Friday, June 27, 2008

Baby has a new pair (2) of shoes...

Got 4 new tires for the Benz last week. The old ones were, well, old, but had new tread and were generally ok. The sidewalls were cracked, and not in the best shape, but passable. But, the car never felt quite right. A little thump here, a pull there. I thought that there might be a flat spot in at least one tire, because the car sat for a few months with low pressure. Tires are important, so why not get some peace of mind, right?

I completely underestimated how much of a difference it would make. I was out of the parking by abo0ut 100 yards before I realized I was driving a completely different auto. I let Kim run an errand. Without prompting, she noted how much better the car felt, and that it handled, accelerated, and generally drove so much better than before. Great stuff.

I also fixed the cover for the lower seat hinge. Just in the nick of time, Voila. Summer in Seattle has finally arrived. No rain, 75-85 degrees every day. We've spent quite a bit of time tooling around Seattle since the weather turned nice. We cruised up to the north side of the city for dinner last night and got a chance to do some real wind-in-your hair road tripping. Of course, I neglected to have Kim bring the camera, so you'll just have to imagine it for yourself.

This week, Kimberly is taking the kids away to see family for a few days. I have a few home projects planned (including redoing a flagstone walkway) so I am not sure how much time I'll get to do auto work, but I hope to get the brake fluid flush done. That will be it for the maintenance work for some time. We can then focus on what's actually broken, or not working the way I feel it should. Glad to finally be mostly done with working and onto enjoying the ride.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Quick Update - I received my vacuum extractor and brake bleeder over the weekend. It took about 5 minutes to take down the transmission fluid to the proper level. It also took 5 minutes to change the oil in my lawnmower. I've heard of great feedback in the past from people who use these extractors for their cars and small engines. I don't know why I never bothered to get one till now. I'll go back to rule #1 - Never feel guilty about having the right tool.

Tires are ordered, and will probably be installed this week. A brake fluid flush will complete my higher-priority list of things to do, and Summer is finally here. It's supposed to hit the high 70's all weekend. Perfect timing.

Now, for something that bothers me... (beware, minor rant coming). Some background - I am a member of the BMW Car Club of America, and they have one of the best auto magazines in existence (Roundel). A reader wrote into their 'Tech Talk' column (a fabulous resource) asking how to change the oil on a 2008 M5. To be fair, the engine in that car is probably one of the most advanced on the road right now (a direct variant of a BMW Formula 1 engine), and would cost upwards of $20K to replace. Why not take the time to change the oil regularly, right? Well, for new cars, BMW will cover all of your scheduled maintenance for 4 years or 50K miles but their service interval is a little longer than some car people are comfortable with (it's 15K miles for my 325, maybe a little more often for the M5). The dealership charges you full price if you want it done more than the manual calls for, which is $200-250 for an oil service. I assume, but can only verify anecdotally that the other luxury brands (Lexus, Audi, new M-B, etc.) have the same policies and similar pricing.

So, you get 'free' maintenance, but only if you follow a lax maintenance schedule. The solution for many is to perhaps do a quick oil change between services (as I do on the 325). It turns out that the engine on the M5 is so advanced, that you cannot actually change the oil yourself. It requires some sort of special diagnostic computer to run auxiliary oil pumps deep within the motor to clear out all of the oil, which also likely adds to the cost of a regular oil change.

Thus, it appears that the ability to do routine car maintenance on your own, on a newer car, is going by the wayside. Not a big deal for a lot of people, but the cost of ownership for new cars bought today or in the next few years is probably increasing at a rate that a lot of people aren't aware of.

The upshot to all of this? I'm feeling pretty good about learning how to take care of some of these items myself. I'm ok with leaving the big jobs for the pros, but I'm hoping that we'll be able to save some coin going forward, and keep the current fleet on the road for some time.

I love Summer.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

List Addendum

Looking back at the list I made for the last post, adding the following three items:

- Replace driver's side seat hinge cover plate:
There is a chrome/plastic cover that goes over the seat hinge (as the name implies). It broke off a while ago. I've found the part online for $30. If I order $50 worth of stuff, I get free shipping, so I'm trying to think of specific parts for the car I'll need. I don't know of anything off hand, but I'm sure I'll run into something before too long.

- Drain off excess trans. fluid:
I checked the trans. fluid after the change. I'm about 0.3L high, so I'll need to get that out. I'm not going the plug route like before.

Further proof that the human mind can justify anything, I ordered a fluid extractor and a brake bleeder this week. The extractor is a vacuum pump with a tube designed to take fluid out of a car (or boat, or lawnmower) right out of the dipstick. It prevents you from having to put a car on ramps and crawl around the floor, so it is safer and more convenient. I'll post procedures and pictures when I get them, but suffice to say, they are pretty handy to have.

I spent about $150 for all of it (including 2 reservoir bottles for draining brake fluid). I was organizing my service records for the Bimmer the other night. A brake fluid flush on the BMW was $90-120 at the dealer/independent shop, done once every two years. If the Benz is supposed to be done every year, this will pay for itself very soon between those cars. Plus, I subscribe to the theory that if a task is easy, you'll do it more often. Frequent oil changes are the best thing you can do for car longevity, so it's good news all around. And yes, I need to change the oil in the mower too.

- Tires:
The weather is finally turning sunny, so we're using the car frequently for driving around. I'm going to get new tires next week - the current ones have good tread, but the sidewalls are cracked and have gouges and at least one blister I could see. If you think about it - This is a 3800 lb car, that is in contact with the road with a total of less than 1 square foot of surface area. If you really dig into the physics of cars and tires (I'm a geek about this - I admit), I think it's pretty amazing the stuff works without blowing up more often. So, paranoia reigns and new tires are on the way.

Of course, in true old car fashion, the differential is leaking more than before. Dirty fluid is good at plugging leaks, and clean fluid can release some of that dirt. Differentials usually leak from the seals and that's a bigger job than I want to do myself. Another winter project for the shop. Since I changed the fluid, I do know how to add it, so it will be easy to keep an eye on throughout the summer.

Think Sun!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Happy Belated Father's Day

I noted in an earlier post that I was interested in a Mercedes-Benz hat. I have one with the BMW logo on it, but I felt like I couldn't cruise in a convertible Benz with that. So, a few well-placed hints to my wife, and we're good to go. The logo on the hat matches the hood ornament too. A very nice touch. Thanks!

I accomplished two more tasks yesterday. The carpet that covered up the rear partition between the shelf and the trunk had come undone some time ago. It wasn't a huge deal, but it made the car, shall we say, less visually pleasant. I have a plastic chisel used to stuff carpet into crevices and a rubber mallet. Took about twenty minutes, but it looks much better now! The interior of this auto is in fine shape, so having the carpet reinstalled really adds to the pleasure of top-down driving.

The last thing I did was to go under the hood and check the condition of the spark plugs. An interesting aside, this car (and my BMW for that matter) come with a pretty neat set of tools. Oddly, in the manual, it basically says that no mere mortal should ever change spark plugs, but it should be done instead by an 'Authorized Mercedes-Benz Service Center.' At the same time, the tool kit contains a spark plug socket and wrench, with a flexible head designed for getting into tight spaces. If they didn't want us messing around under the hood, why give us the tools?

Oh well. I took out one plug and was happy to see it is really clean. No corrosion, discoloration, and the electrode was nice and square. One less thing to take care of.

Time to take a look at the list again:

Timing Chain Replaced
Oil Change
All Accessory belts changed
Rotor/Distributor Replaced
Sway Bar brackets tightened and replaced
New Coolant
Differential Fluid Changed
Wheel Nuts retorqued
Rear shelf carpet reinstalled
Wiper blades replaced
Transmission fluid/filter changed
Spark Plugs checked and verified good
Throttle cable and linkages and convertible top mechanism lubricated

Brake Fluid change (High Priority):
It's supposed to be done once a year. It requires a purchase of a brake bleeder, and it's something I've never done before. Scary, but not impossible. It supposedly takes 1/2 hour if you know what you are doing, and everyone has done something for the first time, right? Once complete, I will have officially finished the car's 60K service. Probably need to check the pads and rotors as well, but I'm not getting the usual symptoms of brake wear.

New Tires w/Balance (Med.)
I'm starting to think they are next to be replaced. There is always some sort of vibration, and good tires are always a safe, smart thing to have. Anything I can do to get better mileage and peace of mind is a plus.

Dashboard light (Low)
I can still see the speedo at night. Not to worry.

Radio upgrade/fix (Low)
Can't hear it anyway with the top down.

Play in steering wheel (Med.)
Probably just a worn out steering coupler. Save it for winter.

Check leak at fuel distributor (Low)
Aside from the fuel smell, of which this may or may not be the cause, it's not as bad as it sounds. Plus, if it were really leaking badly, the engine would be giving me fits, which it's not. In fact, I would say the car is running very nicely, thank you very much.

Further evidence of a happy engine - I filled up for the first time over the weekend to get an idea of fuel economy - 307.7 miles with 16.9 gallons of gas, giving us (drum roll, please) 18.2 MPG. Mostly around town, with one 100-mile highway trip to Whidbey. Overall, pretty good for a quarter-century old V8 and a two-ton car. I believe the car was rated at around 16 City/24 Highway, so we're right inline with what I would expect.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The worst job yet...

As the photo attempts to show, my latest maintenance project was not without challenges. The goal was to change the transmission fluid and filter. According to the service manual, it's a once every 30K service. There are differing opinions on this and some say it can go forever, or until there is an obvious issue while driving (herky-jerky shifting is the most common symptom of something wrong). I look at it this way: The transmission is probably one of the most complicated systems in the car. There is a variety of spinning gears, valves, shafts and other components that make it work. Any car that is 26 years old that has seen limited use will probably benefit at least a little from the maintenance. So, we're giving it a whirl. Again, I got the parts online and fluid at the local store. All told, about 45 bucks.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are three shields that protect the chassis from heat, noise and who knows what. There are two small shields between the body and the exhaust pipes (which run along either site of the transmission pan, my ultimate target). Once those were off, there is another shield that covers exactly 1/2 of the pan and needs to come off too. It's held on by 8 13-mm bolts. I got 5 of them out pretty easily. The other three are directly above the exhaust pipe on the driver's side. A socket won't fit, and this is about the time I discovered that my open-ended wrench set does not have a 13-mm size. Well, I figured, 1/2 inch is real close to 13 mm, right? This got me two more bolts, and bleeding knuckles.

I was able to rotate the shield (held now by one bolt) and undo the drain plug (the shield normally covers it up). That got the fluid going, and gave me a chance to run out and pick up that 13-mm wrench while the draining progressed. I did read in the procedure that the longer you drain, the better off you are, because it can take forever for the fluid to completely run out. Once I returned, the last bolt came off pretty easily.

Lesson #1 learned: Never, ever feel guilty about purchasing the correct tool.

The next step is to remove the pan, which is the large metal bucket that covers the bottom of the transmission and holds fluid when not in use. The removal was easy, but there are two hoses or wires that are cable tied to the pan itself. Not wanting to disrupt those wires (I don't know what they were - vacuum? fuel? electrical? who knows!!) I got the pan off and let it hang down enough to get access to the fluid filter. Making it more challenging, once the pan was removed, the transmission started spewing forth anew more fluid (so much for the extra drain time). It looks like red wine vinegar, but has the consistency of olive oil, and I ended up with about a pint of it on the garage floor (see picture above). The filter came off easy, but resulted in a repeat dousing of the same fluid I had just cleaned up.

Once disassembled, I replaced the filter and the pan gasket. Since I like to post pictures of my projects in the furthest state of disrepair, here goes:

The section on the left is where the filter attaches, and the portion on the right is the valve body. The pan is hanging down at the bottom of the picture. The valve body is a very sensitive component of the transmission, so I was careful to keep my fingers away. (The procedure I used as a guide admonishes the mechanic from wiping away excess fluid for fear of ruining the component completely). According to the manual, you are supposed to go so far as to check the fluid level with a leather cloth or chamois, because any lint will destroy a valve body and screw up your tranny for good. Yikes.

Lesson #2 - This job is easier for someone with a lift. Not me.

Once I got the pan back on, I put some fluid in, drove it off the ramps and exercised the gear selector (P-R-N-D-N-R-P, etc.). I checked the level. Good. Exercised the selector again. No problems. I replaced the shields and went on the post-maintenance test drive. No problems there either.

Well, it looks like I managed to get this one done without messing up anything too badly. The work was done on Saturday, and I had a bunch of running around today as well. Everything ran great, and I do think it's shifting a little better. It could be my imagination or my own psyche justifying the work, but I definitely know more about cars than I did a few months ago.

Did some more minor repairs today, but it's getting late. Will post some more good stuff in the next day or so.

Happy Father's Day.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Gave it the Old College Try...

I had a 4 hour window this evening to try and get some work done. Today's objective was the transmission fluid and filter. Based on what I saw on the web and in the service manual, it looked pretty straightforward. Drain fluid. Remove pan. Clean Pan. Replace filter. Replace Pan. Replace fluid.

I got the front wheels up on ramps, and took a look. The transmission pan is covered by some sort of shield. The bolts to that shield are covered by two other shields with bolts of their own, making two interleaved layers of shielding to remove before I got to the main objective of the whole thing (this car supposedly tips the scales close to 4000 lbs. I see why). I got 5 of the 8 bolts of the main shield off, but the last three are right above the exhaust pipe (hot!!). It didn't take too long to realize if I went much further, I would be passing the point of no return, and that I was lacking some tools that would make the job easier. Furthermore, Kim is away for the weekend and I'm on guard with the children through Sunday evening, leaving me precious little time to complete the task.

So, I did what any good shadetree mechanic would do. Put the 5 bolts back, put the tools away, and went for a drive - to the hardware store. Got some u-joints for the tight spaces and a new 3/8" drive torque wrench. Great stuff!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

It's a Gas, Part III

As I mentioned, last weekend I pulled the air cleaner and lubricated the throttle linkages. Underneath the air cleaner is what I find to be a really neat looking piece of machinery (but I'm strange in that way..). It is the fuel distributor and does exactly what you think it does. Gas comes in from the hose on the left (I think) and is sent to each of the 8 cylinders out of the stainless steel lines at the top of the unit. There are other outlets (off to the side) for fuel to head back to various other components in the fuel system that I don't completely understand (yet), but you get the basic idea. One fuel tank. Eight Cylinders. This unit is the business end of all that. Oh yeah - it bears mentioning, but you can probably assume - it's an expensive assembly.

Rewind back to delivery day. One thing that has concerned me a little about the car is that it smells like raw fuel. Most people I've talked to just assume it's normal - 'Old cars smell like gas' says Hot Rod Devin. Sounds reasonable. The fuel filter change gave me the chance to inspect the lines at the rear of the car up close, and I wasn't able to find any problems at all. The hoses are old and a little brittle, but no weeping, leaking or other problems I could see.

Back to present day. When I was working around the throttle linkages in this area, I noticed that the lines around the rightmost tube coming off the were was pretty wet, so I'm sure that there is a leak coming from around that spot somewhere. If you care to look at the picture up close, you can see some discoloration on the tube. Fuel is also pooled in the well where one of the connecting bolts sit, so I'm betting this is definitely the source of the smell.

Opportunity! We have discovered a potentially fruitful do-it-yourself repair! Let's evaluate, shall we?

Access to the parts: Fair - Good (If I end up having to rerun fuel lines to the back of the car, it gets ugly, but the unit itself is in the open)
Special Tools required: None that I can think of.
What the shop would charge: An arm, leg and my first born. Huge savings!

Sounds good, but let's think some more:

Danger level: Moderate (It's Fuel)
Potential to mess up something expensive: High (any one of those lines look pretty specialized, and I would be looking at expensive parts with long lead times. Messing up this repair would also render the car inoperable, leading to a hefty tow bill getting it to a place with some expertise)
Downtime if I screw up: Long

Hmmm..... Even though we can't seem to get two sunny days in a row out here, I think this will require some more research. I'm leaning towards making this a winter project?? Of course, the forecast this weekend calls for clouds with a chance of rain, so who knows if we'll ever get a real summer?!?

Changing topics, with respect to the mystery cable that I thought may have something to do with FM reception - The consensus was that it was a CB antenna connection. How retro!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Can't live without my radio....

I finally got around to troubleshooting the FM radio reception. I got the head unit out relatively easily, and found out how to get access to all kinds of other goodies as a bonus. My theory with respect to the radio was this: Earlier, when I took out the panel under the glove box, I found a stray wire that looked a lot like an antenna connection. I assumed that it was an unconnected cable that may be the issue with my FM reception. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), when I pulled the radio out, everything was neatly plugged in, and working properly. For fun, I went to the connection at the antenna mast (a regular repair item on these models) and reseated the antenna connection there. Same result. AM is great. All FM stations are dull static. I'm going to post a picture of the unconnected cable to my regular message board to see if those in the know can identify the cable in question.

At this point, I am starting to think it may be a problem with the Becker unit itself, which is yet another common failure point of this car. Now, knowing the extent of road and wind noise at anything over 30 MPH, and how inadequate the two small speakers are in light of all that racket, this project may be delayed until much later, until I can do some sort of effective, yet tasteful upgrade. There are lots of examples of pretty cool aftermarket stereo installations on the web that have given me some inspiration, but I'm thinking of holding off till some of the other issues are taken care of (refer to to-do lists in previous posts). Most of the message boards say that stereo systems in this car aren't really worth it unless you drive with the hard top anyway. Since I intend this to be primarily a top-down cruiser, I think it can wait, or I can listen to sports radio or the news if I get bored.

Speaking of top-down cruising, I went out to dinner and drinks with an old work colleague last night. Wouldn't you know it, the soft top was totally stuck closed. I tried for 15 minutes to get the darn thing to unlatch, to no avail. So, I had to drive from here, to Pioneer Square, through downtown all the way to Ballard for dinner WITH THE TOP UP! (I know, I know, whine, whine, whine...) Luckily, with some quick internet sleuthing, I was able to find some quick fixes and got it unlatched. I won't go into details, but suffice to say a long screwdriver is now a permanent fixture in the glove box to assist with emergency soft-top deployment. Once I got the cover unlatched, I got some white lithium grease and lubed the connections for the convertible top mechanism. It's never worked better - at least since I've owned it.

Since I was armed with a can of white lithium grease (handy stuff - I'm bringing my can of it to work tomorrow to stop the squeaking on the binding machine in the copy room across from my office!) I took off the air cleaner and lubed the throttle linkages. the pedal always felt a little sticky, so I thought it was a worthwhile 15 minutes of work. I've got to go on another middle distance road trip for work tomorrow, so I'll get a chance to see if the cruise control actuation is smoother and can be used without invoking nausea. Unfortunately, in the spirit of 'two steps forward, one step back' I did stumble onto another issue which will lead to a complex longer-term project, which I'll blog about later. In the meantime, hope you had a great weekend.