Archive for the ‘Mercedes 300D’ Category

Properly sorted

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

The Airstream work has come to a momentary halt, while we wait for the Caravel’s floor to settle down. We’re giving it several days in the heat (yes, it’s still hot here) with the hope that it will flatten and stay flat.  Until we feel brave enough to pick up all the slates and flagstones we put on it, we can’t do much else.  The Safari is on hold too, because the Caravel is taking up all the working space.

So for a while I’m focused on Mercedes work.  The old 300D is in the driveway now, and we’re getting to know each other.  A few things have revealed themselves already, primarily that the car has “good bones” as they say, and yet it needs a lot of work to get back to the level of performance that it should deliver.

This is the process of “sorting out” a car.  I’ve mentioned this process before, but never really documented what it takes.  So, for Mercedes fans and my old-car friends, I’m going to get into the gory truth.

First of all, you have to throw away any concept of financial logic.  The end result of this will be more expensive than a good used Honda, but the goal is not just to have reliable wheels. It’s to have a 1984 Mercedes on which everything performs to the original factory specifications.

That’s a good definition of “sorting out” a car, too.  Pierre Hedary, a 20-something & fast-rising Mercedes expert who operates a shop in Florida, presented a seminar last weekend in Phoenix at the Mercedes Club of America’s biennial “Starfest” conference on that very topic.  I’ve known Pierre for a few years, and have a lot of respect for his knowledge about Mercedes.  So I listened carefully as he talked about how he sorts out a car for a client.  It’s a methodical, intelligent approach that in the end saves money by fixing up the car in the most efficient manner possible.  You don’t do things willy-nilly, you don’t fix only what’s broken, and you try to touch each system of the car only once.

My first few days with the 300D were not encouraging.  The paint was rougher than I’d expected, and the tires were also. I got $200 back from the seller for the tire issue.  The next day the air conditioning quit (fortunately just a loose connector).  The day after that I changed the air filter (filthy) and then the cruise control quit.  The next day I changed the engine oil and filter and then discovered the instrument cluster lights were out.  The next day the rear rubber strip on the bumper fell off.  I researched the proper technique for re-attaching it, and Eleanor & I fixed it that afternoon.  It felt at times like I was chasing the car and putting parts back on it as they fell off.

All of this was really just a sideshow, because meanwhile I was working with Pierre via email to diagnose all of the more serious issues, and develop an action plan to resolve them.  This is the key: knowing everything that needs help, prioritizing all the problems, and categorizing them so that you know exactly how to get the car back up to snuff as efficiently as possible.  I drive the car daily, making notes of un-Mercedes-like behavior, and take photos where possible so that Pierre can comment on the issues and possible solutions.

See, people expect crummy behavior from an old car.  “You paid $xxxx for it, what do you expect?”  But this particular chassis has a 30+ year history that proves the capability to run just as good as new, for hundreds of thousands of miles, with appropriate maintenance.  It should glide over the roads with nary a squeak or rattle.  It should start readily with just a touch of the key, and idle like a purring lion.  The climate control should be precise and automatic.   The transmission should shift smoothly.  Most of all it should be entirely reliable, so much that you’d never hesitate to climb in for a 3,000 mile roadtrip.  But so few do any of those things, because most have been let go by people who believe it’s a better choice to “drive the car into the ground” and then buy another one when it’s beyond repair.

Maybe that’s true of a lot of cars, but not all cars were made to be disposable.  This one, among many other quality vehicles from days gone by, is from the era where buying a top-brand car meant you were buying an heirloom worth maintaining.  Today mine drives “fine, for an old car,” but when we are done it should drive like a new 1984 Mercedes—and still cost a fraction of any new Mercedes.  I think this is the same instinct that makes people over-invest in old Airstreams.  You just know that they are too good to let fall apart, even when the cost of restoration far exceeds the price of a new one.

So far we’ve identified issues with numerous gaskets, the steering box, the cooling system, the climate controls, lights, switches, vacuum system, and brakes.  All of the fluids and filters need replacement, and the valves need adjustment.   The air conditioning needs some tweaking in order to meet the challenge of a southern Arizona June.  Many things on this car have been allowed to go out of spec or gradually approach failure, without maintenance.  So the list is long, and intimidating.

I’m plowing ahead with confidence because already I can tell the car wants to be great again.  If you just drive it and pay attention with all your senses, there are plenty of signs of the “good bones” beneath.  Even on hopeless el-cheapo and weather-checked tires, with worn shock absorbers and groaning sway bar links, it still has a majestic ride.  Even though the dash vents howl a protest of stuck actuators, and the engine clanks a warning of poor valve adjustment, the interior is eerily devoid of squeaks and rattles.  It smells faintly of old car but also faintly sweet, rather than of mustiness or decay. Most people would just leave it alone and drive it, but I am sure we can do better than just “fine, for an old car.”

It’s been almost a week since I started the diagnostic process.  The action plan is nearly final, and I’m developing lists of the parts and tools we’ll need to actually do the work.  Later this month or in early November, Pierre is going to fly out here and spend a few days working on the car (and spending his nights in the Airstream guest house).  If everything goes well, a few days later he’ll leave behind a car that is properly sorted out.   That should be an interesting week indeed, and I’ll definitely be blogging about that.


What happens when the dog catches the car?

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

The Hunt is done once again.

I had mentioned on September 14th that I was looking for another Mercedes 300D (a diesel car from the early 1980s), to replace the one that I sold two years ago.  After I’d sold it in a moment of weakness to a buyer from Connecticut who wanted a rust-free southern car, that black Mercedes stuck in my memory. I began to miss the way it elegantly glided over the cracked urban roads of Tucson.  I missed the reassuring soft clatter of the engine (which is not loud when the car is properly tuned and the sound-dampening hood pad is intact).  I missed the simplicity of it.  And so I started a quest, a hunt, to find a fine example that—this time—I would keep.

It’s hard to explain why this particular car appeals to me.  I think that if you are the sort of person who is inclined to be interested in old cars, you naturally gravitate to something you remember from childhood.  I know I get a lot of letters from people who tell me that their interest in Airstreams started when they saw one on a family roadtrip.  I know a friend’s family had one of these when I was a teenager, but it was blue inside (my least favorite interior color) and decaying with Vermont rust, so it wasn’t a particularly attractive memory.

It’s a car that defies contemporary values.  It’s not fast and it’s not powerful. The turbo engine produced a mere 120 horsepower when it was new, and worn ones undoubtedly produce quite a lot less.  It was well equipped for the time, with power windows, automatic transmission, automatic climate control, central locking, cruise control, and many other features for the US market, but by today’s standards it is virtually gadget-free.  Our economy car, a 2007 Honda Fit, has almost all the same features and nobody thinks that’s any great accomplishment.  Where’s the 220-watt stereo with MP3 input?  Where’s the trip computer?  Where’s the sleek tapered nose?

I don’t care about any of that stuff.  The upright and sturdy look of the old Mercedes W123 chassis has an indefinable appeal, for me and a few other fans.  The lines are clean without being the same boring aero shape of virtually every modern car today.  The interior is comfortable without being plush, and the appointments are restrained and dignified without being pretentious or Spartan.  And the body, despite lacking airbags and anti-lock brakes, is safer than many cars that came after it.

This car comes from an era where engineers ruled Mercedes.  Everything about it yields a sense of mechanical durability, thoughtfulness, and quality.  Even a little thing like the sound of the door closing: a muted, brief, THUNK.  I’ve seen guys at car shows demonstrate the door sound to their friends.  Nobody ever does that with a Porsche or Jaguar.  You might say that nobody buys a car because of the way the door sounds, and that’s probably true, but it’s just an audible hint of the level of detail that a bunch of German engineers thought about, in every tiny aspect.

I think the big “aha” moment for me was a day when I was replacing a burned-out turn signal bulb.  I’ve done this job on two other (modern) cars I’ve owned, and it usually involves a socket or two, or a Torx driver, and a lot of fishing around inside tiny cavities.  On this car, you reach inside the engine compartment, unscrew a knurled plastic knob with your fingers, and the entire lamp assembly slides out for easy access.   Another time I needed to access the fuel sender. It was easily removed with only two tools, and when I got it apart I was amazed to find it was constructed of stainless steel with delicate gold wires, still accurate after nearly three decades. (The tank level monitors on my Airstream have never been accurate.)  Everything in these old Mercs is like that; finely engineered, built to last, and yet repairable when necessary.

In 1984, this car would cost you $31,940.  For comparison, I was still in college in 1984, and my landlord offered to sell me the condo I was renting for $32,000.  The year after that my greatest aspiration was to buy a Nissan Sentra with optional air conditioning that cost about $7,000.  It was a mighty sum to me, something that required signing my first finance contract.  The price of a Mercedes 300D was unfathomable, and the car was intimidating in its vast superiority to the econobox I hoped to drive.  It tickles me to ride in one today, finally getting my chance at the sweet and soft ride that somebody with eager anticipation plunked down a small ransom to get in 1984.

My hunt this time took a bit over two weeks, since I started before I mentioned it on the blog.  The process is occasionally tedious and requires diligence in searching online sources like Craigslist, Autotrader,, eBay; in other words, it’s absorbing.  Blink for a moment and you may miss out on the car you’ve been looking for, after all hundreds of other people are likely looking for it too.  I drove to every local European car repair shop and put in a word about what I was seeking, I told my friends, I studied reviews and forums, and I stayed up late browsing.  The rest is just a matter of perseverance.

After a couple of weeks I was tired of looking at the junk cars that comprise 95% of the market, but I also didn’t want to end the search too early.  The problem, as I told Eleanor, is that it’s like a dog chasing a car. What happens when the dog catches one?

There were a few near-misses.  I spotted a car in California that looked great, but upon digging into it I discovered that it had failed emissions four times in recent years, and that the seller had repainted it and bought a lot of used parts to make it look like new.  Those are all red flags.  Many others featured things like “good A/C but needs a charge” (which means bad A/C), and “fresh repaint” (which means cheezy repaint), and “no visible rust” (which means rust in inaccessible spots), and my personal favorite: problems excused with the explanation that “all these cars do that.”  No, I found myself mumbling to myself after a long evening of browsing online ads, only the neglected ones do that.

My ideal prize would be as unmolested as I could get, original paint, unrestored, just as it was was left by a loving owner who regretfully was letting it go after many years of gentle use.  This might seem to be a fantasy, but if you are willing to pay market rates and be patient, there are a lot of such cars coming up for sale.  The owners who bought them in the mid-1980s and never drove them in the winter are now reaching an age where owning an old Mercedes no longer makes sense.  One by one, these cars are coming out of storage barns and garages all over the US.  That’s what I was waiting for.

I finally found it, or something close enough.  It’s a 1984 Mercedes 300D, in Thistle Green Metallic paint with a Palomino interior.  Two owners, 101,000 miles (anything under 150k is considered low mileage for a car of that age), everything works, everything original except the radio, and no rust.  That’s just 3,600 miles per year, a good indication that the owner stored it in the winter.  The car was in Maryland, so I had some long conversations with the seller, studied his photos carefully, checked his references, and ordered a pre-purchase inspection at the local European car specialist. Everything checked out.

The ultimate would have been to fly out there to get the car.  This is always a great adventure and an opportunity to bond (and learn the car’s quirks), but the trip would be at least 2,300 miles and my schedule didn’t allow the time.  So I’m having it shipped to home base.

I have something to savor while I’m waiting: the seller sent the car’s documents ahead via FedEx.  Getting this package was like Christmas in July.  Typically, the owners of these cars save all the crucial historic documents, and this one was no exception.  I have the original window sticker, the dealer’s pre-purchase inspection sheet, the owner’s manual, maintenance booklet, warranty documents, and receipts for services.  From this the low mileage on the odometer can be confirmed as actual mileage, and I know what maintenance services have been left undone.

Even a pristine-appearing specimen has issues.  There are no perfect cars from 1984.  You have to expect some amount of “sorting out” to be done in the first year.  It’s process in which the car gradually gets brought up to spec until it works as it did when it rolled off the showroom floor.  Of course you want to start with a car that’s worth the investment and doesn’t have too many expensive problems.  For this car, the sorting-out process will begin right after it comes off the truck next week, starting with safety-related items and replacement of all the old fluids.

I guess that’s what happens when the dog catches the car.  He sits down and begins to gnaw on it like a bone.  Or else maybe the dog gets a driver’s license and starts enjoying his new ride.  Either way, the game may have only just begun.


Cooking up a storm

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

A benefit of having an Airstream the driveway is the use of a second refrigerator. The extra 10 cubic feet of our Dometic NDR1026 gas refrigerator always come in handy when Eleanor is stocking up on ingredients for a big feast.   (By the way, the refrigerator has operated normally ever since we removed and reinstalled it in September at Paul Mayeux’s shop.  The theory for its prior poor operation is that it had a small internal obstruction or bubble that was dislodged in the process.)

The flip side of having a second refrigerator is that someone has to go back and forth between the house and the Airstream to deliver and retrieve things from that refrigerator.  This is where my talents are usually invested, along with tasks such as dumping the compost, taking out recycling and trash and documenting the cooking process with my camera. If only my college journalism professors could see me now…

In the morning I went out to get Keli the American Duck for her steam bath.  Unfortunately, 24 hours in the refrigerator was not enough to fully defrost her.  The refrigerator was running exactly 32.0 degrees inside, probably because temperatures have been cool in Tucson lately and because we put two solidly-frozen ducks in it.  We reduced the refrigerator’s cooling level, but it was essentially too late.  Keli couldn’t be steamed until she was fully defrosted.

We left the duck out on the counter for a while, and then Eleanor had a brainstorm.  We’d just done a load of dishes and the dischwascher was still very warm from the drying cycle. Eleanor popped Keli on the lower rack for an hour, closed the door, and managed to get some of the defrosting process completed that way.  But it wasn’t until after dinner that Keli was frost-free enough to come out of her plastic bag and get prepped for the pot.

In the meantime we had a technical problem to solve.   We didn’t have a steamer large enough for a 5.1 pound duck.  The pot needed to be big enough for the duck while sitting on a rack so that an inch or so of water could be brought to a boil beneath.  After trying several odd contraptions we finally found a combination that would work, using two aluminum foil pie tins to support a pair of round cooling racks, upon which Keli perched.

The steaming process went well.  Once the water was to a boil, Keli began sweating like a nervous Aeroflot passenger.  Christopher Kimball and his team of cooking gurus were right: Keli the duck lost a lot of fat in a short period of time.  I collected the grease/water combination when she was done, separated the water, and ended up with more than a quart of grease.

The city of Tucson has a program to keep grease out of the public sewage system.  They’ll be collecting the grease on the day after Thanksgiving, where it gets turned into biodiesel fuel for cars.  If I still had the Mercedes 300D, I would like to think that a bit of Keli-grease would come back to power my car a few miles.

This is not the end of Keli’s cooking process. Her next step, today, will be to visit the “tanning booth” (rotisserie) to brown the skin, with a bit more seasoning.

While Keli worked on her fat-reduction program, Eleanor also worked on the stuffing and the first of the side dishes.  As I had feared, Eleanor has gone far off the reservation and so now the side dish list consists of:

boiled potatoes with fresh herbs
roasted potatoes
mixed grains & wild rice with persimmon & figs
pork & apple stuffing
haricot vert with cranberries & walnuts
butternut squash with pear & gorgonzola cheese
cipollini onions and chestnuts
roasted carrots and pearl onions
Romaine with pomegranate

Yeah, we’ll need some help with eating all of this … Carol & Tom, Mike & Becky, Rob & Theresa, Terry & Greg, Judy & Rick, David & Lee & Hannah: feel free to give a call today to schedule dinner with us this week.  Please.

And when the actual Thanksgiving Day rolls around Eleanor plans to make pumpkin soup, too.  I would try to stop her but (a) it’s all so good; (b) this is what she likes to do.  You can’t stop a good chef any more than you can stop a monsoon. Eleanor cooking is like a force of nature.  It’s just going to happen, so I’m going to continue playing errand/garbage boy and await the spectacle that is coming later today.  Pierre is waiting too, for his moment in the oven with his rich French friends (bacon, butter, and more butter), so it is going to be an interesting day indeed.

Darn you, Puritans!

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Eleanor and I managed one more roadtrip, a short one up to the Phoenix area for a little “this and that”: browsing, a little shopping, a late night cruise in Scottsdale, dinner out and a night in a resort.  But that’s it.  She’s got to head back to Vermont so that our child will remember that she has actual parents.

No, I’m just kidding about that last part.  Eleanor will head back, but Emma is becoming as independent as an 11-year-old should.  We have stayed in touch via video chat and phone calls, and it’s obvious she gets along just fine without us.  Her grandparents have done a great job of keeping up with her schedule of play dates, sailing, and summer art classes.  When I called yesterday I was told that Emma was down at the beach making s’mores and was therefore unavailable to speak to her father.

That’s quite a change from the days when we were living in the Airstream, roaming around the continent but rarely far from each other.  People speculated that she would grow up “needy” or improperly “socialized” as a result of our extreme togetherness, which is of course utter nonsense.  Why do people think that being close to your children or parents is a bad thing?  (Little wonder that as a society we treat the elderly with disdain.)

I speculate that it is an old outgrowth of Puritanical beliefs, right along with the idea that we should be ashamed of our bodies.  In any case, the result speaks for itself: the kid is comfortable in her skin, and while she misses Mom & Dad, she’s pretty happy with the other loving members of her family.

Not so easy for me, however.  When I’m alone for weeks at a time I don’t have the support system of the family around me, and it’s a big adjustment.  It’s far too easy to spend the day inside the house, in front of the computer, and not seeing another living soul all day.  That’s a trap.  Pretty soon you can turn into a Howard Hughes-like caricature, savings toenail clippings in a jar and growing a long beard.

I was watching a National Geographic program about Solitary Confinement (in prison) and the inmates were describing what happens to them after too much time alone.  They talked about the need for human contact, and the paranoid thoughts that start to overcome them.  Psychiatrists chimed in: solitary makes you start to feel aggressive toward your jailers, even if you weren’t violent before.  That must explain why I forgot to water the citrus before Eleanor arrived; I was lashing out at the greenery.

I now pity the telephone company guy who is scheduled to come here to look at my DSL line.  If I don’t get out to the mall to walk around and see some humans (OK, mostly teenagers, but that’s as close to humans as I can find in a mall environment), the telephone guy’s life could be in danger.  And he’s a nice guy, “Tom,” who has visited here often because every summer my DSL starts getting wonky.  (I’m on my third replacement DSL modem and I have all the Qwest service guys mobile phone numbers now.)

Of course, my jail cell is not enforced by the penal system, it’s self-imposed.  It’s another darned Puritanical leftover, the moral imperative to do work.  Once in a while I break free of that social boundary and play hooky around town, but it’s difficult for me.  No kidding.  I’ve been self-employed for 18 years and wound so tight about getting the job done that it’s hard to let go even when there’s really not much work to be done.  Today is a good example: the Fall issue is in the hands of the printer.  This post-production period is a classic “quiet time” for the magazine, or rather a “calm before the storm,” because until the issue hits the mail the phone will hardly ring, my email Inbox will be oddly empty, and I won’t be under major pressure to work on the next issue for a few weeks.  So by all rights I should be having fun.

I learned this lesson a long time ago.  I used to be a “consultant,” which meant nobody was looking over my shoulder and I didn’t get a regular paycheck.  So  I worked really hard when there was work to be done, and when there wasn’t I was usually trying to play rainmaker so that there would be work again soon.  On those occasions when I felt like I had done all I could do for a while, I blew off to do something, anything, absolutely guilt-free because I’d earned it.

When I was publishing the magazine and working (2005-2008) the Airstream made it easy.  We’d park it in a place where Internet and phone worked well, until the work was done, then relocate to some nearby National Park and go hiking for a few days in a cellular “cone of silence.”  Usually that meant a short drive, and there we’d be, all together with our home and ready to go exploring.

It’s a bit harder now, with the Airstream up in Vermont, me in Arizona, my other Airstream stranded in Texas, and no tow vehicle handy.  I am quite tempted to pack up the tent this weekend and go somewhere in the cool mountains where the forest hasn’t been scorched in this summer’s fires.  What I’d really like to do is get some Airstream friends to drop in for a few days, but nobody wants to come to the desert in the summertime.  (Wimps.)  Hey, I’ve got 30-amp power in the carport to run air conditioners, so what’s there to be afraid of?

Now you know why I was so desperate to find a backup tow vehicle earlier this summer.  The idea was to launch out to Texas and recover the Caravel, and make a big trip out of it, complete with the comfort of air conditioning.  Alas, now I’m short on time.  I did finally find the car I wanted — it’s the car I sold, the Mercedes 300D.  I should have kept it and put a hitch on it.  Another one in even better condition has popped up locally and I could buy it, but I’d really like to get that Miata sold first.  Any 1980s-era Mercedes, no matter how nice, is going to suck up a bit of money before it’s fully sorted out and ready for long trips.

So I’m sitting tight for now, and looking at the tent… and my laptop.  Sooner or later either the Puritans will win out, or the Airstream-inspired wanderlust will.



Cars, planes, and trailers

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Finally my long-awaited trip to Palm Springs for Modernism Week 2011 has begun.  I was sort of chafing the last few days, eager to get on the road, and filling my time by triple-checking lists and over-preparing the car for every possible contingency.  Yesterday morning I was up at 5:30 a.m. even though I didn’t need to leave until 9.  After a few hours of trying to pace myself as I completed the final pre-departure tasks, I gave in, stuffed the last few things in the car, and set off up I-10 toward Phoenix.

Now, one of my few concerns about this trip was whether the old car would make it.  There was really no reason to think it wouldn’t, given that it has been well-prepared and recently serviced, and I will cut to the chase by telling you that it did just fine for the 380 miles to Palm Springs.  The real issue turned out to be the airlines.

The plan was for me to meet Brett at Phoenix Sky Harbor International airport around noon, and head out from there together to Palm Springs.  I got into Phoenix early of course, so I had plenty of time to swing by one of the local biodiesel producers and pick up 5.5 gallons of B99 to top off the tank.  Brett landed only about 10 minutes late, so all things looked good until we went looking for his luggage, which of course …  (do I have to even tell the rest of this story)?

Well, I’ll spare you the ugly view we got of the workings of an airline’s baggage handling system.  In short, we went on to Palm Springs because the bags were in Houston and not likely to arrive soon enough for us to keep our schedule for the day.  We were told that the bags, which contain a few vital items for the Vintage Trailer Show, would be forwarded on to Palm Springs by transferring them to another airline.


When we arrived in Palm Springs we found John Long and his stunning 1935 Bowlus already set up on the grass display area behind the hotel, a day early.  He worked out special permission to set up early, unbeknownst to us.  (I believe that is the first time I have ever written the word “unbeknownst” in a blog entry, and I think after looking at it in this context, it will be the last.)  John surprised me by looking admiringly at the old Mercedes, which was idly clattering away behind us as we greeted John.  I think he appreciated it as a piece of industrial design much like he appreciates his own Bowlus travel trailer.

Brett had by this time received two phone calls from his airline with various explanations and plans related to the retrieval of his baggage.  The ultimate solution — so we thought — was to drive over to Palm Spring International Airport and pick up the bags from the 7:15 flight of the “other” airline.  But when we got there, we discovered the flight had been canceled.  So, back to the hotel, and another round of phone calls.

At 9:15 we were back at the airport.  I sat in the car curbside for a few minutes (thinking this would be a quick errand), but when the police chased me away a few minutes later I realized that things were not going well inside the terminal for Brett.  I sat in the Cell Phone Lot until 10:30 while Brett went through these stages:  (1) Looking for bags on the carousel; (2) Realizing the bags were again lost; (3) Dealing with an unhelpful “other Airlines” representative who told him he knew nothing about the situation and could not track the bag without a claim number; (4) Calling his first airline multiple times only to be told, “The other airline has the bag now, in Phoenix, and we don’t have a tracking nunber for it”; and finally (5) Conceding defeat at 10:30 pm, and heading off to the grocery store to buy a toothbrush.

At dawn he was at it again, and the latest word is that the baggage will arrive sometime today on some flight to Palm Springs, and it will either be delivered by courier to the hotel or Brett will have to take the Stuttgart Taxi to go fetch it. In other words, we know nothing except that in theory the bags still exist on some existential plane of the universe.

But hey, I won’t tell anyone Brett is wearing all the same clothes from yesterday.  All we’re doing is parking trailers and greeting people today, so he doesn’t need to look sharp until tonight when we have a private reception for the trailer owners.  By then, the baggage might be here, and we can concentrate on the thing we are here to do, which is to put on an awesome vintage trailer show this weekend.

When yellow labs attack …

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

There’s always something to be learned from even the most unfortunate circumstances.  Last night, cruising in the car near sunset, my black Mercedes 300D was whacked by a dog.  No, I didn’t hit him — he hit me.

The dog, a yellow labrador, was off leash and ran out onto Broadway, which is a busy five-lane thoroughfare in Tucson.  He crossed the centerline and actually rammed my car on the driver’s side front fender.  I saw only a brief glimpse of him and then — WHAM! — and my first thought was, “Oh no, I’ve just killed a dog.”

But he wasn’t killed.  He bounced off the car, and ran back across the roadway.  I stopped, but again I only got a glimpse of the dog as he high-tailed it back to the side of the road.  I grabbed a piece of door trim that had been ripped off the car and then made the first possible U-turn back to the scene.

mercedes-300d-dent-1.jpgThere I found a lady who was holding the dog by the collar and petting him reassuringly, while talking on her cell phone to the owner (the dog had good tags).  He appeared not only completely uninjured, but quite happy about his circumstances, doing all the usual yellow lab things like grinning foolishly and panting and inviting me to pet him too.   There was some concern that the dog might have a concussion, especially after we got a good look at the large dent his head put in the steel fender of my tank-like Mercedes, so when the owner arrived we encouraged him to take the dog to a vet for a good check.

But really, he’s a yellow lab.  Does he even have a brain to bruise?   (I’m going to get grief from my friend Al B for that remark.  He trains yellow lab puppies for Canine Companions for Independence. But those dogs are carefully bred and selected for ability.)

mercedes-300d-dent-2.jpgWell, I hope he’s OK.  He seemed like a nice dog, even if not too savvy about traffic. And I suspect his owner has learned a lesson too.

But wouldn’t you know, the damage estimate came in at $785, which will not be covered by insurance since I carry only liability on that car.  So now I have a good reason to have a chat with the dog’s owner.  At the time of the incident I got only a phone number, because (stupidly enough) I didn’t have a working pen in the car.  We were in a hurry to see the dog off to a vet, so I didn’t press further.

Thanks to the scary miracle of the Internet, that was sufficient.  With a few minutes of careful Internet searches, I was able to turn up not only the owner’s name and address, but also:

  • personal and office email addresses
  • religious associations
  • mailing address
  • colleges and degrees, including GPA from undergrad and his current program of study
  • photographs
  • names of some friends
  • where he had lunch last week

Yes, it doesn’t take much to leave a big footprint on the Internet.  (I’m sure mine is far larger than I want it to be.)  But with Facebook, Twitter, mySpace, etc., some folks are especially discoverable.  The relevant info will go to my insurance company and they’ll see about getting some compensation for the damage.

In the meantime, I have decided to take the 300D to Palm Springs tomorrow as planned.  I was able to reattach the door trim with new clips from the local dealer, and with that in place the rest of the damage isn’t terribly embarrassing.  The paint is mostly OK, and this is the desert anyway, so rust won’t be a big issue.  I’ll get it fixed in a couple of weeks.  If you are coming to Modernism Week to see the Vintage Trailer Show, please avert your eyes from the driver’s side front fender and help me pretend that my car didn’t just get rammed by a hard-headed labrador.

Road-tripping, vintage Mercedes style

Friday, February 11th, 2011

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.

Car and trailer shows

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Although much of the rest of the country is frozen solid right now, it’s car show season in southern Arizona.   Every couple of weeks there’s a small car show somewhere around Tucson, and about once a month there will be a fairly major one nearby.  California has the reputation as being the state most crazy for collector cars, but here in southern Arizona we’re not far behind.  We’ve got a lot of old retired guys with classic rides, and they love to show them off.

This weekend the big show was the Santa Cruz Valley Car Nuts’ annual show at Tubac Golf Resort, which is about 50 miles south of Tucson.  I decided to enter the old Mercedes 300D because it was a way for me to get into the middle of the show with a picnic lunch and watch all the action. I didn’t think many people would give a hoot about a slow and squarish 1984 Mercedes, since at these shows most of the attention seems to go to hot rods, American muscle cars, and exotics.

tubac-car-nuts-300d-reflection.jpgAnd I was right.  The car was mostly ignored, which gave me the opportunity to sit in my folding chair and read a book while occasionally glancing at the parade of people going by.  Once in a while someone would point and smile at the car and I could hear them relating a tale of the “one we used to have just like that.”  A lot of people used to have Mercedes cars like mine, which is not surprising since 2.7 million of them were made worldwide.

A few people took note of the car, but I wonder if any of them noticed that mine was the only Mercedes on the line bearing a “250,000 km” badge on the grill.  That’s an honorary badge awarded by Mercedes Benz USA for very high-mileage cars.  My next badge comes at 500,000 km (310,000 miles) and I hope to get that one someday too.

I was flattered when a guy came by and asked if I wanted to sell the car, because he wanted a nice example of an old Mercedes to drive around in Mazatlan, Mexico, where he had a house.  I declined. I wasn’t looking to sell, just to have fun.

tubac-car-nuts-show1.jpg It is fun, just to be a small part of the spectacle.  There were over 500 cars on display, ranging from a Nash Metropolitan to an Aston Martin Vanquish.  You name it, it was there.  Most of the cars were in excellent condition, but I was pleased to see that even people with interesting cars in poor condition came out to show the world what they had.  It wasn’t just a show of garage queens.  Some were obviously daily drivers.

Eleanor had made me a huge picnic basket with lunch, suitable for about five people. I had grilled chicken skewers, Israeli couscous, a sort of marinated tomato/zucchini/onion salad in a homemade dressing that I can’t even begin to describe adequately, a delicious homemade chutney, and Emma’s “rainy day” brownies with chopped nuts on top.

Since I had the opportunity for elegance, she also packed me a big blue tablecloth and cloth napkins.   When lunchtime came around, I spread my tablecloth and hauled out the wicker basket, and invited my friend Charlie and his friend Flash to join me on the grass.  More than a few people spotted our little picnic on the golf course next to the Mercedes cars and said, “Now, that’s the way to do it!”


Ken and Petey showed up with their 1955 GMC pickup and a 1947 teardrop called a “Tourette.”  Most teardrop trailers were made of wood, but this one was made of aluminum.  It’s remarkably intact and in good condition.  I believe it was the only travel trailer at the show, and it got a lot of attention.  Teardrop trailers were mostly made from kits, and there have been dozens (if not hundreds) of teardrop kit manufacturers over the past decades, so if you’ve never heard of a Tourette, join the club.

With spectacular weather (about 70 degrees and all sun), a fine golf course setting, hundreds of interesting cars, many more interesting people, and a fine picnic lunch, the day passed very quickly.  I was surprised to realize it was 3 p.m. — I had been there for five hours.  It was rather a shame to pack up and head out, but at least I had the compensation of a leisurely drive of 50 miles to get back home in a fine old German sedan on a beautiful day in beautiful southern Arizona.

I am really getting into this show thing.   That’s part of the reason why I’ve been working for the past few months to curate another show, the Modernism Week “Vintage Trailer Show” sponsored by Airstream Life magazine.  We are expecting 19 very interesting vintage trailers at that event:

1935 Bowlus Road Chief

1960 Airstream Caravel

1959 Airstream Globetrotter

1962 Airstream Flying Cloud

1962 Airstream Globe Trotter

1961 Airstream Bambi

1960 Holiday House

1950 Airfloat Landyacht

1973 Airstream Safari

1969 Airstream Tradewind

1957 Catolac DeVille

1948 Spartan Manor

1958 Airstream Caravanner

1936 Airstream Clipper

1948 Westcraft

1960 International Harvester Housecar

1965 Airstream Caravel

1955 Spartan Manor

1948 La Cosse Vacationer

If you are coming out to Palm Springs for Modernism Week this February, tickets for the Vintage Trailer Show can be purchased on-site at the Palm Springs Riviera Resort & Spa, Saturday and Sunday Feb 26-27. It should be quite a spectacle, with some very rare trailers open for tours, an Airstream “bar,” presentation of the new Airstream Life “Wally” award, vendors selling cool stuff, and a lot of fun.  Maybe I’ll see you poolside at the Riviera?

The bug list

Friday, January 21st, 2011

With the Airstream parked and no trips in sight for a while, I’ve turned my attention to the 1984 Mercedes 300D for a while. I bought this car last summer and wrote about it then.  It was not perfect when I bought it but I resolved that if it turned out to be a fun car and behaved itself (not immediately chewing up a bunch of parts, like a new puppy) I would be willing to invest a little into it in order to keep it roadworthy for a long time.

The car has so far passed that threshold.  It’s a solid, safe, reliable set of wheels and I like driving it.  But even though it is completely drivable, it still has a lot of small issues to resolve. So I made a “bug list” of things that needed addressing and started prioritizing the work, with an eye toward vehicle improvement without personal bankruptcy.

Earlier this week, the list looked like this:

— transmission shifts abruptly when cold

— leak in vacuum door lock system (leaks when doors are locked, not when unlocked)

— center dash vents don’t actuate (no air flow)

— windshield rainwater leaks (needs new windshield gasket)

— instrument cluster lights are very dim

— odometer only turns on cold days

— slightly squeaking AC belt

— rear windows shudder going up and down

— sagging drivers seat spring

— intermittent low fuel light

— electric passenger vanity mirror doesn’t adjust

— chipped wood around climate control

— cruise control does not work

— wiper motor sometimes activates on startup

— tear in driver’s seat

Some of these things are pretty clearly unimportant, while others are a major nuisance. The lack of air from the center vents, for example, means that the car doesn’t have enough air conditioning to be usable in the Tucson summers.  But the trick is to prioritize the jobs in a way that makes the most sense, and that means fixing the problems that might compromise safety first.  Not only that, but before I start tweaking the little things it would be nice to know that the transmission shift issue doesn’t mean fatally-expensive repair is looming in the near future.

I’ve had the car over to a couple of different shops in the Tucson area for minor repairs, but I wanted to get an opinion from another highly respected Mercedes specialist up in Phoenix before launching into the project.  This made the perfect excuse for a long-awaited roadtrip in the 300D, about a hundred miles each way between Tucson and Phoenix.  Alex came along for the ride, since he had an old Mercedes years ago and wanted to relive the experience.


The guys at the shop were extremely complimentary about the car. They don’t see a lot of the old W123’s (which is the chassis type of the 300D) in good condition anymore.  The prior owners of this car really took good care of it and made sure that it was serviced only by people who knew Mercedes.  As a result, there was almost nothing botched by prior shops to undo and repair.  They poked around every subsystem of the car and explained things as they went.  I’m always impressed with the quality of engineering that went into these old cars.  Every part is beautifully designed for function and serviceability in a way that helps justify its original (new) purchase price of over $30,000 in 1984.

The point of the visit was mostly to evaluate the car and come up with costs and priorities.  Alex and I left the car for a few hours while we did other things, and when we came back the odometer had been removed, disassembled, repaired and re-installed.  They also fixed a few other small items, but unfortunately the list grew more than it shrank.  Now added to the bug list:

— broken air filter lower bracket  (part was not available immediately, or we would have replaced it on the spot)

— shock absorbers all around for better ride (mine are apparently original to the car)

— right front ball joint is a little loose

— upper control arm bushings are worn

The transmission shift issue was checked and confirmed to be “just the way these cars are.”  It shifts pretty smoothly once warmed up. Since this is the third Mercedes specialist to give me this opinion, I’m going to accept it and drop the transmission from the bug list.

mb300d-on-i-10.jpgThe guys also ragged on the Goodyear “Weatherhandler” whitewall tires that the prior owner installed.  A more typical choice for this car would be Michelin or Pirelli. I have had little respect for the tires myself, having already experienced a few moments of adverse handling in light rain, but they will probably last for many more miles so I’m stuck with them for a while.

No other problems were noted, so the good news is that the car is perfectly safe to enjoy and gradually improve. We got a list of tips and parts sources to guide the ongoing process, along with estimated costs for each repair.

mb300d-rich-at-rest-area.jpgWith that, we jumped on I-10 to escape Phoenix before rush hour traffic turned the highway into a slow-motion lava flow.   We had 100 miles ahead of us, which goes pretty quickly when you get to the open road with a speed limit of 75 MPH.  The car seemed happy to stretch out a bit after all the city driving I’ve been doing, and for the next 90 minutes Alex and I listened to the purr of the old diesel, and I reflected on the simple joy of once again having an odometer that actually turns.

Every little repair like the odometer puts the car closer to completeness.  When I bought it, it was a fine machine that had been kept in good operating condition but the “little things” left unattended were starting to pile up.   It seemed to be teetering between well-loved and slightly neglected.    Gradually I’m pushing it toward the right end of that spectrum.  It will never be perfect or qualify as a “show car,” but it is earning my respect enough to put some money and effort into keeping it on the road.

Why we picked this home base

Sunday, December 12th, 2010

After we sold our home in Vermont and started traveling full-time, we had the entire country to consider as a future residence.  We browsed and briefly lived in something like 46 states before we made our choice. So it’s understandable that one of questions we get asked most frequently is “Why did you pick Tucson?”

Really, the criteria was rather mundane:  we liked the desert climate (good for SAD and good for allergies), the cost of living is reasonable, we could buy a “lock and leave” house that wouldn’t need winterizing or constant air conditioning while we were gone, there’s year-round outdoor activity for adults and children, and Tucson has everything we need.  Having spent most of my life in rural country, I appreciate the convenience of living in a city even though it’s not as quiet as what I’m used to.

We don’t pretend that our criteria makes sense for anyone else, so after answering this question I am always quick to point out that it’s really up to everyone to figure out what’s important to them.  I probably don’t need to do that, since most of the folks asking the question are themselves frequent travelers and they tend to be very independent.  Of all the people who have asked the question, none of them have settled here. They’ve all found their own favorite places.

But we like southern Arizona a lot, especially for the diversity of things to do in the area.  Take Saturday, for example.  We decided that our mission would be to browse the Asian food markets in town.  Tucson doesn’t have nearly the Asian population of the California cities, but enough that we can easily find the exotic ingredients that Eleanor likes to use occasionally in her cooking.  We googled up a few likely spots and read the online reviews (mostly useless, as usual), and eventually came up with a list of three targets.  Right there, that’s a win — because in many other cities we’d just be plain out of luck.  I like the fact that I can find almost anything here.

tucson-leelee-market.jpgHaving just put some money into the Mercedes 300D for front end work last week, I wanted to give it a run. So we loaded up into the “Stuttgart Taxi” and cruised to our first stop, the Lee Lee Supermart in northwest Tucson.  This place tries to cover most of the major countries of far east Asia, so you’ll find Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, etc., all through the store.

I’m always intrigued with the strange and interesting new foods and ingredients in Asian markets.  It’s a temptation to start buying a little of everything, just to try it out.  But since we had three markets on our program for the day (two Asian and one “other”), we tried to be moderate in our choices.  I could easily see us filling the roomy trunk of the Stuttgart Taxi with a pile of groceries worth more than the car itself.

tucson-vermont-curry.jpgAnother fun part of this type of shopping is finding truly odd or confusing packaging.  There are things both lost and gained in translation from Asian languages, and sometimes the results can be laughable.  This keeps both adults and kids entertained.  Our first find was “Vermont Curry,” as seen here. Now, I’m from Vermont, and I can tell you that “Vermont” and “curry” go together about as well as “Kansas Lobster.” These days Vermont actually has a few ethnic restaurants, thanks to an increasingly diverse population, but as a child I remember that pizza was about as exotic as it got. If there were such a thing as Vermont Curry, it would probably have maple syrup in it.

tucson-steamed-potato.jpgAnother minor oddity was the House Of Steamed Potato brand kimchi crackers. Apparently this is a major brand in China, with several flavors.  I’m sure the name makes sense in Chinese, and I’m sympathetic to the problem of translation.  I wouldn’t want to try to translate “Ritz crackers” or “Count Chocula” to Chinese.

tucson-mang-gong-cake.jpgBut our favorite was found at our second stop, the Grantstone Supermarket: Mang Gong cakes. Nothing odd here, until you look closely at the bottom of the package. It reads, “The False Packing.”  It’s hard for an American to make any sense out of that.  Given the volume of illegal Asian product knock-offs, is this simply a pre-emptive attempt to admit that these are not real Mang Gong cakes? Perhaps in truth the package contains Nike sneakers.

Sometimes you can figure these things out by playing with synonyms of the words.  For example, could “false” be an attempt to say “low-cal”?  Or perhaps “imitation,”  “see-through,” “empty,” or “absent”?  Likewise, “packing” could mean “packaging,” or “wrapper”?  Maybe this is an attempt to advertise the see-through outer wrap, or to suggest that this has a decorative wrapper for gift-giving.  We need a good Chinese translator to help figure this one out.

tucson-biodiesel-fueling.jpgIt’s amazing that we managed to kill most of a day browsing Asian markets, but we did.  We are, as I’ve said before, easily amused.  I suppose the prospect of eating whatever Eleanor whipped up with the ingredients was helpful in keeping our patience in check too. By 3 p.m. we were wrapping up and heading home with the trunk only 1/4 full of groceries (fortunately for the budget).

There was just one more stop to make, at the Arizona Petroleum depot off 22nd Street, for biodiesel. I have been wanting to run some biodiesel in the Taxi, since it has an “old tech” engine and can eat almost any type of oil.  A little biodiesel helps clean out the fuel lines since it has higher solvency properties than dino diesel.  This pump dispenses B5, B20 and B99 (5%, 20%, and 99% biodiesel respectively) for $3.25 per gallon, which is about in line with local diesel prices at conventional fuel stations in Tucson right now.

I bought five gallons of B99 to mix with the 15 gallons of dino diesel in the tank.  It made the exhaust smell like a restaurant with a fryolator, which is actually quite pleasant.  Most cars I have smelt running B99 exclusively have exhaust reminiscent of french fries, and instead of annoying people, it usually makes them hungry.  I’d like to run this in the GL320 as well, but its super-high-tech engine and exhaust system are restricted to B5 at the most.

That’s not an atypical day for us, on a winter weekend in Tucson.  That’s why we like it here.  If we want to go to a festival, a farmer’s market, go for a hike or bike ride, attend a gallery opening, take sunset pictures, do some gardening, work on the car, roam the gardens, take a class, whatever — there’s always something.  You really can’t go wrong in Tucson this time of year, with lots of things happening and fantastic weather almost every day.

That’s our criteria for a place to live, perhaps because it closely mirrors the kind of life we had when we were traveling.  For me at least, once I had tasted the diversity and excitement of constant travel, I couldn’t fathom settling back into a town that didn’t have something going on all the time. No wonder it took years for us to find a place to buy a house.  Future full-timers beware: life on the road may be your dream, but keep in mind that you will face a tough job finding the ideal place to live afterward.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine