Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Good (Car)ma

An update from the shop... (this gets technical, and tough to explain without a picture.)

It's a good thing we got the timing chain taken care of.

Some background - Imagine, inside the engine, there are rails that help guide the timing chain on it's happy journey around the engine, keeping everything moving and firing at exactly the right time. This happens really fast - think of the RPM gauge in your own car, how fast those parts are spinning and you get a rough idea. The main failure mode of this equipment is that the single chain stretches and/or the tensioner starts to go, so the chain beats the hell out of the rails on its rapid journey. Eventually, a rail breaks, and some piece floats around and gets caught between one of the sprockets and the chain (remember, moving very, very fast...). This can lead to an instantaneous chain break. When this happens, the best case is that the engine dies because the whole internal combustion mechanism can't happen without proper valve opening/closing. Worst case - uncontrolled detonation in the cylinders, and some valve stems are shot into the hood like little bullets. The valves that are spared this fate instead are smashed against pistons (heavier, and still moving pretty quickly) and are bent like paperclips. The car is then parked in a front yard somewhere or parted on eBay.

Now you know why I have been somewhat obsessed about this particular repair.

On this particular auto, one rail did break at some point. Luckily, the automotive gods smiled upon us, and that chunk sunk harmlessly to the bottom of the motor, deftly avoiding whirring engine parts and providing us a chance to make it all good. So, the chain and associated hardware have been fixed. Since I had it in, we're also changing the oil and filter and a couple of belts that needed to be removed anyway. I tend to think of small dollar projects that can prevent big dollar problems later on. A belt is 12 bucks - losing a power steering pump, alternator or something else on the freeway is much worse.

Additionally, the distributor cap and rotor were in pretty bad shape (what do you expect after 26 years!) so we're getting those knocked out too. Finally, when the car went on the lift the mechanic "couldn't help but notice" that the driver side bracket for the front sway bar was missing (the sway bar connects the suspension for the two front wheels and provides some stability in that area). I was starting to think that there was a little too much play in the steering and that it wasn't quite handling like I expected - that could have been the issue. We'll check it out on Friday when I get it back.

The intention of course, was to do some of this myself, and document the work here. Practicality has taken over from here, so for this time, outsourcing was the way to go. I still have a list of fun things to do, so watch this space!

Sunday, April 27, 2008


...That will be the bane of my existence when dealing with this auto. First, with a roadster as a third car, it seems necessary to only drive when it is sunny. I hate to be one of THOSE people, but getting it out in the rain for extended periods seems shameful. Second, and more importantly, we have a carport, and not a garage (for shame!). Thus, it's difficult to spend a rainy afternoon working on it, when in fact, I am not completely shielded from the elements. On the bright side, I have no immediate maintenance plans before the engine work is started on Wednesday, so I was able to take it out for a few quick errands this morning while it was nice. I do want to get an interior detail done, which would be much easier on a sunny day. Besides, it's always best to clean and condition leather when it's warm. I took it through our favorite coffee shop (it's a drive through, and they know us by cars). Of course, after years of visiting in the Highlander with kids in tow, they were rather surprised to see me drive through in this ride. Turns out, the two people working there drive Benz's as well, so it was joyful conversation.

Not much else to report. I'm hoping that the engine work won't take too long, so I can get to work on some other things. My to-do list is only getting longer. I found an instrument cluster light bulb burned out. Think sun, and think good thoughts for the repairs on Wednesday!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Movement Forward

The responses I received from the online board I posted to last night were very helpful. Most people suggested that finding someone to replace the single-row chain would be the best course of action. Wouldn't you know it, I have an appointment to bring it on Wednesday to have the work done. The plan is to replace the chain, tensioners, guide rail liners, and probably change the oil and some belts too, as they'll be removed as part of the procedure. Getting to the rails and tensioner require the removal of the alternator, power steering pump and a couple of other critical components, so I'm happy not to be doing this one for my first big repair. The covers for the rails are essentially plastic, and it has been noted that they (and the tensioner itself) get brittle over time. With extended rest time, and not having oil pumped through that part of the engine for long periods, well, I can see how they may be a bit on the crusty side.

Interestingly, many people commented on the look of the car, and how a) The color (Golden Brown, MB code 476) is pretty uncommon and b) how strangely nice it looks - Brown is generally not the color that comes to mind when thinking of classic autos, but it seems to have struck a chord with others. Once it comes back from the timing work, I'm looking forward to tackling my own to-do list, with the peace of mind that the chain issue is dealt with and that there is fresh oil in the motor.

Been spending too much time on this lately - off to veg in front of the tube.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Not Much New

I did get my first professional opinion that I should upgrade the timing chain to a double row configuration. I am having a hard time seeing the cost/benefit pencil out, so I'm moving onto my second (and possibly third opinion). I also posted a message on a fairly active Benz community board which has been a great resource for me personally. Maybe someone out there will have some great advice. How did people do this before the internet?

Slightly off-topic, my conversations with friends and colleagues about this project has sparked some great discussions about automobiles, especially our early ones, and their place in our lives. Some view them as utilitarian machines, getting us to and fro. Others I have found seem to have a genuine love for their early machines. Over the last couple of weeks, I've enjoyed discussions with those with strangely fond admiration for, among others, a '66 Karmann-Ghia, a mid-60's Triumph, and my personal favorite, a 1960 Ford F-100 named Blue, which sadly threw a rod on 520 a couple of weeks ago. There are more, like my friend Devin's absolutely insane 1969 Charger, which will eventually get a post all it's own (he may know something about timing chains too, and for a fifth of Maker's Mark, I may be able to con him into helping me over a Saturday). My own passion was sparked the first time I saw a 325i up close (the E30 designation, in 1986 or '87) at a local shopping mall where I grew up. I had to have that car, and was finally able to get one of my own in 2001. Most people I have run into seem to have a fairly black and white view of their cars - either the practical view, or the slightly nutty and bizarre emotional connection to a machine that can provide us our freedom, if only for a short Sunday cruise or over an epic road trip. The associations are powerful too - I remember my good friend in High school had a fleet of neat vehicles we would use for double-dating, including a '57 Chevy Bel-Air, and a 1969 Toyota Land Cruiser with a Chevy 283, camouflage paint and a bumper sticker that said ' I Eat My Road Kill.' The topper, of course was his '74 Toyota Corolla which we managed to kill for good, the same night I had my first real date and first real kiss. Had to walk home after the engine seized, but I didn't care. Ahhhh..... Memories.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Empty Space

Took the car to the shop today. The timing chain issue still has me bothered and I wold really like to get it taken care of without an overwhelming expense. The shop confirmed that it is a single row chain and I don't know that they're too keen on replacing it and leaving it a single as I have requested (see previous posts about this issue). The good news is that I actually got to drive it out of West Seattle today, and up over the viaduct. I actually got the thing to around 60 mph, and the drive is real smooth. There are some real soft springs there, so it feels a bit like an old Buick or some other land yacht twice its length. I'm starting to get a real appreciation for the roadster feel as well - heavy car, a torque-laden (relatively speaking) V8, supple suspension, smooth tranny - a real cruiser. It will take a little getting used to geometrically. With the long hood and short rear deck, I think the driver sits about halfway between the front and rear axle. Getting in and out of parking spaces takes a slight adjustment in knowing the four corners. Anyway, the garage is 1/2 empty, and of course, there is a little reminder of the missing roadster - kinda like a dog that messes the rug when you leave the house.

On the plus side, I did get my first real complement on the car today. I was sharing the courtesy shuttle, from the shop back to my office with two other riders. One of my co-riders made mention of the car, and how it looked to be in such great shape. She was wearing a long brown fleece overcoat and thought it would match it well.

Will keep posted on the shop's prognosis. Think sun!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Hail, Yes!

Got the bug a bit today. It wasn't pouring down raining and the sun was doing its best to push the clouds aside. Seven consecutive months of rain will make you do strange things, like take a freshly detailed classic convertible out from under a cover, and drive it to the gym. Sure enough, a few blocks from my house, it sprinkled. Sprinkles gave way to sleet, then tiny bits of hail. Luckily, it wasn't the golf-ball or grapefruit sized nuggets you see every now and then in Texas, but hail nonetheless. I Returned home unscathed.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Quick Updates

It has been a busy week already with work, and it will not let up till the weekend, so not much physical work with the car is happening. I do have a couple items to post as updates, however. I received the M-B factory service manual on CD yesterday. I spent way too much time looking at it after the kids went to sleep. Complete, yet daunting in complexity. I'd also like to get an interior detail done (should be a quick job - it looks great already!), but family travel and other obligations may keep me from that for the immediate future. Ironically, it is supposed to be rainy and cold for the next several days, which buys me some time to get some real maintenance in before the sunshine arrives full time for Summer, however long that may be this year.

I was able to get a service appointment on Tuesday with an independent shop to have a look-see at the timing chain and related engine maintenance. I fear the end result, but it hasn't been easy to find anyone too excited to work on this car (aren't we in an economic slowdown or something? Shouldn't it be easier to find a good luxury auto mechanic at reasonable rates? - but I digress -), and I'm glad to be moving forward with some of the bigger issues.

I looked back at the to-do list, and there are some things to update there too. I think the A/C is working just fine. It hasn't been hot enough to put it to the test, but it did feel cold last time I cranked it up. Also, the oil pressure gauge, according to my research, is usually maxed out during normal operation. It does drop slightly when idling, but that's one less thing to troubleshoot. However, there is a fairly loud whine from the rear of the car when it starts up. Even when the car isn't moving, just at idle, it's there. That rules out differential and drive shaft, so I think it's probably the fuel pump that needs some attention. It's pretty accessible though, and the replacement procedure in the manual is clear. Maybe I should just focus on getting the radio fixed and these pesky noises will just go away. My BMW doesn't seem to make random noises, but maybe it does and I just don't know it because I'm always rockin' out...

Unrelated to the car, I am intentionally omitting mention of specific shops, products, or other resources I use for the project. I know it goes against Google's idea of leveraging the 'user-generated content to drive ad revenue model', but I'm not ready to give anyone a free ride yet. Plus, if something goes south, I would rather complain in anonymity than shout out their name and invite trouble. I'm all for free speech, but I got work to do, and if I got a reputation as a chronic complainer, it just wouldn't help the cause. That said, if you are interested in finding out what or who I use for a particular project ('Wow! Is that Carnuba Wax?'), comment the post, leave an email and I'll get back to you directly.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

First Repair

Made a quick stop to the auto parts store this afternoon, and picked up a headlamp, and a small inspection mirror. Replacing the headlamp was a snap. Remove reflector, remove trim ring, replace bulb assembly, test, reassemble.

The inspection mirror was needed to check inside the valve cover to have a look at the timing chain. In a previous post, I indicated it was probably due for a change. Turns out, in this engine for model years 1981-1983, there was a single row timing chain. In 1984, they moved to a double row. The single row chains have shown a lot less reliability over the long haul, and have been known to give out early. I have seen recommendations to have the chain changed at 40K to be on the safe side. Though it would be a great excuse to drop a 5.6L engine in the bay (the repair for a broken timing chain can cost between $6-9K, and you may as well upgrade at that point, if you ask me), I am not ready to go through that kind of work so early into our experience. Unfortunately, the procedure for changing it is complicated enough that I'll definitely farm that one out. For those interested, search on '380 SL Timing Chain', you'll get all the information you need, plus some you don't.

I was able to get a not-so-great glimpse of the chain, and I certainly didn't see the double row on the off chance that it was retrofitted. Project this week - find someone to deal with that. Also, while under the hood, one of the accessory belts has about 3/4" of play in it (it's one of two side-by-side belts) so we may as well tack that on as well.

Pickup Day

I picked up the car yesterday. Mileage: 61598. The weather was great, and it was the perfect day to get to work on a short detail session. It's actually a rather small car, without a lot of surface details which I can find makes a really good detail job tricky. So, the process yesterday was:

- Scrub wheels (a quick once-over to keep the car wash water from getting too dirty)
- Peel back convertible top, and hand-clean areas that are usually covered
- Wash car
- Redo wheels, dress tires with tire dressing
- Machine polish (fine cut - the body is in really good shape overall for the age of the car)
- Wax & Buff
- Redo vinyl trim with dressing

I also inflated the spare tire, and cleaned that wheel as well.

Here is the final result (My daughter gets the cameo, as she was really helpful with the buffing).

Thursday, April 10, 2008

To Do List

Today was title transfer day. I came home early and cleaned out the garage, so there is now adequate space for the car. I'm off to a social event after work Friday, so I'll go ahead and pick it up Saturday morning. I got the manuals , and looked through them, spending extra time on the chapter regarding the proper deployment of the soft top (remember, 68 and partly cloudy on Saturday). In case it's not obvious, I am really one of those overly-compulsive people who can really take car care too far and I can literally feel disoriented driving an unfamiliar vehicle when not really knowing how it all goes together. European cockpits with obscure markings make it worse. That said, I feel fortunate to have run across at least a few others with similar appreciation, and at least one or two whose absolute lunacy for their vehicles makes my affliction seem minor (they may be featured in upcoming posts, as there are some interesting stories to be told.). They are good people to know, and I've already exchanged valuable information with a few of them for this project.

I work very close to the main branch of the Seattle Public Library. FYI - they have just about every factory service manual for many of the cars you and I drive in print. They are in the reference section (look in the spiral at 629) and not available for checkout, but you can take them and review what you need. I did spend some time over a lunch this week paging through and reviewing some of the basic maintenance procedures for this car. Some internet research brought to light a couple of issues I'll need to address sooner than later.

Based on the quick test drive on Sunday, plus previously mentioned research, here is the to-do list:

Fluid + Filter changes (Oil, Trans., Diff., brake, coolant)
Check/Replace plugs
Fuel Filter
Air Filter (already checked - looks good)
Pull Valve cover - check timing chain for single/double row (I'll post about this issue soon), and plan for replacement (not by me..)
Detail (the car is on nice shape - shouldn't take long...)

Things that may be/are broken:
Pass. side washer nozzle
Troubleshoot Oil Pressure gauge (pegged at Max pressure when running)
Check antenna - FM radio reception is non-existent (no KEXP)
A/C May not work (wasn't able to figure out climate control on short test drive)

That should keep me out of trouble. Plan for pictures on Saturday!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Good News!

Turns out that we were misinformed regarding the transfer of the vehicle title. Since it's older than 25 years old, no WA emissions inspection required! Good - I can use the 15 bucks for something else, I am sure.

When embarking on a do-it-yourself project, I have a curious habit of pre-spending any future savings on tools, equipment and other various things that will be used to save that future money. I think it's like my own financial time machine. So, I've made the following purchases in preparation for the projects I have planned:

The official M-B service manual
Ramps (I have jack stands, but I get creeped out being under a car, no matter what's holding it up)
A really large (18 qt.) drain pan - German autos seem to have pretty large oil pan capacities. For illustration, my 325i (2.5L Inline 6) holds 7 quarts. This 3.8L V8, 8 quarts. My dad's Chevy Silverado, 5.7L V8 - 6 qts.

I did get the tires inflated this afternoon. The car sat for 6 months, so you shouldn't be surprised to hear that the actual tire pressures were: LF - 20 psi., LR - 22 psi., RF - 23 psi., RR - 20 psi. I'm looking forward to driving it again, since I'm pretty sure it won't feel like I'm cruising on marshmallows.

That's it for now - planning on doing the transfer of title on Thursday, and moving it into our garage on Saturday. It's supposed to be 65 and partly cloudy, so maybe I'll get a chance to post some photos as well.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Getting Started

Well, I've been trying to find a reason to put together one of these things, so here goes. I've been quite a car fanatic over the years, and I've often thought it would be great to have a little project car. Something that is old enough to not worry about a true foul-up on my part, but in decent enough shape to enjoy without having to single-handedly bring the economy back on its feet. Circumstance has put in our lap a 1982 SL380, with 61,000 on the odometer. The original owner was my wife's grandmother, who bought it new and cruised around Mercer Island for groceries or trips to the thrift store, and not much else. Eventually, it was replaced by a 1998 Beetle, so the mystique of the Benz gave way to the user-friendliness of the bud-vase ladened Bug. After Grandma's passing in 2003, it has bounced between a couple of family members, but really hasn't been used like I feel it wants to be. Thus, my wife and I drew the lucky straw and we're set to pick it up on Saturday.

Car blogs are not exactly unique, but I thought this would be a neat way to document my successes and failures with the car. My goals for this project are:
1) Leave it in better shape than I found it - I don't want to be the last owner of this thing, and would love to eventually pass it onto another family member who will enjoy and carry on our pride of ownership.
2) Learn to perform basic maintenance of wear items (brakes, fluids, belts, etc..) on a modern vehicle (thus saving thousands of dollars over the long haul. Someday soon, I'll blog about the last service on my regular driver, a 2001 325i).

Currently, our next steps are to attempt a successful emissions test (shooting for Thursday) so the title can be transferred to my wife and I. The second stall in our garage needs to be cleared before Saturday. I'm heading over to the space tomorrow to inflate the tires and drop a quart of 10w-40 (it looked low when I gave it my first once-over).