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...