Archive for the ‘Vehicles’ 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.

Remind me why …

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The hardest part of the job …

Friday, November 16th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sort-Out, day 3

Monday, November 12th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Sort-Out, day 2

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sort-Out, day 1

Friday, November 9th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interior motivation

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project Season

Monday, October 15th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the way, the new Alumafiesta site is up …

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.

 

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine