Archive for the ‘Mercedes 300D’ Category

Pineapple season

Monday, November 18th, 2013

Weather-wise this is one of the most pleasant times of year to be in southern Arizona.  It’s neither hot enough for air conditioning, nor cold enough for heat, and with abundant sunshine because this is one of our dry seasons.  We haven’t seen substantial rain in weeks.

Little wonder that this is when I find myself working the hardest on projects all over the house and both Airstreams.  The Caravel plumbing job is done, tested, and hopefully reliable.  Everything works perfectly.  My only job now is to take the trailer on a shakedown trip, perhaps across the county (potentially no small jaunt, since Pima County is 9,200 square miles) and camp in it for a night to thoroughly test all the work.  I am very confident in it but in this case I’m subscribing to Ronald Reagan’s philosophy: “Trust, but verify.”

(I’m also thinking of another less-famous Reagan turn of phrase: “I feel like I just crapped a pineapple.”  This wasn’t a fun job, but it feels great now that it’s done.)

The Safari, to its credit, is hanging in there just fine. Good for you, Safari.  I tweaked a few things after we got home in September, and while there are other projects in the wings, it needs nothing at the moment.  We are free to go camping.

And we might, if we had the inclination.  But when we were full-timing in the Airstream we found that in some ways this is the least interesting time of year.  The short days, even in the southernmost reaches of the continental US, meant that after about 5 p.m. we’d be back in the Airstream for a long dark night.  In the desert southwest, the temperature plummets after dark and so on those nights when we were in a national park with a ranger program to attend at 8 p.m., we’d have to bundle up like it was Alaska, in order to sit through an hour-long talk in the outdoor amphitheater on chilly metal benches.

So instead we tend to stay home in November and December, except for a break around New Year’s, and I try to get things done so that we can take off later in the season.  It’s also a good time to catch up personal maintenance, so this month I’ve had the full experience afforded the average 50-year-old American male, including a flu shot, a Tdap booster, (Tetanus, Diptheria & Whooping Cough), a examination here and there, dental cleaning, orthodontist, and the threat of having a sigmoidoscope shoved up where the sun don’t shine.  Yee-ha.

(OK, having written that, I do have to wonder why I’m not hitching up the Airstream and driving as far away as I can … Then I remind myself that I’m trying to set a good example for my daughter.)

One use of the time has been to read several very interesting books.  One has been “The Great Brain Suck” by Eugene Halton. Don’t read it if you are thin-skinned (because he skewers a certain group of Airstreamers) or if you can’t stand wordiness.  Halton could have used a good editor to trim down his prose, but his observational skills are razor-sharp.  I would hate to have him review me.

Another one has been “Salt: A World History,” by Mark Kurlansky.  Admittedly, you have to be a history buff to really love this one.  It’s not a foodie book.  He takes the common thread of an ageless essential (salt) and shows how it permeates most of the major events of world history. Salt has caused and prevented wars, changed governments, nourished some societies while crushing others, and literally enabled society as we know it today.  I picked it up while visiting the Salinas Pueblos National Monument in New Mexico, where salt trading was a crucial element of survival for the Ancient Puebloans.

Mercedes 300Dx3

I’m sure I can blame the nice weather for this next item:  I have joined a gang.  We’re not particularly scary, but we do clatter around town in a cloud of diesel smoke.  Not exactly “rolling thunder” but at least “rolling well-oiled sewing machines.” Like Hell’s Angels Lite.

We are small but growing group of old Mercedes 300D owners in Tucson who share knowledge, parts, tools, and camaraderie periodically.  In the photo you can see the cars of the three founding members, blocking the street.  We call ourselves the Baja Arizona W123 Gang.  Perhaps someday we’ll have t-shirts and secret handshake.  Probably the handshake will involving wiping black oil off your hands first.

The rest of my time has been spent working the “day job.”  At this point I am glad to say that the preliminary event schedules for both Alumafiesta, and Alumaflamingo have been released to the public (and that was two more pineapples, believe me).  There’s still quite a lot of work to be done on both events, but at least now we have an understanding of the basics.  To put it another way, we’ve baked the cake, and now it’s time to make the frosting.  If you are interested in getting involved with either event as a volunteer, send an email to info at randbevents dot com.

The question now is whether I will tackle a major project on the Safari, or just lay back and take it easy for a few weeks.  The project would be to remove the stove/oven, re-secure the kitchen countertop (it has worked loose), and cut a hole to install a countertop NuTone Food Center.  On one hand, this isn’t an essential thing just yet, but on the other hand, I’ll be glad if it’s done before we start traveling extensively next February.  I only hesitate because it might turn into a bigger project than I bargained for.  You know how projects have a way of doing that.

Hmmm… pineapple, anyone?

 

 

Time to fix

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

Tesla dreams

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

I spent yesterday in the carport with Nick, working on both of our cars.  Nick is my local “Mercedes buddy,” a fellow enthusiast who owns a 1980s era Mercedes 300D like mine.  Neither of us are accomplished mechanics but we both enjoy learning and so periodically we get together to tackle car repairs together.  So far we’ve had good luck and no major disasters.

Yesterday’s jobs were to replace the front door seals on my car and the speedometer cable, and on Nick’s car we replaced the engine mounts, replaced the fuel primer pump, and changed the oil.  My carport is the preferred location for this because it has a nice smooth concrete floor and is fully shaded.  With the Airstream Safari summering in Vermont, there’s plenty of room for both cars. Unfortunately, Tucson hit 108 degrees yesterday so even though we started early in the morning, it was a brutally hot and dirty experience.

I say “dirty” because these cars are relics of the petroleum-burning era, producing copious amounts of soot and nitrogen oxides with minimal emissions controls.  They are about as far from “earth friendly” as you can get, and a fact revealed on every greasy carbon-coated engine part.  We wear gloves while working on them but still get our arms and faces smeared with black very quickly.  It’s hard not to think about where all that mess comes from, and realize that the car is really an obsolete rolling polluter.

The clunky old diesel engines do a particular job very well, namely motivating 3,000 pounds of steel for up to half a million miles. For this reason they are coveted by people who see them as the pinnacle of automotive engineering: user-repairable, computer-free, and incredibly durable.  I look at the mechanical engineering that went into it and I have to really respect it.  The thought and effort that went into every part to design it perfectly for the task is just amazing.

But honestly, I am conflicted about my car.  I run 99% biodiesel in it because it reduces emissions and is good for the fuel system, but that’s not going to make it a “clean” or “green” car.  It still emits much more unburned hydrocarbons, NOx, CO2, and soot than a comparable modern car.  If even a quarter of the country drove around in cars like this, the world would be a nasty place.  I’d probably be first in line to have them banned.  The only reason we get away with it is because most people drive newer cars which pollute only a fraction as much.  So as much as I love my 300D, I also know it’s an unsustainable antique.

The future, I’ve come to believe, is electric cars.  A few years ago I would have scoffed at that idea, since “everyone” knew that electric cars were silly toys that couldn’t go more than 80 miles and needed 10 hours to charge.  But Elon Musk and his team at Tesla have changed my mind.  The Tesla “Model S” and the national infrastructure envisioned by Tesla have changed everything—and despite widespread press, I don’t think the implications have fully sunk in to most of the car-driving public.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the changes Tesla has implemented.  The Tesla can easily go 200-300 miles on a single charge, with the option of picking up a 200-mile range boost in 20 minutes at a Tesla Supercharger station or swapping out the entire battery pack for a fully-charged one in 90 seconds.  That’s quicker than filling a gas tank.  With an in-home charger your car is always “full” every day you start to drive it.  And using the Supercharger stations is free.  Tesla even has installed solar panels at each station so that the station generates more power than it uses.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Imagine owning a car that has no engine, no transmission, and no emission or exhaust system. That means you never have to get an oil change, tune-up, belt replacement, radiator service, filters, emissions check, etc.  No more Midas Muffler, or Jiffy Lube.  No more 10,000 mile services at the dealership.  Heck, even the brakes won’t need service because they are regenerative (meaning they put energy back into the battery) and hardly ever wear out.

You can’t get any “greener” than an electric car.  Any traditional car (even a hybrid) burns petroleum.  Ain’t nothing green about that, even with a miniature chemical factory mounted on the car to reduce the emissions, which is what we have to put up with these days.  The electric car has zero emissions and can be powered (indirectly) through electric generation from lots of sources, including solar, hydro, wind, natural gas, nuclear, oil, and coal.  If the source of the power is dirty, at least it comes from one plant where emissions can be controlled more readily than on 100,000 separate vehicles.

I have come to realize that a lot of the negativity about electric cars comes from viewing them from a petroleum-powered perspective.  In other words, we tend to let our preconceptions taint our view.  An example is fear about the giant battery pack.  In eight years to ten years, you’ll have to replace it and that will cost a lot.

Sure, but in eight years of gasoline burning you’ll have to replace belts, hoses, plugs, fluids, filters, gaskets, water pump, battery, muffler, and probably a few other things, in addition to the risk of a major repair to the combustion engine.  Add to that the hard-to-quantify costs like health problems resulting from dirty air.  Then, add to that about $20,000 in petroleum fuel cost over 100,000 miles.  Suddenly that battery pack isn’t looking so bad.  We are so inured to the ongoing cost of maintaining our dirty little petroleum combustion engines that we don’t consider how expensive (and resource-consuming) they really are.

Another common gripe is what the automotive press calls “range anxiety,” the fear that you’ll run out of power and not be able to charge up again quickly.  Tesla addressed that one with their Supercharger network, which is being built out right now.  In 2015 you’ll be able to drive almost anywhere in the USA with a free 20-minute Supercharge (or battery swap) available within 200 miles. You can’t say that for hydrogen or natural gas fueled vehicles, and it probably won’t ever be true for those because of the cost of building those complicated infrastructures.  Electricity, on the other hand, is already piped everywhere.

An electric car won’t yet replace our tow vehicle, and I wouldn’t expect such a thing to be available for many years.  For now, we’ll continue to run the “clean diesel” Mercedes GL320 to tow the Airstream around.  Likewise, gasoline cars will continue to be the majority of the market for a long time.  The Tesla is still financially out of reach for most people.  But it shows us what the future will hold.

Every time I look under the sooty hood of my 1984 diesel Mercedes and compare it to the much-cleaner, computerized 2009 diesel I can see the progress of 25 years.  Looking at the elegant engineering of the Tesla S electric car, I see the progress of the next 25 years.  I’ll hold onto the old Mercedes as a reminder of the great engineering of that day, but I’m looking forward to the day when I can drive the future.

Remind me why …

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

It’s easy for me to forget that I have an unusual view of the Airstream world.  Most Airstream owners enjoy the simplicity of being happy travelers, and that seems blissful to me. I remember the first year we had an Airstream, before I started the magazine, and it was really a lot of fun.  We just thought about where we were going next, and not much else.

These days I look at the world of Airstream through a sort of cubist perspective, sometimes seeing both sides of an issue at once, often balancing the needs of the magazine with the desires of its supporters, living on both sides of the perennial “vintage versus new” debate, as a both a customer and a promoter of the lifestyle, and as an occasional consultant to the industry.  It gets confusing.

When I get tired of being the Publisher/Editor, I switch to Event Organizer or Industry Consultant.  When I get tired of those, I switch to vintage Airstream repairer and go out to the Caravel to do some more plumbing.  When I get tired of everything, I start planning vacations.  Think how lucky you are if you only think of Airstreams as travel opportunities.  That’s really the best part.

New propane regulator CaravelThe Caravel plumbing project has been halted this week pending the arrival of parts and tools.  I should have everything I need to complete it, on Monday.  In the meantime, I got the propane regulator installed.

It’s a fairly easy job, but it did require special-ordering a longer main propane hose, four new (smaller) stainless screws, and two right-angle brass fittings so that the lines wouldn’t bump into the tanks.  That’s all because the new regulator wasn’t an exact replacement.  The screw holes are smaller, and the physical shape of the regulator is different.  When I tried to connect the 30# propane tanks the first time, the pigtails bumped into the tanks.  The right-angle fittings fixed that, but getting the original brass fittings out of the regulator was a hassle.  Eventually they came out with the help of a vise and an extension bar on the wrench.

The other problem with this replacement was that the red/green “flag” that indicates whether the tanks are full can only be seen from the front of the regulator.  All the other ones I’ve owned had the flag on the top so it could be seen from any direction.  So that meant the new regulator had to be mounted to face forward.  This required a 23″ hose instead of the 18″ one I had already bought.

The whole job took three visits to the hardware store, and now I’ve got a bunch of screws, bits of brass, and a hose that I don’t need.  These are the kinds of surprises you have to expect when fixing a vintage trailer. My spare parts box is getting full.

Meanwhile, the Safari re-flooring project is just about ready to start this week.  I have recruited Mike to help out with the two-person jobs, like getting the bed frame and dinette out of the trailer.  We are hoping to start Monday or Tuesday on this one, day jobs permitting.  I’ve been scouting out tool rentals and planning our attack of the job.  First task is to remove the bed, bedroom carpet, and dinette.

For those of you who were following the Mercedes 300D project, it’s pretty much done.  Since my last mention of it, I’ve been just tweaking and adjusting.  I replaced the rear differential oil (really stinky stuff thanks to the high sulphur content), fixed some loose wood on the dash, had four new Michelin tires installed, fiddled with the monovalve to try to resolve an intermittent heat issue, lubricated a few things, bought new floor mats, and had the car professionally detailed.

None of that took much effort on my part, so I’ve just been enjoying driving it around town and on a few short trips.  I exhibited it in a car show a few weeks ago, and took a roadtrip up to Phoenix (120 miles each way).  It’s now exactly what I wanted it to be: reliable, 100% functional, and reasonably good-looking.  This summer I’ll probably have to get the windows tinted, but other than that it shouldn’t need anything but oil changes.   And no, I’m not going to put a tow hitch on it.

With all these Airstream projects past, present, and future, it seems only fair that we should take advantage of the reason we own Airstreams.  So we  have determined that we are going to California in a few weeks.  Everybody wants a trip, and I’ve got a few business things to do in SoCal.  It will be nice to get away from home, re-gain some perspective, and relax in the Airstream for a while.  At this point we don’t know how long we’ll be gone, but hopefully it will be at least two weeks and possibly more.  It will take that long to soak up the feeling of being on the road again and remember why we do all this stuff.

 

The hardest part of the job …

Friday, November 16th, 2012

Several people were very complimentary about my achievements last weekend with the Mercedes 300D, but I have to be clear:  most of the achievement was Pierre’s.  I worked, but mostly I was there to learn while Pierre busted his knuckles doing the hard stuff, so I can’t take credit for most of it.

Today’s minor adventure in old car repair will demonstrate the true nature of my mechanical abilities.  As you may recall, we discovered a few minor needs toward the end of the weekend, for which we either lacked the proper tool or a Mercedes-only part.  I ordered a few things on Monday and they arrived today.  There were really only three tasks:

  1. replace a bad relay, one which controls the electric auxiliary engine fan.
  2. install a rebuilt kit in the mono valve. This is a fancy name for a simple valve that opens up to allow hot engine coolant to circulate in the heater core, thus providing heat to the cabin.  It has a rubber diaphragm that breaks eventually.
  3. replace one bad glow plug.  The glow plug warms the engine cylinders on a diesel, so that you can start it.

The relay was simple.  No tools involved.  You open a plastic cover, pull up the old relay, plug in the new one. Anyone who can change a light bulb can do this, so not surprisingly I managed to achieve it.

Then, buoyed by my success so far, I unbolted the mono valve and opened it up to reveal the internal plunger.  But I forgot that the engine was still warm from driving it 30 minutes earlier, so when I pulled the plunger out, coolant spewed all over.  Whoops! I quickly thrust the plunger back in.  Emma was standing by and got splattered, but fortunately it was not hot enough to burn.  That made me feel really stupid.

So I set that task aside and switched over to replacing the #3 glow plug.  I had a hell of a time getting to it.  You know how things that look simple often aren’t.  This happens to me a lot.  All you have to do here is unscrew an 8mm nut to remove the electrical connection, then unscrew the glow plug.  But I couldn’t do it.  The tools I had just wouldn’t fit in the space due to obstacles like the injector lines and injection fuel pump.

It was looking like I’d have to start removing injection lines, which would have brought the repair up to a new level of messiness and difficulty.  Instead, I finally managed to get the electrical wire and the glow plug by using a U-joint and a long extension on the ratchet wrench, and wrestling with it for a while.  It was frustrating because it seemed like it should be easy.  I dropped a nut three times trying to re-thread it, and once it fell into a spot beneath the injection pump where I thought I might have lost it.  Eventually the job got done, taking about three times longer than I had expected.

But in the process I made myself a new job.  I didn’t realize it, but I was leaning on the brake booster (vacuum) hose when I was fighting to get the glow plug electrical connection back on, and SNAP! a plastic vacuum fitting on the hose broke off.  This fitting goes to various transmission and engine accessories.  The brake booster is still getting vacuum, and I can plug the open fitting, but the transmission won’t shift right without vacuum, and the fitting can’t be glued back.  The hose was probably fairly old and brittle.

I could try to seal it up temporarily with some silicone tape, but why bother? The part has to be replaced anyway.  I sent the picture to Pierre and he confirmed that I need to buy an entirely new assembly, which includes the plastic fittings, vinyl hose, and metal ends.  The part comes only from Mercedes and it has to be ordered, so I’m lucky to wait only until Monday to get it.   Of course, installing it appears to be just a matter of two easily accessed nuts and two other vacuum hose connections.  I think I can do that without breaking anything else.

When the glow plug was done I went back to the mono valve.  Things were cooled down now, so it was fairly straightforward.  As expected the diaphragm was gone.  But unexpectedly, I found several 6-legged bug corpses inside the cylinder.  I’m not sure how they got in there, or why.  I cleaned them out and the rest was straightforward. Total elapsed time: about an hour.

So that’s the real glory of this type of project:  cleaning bug corpses, cursing at difficult nuts, and wearing Eau de Coolant.  With each step I feel like I’m learning, and simultaneously that I’m incredibly incompetent.  This kind of stuff isn’t easy for me, but in the end I do enjoy the sense of accomplishment and the gratification that comes from achieving something you’re not naturally good at.  So if you have any congratulations for me, let them be for having tried.  Turns out, that’s the hard part.

The Sort-Out, day 3

Monday, November 12th, 2012

We started on Sunday morning at 7:15 a.m. with a sense of optimism, or at least I did.  Despite being the coldest day of the three we had spent working on the old Mercedes 300D, I was feeling good about the project because our list was down to a manageable few remaining tasks.

Pierre, on the other hand, was still feeling some slight trepidation about the O-ring problem from the night before.  Although he had checked carefully to ensure that the substitute O-rings would fit, he wasn’t going to feel right about it until the part was installed.  They were a little tighter than the correct part, which made Pierre’s job hard, but it worked out fine and by 8 a.m. or so the turbocharger drain was back together.  I’ve heard of guys taking an entire weekend to do this one job because it’s not easy under the best of circumstances, so as far as I was concerned Pierre did well under fire.

We kept putting out metal bits on the curb, and inevitably someone with a pickup truck would swing by and grab them.  I put out an old radiator, four shock absorbers, and dead engine mounts, and they disappeared so quickly that I had to be careful about the metal parts we intended to retain.  When I put items I had cleaned on the driveway in a sunny spot to dry, I kept an eye on them.

The hardest jobs had been tackled on Friday and Saturday, so all we had left was fairly minor stuff.  Still, it got messy with dripping fluids, and I was busy keeping up with it all.  I did want the carport to be somewhat better than a toxic waste dump after everything was done.  All the used fluids got collected in big seal-able containers and returned to the auto parts store for proper disposal, and after recycling all of the cardboard, paper, and plastic I was pleased to see that we generated less than a barrel of waste.

By noon it was clear that we were in the home stretch.  The messy transmission service was done, we’d replaced the oil and filter (even though I did it just 200 miles ago; Pierre wanted to give the engine a chance to clean up after some neglect by the prior owner), front shock absorbers, and transmission shift bushings.  So we were able to relax and do some tweaks to the vacuum system, adjust the hood so it closed better, and little stuff like that, before putting the wheels back on and lowering the car down to the ground.

At 1:00 p.m. we were done, and out on a test drive.  Amazingly after all this service, we found only two problems.  There was a loud deep rattle from the right side, which turned out to be a loose caliper.  No big deal although it sounded horrible—just tighten two bolts.  And strangely, the steering wheel was now upside down when the car was going straight.

This second problem confused us a little because Pierre had been scrupulous to follow the factory technique and use the correct factory specialty tools to install the new steering gearbox, but we decided to have a celebratory lunch anyway.  Part of Pierre’s goal this week was to eat well, so every day I took him to a different ethnic restaurant for lunch (Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese) and in the evenings Eleanor cooked up fabulous and enormous dinners.  We worked long days in cold weather but I think we both may have gained weight.

In the end, we worked for only 24.25 hours.  That’s under the budget of 30 hours I had set, which helps with the overall cost. I’m pretty sure the billable time for all this work at a shop would have been at least double.  And it’s nice to wrap up such an intense project with time to spare.  We had time to take the 300D out for a scenic drive around Saguaro National Park, and time afterward to tweak a few things just a little bit more.

Pierre wanted my car to run perfectly, and I can say that he hit the mark.  It still bears the patina of an old car on the outside, but mechanically it’s just about perfect.  I’ve got just a few things to take care of myself, all simple stuff, like a glow plug, a relay, monovalve rebuild, and the rear differential fluid change—things we skipped only because we didn’t have everything we needed for those jobs.

This morning I had to drag myself out of bed at 6:15 for one last task.  We wanted to get the car to the local dealer for an alignment by 7 a.m., so that the odd steering wheel issues could be resolved before Pierre had to head home.   The issue turned out to be simple (the Pitman arm was off by 3 splines, for those of you that know what a Pitman arm is), and the car did need an alignment, and at last we were done.  We collected Pierre’s tools, made one last tiny adjustment to the vacuum modulator, and then he was gone.

This project is still not over, but it’s about 95% done.  When the weather warms back up this week I’ll finish the last seat and when I get the parts I need I’ll do those last few jobs.  Tires are next, and after that we’re ready for a road-trip.  Soon I’ll be looking at the open road through the three-pointed star, while the old-school diesel propels me with the sound of a well-oiled sewing machine.

But that’s not all the satisfaction of this project.  I’ve learned so much.  I can keep it running by myself.  Having taking much of it apart, or at least observed it being taken apart, I have an appreciation for the great engineering that went into the car.  It has fewer mysteries about it now.  Unlike other cars I’ve owned, I feel like I am in control of the man-machine relationship, rather than being a hapless of victim of whatever error message a computerized car might throw up.  I’m not really worried about having a car that will run on scavenged vegetable oil after EMPs destroy all modern cars during a worldwide apocalypse.  I just like having a machine that I understand, and I’m glad I made the effort to get into this project.

 

The Sort-Out, day 2

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

Before Pierre arrived, he jokingly said that his visit would be “the worst three days of your life.”  (He didn’t know that I’ve been going to Louisville in December for RVIA for eight years.)  He threatened ten hour days, lots of grime, and him barking orders at me all day long.

Ho-hum.  If that’s the worst he threw at me it would be a cakewalk.  And indeed it was on Friday.  I spent much of my time scrubbing decades of grime off old parts in a tub full of black greasy water, I kept the carport organized, hauled trash, handed Pierre tools, and cleaned up spills.  It was kind of like being a dishwasher in a busy restaurant, only things were dirtier.  So this was no big deal.

On Saturday things got a little more challenging.  We are having what is described in Tucson as a “stormy weekend,” meaning that the temperatures plummeted to the 40s overnight, and we had light & scattered rain showers for a few hours in the morning.  Not too bad considering what’s happening in other parts of the country, and it was just enough for me to switch to long pants, a sweatshirt, and a wool cap until things warmed up.  We started promptly at 7 a.m., while the sky was still gray and dim, and plunged right into it—literally.  I can say with certainty, there’s nothing like cleaning brake parts with a toothbrush in cold black water at 8 a.m.

I was chilly, but Pierre was in his element.  Relentlessly cheery, this 6 foot-4 inch dude wedged himself under the car on the bare concrete and happily spent the morning hammering away at reluctant suspension parts.  He replaced the ball joints, the brake rotors, re-packed the wheelbearings, the flexible brake lines, and the often-overlooked “brake sensor harness cables.”  Occasionally he put me on something easy like installing the new brake pads.

Around 9:30 we were joined by Nicholas, a fellow 300D owner who I had met through an online Benz forum. This led to the highlight of the day for us, when Pierre taught us how to adjust the valves on the engine.  Nicholas and I took turns getting the feel of each valve.  I had a really hard time with this, because it’s hard for me to get my head around spatial orientation things sometimes.  Once I could visualize the setup of tappet-nut-nut-spring, it got a lot easier.  We felt good enough about our skills by the end that Nicholas and I vowed to get together later and do the valve adjustment on Nicholas’s 300D without our benevolent teacher to bail us out.

Even though I’ve griped about the weather, we couldn’t have picked a better time to do this job.  A week ago we would have been sweating in 95 degree afternoons.  For this kind of work, it’s nicer to have to wear a cap for a few hours until things warm up, than to be dripping sweat all day.  And of course, being Tucson, it was sunny and pleasant for the rest of the afternoon.

Another bit of good timing: Monday is our local semi-annual “brush & bulky” trash pickup day, when the city comes around to pick up almost anything that won’t fit in a regular trash barrel.  Everyone piles up all their stuff on the curbside, and then in the days before the official pickup, guys in beat-up old pickup trucks cruise the neighborhoods looking for free stuff.  Some of them pick up old furniture for their homes, others collect scrap metal, still other seem to be looking for overlooked treasures to bring to “Antiques Roadshow.”   (Good luck with that.)  So getting rid of a radiator, four rusty brake rotors, and a water pump was easy as pie.  I piled it all on the curb and it was gone a few hours later.  Nicholas took the air conditioning compressor, as it was still working and his doesn’t.

I estimated that in this three-day automotive orgy plus the month of work I’ve done already, we’d be resolving about two years worth of sorting-out tasks. Normally you pace yourself when sorting out a car, because it’s expensive and because it takes a while to figure everything out.  This approach with Pierre is unusual but I think it makes sense for a car that is basically sound, and an owner who wants to be intimately involved in the process.  The downside of doing it all in three days is that one little glitch can really screw up the plan. That’s the thing I’ve been fearing throughout the two days we’ve been working on the car.

We were lucky until about 4 p.m. Saturday.  We’d made a few runs to the local autoparts stores to get minor supplies and tools, which is par for the course.  But then disaster struck.  Pierre had disassembled a difficult part, an oil drain tube that runs down from the turbocharger to the oil pan.  This tube was leaking oil, so I had ordered a special grommet and two rubber O-rings specifically for it.  They were shipped from a Mercedes dealer in California, and each plastic package was labeled exactly as we expected: Seal, turbocharger oil return, 1984 Mercedes 300D.  These silly little rubber circles cost $0.94 each, which is probably ten times what they cost to make, but when you need them you’ll pay whatever it takes (and they know it).

Except when they’re wrong.  After cutting off the old O-rings, we discovered that they’d shipped us the wrong ones.  And as quick as that, we were dead in the water.  Without the proper rings we couldn’t reassemble.  The system would leak oil like an old airplane radial engine.  That meant our other jobs scheduled for Sunday couldn’t be completed either, since they required a running engine.  We were completely screwed.

This is where you find out what your mechanic is made of.  Pierre didn’t disappoint.  First, he committed that if we couldn’t get this engine back together, he would personally harass certain senior management of the company who sold us the part until they paid for the local Mercedes dealer to fix it next week.  Then, he told me that were going O-ring shopping.  And so we spent the next hour or so digging through O-rings at various hardware and autoparts stores in an attempt to find one that was close enough to do the job.

That’s how we ended up working in the dark at 5:45, with the air temperature once again plummeting, when we should have been done for the day and taking hot showers.  We found some O-rings that might work, bought a bunch of them in case we had to double them up, and Pierre meticulously tested them on the drain tube until he was satisfied they would work.  I think he had to do that before he could relax and eat dinner with us in the house, just to know that the job was going to be OK.

Other than that it was a great day.  We did a complete four-wheel brake & bearing job including the parking brakes, adjusted the valves, replaced both engine mounts, an oil change, and replaced the rear shock absorbers.  The list on the wall is getting considerably shorter. Today won’t be completely easy, as we’ve still got some messy and time-consuming tasks on the list, but if it goes well we will have time to put the wheels back on and the seats back in, and take her out for a test drive.  It’s 6:45 a.m. now, and time for me to get ready to meet Pierre in the carport.

The Sort-Out, day 1

Friday, November 9th, 2012

This week we’re making a big push toward getting the Mercedes 300D sorted out, and I’m really pumped about it.

For nearly a month I’ve been anticipating the arrival of Pierre Hedary, the young Mercedes guru from Florida who I’ve known for a few years.  Rather than taking the slow road to sorting out the mechanical issues of the old car, Pierre and I have been planning this intense three-day repair session so that the car will be ready to go—anywhere— by Monday.  It’s the crash-diet version of Mercedes repair.

I wouldn’t even attempt this if the car weren’t basically sound.  Although the task list is long, I was driving the car daily before I removed the interior, so I have had a chance to verify that it has “good bones,” meaning that it isn’t just a bottomless money pit.  It just needs a bunch of maintenance.  So for the past three weeks I’ve been identifying what the car needs (sharing photos with Pierre), and buying lots of parts.

I also wouldn’t attempt this if I didn’t have a lot of faith in Pierre.  Flying a mechanic across the country is a big investment.  He has to be extraordinarily competent in his specialty, unflappable, realistic, and fast, to make the investment worthwhile.  Today, after about ten hours of work, it’s clear that he is all of those things.  He’s sort of the Mercedes version of Super Terry, but taller.

We set him up in the Airstream guest house last night, right next to the car.  This morning we both “clocked in” at 7:38 a.m. and began work.  I already had the car set up on jack stands, with all four wheels removed, and most of the interior is still sitting on the back patio, so access to everything is easy.  I also arranged all the parts by car system, brought all my tools, and set up various things we’d need: shop light, tarps, trash barrel, garden hose, wash basin, etc.  The carport is now a functioning shop.

Here’s what Pierre did today (I played go-fer, assistant, and parts cleaner most of the time):

  • air conditioning overhaul with new compressor, drier, expansion valve, hose insulation, and R-134a
  • fixed a climate control actuator inside the dash
  • cooling system overhaul with radiator, water pump, thermostat, one hose, and fluid
  • replaced all four belts

Everything went well, and at the end I had air conditioning that was blowing out at 46 degrees on a 74 degree day, while the engine was idling.  (It should do a little better at speed.)  We did a few more tweaks to squeeze out a little more cooling performance and then wrapped up. It was a full ten hour day, with 90 minutes for lunch and parts shopping. This was an experience that Pierre described as “fun.”  He’s a guy who really likes his work.

Of course, it didn’t all go to plan.  We discovered a few parts that I thought were leaking or faulty really weren’t.  That was good news.  We also found a couple of things that I didn’t catch, like a bad relay, and questionable upper control arms in the suspension.  Fortunately, Pierre is the sort of guy who has suspension parts in his luggage, just in case.  Overall, we’re doing pretty well.

Tomorrow we start by installing new engine mounts, then go on to valve adjustment, then start the four-wheel brake overhaul.  I’m particularly looking forward to those jobs because I want to learn how to do them myself.  I don’t need to; it just seems like an opportunity to learn something new.  The hands-on time with the Mercedes  brakes may serve me well someday when I need to do a disc brake repair on the Airstream.

It’s great to see the car coming back to its original performance.  It’s also fun to have friends dropping in to watch.  Today we were visited by my friend Rob, neighbor Mike, and Eleanor at various points.  Brett called in to see how it was going as well.  I’m expecting another guy to drop in tomorrow.  And most people want to help. It’s a version of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence.

If everything goes well, we will wrap up Sunday afternoon, bolt in a couple of seats, and take the car for a celebratory drive up the Catalina Highway.  Stay tuned.

Interior motivation

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

With the Caravel mostly buttoned back up, I’ve been turning attention to the Mercedes 300D project.  I’m getting deeper in to the car than I had originally planned, but for the most part it has been a gratifying experience and I’ve learned quite a lot.

Guys who fix up old cars generally fall into two camps:  Do-It-Yourself (DIY’ers) and Checkbook Restorers.  It’s a lot like vintage Airstream owners.  I’ve been on both sides of that fence, and they both have their good points.  Checkbook Restoration is kind of like sodding your lawn; it costs more but you have much quicker results.  DIY is like putting down the seed and straw yourself, and watering it carefully for a few months to make sure it grows in perfectly.  Doing it yourself means you need patience and time, but you can indulge your perfectionist tendencies as much as you want.

With a car like this, DIY is the only way to go.  This will never be a highly valued car, so there’s no hope of re-selling it later and making a big profit.   There were too many of them made, so they aren’t rare, and parts to keep them running are easily obtained.  Already I’ve done enough on it in the past few weeks to equal a labor bill of at least a few hundred dollars if I had paid someone else to do the work, by taking on the jobs that are nit-picky and time-consuming and which don’t require much skill.

For example, there were adhesive decals on the front and rear glass.  The front one was relatively easy to remove with some adhesive remover and a razor blade, but the rear decal was covering the thin silkscreened defroster elements.  One slip with the razor blade and I’d have a non-working defroster.  It took about 40 minutes of painstaking work to get that stupid decal off—but it was a satisfying job to do because by going slowly I managed to remove it perfectly, and it was the kind of thing I’d never want to pay someone else to do.

This is also a way to nibble away at the project list while I’m waiting for Pierre to arrive and tackle the major mechanical work.  So I’ve installed a few easy parts (turn signal switch, oil breather tube, some little vacuum levers), degreased the engine bay at the car wash, and removed much of the interior.  Nothing major, just an hour here and there, with one longer session over each weekend.

Right now I’m on an archaeological dig, of sorts.  Pulling out the seats and the carpets revealed a horrifying history of children in the back seat.  There were candy wrappers and arcade tickets, lots of long hair, dried up Coke spills, melted Crayon remnants, coins, pens, plastic balls, a Chinese finger-trap, and various “organic bits” that I preferred not to look too closely at.  Many times you can buy an old Mercedes and find that the back seat has never been used, but in this case it was clearly a family car. I also noted that the family seemed to have an affinity for spilling cola in the car and never cleaning it up. I found at least four separate gluey old spills beneath the carpets, with coins and fragments of plastic toys cemented into them.

You know it’s bad when you feel obliged to don latex gloves to clean up the car interior.  But as my fellow MB-fanatic Charlie noted, “At least there weren’t any used condoms.”  The good part is that it all has cleaned up fairly readily with a Shop-Vac, a bucket of hot soapy water (I use dishwasher detergent to help dissolve the organic material), and a lot of scrubbing with a Scotch-brite sponge.

The big project has been re-coloring the seats.  This car came with “Palomino” colored MB-Tex seats.  MB-Tex is Mercedes’ name for their very durable vinyl, often confused with leather, and Palomino was a coach-leather color.  I say “was” because no Palomino seats have survived the decades.  They always turn a sort of mauve color after 25 years, with pinkish highlights on the tops that are most exposed to UV.  Few people know how they are really supposed to appear, but you can see the difference in the photo below.   The seat on the right is “before” and the seat on the left is “after.”

I found an interesting “elastomeric color coating” (something the average person would call paint) that is designed specifically for vinyl seats, and bought a few cans along with the necessary cleaners and primers.   My project over the last week and into next week is to gradually re-color each seat from their current “Pinkomino” color back to the original Palomino.

It’s not quick or easy, but it is very satisfying.  Each seat has to be carefully cleaned (two or three times with special soap), rinsed and dried, then partially disassembled.  Then all the non-colored parts are masked off with tape and the seat is primed with special vinyl primer.  This is wiped off, then the seat is rinsed and dried again, and finally it’s ready for the color coat.  The color is sprayed on from a rattle-can and takes at least five thin coats before it fully covers.

What a difference!  They look like new when the process is done.  And, like the other jobs I’ve been doing, it’s the kind of thing that I wouldn’t want to pay someone else to do.  For about $140 in materials and perhaps eight hours of time in total, I will have an interior that literally looks like new. This is less time than I put into fixing the Caravel’s water leak, and the results are more visible.  I’ll also be shampooing the carpets in an attempt to make them look more compatible with the “new” seats.

I’m still trying to stick with my program of “something every day, even if it’s small.”  This is my way of avoiding a “gumption block” that might build up and cause me to lose motivation.  One day my only accomplishment was replacing a burned-out bulb in the trunk, but at least I did something, and that actually felt good.

Every day when I have a break from my day job I think about what needs to be done and then I pick something from the list and do it.  Sometimes it’s a matter of breaking a big job into small chunks.  Yesterday my only accomplishment was cleaning and coloring a single headrest.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s nice to do something physical to balance the time I spend doing intellectual work at the computer, and I find that the combination of both makes the day go very quickly.

It’s also motivating to share the project with friends and family.  I know other people who are engaged in their own old car projects, motorcycle projects, boat projects, and I’ve told them about the things I’ve learned.   Eleanor has assisted with several jobs.  I’ve met people online who want to come by and help, or see what I’m doing.  All of those things add gratification and even a tiny bit of peer pressure, both of which keep me moving forward.

But don’t call this a “hobby,” because I don’t plan to do it again.  My goal is to have a car to drive, with the satisfaction of knowing what I did to bring it back to its original greatness.  Once it’s done, it’s roadtrip time!

Project Season

Monday, October 15th, 2012

I did say this was “project season,” didn’t I?  Between the house, the Caravel, the Safari, and the 300D the list of jobs seems endless, so I’ve resolved to just tackle one item every single day without fail.  It’s like chipping away at a mountain, but chipping a little at a time is the only way the mountain will disappear.

The 300D project has gotten the most attention.  On Tuesday we replaced the bumper rub strip.  On Wednesday I replaced the rear sway bar links and inspected the rear brakes.  On Thursday Eleanor and I installed a new hood pad.  On Saturday I removed the instrument cluster and fixed the dim lighting, along with the inaccurate temperature gauge.  I used two T-10 LED lights from LED4RV, which really helped to reduce heat in the cluster.  (The plastic was beginning to melt from the hot old bulbs.)  On Sunday I very carefully removed an old decal from the defroster glass, a tricky job without breaking the silkscreened defroster elements.  In between 300D jobs I continued plotting the rest of the car’s resurrection, researching parts and repairs.

On Friday I got brave enough to remove the heaps of flagstone and slate that were pressing down the Caravel’s damaged Marmoleum floor.  It had been baking in the heat for the last week or so.  It appears that the silicone caulk is working well as floor adhesive.  As I feared, the floor is not lying perfectly flat —there’s a small lifted spot— but it’s good enough.

Eleanor came up with the idea of fabricating a trim strip to hold the Marmoleum in place, and so I cut a piece of flat aluminum to size, cleaned it up with a Scotchbrite pad and orange cleaner, drilled three countersunk holes for stainless screws, and then sprayed it with clearcoat.  Beneath the trim I sealed the edges of the Marmoleum with tan silicone caulk.  The dimensions of the aluminum were chosen to match the trim already in the trailer, and I think it looks great.  The three screws are pinning the floor in place.

The next job on the Caravel is to get the new water tank installed.  I got a start on this Saturday, but decided to take a break in favor of other projects.  I think, barring unforeseen problems, that we’ll have this wrapped up in the next couple of days.  The tank is mostly plumbed in, and the rest of it is just reinstalling the furniture, testing for water-tightness, and sanitizing the system.

The Safari hasn’t gotten much love lately. I bought the rest of the flooring material but we really can’t get on that project until the Safari’s little sister gets out of the way.  That should be an interesting one though, as we’ll be removing most of the bedroom, the dinette, and other stuff.

The house always gets the shortest stick.  All it got this week was a repainted exterior light yesterday, and a new dryer vent on the roof this morning.  The many other house projects are just going to have to wait.  For some reason it’s more gratifying to work on the vehicles!

Tomorrow—who knows?  Every day is different.  I just know that something will get done.  One chip at a time …

By the way, the new Alumafiesta site is up …

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine