Saturday, April 25, 2009

Getting our cars ready for spring

Getting cars ready for spring
Rolls Royce Bentley service
Jaguar service
Land Rover service
Antique car service

This is the time of year when fancy cars are coming out of storage all over New England. When the cars emerge, folks bring them to our shop with the request to “service them as necessary.” When these cars were new, it was easy to know what to do. We’d follow the guidelines in the factory service booklets. However, now that the cars are aging, a different plan is needed. This is an excerpt from a longer 3,200 word piece I wrote for the Rolls Royce magazine where I set forth my ideas on what should be done, when, and why.

You'll be able to read the whole article next month when the magazine comes out.

Here’s where we start - the basic service. Depending on what kind of car you have and what's wrong with it when we check it over, this can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

We begin by changing engine oil and filter. At Robison Service, we use genuine Crewe filters and Mobil Delvac oils. Delvac is meant for use in diesel trucks, so it has a durable and strong detergent package to keep our vintage engines clean. It’s available in synthetic and non-synthetic formulas to suit either taste. Similar oils are available from Shell, Castrol, Quaker State, Amsoil, and others.

While the oil is draining, we inspect the undercarriage for damage, leaks, broken pieces hanging down – anything out of place. You’d be surprised what we mechanics find. A fellow in Florida sent me a photo of a live coral snake he found nestled in a rear spring last year. Don’t reach where you can’t see.

Using a squirt can, we oil the moving parts on the parking brake system, and we tighten the calipers a few clicks. It’s important to keep this system oiled so it doesn’t freeze up. Many states require the Motor Vehicle safety inspector to apply the parking brake and then put the car in drive to make sure it holds. If your cables and calipers are not oiled and free they may not work at all. Even worse, they may work but not release, leaving you to crawl under the car and pull the mechanism free by hand in the yard of the inspection station. That may be a fine thing to do with a $200 clunker but it’s an extreme embarrassment to a proper Rolls Royce driver.

We look at the belts and hoses. Belts are checked for proper adjustment and cracking on the inner faces. Hoses are checked for swelling and flaring at the ends – two signs of deterioration. We check the air filter and oil any moving parts under the hood. That includes the hood latches, the throttle linkage, and the hood hinges.

At least once a year, we remove all four wheels. While they are off we clean corrosion from the hubs and apply a bit of grease. We also lubricate the wheel locks if the car has them, and we rotate tires if appropriate. People who skip this step sometimes find their wheels frozen onto the car by corrosion – a terrible problem if you have a flat tire on a Saturday night.

When you look at the tires you can judge the need for wheel alignment. Some people put the car on an alignment rack as a matter of course, but collector cars are often driven so little and so gently that scheduled alignments end up being a waste of time and money. When alignment problems do appear they are most often the result of wear or breakage in the suspension, so repairs are often called for first.

While the car is on the lift we check (and lubricate) the entire suspension and driveline – some older cars have grease fittings in the front end, and some models have grease fittings in the drive shafts. The electric shift mechanism should be oiled occasionally, as should every other linkage piece under the car. When the car is lowered we lube the door hinges and latches, and spray dry lube on the weather strips. We put graphite in the door lock cylinders and make sure they turn smoothly. Sometimes owners with pushbutton entry neglect this step, only to have the key snap in the lock when the pushbutton entry fails one cold night and the locks are too corroded to move.

Moving back under the car, we take down the drip tray that covers the brake distribution valves and clean the oil residue. It’s normal for these valves to have a tiny bit of leakage, so some spots on the tray are normal. Heavy leakage signals a problem, which is the whole reason for the inspection. The drip tray gets refitted once it’s clean.

We check and top off most of the fluids. That includes check the automatic transmission fluid, the differential oil, the power steering oil, and the coolant. You’ll notice the hydraulic fluid reservoir is not on the checklist – we do something different there.

On the subject of fluids – we always pay attention to leaks. Some owners want every single leaks fixed. With a British car, that’s occasionally an impossible dream, and it’s always a very expensive attitude to have. We talk to our clients and evaluate their comfort with small drips. Then we look under the car and try to distinguish between leaks that may hurt the car versus leaks that are merely annoying. For example, if a radiator hose blows the car could suffer extensive engine damage in a hurry. A small leak from the rear differential may require nothing more than a few ounces of top-up every season. One needs to be fixed; the other is optional.

After filling all the other fluids and warming up the car it’s time for the springtime brake bleeding. Regular bleeding of the hydraulics will reduce your car’s tendency to dart left or right on heavy braking. It will improve responsiveness of the pedal, and it often cures brake drag. These systems get air into them from both the atmosphere and from nitrogen escaping from the four accumulator spheres.

Editorial note . . . I’ve skipped the next paragraphs of the original Rolls Royce article because they are unique to Rolls Royce and Bentley. The advice in the paragraph above is relevant for any car. We bleed or flush brake systems every day at this time of year . . . .

The story continues . . . .

While the trunk is open, we check the battery. Thanks to modern technology we’ve now got battery testers that can tell us a battery’s internal condition with a fair degree of accuracy. We recommend replacement if a battery drops below 75% capacity. In addition, we look at the date code on the battery – if its more than four years old we suggest replacement because any battery that age is living on borrowed time. And it’s cheaper to replace it now in the shop than six months later when the car has to be dragged out of a downtown parking garage after it fails to start.

We check and set the tire pressures. Some owners are very sensitive to this, and ask for lower pressures (28-30PSI) for a softer ride. Other owners are more sporting. They elect to stiffen the sidewalls with a bit more air. In any case, we are guided by the ratings and recommendations for the tires fitted – they vary quite a lot from model to model.

If we are servicing the car before winter storage we usually put the tires to the maximum pressure shown on the sidewall to reduce flat spotting. If it’s spring, we lower them back down. We always put the spare to the maximum pressure as spare tires are often neglected and it may not get checked again for a long while.

We always check the operation of the air conditioner and heating system. Some older cars will need the air conditioner topped off every few years. If the leak is more severe than that, it’s probably worth repairing. In New England we sometimes pull the grille to remove insects and debris from the condenser fins. The need for that service will depend upon where you live.

We’ve already checked the brake pressure lamps, but now we check the rest of the fascia warning lamps, and all exterior lamps. We also check the wiper blades, the washers, and all the accessory equipment. We check the seat belts and buckles.

If the car is new enough to have self diagnostics, we check for stored faults. Stored codes can point the way to problems that are not yet visible, so it’s important to check them. Any codes found should be addressed and cleared so they don’t send future service personnel on wild goose chases after things you fixed the year before.

Depending where you live, it may be necessary to clean out body drains and intake screens. If leaves and debris clog the drains you can end up with expensive water damage inside the car.

Finally, we take the vehicle on a road test and note any strange behavior. We pay attention to knocks when the car rolls over bumps, pulling or drifting when driving straight ahead, pulling on braking, and how the engine runs. We make sure the transmission feels normal and gear changes are smooth.

We recommend waxing the car at least twice a year. At the same time, we’d treat the leather with Hide Food to keep it soft. Detailing, however, is the subject of a whole ‘nother article so I won’t cover that here.

If you follow the maintenance guidelines above, you should be rewarded with a comfortable, reliable, and enjoyable motorcar whose lifespan is essentially indefinite. If you look at this work and think it’s expensive – you’re right! But the alternative – repairing breakdowns caused by neglect costs even more.

I’ve had people read this and exclaim, these cars sure do need a lot of care! Actually, that’s not true. The care they need is the same as any car. What you see here is a difference in attitude. These service schedules are meant to preserve the car in good mechanical order indefinitely. The maintenance schedule for a new Ford, in contrast, assumes the car will be on a slow slide to the scrap yard as soon as it leaves the showroom. If you applied this Rolls Royce service philosophy to a Chevrolet or a Lincoln you’d probably be rewarded with similar durability.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Land Rovers in the woods

We do quite a bit of work on Land Rovers here at Robison Service, and we drive them too. My friend Dave Rifken owns this ex-military D90 that you see in the woods near where we live.

Dave and I have hosted several Land Rover club events - and we are planning to do another later in May or early in June.

The picture above shows a rocy section of the Rattlesnake Gutter trail in Leverett.

It’s a fairly stock NATO truck with left hand drive. It’s powered by the Rover 2.5 diesel and runs on the standard Michelin XZL military tires, which are very good in most situations.We’ve fitted a custom bumper and Superwinch with synthetic cable, custom sliders, snorkel and other mechanical accessories. You can see the skid pans in this shot.
Inside there’s satellite radio and some extra sound deadening but it’s still pretty plain. These Army trucks didn't have any sound deadening at all. Dynamat and a set of civilian rubber mats make for a big improvement, and they don't cause any problems unless you regularly submerge the truck in deep water.
The little diesel actually get over 20 miles per gallon on the road, making this truck quite economical to run.

Dave drives this truck almost every day.

Here we’ve stopped by an old mill dam. The dam and foundation are hard to see in this shot from downstream. I crossed the stream and took the next photo from above.

The area where we live was littered with little mills in the middle 1800s. Most all have vanished back ito the woods now.

Dave and I have very similar trucks – in fact we bought them at the same time. Mine is a soft top, though, and it’s still painted in the NATO camo color. We painted Dave’s truck the flat grey you see a while back.
In this photo my son Cubby is driving up a snowy track last winter.

My truck has a Safarigard Stage II suspension, and it does not have the skid plates, as you can see here.
The next photos show some of our earlier Land Rover adventures. In this next shot, a line of Rovers makes its way through a rainy Vermont forest at Baystate Rover's fall outing. Once again, Cubby is driving my truck, which is second in line behind Alan Elliot's red Classic.

Here Main Rover enthusiast Bob Vail watches a line of trucks pass in the fog:

In this shot Richard Reavey crests a small hill in his Tonka. This is an old series truck that we fitted with portal axles and huge tires, making a supremely capable rig. This truck was on the cover of Land Rover Enthusiast last January.

Look for more of my Land Rover writings online and in magazines like Land Rover Lifestyle and the Rover News.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Indians are coming

I spent most of today working on my upcoming book on Indian Motocycle and its founders. I'll post more on that soon, but for now I'll share a few images from Springfield's Indian Museum, scheduled to open in October 2009.

Here's one of th exhibits - a Scout ridden by famed stunt rider Louise Scherbyn, founder of the Women's International Motorcycle Association

Here's another Scout, this one owned by museum founder Esta Manthos:

This is a shaft drive prototype Indian developed for the War Department in 1942. Unfortunately, the Army chose Jeeps instead and Indian never developed this concept for the civilian market.

Here's another Scout:

And a close up of the carburetor, circa 1930

I took the photos above during December and January. In addition to my own images, I have thousands of old images from the Indian archives. Here are a few of those:

Friday, April 3, 2009

Trust in the auto service environment

Yesterday one of the blog commenters said,

I took the wife's Taurus to a local shop, because it was the middle of winter, and I didn't feel like messing with it. They told me it needed complete rear brake system, all of the way across. They, of course, would be more than happy to do it, to the tune of $800. I declined their service, dusted off my toolbox, and found that the pins in the calipers were corroded in place. $7.50 later, the rear brakes are working fine. Needless to say, I'll never take the wife's car back to that mechanic.

So, that's the issue for me. Trust. If I get the vibe that the shop is trying to make a quick buck, I'll walk out the door.

At first glance, it might seem that the local shop lost the customer’s trust because they exaggerated what was wrong with the car. I think the problem developed earlier, though. For some reason, the customer doubted the shop enough to do their own inspection, which revealed something different from what the shop said.

What prompted the inspection, if not a lack of confidence or trust?

And what could a shop do about it? Here’s my take on this particular situation, which starts with a simple explanation of how brakes work.

At each corner of the car, you have a brake assembly. In a car with disc brakes, that consists of a caliper, pads, and a rotor. The brake calipers are like clamps, whose faces hold brake pads. When you step on the brake pedal, the clamps press the pads into the sides of the brake rotor, which is like a spinning plate. That friction is how brakes stop your car.

It’s the same idea as the brake on a 10-speed bicycle, just bigger and heavier.

The pins the fellow refers to are part of the caliper assembly. When they rust in place, the caliper is no longer free to move, and it doesn’t clamp correctly. That can cause a number of problems. First, the brakes simply won’t work as well as they’re supposed to. Second, some parts will wear out early while others don’t wear at all. Third, when one wheel has a problem and the others are fine, the car will develop a tendency to dive to one side when the brakes are applied – a dangerous situation.

There is more than one way to solve this problem. The most basic solution is to hammer the rusty pins apart, clean them with sandpaper, grease them and put everything back together. That’s the solution my blog commenter chose. But that’s not the only solution.

I’d like to share some of the choices a service manager must make when advising a motorist about a simple problem like this:

First, a few technicians would do what the commenter did – free up the stuck pins and send the car on its way. In my experience, though, most good technicians would feel that wasn’t an adequate response, for a number of reasons . . .

Many of them would recommend replacement of the whole caliper assembly, reasoning that the rust will simply return and new parts will ensure a more permanent repair. There’s also the concern that visible rust on the pins may be just the tip of the iceberg. The inside of the caliper may be rusty and ready to fail, too. That’s a perfectly valid reason to recommend a caliper in this situation.

On an older car, when you replace one caliper, it often works better than the original calipers on the opposite wheel. The result: the car now pulls to one side when you apply the brakes. The answer to that is simple – replace calipers in pairs on older cars. It’s not always necessary, but it’s quite common.

When you remove a caliper for any reason, there is always the risk that one of the metal lines that connects it to the master cylinder will fail from rust and age. When that happens it may take several hours to fabricate and install a new line. That’s an example of a complication that can cause the price of a job to increase.

After deciding what to do with the caliper, the service manager has to decide what to say about the pads and the rotors. If they are in near-new condition, there is little to decide – you leave them alone. But that’s rarely the case when a car arrives with a problem the driver can feel. By then, both pads and rotors are probably worn, and the question becomes . . . how worn is too worn?

There’s a lot of leeway for interpretation at this point. A shop that works on high performance cars might recommend replacement when the pads fall below 50%. A shop that caters to older cars whose owners are on a budget might stretch that margin to 10% or even 5%. There is no absolute right or wrong – they just serve markets with differing needs and expectations.

Rotors are the same way – the carmaker provides a minimum thickness, and you measure the rotors, compare to the spec, and make a judgment call. But thickness isn’t the only criteria. There is also flatness, which is more subjective. A rotor that is just a few thousandths of an inch out of flat will make the whole car shudder when braking from high speed. That’s a big deal to on a fast highway, but it might not matter much to a city cab driver. Once again, the service manager has to know how to match his customer’s needs with his own recommendations and the car’s condition.

Can the service manager understand those issues, explain them, and help guide the motorist to a good choice? Some can. Other “service managers” have little or no training or automotive knowledge, and they simply sell the “special of the week,” something that virtually ensures mistrustful, dissatisfied customers.

In my opinion, the best way to earn a consumer’s trust is to explain the situation to them so they can make an informed decision. Someone who understands the choices may disagree with my recommendation, but they won’t think I am crooked or tricky. However, the service manager has to have a deep understanding of how automotive systems work to be able to explain anything on demand, and that’s where our system breaks down. We don’t have enough trained and articulate people out there, and that’s a bit part of the industry’s trust problem.

I think that ability is one of the things that sets Robison Service apart from many other shops.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Shopping for service when money is tight

Now that money is tight, people have started price-shopping for everything. Even car service. I’m all in favor of spending my money wisely, but choosing car service on the basis of the lowest price quote may not lead to the outcome you want.

If you want a new GE oven, price shopping makes sense. GE sells the same oven to all their dealers, so you can indeed choose on the basis of availability and price. You can even do that with cars. A brand-new Camry is a Camry, no matter what Toyota dealer it comes from.

So you may be fine choosing your new car on price, distance to the dealer, or attitude. But when your car needs service, the picture gets a lot more complicated. A recent Consumer Reports article pointed out the huge variation in price quotes for a 60,000 mile service. Their reporter called around and got very different prices from a mix of dealers and independent garages.

The implication is that you can save money by making a few phone calls. But what exactly are you getting? I’ve done similar studies and I’ve taken the time to actually ask what I’d receive for my money. One garage changed the transmission fluid, another changed spark plugs. One dealer said the axle fluid is “permanent” while the dealer across town dealer changed it. The result – no two 60,000 mile services are the same.

That discovery renders the different price quotes totally meaningless. So what’s a motorist to do? I looked in the owner’s manual for the answers. To my surprise, not one of the quotes I received exactly matched the manufacturer’s checklist, though several were close.

So who do you believe? Conventional wisdom says the manufacturer knows best, but I don’t know if that’s really true. After all, if your car lasts forever, where will that leave them? That’s why I take ideas like “permanent transmission fluid” with a grain of salt. Long experience as a service manager tells me you change the fluid, or you change the transmission. Sure, the transmission may last through several fluid changed, but what would you rather do? I’ll take three $200 services over one $3,000 transmission any day. Wouldn't you?

Of course you would - if you knew. That's where a relationship with a trustworthy advisor comes in. How to find such a person?

I’d keep that goal in mind when I listen to service providers explain what they’d do to a car at 60,000 miles. Can they explain things clearly and sensibly? You can learn a lot about someone's understanding of a topic by asking them to explain it to you. And competence is vital in this industry, and many others. I can’t tell you have many times I’ve heard comments like, "That dealer really ripped me off!” I hear those words, but I know many of the people involved, and they are not dishonest. They are, however, often inept.

Incompetence is the biggest problem facing the auto repair industry today. There is no licensing board like there is in medicine, plumbing, or the electrical trades. Anyone can buy a toolbox and call themselves a technician. You bring your car into their shop and they say, “You don’t need that, but you do need this.” How do you decide?

I suggest you ask the technician or service advisor to explain his reasons for doing something. Do they make sense? Does the service person give you a good feeling? If not, keep shopping. A good rapport with an auto service professional is more important than ever in today’s uncertain economic climate.

I’ll be back soon with more advice and thoughts.