The Sort-Out, day 2

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

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.

Notes from the Airstream universe

Just like the real universe, the Airstream universe continues to expand indefinitely.  Little reminders of this cross my desk from time to time, and I forget to mention them here, so today I’m going to mention a few of the recent and most interesting developments.

Item:  Airstream now for sale in Australia, if you’ve got the bucks.  The Canberra Times reports that Airstreams are now being officially imported, compliant with Australian regulations.  We’ve featured at least one Australian Airstream makeover in Airstream Life magazine, a restaurant trailer that sells gourmet hamburgers, but there really hasn’t been a lot of action in that country.  Australia and New Zealand have been mostly motorhome territory.  I know a few folks who have done some great tours in rented Class C motorhomes, and we’ve talked about doing it ourselves, but I’ve been waiting for Airstreams to become available. Maybe now we can start talking about putting together a caravan?

Or maybe not.  Prices for the new Aussie ‘streams are running $115k-135k (Australian dollars).  That’s a hunk of money, right up there with the cost of European-spec Airstreams.  It may be quite a long time before an affordable used unit can be found.

Item:  A new Airstream book has come out.  We never get tired of Airstream-related books, do we?  John Brunkowski and Michael Closen, who previously wrote a book about RV Toys, have written another great photo-rich book entitled “Airstream Memories.”  It’s a collection of Airstream art and memorabilia, with an emphasis on postcards, that runs 127 pages long.  It’s really fun to flip through it.

Full disclosure:  I wrote the Foreword to the book, but I didn’t get to review the art until it was published.  When I got my copy this week, I was surprised to see some Airstream Life covers and photo spreads in there.

Item: Another Airstream book seeks funding. Rebecca Chastenet and Carlos Briscenos jointly run an Airstream-based restaurant in Santa Fe NM.  We featured that trailer with photos of Rebecca in the Spring 2012 issue of Airstream Life.  Rebecca has since become a contributor to the magazine, writing for our new “Airstream food” section that you will see beginning with the Winter 2012 issue.

Rebecca and Carlos have an idea for a book about Airstream “pop-up” businesses.  There are probably hundreds of them, all over the world.  We’ve covered dozens in the magazine over the past few years.  They’re all interesting, creative, and run by fascinating entrepreneurs.

They’re seeking funding to cover the costs of a tour to visit as many of these Airstream businesses as they can, which will then become material for the book.  You can read their full proposal on Kickstarter, and chip in if you think the cause is worthy.  I’m hoping this one takes off.  Rebecca is a solid writer and I’m sure the result will be wonderful.

Item: Child starts blog.  OK, this isn’t big news, and it’s not Airstream-related but I happen to know one of the two children who write this blog.  “Sylvia Phenora” is the nom de plume of someone close to me.  For a 12-year-old, she’s a pretty handy writer.  She’s also producing Pokemon stories on a regular basis.  I’m waiting for her first novel to come out.  Hopefully it will be a best-seller so I can retire early and do more Airstreaming!

Item:  We’re going to pitch in to help!  The “superstorm” Sandy has really walloped the northeast coast.  Brett & I decided that we are going to donate $10 for every campsite registration we get between today and Dec 31, 2012, to the American Red Cross to help with relief efforts.  So if you were thinking about going to Alumafiesta or Alumapalooza next year, sign up soon and $10 of your site fee will go to help others.  Thanks.





Interior motivation

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!

One little problem …

When I saw the water leak inside the Caravel several weeks ago, I knew I was in for it.  But I had no idea it was going to be this bad.

You might recall that back in early October we discovered that the fresh water tank in the 1968 Airstream Caravel was seeping water and had damaged part of the Marmoleum floor.  This incident put me on Full Alert status, because the trailer had been extensively renovated.  The Marmoleum floor covering and the plywood subfloor were pristine, and all the woodwork was made new from birch with my own hands.  I had a lot invested in that trailer (both time and money) and the sight of a water leak was a dagger to my heart.  Water is the #1 killer of Airstreams.

After freaking out for a few minutes, I removed the dinette to assess the damage.  The birch was mostly OK thanks to multiple coats of polyurethane, the Marmoleum was lifted (the underlying adhesive had failed), and the water tank was irreparable.  Those of you who have been following this saga know that I tossed the tank and ordered a new one, re-glued the floor and mashed it back down with a few hundred pounds of rocks, and fabricated an aluminum threshold to pin the flooring edge.  I also sealed the perimeter of the floor covering with tan silicone caulk.  That all went well, and now it’s hard to detect that anything ever happened.

The problem of the past week has been installing the new water tank. I ambitiously ordered a 12x12x48 polyethylene tank, which is slightly larger than the original.  This by itself just meant I had to trim a little bit of wood here and there, and fabricate a new piece to hold the tank in place.  No big deal.  The problem came from my failure to request a vent on the tank.

See, the tank is standard-sized but you can have threaded fittings spin-welded anywhere into it.  I requested two on the left side: one large fitting at the top for filling the tank, and one small fitting at the bottom for draining it.  Logical, right?  So I popped the tank in place, hooked up some hose, and we tried to fill it with water as a test.

With no air vent to release the pressure inside the tank, water wouldn’t go into the tank any faster than a weak dribble.  Try to fill any faster and water would just burp out the fill opening all over you.  I realized my mistake immediately, but what to do?  I could have taken the tank around town and found someone locally with spin-welding capability to have a vent added in, but that seemed like a major hassle. Besides, there was no clearance above the tank to fit a vent on the top.  The highest point I could fit a vent was equal to the fill point, which meant that when the tank was full, water would come out the vent.  That meant I had to find a way to route the vent tube outside, which likely meant cutting a hole in the trailer somewhere.  I wasn’t keen on that.

So thereby began a process of trying to outsmart the laws of nature. I dreamed up all kinds of clever ways to vent the tank at the fill hose where it met the tank. Unfortunately, my clever solutions inevitably resulted in a frothy water/air mixture bubbling up the ad hoc “vent” and plugging it, at which point the tank would have no functioning vent and we’d be back to the original problem.  Worse, that plug of water would then be forced up the vent hose (by air pressure building inside the tank) and eventually spit out inside the trailer somewhere.

I literally went to bed at night thinking of ways to solve this problem, and woke up in the morning with fresh ideas—which also didn’t work.  Every day I went to the hardware store to buy a handful of brass bits, hoses, PVC pipe, and various other plumbing supplies, which I would assemble in the trailer and test.  I now have a small Museum of Failed Plumbing in the trash bin.   I actually did design a water/air separator that would have worked, but there wasn’t sufficient clearance above, since the dinette seat covers the entire area.

After three frustrating tries, and about six trips to the hardware store, Eleanor suggested something much more clever.  “Why don’t we just turn the tank so the drain is at the top?”  I glared at the tank for a moment, and suddenly realized she was on to something.  By rotating the tank 180 degrees, the large fill opening would be at the bottom, and the drain would be at the top, thus usable as a vent.  There’s no problem filling a tank from the bottom as long as the top of the tank is below the entry point, and with a little plumbing I could also use that same bottom connection as the drain.  You can see the solution in the photo.

This works beautifully.  Now we can fill the tank as fast as we want.  As a bonus I was able to route the vent into the existing floor drain, so I didn’t have to cut a fresh hole in the trailer.  (The yellow knob is for draining the tank after a camping trip.)

After this I figured I was home free, but no.  The next big surprise was that the new tank bulges when full.  I hadn’t anticipated that either.  The old tank had thick walls and was essentially rigid, but modern poly tanks are thin-walled and very flexible.  When I dry-fitted the wood cover and filled the tank to check for leaks, the wood was forced off by the bulging of the tank.

The solution here was to add reinforcement to the tank cover to resist the weight of 225 pounds of water trying to push the walls out.  I could have fabricated a new tank cover to accommodate the bulge, but that would meant a search for 1/4″ birch plywood (much harder to find here in Tucson than in wood-happy Vermont) and a few days of cutting, staining, and finishing.  At this point I’d been working on the tank problems for a week and I was looking for a way to get this job done.  So I added braces and extra screws and I think it will hold up.  If not, I have a backup plan involving some aluminum L-channel.

At this point I think I have about 25 hours of work into this “little problem” caused by the original tank leaking.  Admittedly, I didn’t just set out to fix the primary problem.  I also wanted to improve a few things along the way, like the floor edge sealing, the threshold, and some woodwork details.  But it was amazing how that stupid little leak in the tank ended up taking over my life for the past week.

The furniture is back in the trailer now, but the job’s not done.  I want to reduce the weight of the dinette table by routing out some of the underside wood.  The table was re-made by some well-meaning friends who used 3/4″ plywood, and as a result the table is so heavy it takes two people to lift it out (to convert to a bed).  I also need to sanitize the fresh water system with bleach, and I think I may go find the spot where the plumbing makes a loud vibrating noise when the water pump is running, and find some way to silence it.

Whether I get to those jobs this week or not, the trailer needs to get out of the carport and back into off-site storage soon.  The Safari’s floor makeover is languishing until I have more carport space, and the Mercedes 300D wants some love too.  I’ve got about another six weeks of really fine Fall weather in Tucson to get my projects done, so there’s no time to waste.  I’m just hoping that the next few things go more smoothly than this “little problem” with the Caravel.