Archive for the ‘Mercedes GL320’ Category

A bit of a hitch

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

This time of year our tow vehicle, the Mercedes GL320, generally rests in the carport. We log about 14,000 miles each summer between May and October, mostly towing, and that’s a lot of use. So in the off-season I try to give it a break, except for occasional cross-country trips. This allows the car’s years to catch up with the miles somewhat. It’s a 2009 and already it has 56,000 miles on it. By the time we get back from travel this summer, it will have about 70,000 miles.

A few weeks ago I had the car out for a little trip and the Check Engine light popped on. This is becoming a familiar sight, unfortunately. We’ve had about five incidents of Check Engine lights since the car was new, and all of them have been related to the Adblue (a.k.a. Diesel Exhaust Fluid, or DEF) system. This system is a big part of why the car’s emissions are legal in in all 50 states. It injects a spray of DEF into the exhaust stream, which combines with the exhaust gasses in a special type of catalytic converter and results in the nasty smog-causing oxides of nitrogen turning into harmless water vapor and carbon dioxide.

It’s a brilliant system when it all works, but our 2009 model was the first year for Mercedes to install this technology, and there have been a few bugs. Mercedes seems to have worked them out with a combination of software updates (yes, like everything else on modern cars, this process is entirely controlled by computers) and upgraded components.

This time the Check Engine light was indicating that a heater for the Adblue (DEF) was failing. The heater is needed so that the fluid doesn’t freeze at low temperatures. Replacing the heater is a labor-intensive job that requires complete removal of the Adblue tank. And this is where the nightmare began …

You see, back when we first bought the car, we had to do some extensive modification of the factory receiver hitch, in order to make it suitable for our Airstream Safari. The key modification was the addition of a “third leg” that spread out the tongue weight of the trailer. You can see this “leg”, made of 2-inch square tubing, in the photo at left. It was welded to the rear suspension crossmember and to the factory receiver.

When this solution was proposed, I had two misgivings. First, that this would take up too much ground clearance. This turned out not to be an issue, as the car still has 10″ of ground clearance at this point even with the tube installed. My second concern was that it was blocking access to the black tank you see above, which is the holding tank for the Adblue fluid.

After considering for a while, we decided that replacement of the Adblue tank was highly unlikely, so we went ahead and installed the third leg. It has functioned perfectly ever since, taking up stress from the receiver so that we can get good weight distribution without overstressing the rear end of the GL’s frame.

So when I got the call from the dealership’s Service Advisor telling me that the tank had to be removed, my heart sank. We had to cut the third leg of the hitch off (where indicated with the orange line in the photo above). I dragged the decision out a few days by asking the dealership to do an individual component test on the Adblue heater to double-check that it really had failed, and to try to rule out the possibility of another software problem. They did that, but the news was unchanged: we have to remove the entire tank in order to replace the heater.

I feel very protective of my receiver hitch. We went through a lot of trouble to get it modified just so, to suit our particular needs. We first had reinforcements (not visible in the photo) welded on here in Tucson, and then drove 2,000 miles to Can-Am RV in London ON (Canada) to have the final reinforcement added. I inspect the receiver at least monthly, and do an annual crawl-around-on the-ground-with-a-flashlight inspection at least annually, along with wire brushing and repainting. Any receiver can fail, and since a failure can result in your death, it’s a piece of equipment worth taking seriously. So I didn’t want anyone touching it, and I especially didn’t want anyone coming near it with the intention of cutting it off.

But in this case there was no choice. Andy Thomson at Can-Am was very helpful in marking up the photo above, which I gave to the dealership’s body shop to show them exactly what to do. The hitch was cut, the Adblue tank and some other components were replaced, and I got the car back a week later with the hitch re-installed—but sliced right through the third leg. I drove it 50 miles and the Check Engine light stayed off, so the next step was to get the hitch repaired.

Obviously we didn’t want to weld it back, since there’s always the possibility that we’ll need to remove the hitch again, so after discussions with Andy and other consultants we came up with a plan to add some heavy plates and bolt the two ends of the cut tube together. This was done locally at a qualified welding shop. You can see the result below. Sorry for the lousy iPhone photos.

The bottom line was $49 to the dealership body shop, and $200 to the welding shop that installed the bolt-up re-attachment. The Adblue tank was covered under warranty, which was good since the estimate for that job was a whopping $2,200. I do like the Mercedes as a tow vehicle, but the cost of parts and repairs can be astronomical. I’ve already started a maintenance fund for repairs after the 100,000 miles warranty has expired. As I tell people these days, it’s the best tow vehicle I’ve ever owned, and it’s also the least reliable tow vehicle I’ve ever owned.

But I’ll cut it some slack since we really use the heck out of it. There’s a chance that this replacement of much of the Adblue system will resolve the persistent issues we’ve had with it in the past. Discounting the Check Engine lights, it has done well for us. We bought the GL320 because we wanted a long-term tow vehicle with a durable diesel engine, and overall it has worked out well.

Realistically, there are no perfectly reliable vehicles, just different compromises. At this point the car still feels and drives like new, so my original goal to get 250,000 miles out of it has not wavered. In that long-term context, this little bit of receiver work seems well worth the expense. It is just part of a long-term investment in safe and happy traveling.

Rich’s Moving Castle

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Thanks to Eleanor and Bill for putting an appropriate literary theme on my few days in the Caravel.  Like Howl’s Moving Castle, the Caravel never paused for long in this recent chapter of its four-decade adventures.

The saga left off on Friday, when I was making a coffee last for three hours so I could recharge my stuff and get some work done.  It was a beautiful sunny day and things were going well.  After the work was done, an electronic trail of crumbs (a waypoint stored in the GPS) led me back to the campground, otherwise I might never have found it again.  I spent all of 10 minutes installing the new braided-stainless hoses in the Caravel’s bathroom and — ta-da! — no more leaks.   Or so I thought.

That afternoon the bulk of the rally participants showed up and things got lively.  Among many other people, I ran into Tiffani and Deke of “Weaselmouth,” who I’d last seen at Alumapalooza in May, and we got into an evening-long conversation during the potluck dinner.  I went back to the Caravel that night pleased that the rally was turning out well, but a little sorry as well because it would be time to get going homeward soon.  The rest of the people were just getting started with their Halloween decorations and friendly yakking.  For me, the Moving Castle (aka Caravel) was destined to depart in the morning.

I lingered on Saturday until about 10 a.m. while the gang was cooking up a huge breakfast outside at the pavilion.  People kept asking me how far I had to drive to get home, and when I said, “Oh, about 1,000 miles” the second or third time it really hit me: I’ve got to get going. There were about 16-17 hours of driving ahead of me, plus stops, and very little of it would be interesting driving.

Like the little Bubble I pulled from Santa Fe, the Caravel is a joy to tow.  There’s no fuss, no bad behavior, no complicated hitching equipment.  I try to keep the fresh water tank at least half full to give the trailer better stability, but otherwise I just drop it on the ball and away we go.  I don’t trust it as much as I do the big Safari with the Hensley hitch, because I know the Safari absolutely cannot sway with that setup, but the Caravel is marvelously stable at any speed I care to drive.  Of course, it is equipped pretty close to the original factory configuration.  Often I’ll see small vintage trailers that tow horribly, and inevitably it’s the result of owner modifications (air conditioners, rear-mounted spare tires, altered floorplans or heavy household-style cabinetry) that corrupt the delicate center of gravity.  The original designs took care to ensure that when the trailers were loaded with water, food, personal items, etc., the trailer would remain stable.

I made a few stops along the way for errands.  The day before the GL320 gave me a warning that it wanted a top-up of “AdBlue” fluid, which is also commonly known as Diesel Exhaust Fluid.  These days you can find the stuff in any auto parts store, truck stop, and even some Wal-Marts, and it’s cheap at about $12.99 for 2.5 gallons.  I put five gallons in the special tank that holds the AdBlue, which should be good for another 7,000 miles or so.  I’ll top it off this week for a full 15,000 mile range.  I mention this only because a lot of people are still scared about the stuff, thinking it’s expensive, or complicated, or frequent, and it’s really no much more hassle than filling the window washer fluid.  Three-tenths of a cent per mile is a small price to pay for clean diesel emissions, in my opinion.

I’ve wanted to spend a night at Monahans Sandhills State Park (just off I-20 a little west of Odessa TX), but the timing has never worked out before. This time I hit Monahans about a half hour before sunset, which made it a great stopover point.  The park has only 26 spaces, which made me think I might get skunked on a spot since it was Saturday night, but it turned out to be only about half full.  About half of the spaces are short back-ins that were perfect for the Caravel but wouldn’t have worked for the 30-foot Safari.

I have to take this opportunity to gripe about a small thing.  Many state parks use an honor system for late arrivals.  You fill out a little envelope and put your nightly camping fee in it.  This envelope gets deposited into an “iron ranger” (a metal box) and picked up by the staff daily.  You have to indicate your campsite on the envelope, but you haven’t gotten a campsite yet, which means you have to go to the campground, find a site, then come back to the iron ranger.

At Monahans the iron ranger is at the entrance gate, but the campground is about 1.3 miles away.  By the time I was parked in the site, it was nearly dark.  Being an overnight stop I would have preferred not to unhitch but I also wasn’t psyched to walk 2.6 miles roundtrip in the dark along a narrow, winding, shoulder-less road in the cold.  I wanted to make dinner and fire up Calcifer, and I also needed to refill the water tank.  To get it all done quickly, the easiest thing was to unhitch and drive back to the entrance gate to deposit my envelope.  Other state parks set up two iron rangers, one at the gate and one at the campground for the convenience of their visitors, so there’s my suggestion to the powers-that-be.

This minor quibble aside, I liked the park, which is billed as the “Sahara of the Southwest.”  It’s not perfect by any means, but it is very scenic for a place that’s just off a major Interstate.  The downsides stem from the fact that this is oil country.  I caught an occasional whiff of petroleum in the air, and through the night I could hear the sound of an oil well being drilled somewhere off to the northwest:  WHUMP-WHUMP-WHUMP-whumpwhumpwhump…

The morning found me with 555 miles to go.  I debated whether to plow ahead or to stop along the way.  There were places I would have liked to stop, and friends to visit, but there was also a place I wanted to be more, namely home with E&E. Back in Tucson they were decorating the house for Halloween, and Eleanor was cooking things.  On the other hand, in the Caravel I’d discovered yet another leak, this time under the kitchen faucet.  I took this as a sign that I needed to get back to home base and have a long chat with the Caravel (wrench in hand) about its incontinence problem.

To be fair, the trailer is doing spectacularly well, especially considering its age.  (The leaks are all from the same type of flexible plastic faucet hose, at the compression fittings.  I don’t know if they are failing from age, heat, bad design, or over-tightening, but they are all getting replaced this week.)  Other than that, the Caravel has performed admirably.  We covered 1,000 miles at highway speeds, and encountered some pretty awful back roads too.  Not a rivet was disturbed on its tight little structure.

More important, I was entirely comfortable through the entire trip, with my little aluminum soap bubble to house me at night and Calcifer to keep me warm.  No matter how much I had to drive, at the end of every day I knew I would be back in my home, with my familiar things and favorite foods waiting.  An Airstream really is a moving castle, where you have everything you need with you no matter where in the world you go.  This is the magic of trailer travel.  Even though I just finished unpacking from this trip, I’m looking forward to the next one already.  Most likely it will be in mid-December.

Oak Mountain State Park, Pelham AL

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Birmingham is a city we’ve never visited before, which by all rights should be a good enough reason to come here.  Added to that, we had a mission — to visit the Mercedes Benz factory in nearby Vance.  I’ve been trying to get there for two years and it hasn’t worked out despite multiple attempts. With the SNAFUs on this trip (orthodontics, air conditioner) it would have been easy to skip the plant tour this time as well, but I really wanted to make it happen.

So we dropped in on Oak Mountain State Park, which is just south of Birmingham, and made camp for two nights.  This is a large park, with a 5.5 mile drive from the entrance to the campground along a scenic and pleasantly meandering road.  At the end of the road is a good campground by a lake with lots of fragrant evergreens and even full hookups in Loop A.

This morning we managed to get the whole crew into the car by 7:45 a.m., in time to make the 50 minute drive to Vance AL and make the first scheduled tour at Mercedes Benz US International ($5 per person, reservations required). The factory campus looks very clean by design, with stark white buildings set among a green, almost golf-course-like rural setting.  They boast that 100% of the factory’s waste is recycled, and I’m sure the exterior design is intended to help give the appropriate impression.

This is where our tow vehicle, the GL320, was made.  It’s the only plant that makes the GL, ML, and R-class vehicles, so here you’ll see cars with right-hand and left-hand drive on the same assembly line, destined for export all over the world.  Even Germans buy Mercedes Benz SUVs made right here in Alabama.  Yes, in America we still do make things that people in other parts of the world want to buy, and this one huge plant accounts for a billion dollars or so worth of exports all by itself.

As with the other car factory tours we’ve done (Corvette in KY, Nissan in MI), photos are not allowed so I’ve got nothing from the inside to show you, but I can say that the tour is really interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.  Which obviously, I am.

This was also the first auto plant tour that Emma has been able to do, and she didn’t die of boredom during it, which counts as success given her pre-teen status.  The photo above (from the Visitor Center, where photos are allowed) shows one of the things she was mildly interested in, an ML-class Mercedes from one of the Jurassic Park movies.

I was so excited about the tour that I had made no plans for the rest of the day, so we just swung into downtown Birmingham to see whatever it had to offer.  Turns out that Birmingham has a pretty interesting downtown, with tons of Civil Rights-era history, great architecture, and much more that deserved a bigger investment of time than we gave it.

Besides, we were hungry, so the first stop was a Cajun restaurant on 20th Street.   I wanted to get some Cajun in Louisiana, but now with our abbreviated trip plan a good stop seems unlikely there.  This was a surprise find in Alabama, which is not Cajun country.  We went nuts and split a half-muffaletta, blackened red snapper, a few side dishes, and a double order of beignets.

The staff, all related by marriage and coincidentally all escapees from other careers, were over the lunch rush and had time to chat us up about our travels.  We were as interested in how they got from jobs like building contractor and CPA to restaurateurs, as they were in our nomadic life.  They definitely were doing an excellent job, as the taste of everything they made was equal to places in the heart of Cajun country.  They were a little disappointed, I think, that our 30-foot Airstream was not parked somewhere on the downtown streets of Birmingham for them to see.

Of course after that were weren’t in a great condition to do a ton of walking in the downtown (full stomachs), but we managed to browse a bit and run into some interpretive signs about Civil Rights era history.  This gave us a chance to talk to Emma about what it all meant, which was actually kind of fun.

Back at camp this evening we were running all three roof vents to combat the mild heat and humidity when a massive line of thunderstorms came upon us with no warning.  It was a real gully-washer storm, with several near lightning strikes, but we were high, dry, and safe in the Airstream, watching a movie as the storm played itself out.

This reminded me that we really do have to resolve our AC problem soon.  I’ve got a plan in development now that looks like it will work out, although once again our route is going to change, to I-20 through Texas instead of I-10.  Once I’ve got that nailed down I’ll post it here and try to figure out a few good stops along the way so it isn’t just a maintenance run.  Fortunately, we have friends along the way and even if nothing else fun pops up it will be nice to see them again.

Storm chasing

Monday, August 29th, 2011

My triumphant return to the northeast somehow became a story about a hurricane.  In the last 48 hours leading up to my dawn flight from Tucson to Manchester NH, I was suddenly getting emails (and a blog comment) from friends & family who were concerned about my apparent interest in flying into the midst of a famous hurricane, namely Irene.

Not to worry.  My flight was via Chicago, which meant that I didn’t need to worry much about in-flight weather and also that there would be an astonishing rarity in these days: a plane with lots of empty seats.  86 people on the Tucson-Chicago leg bailed out presumably because they couldn’t get their connections to eastern seaboard cities like Washington DC, New York, Baltimore, and Norfolk.  Without all the crowding, it was like flying in the 20th century.  (The illusion would be complete if only I didn’t have to turn my head and cough at the security checkpoint.)

We landed in Manchester in the late afternoon on Saturday, when people in North Carolina and Virginia were firing up their generators and bailing water, with only scattered clouds and no rain.  But not for long — the long gray tendrils of Irene reached us that evening and the excitement began.  Being from the area and having seen many an expiring hurricane dawdling up the east coast, I knew what to expect.  By the time they get up around Boston, the weather event is basically a lot like every summer afternoon in central Florida: torrential rain, occasional high winds, predictable flooding, plus a local bonus lots of hyper-excited news coverage.  I met my long-lost wife and we went out for dinner, then spent the night at a hotel listening to the splatter of an overloaded rain gutter splash the window.

The next day at noon, we took to the road.  The trusty GL was as surefooted as always, making the 200 mile drive up I-93 and I-89 a non-event for the most part, despite constant heavy rain.  Swish-swish went the wipers, the tires sliced through the puddles (as long as I stayed at a reasonable speed, far below the posted limit), and inside we had plenty of time to talk and listen to podcasts.  The best part was that virtually nobody was out, so the highways were wide open and there were no yahoo drivers to avoid.  We paused in Hanover NH near Dartmouth College to take in a long lunch and were the only people in the Chinese restaurant.  On the other hand, it was a bit sad to see spots where the White River and others had apparently overflowed their banks and flooded some farms and homes.  Up on the high ground of the Interstate we had little to complain about, but down below the damage was quite obvious and I’m sure many people are having a really rough time at the moment.

All of this is a long way of saying that we drove through a tropical storm (“hurricane” status having been stripped from Irene about the time she arrived in Massachusetts) for four hours and the most exciting part was lunch.  Things got considerably more interesting once we pulled into Vermont, where the Airstream has been stored all summer.  I was concerned that a tree branch might have fallen on the roof, but no.  The lake was rolling with huge widely spaced waves like you’d expect on Lake Michigan, not on our relatively small “sixth Great Lake.”  The power went out at the house, because this is Vermont and that’s what happens in virtually every storm.  We hung out with the family by candlelight for a while, then fired up the noisy backup generator that services the house on these occasions.

The Airstream needed no external power, of course, but as we attempted to sleep we were located far too close to the generator’s Sturm und Drang cacophony and it was a bit like being at the worst rally of our lives.  No “generator hours” here; we were the guests and without the generator the basement sump pumps in the house would cease working and then we’d have our own little tale of flooding to tell.  So we endured some noise until about 3 or 4 a.m., when the generator finally ran out of gas.  At 5:30 the hard-working representatives of Green Mountain Power arrived with a powerful chainsaw and proceeded to spend about half an hour rescuing power lines.  It was not the best night for sleeping, but the power was back on when we finally awoke for the fourth or fifth time.

And today it is the classic “day after” a major storm: startlingly clear skies, a beautiful view of New York state across the open waters of Lake Champlain, and the ground littered with downed branches.  I got out the wheelbarrow, ladder and tree trimmers, and with a little help from Emma cleaned up the overhanging branches in the driveway so that the Airstream will be able to depart in a few days.  The trees needed trimming anyway.  Tonight, friends will come over for dinner on the deck.  A precious few warm days remain up here in northern Vermont, so we’ll make the most of them while plotting a convoluted route down the east coast and across the south, in the Airstream, during September.

Shifting gears

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

With the mental shifting of gears that accompanies our transition from Airstream to house, I am once again able to tackle the projects that I began this summer while I was alone in Tucson.  Working in the Airstream is very feasible and I did it successfully for three years straight, but in those times when we are paused in the house, I find I am able to tackle projects that otherwise would have lain in a heap on the side of my desk.

It’s the long-term projects that suffer when we travel, because there’s a certain workload involved just in the routine of hitching up and towing, researching the next place to go, meeting people, taking photos, and getting to know each new area.  That’s all part of the fun, of course, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it does tend to infringe on the paying work, and I need to keep an eye on that.  After all, I’ve got a kid who is getting braces on her teeth next month.

Besides, being at home means I no longer have to work out of a backpack. I’ve now got my own desk with room for printer, scanner, laptop, project stacks, and a cold beverage all at the same time. Instead of an occasionally dodgy cellular Internet connection, I have high-speed DSL. I can reliably expect my mail to arrive at my door, without having to notify my mail service of a new address every week.  For someone who has spent most of the past five years roaming, these things represent real luxury.

The Spring 2011 issue of Airstream Life is at the top of my list, of course.  I am particularly excited about this one, because we are in a transition to becoming a much more photo-rich publication.  I’ve always been proud of Airstream Life but it has also always irritated me that I have consistently struggled to get decent photography.  Finally I’ve been able to establish relationships with photographers and writers that are bringing in more & better images.  We’re going to showcase them starting with Spring 2011, by running more full-page photos, and even double-page spreads (kind of like the current “From The Archives” feature).

About 90% of the editorial for the Spring issue is complete, so as it moves into the layout phase, my personal workload will lighten, and that means other projects can get some attention.  The hiatus from traveling also is giving me time to think about the personal projects, and various “nesting” activities that we’ve never done before. Being stationary means a new perspective on everything.

In particular, the house is still a half-wreck after three years of ownership because we’ve never been motivated to finish the renovations, while the Airstream has had every possible attention lavished on it.  Houses are much too expensive for what you get.  When you add in the real cost of maintenance, repairs, utilities, taxes, furnishings, interest, etc., the total gets rather depressing, and that’s when I start thinking about our next trip in the Airstream.  But it’s time for the Airstream to sit a little (even though we still have a few things on the “upgrade/fix” list) while the house gets its fair share. Whether the house actually will get any money or effort thrown at it remains to be seen, but at least we have some good intentions …

The Mercedes GL320 will sit, too.  It’s a great car for our style of travel, but I find the maintenance costs too expensive to justify using it when we are parked at home. With 38,000 miles on it after only 19 months of ownership, it deserves a rest too.  At this rate it will be at 200,000 miles less than seven years from now.  So I am making a small investment in the old 1984 Mercedes 300D to make it into a completely reliable backup car.  It is in the shop today for front end work and hopefully a tweak to the vacuum system to make it shift a little smoother. There are a few other small things I’d like to fix on it later, as well.

As elderly as the 300D is, with 166,000 miles on the odometer (and many more undocumented miles since the odometer only turns on cold days), it is now my favorite car to drive.   I love the way it has that diesel rattle at idle, the serene ride at cruise, and the relative simplicity of a 1980s car.  This is one of the last computer-free cars.  Everything in it can be seen and felt, like mechanical objects should be, instead of being controlled by mysterious computers that randomly go bad for no fathomable reason.  In a world where my printer, television and the other car have to boot up before they are fully functional, it’s nice to have a car in which the pedals are attached to linkages instead of sensors, where the “nav” feature is a coil-bound map book that always works, and there is no “Check Engine” light.

This shift of gears (and gear) will persist for quite a while, but we do have travel planned here and there. In the meantime, rather than mooning on about my home projects, I’ll try to take the next few weeks to muse and comment on Airstreaming from a stationary perspective.

Landed

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

We’ve landed in Tucson, and thus the Airstream has returned to home base after seven months of travel.  It is now tucked away in its carport, getting a well deserved rest after a total voyage of nearly 9,000 towing miles. Likewise, the Mercedes is chillin’, with 14,800 new miles added to its odometer since we left in May.

emma-growth.jpgThere are a lot of ways I could measure this trip, but the photo at right shows my favorite. Emma has grown an inch and a quarter, as marked on the door jamb of our Airstream bedroom.  By any measure, it has been a good period of growth for all of us.

The last phase of our trip was unremarkable by design. We basically bolted 350 miles from Padre Island to central Texas, where we camped overnight at the Caverns of Sonora’s little campground (W/E, $15).  caverns-of-sonora-cg.jpgIf you are driving through central Texas on I-10, there are few options for overnight stays, and many of them are of the down-and-out variety.  So Caverns of Sonora provides a very welcome oasis just about five miles off the highway.  The big attraction is of course the exceptionally well-decorated caverns, but Emma thought the peacocks that roam the campground were pretty worthy too.

Our next day was  another 350 miles, this time through west Texas and over to Las Cruces.  It was a stunningly beautiful fall day in west Texas, with azure blue skies and temperatures of around 78-80 degrees, but with one unfortunate aspect for towing: a strong headwind. Many times I am asked, “Does that Mercedes really pull that big trailer OK?” and the followup question is often “Well, how about in the mountains?” or “Yeah, but wait until you cross the Rockies!”  When people say such things I know that they aren’t really experienced at towing, because if they were they’d know that the true challenge of a tow vehicle is not the occasional mountain pass, but the long day spent bucking a 25-knot headwind.  That’s when you find out who has the chops.

See, you can almost always get up a hill one way or another.  You might have to go slower, or stop to let the engine cool off, but it’s very rare to find a hill so steep that you can’t climb it with any decent tow vehicle.  (We have never had an overheating problem with the Mercedes, but we did with the Nissan Armada. The Mercedes does high-elevation climbs much better, mostly because of the torquey turbodiesel, which isn’t affected by the thinner air at altitude.)  And hills are generally short.  In Colorado you can find a few 6-8% grades that run for eight miles, and in Wyoming there’s the Teton Pass at 10%, but that’s about as bad as it gets.

badly-hitched.jpgIn contrast, imagine trying to pull a trailer through a strong headwind for 350 miles.   That’s a whole different ballgame.  If your tow vehicle struggles from lack of power, or your trailer is being tossed around by gusty winds, or if you’re not hitched up properly, you’ll feel that misery for six hours.  That makes a 20 minute hill climb in the Rockies look like a happy memory.

You’ll run into that a lot when heading west through the central states.  I-90 through South Dakota, I-80 through Nebraska, I-70 through Kansas, I-40 through Oklahoma and Texas, or I-10/20 through Texas.  We’ve hit it in all of those locations.  The car can do it, and our ride is safe & comfortable, but fuel economy suffers horribly.  Sometimes we just stop for the night and try again the next day.

Our headwind on I-10 was pretty stiff.  I know because our fuel economy plummeted, from 13.5 MPG the previous day to a dismal 10.3 MPG.  Keep in mind that your speed relative to the air (airspeed) is what matters to your fuel economy, not the weight or length of the trailer.  If you normally tow at 65 MPH in calm wind conditions, a 25-knot headwind results in drag equivalent to towing at 90 MPH.  Because air resistance (drag) increases in proportion to the square of your airspeed, a headwind like that has a massive impact.

dash-gauges.jpgIn our case, the wind-induced penalty was about 30% of our fuel economy.  At one point we were getting just 9.7 MPG, the absolute worst I have ever seen from this vehicle.  But in west Texas, the options for stopping overnight are somewhat limited, and it didn’t look like the wind was going to abate much in the coming day.  So we plowed on.  By the time we reached the brutish traffic of El Paso, the wind had died down and it was relatively smooth sailing up to Las Cruces.

[By the way, the center display in the photo above deserves some explanation.  The display shows the distance and travel time since our last fuel stop (87 miles, 1 hour, 25 minutes), our average speed (61 MPH), our fuel economy average since last fuel stop (9.7, ugh), the outside air temp and the cruise control setting (65 MPH).  I normally tow a little slower but the speed limit was 80 MPH and I didn’t want to leave a huge differential between us and the rest of the NASCAR traffic.  The car tows very nicely in 7th gear at about 2200 RPM at that speed.]

After this expensive day of driving, we decided to cheap out and try parking at the Cracker Barrel again.  Actually, we stayed there in the hopes that this one would not catch on fire, thus proving that our experience in Louisiana was a fluke.  It didn’t, so we’re in the clear, jinx-wise.

airstream-wash-at-ttt.jpgOur final stop before parking the Airstream was the truck wash in Tucson.  I was amazed at how much salt and gunk was still on the trailer after our rinse-down in Corpus Christi.  Add to that the accumulated bug guts of an 1,100 mile high-speed tow, and you can imagine how the Airstream looked.  It deserved a good bath before we put it away, and now it looks shiny and ready for another adventure.

Green Cove Springs, FL

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Technically we are in St Augustine, but right on the western edge at the banks of the St Johns River.  Just across the river is Green Cove Springs, a quiet small city that happens to be the official mailing address of Airstream Life magazine.  I am often asked by people who call on the phone, “How do you like it in Green Cove Springs?” but we’ve only been here once before, and that was for just a few hours. We receive our mail here, and we’re incorporated here, but until this visit it has been just another stop along the road.

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It has been a good stop.  Eleanor has been making maximum use of our relatively rare full hookup campsite, by making special meals.  This means we eat well but also periodically Eleanor has to go out to find unusual ingredients, like apple brandy, which apparently must go into a dish she is preparing. Apple brandy was not available at any of the local stores (on the west side of I-95) so she made a compromise version with a reduction of apple cider and cognac.  The sauces required for this dish are now done, but we won’t get to eat the actual meal until Friday, when we will be courtesy parked in Haines City.

I was able to get our tow vehicle serviced, and I’m very glad I did.  The dealer in Jacksonville had the car in for its “day of beauty” all of  Wednesday, and replaced all four tires, aligned the wheels, flushed the transmission, replaced a blown fuse, and washed it.  Although the price of the tires still has me reeling, I have to admit that the car once again drives like new.  The worn tires were making a lot of noise and the roadhandling was definitely not as good as it was, plus it was pulling right a little.  It may have been my imagination, but I also thought the transmission was not shifting quite as smoothly as it should, with occasional subtle balks and flares.  I did a 19 mile test drive on the way back from the dealership and everything feels perfect again.

st-augustine-eleanor-on-dock.jpgWe had a surprise visit yesterday from a group of manatees, at the Trout Creek that borders the campground.  Manatees need warm water, and so in the fall and winter they swim upstream from the salty ocean to fresh rivers where the water never drops below 72 degrees.  A group of about eight manatees showed up with a calf, and slowly swam back and forth in Trout Creek past the docks where they made a nice spectacle for the people sitting on the back deck of the main campground building.

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Manatees are wonderful mammals that live very placid lives, munching on green undersea vegetation and floating through the water with no apparent goals in life.  Little wonder they are often called “sea cows” — they’re about the same weight and definitely have bovine characteristics to their personalities.  Their skin is like an elephant’s, and they can grow to be very large and heavy, so although they are quite benign they are also a bit startling when you encounter them while snorkeling.

st-augustine-manatee-propeller.jpgTheir very nature of calmness and lack of fear works against manatees. The big killer of manatees is boat propellers, and it is easy to spot a manatee with a set of slashing white scars along its body from a close encounter with a turning propeller.  There are lots of regulations in place designed to prevent manatee-boat collisions but they can be difficult to avoid, especially since they are often interested in checking out what the humans are up to.

We are leaving this site today but will be returning in a couple of weeks.  One piece of bureaucratic business remains unfinished, and until a certain official piece of paper arrives I can’t complete it.  Coming back here will be a detour from our planned route, but I don’t mind terribly since the campground has been pleasant and Green Cove Springs now feels like a symbolic kind of home.

On the road to St. Augustine, FL

Monday, October 11th, 2010

rutherford-bad-lug-nut2.jpgMaintenance complete (or so we thought), we pushed onward through South Carolina. Since the wheels had all been removed, it was incumbent on me to stop and check the lug nut torque a few times as we went.  I typically do this around 15 miles, 50 miles, and 100 miles, although it doesn’t hurt to check a little more frequently.

That’s when another maintenance issue cropped up. We’ve had these crummy “capped” lug nuts on the trailer forever (pictured at right).  They are the cheap-o version.  Instead of being solid metal, they have a thin chrome cap over a steel nut, sort of a “falsie.” The problem with this type is that eventually the chrome cap can loosen and even come off.  Super Terry had pointed this out as a potential problem, and honestly I have been meaning to replace all of them for years but just never got around to it.

So of course, about 15 miles out in a lonely piece of rural North Carolina, one of the caps started spinning loose, meaning that I couldn’t properly torque the nut.  Now, being a prepared sort of Airstreamer, I carry 4 spare lug nuts, the solid kind.  I took them out and discovered that they require a 13/16″ socket, but the largest socket I had is 3/4″.  So I couldn’t install them.

After pondering the situation and trying a few tricks (like the car’s lug nut wrench) the ultimate solution was simply to tow to the nearest auto parts store, where I bought the appropriate socket and 20  more of the solid chromed metal 13/16″ lug nuts. I didn’t want to take all the wheels off right there to replace all the nuts, so I installed just the one I needed and tossed the rest in the storage compartment for future use.  My idea was to replace them one wheel at a time whenever a wheel needed removing, but of course about 150 miles later when I checked the nuts at the end of the day I found another loose one. So now I have 22 nuts that require a 3/4″ socket, and two that require a 13/16″ socket, which makes it much more amusing to watch me checking the nuts.

The other maintenance item is the tires on the Mercedes.  I’ve been watching them carefully for a long time, and was hoping that they’d last until we got back to Tucson.  At 29,000 miles, when we had the last dealer service, they looked OK, but now at 33,500 miles it is clear that they need to go.  The front end of the car is somewhat out of alignment, a fact that was revealed only in the past week when the right front and left front tires started showing excess wear at the outer edge. I could rotate the tires one more time (front to back) and probably gain another 1,000 or 2,000 miles, but I don’t care to push them quite that far.  Towing, as you know, puts high stresses on tires.  The last time I tried to stretch a tire (on the Nissan Armada) we had a blowout at low speed.  So a set of tires and an alignment are part of this week’s plan.

Our base of operations for the next few days will be St. Augustine, FL.  Normally we stay over on the coast, but this time I’ve got obligations in Green Cove Springs, which is west of  St. Augustine, so I’ve selected a rustic old campground near the St John’s River.

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We have all the little cues that tell us we are Florida.  It’s balmy and humid.  Everything is green with life, and there’s a particular scent in the breeze that speaks of ocean salt, inland swamps, and natural decay.  Spanish Moss hangs from every tree, and grayish sandy soil is underfoot. Eleanor even managed to get bitten by a red ant within 10 minutes of arrival.  Ah, yes, Florida.  I love it here but you’ve got to watch out — there are more biting and stinging things here than Arizona, by far.

The campground is many decades old.  It is a classic piece of “old Florida”: well shaded, unpretentious to a fault, and straddling the line between marginally maintained and moldering neglect.  There are ducks and chickens and feral cats all over the place.  The river is alive with water birds and fish (and probably alligators).  We like it.

The campground is under threat of development, but not any time soon.  The owners, who have run various businesses on the property for 80 years, announced in 2005 that they were going to sell the whole thing for condominiums, but so far nothing has happened, so we should be fine for the rest of this week, while we take care of business.

StarFest 2010

Monday, September 27th, 2010

It has been cars, cars, cars all weekend.  We’ve been attending StarFest 2010 in Winchester VA, which is the annual national event of the Mercedes Benz Club of America.

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It’s quite different from the Airstream events we normally attend.   Obviously the attendees stay in a hotel rather than in their vehicles.  But beyond that, the emphasis is different.  Airstreamers tend to focus more on the community of people than the trailers.  This crowd is interested in the cars more than anything else: driving them, maintaining them, showing them, and talking about them — especially the exotic, rare, or old models, like the award-winning red 300SL pictured at right.

There was some passing interest in the Airstream, but mostly it was regarded as an amusing curiosity, and again the attention was mostly paid to the GL320 that towed it.   At the Concours Award Banquet on Saturday night, I was interrogated by my fellow table-mates about its performance.  They appeared to be suitably impressed.

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As with the Airstreamers, the crowd was mostly older, but there was a small contingent of young guys who all operated independent shops specializing in 1960-1993 (approx). Mercedes cars — the “affordable classics.”  You can still easily find a lot of great old Mercedes cars in good operating condition (cosmetically imperfect) for very reasonable prices, and guys like these will help you keep them on the road forever.  I went to a talk given by representatives of the MB Classic Center, and they emphasized that Mercedes intends to keep producing parts to keep old cars on the road, safe and reliable, for decades to come.

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There were other interesting talks that I attended (and I got a few ideas for next year’s Alumapalooza, too!)  But the big event of Saturday was the Concours show, where we had excellent examples of Mercedes vehicles from seven decades.  On Sunday, we dropped in on the Autocross for the morning and watched some of the hotter cars zip around a complex and tight little course.  We did the Defensive Driving course again, just for practice.

Wondering why there’s a Smart car in the picture at right?  It’s a Daimler product and some Mercedes enthusiasts own them.  It’s not for me, but they are awfully cute and I bet this one would have done well on the Autocross if the owner was willing to give it try.

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I was pleasantly surprised by Winchester.  The “historic downtown” (a phrase horribly abused by some local chambers of commerce) is truly historic.  There’s a ton of great Colonial architecture remaining in town, centered on a handsome and vibrant brick pedestrian mall.  The city reportedly changed hands 71 times during the Civil War, and the Court House held both northern and southern prisoners.  You can still see their graffitti on the interior walls of the building, upstairs.

While a few buildings are in obvious distress, the majority of the downtown is well restored and housing robust businesses.  Eleanor and Emma were intrigued by the bead shop, while I was astonished to find an independent old-fashioned third-generation clothing store, the kind you never see in downtowns anymore.  The architecture is spectacular, with historic brick buildings, stone buildings, and even a log building. Winchester’s center has a lot going for it.

We have now relocated the Airstream to Falls Church VA, where E&E are courtesy parking with Bobby, Danine, and Elise. We first stayed with them in 2007, then they stayed with us in Tucson in February 2008, and now it’s our turn again in 2010. But I am up in northern New Jersey for an overnight, doing some business, so I’m once again in a hotel.  I’ll rejoin the group on Tuesday night and we’ll get back to the serious business of Airstreaming.

Ingo Vision backup camera

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

If you’re not already sweating with anticipation, just from the title of this blog post, you may wish to tune out.  This is a geek session.

I got my IngoVision backup camera installed yesterday, along with the Mid-City Engineering interface module for the Mercedes COMAND unit (that’s the factory-supplied “all in one” box for the radio/CD/DVD/nav/Bluetooth/iPod etc.).  The result has been exactly what I was hoping for — a good, clear, full-color rear view while towing.

mercedes-backup-cam.jpgHere’s how it attaches to the car.  The Ingo “PremiumCam” kit includes a very tough external connector which we mounted on a gusset attached to the receiver hitch. It looks just like a miniature version of the 7-way connector for the Airstream.

The rest of the kit (left, click for larger view) includes a coiled cable that runs between the Airstream and the Mercedes, a second plug to mount on the tongue of the Airstream, and a long run of cable that will go to the back of the Airstream.  The camera will mount on the bumper compartment lid at the back of the Airstream.

Inside the car, the Mid-City VIM164p interface box was attached to the back of the COMAND unit, and the camera cable was connected to the COMAND’s backup camera input.  That part of the installation is completely invisible, since it is all hidden inside the dashboard.

In the picture above at left, you can see all the cables and camera plugged into the Mercedes for a test, since I haven’t yet put it on the Airstream.  Ingo mounted the Airstream plug on his propane tank cover, which is very slick and looks like a factory design.  I’m mounting mine on the flagpole holder, which is bolted to the electric jack.  The cable will run in a protected loom under the bellypan, so it should be a quick installation with some ties and rivets.

mercedes-cam-screen-1.jpgUp front, the interface module allows the camera to be tied into the COMAND system as if it were OEM equipment.  I just press one button on the steering wheel and there’s the picture from behind the Airstream.  It’s a little stretched, probably due to the difference in aspect ratio between the Ingo-supplied screen and the Mercedes screen, but it looks good.

The camera also automatically activates when in reverse.  The nagging text you see at the top of the screen is superimposed by the Mercedes COMAND unit, not the Ingo system.

If you have a truck or SUV with more interior space, and don’t go for the fancy integrated nav screen deal that I did, you can get the same camera system for a pretty reasonable price.  The IngoVision PremiumCam (two-camera) system runs $599.  The BaseCam (one camera) system is $399. That gets you everything you need including the screen.  Installation can be DIY, or you can bring it to a local automotive electronics store and have them do it in a couple of hours.

I think this will qualify as a legitimate safety improvement.  I’ve seen a lot of Airstreams with backup cameras (usually older models and Classic motorhomes), which suggests to me that at one time it was probably a factory option.  Well, those cameras have come a long way since then — they’re smaller, cheaper, and have color, “night vision,” and better resolution.  I think it’s time Airstream consider bringing back this option as a way to improve safety for owners.

I can’t wait to get try this out on the road.  My first chance will probably be in May when we shove off for the big summer/fall trip. I’ll report on our experiences with it once we get moving.

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