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.