When I was about 26 in the mid aughts I had about $3.5K saved up to buy a car. I had never owned a classic, I ended up buying a 280ZX turbo with a blown head gasket and taking it to a shop to have a new turbo thrown in and the head gasket replaced. About $3K total, and I was on the road, but the car never really ran right. I got it diagnosed at a place and they said it was likely the crank angle sensor— about $350 total. That didn’t make sense— I thought— that was fine when I dropped it off to get the work done.

Pulling the valve cover seemed to confirm my suspicions— when I set the car to TDC the mark on the timing chain was off by a tick. I just needed to get that set right and my sweet classic would be running great!

At this time, I should mention, I’d just recently been laid off. I’d also just broken up with a long term girlfriend and had broken my lease and used every cent I had to pay rent for 4 months advance rent at an apartment I’d found in the city. Looked great in the daytime when I checked it out!

Well, that apartment ended up being about as close to a project as you’ll find in Central Phoenix. I found out after moving in that the old dude in a wheelchair in the last upstairs apartment was selling crack. The apartment owner was a crackhead. The apartment manager was a crackhead. My bicycle was stolen in about a 2 minute period when I locked it to a fence and ran back inside my place to grab my wallet. At night the bums and addicts would converge upon the streets and find places to shoot up in the fenced off school across the street.

On the plus side, I had one neighbor I was on pretty good terms with. I’d lent him my copy of Jurassic Park on VHS and he was into about the 30th viewing in a two week period. Nice guy— I mean he’d steal some copper piping every now and then... but never did me wrong; he’d even bust out a rollie cigarette for me on occasion... I guess what I’m saying is he was a total tweaker but I was in his “neighbor” circle of people he wouldn’t rob or screw over. After all, I lent him Jurassic Park, quite possibly the greatest movie he’d ever seen.

Well, the one non-crackhead in the building (you know, just meth...) also happened to be an ex-chief mechanic, or so he claimed. He’d help me adjust the timing chain on the Z for free in the 110 degree Phoenix summer heat! We went to work on the job, wedging a towel in the timing chain gap to prevent it from being tensioned off the crank teeth. We tried like hell to get it to move that one tick— no luck. Eventually the towel slipped just enough, the chain unseated itself, and we couldn’t get enough slack to get it back on.

The car would sit for another 3 months as I finished up grad school and looked for a job. It’d come with me to my next home after I got back to work at a new company. It would get sold about a half year later, still sitting there with the loose timing chain, when I got laid off from that job. I parted out the motor for $400 and the wheels for $100— I got $300 for the rust-free frame with all it’s chrome after finding no takers. I moved back home with my mother in Tucson for the next 6 months until I found my current job here in the DC area. While unpacking stuff in Tucson, I found the old dog-eared shop manual for the Z. I opened it one more time to the section on the timing chain. There in the manual I saw it clearly for the first time— “the timing chain mark should be aligned to be one tick off the mark on the cam gear, as illustrated in figure...”.

I’ll never let that one go... all the hell I went through over that year, one of the darkest and most depressing of my life, and the biggest regret I have is the damn turbo Z I killed.