Buying and selling cars for a profit is a lot of fun - sometimes. In other instances, you're left with a sinking feeling in your gut because you're thousands into a fruitless money pit and your wallet just collapsed in on itself, like a malnourished black hole. This is one of those times.
During one of my nightly campaigns to rid Craigslist of its more interesting cars, I stumbled upon an unusually interesting find, at least for me: A 2003 Cadillac CTS. It looked to be a Luxury model with some gizmos and gadgets not included in the Base model.
The car featured a 3.2 liter V6 engine that made a little over 200 horsepower, essentially a better version of the engine found in the chronically unreliable Catera. It was the first car that Cadillac made when it got its shit together after a sad era known for front-wheel drive, Northstar-powered behemoths.
This Craigslist find was notable for one reason: the price. The seller wanted $1500 for the car, which wasn't running. Apparently the car would crank but wouldn't fire up.
After doing some research, I learned that one of the most common faults with the Cadillac is the crank position sensor, which can develop a fault quite randomly over time and render the car unable to start. It was a $40 part and about an hour's work to install, so I felt like I could pull a fast one on an unsuspecting and/or oblivious seller. I checked the history report and there were no reported accidents, salvage, or flood history on the car and it only had 2 owners since new. In the current market, cars of this type in running condition were worth around $5000, so it made sense to check it out at the very least.
I made the 20 minute drive to check out the car and gave the seller his asking price after seeing that the car was at least as described and couldn't start, but cranked. It had no Check Engine Light illuminated and no pending codes present from my own OBD-II scanner. I asked if there were any weird circumstances associated with the breakdown, and the seller simply said "It just wouldn't start." Good news indeed.
The interior was dirty, but intact. The exterior had scratches that could be buffed out and didn't require a whole lot of reconditioning. It also had some disgusting 16" black wheels with bald tires that desperately needed to be trashed. I had the car towed home and started in on it immediately.
Here's what the car looked like when it came home:
I didn't waste any time and went directly to my local auto parts store to get a crank position sensor for my new-to-me Caddy for $25. I crawled under the car and removed it using this tutorial and some E-torx bits, swivels, and a 3/8" extension on a 3/8" ratchet.
As soon as I was done, I happily jumped out from under the car, turned the key, and nothing. I tried for a few more minutes, thinking that the car was likely flooded from all the no-starts beforehand, which proved to be completely in vain. Since I was still skeptical about the quality of the Pep Boys Special part, I returned it as defective and went to the scourge of car repair: the Cadillac dealership. While there, I bought things that I needed for preventative maintenance, like spark plugs, fuel filter, and the aforementioned crank sensor with the addition of a cam sensor for good measure. Prices were actually extremely reasonable and didn't break the budget. I installed the parts (again), and eagerly awaited the sound of a healthy running engine, to no avail - it still cranked without starting.
It was time to rip apart the engine to see what was really going on.
I checked the grounds for the ECU (which is located on the engine itself), and all connections looked to be in good shape. Then I started the process of removing the timing cover to inspect the belt. This was my worst case scenario, as a snapped belt would likely mean valve or piston damage. When I popped off the cover, here's what was waiting for me:
This was bad, and signified that I at least needed new heads, for having a snapped belt without some sort of valvetrain damage on an interference engine was highly unlikely. I found some good used heads on eBay and had them shipped to me, along with a new Victor Reinz head gasket, new head bolts, and a timing belt kit, along with the appropriate alignment tools. This car had already cost me a few days of my time and was now threatening to take much, much more - but as I'm not a man to back away from a challenge, I thought to myself "how hard could it be?"
As I started to remove the cam components on the driver's side cylinder head, the true extent of the damage became apparent.The cam itself had cracked and taken a part of the head with it. I'm not sure if the belt snapping caused the cam to break, or the cam itself was the fault. Either way, it was a clear indicator of the problem with this engine.
I removed the exhaust manifold, a feat that wasn't at all difficult, as access was plentiful, followed by the lower intake manifold, coolant crossover tube, and disconnected all electrical connectors at the back of the cylinder head. I undid the head bolts with a large breaker bar and carefully lifted the head off the block, exposing the cylinders which were thankfully in good shape.
Since the parts I ordered were still a few days away, I bought some OEM wheels on eBay and picked them up locally. Oddly enough, it was the exact same person that sold me the cylinder heads. After installing them, the car looked more complete and one step closer to becoming a clean, good running example of a Cadillac CTS.
After a closer inspection of the cylinder head, I noticed that there wasn't actually any valve damage, the cam seemed to have taken the brunt of the impact.
Based on this information and the fact that the rest of the cams turned without issue, I decided not to take off the other cylinder head and instead focus my efforts on this one. As soon as I got my parts in, I installed the new cylinder head gasket (cleaning the surface with a razor and soft bristle brush), installed the new cylinder head using new head bolts (old ones stretch and cannot be re-used) and tightening them to the appropriate torque sequence, as stated by the car's factory service manual.
I then installed the camshafts and cam caps, torquing them to spec. I also installed the timing belt with the appropriate alignment tools and reinstalled the timing belt covers and buttoned the rest of the engine up. I changed the oil and filter, flushing the entire system once with the cheap stuff to make sure no microscopic debris got into the oil passages.
At this point, I was beyond nervous to see if my hours of work and hundreds of dollars got me a running engine.
I sat in the driver's seat, and clicked the key to the "ON" position. The fuel pump primed - a good sign. I clicked the car to the "START" position and the engine fired right up. I was absolutely ecstatic - all the work that I had done finally paid off and I could finally cross the mechanical issues off the list of things this car needed. That was true for the first 5 seconds until the engine started vibrating very, very violently. It didn't sound like the valvetrain was getting any oil, as it closely resembled a diesel tractor that had replaced its cylinders with marbles. A warning for "Low oil pressure" came on, and I turned the car off immediately.
I checked the oil again (Full), and decided to do yet another flush of fluids. A third oil change later, I once again turned the key and the car ran exactly like it did the last time, except this time the car turned itself off for me after running for 5 seconds, and wouldn't turn back on. The starter clicked and I used a breaker bar to confirm my greatest fear - the engine was completely seized. Fuck.
It turns out that the car was having problems with oil pressure all along, perhaps due to a failed or clogged oil pump, and that caused the original condition of cam seizing. I fixed a symptom instead of fixing the problem, and certainly paid for it.
At this point, I could've sourced a good used engine and installed it using my engine hoist, but I desperately wanted to be rid of the car, so I cleaned it lightly, took a few pictures, and threw it up on craigslist as a non-runner, with a ton of new parts and receipts that were now mostly useless.
I sold it to a wide-eyed local fellow that couldn't wait to put a new engine in it - for the exact amount that I originally paid for it before all the backbreaking work - $1500. Here is the rundown of costs for this dumpster fire of a car:
|2003 Cadillac CTS||-$1,500.00|
|Crank Sensor/Fuel Filter||-88.00|
|Head Gasket/Timing Belt/Tune-Up Parts||-88.15|
Here's the takeaway from this: Even with research, sometimes you can be left in the red. The important part is to know when to cut your losses and punt the car and use the remaining funds for something more useful. Use my experience as a means to gain perspective on your own projects, however over-budget they may be in the future.
For me, it was an indicator that I probably shouldn't buy early 2000s GM products that aren't running since I've been burned with a Cadillac before. But what is life, if not one giant learning experience. On to the next project - hopefully that won't be as destructive to my bank account.
For more tales of buying low and selling high, check these out:
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.