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.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

my foray into Volkswagens

Tonight's post is actually a two-fer. As per my last post, after a short two months of ownership I sold the blue Mercedes 300D. I came out so far ahead (financially speaking) on that car that it made sense to sell it when I did. At that point, I figured it would be a good idea to keep a third project car in rotation with the van and the Subaru, and to keep flipping them for a profit. It seemed like a fun and productive way to spend my spare time.

Although I figured that W123 Mercedes diesels would be the easiest route, I decided to keep an eye out for Volkswagens, also. Aside from my experience with the Vanagon, I had a lot of friends with Volkswagens that I knew I could call if something got confusing for me (actually, I still have those friends - most of them have simply moved on from Volkswagens at this point).

It wasn't long before I found my next project candidate. A 1994 VW Golf popped up on Craigslist one day right near my office. The asking price was $500. I went right over after work to see the car. The seller figured the car was pretty much on its last legs, and needed to sell it before the weekend in order to make a payment on his brand new Toyota. To my eyes, the Golf didn't look too bad. Aside from needing a wax job, missing a hubcap, a cracked exhaust pipe, and needing front brake pads, it looked pretty solid to me.

I took it for a spin around the block, made an offer, and $300 later, the Golf and I were on our way home. The car was in such good shape that with a little cleanup and a little wrenching, it came together quickly, and ended up pretty respectible looking to boot.

I ended up liking the car so much that I used it as my daily driver for the better part of three months. Of course, it wasn't alone in the driveway - not by a long shot.

Two weeks after I bought the Golf, I saw an ad for a $300 1994 Jetta. I did a little bit of bargaining, and $250 later, the Jetta was home, which included the tow.

The Jetta wasn't quite as good looking, or in quite as good shape. It was also automatic, which I didn't care for. But, for $250, I wasn't going to complain too much. I rolled the Jetta into the garage, and planned to work on it after I'd sold the Golf.

Late October came quickly, and I needed to get rid of at least one of the cars before the winter. The Golf was driveable, so I put it up on Craigslist, at what I thought was a fair price. It was then that I learned a lesson - no matter what the condition, nobody wants to pay the supposed book value on a Volkswagen. I dealt with a lot of tire kickers and people who were just generally wasting my time. I relisted the car a few times, dropping the price gradually. The jackass lowballers were starting to wear me down.

In the end, I even offered to throw in the Jetta for free as a parts car if I got full price on the Golf. Still, no takers.

Finally, I ended up finding a buyer. I sold the car to a younger VW enthusiast who needed to retire his 1994 Jetta with baseball-sized holes in the shock towers. I didn't get anywhere near what I wanted for the car, but I had fun driving it, and did actually come out a bit ahead.

Once the Golf was out of the way, I listed the completely-untouched Jetta on Craigslist for $400. This represented the purchase price, as well as the tax and title fees. The car didn't need any major work, but needed all maintenance items. It took me a month to sell the Golf, but only a few hours to get rid of the Jetta.

At this point, I swore to myself that I'd never own another project Volkswagen. Selling the Golf proved to be about 100 times more hassle than I thought it would be. Damn shame, too. It was a great little car.