Archive for the ‘Mercedes’ Category

Airstream LED lights and European tow vehicles

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

Since we’re back at home base for a while, I’m going to be posting mostly about Airstream maintenance stuff.  Those of you who are looking for pretty pictures and stories about the family might want to avert your eyes for a while.

Several times a year I get inquiries from new Airstream owners who have European tow vehicles (mostly Mercedes, but also BMW, VW, Audi, Porsche, etc) and are having trouble getting straight information about hitching the two vehicles up properly.  I can’t cover the entire topic because it’s quite complicated but I’d like to cover at least one common problem.

The Europeans have been using clever computers in their cars, which measure the resistance of the trailer lights to determine if there is a trailer attached.  If there’s no trailer, the computer turns off the 7-way plug.  I don’t know why this matters, since American tow vehicles leave the plug constantly powered and it doesn’t seem to cause problems.  It may be a case of being just a little too clever, because this resistance-sensing scheme is baffled by trailers that have LED tail lights, as all new Airstreams do.

So imagine the happy new Airstream owner with a fancy BMW/Mercedes/whatever to pull it, and you’d think he’d be on Cloud Nine but when he goes to hitch up, the brake lights don’t come on and (on some vehicles, like Mercedes) the brake controller has no power.  The darned computer has turned off the power because it thinks there is no trailer.  All that money spent on a nice car and a nice trailer, and yet it’s stuck in the driveway with no lights.

LED lights on trailers are nothing new, so you’d think that the European vehicle manufacturers might have figured this one out by now.  Indeed Volkswagen has.  They sell a special patch cable that contains a resistor, which you can buy (if you search carefully on the Internet or have the part number at the dealer) for about $40.  This works, and it’s stupid.

It’s stupid because the resistance cable adds in a couple feet of length, so the cord is now too long and must be secured in some kludgy way.  Secure it incorrectly and one day you’ll find it dragging down the road.  And the patch cable is stupid because it adds another point of connection, and the connectors on 7-way cables are famous for corroding in the weather, so you’ve just lowered the reliability of your lights and brakes.

IMG_2078Andy Thomson at Can-Am RV helped me out with this one when we bought our Mercedes GL320 in 2009, and I’ve passed on the knowledge many times since then.  His solution is the best one, I think: just wire in some incandescent lights into the system.  (You could use resistors but light bulbs are easy to mount, and easy to find and replace on the road if needed.)  Andy uses the clearance lights that were found on older Airstreams, because they have two bulbs.  If one goes, there is some redundancy and you can swap a bulb from another light for a while.

The photo above is from our trailer.  We just mounted the clearance lights right on the floor in Eleanor’s closet, with all the other main 12-volt junctions.  This is normally covered with a box so you can’t see it.  Because the lights are kept out of the weather, they should last a long time.  We’ve been using this system for about four years.

LED Lighting FixThis solution is really easy for the DIY’er to install.  You just wire the lights into the relevant circuits.  The easiest place to do this is in the “rats nest” of wiring where the 7-way connector enters the trailer. This is usually in the front closet or under the front sofa, or behind an access panel in the front storage compartment, on the street side of the trailer.  (The diagram above is by Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV.)

Once you’ve made this simple modification, your Airstream lights and brakes should work with any tow vehicle.  If you ever have a problem on the road, check the 7-way connector for corrosion first, because the LED lights and this modification should be highly reliable.

Shore excursions

Friday, September 14th, 2012

It’s fun to be in “project mode” as long as there aren’t too many projects.  Last week I got much of the Winter 2012 magazine in viable condition, enough to at least ship big chunks of it off to my Art Director.  I thought it was going to be harder than it was, but surprised myself by having completed a lot of the initial work back in July and early August before we hit the road for Colorado.  So things went smoothly. After eight years of being Editor I might actually be getting competent at it.

Having wrestled that job into partial submission, it was time to look at the next round of events.  I’m really focused on Alumafiesta, which will be next February, here in Tucson.  That event is looking like serious fun.  We are doing almost everything differently at this one: full hookup RV resort with all the luxe amenities, numerous off-site excursions and tours, and lots of planned meals (some included, some optional).  It will be sort of like being on a cruise ship, except you don’t have to tip anybody.

My job this week has been to research all the events and attractions we want to visit, and make group reservations, plus get all our leaders lined up.  So far we are confirmed for two bike rides, one hike and one historical walk, two photo safaris, three visits to Gem Show venues, two breakfasts, one dinner, one concert by Antsy McClain, four exercise sessions, four evening presentations, a swap meet, a guided scenic drive through Saguaro National Park, the Aluminum Chef competition, and three guided tours (Franklin Auto Museum, Tucson Museum of Art, San Xavier Mission).  All of that is included in the base price. Of course our usual Happy Hours with lots of door prizes will happen daily too.

We’ve also got optional “shore excursions” (at extra cost) to the Pima Air & Space Museum, Tohono Chul Park, Sonoran Desert Museum, Tin Town, three optional lunches around town, and a chance to blow your own glass at the Sonoran Glass School.  My job is to get it all nailed down in the next couple of weeks so participants can make their reservations for those activities that can take only a limited number of people.  It’s not easy, but it’s a heck of lot more fun than fighting with electrical infrastructure …

One of my tasks this week is to go over to Lazydays (the venue for Alumafiesta) and verify a few things, like the temperature of the heated pools.  (We’re planning an Aqua Fitness program on one of the days.)  I’ve got to check out the doggie area, verify that we can get a trailer indoors if we need to (for demos), talk to the front desk staff, etc.  I can handle this sort of assignment.

Things went so well the past two weeks that I even found a little time to work on a book project.  That’s a long term one for sure, but it’s a great feeling to put even a few hours into a book, and see it advance by increments toward completion.  Plus, it’s good to have some variety at work, to keep from getting stale.

At home, we’re still raising orphan kittens for the Humane Society, and that is going well despite numerous feline output-related messes and some initial worry about whether they were gaining weight appropriately.  The beasties have gained a few ounces and have warmed to our attention, to the point that they will cuddle in the evening rather than hissing at us.  Our house is slowly being kitten-proofed, which is a lot like the change we went through when Emma was a toddler.  Except that kittens can get under the couch.

Another project: I have come to face the fact that I really miss my old Mercedes 300D and would like to someday get a similar car.  Financially I’ll have to sacrifice something in order to be able to fund another project car, but it seems worth it if I can find the right starting point, meaning a vehicle of proper vintage, condition, and style.  You will undoubtedly read more from me on this later.  For now, know that The Hunt is back on.  I’m simultaneously chasing W123, W124, and W201 chassis diesels all over the USA. Of course, it would be best to find something right here in southern Arizona or southern California, where old cars are plentiful and rust is unknown, so that’s the focus area.

We are still contemplating the Airstream Safari makeover.  To spread out the cost, we are considering just re-upholstering the dinette for now (easily removed and replaced) and replacing the floor covering later, or replacing only the bedroom carpet.  My elaborate plans to add fancy new electronics, countertops, etc. are likely to be scratched until next year.  Upholstery and flooring are terrifyingly expensive, either in terms of cash or labor hours.  Slow and steady may be a better approach for us than a full-blown gut & refurb project.

Travel-wise, this is our season to recoup and plan ahead.  The GL320 now has been serviced and is sporting a fresh set of Bridgestone tires, for which I have high hopes.  The spare is on order.  The Airstream could use a few tweaks here and there but is basically ready to go.  The fuel bill from the last trip (2,400 miles) has been paid.  We could zip out right now, but better to stay put for a while and enjoy home life, take care of business, take a few local “shore excursions”, practice with the Dutch Oven, raise cats, and perhaps even gain some perspective on our travels.  There will be new travel coming soon enough.

The trip to the Terra Port

Saturday, May 26th, 2012

We are at Airstream, in the village of Jackson Center, Ohio.  I took a day off blogging yesterday, so here’s a rundown of the past two days.

Our drive from Johnson Saulk Trail State Park to our next stop of South Bend IN was uneventful.  This would not be news except for our history: every other year we’ve driven past the Chicago/Gary area, traffic on I-80 has been horrible with congestion and construction.  This year the work seems to be mostly done, and it was a smooth ride on new concrete all the way to the Indiana Toll Road.  We landed at Charlie & Lynn’s house in South Bend right on schedule.

It has become a sort of tradition for us to stop with Lynn and Charlie nearly every year.  They were our first stop in October 2005 when we began full-timing with the Airstream Safari, and they’ve made us so at home that we just keep showing up. The last three years we have made their driveway our home as a final stop right before Alumapalooza. It’s a last chance for us to recover from the long drive before we jump into the tempest that is Alumapalooza.

This year was no different.  We set up the Airstream, visited the horses, and took Charlie’s vintage Mercedes (300SEL, I believe from 1959) down the country roads to get some pizza.  It was exactly what we needed: a chance to unwind and hang out in a peaceful, low pressure setting.

And the weather was just spectacular.  Perhaps that’s what inspired us to clean the trailer’s windows and the mini-blinds in the kitchen, the next morning.  They had suffered from a year of dust and uck while parked in Vermont last summer and all winter in Arizona, and were long overdue for a good cleanup.

Or perhaps we were just delaying the inevitable.  The forecast was quite different for Jackson Center, 200 miles away by road:  90+ degrees and “oppressive” humidity, and none of us were eager to get into that for the weekend.  But we did arrive in J.C. by 2:45 p.m. and it was indeed oppressive.  In fact, Alex K was already on site (he’s acting as our resident weather reporter this week) and he declared that the heat index was officially 100 degrees by late afternoon.  It’s supposed to stay that way through Monday, but then cool down nicely for Alumapalooza.  In the meantime, air conditioning is our friend.

We seemed to be nearly the last members of the advance team to arrive.  Brett & Lisa got here Thursday, Alex & Charon also, Tim & Alice got here Friday, Matt & Beth were probably here a couple of days ago, and Lou & Larry beat us to the site today by about 15 minutes. In our defense, let me note that our drive was further than anyone’s at 2,450 miles total.

We did a little chatting about details of the event setup, but the real work won’t begin until tomorrow.  Tonight Matt organized a small potluck dinner at the picnic tables under the hickory trees that border Airstream’s Terra Port, and despite the heat we all had a nice evening.  Tomorrow we are holding a small appreciation breakfast for the volunteers who work the event, and then the work begins with flagging the sites and stuffing the goody bags.

For those of you who are coming to Alumapalooza, the field looks nice and dry and evenly mowed—just perfect for the event.  The chance of rain is very low for the next few days (except for a 30% chance on Tuesday) and the temperatures should be ideal.  If you planned to come this year, you’re in for a very fun week!

Cars and grills

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Having fled Louisville for Tampa in the last blog, I was hoping to regale you with fantastic adventures in Florida.  But the virus I was given somewhere along the way came with me, and settled in for a nice long stay. So I’ve mostly seen the inside of Brett’s apartment while I do the usual sniffle-cough-ahem routine.

But we did get out on Friday for a nice roadtrip in Brett’s 1974 Mercedes SL450.  Those of you who are car geeks will recognize it as the R107 chassis, a long-lived and nearly iconic car for anyone who was around in the 1970s and 1980s.  I had seriously considered buying of these myself.  Because of the massive quantity that was made, they are very reasonable in good condition (running $5-10k) and they are a real joy to drive.  The ride defines “grand touring,” while the beefy V-8 propels the car like a dream, and best of all you can take the top down on a sunny Florida day in December, as we did.

We took the SL across Florida to Titusville, sticking primarily to the lesser-traveled highways, and ended up at Pierre Hedary’s shop.  Pierre is a character in the Mercedes world, a tall bear of a man with crazy hair and an encyclopedic memory for every mechanical bit of every pre-1993 Mercedes car.  He writes a regular column on maintenance for Star magazine (published by Mercedes Benz Club of America) and we’ve crossed paths at a few car events.  Brett and I felt it was well worth the 150-mile drive to have Pierre take a look at the car and help sort out some of the bugs.

The photo at left was taken at Starfest 2011 in Winchester VA. Pierre is overwhelming the passenger seat of a nice 280SL, a generation prior to the 450SL we drove.

We ended up at the shop for most of the day, and left with the car feeling considerably happier than when it arrived.  When you buy an old car, there’s a process of “sorting out” in which you try to rectify the errors of prior owners and get everything back up to optimal condition.  You have to pace yourself during this process, otherwise in your eagerness to get it all worked out you can find yourself broke and/or overinvested in a car that may not deserve it.  Brett has been slowly sorting this car for the past year or so.

In this service, Pierre replaced black and dead transmission fluid, a Jurassic-era fuel filter, some shift linkage bushings, a vacuum hose and a few minor bits.  The car’s fuel pump was tested and a few potential issues were ruled out after careful inspection.

There’s still a considerable list of issues to resolve but with every step it becomes a better car to drive and there’s immense personal satisfaction when you feel the difference in a Mercedes after repairs.  I’ve sorted out old Hondas and old Mercedes and old Volkswagens.  With a Honda or a Volkswagen, after fixing everything you end up with a good reliable car.  Not bad.  With a Mercedes, you end up with, well, a Mercedes.  When it drives like new, the ride and handling are extraordinarily pleasurable.  The delta between “before” and “after” with an old Merc is just astonishing.  It makes the steep cost of the parts feel like they were worth it.  This is why I really enjoyed my 300D, and hope to get another one in a couple of years.

We took turns driving the SL back across Florida that night, with a quick stop for fried chicken on a picnic table next to some highway.  It made for a fine roadtrip.  Given that my brain has turned to mush from the virus, I can’t think of a better way to have spent the day.

Our other minor task this weekend has been to pick up a trio of custom-made grills over in St Petersburg.  Last year at Alumapalooza we started a program called “open grill,” where everyone was invited to share a big charcoal grill with whatever they wanted to cook.  We had Alex K light the grills theatrically by breathing fire on them, and the Fire Department showed up to demonstrate their Jaws of Life machine by chewing up a car while we chewed our dinners.

Last year’s grills were borrowed, but now we have our own set.  Brett specified what we needed and a local fabricating shop built them.  We checked them out at the fabrication shop yesterday (photo), and they look perfect. The cooking surfaces are 3 feet x 3 feet, with 4″ of space below the grill surface for a bed of charcoal.  The legs unbolt for easy transport.  We’ve got three of these, which can easily accommodate 8-10 simultaneous users each.  If they prove extremely popular we’ll have more made for the 2013 event.  Open Grill will be held on three nights at the 2012 Alumapalooza.  Our plan is to try out one of the new grills this week while I’m here.

Plenty of time for that.   My original plan was to fly out on Monday but with this cold I can’t equalize my ears, so I re-scheduled for Thursday.  That little change cost $264 extra, which did not make me happy but it beats the alternative.  I’ve had too many flights with ear pain in the past.  I’m hoping to be completely recovered by Tuesday so we can have a little fun running around the Tampa area before I go.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine