Former Porsche 944, BMW 750il V12, R53 Mini Cooper S and Jeep WJ owner. Current E60 535i and Subaru WRX owner. I don't miss the Jeep.

How a Phoenix rose from the ashes.

Rebuilding a tuned Bugeye through blood sweat and tears.

We’ve always come back to calling her Phoenix. We’ve talked about other names but none seem to stick. We’ve always had to live paycheck to paycheck so when the chance to own an epic little reliable rally car for the road became our reality we were beyond excited. Our 2002 Bugeye WRX found us when it had already been built into a stripped out Rallycross car. The original engine and transmission were still in the car but those were about the only major original parts left. Carpet and radio gone, stock seats all gone, bigger turbo, injectors, intercooler, sway bars...and more all upgraded. All done we thought. I knew how to change oil and swap spark plugs. Maintain and enjoy right?. This is easily the fastest, best handling car we’d ever owned. We thought that in at least one little way, we had made it. We were ignorantly ecstatic.

Lesson 1: Don’t assume you’re always in control of the cars well being.

Everything was perfect for a few months, but unforeseen occurrence catches up with us all and for us it came in a red Ford Five Hundred. We hit the rear fender of this particular car as the offending driver ignored a red light and pulled out in front our car along with two others. The little Honda in the lane to our right hit him square in the B pillar. We nearly avoided it completely but the front passenger corner of the WRX took the brunt. The damage seemed only cosmetic. A fender, a headlamp, a new hood. After a month or more of awaiting the cars return from the body shop we had it back. Good as new...or so we thought.

It looked almost entirely cosmetic to our untrained eyes.
Photo: S.D.Rivers

A month later we realize a rod was knocking...a common problem on WRXs but a significant one when you live paycheck to paycheck. Unlike a V8 or V6, you can’t simply remove the oil pan and get up underneath the car to swap out these parts. It requires pulling the motor and then disassembly of everything to get to the rods and bearings. The simple solution is to swap the engine with another known working example. We never thought to consider the rod issue could’ve been a part of the accident so we decided our best option was to swap the motor on our own dime.

For almost a year the WRX sat as we built up the knowledge and funds to spend on a motor that even used costs $2200-$3500. That meant sharing a car to get to two different jobs in two different places throughout that time. It meant countless hours of research so that spending thousands on an engine that we didn’t know how we’d swap once we had it would pay off. It meant fights and multiple discussions about if it was worth it. It meant real dedication to an inanimate object that created real frustration in our lives all because the speed and the pleasure of driving a great car had gotten into our veins. 9 or so months of that and the motor was finally on its way and we had even found a shop we could afford to install it.

Motor swap weekend arrives and after a stressful 2 days of enthusiastic optimism I get a call that goes like this.


Shop : “Hey, we think your new motor is already knocking”

That’s all I remember.

That was the only important thing. I’m sure a lot else was said but I’ll never remember what it was. I couldn’t imagine having to relay the news. I felt like my dream had finally been dealt the deathblow. It broke our hearts. I was already broke but now the motor I’d saved so hard for was worthless. Thankfully the shop was honest with us and explained they actually had the motor in after day 1. They then dumped 91 octane gasoline in, turned up the boost and went for a few “test drives”. For tuned Subaru motors this is akin to pouring cheese whiz in the crankcase and hoping things go well. The fueling must be tuned for the specific engine and mods. It wrecked a rod bearing in the second motor within an hour. So after long discussions with the shop and the business we bought the engine from we thankfully secured a 3rd motor without spending another dime. At this point I’m uneducated but I’m not about to let anyone else mess this up so I spent every waking free moment between the time the 3rd engine shipped to us and the day it arrived on the pallet researching exactly how to swap it on my own so that I could be a part of the process and oversee everything was correct.

The second engine arrives.
Photo: S.D.Rivers

Work began on the third motor as a new deadline approached. We were moving 1000 miles away to a new city that didn’t have a tuning shop within the state. Originally this wasn’t a concern as the first motor was scheduled to be installed over a month in advance but things had clearly changed. We were leaving on a Sunday. The motor arrived on Tuesday. The only way to make any of this worth it was to get it to the tuner before Saturday so we could take it with us Sunday. We spent every moment we could helping the guys at the shop put it in, ultimately working through the night Friday so that we could get finished on time. I remember following the flatbed to the tuning shop and sleeping in my car until they opened so that I could relay all the info about the mods it had and what we’d just done.


These are the things you’ll do when you have to. When the only other option is letting go of this gloriously impractical, hopelessly endearing, somehow living breathing thing that’s not just a car you’ve come to love. It shows you just how mentally, emotionally, and physically capable of dealing with unwinnable odds you really are. I’m happy to say that little car made us proud on the dyno that random Saturday. 391 horsepower and 341lb-ft of torque is a potent combo with such a light car. More than it had ever had before us. All because we were willing to work for it. 48 hours later it sat in its new home 1000 miles from where we started. The problems? They weren’t over...but we’ll save that for part 2.

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