Cars and grills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News from RVIA 2011

I know I said I’d blog from RVIA, the annual industry trade show, but things didn’t work out exactly as I’d hoped. There was the predictable constant pouring rain of course, and the show was useful from a business perspective, but I was thrown off course by two surprises. First, I discovered that our favorite pizza place was closed for renovations “until 2012,” which threw off one of the things I really look forward to each year. Second, somebody zapped me with a virus.

The virus wasn’t completely unexpected. I count every year that I manage this trip without getting sick as a bonus, since the schedule requires me to fly on the Sunday or Monday after Thanksgiving weekend when the airports and airliners are packed with sneezing people. The air terminal was almost standing-room-only and the flight to Louisville was full. Also, it’s hard to get a full night of sleep when you are jumping two time zones and running around for 17 hours a day. Monday and Tuesday night, when I would normally try to blog the events of the day, I was collapsing into bed. Then it all caught up with me. I slept for ten hours and awoke Wednesday with a sore throat, just in time to head to the airport for Tampa. So no blog from Louisville.

Now I’m established at Brett’s place in Tampa, still dealing with the virus but basically functional. At this point RVIA seems a distant memory but I’ll share a bit of what I remember. The big news from Airstream was the trailer pictured above, which is a concept by Airstream and Chris C Deam in the International CCD series, called “Sterling.” Chris happened to be inside later in the day so I asked him about it and he told me that his primary goal was “authenticity,” which is reflected in the aluminum finish on the cabinetry. It’s real (thin) aluminum atop a substrate, not a fake laminate.

The couch is white ultraleather, and the floor is a a unique weave that has a distinct texture and resiliency. If the concept gets traction with the dealers at the show, it will go into production. The floorplan shown was the usual 25 Front Bedroom layout, a popular starting point.

At long last Airstream is introducing an approved bike rack. They haven’t had one since the 1970s. Various people have for years been spreading the misinformation that Airstreams cannot carry any weight on the rear bumper without risking frame separation. This may have been true at one time, especially in the dark days of the Beatrice era, but all modern Airstreams in good condition (no floor rot) have a certain loading capacity at the rear. Airstream hasn’t been active in discounting the myth because if they do they’ll run into the “idiot factor,” meaning someone who overloads the bumper and then wants warranty repairs on it.

But now they’ve got a bike rack that is truly factory approved up to 77 pounds, which is more than enough for two bicycles. Only Airstream will be able to sell it initially. It is aluminum, of course. The retail price wasn’t yet available, but I’d guess it will go for $200-300.

The rack requires permanently mounting four brackets to the bumper and body (drilling required). The rack will be easily removable, although the four mounting points will stay. Even with the rack installed, you’ll still have access to the bumper compartment and any rear body compartments on the trailer. We played with it a bit and it seems very sturdy. I may get one next year for evaluation purposes.

Zip-Dee was showing a prototype electric awning with a remote control. We may be seeing that on Airstreams starting next year. It should eliminate a lot of questions that newbies have about deploying the awning, and you can put the awning out exactly the distance you want. The remote is a key chain unit much like a car keyfob. Zip-Dee is even considering a 12v outlet on the awning for your LED lights.

There wasn’t a ton of exciting new tech out there, but I see that MVP (another RV manufacturer) was showing an electric Class C motorhome. It was strictly a prototype, with only a 100 mile range. They are aiming to expand that to 200 miles soon. No word on whether it will really go into production.

The guys from EFOY were back (read my blog from last year’s RVIA to get their story) with their electric fuel cell generators, but they still aren’t ready to expand in to the US yet. I’m going to stay in touch with them in the hopes that they’ll start delivering units and the ultra-pure methanol fuel required sometime in 2012.

Now our job is to follow up with a couple dozen people, and Brett and I will be doing that for the next few weeks. Between those calls and emails, I am working on the Spring 2012 magazine and putting the finishing touches on a new book that will be released soon: The Collected Adventures of Tin Hut (Volume I). It will come out in print and as an electronic book for Kindle and iPad, hopefully in time for Christmas. Just editing the final copy makes me smile and forget that I’ve got a virus, so I think a lot of people will enjoying reading or re-reading the fantastic adventures of my favorite Airstreaming couple. By the way, after five years of secrecy, the actual author of the Tin Hut series will finally be revealed in the book.