Properly sorted

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?

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,, 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.


Cooking up a storm

A benefit of having an Airstream the driveway is the use of a second refrigerator. The extra 10 cubic feet of our Dometic NDR1026 gas refrigerator always come in handy when Eleanor is stocking up on ingredients for a big feast.   (By the way, the refrigerator has operated normally ever since we removed and reinstalled it in September at Paul Mayeux’s shop.  The theory for its prior poor operation is that it had a small internal obstruction or bubble that was dislodged in the process.)

The flip side of having a second refrigerator is that someone has to go back and forth between the house and the Airstream to deliver and retrieve things from that refrigerator.  This is where my talents are usually invested, along with tasks such as dumping the compost, taking out recycling and trash and documenting the cooking process with my camera. If only my college journalism professors could see me now…

In the morning I went out to get Keli the American Duck for her steam bath.  Unfortunately, 24 hours in the refrigerator was not enough to fully defrost her.  The refrigerator was running exactly 32.0 degrees inside, probably because temperatures have been cool in Tucson lately and because we put two solidly-frozen ducks in it.  We reduced the refrigerator’s cooling level, but it was essentially too late.  Keli couldn’t be steamed until she was fully defrosted.

We left the duck out on the counter for a while, and then Eleanor had a brainstorm.  We’d just done a load of dishes and the dischwascher was still very warm from the drying cycle. Eleanor popped Keli on the lower rack for an hour, closed the door, and managed to get some of the defrosting process completed that way.  But it wasn’t until after dinner that Keli was frost-free enough to come out of her plastic bag and get prepped for the pot.

In the meantime we had a technical problem to solve.   We didn’t have a steamer large enough for a 5.1 pound duck.  The pot needed to be big enough for the duck while sitting on a rack so that an inch or so of water could be brought to a boil beneath.  After trying several odd contraptions we finally found a combination that would work, using two aluminum foil pie tins to support a pair of round cooling racks, upon which Keli perched.

The steaming process went well.  Once the water was to a boil, Keli began sweating like a nervous Aeroflot passenger.  Christopher Kimball and his team of cooking gurus were right: Keli the duck lost a lot of fat in a short period of time.  I collected the grease/water combination when she was done, separated the water, and ended up with more than a quart of grease.

The city of Tucson has a program to keep grease out of the public sewage system.  They’ll be collecting the grease on the day after Thanksgiving, where it gets turned into biodiesel fuel for cars.  If I still had the Mercedes 300D, I would like to think that a bit of Keli-grease would come back to power my car a few miles.

This is not the end of Keli’s cooking process. Her next step, today, will be to visit the “tanning booth” (rotisserie) to brown the skin, with a bit more seasoning.

While Keli worked on her fat-reduction program, Eleanor also worked on the stuffing and the first of the side dishes.  As I had feared, Eleanor has gone far off the reservation and so now the side dish list consists of:

boiled potatoes with fresh herbs
roasted potatoes
mixed grains & wild rice with persimmon & figs
pork & apple stuffing
haricot vert with cranberries & walnuts
butternut squash with pear & gorgonzola cheese
cipollini onions and chestnuts
roasted carrots and pearl onions
Romaine with pomegranate

Yeah, we’ll need some help with eating all of this … Carol & Tom, Mike & Becky, Rob & Theresa, Terry & Greg, Judy & Rick, David & Lee & Hannah: feel free to give a call today to schedule dinner with us this week.  Please.

And when the actual Thanksgiving Day rolls around Eleanor plans to make pumpkin soup, too.  I would try to stop her but (a) it’s all so good; (b) this is what she likes to do.  You can’t stop a good chef any more than you can stop a monsoon. Eleanor cooking is like a force of nature.  It’s just going to happen, so I’m going to continue playing errand/garbage boy and await the spectacle that is coming later today.  Pierre is waiting too, for his moment in the oven with his rich French friends (bacon, butter, and more butter), so it is going to be an interesting day indeed.

Darn you, Puritans!

Eleanor and I managed one more roadtrip, a short one up to the Phoenix area for a little “this and that”: browsing, a little shopping, a late night cruise in Scottsdale, dinner out and a night in a resort.  But that’s it.  She’s got to head back to Vermont so that our child will remember that she has actual parents.

No, I’m just kidding about that last part.  Eleanor will head back, but Emma is becoming as independent as an 11-year-old should.  We have stayed in touch via video chat and phone calls, and it’s obvious she gets along just fine without us.  Her grandparents have done a great job of keeping up with her schedule of play dates, sailing, and summer art classes.  When I called yesterday I was told that Emma was down at the beach making s’mores and was therefore unavailable to speak to her father.

That’s quite a change from the days when we were living in the Airstream, roaming around the continent but rarely far from each other.  People speculated that she would grow up “needy” or improperly “socialized” as a result of our extreme togetherness, which is of course utter nonsense.  Why do people think that being close to your children or parents is a bad thing?  (Little wonder that as a society we treat the elderly with disdain.)

I speculate that it is an old outgrowth of Puritanical beliefs, right along with the idea that we should be ashamed of our bodies.  In any case, the result speaks for itself: the kid is comfortable in her skin, and while she misses Mom & Dad, she’s pretty happy with the other loving members of her family.

Not so easy for me, however.  When I’m alone for weeks at a time I don’t have the support system of the family around me, and it’s a big adjustment.  It’s far too easy to spend the day inside the house, in front of the computer, and not seeing another living soul all day.  That’s a trap.  Pretty soon you can turn into a Howard Hughes-like caricature, savings toenail clippings in a jar and growing a long beard.

I was watching a National Geographic program about Solitary Confinement (in prison) and the inmates were describing what happens to them after too much time alone.  They talked about the need for human contact, and the paranoid thoughts that start to overcome them.  Psychiatrists chimed in: solitary makes you start to feel aggressive toward your jailers, even if you weren’t violent before.  That must explain why I forgot to water the citrus before Eleanor arrived; I was lashing out at the greenery.

I now pity the telephone company guy who is scheduled to come here to look at my DSL line.  If I don’t get out to the mall to walk around and see some humans (OK, mostly teenagers, but that’s as close to humans as I can find in a mall environment), the telephone guy’s life could be in danger.  And he’s a nice guy, “Tom,” who has visited here often because every summer my DSL starts getting wonky.  (I’m on my third replacement DSL modem and I have all the Qwest service guys mobile phone numbers now.)

Of course, my jail cell is not enforced by the penal system, it’s self-imposed.  It’s another darned Puritanical leftover, the moral imperative to do work.  Once in a while I break free of that social boundary and play hooky around town, but it’s difficult for me.  No kidding.  I’ve been self-employed for 18 years and wound so tight about getting the job done that it’s hard to let go even when there’s really not much work to be done.  Today is a good example: the Fall issue is in the hands of the printer.  This post-production period is a classic “quiet time” for the magazine, or rather a “calm before the storm,” because until the issue hits the mail the phone will hardly ring, my email Inbox will be oddly empty, and I won’t be under major pressure to work on the next issue for a few weeks.  So by all rights I should be having fun.

I learned this lesson a long time ago.  I used to be a “consultant,” which meant nobody was looking over my shoulder and I didn’t get a regular paycheck.  So  I worked really hard when there was work to be done, and when there wasn’t I was usually trying to play rainmaker so that there would be work again soon.  On those occasions when I felt like I had done all I could do for a while, I blew off to do something, anything, absolutely guilt-free because I’d earned it.

When I was publishing the magazine and working (2005-2008) the Airstream made it easy.  We’d park it in a place where Internet and phone worked well, until the work was done, then relocate to some nearby National Park and go hiking for a few days in a cellular “cone of silence.”  Usually that meant a short drive, and there we’d be, all together with our home and ready to go exploring.

It’s a bit harder now, with the Airstream up in Vermont, me in Arizona, my other Airstream stranded in Texas, and no tow vehicle handy.  I am quite tempted to pack up the tent this weekend and go somewhere in the cool mountains where the forest hasn’t been scorched in this summer’s fires.  What I’d really like to do is get some Airstream friends to drop in for a few days, but nobody wants to come to the desert in the summertime.  (Wimps.)  Hey, I’ve got 30-amp power in the carport to run air conditioners, so what’s there to be afraid of?

Now you know why I was so desperate to find a backup tow vehicle earlier this summer.  The idea was to launch out to Texas and recover the Caravel, and make a big trip out of it, complete with the comfort of air conditioning.  Alas, now I’m short on time.  I did finally find the car I wanted — it’s the car I sold, the Mercedes 300D.  I should have kept it and put a hitch on it.  Another one in even better condition has popped up locally and I could buy it, but I’d really like to get that Miata sold first.  Any 1980s-era Mercedes, no matter how nice, is going to suck up a bit of money before it’s fully sorted out and ready for long trips.

So I’m sitting tight for now, and looking at the tent… and my laptop.  Sooner or later either the Puritans will win out, or the Airstream-inspired wanderlust will.



Cars, planes, and trailers

Finally my long-awaited trip to Palm Springs for Modernism Week 2011 has begun.  I was sort of chafing the last few days, eager to get on the road, and filling my time by triple-checking lists and over-preparing the car for every possible contingency.  Yesterday morning I was up at 5:30 a.m. even though I didn’t need to leave until 9.  After a few hours of trying to pace myself as I completed the final pre-departure tasks, I gave in, stuffed the last few things in the car, and set off up I-10 toward Phoenix.

Now, one of my few concerns about this trip was whether the old car would make it.  There was really no reason to think it wouldn’t, given that it has been well-prepared and recently serviced, and I will cut to the chase by telling you that it did just fine for the 380 miles to Palm Springs.  The real issue turned out to be the airlines.

The plan was for me to meet Brett at Phoenix Sky Harbor International airport around noon, and head out from there together to Palm Springs.  I got into Phoenix early of course, so I had plenty of time to swing by one of the local biodiesel producers and pick up 5.5 gallons of B99 to top off the tank.  Brett landed only about 10 minutes late, so all things looked good until we went looking for his luggage, which of course …  (do I have to even tell the rest of this story)?

Well, I’ll spare you the ugly view we got of the workings of an airline’s baggage handling system.  In short, we went on to Palm Springs because the bags were in Houston and not likely to arrive soon enough for us to keep our schedule for the day.  We were told that the bags, which contain a few vital items for the Vintage Trailer Show, would be forwarded on to Palm Springs by transferring them to another airline.


When we arrived in Palm Springs we found John Long and his stunning 1935 Bowlus already set up on the grass display area behind the hotel, a day early.  He worked out special permission to set up early, unbeknownst to us.  (I believe that is the first time I have ever written the word “unbeknownst” in a blog entry, and I think after looking at it in this context, it will be the last.)  John surprised me by looking admiringly at the old Mercedes, which was idly clattering away behind us as we greeted John.  I think he appreciated it as a piece of industrial design much like he appreciates his own Bowlus travel trailer.

Brett had by this time received two phone calls from his airline with various explanations and plans related to the retrieval of his baggage.  The ultimate solution — so we thought — was to drive over to Palm Spring International Airport and pick up the bags from the 7:15 flight of the “other” airline.  But when we got there, we discovered the flight had been canceled.  So, back to the hotel, and another round of phone calls.

At 9:15 we were back at the airport.  I sat in the car curbside for a few minutes (thinking this would be a quick errand), but when the police chased me away a few minutes later I realized that things were not going well inside the terminal for Brett.  I sat in the Cell Phone Lot until 10:30 while Brett went through these stages:  (1) Looking for bags on the carousel; (2) Realizing the bags were again lost; (3) Dealing with an unhelpful “other Airlines” representative who told him he knew nothing about the situation and could not track the bag without a claim number; (4) Calling his first airline multiple times only to be told, “The other airline has the bag now, in Phoenix, and we don’t have a tracking nunber for it”; and finally (5) Conceding defeat at 10:30 pm, and heading off to the grocery store to buy a toothbrush.

At dawn he was at it again, and the latest word is that the baggage will arrive sometime today on some flight to Palm Springs, and it will either be delivered by courier to the hotel or Brett will have to take the Stuttgart Taxi to go fetch it. In other words, we know nothing except that in theory the bags still exist on some existential plane of the universe.

But hey, I won’t tell anyone Brett is wearing all the same clothes from yesterday.  All we’re doing is parking trailers and greeting people today, so he doesn’t need to look sharp until tonight when we have a private reception for the trailer owners.  By then, the baggage might be here, and we can concentrate on the thing we are here to do, which is to put on an awesome vintage trailer show this weekend.