Thursday, November 3, 2011

Easy on the Gas!

About two months ago I got a new daily driver -- a 2001 BMW 325Xi wagon. I bought the car from a small dealer who flipped cars out of his house. He'd bought it at auction, so there were no repair records. However, the price was right, the car had 144k and zero rust and seemed in excellent shape. As soon as I got it, I changed the fluids. And there are a lot -- oil, brakes, gear box, transfer case, front and rear diff.

The next level of preventative maintenance was to do the troika of cooling system, oil separator, and VANOS seals, all of which I will write about in an upcoming Roundel article. Doing this made me feel nearly invincible in the car, which is what I needed, since I'm about to take my youngest boy Aaron on six college visits over the next two weekends.

But one obvious preventative maintenance item remained -- the fuel filter. Suspecting you're driving around with a ten year old fuel filter with 144k worth of crud in it does not exactly inspire confidence on long drives. So I ordered one, which is a pricey little item (about $45, for a fuel filter) because it has the fuel pressure regulator built in.

The night before taking Aaron for a college visit in NYC, I thought I'd install it.

As you may know, I have a mid-rise scissors lift. In a perfect world I'd have a post lift, but I don't have the ceiling height to support it. The mid-rise is a compromise. It can pick the car up four feet, which is high enough to sit, butt on the floor, upright beneath the car. For an old guy with a bad back, this is bliss.

But the body of the mid-rise lift is in the way of the underside of the car. Usually this isn't a big deal, as most of the things you wind up doing are in the front, the back, or at the wheels. Even pulling a transmission or a driveshaft isn't as problematic as you'd think because they're right in the middle up under the tunnel, which gives added space.

No, the only problem for the mid-rise has been... these modern BMW fuel filters that are mounted beneath the car, about under the driver's seat. This puts them directly above the body of the lift. It's not that you have no room; you have perhaps eight inches.

But I put the car up on the lift, pulled the center under-cover, pulled the fuel filter cover -- which clearly had never been removed -- and there was the fuel filter.

Now, I know fuel filters. I don't need to consult a repair manual or an on-line DIY guide to change a freaking fuel filter. And yet, this one had two hoses feeding it at the back end and one at the front end. And each hose was perhaps a two-inch stub section, itself hose-clamped to a plastic line.

Still, this ain't rocket science. Undo the hose clamps, yank out the old, stick in the new. Do it quickly to minimize fuel spillage.

And, immediately, I was stymied. The galvanization of body panels, the use of undercoating, and the use of plastic liners and undercovers has dramatically reduced under-body rust, but all the ancillary metal under-components still oxidize. Neither screwdriver nor small socket could free any of the hose clamps.

I stopped.

I've long been an adherent to the "look the beast in the eye" philosophy. If you don't want to battle it to the death, back slowly out of the cave. I realized none of these hose clamps would come off without a fight. Normally I'd use a Dremel tool and a cutting wheel, but you don't want to do that in close proximity to gas because of the danger of sparks. I thought... no, I don't need to change this fuel filter right now, and I DO need to use the car to drive to NYC tomorrow. Stop. Just stop.

I began to put the covers back on.

And then I stopped again.

Jesus, Siegel, they're hose clamps. You're not going to be stymied by hose clamps, are you, mister you-call-yourself Hack Mechanic?

No indeed.

A Vice Grip placed on the screw part of the hose clamp wouldn't loosen it, but it did a nice job of twisting and snapping the banding material of all six clamps.

I took a disposable aluminum roasting pan and put it beneath the filter to catch the gas that certainly would flow when I started pulling the lines off. Problem was, the height of the pan about used up the clearance between the lift and the body of the car, leaving little room to pull the hoses off with my hands. The rubber stub hoses all seemed flexible and reusable, but one just wouldn't pull off the filter. I took an X-Acto knife and tried to cut the hose. Because of the lack of access, I cut into the hose all right, but couldn't sever it cleanly. Gas started flowing out. I thought I'd wait it out, just wanted for the gas to stop.

I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Obviously it was gravity-feeding gas from the tank. I was in danger of filling up the roasting pan.

I opened both doors to the garage and grabbed a fire extinguisher.

I tried to stop the flow of gas with a needle-nosed vise grip, but the cut I'd make in the rubber hose was too close to the plastic end of the line. I pulled the pan away so I'd have clearance and let the gas flow onto the floor while I cut all the way through the hose. I grabbed a 1/4" extension to shove it into the end of the hose and stop it up, but, again, I'd accidentally made the cut in the hose so close to the plastic end of the line that I couldn't stop up the rubber end.

I took a second aluminum roasting pan, swapped it with the nearly overflowing first one, cut a fresh section of 2" rubber hose, jammed the 1/4" extension in the end, then pulled the pan away so I'd have clearance. I used the X-Acto knife to cut the hose completely off the plastic end. Finally I could jam on the stub hose with the plugged end.

The flow of gas stopped.

Now I could prepare three stub hoses, install them all onto the filter, hose-clamp them in place, and have three hose clamps at the ready for the other ends of the hoses. This let me pull the plug off the gas line and slip the new filter line over it with a minimum of spilled gas.

When I was done, I took the gas-soaked greasy jeans and t-shirt I was wearing and threw them in the garbage. I think that, had I walked into the house wearing these rags and someone flicked a light switch or changed the channel on the television, the fumes might have turned me into The Human Torch.

On the one hand, if you're not going to change a fuel filter yourself, what are you going to fix? But on the other, having my hands drenched in gas and having it run down my arm into my armpit is an experience best left behind with my 20s. Next time I have to do one of these, I'll make a cleaner cut with the X-Acto knife, I'll do it closer to the filter to leave some hose to pinch, and I'll have a variety of plugging mechanisms at the ready.

But I am glad I got the filter changed. Cooper Union here we come!

The Cat is Down One Life

Although my family had dogs growing up, for many years Maire Anne and I have both been cat people. My standard line with the kids was always "when I have a farm, you can have a dog." Truth be told, they never really wanted a dog, and I never really wanted a farm anyway, so this arrangement seemed to work out well for everyone.

Maire Anne and I had a long history with cats. When we moved back to Boston from Austin in 1984, we took three cats with us -- quite an experience on a long trip, especially when Phoebe, drugged and leashed, tried to jump out the window. But that's another story.

The kids grew up with cats. We had a spectacular black cat, Seamus, for many years. We'd let him out during the day but tried to keep him in at night. One night he failed to come home. We suspect the Newton coyotes got him.

We were cat-less for a few years until last New Years. We began The Great Kitten Hunt, wherein we visited probably fifteen animal shelters within a radius of 50 miles of Boston, looking for the right pair of kittens. We wanted bright. We wanted engaging. We wanted a little rascally. We didn't want "a lap cat." Boring boring boring.. The amount of information these shelters asked for, you'd think we were adopting children. One place literally wanted a copy of our mortgage statement. We declined.

But our diligence paid off when, New Years Day 2011, we went to the Pat Brody shelter in Lunenburg, and saw a cage in which there were three small black kittens, short haired with some sort of Asian lineage. I opened the door and kitten cat ran out, ran up my chest, and perched on my shoulder. Clearly that one (Seymour) was a keeper. The second one, Franny, was almost as engaging. The third (Zooey) one was bit smaller and more timid. I tried to coax her out; she was interested but wouldn't commit. Until we were about to leave with the other two. Then she realized that she was about to blow the deal. "Meeeeeew. MEEEEEEEEEEEEWWWWWW!" she howled plaintively. 

"What do you want to do? You want to take these two or all three?" the woman running the shelter asked. "Well," I said, "we can't take three, but gee I hate to break up the set."

"Tell you what," she said, "if you take all three, I'll only charge you for two."

"Oh... damn it!. Sure."

So we went home that New Years Day with three black kittens. They rapidly became an inextricable part of the family, as if we'd always had them. Three is so more more than just one greater than two. Three is nearly a herd. They swarm you.

Seymour is trouble incarnate, but very sweet and interesting. Zooey continues to be needy and whiny, but is very little trouble. And Franny, the prettiest of the bunch, is a bit more inscrutable.

But she is trouble. She likes to eat things. She'll hork up some disgusting mess which I will need to inspect, only to find SHE'S EATEN PACKING MATERIAL. One soggy lump was clearly a Styrofoam peanut.

Anyway, about a week ago, Franny started puking up. Frequently. Then she stopped eating and drinking. She'd just sit inside her basket. We'd put food and water in front of her and she wouldn't take it. She just sat, listless. Knowing her predilection for eating things that aren't food, we tried to wait it out, but after four days we needed to intervene.

So last Saturday I took her to our vet at Kindness Animal Hospital. He examined her and noted she was dehydrated. The symptoms pointed to her having eaten something and either still had it in her or reacted very badly to it. He did x-rays, but all that shows is that she didn't eat a rock or a ball bearing. If she ate string, or a piece of plastic (both of which we've seen her pulling out of the trash), it wouldn't show up in an x-ray. He recommended ultrasound, but they didn't have an ultrasound machine.

He recommended we take her to the Vescone 24 hour emergency animal center where they could admit her, hydrate her, have an ultrasound, and can do surgery, but cautioned that, especially on a weekend, it would get very expensive very quickly -- just to walk in and out the door was probably a thousand dollars. I asked why he couldn't hydrate her, and he said that 1) that would be treatment without diagnosis, 2) he could hydrate her subcutaneously (shooting fluid under the skin) whereas the emergency center would do an intravenous hydration, 3) whatever was wrong with Zooey had gone on long enough that a higher level of intervention than just outpatient hydration was probably appropriate, and 4) unlike the emergency center, his office wasn't open 24 hours and wasn't open on Sunday.

I'm not a vet. I don't know what an appropriate course of treatment is. I tend to take recommendations of people who know more about something than I do. So I paid the vet the $208 bill and, as per his recommendation, took Franny to the Vescone 24 hour emergency animal center. They examined her and wrote up a low and a high estimate. The low estimate was for a one-day stay, blood work, and hydration, and came to slightly over $1000. The two-day estimate added a second day including ultrasound, and came to $2300. Neither included the cost of any surgery; I was told we'd get that estimate if and when this was a recommended course of action.

I gulped, and signed an authorization to hydrate her.

Then I called back our vet and asked what the cost would be if THEY did surgery (if it turned out to be required to remove a foreign object). They estimated the cost at about $2500, and advised that was "much cheaper" than the cost would be at the 24 hour center. But they didn't have an ultrasound.

So, we risked getting sucked into a very high bill by degrees. IF the cat needed surgery, it was looking like the cost-managed approach was going to be two days at the 24 hour clinic followed by surgery at the vet, for a total of nearly five grand. It would be far higher still if the surgery was done at the clinic.

I presented all this to Maire Anne, and we talked. 

She said "I'm not sure how we assign a value to the cat's life."

I said "Oh, I know how we do it. We can do this right now. Watch. Would you pay fifteen grand to save the cat's life?

"No. Of course not. I mean, she's very sweet, but we have kids in college, and two other cats."

"Good. Neither would I. How about ten? Would you pay ten grand to save Franny's life?"


"Good. Neither would I."

We continued this process downward until we arrived at a number we were both were comfortable with, somewhere in the two to three thousand dollar range, representing what we both were willing to spend (if the outcome had a high probability of success). Unfortunately, this number did not encompass surgery. And if we weren't willing to pay for surgery, why have the ultrasound? And if there's no ultrasound, why authorize another day of treatment in the 24 hour center?

That evening, the doctor from Vescone called me to tell me the results of the blood work (no obvious infection, liver functioning normally) and that Franny was responding well to the hydration. She offered me two courses of treatment. One was to do an ultrasound that evening. The other was to continue the hydration through until morning. I explained that not only did we want the latter course, we had talked about it and, because of cost, regardless of the outcome of the hydration, were prepared to check Franny out in the morning and take her home.

The next morning, Vescone reported that Franny was doing extremely well. They hydration, apparently, was very effective. I went to pick her up and found a bright-eyed responsive playful cat. I paid the $1100 bill, for a total of $1300.

We're glad to have her back -- she is very sweet -- but it was a very eye-opening experience.

Lessons learned:

--Emergency animal clinics can be VERY expensive.

--While it was reasonable to give the cat time for the problem to resolve itself, had we taken her to the vet a day earlier, we wouldn't have been faced with the "vet closed on Sunday and 24 hour clinic is very expensive on weekends" scenario.

--You can wade into a very large bill by degrees.

--You are not a bad person if you decide how much you want to spend, and stick to it.

--If I had to do it again, I might tell our vet "I want you to hydrate her" as a responsible intermediate cost-effective course of treatment that is more than doing nothing and less than the thousand dollar ante-on-the-table at the 24 hour clinic.

So, Franny, I love you, but you're down one life. Use the remaining eight wisely.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

I Didn't Make It To Lime Rock, But My Car Did

I wanted to make it to Vintage Weekend at Lime Rock, but there were just too many other automotive tasks on the plate.

My '93 Toyota Land Cruiser was being auctioned on eBay and the auction closed on Saturday morning. This was a huge disappointment; the No Reserve auction closed at only $2550. For that price, I might as well just park it until next year and take it to Nantucket again. The buyer has zero eBay feedback, lives in Florida, and an e-mail address with "ngangsa14" in it, so we'll see if I even hear from him.

I wanted to polish off the "change the fluids" task on my newly-purchased 2001 325XiT by flushing the brake fluid. I managed to get this done (and you longtime Hack Mechanic readers know how much I adore the smell and feel of brake fluid) and to my delight, found that the car has four brand-new brake pads on it. As I finished the brake bleeding, my friend Alex showed up. I wrote a post last month about how Alex's VW wagon ate its engine on the Mass Pike and was towed to my driveway where it still sits. Alex had just bought an engine and came over to help me haul my engine hoist out of the basement where it has sat for the past 20 years and generally talk through how we were going to prosecute this swap. After we got the hoist set up, he mentioned that he and his boys wanted to go to Vintage Weekend at Lime Rock but he was afraid that his dad's decrepit pickup truck (which he's been driving while his wagon is dead) wouldn't make it. I did what friends do -- I offered him the 325XiT wagon. He thought about it and finally took me up on the offer. "And this one I'll return," he said. It was a 25-year-old reference to my loaning him Bertha -- my heavily-modified air-conditioned Recaro-interior'd 2002 -- to go on his honeymoon and never getting it back (he eventually bought it). "Any quirks?" he asked. "I don't know -- I've only driven it a hundred miles." He and his boys just got back and said it was great. I probably should've just hung my planned work, piled in the car, and gone with them.

The car I wanted to drive down to Lime Rock -- my '73 3.0CSi -- hadn't had the maladies it suffered at Vintage at Saratoga in July attended to. While driving out to that event, the car ran very hot and had some odd driveability problems that turned out to be caused by my having left the oil cap off the valve cover when I added oil before leaving Newton (stupid!). I needed to check if this potentially lethal combination of heat, decreased oil volume, and an open valve train caused problems. I drained the oil and found no antifreeze in it (nor any oil in the radiator), so there was no sign of head cracking. I pulled off the valve cover and visually inspected the valve train and saw nothing obviously worn, scarred, or burned. I adjusted the valves for probably the first time since the L Jetronic was retrofitted into this car, and that must've been at least 10 years ago (in my defense, this car sees very little mileage).  A few valves were a little loose, a few were a little tight, but nothing was dramatically over the line. After the oil change and valve adjustment, the car fired right up and ran great. 

I took it onto the highway, and as soon as I got it over 40, it exhibited problem I'd forgotten all about. When I'd started driving it out to Vintage at Saratoga, there was a fairly severe steering wheel vibration at around 45mph that smoothed out somewhat at higher speeds. This problem was quickly eclipsed by the oil and the near-overheating issues, but as soon as I drove it again this afternoon, I was reminded of it. It clearly felt like a bent wheel. I didn't understand this, as last year I'd driven the car 1600 miles round trip to Vintage at the Vineyard in NC, and probably hadn't put ten miles on it before driving it out to Saratoga; I think that I'd remember a pothole impact severe enough to bend a wheel.

I brought the car home, put it up on the lift, and immediately found that the right front wheel was indeed pretty obviously bent. These are Alpina 16" open lug wheels. When I bought them (for a song, off a junked car) last year, three of the four of them were bent, and I had them straightened. I couldn't imagine how I bent one without knowing it, but there it was. I swapped the right front and right rear wheel, then laughed when I found that the right front wheel wouldn't spin because of course these are staggered wheels, and the wider rear tire won't clear the suspension when swapped onto the front. I restored the fat wheel and tire to its rightful place on the ass-end of the 3.0, put an old pair of 14" Alpina look-alikes (off an E12 -- these were on the car before I scored the Alpinas) on the front, and drove the car and verified that the whubba-whubba-whubba was gone. I'll take the bent wheel in to Rim and Wheel Works in Waltham on Tuesday.

So I didn't make it out to Lime Rock, even though my car did. But at least my 3.0 will be ready for BMW Day at Larz Anderson.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The 325XiT Era Begins -- So Far, So Good

I picked up the 325XiT this morning. I'll leave the story of the purchase for a Roundel article, but $5800 bought me a 145k mile rust-free car, 5-speed, sport package, black with tan leather interior, clean Carfax, two owners before being wholesaled, so no repair records exist.  Mike Miller warned me that if there's no record whether the transfer case and diffs have had the fluid changed, they probably haven't, and there could be trouble, but for the price I couldn't pass it up. I saw it and bought it on the spot.

I drove it home from southern Rhode Island, then used it to run errands all day. After putting a hundred miles on it, I like it a lot. The seats are very interesting. They're sport seats (as one would expect with the sport package) with side bolsters and an extendable front support, but for sport seats they're very soft. And they're unpowered. Very surprising. With my bad back (bulged L5 and sciatica), I've become increasingly sensitive to seats. This has made my Z3 M Coupe uncomfortable. I recently did the tilt mod (putting a threaded coupler over the front seat stud to raise the front about an inch), and that helped, but using the Z3 M as a DD was driving me nuts. The XiT feels much better.

As soon as I got the XiT home, I put it up on the lift and drained all five boxes (engine, transmission, front and rear diff, and transfer case). The diff fluids looked and smelled fine, possibly even recently changed with standard hypoid. The trani and transfer case fluids were thin and black, like old brake fluid, but could've been worse. Could've smelled like burnt coffee. Redline MTL for the trani and transfer case (Mike Miller's recommendation), Redline 75/90 for the diffs, and Syntec for the engine. I'll bleed the brakes in the morning.

Doing all the fluids is a pain and a mess, but there's no better way to acquaint yourself with the car. Pulling all three plastic under-covers and lying beneath it for the afternoon, I didn't see anything scary. The engine isn't pissing or weeping anything.

I'll bleed the brakes in the morning, and begin the task of looking for the date codes on the cooling system parts to see how recent they are.

But... so far so good.

Friday, August 19, 2011

If I Just Don't "Get" Opera, Does That Make Me a Bad Person?

We're in Santa Fe visiting my son Kyle who is working for the summer as a stage hand at the Santa Fe opera. The building is incredibly impressive, an open-air structure north of the city with fabulous vistas (and, as Kyle tells us, owls living in the roof structure). Last night we went to a production of "The Last Savage," which Kyle recommended because a) it is in English, b) it is relatively short, c) it is funny, and d) he has a walk-on part.

After seeing the opera (and whether this is a good, mediocre, or bad opera is probably irrelevant; it is likely a statistically valid representation of the form), I have to admit -- I don't get it. 

Now, I've had debates with people over the years who are not enamored of singer / songwriter music. One friend pointed out that most folk music is melodically uninteresting. I had to think about that. In the end, I decided he was right, but that folk music isn't about melody; it's about story telling and human connection, and thus if it didn't necessarily have zippy "Oooooooklahoma where the wind comes whipping down the plains" melodies, that was ok. Another friend who is deeply into Broadway opined that what I regard as human connection and story telling, he felt was amateurish and self-centered and badly in need of polishing so it could be more "entertaining." Viva la difference.

The point here is that, even with a musical form I don't like, I can usually understand what that musical form is about without necessarily liking it. With rap, for example, I can recognize that the form is about conveying of emotion and experience. That doesn't mean that I like it -- I don't; the subject matter, the rhyme scheme, and even the human motion of the performers all are alien to me and leave me cold -- but, again, at least I think I can identify what it's about.

I have had debates with people who say that that all rock and roll sounds alike, or all rap sounds alike. All that this statement means is that it issuer doesn't have sufficient exposure to that musical form to make any detailed judgment. Of course all rock and roll sounds alike -- it is generally produced with the same set of instruments. In the same way, all bluegrass sounds alike, all classical music sounds alike, etc.

Lastly, I am mindful of this issue of "refinement." When we are eight years old, butter and sugar sandwiches taste like the best thing in the world and vegetables are icky. As we get older, tastes get more refined. We learn to appreciate complexity. The earthiness of a morel mushroom, or saba (mackerel) sushi, is probably not for a child's palate. Maybe modern radio-ready rock and roll and country music is like that butter and sugar sandwich, and perhaps opera is that morel that my palate hasn't yet warmed to.

But all that having been said, I simply don't get opera. Opera seems to me like a Leonard Pinth-Garnell Saturday Night Live parody of bad opera. In fact, this particular opera included a 20-second section in German that I think was supposed to be a parody of German opera, but to me didn't seem any different than the rest of the opera (like that episode of Friends where Ross plays one of his ridiculous keyboard pieces, only he explains that this one is "supposed to be bad").

I had a debate with my son Ethan (who is a film guy and who, like me, over-analyzes everything). Ethan goes so far as to say that "the musical" is a fundamentally flawed artistic form. To Ethan, any musical seems as artificial as the scene in The Holy Grail where the prince who was saved in the tower (and is not quite dead) starts to sing his story, and the people in the hall start singing "He's going to tell! He's going to tell!" Unlike Ethan, I've never had a problem with the suspension of disbelief that goes along with watching a musical. 

Like the rejoinder to the person who says that all rock and roll sounds the same, I'm willing to chalk up my problems with opera's wildly exaggerated vibrato, the (it seems) intentionally a-melodic melody, and the lyrics that are as compelling as singing a newspaper column to my own lack of experience with the form.

But what is it for? What is it trying to do? What levers is it trying to pull? Is opera supposed to be about drama, conflict, and spectacle?  If it's not, I just don't get it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

My Doppelganger

For many years, I've been told that I have more than a passing resemblance to Eric Clapton. Of course, I've also been told that I look like both Arlo Guthrie and Charles Manson (hint: the way to tell me and Charlie apart is I'm the one who DOESN'T have the swastika tattooed on my forehead), but with both Clapton's and my tendencies to let hair get very short and very long, this is the comparison I get most often. With my hair getting long again, and very silver, if I put on 40 pounds, the apt comparison would be Jerry Garcia.

So imagine my surprise when, going through security at Richmond airport, a TSA agent looked at me and said "you're not... you're not that guy from The Bee Gees, are you?"

I was too stunned to fire back the obvious reply: "No, I'm that other guy from The Bee Gees."

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sometimes There’s Nothing More Satisfying Than a Non-Essential Repair

So here I am on vacation, and what did I just do? A completely non-essential modification to the Land Cruiser. But sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than a quick fix or mod that you do not because you have to, but because you just want to.

’91-’97 Toyota FZJ80 Land Cruisers are equipped with all-time all-wheel-drive, but have quite a few options for locking the differentials. While all have the ability to lock the center differential, on the ‘91s and ‘92s this is done manually through pressing a CDL button on the dash that can be punched whether you’re in 4High or 4Low, whereas the ‘93s and later lock the center diff for you automatically when you shift into 4Low, and don’t let you lock it in 4High.

In addition to the center differential locking, some FZJ80s have an optional side-to-side locking package, a knob left and below the steering wheel that can be used to lock the rear diff, then the front. Mine doesn’t have this, and it’s a ’93 so the center diff is only locked in 4Low.

Make no mistake, driving the 1/8 mile on sand out to Surfside Beach isn’t rock-crawling in Moab; you don’t need any fancy locking. And, let’s face it, one of the nice things about all-time all-wheel-drive is that it’s exactly that – on all the time; you don’t need to remember to turn it on when you hit the sand. Most of us who have taken vehicles onto sand, if we’re honest, will admit to getting stuck at least once because we thought we were in four wheel drive but weren’t. But, I thought, it would be nice, on some of those softer, ruttier sections on the six-mile run out to Great Point, to be able to leave the TLC in 4High and lock up the center differential.

There’s a trivial mod I read about on (the Land Cruiser enthusiast web site, and the name is a joke – it should be iheartmud) that lets you do exactly this. It turns out that when Toyota deleted the CDL switch in ’93, they left the wiring harness and connector in place, so you simply fish the connector out from behind the dash and install an OEM dashboard switch from a ’91 or ’92 (or even pilfer the hazard switch; the pinouts are the same). I’d actually bought a CDL switch prior to going on vacation last year, but never got around to the installation.

So this morning I thought I’d take a stab at it. The Slee Off-Road web site has a detailed DIY showing exactly which dashboard screws need to be removed to pull the dash plate and access the dangling bit of wiring harness with the connector on it. Sure enough, in about 20 minutes, I had the switch plugged in. I pushed it, expecting to see the center lock and ABS indicator lights on the dashboard (the ABS being disabled during center diff lock).

And of course, I saw… nothing.

More reading on ih8mud unearthed multiple threads on the “I hit the CDL switch and nothing happens” problem. The most common problem seems to be that so many of these trucks were never taken off road and never put into 4Low, so the center differential was never locked, so the actuator motor sticks. Don’t panic, the advice was – lock and unlock the center diff a hundred times, either with the newly-installed switch or by moving the mechanical lever between 4High and 4Low, and it should unstuck. I tried this, but still the lights never came on.

I found a wonderfully thorough troubleshooting guide for the CDL on the Pacific Northwest Backroad Adventures web site (, if you need to see it). I tried to suck it and all its photos and illustrations through the dial-up (yes, dial-up) internet connection that I have here at the rental house. Not all of the pictures came through, but the troubleshooting text did. In addition to ih8mud’s lock-and-unlock-a-hundred-times advice, the pnwadventures guide made the point that it’s possible that the truck’s center differential is, in fact, locking, and that all that’s wrong is that the dashboard lights aren’t coming on.

First I did the easy things. I made sure that the newly-installed CDL dashboard switch worked by pushing it in and out and verifying the clicking of the transmission relay. Then I pushed in the switch and drove the car in tight circles and verified that I did not feel the skitching of the wheels or the decreased turning radius one would expect if the center diff was actually locked. Then I made sure the dashboard indicator lights worked by pulling the connector off the CDL confirmation indicator switch on the center diff (where a rod inside the center diff pushes against a detent – just like a reverse light switch) and jumpering across the harness side of the connector with a paper clip. The CDL and ABS lights came on, so there was nothing wrong with the indicator lights themselves.

Unfortunately, this was pointing to a bad actuator motor. I tried to follow the guide and troubleshoot the actuator motor itself. There’s a nifty trick you can do by applying voltage from a 9V battery and listening for the motor. I tried it and didn’t hear anything. Continuing to dutifully follow the guide, I checked the resistance between certain pairs of pins on the actuator connector, and in the harsh binary language of troubleshooting matrices, everything was reading “Actuator bad. Replace.”

Damn, I thought this was going to be easy.

There was one more test I needed to do – verify that voltage was getting to the actuator motor – though if the actuator was bad, this was a moot point. But I inserted the probes of the voltmeter into the actuator motor connector, pulled the voltmeter out to the side of the truck where I could see it, leaned inside the truck, and hit the switch. The voltmeter read zero.

But, with my head down low so I could read the voltmeter… what was this whirring sound I was hearing? I hit the switch again. Whir. Again. Whir. Again. Nothing. Again. Whir. Again. Nothing.

What the…?

I called my niece Guthrie over and asked her to sit in the car and hit the switch every five seconds while I was underneath listening. It turned out the actuator motor was working, though intermittently. This explained why I didn’t feel the center diff was locked when I drove in a tight circle – it was probably during one of the intermittent cycles when it wasn’t engaged. The other troubleshooting anomalies were due to the fact that I was testing at the wrong connections because my dial-up internet didn’t have the bandwidth to download the pictures.

The only question remaining was… why weren’t the dashboard indicator lights coming on? Posts on ih8mud indicated that the CDL indicator switch on the center diff does, in fact, go bad. You need a 27mm wrench to pull it off. You can test it and try to clean it, posts said, but it probably just needs to be replaced. I looked in the tools I’d brought to Nantucket, and incredibly, I actually had a 27mm ½” socket. I crawled back beneath the car, but there wasn’t enough clearance to get a socket and a ½” ratchet over the switch.

Ok, I thought. That’s that. The CDL actually is working, though intermittently. The main issue is only a lack of confirmation from lack of indicator lights. I can’t get this switch out, and even if I did I don’t have a replacement. And I don’t need to be doing this anyway. We’re done.

I came back inside and was about to wash up when I thought… I wonder if I can reach that switch and get it out with the Vice Grips?

As trivial a problem as this was, if anything is bedrock for the whole Hack Mechanic ethos, it is this. Not giving up. Not walking away. Trying it again. Trying it from a different angle. Using a different tool.

I crawled under with the Vice Grips, tried a few angles to grab the switch, and out it came. I tested its continuity with the voltmeter, and it was bad. I thought better just put it back in don’t want to take the truck “down” when everyone is going to want to go the beach in an hour. But, again, hell, I was holding the damned thing right in my hand; why not give it five minutes of my attention?

I thought, if the CDL hadn’t been exercised in many years, neither had this switch. I pushed it in and out a hundred times, retested it with the voltmeter, and it now was working. I reinstalled it, put the plug back on it, turned the ignition key on, hit my newly-installed CDL button, and the CDL and ABS indicators on the dash immediately glowed. I hit the switch again and they went out.


It’s not going to matter in terms of getting out to Great Point and back, but it was a great way to spend a vacation Sunday morning.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Car Guy’s View of Nantucket

When we first began coming here over 25 years ago, Nantucket was classic old money that didn’t show off or flaunt. This tradition has been stretched to the breaking point by the influx of new money manifesting itself in hog-like houses and boats, but still largely holds true in the automotive realm. Vehicle-wise, Nantucket is well-suited to the very large and the very small. Large 4wd vehicles are useful for family hauling and beach driving (reaching fishing spots), but downtown Nantucket has densely packed houses and narrow, windy, cobblestone-paved streets. In fact, one of the rental agencies on island offers Minis -- a great vehicle in which to navigate the in-town maze. In contrast, many of the outlying areas of the island have dirt or sand roads with potholes large enough to swallow one of those rented Minis. So this is not a great place to drive a Ferrari or Aston Martin, regardless of whether you can afford one and want to show it off. If the well-to-do own these vehicles, they probably leave them at their other summer place in the Hamptons.

For a long time, you could tell the old money on the island because they drove Jeep Wagoneers with zero rust and a twenty year accumulation of over sand permits on the bumper. These vehicles lived garaged on the island year-round. If they started to rust, they were simply taken to an island body shop and repaired. Nowadays, these vehicles are old enough that they are essentially enthusiast 4wd vehicles – that is, you have to consciously choose to love and continue owning it instead of simply buying a Tahoe. There are also some astonishingly well-preserved old Willis, Broncos, and Land Rovers.

The “cool summer car in the garage” phenomenon extends to non-4wd vehicles as well. There used to be a sizeable population of old Beetles (particularly convertibles) on the island, but I’m seeing fewer of these. There is a red Morgan with a pair of hat boxes that is a summer fixture in town. For many years there was a silver BMW 3.0CS near town but I haven’t seen it in quite a while. Yesterday I saw a beautiful Morris Minor convertible. Once in a while an enormous Kermit green Ford station wagon with faux woody panels makes an appearance.

With the demographics of the island mixed between old money, new money, working-class island residents (yes these still exist) and tourists, you see nearly every imaginable four wheel drive vehicle. But it is interesting to me, as a BMW guy, that I see very few X vehicles (or Porsche Cayennes, for that matter). From my point of view, this makes perfect sense – if you don’t want it to get sandy and smelling of bluefish, don’t take it on the beach.

I used to say that our annual Nantucket vacation was a present to my family, but now that my two older boys are gone, it’s clear that it’s always been a present to myself. A chance to really unwind. Enjoy the still-spectacular still-unspoiled beaches. And fish.

We started coming to Nantucket over 25 years ago, invited down by our friends Ed and Dana whose family had two small houses near Cliff Beach. It was my friend Ed and his dad who introduced me both to fishing (surfcasting) as well as to the practice of using 4wd vehicles to drive over sand to reach the best fishing spots. Back then, beach permits cost next to nothing, you received a gentle warning from a police officer if you didn’t have one, and there were far fewer restrictions regarding which beaches had vehicle access.

I suppose that, if all you had to do was drive from a smooth paved road to a smooth unpaved road to smooth hard-packed sand heading out to the beach, any all wheel drive system would do, including those on sedans and minivans, but if sand is soft and rutted, or if the trail heads over dunes, you really need the combination of high ground clearance, a stout transmission and transfer case, and all-terrain tires that accompanies a sport utility vehicle. I don’t think I would want to drive an E30 BMW 325iX out to Great Point (a six mile-long spit of sand that stretches into the North Atlantic and is home to the best, most consistent bluefishing on the island).

For the first few years, we came down with a rented Ford Explorer (our contribution to the vacation melee). Then, one year, Ed bought a used Jeep Cherokee, drove it down for vacation, then sold it after he returned home. Hmmn, I thought.

That same year, when we were out at Great Point, I had an epiphany. I saw a big, boxy Chevy Suburban. When it stopped, it disgorged nine people and endless amounts of stuff. Beyond the sheer capacity, I admired the truck’s ground clearance. It had a lift kit. Not monster-truck-jacked-up-with 33”-mudders or anything extreme, mind you, just slightly lifted and with slightly oversized tires, giving the truck oodles of ground clearance and a nice beefy stance. I said out loud to no one in particular “that looks like the perfect vehicle.” As the words left my mouth, I realized that the ground on which my automotive world was built had just shifted perceptibly. Oh my god, I thought – I have lust... FOR A TRUCK! Will I ever be able to show my face in BMW circles again? Even if I don’t say anything, does it show? Will people be able to tell? Have I begun walking with more of a swagger?

I should point out that, for many years, Suburbans occupied a unique market segment. They were the only vehicle built on a pickup truck frame, using a fully-enclosed body, that was so long that, when the third seat was deployed, they had as much cargo space as most other SUVs have with their third seat folded down. And, in the mid-80s, SUVs had only begun their ascendancy (which, really, started with the Ford Explorer) as soccer mom vehicles and minivan replacements. There were Jeep Wagoneers and pickup trucks, but there really weren’t other four-door seven-seat (or eight or nine) 4wd vehicles aside from the Suburban.

Now, to the non-automotively-inclined, the idea of going to the trouble to buy an old truck, use it to go on vacation, then sell it, is unfathomable, but it made perfect sense to me. While I could rent an Explorer from the local Ford dealer, I couldn’t rent a Suburban, so if I wanted one I had to buy one. And I certainly wasn’t about to buy a new truck that I didn’t really want; as useful as a big 4wd vehicle is, neither Maire Anne nor I wanted to be driving one year-round. I didn’t want it to occupy the physical space, the financial resource, or the psychic bandwidth except while on vacation. No, this would only work with chunks of money in the two to three thousand dollar range. In my mind, the calculation was simple – renting an Explorer for two weeks cost about $750. All I had to do was buy, use, and sell a Suburban and not lose more than $750 and I’d be ahead of the game.

The next year, when we started renting our own place, we continued the tradition begun by our friends Ed and Dana and invited other family and friends to stay with us. I came down with my first Suburban, a vehicle very similar to the one I’d lusted after – an ‘85, bench seat in the front, third seat in the back (totaling seating for nine), with a slightly raised suspension, that I’d purchased for three grand. The way Suburbans were optioned, most had the “Silverado” package which replaced the front bench seat with buckets, so you lost the seating for nine. Mine was a truck without the Silverado package; it not only had the seating for nine, it also had no carpeting – perfect for a vehicle into which I hoped to throw dead bluefish. Despite the fact that its a/c compressor seized up on the way to vacation, I loved that first ‘Burb. True to the plan, I sold it in the fall for about what I paid for it. I never found another one so perfectly optioned. I began thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t have sold it. But it established the template: Buy it, fix it if necessary, use it, sell it.

One of the fundamental reasons for this strategy was that these older truck-like pre-’92 Suburbans rust like old BMWs, particularly around the back door. And the longer you keep them, the worse the rust gets, so buy-use-sell made perfect sense. If you parked the truck and only used it a month out of the year, eleven months later the rust would be noticeably worse, and you didn’t even get the use out of the vehicle for this period. Plus, most ‘Burbs were equipped with a rear gate like a pickup truck, the hinge attachments to which would rust so badly that it was not unheard of to have the gate fall off. The 'Burbs with the more rust-tolerant “barn doors” were difficult to find.

Over time, it became harder and harder to find these trucks in a condition that made them worth buying and using. One year I was traveling a lot for work and had little time to find a vacation vehicle. With four days remaining before vacation, I saw an ‘87 Suburban advertised five miles from my house. I called and asked two questions: Does the four wheel drive work, and does it have functional air conditioning. Yes and yes, and I bought it on the spot, but the rear gate turned out to be so rusty that every opening was a tempting of the fates. Eventually we took to loading and unloading it through the roll-down glass, which put a bit of a crimp in the “I love it because it swallows endless amounts of stuff” attribute.

This was also the only truck that croaked on me while on vacation. While bouncing across a sand road, it simply and suddenly died. I couldn’t get it running, and had to have it towed to a dealer. On Nantucket. I expected screw-the-tourist horror at the bill, but was stunned to find they’d only charged me $178 to diagnose and repair a wiring harness that had had the insulation rubbed off and grounded itself against the intake manifold. I literally hugged the service rep. When we got back, I was glad to shepherd this ‘Burb to its next owner.

The next year, I found a rust-free high-mileage ‘93 Suburban (the first year of the more trim, less truck-like shape) for $2500. Rather than sell it after vacation, this one turned into the keeper ‘Burb; I had it for seven years. One year it ate its transfer case while on island, but I was able to limp it home, though the occasional crunching sounds it made were the stuff of legend. When I got it home and dropped the transfer case and pulled off the cover, I found not only pieces of teeth, not only whole teeth, but big chunks of gears. It was amazing it still drove at all.

Other than the transfer case episode, the keeper ‘Burb proved very reliable, was quite faithful, and was part of the furniture for many years. My kids christened it “Sandy” since every year it picked up another twenty pounds of Nantucket sand (I only used it on vacation, so vacuuming it seemed pointless).

Sandy’s dark secret was that it had previously been a farm vehicle, and there was some organic mammalian demon smell I never could exorcize. Although I used this vehicle as a vacation truck for seven years, I still had no desire to drive it the other eleven months of the year, so it would sit parked and uninsured in my driveway. I’d try open it up and start it regularly, but over the winter it would sit closed-up and the smell would flourish. My kids noticed with glee that there was material growing in the rug that seemed to be a missing link between mold and grass. In the summer I’d soak every porous surface with Febreze, which would knock the smell back to tolerable levels. The last year I owned it, I ripped the rug completely out and scrubbed every metal floor surface with bleach, but the smell still permeated the seats and headliner.

Along with the ‘Burbs came a retinue of cargo and rack configurations. Initially all the arts and crafts and model rocket boxes were put inside the car, but as time went on and the kids got older, the kids and Maire Anne and I began enjoying boogie boarding, and the boards and beach chairs began occupying a fair amount of space. I bought one of those cheapie Sears X-Cargo (yes, the punch line to the bad French joke about snails) strap-on rooftop carriers to hold the boards and chairs.

Then, one year I took up wind surfing. To fit both the carrier and the windsurfer on the roof, I mounted two 2x4s crosswise and put the cargo carrier off-center. As we began to enjoy cycling, I first tried squeezing bikes inside, then strapping bikes to the roof, then trying one of those bike racks that hooked around the rear hatch and stood off the rear window glass. Finally I bought a serious rack that mounted in the trailer hitch and hosted five bikes. When the two older boys took up surfing, driving the ‘Burb down the road with the X-Cargo carrier, a surfboard, a windsurfer, a Coleman grill, and tiki torches strapped to the roof and five bikes cantilevered from the trailer hitch was quite a spectacle. Waiting in line for the Nantucket ferry, we elicited no small amount of stares. We joked that clearly we had more stuff than anyone else, and therefore must be having more fun (we were).

In the larger sense, the purchase of what turned out to be five pre-’92 (truck-like) and one ‘93 (SUV-like) Suburbans occurred against the backdrop of the ascendancy of the SUV-as-soccer-mom vehicle. Nearly every SUV sprouted jump seats or a bench seat so they could claim seating for seven and entry into the minivan replacement club. In most of these, though, the third seat was practically right up against the rear hatch, so those extra seats came at the cost of cargo space. And even with the seats folded up, they were not exactly out of the way – to fully maximize cargo space you needed to remove them completely. Over time, innovative fold-down seating where the seats vanish into the floor became the norm (SUVs can easily get away with this because their high ground clearance eliminates the expectation of a low floor; it’s much more challenging in a minivan or station wagon).

Now, the inexorable trend in the automotive world is that vehicles get bigger since each model-year brings more legroom. So much so that there is a dynamic called “segment drift.” You know what this is when you look at the Honda Civic. Once a sub-compact, the Civic is now essentially a mid-sized car. Honda had to introduce a new model (the Fit) to be what the Civic used to be. And after only one generation, the redesigned Fit has more legroom than the old one and has lost its tidy trim proportions. With the combination of increased passenger seating and segment drift, SUVs grew to gargantuan proportions. In 2000 Ford pulled out the ultimate weapon – the Excursion, 7200lb 19’ vehicle – nearly a foot longer than the already enormous Suburban. It was the high water mark, and apparently more than the market wanted. It sold poorly. Ford discontinued it after just five years.

My older two boys are gone from both the house and family vacation so I no longer needed room for five passengers and all the stuff for the drive down. However, once down here, we meet up with my brother-in-law and his family, so I still do need the seating for seven. So last year I sold the keeper ‘Burb and bought the ’93 Toyota Land Cruiser. There’s a lot to like about the TLC – it’s a true off-road vehicle and is built like a freaking tank – but, like most things that are not a Suburban, there’s only enough room behind the third seat for perhaps a bag of groceries. I’ve ameliorated this shortage of storage space by installing a large Daktari-style roof rack and a “back porch” tray that mounts in the trailer hitch onto which I can ratchet-strap the coolers and the portable grill.

Though the Land Cruiser is a more nimble vehicle than the Suburban, I still don’t drive it year-round. Yes, the drive-through-anything vehicle stays parked during the winter. This has less to do with “not wanting to drive a truck” and more to do with simple fuel economy. The TLC may be trimmer, but it is still a six thousand pound vehicle with all-time all wheel drive and a 4.5 liter in-line six with a primitive digital engine management system, and what that bought you in 1993 was… eleven miles per gallon. As I wrote in a recent Roundel article, I have no moral or ethical issue with driving a vehicle that gets eleven miles per gallon, but it should have prancing horses on its hood and leave shrieking acrid plumes of tire smoke in its wake.

But if the original goal was simply not to lose more than $750 per vehicle per vacation (at which I succeeded in spades), the unintended consequence was that part of me became a truck guy. I’ll still sometimes see some old-school ‘Burb or Land Cruiser or Land Rover with rods strapped to the roof and think “nice truck.” Cars are objects d’art, but they are also, simply, tools. The finely-tuned all wheel drive offerings by BMW, Mercedes, Audi, and Porsche hold no appeal for me whatsoever. As I said earlier, if you don’t want it to get sandy and smelling of bluefish, don’t take it on the beach.

Both the Suburbans and the TLC worked great for me for as family stuff haulers and over-sand fishing vehicles. And the fishing vehicle thing is clearly a dynamic with many men, not just me. I screwed eye bolts into my rooftop 2x4s to hold fishing rods in place with bungies, but the trick setup is to use the dedicated rod holders (like ski clamps) that hold rods right to the Thule racks. Whatever the vehicle and setup, I have to smile when I see guys with rods strapped to the roof pull onto the beach, take them down, and start fishing. Whether, like me, they do this only once a year while on vacation, or whether it’s a year-round thing, it’s very satisfying to aspire to, then own, then use a vehicle in this fashion.

Although the number of Nantucket beaches you can drive onto has been regulated down to a small number, and the cost of the over-sand permit has gone through the roof (a hundred bucks for the town beaches and $140 for Great Point), as Hemingway said about duck hunting, some things are worth whatever you have to pay for them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Why Hack?

Although the moniker "The Hack Mechanic" started to appear in my BMW CCA Roundel Magazine columns some 25 years ago, the desire to tinker, to fix, to make things better, to not pay someone else to fix my stuff has been with me as long as I can remember. In Matthew Crawford's very interesting book "Shop Class as Soulcraft," he has a chapter entitled "To Be Master of One's Own Stuff" that hits this nail on the head. Modern economic theory proffers the concept of "opportunity cost," which attempts to quantify the value of time and the cost of spending some of it doing something when you could be doing something else. This has its place, but when it is applied to, say, a salaried professional repairing his own car, numbers are often presented to show that it makes no sense. That is, if you are paid Y dollars an hour for your professional services, and you can pay someone else X dollars an hour to fix your car, and X is less than Y, the argument posits that you should pay someone else and spend your free time doing either things that make you Y dollars an hour, or things you enjoy. The fallacy, of course, in this argument is that it ignores the possibility that you might actually ENJOY working on your own car. The fact that gardening and fine woodworking (for example) are generally not regarded in the same light is, I think, a class issue -- these are accepted leisure activities for moneyed fifty- and sixty-somethings. Auto repair, like other "trades" such as plumbing and electrical work, often seems to be looked down upon.

But to some of us, it's just in our blood. Before I was a Car Guy, I was a Bicycle Guy. I used to ride bikes, build bikes, rescue them from the trash and rehabilitate them. Then, I got my driver's license, and most of that tinkering energy immediately jumped from the self-propelled to the internal combustion realm. Even still, raising three boys, we only bought one new bike -- the rest were yard sale specials or trash pulls. (Hey, I live in Newton. People throw out a lot of good stuff.)

Every once in a while, it's nice to reinhabit the role of Bicycle Guy. I'm currently on vacation on Nantucket, waking up mornings and riding a bike I pulled out of the trash in Newton eight years ago that needed nothing but two new tires and a thorough lubing of the chain. This year I treated myself to a new gel-filled saddle. Total expense -- $30.

It's the same thing with the fishing gear. At the start of each vacation, I spend a blissful evening pulling the reels apart, lubing and cleaning them, and putting them back together. I don't WANT to pay someone else to do this. I don't WANT to buy new reels. I want to get the grit out with a Q-tip, smell the WD40 on my hands, hear the reels spin free. Last year, my classic American-made Penn 704Z reel snapped its spinning bail. Turns out this reel and this part are no longer made, so I jumped when I found the part on eBay for twelve bucks. The satisfaction I got from putting this old friend back in service was immense.

I could go on about the deeper reasons why so many of us like to get down, get dirty, get in there, but it's time to go to the beach.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pay The Man, Then Have To Do It Yourself Anyway

I wrote that last post just before I picked up the Land Cruiser from the shop across the street that was replacing the bad front wheel bearing. It DID have a bad front wheel bearing. I'd jacked it up and shook the wheel before I brought it over there, and the guy did the same thing. But when I drove it after I picked it up, the car still had exactly the same scraping sound.

There's a longer story that I think I'll save for the book, but in the end the scraping sound was coming from a little heat conduction plate on the right rear caliper that was bent up just enough to be hitting the inside of the wheel. Had I taken the car to ANY repair shop, they would've looked at the rear brakes, told me it needed pads and rotors (it does), told me that the emergency brake shoes are garbage (they are), that the entire handbrake mechanism needs to be rebuilt (it does), and that the calipers should be replaced too because the boots are buggered up (they are). It would've cost me fifteen hundred bucks. And while all of that is true, it had nothing to do with the scraping sound. The scraping sound would've gone away because, coincidentally, the new calipers wouldn't have had the bent heat conduction plate.

And people wonder why car guys do this stuff themselves.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Pay The Man

I'm getting ready to take my family on our annual beach vacation. The need to drive on sand to reach good fishing spots is the sole reason I've owned a series of 4wd Suburbans. I sold the last one last year and instead bought a '93 Toyota Land Cruiser. I used it last year with no problems. After vacation, the Land Cruiser was off the road for 10 months. I re-registered it in June and began driving it again. I found that last year's small exhaust holes in the headpipes were now larger, and that the car would be unlikely to pass inspection. Normally I'd replace the whole exhaust, but this would've been nearly a thousand bucks. I sourced both headpipes (available only as OEM parts) and replaced them. This, of course, revealed holes in other places in the exhaust, but they're still fairly small so I left it be and called the exhaust inspection-worthy.

Then, prior to inspection, I checked the handbrake. Last year it was sticky, but now it was frozen solid at the levers that move the brake shoes. I spent two hours beneath the back of the car, lubricating the levers with Silikroil and beating them back and forth, back and forth, with a hammer to loosen them up. I got the handbrake to go from frozen solid to yank-the-lever-seems-like-its-doing-something, pronounced it inspection-worthy, and took the car to the inspection station.

I have a lot of cars pass through my hands, and take them all to the same inspection station a mile from my house, run by some Lebanese guys who like BMWs and give me the maximum benefit of the doubt. When the guy backed the Land Cruiser out of the inspection bay, I breathed a sigh of relief as a saw the brand new sticker, but he said that the right front end was pretty loose and strongly recommended I have a look at it ASAP. I thanked him profusely.

I used the car for a few errands, and noticed that, sure enough, the right front wheel was starting to squeak and squeal, with the noise abating during braking -- classic symptoms of a bad wheel bearing. At work we have a truck jack; I jacked up the front wheel and grabbed it at 6 and 12 and shook it, and sure enough, the wheel bearing showed a lot of play. I do wheel bearings all the time in my cars, but the Land Cruiser is a six thousand pound vehicle; I preferred not to tempt fate with jack stands.

Directly across the street from where I work is a truck repair shop. I brought it in there. They fixed it for $326. This drives part of me nuts since the cost of the bearing is just a few bucks, but this is perhaps only the third time in the past ten years I've paid anyone to do anything on any of my cars other than tire balancing.

Sometimes you just have to pay the man.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wheels 'N Deals

As you'll be reading about in Roundel, I bought this 1985 635CSi, 200k, 5-speed, Recaros, badly sun-damaged Burgundrot paint, no rust, and an electrical problem that made it die, for $500. The root cause of the electrical problem turned out to be a bad voltage regulator. Once I addressed that and a low oil pressure condition, I began driving it around, developing the punch list of things to sort out.

The car wore a set of period-correct 14" gold BBS basketweaves. In theory, if both the wheels and the Burgundrot (metallic burgundy) paint were new, the gold would pop against the paint, but both were long past their glory days. Plus, someone had painted the rim lips white (ick) and the tires were 195/70 14s which gave the car a skinny-ankles look. So I went looking for other wheels and tires.

A set of 16" E38 Style 5 "V2" (with the rounded centercap; see basketweaves from a '98 740i showed up on Craigslist in an ad that said "$100 will deliver." I jumped all over that puppy. They were straight and shiny and had all four hubcaps and the tires were in great shape, but I hadn't done enough research to know that the 235/60 16 tire size for the E38 is too tall for the E24 (which, for a 16" rim, prefers 225/50 16). Also, these E38 wheels are offset ET23 and the E24 prefers ET20, so they sit a little inboard and may rub up front unless you use a spacer. Certainly they're beautiful wheels and well worth the hundred bucks, but by the time you add in the cost of tires (even used ones), the $100 to mount and balance, and spacers, you're talking real money. For dressing up a car, it's always far more cost-effective to find a set of tires already mounted and balanced on wheels.

So I put the E38 wheels under the porch. While I was under there, I saw a mound of wheels under a tarp. Geez, which ones are these, I struggled to remember. I pulled off the tarp and saw... a beautiful set of 14" E12 radially-spoked Alpina-style wheels with perfect center caps. I'd had these on my '73 3.0CSi for many years until I scored the set of 16" staggered Alpinas that the coupe now wears. Forgot all about these. They were even still wearing meaty 225/60 14 Yokos. I pulled them out, cleaned them off, and put them on the E24. They gave the car a great stance. They looked beautiful. So nice, in fact, that I decided that I didn't want to leave them on the car when I eventually sell it. The wheel search went on.

I responded to another ad a guy had on CL for a set of E34 basketweaves. There wasn't a lot of info, but by swapping e-mails I learned that they were 15x7s with 225/60 15 Michelin MXV4s with about 60% of the tread left. Unfortunately they were out in Gardner -- about an hour away. I asked the guy to send me a pic, and was glad he did because he saved me from a disappointing drive -- they weren't Style 5s, they were the "honeycomb" Style 7s ( I looked all over the web to find a pic of an E24 wearing them, and couldn't. I TM'd the guy saying thanks but they're not what I'm looking for. A day later he TM'd me back saying "I need to get them out of my garage $100 and they're yours." But having two sets of E24 wheels under the porch, I thought... no, let me look for what I want.

Then, last weekend, I went to Vintage at Saratoga in upstate NY. There were 15 sharks there. It was a great chance to look at wheels and take a lot of pics. Then I saw Boston Chapter president John Sullivan's beautiful dark blue E24... and it was wearing Style 7 honeycombs. I pulled out my phone and checked the pic. They were the same wheels. They looked much better than I expected on the E24. When I got back, I called the guy back, verified the wheels were still available, drove out to Gardner, and scored the Style 7s and mounted MXVx for a hundred bucks. These aren't the E24 wheels of my dreams, but for a hundred bucks, they dress the car up nicely.

So the E12 wheels will lie in waiting, like Sleeping Beauty, for the right car to kiss them. The gold 14" BBS basketweaves with the white lips will probably sit until I need something to throw on a roller. And the E38 basketweaves... if I find a used set of mint hundred dollar 225/50 16 tires, perhaps they'll be united with their destiny.

Lastly, some perspective is always a good thing. When I was at Vintage at Saratoga, I hung out with CCA member Bill Riblet from Virginia. Bill's a great guy. And it's always gratifying to meet someone who is worse than I am. Bill has nine cars. And 48 wheels under his porch.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Choose Your Shitbox

After Ethan totaled the Mazda last month (actually, after Ethan was appropriately contrite about totaling the Mazda last month), I began looking for another car for him (this time, with his money). Everyone wants to hit that knee in the cost / age / mileage curve, and there's no easy answer. To nearly eliminate risk of breakdown, you can buy a new car, but then you've turned it all into financial risk. The easy answer is buy a five-year-old Toyota or Honda, but this is still big money for the purchase, sales tax, and insurance. Ethan is trying to make films and has equipment to haul, so I thought a small wagon would be appropriate. I looked at mid-90s Toyota Corolla 5-speed wagons, but people want crazy money for these, like three grand for 15 year old cars with 180k.

Looking at cars with less cache (and thus lower cost), I started trolling for Ford Focus wagons. By chance, I hit on a 2005 Focus 2-door hatchback, with 108k miles, 5-speed, for $2500. It was a repo that wound up at a very small used car lot in Gloucester. After verifying the CarFax showed it hadn't been wacked or wasn't a flood car, I bought it. Stripped car, manual crank windows, but working a/c. Not a bad point to hit on the cost / age / mileage curve.

Also about a month ago, my friend Alex who built my garage and who still owns Bertha my old 2002, was looking for a cheap car. Alex wound up with a 12 year old Passat wagon with a 1.8L turbo and 160k for very short money ($1250).

This afternoon there was some odd symmetry in the fact that, while I was driving home after Ethan and I drove up to Gloucester to pick up the Focus, Alex called me saying that the Passat wagon had blown up its engine on the Mass Pike, and asking if he could have it towed to my house because he had no space in his driveway.

What are old friends for?

The Dawn of HackBlog

Having just returned from Vintage at Saratoga and had my chance to shake sweaty hands with the Hack Mechanic minions (and as Yale Rachlin used to say, "anyone who says they get tired of hearing 'I love your column' is lying through his teeth"), it seems a particularly appropriate time to start this blog.

I resist this, as I resist anything that smacks of self-promotion and flagrant narcissism. 

However, I will freely admit that I now have a certain enlightened self-interest: I am writing a book (working title: "Car Guy: Why men (of which I am one) buy, fix, collect, sometimes sell, and love cars, and how they saved my sanity (the cars, not the men)"). Robert Bentley Publishers is very interested, but I do not yet have a deal. And in a world where the old media (publishing) seems to increasingly rely on the new media (blog hits)... well, here I am.

You'll have to buy the book to start at the very beginning, but the basic story goes like this. I imprinted on BMWs early, but for reasons its higher CMR (chick magnet rating), my first car was a 1973 Triumph GT6. It broke. I fixed it. Over and over. Once I started buying and fixing BMWs in the early 1980s, I didn't look back. I sent a few unsolicited restoration and repair articles to Roundel (then edited by Parker Spooner). He ran them. I was happy.

When the BMW CCA appointed Yale Rachlin editor in the mid-80s, he called me up out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to write for him every month. The first two months went ok, but then I panicked. I had nothing to write about. I called Yale.

"You DO fix cars, don't you?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Well, write about that."

I thought that, by dashing these pieces off, I was obviously short-changing the readership, but in fact it was the beginning of, as Satch Carlson (Roundel's current editor) says, writing about getting myself into and out of BMW-related trouble.

So when I meet folks at events like Vintage at Saratoga, and when they say "You do what I do," I say "I know! The only difference is that I write a thousand words a month about it."

Here we go...