Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 - my car year in review

Sorry for the lack of updates recently. What little time I've had I've been spending updating the Youtube page. Now that we're a few days away from 2012, I thought I'd step back and look at 2011 in review, automotive-wise.

2011 was pretty eventful, all touched off by the events of October and November 2010. As you may remember, my 1994 Subaru quit on me in mid-October 2010, which I replaced a few weeks later with a 1990 Volkswagen Jetta GL diesel.

I started 2011 driving the Jetta. After taking care of a few repair items, I figured the car would be good to go. Unfortunately, more repairs kept creeping up faster than I could take care of them. Before long, I'd overhauled the car's suspension, did a bunch of rewiring, installed carpets, replaced the thermostat, the battery, installed new CV axles, and replaced the ever-breaking alternator belt more times than I can remember. Keep in mind that I had to do all this work outside during one of the worst winters in recent memory here in Massachusetts.

I'd say the car was killing me slowly, but the fact is the Jetta was making short work of my demise. Four short months later, I threw my hands up in defeat and sold the Jetta for what I could get out of it. Thankfully, I got almost all my money back, including the parts I put into it.

I'd say that the Jetta was off the road about as often as it was actually running. I ended up driving the Vanagon to work a lot last winter and took the train a lot, too. A funny thing happened, though, while I owned the Jetta. I posted a lot of my problems with the car to Youtube, and soon realized that people were watching. I decided to continue posting videos with my next car.

In early March I sold the Jetta. Just over 24 hours later, I was behind the wheel of its replacement, a 1995 Subaru Legacy:

It soon became clear that I'd overpaid a tad for the Subaru. Although it was advertised as a private sale, the seller turned out to be a small time dealer working out of the back of a dirty shop in a dirty corner of a dirty city. Still, I was low on options and decided to buy the car. It needed as much work as if not more than the Jetta. However, there was one advantage. After driving my old Subaru for four years, I knew practically ever nut and bolt on it, and I knew that if I fixed something, it'd stay fixed. Over the course of the year, I repaired the rear brake hard lines, replaced the front CV axles, the steering rack boots, the alternator, did a full tune-up including timing belt, and a lot more.

It may sound like the car was a total lemon, but the fact is that all the work was spread out over 20,000 miles of driving on a car that had 142,000 on it when I bought it. So, all in all, not too bad. Plus, I find Subarus to be very easy to fix. Long story short, I'm happy with it. Here's a few of my repair videos from this car:




Even though the Subaru needed a lot of little repairs over the course of the year, it was driveable pretty much all the time. I was able to confine most of the work to the weekends. As such, I was able to park the Vanagon and get to some lingering items that had crept up on me. First off, I had to repair a couple of minor oil leaks that added up to one big leak. Then, I had to take care of a long list of minor bodywork items. When all was said and done, it was early September, but I was very happy with the results:

However, as soon as I started driving it again, the oil pressure monitor started going crazy. At first, I thought it was just a faulty sensor. To be sure, I plumbed in an oil pressure gauge. It turns out I was wrong, though, and a month later, the engine quit on me:

The Vanagon's death left me with something of a dilemma. The van was my backup transportation - a necessity given the amount of miles I drive. I still had the Mercedes 220D, and realized that I didn't have the time, space, or money to keep two projects. Given my long history with the van, I decided to keep it and sell the Mercedes. Of course, the Mercedes hadn't been started in nearly two years and had been sitting in the garage while I worked on it bit by bit. So, the first thing I had to do was get the 220D running so I could move the Vanagon into dry storage and then sell the Benz:

I got the van into the garage and was eventually able to sell the Mercedes. Long term, I plan to replace the van's engine with a Subaru EJ22. Short term, I plan to add another Subaru to the stable as backup transportation.

So, 2012 will likely involve a lot of content around the yet-to-be next Subaru and planning for my Vanagon engine swap. When that's all done, I'll get myself another old diesel Mercedes... eventually.

Happy New Year, everyone! Make 2012 a good one!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Mercedes is running and the Vanagon is in storage...

The title of this post says it all... but as usual, I'll say more.

As per my last blog post, the Vanagon made it home after Transporterfest, but only courtesy of a AAA tow. My long-term plan is to do a Subaru EJ22 engine swap. I've been around the original VW waterboxer engine since my parents bought their first Vanagon in 1985, and have owned my stock Vanagon since 2003. So, this isn't a snap decision. I've seen these engines fail more often than they work properly.

I didn't want the van to rot in the driveway while I saved and made preparations for the engine swap, so my goal has been to get it into the garage. In order to do that, I needed to move the Mercedes out.

The problem with that is that the Mercedes hadn't been so much as started in the better part of two years. I've been working on it bit-by bit - bodywork mostly up until this point. Thankfully, I'd been maintaining the battery. Still, I had to do a marathon of maintenance before the car would start:

After the Mercedes finally started, I took a chance and started the Vanagon. Amazingly, it wasn't completely dead. It was weak, noisy and smoky, but drove into the garage under its own power:

So, as it is, I'm currently trying to sell the Mercedes, for two reasons. First, I need to start raising money for my engine swap. More importantly, I just can't have two big projects sitting around. The Vanagon was my backup car. It's my project now. As such, I'll need to get something a little more roadable for a backup car.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Losses and gains - what's in it for me this time?

Egad! It's been nearly a month since I updated the old b-log. And what an unfortunately eventful month it's been.

I'm not going to beat around the bush. The Vanagon is dead. Well, "mostly dead" anyway, to steal a line from Billy Crystal. As per my last post, I was having suspected oil pressure problems. I plumbed in a gauge and drove it locally a bit. Everything seemed more or less OK. I even attempted to install a tachometer:

The results of the second oil pressure test with the tach installed were inconclusive, due to poor quality aftermarket gauges. So, I decided to drive a little more locally to test the van. I was planning a trip to New Jersey, which should have happened this past weekend, and wanted a few more local miles under my belt before I took a long trip in the van. So, a week and a half ago, I decided to take the Vanagon to Transporterfest, a VW bus show at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline, MA.

The van handled the first part of the trip OK, but as it really heated up at highway speed, the oil pressure began to drop. By the time I got there, the light was going off intermittently. Not a good sign. So, I enjoyed the show, and when it was over, I decided to head home. It was a 40 mile trip there and back. Well... I didn't make it back. Actually, not true. I did make it back home, but with the help of AAA and a ride from my wife:

Long story short, the van will probably start, but a scant 300 miles or less since I completed all the work, and the engine is pretty much dead. As I don't have the money to fix it (yet), I de-registered it, de-insured it, and am preparing to get it into the garage for long-term storage.

Bottom line, I don't want to sell the van. I don't need to, and in its current mechanical condition, it probably wouldn't sell for much. So, I'm a bit sad. After almost eight and a half years, the van is no longer usable. But, this is where we get to the point of this particular blog post.

In the past, every time I've had major car problems, I've learned something or otherwise gained from the experience. Conscious of that trend, I'm trying to take as many positives out of this experience as possible.

Most of all, I'm going to use this to complete a long-time goal of mine and learn how to swap a Subaru engine into the van. Once I can save enough money for the conversion parts, I'll be dropping in a Subaru EJ22 engine, just like in my Legacy. I know the engine very well - even better than I know the Vanagon's engine at this point. Putting one in a Vanagon, though... that's going to be a learning experience.

But, it'll be a long while before I have the money for the project. So, in the meantime, I'm going back to working on the Mercedes 220D project. I dug it out this past weekend:

It hasn't even been started since April, 2010. I'm hoping to have it running again this weekend so I can get it out of the garage and clear up that space for the Vanagon. I'll be resuming work on the Mercedes outdoors. As much as I didn't want to work outdoors in the winter again, I'd prefer to do that rather than leave the VW outside. When it's done, I do plan to enjoy it a bit, but will eventually sell the Mercedes to help fund the Vanagon engine swap.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

And fate spits in my face...

Remember my last post? Remember when I told you the Vanagon was done? Well, apparently it's not. Or is it?

Let me explain. I finally got it all back together after working on it most of the summer. I was ready to do a few touch-ups on the Legacy and the Impreza and then finally get back to working on the 220D. I am MercedesDieselGuy, after all. The W115 needs to factor into this somehow.

I took the Vanagon out for its first drive a few weeks ago. I did a 30 mile loop on a local highway, at highway speed (65 MPH). All went well.

The following weekend I was busy working on the Subaru (this would have been Sunday, September 11), and needed to go somewhere in the evening. The Subaru was coated in wet Miracle Paint, so I opted to take the Vanagon. It was a 120 mile round trip. On the way out, I didn't really have any problems. I parked the van for a few hours, went to the September 11 evening service at my church, and then headed back home around 9 PM.

Around 30 miles into the return trip, out on the MassPike, in an area where it's completely unlit... the oil pressure monitor light started blinking and buzzing. Knowing this meant serious business, I pulled over instantly and shut the engine off.

I checked the oil with the help of my flashlight. The crankcase was still full. The oil seals I'd replaced were holding and the engine was dry on top and below. Cautiously, I started the engine again. All sounded good and looked good - no more warning light. Thinking I had a possible false alarm, I decided to chance the return trip home. All went well for the next 25 miles or so, until I got to my exit. As I pulled off the Pike, the light started blinking again. I found that if I blipped the throttle, the light went out. This suggested the new sensor (replaced 200 miles previously with the oil seals) was alive and functioning, and that I had a real oil pressure problem.

As soon as I got home (under my own power, in case you were wondering), I hit Google and tried to make sense of the situation. One possible culprit was the cheap oil filter I was using (and had always used) causing a restriction and thus, a pressure drop. I did a video of me thinking out loud to help with diagnosis:

...and another:

So, I decided to try a couple of things. I ordered a couple of the correct German oil filters and decided to do another oil change, as well as plumb in an oil pressure gauge. Due to the distance from the dash to the engine, I opted for an electric gauge. It took some doing, but I did find one in my price range locally. So, last weekend, I installed it (though I do need to finish up the installation):

Without a tachometer, the test was promising, but not conclusive. So, next weekend I'll be adding a tachometer. Hopefully, I'll be able to confirm the engine is OK.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Vanagon done, other stuff, and what's next

Since my last blog post, I was actually able to finish work on the Vanagon. Overall, it shouldn't have taken this long to get it done, but life has a way of interfering with my free time. What, specifically, you ask?

First off, the Subaru's alternator failed on me:

and I fixed it:

and the bearing in the new one went bad two weeks later, necessitating another replacement:

Oh, and there was Hurricane (err... Tropical Storm, that is) Irene:

Plus there's the usual routine maintenance around the house and on the cars, as well as my day job to keep me busy.

So, this weekend, I finally got the van together and was able to take it out for a good 30 miles. I ran some fuel injector cleaner through it and it's purring like a kitten now:

I can't convey with pictures how much cleaner it is inside and out. Even before all the work, it photographed pretty well, even when dirty. You'll just need to take my word that this is actually a major improvement. The looks now approximate the way they were when I was regularly taking the Vanagon to shows years ago. Mechanically, it's pretty much there, too.

Here's a walkaround:

I'm happy. I hope to still make it to a show or two this year. Now that the van is done, I plan to take care of a few bodywork-related items on the Legacy and my wife's Impreza (rust spots). Once the Subarus are done and ready for the winter, I'm going to start back in on the Mercedes 220D.

It's been a couple of months since I touched it, and I'm eager to get back to working on it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bringing the Vanagon back to its former glory...

As of my last blog post, I've covered all the cars I've owned. So, as you can see, I'm a car nut, and a do-iy-yourselfer. I'd much rather tackle a repair job myself than pay someone else and trust that they'll get the job done right and not rip me off. With 100-ish miles of driving daily each between my wife and myself, routine repairs and maintenance add up quickly.

The downside of this is that I have little free time for anything other than fixing my cars.

The upside of this is that I have plenty to film and write about for you fine folks.

With so much on my plate, my projects need to be handled in order of priority. Sometimes, one car gets a bit neglected in favor of a needier one. That's just the way it works out.

If you've been following my blog, you know that my second car was the Vanagon. I bought it back in 2003 and it's currently the second place record holder for the car I've owned for the longest amount of time. The first place record holder is still my first car - the 1982 Mercedes 240D, which I had for a hair shy of nine years. The Vanagon will assume the first place slot next Spring. Despite this, it's also the car I've driven the least (only counting among cars I registered and actually drove). Although I do take it camping and use it for hauling on Home Depot runs, it's in pretty amazing shape for its age, and I've tried my best to keep it that way, despite living in New England.

Shortly after buying the van, I joined a VW club. My original motivation was to meet some people who knew about these vans and maybe abosrb some knowledge to help me fix the van myself. I really liked the group. The club is now somewhat defunct. We were all in the same age bracket, and over time, we've all been less active on the car "scene" as we've moved away, gotten married, or miscellaneous. We're all still good friends and in touch, though.

Anyhow, although I didn't learn anything maintenance-wise from the group, we had a lot of fun, and attended a lot of car shows together. Eventually, they convinced me to start entering the van into shows. I didn't think the van was show-quality, but others disagreed. I entered the van into competition for the first time at H2O International in Ocean City, MD, in 2003, and walked away with first place in my category. I kept entering it in shows and I kept winning for two reasons:

  1. Almost nobody brings Vanagons to these shows. I had very little competition in my category.
  2. When I did have some competition, I usually won. The van is just that nice.
Of course, it's been more than a few years now since I showed the van competitively. Other projects got in the way, and New England weather and road salt started to take a toll on it. This past winter, as my Jetta was constantly breaking down, I drove the van a lot, which I hate to do in the winter. It handles poorly in the snow and I hate exposing it to road salt.

I knew the van was dripping oil, but the drip had gotten much worse. On top of that, the van was dirty and grimy in and out, and very small surface rust spots which I'd ignored for years were really starting to bother me. So, as soon as the "new" Subaru was on the road, I got serious about repairing the van, and bringing it back to a condition approximating the way it was when I bought it.

First up, I tackled the oil leak. I replaced a bunch of oil seals, but the problem turned out to be one of the oil pressure sensors, which had developed a large leak. After that, I got to the bodywork. I pulled a dent that had been on the van since before I bought it (back in 2003, I simply Bondo-ed over the dent) and did some touch-up painting. I also removed the surface rust spots and coated those areas in Miracle Paint before applying the final touch-up paint. I also pulled the bumpers and brush guard for repairs and touch-up painting.

When all that was done, I gave the interior a massive cleaning, including all the interior glass, which hadn't had a good cleaning in a couple of years. As of this blog post, I'm not done, but am NEARLY done. I still need to do a final bits of touch-up on the brush guard and need to give the van a good wash and wax.

But, when I'm done, the van will once again be a pleasure to drive, and I hope to take it to a show or two this season yet.

(before - old touch-up paint failing and seam rust showing)

(Bondo ground away and dent PROPERLY pulled)

(completed repair - light gray on left is dust)

(rear emblem chrome had flaked off - repainted it black)

(bumpers off for some much-needed attention)

(video I did of exhaust and oil leak repairs)

(short video I did on Vanagon armrest repair)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

the Subaru that saved the day

When we last left off with our intrepid blogger (yours truly), I spent the past winter driving a 1990 Volkswagen Jetta Gl diesel. If you read my last blog entry, you know I didn't enjoy it one bit. I was going to hold off selling it until spring, but I just reached my limit with the car's issues, and decided to sell it and take my chances finding a replacement car.

I was on Craigslist within an hour of selling the Jetta. I got a lead on a low mileage Subaru Impreza in Connecticut. I called the seller, and very shortly was on the road to go see it. The Impreza was an hour away from me, and I had cash in hand from the sale of the Jetta. Unfortunately, I was only five minutes away from the Impreza when the seller called me back to let me know it had been sold.

So, after wasting a bunch of gas, I turned around and headed home. I checked Craigslist again, but nothing suitable showed up. The next day, after I got home from church, I hit up Craigslist again and found another candidate. This car was also an hour away, but in the opposite dircetion, in Lynn. I called the seller, and pretty soon, I was on my way to see it.

Before I knew it, I was outside a dirty mechanic shop in Lynn, which was shockingly busy for 4 PM on a Sunday afternoon. Shortly later, the seller showed up. It was around this time that I realized that this was a small time car dealer, and not a private seller. I've only ever dealt with private sellers before, and if I'd known this was a dealer, I never would have made the trip in the first place. But, since I made the trip, I figured I'd check out the car.

We walked half a block down the street to a dirty storage lot. There, along with other cars, was a maroon 1995 Subaru Legacy. 5-speed manual transmission, EJ22 engine, AWD - just the configuration I was looking for. So, I checked it out.

The ad said that the interior was clean and that all the car really needed was a new rear muffler. I opened up the car and found that although it had been vacuumed, the car had been smoked in and the upholstery was dirty. The body was fairly clean and straight, so I started it up. With a rusted out rear muffler, it was loud, but ran OK. I had nothing to lose, so I took it for a test drive. The car seemed to run OK and track straight.

I thought about it, and knew the dealer was asking too much based on the car's condition. I also knew that because he was a dealer, he wouldn't be too flexible on the price. I offered $200 under asking price, and he agreed. We did the paperwork in the back of the aforementioned busy shop, and I was out of there shortly. I would have passed on the deal entirely, but this car was configured and optioned the way I wanted it, and I was having a hard time finding a comparable car. So, I figured I'd just deal with any issues the car had. Aside from condition, this was exactly what I was looking for.

I had driven there in the Vanagon, and now I had two cars to get home. Luckily, I had a plan. I put my plates on the Subaru and drove it a mile to the Lynn commuter train station. From there, I walked back to the shop where I'd parked the Vanagon. I got in and drove it to my office in Cambridge. From there, I took the red line (subway) into Boston and caught the evening commuter train out to Lynn. I picked up the Subaru at the train station parking lot and started on my way home. On the drive out of the city, I noticed that the Subaru's CV axles were clicking. So, I knew I had to replace those along with the muffler.

(actual video of the rotted muffler)

(video I did, after the fact, of replacing the axles)

I took the train back into the city the next morning and drove the Vanagon home. I ordered the muffler and axles for the Subaru, which arrived in around a week. I replaced those, registered the car, and put it into commuter service.

Of course, as luck would have it, on my way home the first day driving the "new" car, the brakes failed, due to a rotted out rear hydraulic line. I had to go back to driving the Vanagon until I could fix the brake line the following weekend.

When all was said and done, I replaced the rear brake lines, front CV axles, tie rod ends, and steering rack rubber boots. A couple of months later, I did a full tune-up, as I had no service record on the car. That included spark plugs, wires, pcv valve, all hoses, belts, fluids, water pump and timing belt. Here's another long video of all that work:

Although the car needed a lot of catch-up maintenance, I knew how to do all the work, as this car is, mechanically-speaking, nearly identical to my old 1994 Legacy. So, it was time consuming, but not really challenging. So far, I've put around 10,000 reliable miles on this car and am pretty happy with it. I've long since given the interior a deep cleaning, and have only a few minor outstanding items to fix.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

the Jetta that nearly killed me

As per my last blog entry, I now had the ever-reliable Subaru, the Vanagon, and now the 220D project. Even though the Mercedes wasn't driveable, it was mine. So, naturally, I was feeling pretty good about myself.

I spent whatever weekend time I could working on the 220D, knew the Vanagon was staying pretty reliable, overall, and the Subaru was going to run forever... or so I thought.

One morning, in October, 2010, I started the Subaru. I thought a heard a noise, momentarily, like a slight grinding or scraping. It was subtle, but went away immediately. I didn't have any time to fuss with it, so I left for work, as I always do. I got on the Masspike, put it in fifth gear, and started cruising.

About ten miles down the highway, just before the exit for route 495, the engine suddenly hiccuped, and lost power momentarily. Once again, I didn't worry too much about it. Then, a few seconds later, the engine shut off completely. I was in the right lane (thankfully) and coasting at 65 miles per hour. I flipped on my hazard lights and coasted to a stop in the breakdown lane.

I checked the first, most obvious thing - the fuel gauge was still rearing 3/4 full. So, I wasn't out of gas. I tried to start the car again, to see if the shutdown was a fluke. The starter cranked OK, and sounded more-or-less normal, but the engine just wouldn't catch and turn over. I figured I most likely had a dead fuel pump, and called AAA.

To their credit, they had a truck out to me shortly, and since the dispatching tow company was near where I lived, they agreed to tow me home. I was already late for work, so I parked the dead Subaru and hopped in the Vanagon. That evening, I began diagnostics to see if I could figure out why the car wouldn't start. I even went so far as to pull the OBD I blink codes and try and make sense of them.

After a few weeks of trying, with no results, and winter fast approaching, I realized that I needed to replace the Subaru. I didn't want to do it, but I needed something that would handle winter travel. A 180 degree spin off a road lightly-covered in snow a few years earlier convinced me to never drive the van in the winter again. As always, I took to Craigslist to try and find some new wheels. Of course, this time, nothing suitable was showing up in my price range aside from a mechanically-solid Subaru with a DANGEROUSLY rotted body.

I expanded my search to the Samba. If I couldn't find a Subaru, I would have happily settled for a car like my old Golf. Immediately, I saw something even more interesting - a 1990 diesel Jetta. According to the ad, the car had some problems - mostly cosmetic - that I thought I could handle. After a few emails and phone calls I was off to Connecticut to see the car.

It seemed a little rougher in person than I thought it might be (mostly interior stuff), and the paperwork was questionable, but I decided to take it for a test drive. I thought about it, made an offer, and soon, I was driving home in my super high MPG Jetta GL diesel:

For the most part, I thought the Jetta just needed a little bit of exterior cleanup and new carpeting. Yeah... not quite.

Shortly after I bought the Jetta, I did get the Subaru running again (perfectly, I might add). So, I had too many cars. I opted to keep the Jetta, which had 100,000 fewer miles on it than the Legacy. I sold the Legacy just as winter was beginning.

(final parting shot of the Legacy)

Before I go any further, I just want to preface the rest of this by stating for the record that I don't think the guy who sold me the car had any idea at all how badly it would shake itself to pieces in the coming months. The guy who sold it to me had owned the car for a year or so but hadn't registered it, though he'd done some work on it. Nevertheless, he hadn't actually driven it any real distance.

The second day I had the car home I changed the oil, not knowing how old it was. When I was done, I took the car for a quick test drive, to find out that the alternator belt was squealing like a bastard. The next morning, on the way into work, the belt broke one me a block away from the house. I ended up replacing that belt four or five times in the four months I owned this car, even going so far as modify the belt drive to try extend belt life. No go.

If that were it, I could have lived with it. But, in the four months I owned the car, I had to replace the following (in no particular order):

  • screaming speedometer cable
  • CV axles
  • shocks (all four corners)
  • carpet (car came without it)
  • radio
  • thermostat
  • engine air intake tube
  • numerous alternator belts
  • more that I can't remember
  • battery
(new alternator tensioner pulley)

(alternator belt drive modification - new roller bearings to compensate for belt deflection and to ease belt tension)

(shiny new CV axle)

(new CV axle installed)

(rebuilding one of the front struts)

(rebuilt strut installed)

Keep in mind that I had to do all these repairs outdoors, in Massachusetts, in the dead of winter, in sometimes single-digit temperatures in the dark.

(how the Jetta spent a big portion of the winter)

The final straw for me was when the front left wheel bearing toasted itself. It still rolled, but the wheel had a half inch of play when off the ground. I got fed up and didn't want to fix that also. I ordered the part, but sold the car (and then sent the new wheel bearing to the new owner). I had the car up on Craigslist a short while, and came down in price very quickly. As I told the buyer - "I just wanted the Jetta out of my life." I'm usually never that blunt and never negotiate so freely, but I wanted the Jetta gone.

For the record, I told the buyer everything I knew about the Jetta, from what the person I bought it from told me, to every repair I did on the Jetta, to everything I knew that was wrong with it. Whenever I sell a car, I give full disclosure. It usually helps me sell a car quicker and at a higher price, I think, than sugar-coating it.

Even though it got 50 miles to the gallon, I'd spent all the fuel savings on new parts, and had to do all the repairs myself, to boot. I hope the Jetta behaves itself better for the new owner. This is the first time I sold a car without having a replacement already lined up. As such, within minutes of it leaving the driveway, I was on Craigslist. Inside of 36 hours, I was driving my new car. See the (coming soon) following blog post for more on my current daily driver - another Subaru.

Here's some videos I took of the Jetta while I had it:
(alternator belt drive modification)

(CV axle replacement - video 1 of 2)

(CV axle replacement - video 2 of 2)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

back to my roots... WAY back

It's important to understand that when I bought the Rabbit, I'd been hanging with the VW crowd for years, who'd been filling my head with how great the old diesel Rabbits were, and how easy they were to work on. I learned the hard way that the old Rabbits (at least to me) were far more difficult to work on than the old diesel Mercedes I'd had. Far lower quality, too.

After I got rid of the Rabbit, I picked up the Impreza, which was a very quick project. I had it at daily driver status in under two weeks of wrenching on it in my spare time. At this point, I had just gotten married (weeks earlier) and didn't have room in my life or wallet for a project. Not that I didn't think about it, occasionally.

Of course, those thoughts came to a screeching halt in August, 2009, when my impeccably reliable 1994 Subaru Legacy decided that it had been reliable for long enough. One day, when leaving the city for my 50 mile commute home, I was sitting in traffic, and thought I saw the temperature gauge creeping up. I got on the highway, and the gauge kept going up. I pulled off at the first exit, and stopped the car on a side street, steam coming out from under the hood and the temperature gauge almost pegged.

I popped the hood and realized immediately that the upper radiator hose had blown. As luck would have it, my wife was with me, and she had a friend who lived close by. She called him, and in a few minutes I had a ride to the nearest Autozone. They had the rad hose in stock, so I bought it and some coolant. Soon (after treating our friend to a dinner as a thank-you), we were back on our way home. To be on the safe side, I decided to replace all the cooling system hoses that weekend and do a coolant flush. I'd done an otherwise complete tune-up on the Legacy weeks earlier and wasn't worried about anything else. I got the hoses, put the car on ramps, changed them, and filled the radiator. Once I had it as full as I could get it, I started the car to bleed the air out of the system.

I never understood what happened, but as I was bleeding the cooling system with the engine running, I heard a distinct metallic "ping" and the engine ground to a violent halt. As I was standing in front of the idling car at the time, this startled me a wee bit. I checked the fluids. All seemed OK. I got in the car, pushed the clutch pedal in, and it started right up. I didn't know what to make of it, so I let the clutch pedal out, and the engine ground to a halt again.

Eventually, I realized that something inside the transmission had given out with the car at idle. Luckily, I was at home in my driveway at the time. Of course, now I had to decide what to do. I mulled it over, and even considered junking the car. Eventually, I decided that I'd try and find a cheap parts car and swap the transmissions myself. I found a running, driving, parts Legacy for $400, and got to work. A few weekends later, and the Subaru was back in action.

By that time, it was late October and I was exhausted. I decided to take a break from projectland for the winter.

Of course, come spring I had the "itch" again and hit Craigslist. After my experience with the Rabbit, I wanted to steer clear of Volkswagens for a while. It's like I usually say - I can only handle one VW's share of problems at one time, and for me, that VW is the Vanagon. So, I started looking for another Mercedes. I chased down a few leads. Most promising to me was a 240D near the Cape which sold before I could get to it.

I also located a 1972 220D out west. The car was in rough shape, but I made an appointment to see it anyway. The asking price was $500, and BOY was the car rough. It had originally been a deep maroon, and looked to have been repainted once in its original color, and then once (poorly) in black. The paint was peeling all over, exposing surface rust. The interior was in pretty good shape, but the floor definitely needed some work. The car did start, and although it hadn't been driven in years, it sounded pretty good.

Still, I had to think about it. I left, thought it over, and shot the seller an offer a few days later. A week or so later, and I was out there with a tow vehicle I'd arranged through Craigslist. The Mercedes, immobile for years, drove on to the trailer under its own power, and off again once we got to the house.

The interior was in pretty nice shape, aside from dry-rotted carpeting, but the exterior needed work. Aside from needing a new oil cooler, the car was intact. The OM615 engine was new to me, but VERY similar to the old OM616 and OM617 engines I was used to. Best part? - 4-speed manual!

So, this was the beginning of the project for me. The car has plenty of issues, but at a buy-in of $250, it satisfies my Mercedeslust and keeps a project within arm's reach for when the daily drivers are behaving themselves. I've done less work than I would have liked in the past year and half, but the car is coming along. As of thsi blog post, the driver's side floor is repaired. Once I'm done with some work currently in progress on the van, I'll mostly be working on the 220D. Plus, I'll be tying my blog posts closer to the actual work and my Youtube page. So stay tuned - there's a lot more interesting Mercedes stuff coming.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

catching a break - the Impreza

I debated doing a blog entry on this one, as I don't actually consider it to be my car, but since my name's on the title, and it has a story... I guess it belongs here.

Right before I sold the Rabbit, I was poking around on Craigslist again (see a pattern here yet?) and I saw an ad for a $250 1993 Subaru Impreza listed as a parts car. I was very happy with my Legacy, and didn't need another car around, but I was curious as to what a $250 Subaru would be like. I figured that there was a 1 in 100 chance the car was worth a damn. I didn't contact the seller for a few days, but in the end, I sent off an email to the guy and we agreed to meet at his house.

The ad said that the Subaru had a dead alternator. The seller told me that he had AAA try to jump start it but the tow truck driver told him that the alternator was bad. I got to the seller's house and saw the Subaru sitting in the driveway. It looked like it had been parked in one place most likely for a few months, though the inspection sticker was six or seven years out of date. As best I can figure from the looks of it, the Impreza spent most of that time in the seller's garage. It was far too clean to have spent all those years outdoors.

The right front fender was dented and there was a dime-sized rust spot over the right rear wheel well, but other than that, the car looked very nice. The seller told me that he'd taken it off the road when he'd started working from home years earlier and had only used it occasionally to haul a few bags of trash down to the neighborhood dumpster. I think he mentioned that the car hadn't been started in months.

I popped the hood and took a look. It was filthy, but everything was there. I turned the key - nothing. Completely dead. I pulled the battery out of my Legacy and hooked it up the Impreza. The car cranked, but without much fanfare. Eventually, it did start. The car sounded horrible at first. It stalled, but I restarted it. Eventually, the idle smoothed out a bit and the car sounded a bit better. I asked if I could take it for a spin around the block. I put the car in "drive" (automatic) and it didn't budge. After abusing the gas pedal a bit, the car did move forward a bit under its own power.

From its behavior, I believe, to this day, that the car hadn't been started or run in YEARS, not months, as the seller told me. I think he was mistaken, not lying, for the record. Either that, or I misheard him.

After a few cycles of driving a few feet, stalling, and restarting, the car did eventually stay running and make a loop around the block. I immediately noticed that one of the CV axles was shot. When I parked the car back at the seller's house and shut it off, I could hear the radiator boiling - not a good sign.

Still, the car was clean. I offered $100, and we settled on $175. I called a tow truck and had the Impreza dragged home.

I got to work almost immediately. The gas tank was almost empty, so I made two runs to the gas station with my 5 gallon gas can in the trunk of the Legacy. I filled the Impreza up and added a can of fuel system cleaner. Less than an hour of idling in the driveway, and the Impreza seemed to be running normally. The boiling sound went away on its own. I think it may have been a temporarily stuck thermostat.

I replaced the CV axle (the first one I ever replaced) and gave the car a much-needed full tune-up (plugs, filters, timing belt, water pump, coolant, ATF, etc). When I was done, I was amazed at how it turned out. It was a very presentable little car and ran almost like new.

After daily driving the Impreza for a few weeks (out of necessity, due to a broken transmission in the Legacy), I turned the Impreza over to my wife to replace her decrepit 1993 Legacy. In two years now, the Impreza has been nearly trouble-free. Aside from some basic maintenance (brakes, etc), and having to take the car in to get one of the rear wheel cylinders replaced, it's been very reliable and has covered over 50,000 miles in that time.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Little F*cker"

I don't believe I've covered this yet in my previous blog posts, but with very few exceptions, I've always named my cars. There's been no particular reason I've done this aside from it's just something I've always done.

I called my first 240D the Bluesmobile, after the Dodge Monaco police cruiser in the Blues Brothers. In fact, all my Mercedes have carried that name, right up to the project I'm working on now (Bluesmobile 2, Bluesmobile 3, etc). I've always called the Vanagon "Magic" after the Who song "Magic Bus". The 1994 Subaru was Rudy.

Eventually, I came up with a name for my Volkswagen Rabbit, too. I'll get to that a little later.

I wasn't really looking for another car when I bought the Rabbit. I'd finished the garage restoration of the 1981 Mercedes 240D a few months earlier, and I'd recently finished converting the car to run on vegetable oil. I was without something to wrench on. I spotted the Rabbit on Craigslist, not far from my office. It was a 1980 2-door model (built in 1979 in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania) with diesel engine and 5-speed manual (which I later found out was not original to the car - factory four speed - and not correctly installed) transmission. The part that really interested me was that it also had a Greasecar conversion kit (incompletely installed). I knew the Rabbit was capable of 50 MPG or better on pumped diesel. With a WVO conversion, that car represented a potentially large number of free miles I could drive. I went over to check it out after work one day in October, 2008.

The car was rougher than I'd counted on. Even with 99,000 on the odometer (which I do believe was accurate), the body had seen many better days. The interior was dirty, but in otherwise good shape. The guy selling it was a bit of an oddball. He was in his 40s and wouldn't stop talking about all the dope he'd smoked with people while buying and selling cars in the past. Oddball or not, he seemed to be more or less on the level. I don't remember why he was selling, but I think he'd just inherited a newer car.

The Rabbit had its share of problems. I should have been more worried when I couldn't stop the car during the test drive. The brakes were nearly shot. I actually got out and requested that the seller complete the test drive, just so I could see the engine and transmission work. Aside from the brakes, the car seemed to work OK mechanically.

I had some concerns about the body, most notably the obviously Swiss-cheesed floor. I made an offer, contingent on the seller driving the car to my house for me. He agreed, and we made a deal. A few days later, the Rabbit was sitting in my driveway:

You'll notice the hood is up. The car had a parasitic power drain that killed the battery if it was left hooked up.

VW nerds will also note the incorrect round headlights. At some point in the past, someone had removed the square headlights and grill and replaced then with rounds. They hadn't changed the radiator core support body panel, though, so there was a gap underneath the grill. I found a VW parts packrat locally and bought a correct 1980 Westmoreland grill complete with square headlights and headlight buckets:

I didn't do much else before the winter. The Rabbit mostly sat out in the ice, with a piece of plastic over the broken quarter window (which I later replaced):

Long story short, the car had a metric ton of problems. In the spring, I rebuilt the vacuum pump and got the brakes working marginally better:

Even as the car's problems kept snowballing, I kept working. At one point, I had given the car a proper name, but soon started referring to it as "Little F*cker", which eventually took over as its name. In April, I reluctantly sold the 1981 240D, partially so I could concentrate on the Rabbit. I started in on the Rabbit's body issues in late spring. Here, you can see some weird blue primer applied by the previous owner to cover some rust:

The worst part was the car's floor. I thought I could fix it, like I did with the 240D, but it turned out to be much more difficult to repair, due to the way the Rabbit was constructed. Finally, one day in June, I hit my breaking point. One Saturday afternoon, while working on the Rabbit, I threw down my wrench on the garage floor, marched in the house, conceded defeat, and posted the car for sale on Craigslist. I removed the Greasecar kit and sold that separately. In all, I got most of my money back and the Rabbit, and it went to an enthusiast.

If the car had been in better shape to begin with, I might have enjoyed it. I did enjoy the several test spins I took around the block. It was fun to drive. But, in the end, it was way too far gone for my taste. For all I know, though... it might still be out there.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

full circle - back to a 240D

After I got rid of the Golf and the Jetta, I still had the Subaru and the Vanagon, which was more than enough car. Still, while I now had ample parking space in the driveway, I was still lacking in the common sense department. It was only a few weeks after I sold the Jetta, that I got "the itch" again. Unfortunately, as usual the prescription was another project car.

After the Golf and Jetta, I was in no mood to deal with Volkswagens again, and started scouring Craigslist for another Mercedes. Not much was showing up until one day when I saw an ad for a 1981 240D, located right here in town. The car was sitting on the lot of the owner's mechanic, and I went over to check it out.

The car had been repainted several years prior, but it was fairly high quality work. The interior had also been redone, and would need only a little cleaning to look new. Under the hood, the news was even better. Although the body had in excess of 315,000 miles, the engine had been replaced with a low mileage used engine at a Mercedes dealership several years before. The same dealership had installed a factory-rebuilt transmission within a year or two of the engine.

The radiator, alternator, tires and full exhaust were also less than two years old, with very few miles on them. The seller told me she'd had the car a long time, but was now selling it because it felt like she "had to get out and push it". I test drove it and found her description to be apt. The car topped out at 20 MPH on flat ground. The seller's mechanic suggested the car needed another engine. I had a feeling he didn't know what he was talking about.

I had an inkling it was a filter and tune-up issue, as on the blue car, but couldn't be 100% sure. I made an offer. We haggled a bit, and $700 later, I drove the Mercedes home.

It took a little longer than I'd figured on to sort out the car's running issues. I changed the fuel filters and adjusted the valves to no avail. In the end, it turned out to be a clogged screen coming off the fuel tank that was the problem. I replaced that and the car ran like new.

At this point, winter was winding down to a close. I knew the car had a rust bubble in the floor, so I took up the carpet to see if I could get a better look at it. The more I poked at it, the worse it seemed. I took the seats out, started digging, and found severe rust holes in the floor and rockers that had been almost completely hidden by factory undercoating. As I had to tear into the car to find this, I don't think the seller knew anything about this. Still, the car didn't turn out to be the bargain I thought it was.

(large rust hole - driver's side floor against rocker - AFTER undercoating removal)

At this point, I had to make a decision to keep working or scrap the car. I'd never dealt with rust this bad before, but the car was too good mechanically to let go of it. Plus, the upper body was still in great shape.

So, I got to patching metal. I worked evenings in the garage for a couple of months, and by early summer, the car was ready for the road, running like new and looking almost as good:

In the end, all the work was worth it. This was a car that I planned to keep forever. Mechanically, it was just too good to let go. So, I put it on the road and drove it in rotation with the Subaru. I drove it as-is for a solid two months or so. Then, the fuel crisis of 2008 hit.

I still needed to drive - a lot - and it wasn't getting any cheaper to do so. I thought about it, and then made a big decision; I'd convert the Mercedes to run on used vegetable oil. I ordered a conversion kit from as they were local and the most reputable company I could find.

The conversion kit was fairly easy to install. I took a few days to do it, but I'm sure I could do it in a few hours now. I'll never forget how awesome it felt the first time I hit the switch with the car rolling and the car automatically and seamlessly switched over from running on pumped diesel to running on vegetable oil (Incidentally, this does NOT smell like french fries. It's distictly like burning vegeable oil - like a kitchen grease fire. It's much nicer than diesel, but does not smell like food.)

Of course, this is when I ran into problems. Due to tough competition from other local greasers, I had a lot of trouble finding free vegetable oil. I did eventually find an Indian restaurant that agreed to give me their oil, but after a few weeks I found that they were filling my grease barrel with restaurant trash.

I went back to driving the Mercedes on straight diesel and didn't drive it much through the winter. Eventually, I realized that I'd spent a lot more on the vegetable oil conversion than I'd save by driving on "free" fuel, and decided to sell the car. I just couldn't justify the expense if I couldn't find the oil.

Unfortunately, I ran into a similar problem that I'd had with the Golf. Nobody wanted to pay my asking price. I priced the car so that I'd make a profit, but had no takers. After around a month I did sell it, but didn't make a profit. I did, however, get all my money back.

I really liked this car, and was sad to see it go. Selling it was made easier by the fact that I already had another diesel project waiting for me in the garage. More on that in my next blog post.

If you have some more time to kill, here's the beginning of a series of videos I did documenting work on this car. Please note that these were done before I was Youtubing anything, so I ramble on A LOT. My videos have gotten better since then - I promise :) There are 12 or 13 videos on this car. All pre-grease-conversion.