Thursday, June 30, 2011

My first full-on project car

I made it through the winter of 2006–2007 easily, thanks to the Subaru. Originally, I'd planned to more or less garage the Legacy when spring rolled around and go back to primarily driving the Mercedes 300SD. I did stilll drive the 300SD, and the Vanagon (to a lesser extent), but I found myself putting the most miles on the Legacy. So long as I kept up on the oil changes, the Subaru just kept going, and didn't seem to be showing any signs of mechanical deterioration, aside from wear and tear items such as brake pads. I liked the way it drove, so I just kept throwing more and more miles at it.

I remember one Friday afternoon, in the summer of (I think) 2007, leaving the city in the 300SD on my way home from work. I did still drive the 300SD to work sometimes, especially in the hot weather, as it had a working air conditioner. Anyhow, I was heading through the Fresh Pond area of Cambridge, in stop-and-go rush hour traffic, when I hear a siren. A police cruiser was pushing through the traffic. Very quickly, it was right behind me. There wasn't much I could do. I was already in the right lane, but the cruiser kept blaring its siren and honking. I pulled as close as I could to the curb, just inching along, when I heard a loud POP! I'd torn the right front tire's sidewall on the curb.

I inched the 300SD around the corner, cursing the loss of a relatively new tire, and got my spare and jack out of the trunk. After fighting with severely overtorqued wheel lug bolts installed (unbenknownst to me) with an impact gun when I'd had my brakes done, I finally got the tire changed. It was just a tire, but from that point on, I realized that if I kept taking the 300SD into the city, it would get destroyed piece by piece. The car was too nice for that. My parents had long expressed an interest in the car, and I decided I'd finally let the car go to them. It would be garaged and well taken-care-of.

This left me with two cars. Granted, that's most than most people have, or can even understand having. Still, my connection to Mercedes diesels wasn't going to fade that qiuckly. Of course, being a car nut I always had my eye on Craigslist (and still do) to see what would pop up. Very soon, I found a 1985 Mercedes 300D advertised as having running problems.

I went to see the car, which was in South Boston, near the airport. The interior was in pretty good shape, but the car needed some bodywork. It did start, but didn't run very well. The car stalled and died just trying to cross a parking lot. The seller's asking price was $1500. In that condition, I offered $500. The seller was motivated and we settled on $750, which included a tow out to Worcester courtesy of the seller's AAA membership.

The car arrived in Worcester and I got to work immediately, replacing tune-up items in hopes of finding the running problem. I don't have a picture to show you, but I tell you - I have NEVER in my life seen an air filter so dirty. Just replacing it and the fuel filters made a big difference. The car's top speed went from around ten to seventy-five or eighty.

Although the AC was broken, I loved driving that car. The W123's handling is unmatched, and this was the first one I'd driven with an OM617 turbo engine. The huge sunroof made up for the lack of AC.

The car passed inspection, and I drove it as I worked on it. First up was all the mechanical stuff. I replaced most of the filters and fluids, including the transmission fluid and filter (made a big difference in the way the car shifted). After that, I did a valve adjustment, which was a new thing for me. This restored the car's performance to like-new. The last remaining item was the fuel lines. The injector leak lines actually failed on me one day - spectacularly, I might add. Quick sidebar on that - I'd taken a vacation day from work to do some work around the house. While out to lunch, I noticed diesel pooling under the car. The injector leak lines were badly rotted. I called around and found that the only place with the proper lines (locally) was the Mercedes dealership five miles away.

Luckily I got there, got home and replaced the lines, and had just enough time to wash up before heading out to the premiere of the Simpsons movie.

Once all the mechanical items were done, I cleaned the car up and did the bodywork. Then, a funny thing happened - I realized that I'd ended up with a car worth a lot more than the $750 I'd spent. Even with parts and materials, I was in for less than $1500 total. It was then that I got the wacky idea to see if I could sell the car for a quick profit.

As always, it was time to go back to Craigslist. I'd only had the car for two months, and I really did love it, but a quick profit was irresistable. I listed the car at $3500 and a few days later sold the 300D for $3200. Sometimes I still do miss the 300D, but I knew, even then, that it wouldn't be my last Mercedes.

This past winter, I found this car on Craigslist for sale again. Apparently, I did a good (enough) job fixing it up, as it's still on the road nearly four years later.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Something for the winter

As I mentioned in my previous post, when I bought the 300SD, I was living in Waltham. About a year after that, I moved out to Worcester. This made my commute by bike no longer an option. While I do have a commuter rail option, the schedule doesn't work well for me, and compared to driving, it's more expensive. So, as soon as I moved, I switched to commuting by car.

I moved in the early summer, and spent my first months commuting in the 300SD. I didn't like driving such a well-kept (and big) car into the city everyday, but I didn't have any choice other than the Vanagon, which would use more fuel. I knew the winter was approaching fast, and that since both of them were rear wheel drive, that neither the Mercedes nor the Vanagon would be a suitable car for the snowy, icy Massachusetts winters.

I decided that adding a third car to the fleet was my best option at the time. I'm planning to keep the Vanagon forever, and I was too attached to the Mercedes to let it go, either. So, I started looking at my options. I knew I didn't have much of a budget to pick up a front or all wheel drive car. My new roommate at the time had a lead on an old, low-mileage Ford Tempo. For whatever reason, I never went to look at it.

The first car I remember looking at was an early 1990s Nissan Pathfinder. It was in my price range. I went to check it out one night after work. The engine didn't sound quite right, the 4WD was difficult to engage, and the frame had large, dangerous rust holes. I decided to pass on it.

Being a Vanagon owner, I'd been doing research for the past few previous years on engines to use for an eventual transplant. Most Vanagons will need an engine replacement. Many owners opt to install something other than the notoriously leaky stock 2.1L waterboxer. In the course of my research, I learned about Subaru engine transplants. Now, having moved, I suddenly realized that an AWD Subaru would probably make a good commuter car for me.

The next car I looked at was a Subaru Legacy sedan. I didn't know much about them at the time, so I brought along my roommate at the time, who knew a little more about them. The car was OK, not spectacular. In the end, it came down to price and condition. It just didn't seem to have enough value in it.

Finally, I went to look at a 1994 Legacy station wagon. The car had recently been brought to Massachusetts by a couple who moved from Colorado. The car had more miles on it than I'd hoped (204,000), but had been meticulously maintained by its previous owners. It didn't look perfect, but ran almost perfectly. Plus, it was in my price range. I made an offer, and returned two days later, after work, to pick it up. For what I paid, I just hoped the car would last me one winter, and then I could consider possibly picking up a lower-mileage car the next year.

(seller's photos, copied and saved from the original Craigslist ad)

The car soon became my winter car. The only repair it needed immediately was a clutch. The original was almost completely worn out, so I had that done about two months after I bought the car. By spring, I realized that even though the snow was gone, I was still primarily driving the Subaru, as I liked it so much. I hadn't counted on liking the car, but fell in love with it quickly. I'd been driving for a decade, but this was the first car I'd owned that could handle winter travel safely.

In the summer of 2007, I had an axle boot fail on me, and had my mechanic (I'd finally found someone half-reliable at this point) replace the axle shaft to the tune of $300 (parts and labor). I realized that with insurance to pay on three cars, along with inspection and registration, not to mention maintenance and repairs, that having three cars was expensive. I hoped it would be a long while before the next repair. It wasn't.

Not long after the axle, I heard a new scaping noise when braking, and realized that my rear brake pads were worn out. I panicked, as I'd never had a brake job done by a mechanic that turned out to be inexpensive. I realized that if I wasnte to keep three cars, I'd need to step it up in terms of doing my own repairs. I did some basic research and decided to try and tackle the brake pad replacement on my own. Armed with a repair manual, I budgeted a whole day to do the job, as I'd never touched brakes before in my life.

From the time I raised the car up on jackstands to the time I lowered it back onto its wheels, the entire repair took me less than 45 minutes. Of course, I still had to test the brakes. I put the car in gear and backed down the driveway toward the street. Then I hit the brakes. The car stopped correctly and silently. A quick road test later and I was good to go. From that point on, I attempted (and succeeded) pretty much all my own repairs, including, but not limited to replacing the Legacy's timing belt, and then the transmission, when it failed.

Four years later, the car that I hoped would last me one winter had survived (and thrived in) four years of salt belt commuting. At this point, the car had 292,000 miles and I was starting to plan how I'd mark the occasion when the car rolled over to 300,000. That didn't happen. In October, 2010, the Legacy died suddenly on the Masspike on the way in to work. In retrospect, there had been a strange, momentary noise when I'd started the car that morning.

I had it towed home, thinking the fuel pump had failed. I spent weeks of evenings doing diagnostics to no avail. The car had fuel, spark, and seemed to crank just fine. It just wouldn't start. I checked sensors. I did everything I could, but the car wouldn't start. Here's a (long) video I did (my first Youtube foray, actually) to solicit help from online. It shows the car cranking, but not starting.

Since it was taking so long to fix, I lost hope and bought another car (a 1990 Volkswagen Jetta GL diesel) as a commuter. I was going to ship the Subaru off to a junkyard, but upon some advice I got, I did one last check on the Subaru and found that an idler had seized and the timing belt had jumped, but not broken. I replaced the belt and idlers, and the car returned to perfect working condition. See here:

Of course, this was AFTER I deregistered it. So, I flipped a coin and decided to keep the 200,000 mile Volkswagen instead of the 300,000 mile Subaru (bad decision - I'll get to that in a later post). I put the Subaru back on Craigslist, where I'd found it.

A few days later, it sold for pretty much book value, due to all the work I'd done on the car when I'd owned it.

This car was important to me mostly because it was the car I learned the most from, in terms of hands-on experience. I know it's still out there, and has probably passed the 300,000 mile mark flawlessly with its new owner.

(photos taken the morning I sold the car)

moving up to an S-class

The story of my 1985 Mercedes 300SD is linked closely to that of my 240D. Shortly after I moved to Boston I had some problems with the 240D that snowballed, due to a couple of lying, cheating, incompetent mechanics. Four months after the move, I made the very difficult decision to sell the 240D. I was spending a lot of money getting it fixed, only to have it leave each mechanic in worse shape. Very reluctantly, I went car shopping.

Truth be told, I didn't need a daily driver at the time. I had the Vanagon, which although quirky (as always) has been, at its core, reliable for as long as I've owned it. At the time, I was commuting primarily by bike (8 miles each way) and wasn't driving much anyway. But, I still decided the best thing to do was get a better car.

For the first time, I started browsing Craigslist for cars. I was fairly well dead set on getting another diesel Mercedes, but was open to other (German) options. Several candidates popped up, and I went to check them out. The fist car I went to look at was another 1982 240D like mine, but with a metallic green paint job and green interior and a manual transmission. The photos in the ad made it look like a nice car, and the ad stated that the car's only real issue was some minor surface rust. The car was located a mile from my office, so I went down there on my lunch break the next day to see it.

Unfortunately, the seller was kind of clueless. I saw countless hard-to-identify leaks under the hood, and the car ran poorly. Worse yet, "minor surface rust" translated into baseball-sized holes in the front fenders, rotted out rocker panels, and seats falling through the floor. Needless to say, I took a pass on that car.

The next candidate was a 1983 300TD station wagon. There were no photos in the ad, and the car had high miles, but I decided to take a look at it. I got there to see a genuinely rust-free car (recently in from the west coast), but with mismatched hood and fender. To top it off, the interior was all torn up. The seller's wife wasted no time letting me know that the $2500 price tag was non-negotiable, based on all the money they'd spent on repairs. I was a bit turned off by the experience, but decided to test drive the car anyway. There was a good amount of slop in the gear selector, but to my surprise, the car drove excellently. The test drive had changed my mind. There was only one test left - a quick highway run. With the seller riding shotgun, I took the car out onto Route 128 northbound in Waltham. Very quickly, I noticed a problem. The temperature needle started to rise... and rise... and rise... I pulled off the highway, into a gas station, and shut the car off, as a courtesy to the seller not to toast his engine. We waited for it to cool down and limped it back to his house. He promised he'd have his mechanic check it out, but I was no longer interested.

At this point, I was out of Mercedes diesels to see, and went to look at a 1996 Volkswagen Cabrio. The car needed exhaust work and the check engine light was on. Worse yet, the seller (a car dealer) refused to let me test drive it. I left.

The next candidate was a 1996 VW Jetta at a local Saab dealership. The car was a trade-in with a few small issues (which the salesman told me they would take care of). It was a low-mileage car, and looked clean. I took it out for a test drive and noticed within a couple of blocks that the clutch was almost completely shot. The salesman promised to take care of it. I gave him my number and asked him to call me when the car was fixed, as I was still interested. He never called.

A few days later, I was getting tired of the whole situation. I had an ailing car, and there wasn't any suitable replacement in my price range. I was about to give up when I spotted another Craigslist ad for a 1985 Mercedes 300SD. Up to this point, I hadn't really considered the larger S-class cars, but after a quick phone call with the seller, I was off to see it.

Seeing as how I didn't know how to navigate Boston by car and I didn't want to drive the 240D a long distance, I opted to drive it into Cambridge, park it, and head downtown on the Red Line downtown to see the 300SD. As luck would have it, that June day in 2005, there were some serious utility problems which led to long T delays. The 15 minute ride downtown turned into over an hour.

I left the subway and found myself in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood, waiting for the seller, who was coming by to pick me up in the 300SD. A few minutes later, I spotted the car, but couldn't believe my eyes. The 300SD (champagne metallic paint over palomino interior) looked brand new. I identified myself and the seller drove us back to her apartment, where her husband was waiting. It was already dark, so I was forced to look the car over under a street lamp. Still, all indications showed that this car had been absolutely babied.

The seller told me that she'd inherited the car from her recently deceased grandfather, a classically-trained pianist, but that she and her husband didn't need a second car in the city. Apparently, the original owner (her grandfather) had spent tens of thousands of dollars over 20 years he owned it, having the car dealership maintained.

After a quick test drive, I was ready to make an offer. The seller told me she'd just been offered a number by a construction worker earlier in the day, but that he needed to go to the bank. I offered $100 over that number (still way below book value on the car), cash, and would take the car immediately. The seller drew me a map out of the city, and I left there in my 20-year-old, but looking-and-feeling-like-new 300SD.

The car needed nothing in order to be driven immediately. The next week I sold the 240D, due to lack of parking at my apartment.

I ended up using the 300SD as my primary form of transportation for the next year, until my move from Waltham to Worcester. Not wanting the still nearly showroom-perfect 300SD to get destroyed on my commute into the city, I sold it a year after the move (don't worry - it's still in the family, and is garaged and babied to this day).
(days after purchase - I hadn't even washed it yet)

(a few weeks later, after a mild detailing)

(a short, but unfortunately poor-quality video I did of the 300SD, back in 2005)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The lone Ranger - not to be confused with The Lone Ranger (note the capitalization)

By this time it was the summer of 2004. I'd had the 240D for eight years and I'd had the Vanagon for one year. I'd done my fair share of wrenching on both of them. Getting the van up and running quickly wasn't the most trouble-free experience I've ever had. I was still relying on the family's trusted mechanic for larger jobs.

For no exlicable or logical reason, I got the itch to start a new project. Once again, my father happened upon a car. Someone he knew was leaving the country and needed to sell his pickup truck. I went to check it out, and $1500 later I was the proud owner of a 1993 Ford Ranger XLT extended cab pickup. It was automatic with the 4.0L V6 engine. It didn't handle all that well, but the V6 moved in a straight line unlike my 240D or the Vanagon (fast).

There really isn't too much to tell about this one (which makes for less reading for you). I never intended to keep the Ford, and I didn't. I bought it because I knew I could turn it around fast and make some money. The Ranger was actually my first fix-and-flip project. I gave it a thorough detailing (interior and exterior), replaced the radio, got the power windows working properly, and replaced the shocks.

I drove it on and off for about a month, mostly around town. Once it was fixed up, I listed it in the local paper and a couple of days later, after dealing with the usual tire-kickers, I sold it for $2900 (still below book value at the time, based on its condition).

Overall, it was a nice little truck, but I didn't need the hassle of having three cars. Of course, a couple of years later, I did a 180 with respect to that reasoning.

Friday, June 17, 2011

...and then there was the Vanagon

I guess it makes sense that I ramp up this blog by telling you about each of my cars. I think the how, where, when, and whys of each will give you some insight into who I am and where I'm going with this. Once I'm up to speed on this, I'll focus on more in-the-moment items.

But, I digress (a bad habit I'm trying to kick). As I mentioned in a previous post, I'd always been fond of the VW vans my parents had. When I was very young, they had a yellow 1973 bay window bus, which they sold in 1985 when they got a brand new Vanagon. Some of my most vivid memories from growing up involve the family taking road trips in the Vanagon. They eventually traded up to a 1989 Vanagon (which, incidentally, is still and the family and pulls delivery truck duty on behalf of my father's business) which took us on even more trips.

The Mercedes 240D followed me off to college. Shortly after graduation I got it in my head that I wouldn't mind a Vanagon of my own, to use as backup transportation, for taking weekend road trips and for camping. It wasn't a serious thought, but I decided to keep an eye out and asked my parents to keep an eye out, also. Not long after that, I more or less forgot about it, until...

One day my father tells me he'd met an older couple in a parking lot where driving a very well-kept Vanagon (original owners). He asked if they were looking to sell. They said no, but maybe in a year or so they might. My father gave the Vanagon owners my contact information and left it at that. He told me the van was silver, but other than it being in very good condition, he didn't know much about it.

Around a year and a half later (May, 2003), I got a phone call from the van's owners, asking if I was interested in buying it. Even though I hadn't seen it in person yet, I told them I was interested and wanted to check it out. A few days later, I went with my father to check it out. It was a bit rougher than he'd remembered it. It was in need of a wash and wax, most of the interior had been removed, it had a large dent and a mangled bumper, and it ran roughly and loudly. The test drive was somewhat interesting, as I didn't know how to drive stick shift very well at that point. I think I put a bit of a scare into the seller.

Seeing as how the van was rougher than he imagined, my father advised against me buying it, but told me the decision was mine. I thought about it and decided to pull the trigger. Money exchanged hands, and the seller started loading the van up with parts. The missing interior had been removed back in 1991 when the van was new, and had been kept in showroom condition. All the necessary nuts and bolts had been bagged and tagged.

(right after purchase)

I spent that first weekend putting the interior back together and the rest of the summer doing various repairs - mechanical and body, on the van. Since I had no training, and only a shop manual, I decided it would be a good idea to make some friends who knew something about working on Volkswagens. I searched the internet, and happened upon the website for a local VW club. I joined up, and made some friends I'm still close with to this day.

Eventually, the van followed me up to Massachusetts along with the 240D. Although the van has its moments when it's a bit fussy, I still have it to this day and am planning on keeping it for the long haul.

(camping at Westies in the Woods)

(clean and shiny)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A bit about myself... and why you might be reading this

So, I really think that in order to get the ball rolling properly, I need to explain a bit about myself and what got me to where I am now, shouting out into the oblivion that is the internet.

As you may have guessed, I have a number of cars and I do all my own work these days. My wife, upon seeing my first blog post the other day, suggested that I change the blog description to read "four" cars, as technically, her car is in my name, and I do all the repairs and maintenance on her car, too. You may be guessing that I'm a mechanic by trade. That is, you may be guessing wrong.

The fact of the matter is that I work in publishing, and the whole car thing (which for some reason I've never completely figured out, is near and dear to my heart) happened sort of by accident. In the interest of not boring you to the point where your brain drops out your nostrils and makes a run for it, I'll try and make the story as brief as possible.

For every car guy, there's a beginning to the story. For some, it starts with some unforgettable car experience in early childhood. While it's true that some of my favorite forms of entertainment in my formative years included the Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider, and Herbie the Love Bug, these fictional cars were entirely removed from my real-world interaction with cars. The one possible exception to this was family VW buses, which I was always fond of.

No, for me, the whole car thing happened fifteen years ago, the summer I graduated high school. Unlike most kids my age, I actually had no interest in getting my driver's license. In fact, I avoided it. I'd always considered myself not so much accident-prone, but bad luck-prone, and was convinced that if placed behind the wheel of a car, that I'd get into an accident that would either kill me, or that I'd be paying off for around 20 years. I preferred to get around town by bike, and left high school with only a learner's permit. My parents, determined not to be my chauffeurs for the rest of my life, insisted I get the license, and then did something that altered the trajectory of my life forever. They bought me a car.

I didn't have a license yet, and couldn't park the car on campus until my junior year of college, but seeing the car there, waiting for me, was motivation enough for me to complete my driving training. I knew that when I was ready, I'd be climbing behind the wheel of a 1982 Mercedes-Benz 240D. Keep in mind that Mercedes or not, this was an old car, even in 1996.

Keep in mind, this photo was taken a couple of years AFTER I'd gotten the car. I'd long since lovingly buffed out the dull paint, had fixed numerous broken items, and had swapped out the factory steel wheels and hubcaps for factory alloy wheels.

Although it's currently in vogue to dismiss the Mercedes W123 chassis as little more than a European taxicab, most people that have driven one will tell you that the experience is unique and fantastic. Nearly 35 years after they first debuted, many of these cars are still on the road, due to their tough-as-nails engineering and construction, and the driving experience rivals many brand-new cars even today.

I fell in love with the car for its looks and handling (acceleration, while it never bothered me, is NOT this car's strong point), and bit-by-bit, over the years, starting doing some of my own work on it. The miles and memories I accumulated in this car were nearly innumerable. The trips to the drive-in, the fast food runs with friends, the trips to the beach - I remember them all vividly and fondly. The car eventually followed me to college, and then into the professional world.

In 2005, after a move away from my home and my trusted mechanic, the Mercedes developed some symptoms that I didn't recognize, but knew weren't good. I tried several local mechanics here in Massachusetts, all of whom swore on a stack of bibles that they knew how to work on the car. The car left each on in worse condition, and my wallet left lighter. Sadly, in June 2005, after nine years, I reluctantly made the decision to sell the car and find something in better condition. I just wasn't a good enough mechnic to save the Mercedes myself, and didn't have the time, space or money to devote to it.

I ended up selling the car to someone who didn't seem worried about the problems, and who planned to convert the car to run on vegetable oil. I ended up scoring an unbelieveable deal on a near-mint 1985 Mercedes 300SD as my new daily driver:

So, I moved on, but I never forgot. My final months with the 240D inspired me to learn how to do all of my own work (when possible), as I could no longer fully trust any mechnic. Over the past six years, I've frequented mechnics with decreasing frequency. The last time I took one of my own cars in was four years ago now. I'm now at the point where few, if any, jobs scare me off.

As for the 240D, it popped up on Craigslist again in 2008, still alive and kicking. I wanted to buy it back, but was knee-deep in a project car at the time (another Mercedes 240D - more on IT later) so I passed on it. This spring I ran the original 240D's VIN through a VIN checker, and it appears that even in 2011, the car appears to be on the road somewhere in Rockland, Maine. Who knows... maybe I'll get a chance to own it again someday.

So, that's what got me started. So, I apologize - the story was a little longer than I intended. However, I promise (threaten?) that it could have been longer.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A long-overdue intro


Now that I've got your attention, welcome to the first of what I hope will be many blog posts. As you can guess from the title of this blog, I'm into diesels. Specifically, my area of expertise is old Mercedes diesels. Here's a quick walkaround of my 1972 Mercedes 220D, which I'm currently "restoring" (you'll soon find out why I put that term in quotes).

I'll be posting a lot about it, but also about my other project - my weekend car - a 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon (gas, not diesel):

and my daily driver, a 1995 Subaru Legacy (here's a DIY tune-up video I just did):

So, welcome. I hope that some of this stuff helps, or at least entertains.