Student’s Engine Swap Project Includes a “New” Car, Mentor and Valuable Experience

Mount Madonna School (MMS) graduating senior John Dias grew up around and working on cars. His family owns and operates a Watsonville auto junkyard, and when Dias was 16, he began working towards rebuilding an engine in an older Datsun 510.

Fast forward to senior year, and Dias had the opportunity for an independent study project in lieu of taking another elective class. His request to the school administration? He wanted to bring up a car engine, rebuild it from top to bottom and converting it to a turbo-charged engine along the way, under the guidance of MMS’ master mechanic Jim Saunders.

The administration and Saunders both said “yes.”

“When John approached me about his project I was immediately supportive,” said MMS Director of Upper School Shannon Kelly. “I believe that as educators, part of our responsibility is to support student initiative and passion. John had a very clear vision and plan for what he wanted to achieve, and I was happy that we could help him with it.”

“I was happy to help support his interest,” commented Saunders. “At San Jose State next fall he’ll be engaged in engineering studies, and this project was a good lead into that. I’m glad I was able to work with him on this. John shows a lot of enthusiasm and is a very bright young man.”

For the past couple of months, Dias began each school day up at the school’s bus and mechanic’s shop. Under Saunders’ guidance, Dias brought up an engine from a 2003 Mazdaspeed Protege that the pair went through completely, converting it into a turbo-charged engine along the way. As part of the process, Dias, who initially budgeted $1,500 for the whole project and ended up spending $2,500 by completion, did a lot of research, including contacting the state Smog Referee Program on how to do the conversion so that it was compliant with all Environmental Protection Agency requirements.

“During my senior year I wanted to dedicate my energy to a project that was really special to me,” explained Dias. “I had a few ideas I thought were really doable, and this one worked out. It’s been a really awesome learning experience!

“A year ago a car was brought to our junkyard by the owner who didn’t have enough money to fix the car at the time,” explained Dias. “One of the car’s main components had failed because of a lack of proper maintenance, but the rest of the car was in amazing condition. This car was special because it is one of only 2000 made in the world, and is a rare sport model manufactured by Mazda and modified by an after-market performance coachbuilder called Racing Beat. This car features a beefed-up engine and sport suspension, braking and body style.

“We rebuilt it so it would last forever,” continued Dias enthusiastically. “I have really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know Jim. I liked working alongside him and hearing stories about when he built racecar engines. I am grateful that he was willing to mentor me on this project and have really come to value our relationship.”

Just last week, Dias installed the “new” engine into a 2002 Mazda Protege5 that he had purchased for $500 for the project. In fall 2019, Dias is planning to bring the car to MMS for an assembly, where he’ll share details about his project with students.

“I look forward to driving this car every day,” he said. “It is fast, unique, safe, newish, reliable and valuable, and means a whole lot, because I fully understand what it took to make this possible.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications, [email protected]

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a community of learners dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.