2003 Mazda Protege5 “Octobirb”

April 2018 – February 2020

At Tail of the Dragon in 2018

This 2003 Mazda Protege5 was my first car. My partner Sharlene named it Octobirb for reasons unknown. This page documents my ownership of the car over nearly two years, about 20,000 miles, and countless cherished memories.

April 2018: Acquisition

Growing up in Los Angeles, I’d always wanted a car of my own, because in LA to have a car is to have independence, freedom, and speed. I dreamed about learning to drive stick, feeling at one with this machine, knowing it inside and out and being responsible for it, setting my sights for the horizon and exploring endless open roads.

Money was always tight when I was in high school, and when I left for MIT it didn’t make sense to own a car, but the stars aligned spring 2018 when I landed an internship at Ford in Detroit. I would need a car to get around the metro Detroit area, and when I compared the costs, I found that it actually made a lot of financial sense for me to buy a used car in LA, drive it to Dearborn for the summer, and then drive it back home in August, rather than fly to Detroit and rent a car for the summer. I could choose my car, learn to drive stick, and have a vehicle to use in future years. Downside: All the unknowns and risks that come with buying a used car, driving it 2000+ miles, and depending on it as a daily driver. And I would start my internship about a week after my last final of the semester, so I only had a few days to fly back to LA, get the car, and drive to Detroit. But I decided I wanted to do it.

I am really fortunate to have a great friend in LA who has bought more than his fair share of used cars, could drive stick, and was happy to buy my car for me and take care of whatever work was needed so it would be ready for my drive to Detroit. Thanks, Corey.

So as one does when shopping for a used car, I made a spreadsheet…

My car selection spreadsheet

My budget was $4000. I prioritized reliability, handling (the “fun-to-drive factor”), and practicality (2+2 seating at minimum, reasonable cargo space, somewhat modern safety). I decided that power and straight line speed were not important to me. So I ended up with the highlighted top choices.

I spent too many hours scouring Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Offerup, and Letgo. A few options seemed okay, but they tended to be pricey or in less-than-ideal condition. One morning in late April 2018, I came across this posting:

The grammar in the post wasn’t great, but the car looked fairly clean and well-maintained. And it was cheap! I sent it to Corey, who took a bus to go check out the car after work that evening. That night, he drove the car home, and I had my first car. We paid $2350.

Not all was perfect. The seller was a curbstoner who had purchased the car a couple weeks prior and was flipping the car. The car smoked on startup, although the smoke (oil, not coolant) went away in a few seconds. There was a big dent in the driver’s side rear quarter panel, dog hairs all over the interior, burnt out dash lights, a clunk in the suspension, no refrigerant in the A/C lines, and numerous other minor flaws. But we felt confident that the car was mechanically solid and would make it to Detroit, as long as I kept the oil topped off.

The below photos are some of the first photos Corey sent me, right after he bought the car.

May 2018: Los Angeles to Detroit

May 22nd: I take my one final at MIT.

May 23rd, 5pm: My flight from Boston lands at LAX. After getting back home, I meet Corey and sit in my car for the first time. After dinner with my parents, I start my car for the first time and get some practice driving stick with Corey and friends. I’ve driven stick once before, in high school (thank you Kyle, if you ever read this), so it’s sort of familiar and I pick up the basics quickly.

May 24th, after lunch: I stall the car in the driveway, then gingerly start my 2,250 mile drive to Detroit.

The car was perfect. I needed to check the oil level regularly and keep it topped off, but other than that, I was lucky enough to encounter no major issues. I-70 through Utah and the Rockies in Colorado was beautiful. In Nebraska, I discovered that the headlights and instrument cluster lights were next to useless, and so I couldn’t safely drive after dark. I detoured through Chicago to visit a friend at Northwestern, and on day 5, May 28th, I pulled into my summer housing in Dearborn.

Some photos from that trip:

My first time with the car
I-70 through the Rockies
Checking oil levels became a regular routine
A beautiful Colorado morning at Dillon Reservoir
Driving as evening falls, somewhere in Nebraska

Summer 2018

Driving in Dearborn was a little confusing, but I soon got used to it.


In my spare time, I fixed lots of little things on the car, including:

Left: Replacement radio from junkyard. Right: New instrument cluster backlighting.

Left: One of many Harbor Freight trips that summer. Right: Doing a quick oil change at my friend Wei’s place.

Wrenching in the intern housing parking lot.


I had a lot of fun exploring Michigan with the car, from going mountain biking to seeking out curvy roads to drive.

Packed with three bikes and three people
Hell, Michigan

Ford had summer shutdown the first week of July. I took the opportunity to visit a friend in Atlanta, and to spend a few days in the Smokies. Later in July, I tried autocrossing for the first time with my friend Daniel, who I met through working on our cars. Octobirb also handled some longer weekend trips – a camping trip to Sleeping Bear Dunes, and a trip to see Toronto and Niagara Falls.

August 2018: Detroit to Los Angeles

The drive back home at the end of the summer was mostly uneventful, with one exception.

I detoured in Colorado through Colorado Springs to see Pikes Peak. At around 13,000 feet of elevation, I noticed that the car’s coolant was boiling over and leaking out, even as the temperature gauge indicated nothing was wrong. After refilling the coolant, taking a shuttle to the top, and experiencing mild altitude sickness, I cautiously drove back down the mountain to reevaluate my plans and figure out what was wrong. I was very worried I had pushed the car too far, and wouldn’t be able to make it back home without a lot of inconvenience. The fix: a new radiator cap, $10. I drove over the continental divide and into Utah the next day without issue.

The car had burned oil the whole time I owned it, but I wanted to quantify the rate of oil consumption. To do this, I regularly recorded the oil level (and amount of oil I was adding) during my drive back to LA. At the end of the trip, I was able to graph the data and do a simple linear fit to find my average rate of oil consumption: 1.17 quarts per 1000 miles, or 1 quart every 855 miles. 1 quart per 1000 miles is typically considered a lot.

Before I left the car in LA and went back to MIT, I gave it a good wash and a much-needed polish. I like to think that the car is in much better shape now than when I first bought it.

Doing the paint correction. In this picture, the passenger side of the hood has been polished, while the driver’s side hasn’t yet.

December 2018 – January 2019: Almost a full engine rebuild

I decided that the winter break of my senior year would be a good time to tackle some ambitious work and preventative maintenance on Octobirb with Corey and friends’ help. I wanted the car to be dependable for many years down the road, for myself and possibly some future owner, and I wanted to not have to worry about oil consumption anymore. General consensus on the forums is that oil consumption like mine is due to stuck oil control rings on the pistons; to replace these rings, the engine essentially needs to be rebuilt (minus replacement of bearings and remachining of surfaces). While we were in there, we would also replace less accessible motor mounts, the timing belt and water pump, and the heater hoses. Doing the work ourselves would save a lot of money and be a huge learning experience – neither of us had done anything this involved on a car engine before.

This sort of project would never have been doable by people like us (i.e. not real mechanics) a few decades ago – the amount of information on the internet nowadays was key to our completing this project successfully.

Valve cover off, exposing the dual overhead cams.
Engine head off, exposing the pistons
Oil pan off, exposing the crankshaft
Pistons out.
After re-honing the cylinder walls
We did our best to clean the underside of the head, but some of the deposits were very stubborn

After resolving a shorting issue that was causing an engine fuse to repeatedly blow, we were able to start the car a little over a week after we first started the project. However, we encountered a lot of vacuum-leak-like symptoms: the car would run fine when first started, but as it warmed up the revs would drop, the idle would become lumpy and irregular, and eventually the engine would stall. The car drove great normally, but could not idle without stalling. Corey and I spent several increasingly frustrating days trying to find this vacuum leak, up to and including making our own smoke machine with a coffee can in order to blow smoke through the system. I was also getting worried as I needed the car to commute to an externship in Torrance after winter break.

Using a homemade smoke machine to try to find any vacuum leaks

At the end of the second week of the project, I finally hit upon the problem – it wasn’t a vacuum leak. Instead, I strongly suspected I had set the timing belt incorrectly (off by 1 tooth or so) when replacing the timing belt; based on some info on the internet, our symptoms seemed very consistent. We also had found no vacuum leaks, and a significant vacuum leak would have been needed to produce the symptoms we were observing.

So on the last day of winter break, I reset the timing belt (so much faster the second time around!). My mistake in setting the timing the first time was very clear. When everything was back together, the car started right up and idled perfectly.

Left: Wrong timing. Right: Correct timing.

Of course, there was one last problem. The upper radiator connection cracked, leaving the hose tenuously connected. Fortunately, the hose held for a few days of driving until the radiator I had ordered arrived. It was a very nervous few days.

But since then, Octobirb has been running great. I’m sure more things will go wrong, but so many things are right now.

February 2020: Car sold

Quick update here: I sold the car in February 2020 with a dying-at-idle issue that I was never able to figure out. I needed a more reliable car. I will miss it dearly, and it will always have a place in my heart.

April 2021: Reflections

I wrote a little bit about this Mazda, how it made me feel, and why I sold it in my post about the Honda Fit that followed it:

My first car was a 2003 Mazda Protege5 (named “Octobirb”). I loved how that car made me feel, the go-kart handling, the white gauges and red backlighting, the 90s sport compact car sensation. Lots of glass and just the right amount of car. Complete with a moonroof and a factory subwoofer in the spare tire, it was everything I could have wanted. I learned to drive stick in that car, trekked across the country, saw beautiful places and drove incredible roads from the Smokies to Big Sur and everywhere in between.

But Octobirb was always needing something. It burned lots of oil. A bad radiator cap caused the coolant to boil over and spill out onto the ground on my drive up Pikes Peak. It would often grind going into second gear. Sometimes, it seemed like the car had a bit of a vindictive personality and just didn’t want to go places. I finished some major engine work the day I needed to drive across LA to start an internship, and then that evening as I was preparing to go, one of the taillights burned out and the upper radiator hose connection cracked and leaked. I was happy to be scrappy and resourceful, feeling like I could make anything work, carrying my tools and spare parts around with me and popping the hood to check fluid levels before every drive, but it was also a burden that became increasingly untenable as I settled into my first full-time job. My weekends and weekday nights became more precious, and I was tired of fixing my car.

I think this is a good description of the highs and lows. Although it was the right choice to let it go, I still miss the Mazda and the part of my life it represents to me. This little car meant a lot to me.