Road-tripping, vintage Mercedes style

I’ve got a roadtrip coming, and I’m psyched about it.  You’d think that after years of traveling by Airstream I might be a little jaded by the thought of yet another cross-country drive, but not so.  The fact that I’m always looking forward to the next trip tells me something good: I like what I’m doing. That’s kind of my ideal for life, to have a sense that most days I am doing what I want to do.

This trip is particularly exciting because I’m taking the vintage Mercedes 300D for its first big highway excursion.  We’ll be going to Palm Springs, California for the Modernism Week Vintage Trailer Show.

No, I’m not going to be towing a trailer this time. I would have brought the 1968 Airstream Caravel, but through a series of events we ended up with 20 trailers in the show instead of the 18 we had space for, and I had to give up my own space so that we could fit them all. So I’m staying in the Riviera Resort & Spa (the venue for the event) and won’t be bringing the Caravel this year.

mercedes-roadtrip.jpgBut the loss of my trailer space was a blessing in disguise, because the old Merc should fit in better with all the old trailers.  I’ve wanted to get that car out for a good stretch of the legs anyway.  My recent trip to Phoenix showed that these W123-chassis sedans deserve their reputation as fine highway cruisers.  A 350-mile run across the desert seems like a great roadtrip to me, and this is the ideal time of year to do it.  Once the heat arrives in May, the old car’s air conditioning will be severely challenged.  Late February and March in the low desert is the season to roll the windows down and let the wind blow into the cabin.

I have to admit that this time I’ve had more trepidation about the possibility of a breakdown than I’ve ever had towing an Airstream.  On the day of the trip I have to drive 100 miles up to Phoenix, pick up Brett at Sky Harbor International Airport, then continue to Palm Springs and arrive by dinnertime.  There’s not much room for sitting beside the road waiting for roadside assistance.  A 27 year old car with 167,000 miles on it is perhaps not the best choice when you absolutely positively have to be in Palm Springs to coordinate 20 trailers.

But the old Mercedes diesels have a fantastic reputation for running even when they should by all rights be having parts stripped off them at a junkyard.  And with good maintenance, there’s absolutely no reason this car won’t go across the USA and back with 100% reliability.  It’s really a matter of taking care of your vehicle and proactively maintaining things rather than waiting for them to break.

So I’ve had the car looked over twice, by two different mechanics, and asked for specific opinions about potentially problematic parts.  Since my last blog about “The Bug List”, I have narrowed down the remaining issues to only cosmetic and inconsequential items.  I even sprang for a new set of Michelins (thanks for the push, Tom!)

mercedes-roadtrip-toolkit.jpgBut still, it’s good to be prepared.  And as I’ve noted before, prepping for a roadtrip can be a huge part of the fun.  This time I’ve been researching common problems and the tools needed to overcome them, and gradually collecting the tools I might need along the way.  The old Mercedes are very well designed for servicing, to the point that it seems 90% of the repairs you might need to do along the road can be accomplished with a socket wrench and an extension, three or four sockets, and a couple of fuel filters.

I’ve added a few Mercedes-specific items, like a lug bolt guide tool to help with tire changing, some of the odd “festoon” light bulbs used in interior lamps, and the unusual ceramic fuses, plus a quart of oil. With the addition of my well-stocked Airstream kit bag, I can pretty much disassemble and reassemble half the car, and that should be much more than I’ll ever use on this trip.  In fact, I will be surprised if any of the tools come out of the trunk at all.  I’m just being overly cautious.

One of the fun bits is that I will be running the car on biodiesel for at least the first half of the trip.  Biodiesel is amazing stuff.  It’s made from vegetable oil, so it’s almost carbon-neutral.  Running B20 (20% biodiesel, 80% dino diesel) cuts most pollutants in the exhaust considerably, which is nice since this is a 1984-era car that isn’t nearly as clean as my 2009 version diesel with the built-in chemical processing plant.

Biodiesel is biodegradable and completely non-toxic, so spills or human contact are not much of a problem.  It makes the car run a little quieter, cleans out the fuel system (because it is a solvent), and — best of all — it makes the exhaust smell like vegetable oil (reminds me of making popcorn). The only problems I’ve found is that 100% biodiesel is a bit expensive, currently $3.94 per gallon in Tucson, and  it will require me to replace the rubber fuel lines soon with a different type that isn’t degraded by contact with it.

Well, there’s one other problem, too:  I haven’t been yet able find a reliable source for biodiesel in Palm Springs, so on the way back we’ll have to run dino-diesel.  (UPDATE:  I got the new biodiesel-compatible fuel hoses and am talking to California biodiesel producers about how I might get a refill near Palm Springs.)

See? I’m geeking out about it.  I love it when, rather than mixing business and pleasure, business is pleasure.  It’s not always that way, and in fact I can think of a lot of times I’ve hated what I had to do, but on balance the times like this make up for it.  Just a simple roadtrip — but it’s going to be one of the highlights of February and a memorable experience for years to come.  I can’t wait to get rolling.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine