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)