Project - Datsun 120A F11 Coupe - Timewarping back to the 1980s as I try to recreate my first car

Bit of a change for me as I move up to full-scale models! This is a 1978 Datsun 'Cherry', but its full name '120A F11 Coupe' sounds rather more impressive. Apparently there's less than thirty of these still on the road in Britain today - although theres probably less by the time you're reading this.
Not exactly a flash sports car, a standard classic, or something to cruise the streets in whilst trying
to look cool, I have simply liked this car ever since I first saw one in the late 1970s.
So when I got my provisional license I bought one within a week and then learned to drive in it,
which is no mean feat considering that you can barely see anything out of the back window!

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During 2007 I had spotted a couple of these cars on ebay and wondered about having one again, especially as the adverts seemed to be giving me a countdown ..... only 100 left in the country .... only 75 left in the country ... only 60 etc ... so by the begining of 2008 I was feeling the need to make a decision fairly quickly. The one major thing that was holding me back at this time was simply the idea of having two cars! I've only ever had one vehicle at a time and thats often been troublesome, or expense, to own in todays taxed-to-the-hilt world. Two cars means two repair bills, two road taxes, two MOTs, two insurance payments, and then of course I will barely be driving the thing as I travel to work by bus! Then I realised that I could always just buy one, SORN it, and have it on the driveway to play about with. So maybe it could be a cheap thing to do after all?

Decision made I looked for a car and there was one straight away, a Gold one in very good condition and with an MOT to boot, which sounds perfect. So I took a trip up to a place near Blackpool and had a drive in it - 'My God what a pile of JUNK!'

Unfortunately my fantasy had met reality in a near fatal head-on crash. My memories, viewed through nostalgic rose-tinted-glasses, just did not match up to what the vehicle was actually like and compared to what I had now become use to in a modern motorcar. My current car is only an 1999 model Nissan Almera but I had sped up the motorway in pretty quiet comfort, with 5-speed gearbox, power steering, electric windows and with a feeling of security and safety in a generally well made solid vehicle. The Datsun on the otherhand felt like a saggy, rattling, clapped-out-tin-box and I honestly felt that my life was in danger by traveling in it. The windscreen felt uncomfortably close to my face, and the rattling doors only seem to be 2" thick which meant that the outside environment felt pretty close too, and so any feeling of security was completely gone. So I smiled at the owner, agreed that it was a great little car, and said that I would 'think about it', then walked away with my money as quickly as possible without appearing to run.
On the way home I texted a friend - 'Old cars are crap'.
Still a few weeks later, after the shock had deminished, I found myself thinking about it all over again and so decided to buy another - but this time go for a cheaper version that needed some work. Part of this reasoning was that I was trying to recreate my first car and the feeling that went with it. A great part of that feeling was working on the vehicle and getting it to look exactly the way that I wanted it to look - I've never been one for simply buying something, I have to give it 'The Sisson Treatment'.
Ebay to the rescue again and another Gold one appeared, but a bit broken. It had been stored in a garage for ten years and it looked like it had been roughed up slightly by someone - either that or they weren't very good at parking.

Restoration Diary Report

'What have I bought?'

March 30th 2008 Hired a car transporter and travelled down to London to buy the car. Met a chap who lead us through a maze of streets to a back ally behind an old garage on goodness-knows-where street. Here we found the vehicle parked unlocked in muddly puddles 8-inches from the edge of a broken section of concrete overhanging a murky canel. Nice one!
It was a rather sad looking car, with deflated tyres, dented bumpers hanging off, and nothing actually working, so I did find myself questioning my sanity, and feeling like a gullible mark in some 'sting' operation, as I handed over my wad of cash - although after a 20-minute wait I did get a key for it!
It's more than a bit tatty, the insides a mess and it looks like its run into something hard on the lower front end. It's a non-runner at the moment but I'll charge the battery and see what happens, you never know it might actually start. Generally speaking the car looks quite solid with only surface rust. Surprisingly the bodywork actually looks better than the one I had 20 years ago!

First problem spotted the radiators leaking on the driveway, apparently caused by an old impact on the front lower body panel which has then gone underneath, bashed the bottom of the radiator twisting it slightly and breaking the plastic drain plug. There's not much that I can do with it, probably best not to mess with it too much so I'll just paint it to stop any corrosion starting. I bought a new plug - the old broken thread was removed by pushing a hot flat-bladed screwdriver into the plastic to create a slot, once cooled I could then use the slot to unscrew it.

April 3rd 2008
In a scene reminiscent of the film 'Flight of the Phoenix' the engine coughed its way to life, so I guess that the car isn't just going to be a garden ornament!
Lets see - Minor damage to radiator, fault on cooling system, engine servicing required, brakes need stripping, bodywork needs attention and paint, interior needs refurbishment, bumpers damaged, lights damaged, new front grill required, new exhaust required and alloys need to be refurbished.
Easy! What shall I do first? Think I'll get my 'Brasso' out and try polishing the bumpers, well you have to start with the important bits!

April 8th 2008
Managed to remove the main rubber water pipes. I always wondered why the pipes on old cars were hard and made a cracking noise when you squeezed them, I thought it was the rubber perishing but it turns out to be a layer of rust particles that line the tubes. One problem has been quickly found, I noticed that the engine water temperature gauge wasn't working. This is possibly caused by the fact that the connecting wire isn't actually connected to anything! The hole in the engine block should contain the protruding end of a sensor but there is just a mangled metal piece wedged in there. The book helped me sort this as touching the loose wire to the engine block proved the guauge worked fine. I wonder how many other things will turn out to be missing or broken?

April 19th 2008
Spending my time just checking things over and cleaning up the engine bay - so I can see what I'm actually doing. The main parts that are filthy and rusting are being cleaned and painted. This is taking rather a bit of effort as they need to be sanded down to bare metal, or decent paint, before they can be repainted. The key seems to be dismantling everything, getting it all back to the basic components.
Radiator is fixed up and reinstalled. Got a new engine temp sender but the old one is still jammed in the block.

April 22nd 2008
Well I tried to pull out the remains of the Temperature Sender and gave up, even after applying lots of penetrating fluid it still wasn't moving. How a smooth cylinder in a smooth tube can be so seized I really don't know. So I decided to remove the Thermostat housing in the hope that I could then see the inside and perhaps push it out - with the help of a hammer!
The 'Haynes Workshop Manual' simply says remove 3 bolts and the housing comes off, but the reality was that one was an Allen screw put on by a previous owner (now referred too as Mr Bodge it!) and 2 of them seemed to be anchored to the Earths Core! Cue more swearing.
The Thermostat itself was a rusted broken unit that was jammed in the open position. Luckily I had already bought a new one on ebay, together with a great many other items.
After 20 minutes of sweating and cursing I decided that I would have to drill it out. I started with a small drill bit and slowly increased the size until I was almost at the Senders full diameter - then suddenly it was out. I was a little concerned that I might damage the engine block, or thread, but it worked a treat.

April 29th 2008
Continued working on the cooling system with the removal of the smaller rubber hoses to the interior heater, and then removed that as well as the centre console. The heater consists of a plastic casing, fan motor, radiator and a lot of dead leaves and insects!
I cleaned out the unit and removed the previous owners wiring additions, looks like he had fed off the fan motor to power another electrical device, which is possibly why it didn't work anymore. Overall the parts looked good but the vent flaps are covered in a foam that simply fell to dust due to age, this had to be replaced. The radiator and pipes were flushed out till they were clean of rust particles and the unit was reinstalled. I found an electrical wire break in the process, and fixed it, so now the fan works in all its settings.

April 30th 2008
More general clean up work. The airfilter housing and rocker cover were rusting up so they were stripped down and painted. I had hoped to get a nice bare metal finish on the rocker cover but it was just too rusty, so I ended up spraying it Silver instead.

May 3rd 2008
With a great deal of effort I managed to undo the wheel nuts and remove the front wheels today and examine the struts and brakes - think they will require 'a bit' of work. I started with a wire brush and hammer - and a visit to ebay in search of new parts.

May 8th 2008
My biggest worry so far was the noise coming from the gearbox, everytime I've started the car so far I have kept the clutch depressed to stop the racket! Time to sort it out so I bought a new clutch kit.
First job was to remove the primary drive gear and I found a new fault, part of the metal casing, including one of the bolt holes, has been snapped off. Luckily there are five bolts on this part so I'm sure (read I hope) four will still do the job well enough.
The Haynes book says this is easy but it took me hours, still it was the first time I've changed a clutch. The whole thing weighs quite a bit, taking it out wasn't too difficult - getting the new one in was. Turns out I was being a bit of a wimp, sometimes you have to force these things into position. It said in the book that I would need special tools to remove some of the parts in the primary gear but they flew apart - not sure if that means I'm good or just a ham-fisted buffon?
The old bits weren't too bad, although the release bearing seemed a bit worn, so it wasn't really the source of the noise. After a bit of further investigation I found that there was hardly any oil in the Gearbox, no wonder it was making a noise! Sometimes the answers easier than you think.

May 12th 2008
Lets see, I've charged the battery, fitted new battery terminals, flushed the old engine oil, put in fresh engine oil, gearbox oil, radiator fluid, new air filter, fitted new temperature sender, new thermostat, new clutch and release bearing, removed all rubber pipes and cleaned them inside and out, flushed the water system, cleaned out the radiator including the internal cabin heater, new rocker gasket, new radiator plug, made a metal battery support bracket, cleaned the engine and engine bay, dismantled many of the parts and cleaned them like new or painted them a fresh, found and sorted several electrical faults and mechanical faults. And it actually works now, amazing.

Still from this picture I think its obvious that I'm more of a model maker than a mechanic, lots of pretty colours!

May 16th 2008
With the engine now working it's time to start on the other major problem area - the wheels and brakes.
First of all the tie rod ends, that connect the steering to the wheels, had past their sell by date and needed to be replaced. First slacken the securing nut - easy! Second remove pin and undo castrated nut - dead easy! Thirdly remove part - in your dreams!!
4th hit with hammer, 5th curse loudly, 6th apply blowtorch, 7th hit with bigger hammer.
Next day hit with hammer, hacksaw off the lower part, hit with hammer, hacksaw off upper thread, apply blowtorch, hit with hammer, drill through, break drill bits, go to shop to buy drill bits, drill again, hit with hammer...................and remove. Phew.

May 21st 2008
If I thought that was hard the brakes themselves were just as bad. The brake pipe bolts would not unscrew at all and my spanners were just beginning to round off the nuts, which would cause more problems, so I just hacksawed through the pipes and used a socket and wrench to loosen things.

The parts were rather filthy and rusting, the caliper was cleaned then rubbed down with wet & dry paper before being painted.

The brake cylinders were very carefully dismantled, especially the rubber seals, as I had no replacement parts. There was minor rusting but mostly everything was just jammed solid with the build up of muck over the many years of use, and non-use. Everything was cleaned as best as possible and then reassembled 'on' the caliper because the fully assembled cylinder wouldn't fit back into the space.

May 24th 2008
With the weather turning bad I had to resort to other indoor tasks and set about trying to improve my battered bumpers. They were very poor looking and somewhat rusty but after a whole tin of Brasso polish they began to gleam quite well. Then using wooden battens and a vice I managed to straighten out most of the major kinks, although I doubt if they will ever be really straight again.
The front bumper had bent a lot around the holes for the signal lights and the plastic parts had broken as a result. Luckily someone sold a box of old lights on ebay and so now I had two sets of knackered old parts to mix and match. Some of the worst rusting on cars seems to happen inside these light units as the thin cheap metal parts degrade away to nothing, but you often find that they don't do much anyway and can be replaced easily.

My modelmaking skills came in handy, as I had to glue a few plastic bits together and use my enamel paints to tidy things up. The rubber seals were in a very poor state and only one set could be saved, these were soaked in a restorative solution to make them usable and last longer.

The insides of both bumpers were cleaned of old flaking rust, this time using a wire brush attachment on my power drill to save my aching arms, then painted with silver Hammerite to protect them.

June 3rd 2008
I finally managed to remove a front wheel hub.......and I've only pulled and badly strained half the muscles in my shoulders and back!

The book say's remove pin and nut and it should come off, yeh right. Luckily I read a tip about reattaching the wheel and using its mass to help pull the hub off, especially if you rotate the wheel and keep hitting the back with a lump hammer.
A cloth was placed in the exposed hub to keep the dirt out, especially as I now used a wirebrush to clean up the baffle plate before coating it with black Hammerite paint. To stop the brake fluid from just pouring out of the cut pipe I drilled a hole in a piece of rubber (pencil eraser) and pushed it onto the end to seal it.

I found that there was a build up of grease around many of the parts and discovered that the rubber boot on the driveshaft had come loose, so this had to be checked over, cleaned up, repacked with grease and fixed back into position.

Things started to go easy as the old brake discs came off without a fight. Even so I'm now cleaning and oiling up every nut and bolt I remove to ensure they remain user friendly. One slight hold up was the fact that I had chopped up my brake pipes and needed replacements. Luckily my mate Bob Bailey had a flaring kit that he could send me - always nice to have friends with tools!

June 10th 2008

Before and after pic's. (No its not a piece off the Titanic!)

Doing the first wheel took about 3 weeks of puzzled frowning and chin-rubbing experimentation.... doing the second about 3 days.

June 12th 2008
I decided to start work on the inside of the car, although I had been tinkering with bits I now decided to go the whole hog and strip the interior fittings so that I could examine the floor for any rust - and remove all the filth in the process!
I started at the back and removed the three black plastic sections that line the boot space. These fragile mouldings had split in several places so again I got my modelling glues out to fix them and stuck strips of plastic sheeting on the back to strengthen the new joins.
Water must have been leaking into the back as there was a fair amount of surface rust in this area that all needed sanding away. Then the area was cleaned up and painted a nice bright silver.

June 19th 2008
Back to the brakes again as it was time to tackle the rear wheels and surprise surprise one of the brake pipe nuts actually came off without a fight - I almost expected a fanfare and dancing girls to appear to celebrate!
Again the wheel hub did not want to come off - I had to use the hammer again. There was a big build up of surface rust on the main parts that all needed removing and a lot of muck on the inside. New wheel cylinders and pads were fitted and the existing securing clips were just sanded clean and painted. The brake pipes themselves were cleaned up with wet & dry paper and painted red, as was the hub.
As I was working partly under the car I also started to clean parts of the underneath and the wheel arch with a wirebrush and apply a new coating of underseal - of course a fair bit of it ended up in my hair too. Its a dirty job this.

June 21st 2008
Back to the interior and time to remove the seats and carpets. The seats are actually in a very good condition but the carpets are dreadful.
So far I've only found a lot of peanuts, 2 pens and a few foreign coins - I was hoping for a stash of old 50 notes!

June 25th 2008
Work starts on the second (and last) rear wheel. The brake nut does not want to come off this time.

July 12 2008
Its been raining rather a lot so work on the car has slowed. Still today the rain held off (mostly) so I could tackle a few more jobs. I decided to do some more work on the inside and removed the last bit of the rear seat, uncovering more muck and some water.
I also removed the black trim panels to examine the condition of the bodywork interior. More water was found and rust to go with it, this is obviously getting in from the windows above and just dripping slowly down through the bodywork. There are openings to let this water pass through but if it hangs about for long then it will start to rust the metal. I will need to rub the area down and plan to apply underseal to the insides of most of the panels and doors to protect the metal surfaces.

I will also need the panels off to change the paint colour, but the main reason for removing the trim today was to look at the inside of the drivers door as the lock doesn't work from the outside. So far I have been having to enter the passenger side and lock the drivers door from the inside, so I thought it was about time I tried to repair the lock.
I unscrewed the window winder handle, the plastic lock surround and the interior door handle and was about to carefully detach the black trim when it fell off! Yes I have found another of 'Mr Bodge Its' previous DIY jobs. All but one of the plastic support catches have been broken and the trim was completely loose. A plastic bag was taped across the inside of the door and the lock securing bracket was bent - so he had obviously had problems with the lock before.
I removed the bracket and bent it back into shape and then removed the lock and oiled it. After a bit of testing I tried reassembling all the parts a few times until I managed to get it all working again - success!

To top off the day I fired up the engine and went for a drive............only to the front gates which are about 30 feet away, but it was still my first trip!

July 13th 2008
The Sun was shining today so I got in a full days work on the car, as it was warm I decided to do some painting and began work on the rear hatch. I was only going to rub down some of the rough areas, and then put on a dab of paint to protect them, but ended up doing the whole panel. You might notice that I'm not painting it Gold but a rather a bright Blue, I'm not totally sure about the colour yet as it does seem slightly OTT.
Also I got out my car filler and repaired a couple of dents in the rear panel, I also found a couple of dents on the corners which I hammered out partly and then filled.
After its short trip yesterday I found some oil on the ground which I think is from the gearbox - I need to remove the primary gear again and put some sealant on the joint.

July 20th 2008
Removed the Primary gear and put sealant on the part and that seems to have fixed the problem. Then I removed the front headlights to see why one wasn't working. There was the usual rusty bits and screws that didn't want to come out but the securing metal rims around the lights had also been jammed back on wrongly and bent - so all the parts needed cleaning and fixing. Luckily this car has separate bulbs that fit into the glass, and aren't sealed beam units like my last one, so the problem was just traced to simply needing a new bulb. I went off to an Autojumble to get one but found a whole new lamp instead which was nice as one of mine was very coroded.
I've noticed that my cooling fan has never operated so today I shorted the circuit to make sure that the fan actually works and it did. The thermostat switch is probably defective but I'm planning to install a manual overide switch anyway so thats no great problem.

July 22th 2008
I removed the hatch today and painted the surrounding area. I also started painting the inside of the car as I'm going for an all-black interior. Also refitted the bumpers to see what they looked like.

July 27th 2008
Today I finally bled the brakes and an awful lot of air came out, still think that I'll have to do it again. Also bought a small roll of black carpet and used the old carpets as templates to cut out my new ones, now I've just got to start sewing all the edges up.

Aug 1st 2008
I'm getting a bit fed up with working on my car only to come out the next day to find it wet and rusting even more - and covered in bird muck! So time for a slight hold up on the restoration as I really need to rebuild my garage to store it in.

August 30th 2008
The car is now safely stored in my rebuilt garage, which has taken me several weeks to fully complete, but it was really needed for the next stage of the restoration work, as I will be removing some body panels. I'm just wondering if this expense should be added to my car budget - maybe not I think I'll class it as a home/garden improvement.
I finally finished sewing up the carpets and fitted them in the car together with most of the interior trim and seats. Only the two door panels are missing now as I've still got to work on them. Its rather nice to see the car coming back together, feels like I'm actually getting somewhere - and its also nice to get the parts out of my house where they have been cluttering up the living room. Its taken quite a bit of effort to clean everything up and make them look like new again.

September 10th 2008

I've noticed for some time that the right rear side was moving up and down rather a bit which meant that the gas shock absorber was knackered, so I've been keeping an eye out for a replacement. Unfortunately I have not seen any for sale so I decided to buy a similar pair off ebay that looked ok! They were also for an old Datsun and they had the right sort of end connections and the only problem that I could see was that they were slightly bigger and longer - but that would not be much of a problem, would it?
To begin with everything went fine as I swapped over the end fittings, this was slightly troublesome as I had to force out the bottom bracket and insert it into the new rubber bush, but I managed it in the end. Unfortunately when I jacked up the car to fit the new shocks they would not actually go through the holes in the trailing arms. Doh!
The problem was that the holes narrow on the inside, so theres not as much spare room as I thought. This meant a slight rethink on my part and I had to slim the tube ends down by cutting away some excess metal. The end brackets and bush's also had to be removed again as I now realised that I could only try to install the shocks by inserting them from above the trailing arms, then add the parts once they were in position.
Again I jacked up the car and tried to fit the new shocks and success they went straight into place....only to then find that the securing bolts would not line up with the holes. Drat and Double Drat!
Almost at the point of throwing my expensive new bits in the dustbin I suddenly realised that everything would probably fit if it was in its normal operating position, with the arm not hanging down quite so far. So I used a second carjack on the arm and by constantly adjusting the two jacks was able to very slowly lift and move everything into the correct position and then twist the shock absorber into lining up with the bolt holes. Success!
Yes they were in and they work very well..... Perhaps too well as the backend of the car is now very stiff indeed!

September 21st 2008

Time to remove the wings and have a look at what sort of nasty horrific rust is hiding behind them. As the right-hand side one has a rust hole at the top near the drivers door I decided to remove it first. And surprise surprise there was ....well nothing really, which I guess was a surprise!
My first car back in the 80s had terrible problems with rust in this area, but it didn't have the plastic inner wheel arch mouldings that this car is fitted with, which together with the undersealing has saved everything. There are some patchs of surface rust but these can be sanded off quite easily. Lets hope the other sides as good.

October 31st 2008

The weathers getting pretty chilly now so work has slowed on the car and I'm planning to probably stop altogether for the winter months. I travelled down to Norwich the other week to buy a plastic grill for the front of the car and I also got a new radiator while I was at it, as the current one apart from being dented is also now showing signs of leaking. The 30-year-old plastic grill was cracked and broken in a couple of places but has responded well to my liquid glue and its now back in one piece and being painted after multiple washes.

Most of the work this month has been on rubbing down the two front wings, removing the small rust patches with sandpaper and rust-busting chemicals and then repainting them. The right-hand one is now done but it was more work than I anticipated as there were a number of dents in the panel that had to be fixed, in fact both wings have been bashed at some point and even after I've finished working on them they will still not be perfect. The good news was that the rust was only minor small surface stuff and came off quite well, most of it being on the inside at the front and under the side lights. The left wing turned out to be a more recent replacement and had less dents although it didn't have any undeseal on the inside and was therefore being attacked more by the rust monster. To combat future problems, after cleaning, the insides of each panel have received two coats of Hammerite paint and will also get a final coat of thick underseal.

The sidelights were taken apart and cleaned, with the rubber parts being washed and then treated in a solution to get them nice and supple again. The metal holder was rusting up rather badly so it was sanded down and coated in Hammerite as well. One of the lenses was badly scratched so I replaced it with a spare that I had bought off ebay at the start of this project.

In fact my ebay spending has been rather regular and the car's overall costs are mounting up now. When I started this back in March I decided to itemise all my spending in a nice smart little folder, which my friend Nick warned me not too, and I am beginning to see his point as I've now reached the bottom of the fourth A4 sheet and the total is fast approaching the 2000 mark - and that doesn't include rebuilding the garage to store it in, all the petrol I've used driving around to buy or view things - and I haven't bought the stainless steel exhaust, new tyres, or had the wheels refurbed yet!
So much for the cheap little project. Its just been called 'David's Folly'.... I think 'Blue Elephant' is better!

November 16th 2008

Spending most of the time now on cleaning the front panel of rust, again all surface stuff, nothing actually bad no holes or anything, but there is quite a bit of it. I started with a wirebrush attachment to my electric drill which worked rather well, then heavy duty sandpaper and finally then applied plenty of Hammerite Rust Remover, which is a green jelly type thing that disolves rust - well it does if you keep applying it for about a week! Still I have so far managed to turn my bad rusty bonnet hinges back to bright clean metal. I think this is going to take a while!

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