We love rides like this: DIY, labor of love types, usually the only cars owned and built (and driven daily) by wage-limited gearheads as passionate about them today as when they first signed their titles years ago. Some cars are their own stories—high-profile builds based on the hottest platforms, finished flawlessly with top-of-the-line parts, boasting big power—but not cars like this. The flaws are what tell the most about these cars, rather than their lack thereof; each one of a lesson learned, mishap suffered, or any number of unfortunate event to which we can all relate. Here, it’s the custom fabrication or adaptation of parts that becomes more interesting than simply which high-priced aftermarket offerings were bolted up. It’s the character and personality developed over years of hard-fought struggle alongside diehard enthusiasm these cars come to radiate that gives more to their value than simply that of their parts, the trends they set, or how fast they are. Of course, it never hurts to have all those qualities, either.
Meet Edgar Santiesteban. He’s the guy who bought this ’92 Nissan Sentra XE, used, nearly a decade ago, and stuck with it ever since. “It was bad, bro,” he begins. “Riced out to the max—bright yellow Nissan ‘hamburger’ logos all over it, a ‘Powered by Nissan’ banner front and rear, big ol’ stereo system, neon lights . . . It was bad.” Really bad. “It even had blocks in the suspension to keep the cheap-o 17-inch wheels from rubbing. Straight donk status!” That’s not to say Edgar didn’t do his part, too. “I riced it out a little more,” he laughs, owning up to the gaudy no-name kit he added in his first years. “What? I was young and didn’t know any better!” That is, until he met Gilbert Garay.
It was 2001, and the enthusiast community in the Phoenix, AZ, area was in full bloom. Like everywhere, Hondas were the most popular platforms, and “show” the most popular genre of build, but as tuners began realizing the potential of FWD Nissans as Honda performance alternatives, their popularity began to rise and Edgar began looking to take his Sentra in a new direction. “I remember there was this one clean B16A del Sol I used to see at the Auto Zone by my house, but never knew who drove it,” he tells. “And then one day as I was walking out the dude was pulling up and we started chattin’.” Gilbert was a student at UTI, moved performance parts for the Honda market to make ends meet, and was completely obsessed with all things JDM and performance. “He took one look at my ride and was like, ‘It’s . . . aight’,” laughs Edgar. “Never being a dick, even when he probably should’ve been.”
Over the years the two grew close. Edgar’s dad passed away suddenly and Gilbert moved into the family house to help pay bills and keep Edgar’s little brothers in check. Later, as Edgar’s mom gradually left the house to be foreclosed on, forcing him to forfeit a baseball scholarship and pick up another job to make ends meet, the two pitched in on a new house together and hatched a long-term plan. “I took some business classes and Gil was finishing up UTI and wrenching,” he says. “We vowed to keep working, finish up our cars, and one day open a retail/install shop together.”
As Edgar explains, everything on his car was bought used. “I researched and waited for deals on everything or I didn’t buy it,” he says. It was while en route to Import Powerhouse in Phoenix, to check out a B18C for Gilbert’s recently acquired EG hatch (a replacement to his del Sol that was eventually stolen) that the first of which came up: $600 for a complete Nissan SR20DET engine, harness, MAFS, ECU, and intercooler piping from a ’94-’97 Japanese AWD Nissan U13 Bluebird SSS, which Edgar and Gilbert bolted up to the car’s factory trans in their backyard to make one of the first running, FWD SR-swapped S13s in the area. Upgrades soon followed. “I came across this road-race guy who was parting out an upgraded SR project car for dirt cheap,” Edgar explains. “I picked up his JDM Subaru Outback Sportwagon 520cc injectors, Nissan Z32 300ZX MAFS, and tuned Jim Wolf Technologies ECU for super cheap.” Even better, his little bro pulled through with a turbo. “Turns out he was going to school with a guy who rebuilt turbos in his spare time for quick cash. He got me a good deal on a rebuilt T28 and a GTI-R manifold, since the T28 won’t clear the FWD SR engine on the Bluebird manifold.” And when Edgar picked up an eBay intercooler piping kit that, um . . . didn’t quite fit as advertised, Gilbert came through with the bailout. “He found two dudes,” explains Edgar, “this SCCA racer/fabricator that goes by ‘Fathead’ on the forums to fix the intercooler piping, and an SRT-4 guy known as ‘All Motor Mike’ who fabbed a full three-inch turbo-back exhaust so I wouldn’t lose money on eBay again.”
But it was the next hookup that will really upset the bargain hunters. “I found a built Sentra on the forums for sale to the first $1K,” Edgar explains. “It was local, had coilovers, a seat, a cage, some gauges, and tons of other stuff, but apparently its SR20 blew and the owner was sick of the whole thing. I noticed there wasn’t any oil in it, talked him down to $800, flatbedded it to the Auto Zone, dumped some Marvel Mystery Oil in it, cranked it over a few times and it started right up, no problems.” He wrenched off what he needed, hocked the swap for $1,700 and came up with enough scrill to pay for exterior mods.
As popular as the FWD Nissan community grew over the years—especially the Infiniti G20 heads—their numbers (and therefore, profitability) still never rivaled that of the Hondas’. “It’s impossible to find parts,” elaborates Edgar. His solution? Overseas stock options, like the mix of JDM Nissan Sunny Super Saloon and GTS exterior components, GTI-R steering wheel, and Mexican-only Nissan Tsuru rear wing—and small-run forum group buys like the carbon-fiber front lip made by forum presence “Supercowboy” (one of 10 ever made), or carbon-fiber trunk (one in 20 . . . he thinks) that he and his boys nearly had to go to Tijuana to pick up in person after its shady manufacturer closed up shop and ran with their money halfway through production. “You’ll notice that it sticks up about a half an inch on the left side,” says Edgar. “Only the ones this guy made and tried to steal do that. If you ever see another one like that, you’ll know what’s up.” We didn’t ask how his was recovered. Two other custom bits to add to the list: Bolt In Bars’ (another AZ road-race authority) four-link rear chassis support, and the “Happy Plate” rear lower subframe plate conceptualized by Edgar and now in production by a company called OEM (for Overkill Engineering Motorsports). “It’s thin, and not the most functional brace,” he admits, “but everyone smiles when they see it.”
As the years wore on, Edgar and Gilbert found themselves nearing their goals. But as is usually the case in life, things don’t always go as planned. Gilbert was shot dead on May 26th, 2008, outside a bar in downtown Phoenix, where he had apparently talked to the wrong drunk guy’s girl. “There was a fight and Gil basically got his ass beat,” recalls Edgar. “We were getting in the car to leave when I heard the shot from the bar. It wasn’t enough for these f**kers to just win a fight and be happy, they had to kill my best friend. I watched him die in my arms and there was nothing I could do about it.”
As is also the case with life, it goes on for those who live it. With his Sentra now comfortably built, Edgar’s begun taking steps toward that plan he and Gilbert hatched all those years ago. He’s already got a few side projects underway, including a ’95 G20 with a turbocharged SR20VE for his brother. “This car’s taught me more than I ever thought I’d learn,” he says, about the Sentra. “And I won’t stop until I can retire it—fully finished—in the showroom of my new shop, dedicated to Gil.” What would his next project be? “Who knows,” he laughs. “Maybe I’ll build a B18-powered hatch after all.”
Behind the Build
cars, shoes, wheels, fashion
10 years and counting
To build something different.
’92 Nissan Sentra XE
Output: 350 whp / 325 lb-ft or torque (est)
quarter-mile Performance: 12.9 @ 103
Engine JDM Nissan U13 Bluebird SR20DET engine, Pulsar GTI-R exhaust manifold, Z32 MAFS; Subaru 520cc/min fuel injectors; Nismo fuel pressure regulator; Walbro 255-Lph fuel pump; Garrett GT28RS turbocharger; Greddy Type S blow-off valve; HKS dual wastegate actuator; Turbo XS boost controller; Fathead Fabrication front-mount intercooler, piping; Koyo radiator; FAL dual 12-inch electric fans; custom carbon-fiber diversion panel; custom 3-inch “All Motor Mike” exhaust; NGK Iridium spark plugs; Taylor 10.5mm spark plug wires; JWT ECU
Drivetrain B&M short shofter, shift knob
Suspension D2 Coilovers; Progress rear sway bar; Stillen front strut tower brace; Bolt In Bars rear strut tower brace; Energy Suspension master urethane bushing kit; Autopower six-point rollcage; OEM rear lower Happy Plate
Wheels/Tires BBS RS wheels (16x7.5 inches +14mm offset front; 16x8.5 inches +14mm offset rear); Sunny tires (195/45-16 front and rear)
Brakes OEM Nissan NX2000 front and rear rotors, calipers, pads; Stillen stainless steel braided brake lines
Exterior JDM Nissan Sunny side skirts, power folding mirrors, Super Saloon “4fog” front bumper, fenders, blinkers, GTS rear bumper, Tsuru rear window wing; VIS carbon-fiber hood, trunk; Supercowboy custom carbon-fiber front lip spoiler; shaved lower body lines and door handles
Interior Sparco Spring Jr. driver seat; OEM Infiniti G20 passenger seat, Pulsar GTI-R steering wheel; Four Werx carbon-fiber shift console; Auto Meter gauges; Greddy turbo timer
Gratitude Huge thanks to my brothers and cousins, especially my right-hand man Ivan (shrimp); also a lot of thanks to my girl for putting up with all my car jibber jabber; my buddy Merrick, even though he doesn’t know how much he has helped me since the start; my buddy Gilbert Garay—I did this car for you, bro. I haven’t forgotten the plans we had, and I’ll do everything I can to get us there. RIP.