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Project MR2: Background & Introduction

Ross Ballot March 11, 2016 Featured, Project Cars 16 Comments


A free car is always a good car.  A free sports car is an even better car.  And a free sports car that runs and drives is the best car.  Such is how the dreams of myself and my friend Dan are finally coming together.  And by “coming together,” I mean that the car needs some love.  A lot of love.  What will be a low-budget build, moderately capable of any kind of racing (within reason) we dare throw at it, has to start somewhere, and for us it’s with a free 1991 Toyota MR2.

The following is an introduction to our project car and to what we aim to do with it.  The future promises a lot of time spent wrenching which will hopefully reward us with much more time spent racing, but first let’s back up to day one…

My phone rings no more than one minute after we’ve hit the highway, no less than ten after we’ve begun our journey.  A quick glance at the touchscreen reveals Dan’s name, calling me from less than fifty feet ahead.  I shift my eyes back to the road.  Smoke pours out of the MR2’s exhausts; my stomach sinks.  This call could be urgent, so I seal off the beautiful, unseasonably warm spring day by closing the windows and sunroof to best hear Dan over the Bluetooth. Tapping “Accept” and prepare for the worst.  His voice crackles through, revealing a half-laugh laden with a hint of nervousness.  “Hey, so…maybe you should lead.”  He pauses, waiting for a response.  Or maybe trying to gauge how loud he needs to speak and or yell over his open windows at the speed we’re traveling.  The smoke hasn’t let up so at this point I’m wondering if his call is to report that the motor will give out shortly, posing quite a problem seeing as my Challenger isn’t exactly a tow vehicle (not that it would matter with no trailer).

His voice comes through my speakers again, clearer this time: “I don’t have a working speedometer!”  Caught up in the excitement of finally picking up a project car, I look down at my own functional speedo, instilling immediate utter shock and disbelief in realizing our recently adopted twenty-four-year-old project/race-car-to-be is somehow allegedly managing extra-legal highway speeds.  I reason to myself that the MR2 being able to move so well in its decrepit state is a good thing; we’re ten minutes into a two-hour drive, nothing has fallen apart or broken, and Dan wasn’t calling to report imminent detonation.  All systems are go.

MR2 pic3MR2 pic4

Thanks to a certain budget-minded racing forum, Dan found a car located in New Jersey that was in desperate need of a home.  It was meant to be: we had already been talking for months about eventually entering the 24 Hours of LeMons, and the MR2 turned up at the perfect moment.  It’s almost the ideal car, aside from the difficulty in finding some parts inexpensively and the fact that our individual vehicle needs a substantial amount of elbow grease to make it even remotely track-ready.  But aside from that, it’s got the right formula: lightweight, mid-engine, and old enough to be moderately simple to work on.  [I say this now; Future Me reserves the right to retract the statement about its simplicity.]

Upon arrival in NJ the owner showed us his own gorgeous, boosted AW11, and explained that his son runs a MR2 business.  Now it makes sense; too many cars, not enough time/money/room.  The beaten and battered black SW20 in his driveway, adorned with mismatched wheels and hood pins affixed to the fake carbon-fiber frunk, had to go.  He showed us around the car we were to take, explaining that the frame was slightly bent but had been pulled out and that the automatic transmission was effectively shot.  “Don’t try to back up,” he mentions.  That’s fine, we already have plans to ditch the slushbox.  A wave and a genuine “Good luck!” from the previous owner, and we set off.


MR2 pic5MR2 pic6

We’ve failed ourselves (and the car) thus far.  After picking up the MR2 in April of 2015 it still sits mostly untouched.  Those time and money constraints really do take the wind out of a project quickly.  But alas, we’re finally getting things rolling, which begins with…actually getting the car rolling.  The battery is dead.  The tires? Dry rotted.  Transmission?  Forward gears only, and roughly at that.  A pool of oil underneath the engine doesn’t bode well for its future.  Lucky enough, we have a recently acquired parts car.


Craigslist to the rescue, Dan was also able to find another SW20 in running condition.  That’s about the best that can be said for it, but $250 brought it home and we’ll easily make that money back when we sell unused items from both the primary and secondary bodies.  Even looking at the parts car in pictures is somewhat scary, with the floors rotted through and the seat rails barely holding the buckets in place, but it has a working engine and functional manual transmission that our race-car-to-be will happily accept as its own.


As of this writing, we still have many questions: How much work will it really take?  How is the MR2 as a platform?  How will we do when we compete?  Can you really build a car, and subsequently go racing, on a super-tight budget?  Why are we even doing this?

PartsCar7 PartsCar4

I can’t answer most of those just yet, but as for the last question: we love cars, love racing (Dan and myself being volunteers at Lime Rock), and know that together we’re more capable of getting a project done, and getting track time in said project, than we are alone.  We have a long road ahead of us but know what we’ve set out to do with the car: make it light, make it reliable, make it (and ourselves) safe, and then drive the hell out of it.  Use the MR2 to learn, to have fun, and to see what we’re capable of.

As I mentioned, our sights were originally set on 24 Hours of LeMons (or ChumpCar), but continuing budget and time constraints along with the lack of a reliable team to work with us demoted those series to “no-go” status.  Hopefully sometime down the road we’ll give them a shot, but not now.  Before then we’ll need to get some seat time, learn proper racing techniques (and actually be able to apply them to the track), and, first things first, get the car together and working right.


We’ve outlined a brief strategy, or plan of attack:
1) Strip the car of everything that’s not needed to go racing, in order to make it as light as possible,

2) Remove the engine and automatic transmission from the primary car and replace them with those from the parts car [i.e., motor swap and automatic-to-manual transmission swap] and in the process make the MR2 as reliable as possible,

3) Buy and install approved seat(s) and harness(es), and eventually a roll cage,

4) Acquire two sets of wheels and tires (one for tarmac; the other for rally)

We’re hoping that accomplishing the above will allow us to drive it every chance we get.  Rallycross and track days are the immediate desires but are really just the tip of the iceberg.  There’s nothing groundbreaking about our goals, but at our current rate of progress it’s a big task for two guys with jobs, social lives, and other hobbies outside of cars.  Not to mention that we live an hour and a half apart from each other and the MR2 resides with neither of us.

And so, heading towards the end of the first quarter of 2016, it begins.  Slowly, certainly not steady, but better than not having begun at all.  We’re hoping to have the car ready in time to enjoy it this year which, while a reach, isn’t impossible.  If nothing else there’s always Lime Rock’s Winter Autocross…

MR2 status as of this writing: better at collecting dust than actually being a car.

Stay tuned for Chapter 2!


  • “A free car is always a good car.”

    Despite my personal accumulation of so much evidence to the contrary, I still believe this to be true.

    • nanoop

      And in that gist: “The future promises a lot of time spent wrenching which will hopefully reward us with much more time spent racing”
      I am no racer, but my general impression is that racing lasts tens of minutes, maybe even hours, whereas generous wrenching is measured in days.

      • In my experience the relative proportions are, ah….

        Let’s say it’s just as well that I’m in it more for the wrenching than for the racing.

      • Ross Ballot

        I spend 10 hours working on my ATV for every hour I spend riding it.
        Expecting nothing different from the MR2.
        Gotta pay to play!

        • nanoop

          That’s the spirit!

    • Ross Ballot

      Thank you! I too can attest to the free car being best car, although my last dabble with such was an e30 that would have needed thousands to get it even somewhat roadworthy. Passed on that project, and heavily regret doing so, so going to have to make the most of the MR2 to make up for it.

  • roguetoaster

    A free SW20 from the father of an MR2 guy seems to be very similar to a free bump from your local dealer in white powder.

    Nonetheless, I wish you all of the luck, and free weekends with pleasant weather!

  • BigRedCaveTroll

    Best of luck to you two!

  • wunno sev

    yay SW20s! miatas are easier (and more fun, tbh) to drive around on the street, but SW20s have the appeal of being uncommon and interesting.

    not that this much matters to a lemons racer, but they’re also very well-built. my 91 was a tank with doors that went bam and a cabin that squeaked not a mite, even after 225k miles. everything – the body, the interior, the suspension – it all just felt cohesive and tight.

    the only flaws were the rust and the snap oversteer – i definitely had a few butt-clench moments, and mine wasn’t even a turbo car. supposedly MR2s are not easy to work on, but over the ~10k miles i owned it, i hardly had to do any work. once you get your race car up and running, it’s gonna be an easy machine to live with.

    • Ross Ballot

      Good stuff! Had my first experience with snap oversteer no more than thirty seconds after driving it for the first time. Went around my dirt parking lot to do a quick slide before parking it, and…almost went all the way around. Definitely a learning curve having driven FR cars/trucks primarily.

  • Garrett Michael

    I’ve always liked second gen MR2’s. But the petrolicious video of the V6 swapped MR2 gave me a super chubby for them!

  • discontinuuity

    Nice! I’ve got an ’86 AW11 that’s my daily driver. It’s one of the most fun cars I’ve driven.

  • karonetwentyc

    Something I’ve always found interesting about this iteration of the MR2: if you remove the rear spoiler, it changes the looks of the car just enough that it almost appears to be something else entirely.

    Always been interested in these, but on the days when I’ve gone shopping it’s always been a case of junk cars, overpriced junk cars, and astronomically out-of-my-price-range really clean ones. Don’t seem to be a whole lot out there that fall into the ‘perfectly serviceable’ (and I use that latter word in both senses of the term) category.

    • Ross Ballot

      They’re among that group of the “getting somewhat rare, but very rare where good price meets good condition.”

      Ours was fits into the good/great price (free), but is a pile otherwise.

  • HuntRhymesWith

    Is the parts car the same year? I have transplanted everything from a 1983 RX7 into a 1985 shell, and found that there are many small but serious changes. For one, the transmission mount holes on the 85 were moved 1 foot forward. I ended up welding in the entire transmission tunnel from the 83 car.

    Best of luck with the MR2(s) and I hope to see it at NJMP some day.

    • Ross Ballot

      I believe it’s a ’91…sounds like a DeLorean type problem with things not matching up!

      NJMP would be great, hopefully one day…