trade that aren’t worth even sending to auction–are sentenced to the darkest corners of the lot.

We learned a long time ago that the real automotive gems sometimes take a little digging to unearth, and we have used that knowledge to score some excellent deals. So while that young couple is checking out an off-lease Explorer out front, slink around to the back rows and find your next project.

Honest, We Weren’t Even Looking

When this 1990 Mazda Miata came into our lives, we actually weren’t on the lookout for one. Truth be told, we have enough Miatas here at the office. Sometimes our parking lot looks like a Spec Miata false grid. However, we can never turn down a good deal, especially when it involves four wheels and a rev-happy engine.

While recently checking out a building that was for sale, we visited the used car lot that was next-door. We spied a Miata in the back row. It was beat and tired but still displayed some potential.

We asked about the price and were told that $1500 would drive it off the lot. As we walked away, mumbling something about not looking like retail customers, the dealer shot back with $1200. We countered with $1100 and left with a blue Miata.

Before we got to the performance work detailed later in the magazine, we first attacked the cosmetics. As car dealers say, we rehashed it.

We’re not new to this game, either, so here are some of the tricks of the trade, so to speak. Follow our lead, keep your expenses to a minimum, and in a weekend you can also turn that back row rat into a keeper.


Here’s what $1100 buys as far as Miatas go. When this car came into our lives, few would mistake it for a cream puff.

While the body was solid and rust-free, there were still lots of cosmetic issues, including chipped bumper covers, a broken taillight and a cracked rear filler panel. Both doors were also dented, and the convertible top sported a few small tears.

The issues continued into the interior. The most obvious problem: no carpet. We’re not sure if a previous owner removed the carpet to save a few pounds or was trying to eliminate an odor source, but it was gone. A few interior bits, like a speaker cover and the radio itself, were also missing. The leather steering wheel cover had seen better days, and someone had attacked the gauge hood with a sharp object. Our favorite feature was the mystery toggle switch jutting from the center console. We never figured out what it was supposed to do.

Mechanically, the car ran and drove, but we still faced worn-out shocks, worn-out bushings and worn-out tires. The car also came without any maintenance records.

Despite all of these horrors, there were some pluses. For one, this was a well equipped Miata, as it had come from the factory with aluminum wheels, air conditioning, cruise control and power windows. Our car even had the optional limited-slip differential. The Mariner Blue paint was also very salvageable. As far as starting points go, it was perfect.

Pressure Wash

First things first: When you drag home a new jewel, put it up on four jack stands—as high as you can safely go—and pull off the tires and wheels so you can pressure wash everything. A decent pressure washer costs about $300 and really helps the used car rehasher.

On a super rat, we even pull out the carpet and seats and give them a taste of the pressure washer. It really creeps us out to see the dirty water run off something that we just sat on, but it really works.

Be careful with this gadget when it comes to paint, though, as a pressure washer can do some damage here. Also, if you wish to retain your eyesight, you will need to wear safety glasses to keep high velocity water and debris from blinding you.

Only after you’ve sprayed your way through the rough can you reveal that you got yourself a deal on a diamond. A clean car is also much more enjoyable to work on.

Before you start pressure washing everything, a word of advice: Look over all of the mechanical components to locate any leaks. Once you clean everything, these leaks are harder to spot–until they start leaking again, that is.

Black Spray Paint

Ahh, the detailer’s best tool, the can of black spray paint. Everything from under-hood goodies and tail pipes to rocker panels, inner fenders and grilles can benefit from a little shot of magical black spray paint. We have even gone so far as to spray paint faded carpets and seats.

Sure, there are better ways to deal with these problems–like spend a bunch of bucks on new stuff–but you would be surprised at how well a little spray paint holds up and how much of an improvement it can make.

What’s our favorite brand? Whatever is on sale that week.


Obviously, it is best to get maintenance records with every used car you buy, but that seldom, if ever, happens with the worn-out rats we are talking about. In general, expect that most things were neglected, although sometimes a little digging will reveal evidence of past maintenance, like the date of a timing belt change written somewhere under the hood.

With our worn-out, 200,000-mile Miata, we just assumed that parts like the timing belt and water pump were overdue for a replacement. We simply went ahead, bit the bullet and installed new ones. These fixes might not have removed all of the car’s problems, but hopefully they tipped the odds in our favor.

Every make and model has its own issues that should quickly be addressed before they spiral out of control. For instance, every used Porsche 944 seems to need a water pump. Talk to club members and other owners to locate these must-do items. The shop manual is also your friend here.

Shocking Improvement

Most people don’t understand that shock absorbers are a wear item, just like tires. Any car with more than 75,000 miles probably needs shocks. Other than tires, no other repair will make a more drastic improvement to how the car drives. We like KYBs when we are on a budget and Konis when we are not. For this Miata, about $200 bought us a set of new, nonadjustable KYBs.

Buff Me Up, Baby

Buffing paint is a mystical art. Knowing which paint jobs can and cannot be buffed is even tougher to figure out.

When looking at a used car, put a little saliva on your finger and rub the paint. If it shines right up, chances are good that buffing will bring the paint back to like-new condition.

When done correctly, buffing removes a very thin layer of the top finish, which consists of paint or the clear coat, depending on how the car was painted. When done incorrectly, buffing burns the layers of paint and permanently ruins the finish.

If you don’t know how to operate a buffer, practice on a neighbor’s car–just kidding. A used fender or hood from a salvage yard can be money well spent for practice.

Here’s a place where you might want to have a pro come in. Any body shop or detail shop will buff out a car, usually for less than $100. You can safely do it by hand for less, but without a buffing wheel it’s a pretty laborious procedure.

The end results are usually quite shocking, as there is often a drastic improvement on all but the most faded paint jobs. Make sure to keep in mind that buffing is not waxing, and a good coat of wax is required to bring out the full glory of your buff job. Also, be forewarned that if your paint was pretty dead to begin with, then your results won’t last too long and the paint will fade again. Our new guy, Chris, loves to wax.

Bodywork Tricks

The downside of back lot rats is that they usually feature a ding or two–or three or forty. Bodywork and paint are expensive and time-consuming.

Before committing to bodywork, take your newly buffed machine to the paintless dent repair pro in your town. These magicians can often work wonders at about $85-$100 per panel.

Another trick is panel replacement, which can be easy when your model used the same body panels for a long time and the factory stuck to a limited color palette–and yes, the Miata is a prime example. All 1990-’97 Miatas use the same door, and a lot of those cars came in Mariner Blue, just like ours. We found a used door that looked better than the dented one that came on our car and did the equivalent of major bodywork without ever breaking out the masking tape.

Here’s another low-buck trick: Cover a small dent with a towel and gently push out the blemish from the backside. Sometimes you can get away with it. If the dent broke the paint, a little touchup work and buffing should finish the job.

Needle and Thread

Don’t forget the joys of sewing when it comes to rehashing used cars. You would be surprised at how easily a small hole in a seat, carpet or sometimes even convertible top can be fixed with just a needle and thread. Use a big needle, beefy thread and a thimble. Keep the stitches close together for best results. This rip, well, might be a little too big to stitch closed.

Touch Up

It is amazing what can be accomplished with a touchup brush and a steady hand. Any automotive paint store can mix up a small can of any color. By making like a kindergartner in art class, you can hide a lot of sins, especially those on lower surfaces like rocker panels and underneath the grille. Try to fill the nick with a small brush and don’t use so much paint that it overfills the nick. This technique can work inside the car and under the hood, too.

The Junkyard Is Your Friend

While we splurged on new wheels, almost all parts can be found used with a little searching. Rather than visit the new car dealer’s parts counter, strap on some old shoes and cruise the junkyards. They are a veritable promised land if you’re seeking parts for 10- or 20-year-old cars.

When looking for Miata parts, we found used door sill covers that concealed scratches for only a few dollars. In the past, we’ve bought used aftermarket hop-up parts from the you-pull-it yards–how about Tokico shocks for $2.99 each? You can even get some cool stereo upgrades for pennies on the dollar if you cruise the right boneyards. We also make it a habit when at the salvage yard to stock up on all the little trim stuff and clips that invariably get lost, stolen or broken.

If the junkyards come up short, you might want to check with race-prep shops for parts. A shop that builds Spec Miatas or Honda Challenge Civics can be a great source for interior parts and other street equipment that they no longer need. That’s how we scored a new interior for a fair price.

Tires and Wheels

Installing new tires and wheels can make the biggest improvement in not only ride and handling, but in looks, too. Our Miata looked pretty average on the stock 14-inch alloys. Once we went to our 15x7-inch König Rewind wheels and Kumho tires, the car just looked cool–and it drove and handled so much better, too.

Sharp wheels also draw the eyes away from less than stellar paint. Using this strategy did the most to turn our Miata from a name-your-price rat to a real gem.

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