Before one sets off on any reasonably long automotive journey, it's important to kick tires and check fluids. However, when you're staring down the barrel of 1,000,000 miles on the odometer, it pays to be a little more cautious. Here's how I made sure that I (hopefully) wouldn't be left stranded in the bad part of town with a Lexus I didn't own.
If you've been following my freelance calamities involving this Lexus LS400 - a car that belongs to The Smoking Tire producer and /DRIVE host Matt Farah - you'll have read that I drove the car eight relatively worry-free hours after swapping out the radiator in a freezing residential parking lot, accompanied by a friend, and my newfound spirit animal, Jack Baruth.
After I got the car home and waited for the permafrost that had settled on the car's Earl Scheib exterior, it was time to do what I did best - strip old cars naked and spend a slightly uncomfortable ransom on parts. I made a list of things that needed to get done, and things that I'd like to get done, both lists being of equal importance, clearly. Here's both lists:
- Oil Change/Fluid Check
- Get car on lift/check bushings, ball joints/suspension
- Check cooling system for leaks or air pockets
- Check fuse box for correct value fuses
- Replace missing rear speakers and front aftermarket speakers with OEM units
- Wire in stock-looking AUX input/bluetooth unit
- Check that all lights and functions work
- Don't panic
First things first - I took apart the sorry state of the interior and found that the car, with its stock-looking radio, had some sort of crazy sound system installed at one point, because the entire rear deck and every single door panel was sawzall'd and modified within an inch of its life. It looked like the weekend project of a B student in 10th grade shop class, with speakers being drilled directly into the door panel, and haphazardly covered with some Walmart carpet fabric. This wasn't what a Lexus with a million miles should look like. Dammit, it deserved better.
After putting the word out to the various Lexus Facebook groups, one generous man named Wesley stepped up and said that not only did he have all four door panels and headrests in my color and my year ('95 and '96 were standalone years for the LS400, different from any others), but I could have them for the princely sum of nothing. The issue? He was three and a half hours away in Maryland. Challenge. Accepted.
I gathered the most energetic junk food that my budget would allow and set off on the all-day journey to get used door panels for a car that wasn't mine and also happened to have traveled further than any Saturn V rocket in existence. Ladies and gentlemen, I don't hope to have an easy life, but I'd at least like one that's easily explainable to police, and I was firmly straddling the fine line between "Here's what happened" and "Are you sitting down?"
The ride was absolutely uneventful, the car soaking up miles like I soaked up a likely toxic mix of Red Bull and Fritos on my way to the more temperate climate of The Middle Of Nowhere, Maryland. When I got there, I was greeted by Wesley and two of his friends, and it could have been the unspoken camaraderie that car people share, or a dose of non-New-Jersey-native hospitality, but they were some of the most accommodating and friendly people I've ever met. I got to check out Wesley's great daily driven VIP-inspired Lexus LS400, complete with airbag suspension, side curtains, and a ton of little details that would've been lost on anyone other than a car enthusiast.
After we rambled about cars for the better part of an hour, I graciously thanked him for being so generous, and headed home, because time was of the essence and I technically hadn't done anything yet. When I got home, I removed the taped together Alpine speakers from the door panel, ripped the glued-on carpeting out and removed the door panel. Kids, this is your brain on drugs:
Fueled by an unrelenting mood of taking things apart, I prized the stock head unit from the dash, and proceeded to add an auxiliary input into the back of the case, splicing into the tape deck's outputs, using some spare speaker wire, a $2 stereo jack from the now-defunct Radio Shack in my area, some solder, and a little bit of patience. I'll go into more detail on this particular mod at a later date, as this procedure can be done with nearly any radio head unit with a tape deck that you wouldn't mind sacrificing.
After I tested the unit as working with a regular auxiliary cable plugged into my phone through the TAPE input, I plugged in the Kinivo BTC450 bluetooth unit I purchased, to make the entire system future-proof. However, as Murphy's Law commands, "he who smelt it, dealt it," and the unit turned out to be defective. By this point, I was leaving in a few days, and the likelihood of getting another one in time was, on a scale of 1 to 10, a solid You're Screwed. I decided to just leave the Motor Trend brand tape adapter in as the all-important liaison between my six month old phone and the 19-year old Japanese luxobarge, and would just offer Matt my apologies that he wouldn't be driving a 21st century Lexus LS400 any time soon.
Another disappointment was that I couldn't get the OEM speakers in time, since they came with bespoke enclosures that I absolutely needed, none of which were available anywhere for a reasonable price. In a moment of Roadkill genius, I zip-tied the front speakers in place, securing them with screws for a makeshift setup that would last me at least until the trip was over. As the deadline for departure was closing in, I ditched the need for rear speakers - that would be something Mr. Farah could figure out at a later date. I installed the door panels and new headrests, transforming the look of the car from a hacked mess to a stock-ish, well-worn Lexus. I'd love to show you the result of said work, but it was below freezing, and the discount monkey brain that I was using didn't think to take an "after" picture. In lieu of that, here's a shot of a nearly identical car, minus the grizzly shift knob:
I also noticed that the air conditioning blower was weak in the center vent, so I replaced the shattered center section with a used part I ordered on eBay:
I then took the car to get its all-important vitals checked before embarking on such an arduous journey. I enlisted the help of High Intake Performance owner and my friend, Eric, to use the lift in his shop to check out the underbody and running bits of the car. Here's what it looked like underneath a car with almost one million miles on it:
Apart from a leaky valve cover gasket that was occasionally getting oil on the exhaust manifolds and giving the car a weird odor under heavy acceleration, everything was remarkably well cared-for. The steering rack was new, as was the transmission mount, and all bushings, shocks, struts, and braking components looked great and would certainly withstand a cross-country drive at least once. I did well to tighten down any and all clamps having to do with the coolant system, topped up all fluids, performed an oil and filter change, checked that all fuses were in their correct location (for the most part), and made sure that the pressure in the tires was adequate for getting optimal gas mileage, which wasn't phenomenal, put passable for a car with a mileage figure that's quite literally astronomical.
As D-day was quickly becoming a reality, I bought a set of hand tools from Harbor freight, and armed with three bottles of extra oil, one bottle of coolant, and two weeks worth of clothes, readied myself for a cross-country journey, in the dead of winter, with a car that had run out of warranty 830,000 miles ago.
If you want to start your own epic journey with a car that just can't quit, find one of your own here, and make it spectacular.
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world's cheapest Mercedes S-Class , a graffiti-bombed Lexus , and he's the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn't feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.