Archive for the ‘Vehicles’ Category

The Sort-Out, day 2

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sort-Out, day 1

Friday, November 9th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interior motivation

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project Season

Monday, October 15th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the way, the new Alumafiesta site is up …

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, Cars.com, 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.

 

Classification: kittens for sale

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

A friend called Eleanor the other day and noted that the blog was quiet.  When that happens, she said, either Rich is working on projects he can’t talk about (yet) or there’s not much happening.  Turns out that it’s a little bit of both lately.

Home life has been quiet … so quiet in fact that our major form of entertainment has been the foster kittens. They have kept us entertained day and night, even at times when we’d prefer they were sleeping.  They arrived here underweight and left today, three weeks later, each nearly a pound heavier and in peak form to be adopted.

It’s a shame to let them go back to the Humane Society when they are so darned adorable, but they need homes.  We’ve done what we can to bring out their natural irresistible cuteness, and make them completely comfortable with people and typical household life.  As I told them at today’s graduation ceremony, “Boys, the rest is up to you.”  They seemed prepared for the task.  We’ll get a new kitten or two shortly, and begin the process anew.

Meanwhile I have fulfilled my pledge to do something about the spare tire issue.  This turned out to be fairly easy.  I ordered a fifth tire from Discount Tire to match the four new Bridgestones that are on the car, and they mounted it up last week.  The only catch was that the tires for the Mercedes are a lot bigger than the ones for the Airstream, so it wouldn’t fit in the spare carrier on the Airstream without some modification.  The Merc tire is about two inches wider and 2-3 inches larger in diameter.

So the first step was to do some careful measuring to confirm that the larger tire would fit in the Airstream’s belly recess.  It seemed like there was plenty of room in there, almost as if Airstream had foreseen this situation.

The spare carrier comes off easily, with just two bolts toward the rear holding it in place.  A 3/4″ socket and a short extension on a ratchet wrench are all you need.  Well, that plus a little elbow grease.  Once it was off, I loaded it up along with both the Airstream and Mercedes wheels, and took the whole pile to my favorite welding shop.

The modification was fairly simple.  The two bolt attachments needed to be extended by about two inches so that the entire carrier would hang lower.  This would allow the bigger spare to fit and yet still be pressed tightly up against the belly of the Airstream so it wouldn’t move.

I also asked the welding shop to figure a way that I could go back to carrying the smaller Airstream spare if I wanted to.  You can see their solution above.  They simply bolted on a pair of height extensions, welded on new outboard “arms” to accommodate the larger diameter, and fabricated a new latch with two holes.

If I wanted to go back to the Airstream spare, it would be just a matter of unbolting the two extensions, and using the lower hole on the latch for the locking pin.  The tension of the tire pressed up against the belly of the trailer will keep the tire from shifting much.

The new spare was a tighter fit than I had expected. While there was plenty of room in the recess, I had failed to consider the process of getting the tire under the Airstream.  The struts of the Hensley partially block the path, and there’s not quite enough clearance to slide the tire atop the carrier and beneath the battery box.  To get it in, I have to wind the Hensley strut jacks up into towing position (not a problem since that’s where they’d be anyway), and I have to use the trailer’s power hitch to lift the nose about 2-3 inches.  It’s also a much heavier wheel to deal with, so pulling this thing out on a rainy day by the side of a muddy highway will not be much fun.

Once it’s in place, there’s plenty of ground clearance.  The tire still hangs above the height of the hitch weight transfer bars.

This amounts to a very expensive spare tire.  I bought the Mercedes 20″ rim from a guy in California for $300 (new ones cost about $900!), the tire was about $250, and the fabrication work ended up at $125, for a grand total of $675.  But it will get used, because we need to do a five-wheel tire rotation every 10,000 miles (to keep all five tires evenly worn), so I’ll get my value out of the tire at least.

And it’s nice to know we have it.  Now if we have a tire failure on the tow vehicle, we can still drive. If we have a tire failure on the Airstream, we can tow on three wheels or unhitch to go get a replacement Airstream tire.  We have better options.  If we ever decide to go to Alaska or Newfoundland, we can still throw the (smaller) Airstream spare into the back of the car for added insurance.

OK, enough about that.  I hope to not need to write about tires again for quite a long time.  I want to talk about another project, the new Airstream Life Classifieds section.

Places to list your Airstream for sale are everywhere on the Internet.  I used to maintain a list of them that ran to about thirty different sites, all free.  But once in a while I get a call from someone who has a special, rare, or high-value trailer, and they want to see that ad in print, in Airstream Life.  We’ve never been able to accommodate this, but I’ve finally set up a site where you can post your ad online and have it appear in the next issue of the magazine.

So it’s in a trial mode right now.  (I’m sorry, that’s not cool enough for the Internet.  I’d better say it’s “in beta” instead.)  You can try it out right now at classified.airstreamlife.com.  Online-only ads are free, and print ads cost $75.  But here’s the sweetener: since this is the first run, you can actually get a print ad for free.  When you fill out the ad form, at the bottom of the page will be an option box that says “Ad Package”. Choose the “Print ad in Airstream Life magazine” option and just below that, enter the coupon code FREE_ASL_AD and your ad will appear in the Winter 2012 issue for free!

Now, I do have to put in a few limitations.  Only one free ad per customer, and all ads must be submitted no later than October 5 to receive this deal.  If I don’t get enough ads to launch the section, this offer will be void (but your ad will still run online for free).

I’m interested in your feedback.  If you’ve tried it out and have some comments that might help improve it, let me know with a comment on this blog post.  If it works and people find it valuable, I’ll make it a formal part of the magazine going forward.  It’s up to the community.  Personally, I think that even in an era of Internet everywhere, there’s a certain credibility that you can only get from print, so I’m hoping that we get some interesting Airstreams in this section.

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.

Tired again

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Yesterday, (Sunday of Labor Day weekend) we were 550 miles from home and needed to get a jump on our southward trek in order to make appointments set for Tuesday in Tucson.  But before we headed out this morning we took another crack at the Slickrock Foot trail because we’d been shut out the day before by thunderstorms.

We managed to cover the entire 2.4 mile trail in about 90 minutes, and it was well worth the effort.  We got some of the best views yet of the Needles rock formations that give this district of Canyonlands its name, and several dramatic overlooks into canyons near the Green River. Still, when we got back to the campsite we discovered we were late to depart, since checkout time for Squaw Flat is quite early at 10 a.m. Usually checkout is at noon.  Hustling everything together, we managed to clear out and be on the road about 15 minutes after getting back to the site.

On the way in or out of the Needles you will pass the Newspaper Rock State Historic Site.  There are actually several “newspaper rocks” in the southwest, including one at Canyon de Chelly that we’ve visited before.  They are simply large flat areas of sandstone covered with centuries of desert varnish and riddled with dozens of petroglyphs.  We’ve seen a lot of petroglyphs but these were still remarkable for their clarity and descriptiveness.  In some cases it’s anyone’s guess what a petroglyph means, while others are perfectly understandable as drawings of commonplace animals, events, and humans.  Take a closer look at the photo and decide for yourself what centuries of rock artists were trying to convey.

Other than that, our drive for the rest of the day was uneventful, the way you want things to be when you are hauling a trailer long distances.  We made a quick stop in Blanding to dump the tanks and refill the fresh water, and encountered some thunderstorms as we drove through the vast Navajo Nation in northwestern Arizona.  It was still raining when we pulled into the Bonito (Coconino National Forest) campground next to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument just north of Flagstaff AZ that evening.

This was to be our last night on the road, so we had let some supplies dwindle away, including milk and most fresh vegetables. Eleanor made a salad of what was left, and spaghetti with meatballs, and we settled in for the evening while the temperatures outside dropped into the low 50s.  I was thinking how novel it would be to need blankets on the bed at night for this one night, before returning to the desert heat on Monday.  And it was indeed a pleasantly chilly night.

But our plan to make Tucson on Monday was foiled.  We left early and were descending down the 6% grade about 50 miles south of Flagstaff when suddenly we began to hear a “thwap-thwap-thwap” noise.  That’s never a good sound.  Neither the trailer’s nor the Mercedes tire monitor reported any loss of air pressure, so I was fairly sure it wasn’t a blowout. Still, it had to be investigated immediately.  Traffic was heavy, but I managed to get the Airstream off to the breakdown lane within a half mile and from there Eleanor and I searched for causes.

We didn’t find anything. The Airstream was secure, the car looked perfect, and yet … upon driving away, the sound returned.  I took the next exit and found a dirt lot where we could search further.  Eventually we found the cause: a 1″ wide strip on the inner edge of the right rear tire of the Mercedes had neatly peeled off. In other words, we had a tread separation.

This is a sadly familiar situation.  We had numerous tread separations when we were running various brands of ST (Special Trailer) tires on the Airstream, but that problem was resolved when we switched to Michelin LTX Light Truck tires.  (They still look like new, by the way, with hardly any visible wear after 21,000 miles!)  But I hadn’t expected to suffer this type of failure on the Mercedes.

We’re running the factory-specified tires on the Merc, which are Goodyear Eagle 275/50 R20 RunOnFlats.  Our first set was replaced at 34,000 miles, which I was told is “pretty good wear” thanks to the highway miles we tend to cover.  The current set has 32,000 miles and I had already made some inquiries about replacements since I figured they had only about 2,000 miles left in them.  All of the tires have tread above the wear bar indicators, have been rotated regularly and kept at proper inflation, and are evenly worn, but the one that failed definitely has a little less tread than the others.  That doesn’t excuse the failure—it simply should not happen with usable tread still on the tires, even with the added load of towing. I’ll be looking for a different brand this time.

So let’s look at our situation:  (1)  Tread separation while towing and we have no spare tire (this car comes with Run Flats and no spare carrier).  (2) It’s Labor Day, so there are no open tire stores.  (3) We’re in a part of northern Arizona where there are few services and no alternate roads to the busy 75-MPH Interstate.  (4) Our car takes an odd size tire so a call to Roadside Assistance probably wouldn’t be helpful.  The tire will have to be ordered.  In short, we found ourselves in the “nightmare scenario” that made me hesitate when I first bought this car.

Although the tire was holding air, there was no way it was going to be safe for another 200 miles at Interstate speeds and in desert heat.  Our conclusion was to find a place to park for a night or two, and wait until a set of proper tires could be ordered in.  So we pulled up the Allstays app on the iPhone and found a nice RV park in nearby Camp Verde AZ, and gingerly towed the Airstream at reduced speeds another 16 miles down the Interstate to our safe haven.

My plan is to call the tire stores first thing tomorrow and order in what we need, with the hope of getting back on the road by Wednesday afternoon.  Prescott AZ is nearby, with plenty of choices, so I’ll be over there tomorrow once someone tells me they can get us five appropriate tires.  I say “five” because I have a spare Mercedes rim back at home, and one tire will be mounted on it.  The spare will go in the Airstream’s tire carrier, replacing the Airstream spare.  Since we switched to Michelin LTX tires on the Airstream two years ago (in other words, real tires instead of that ST-class junk the industry favors), we haven’t had a single puncture or failure, so I don’t mind not carrying a spare for the Airstream.  Besides, the Airstream can be towed on three wheels, and the car can’t.

And so our trip has been involuntarily extended.  Things could be worse.  We’ve got a friend to visit in Prescott.  I’m working on the Winter magazine from here, using the campground wi-fi, and we had a nice swim in the pool, and Eleanor is getting the laundry done.  When we finally do get home, we’ll be caught up on a few things, rather than coming home to a pile of work.  Other than having to reschedule appointments at home, this may turn out to be not a bad diversion.

T-minus …. and counting

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

It’s Tuesday morning and we’re in the final stages before departure.  These days, leaving the house resembles a NASA countdown.  The longer we settle in to the house, the harder it gets to organize everything and launch the ship.  Right now one of the Mission Control officers is running down her final checklists, while I’m about to go clear the launch pad.  Our backseat astronaut is still in Rest Mode.  I’m hoping that departure will be on schedule at about 10 a.m.

Eleanor did a bunch of curtain work in the last few days, which I’ll document later as part of the Airstream renovation.  As planned, she washed the existing curtains, then sewed new fabric over them with extra width so that they’d close more easily. They look much better and give better privacy at night.  She also added some new elastic tabs to some, where the factory had scrimped a little too much.

I probably never mentioned this before, but our Mercedes GL320 gets about 1,500 miles per gallon.  Unfortunately, that’s not the diesel fuel economy, it’s the Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) I’m speaking of.  The car was serviced and the DEF tank was topped off right before we left for Alumapalooza in May.  That was about 8,400 miles ago, so the car is due for another service in 1,600 miles.  We’ll actually get back with about 2,200 miles on the car this time, so I’ll run a bit over.

To avoid the risk of running low on the DEF, I added 4.5 gallons yesterday.  The dealer will fill the DEF tank when the car goes in for the 10,000 mile service, but they charge $9 per half-gallon for DEF (which they call AdBlue) plus a service fee, which means it costs about $200 to have them fill the tank.  I buy the DEF myself for a total of about $45 for the entire tank, and pour it in myself.  When I go in for service, I make a point of telling them I already took care it.

Our biggest problem today seems to be that we have far too much refrigerated and frozen food.  Eleanor pre-cooked a lot of stuff so we’d have quick and convenient meals while we are towing and during Alumafandango.  But now she is going to have to get creative in order to get everything packed.  We may resort to temporary refrigeration using a portable cooler and some ice packs, until we’ve managed to eat down our supplies.  So I expect to be well fed for the next couple of weeks.

I plan to blog at least every other day as we are on this trip, including daily blogs from Alumafandango.  But if you are want another perspective, you might want to check out a few other bloggers who are currently on their way to Alumafandango (or will be soon).  These include:

Kyle Bolstad:  WhereIsKyleNow

Dan & Marlene: Mali Mish

Kyle & Mary: Channel Surfing With Gas

Kevin & Laura: Riveted

Deke & Tiffany:  Weaselmouth

Anna:  Glamper

 

 

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine