Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, everyone.

I'm not much of a holiday person but it's still a good time to think back on the year and consider everything that I (each and every one of us, really) have to be thankful for. I particularly want to recognize and thank all of you - readers and members of my online community - for making me welcome, and for giving me your support and encouragement. At the same time, I try and forget all the miserable stuff that makes me depressed . . . . and I hope for a brighter year in 2010 . . . .

I was going to put up an online form where people could sign up and join my Christmas Card Mailing list but I just did not get it together in time. Therefore, for those of you who missed my annual Christmas card by mail, I have here a hi-res downloadable version . . . And i promise to have the sign up form online in plenty of time for Christmas 2010.

I like to use my own photos for cards. This card depicts an old Buick Invicta at the Hemmings Classic Car Show which was held in Vermont in July 2009 I chose it for the vivid red and blue, which was almost as Christmasy as vivid red and green, which I did not have in my image library.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A simple brake job isn't always as simple as it looks

Many people have suggested that they can have a quick lube or corner garage do the "easy work" on their high end car, while leaving the "tough jobs" for specialists like Robison Service. That sounds like a good idea, but how do you know what the easy jobs are?

Oil changes used to be simple, but that's out the window on many cars. BMW and Mercedes dropped the dipstick, so you check level through the dash. Most cars have some complex procedure to reset the oil reminder. Many require special oils and the other fluids (like coolant) are often brand or even model-specific too. Can your corner garage get that right? And who buys the engine if they don't?

I'm not suggesting you abandon local service. What I suggest is that you have talks with your various service providers and make sure they can actually handle what you want of them. Blissful ignorance and incompetence are the bane of the auto service trade.

I'd like to show you an example of how simple service has gotten complex on a modern Land Rover. Join me while we slap some brakes on a late model LR3 . . .

In this photo you can see the brake and strut assembly. The new pads and rotors are in place and the wheels are hanging, ready to fit the tires. Do you see the strut assembly inboard of the brake? It's full of air, and the air charge is sometimes lost when the vehicle if put on a lift for a few hours. Most of the time it recovers, but occasionally, it doesn't, and it goes into fault mode.

When that happens, the fix is simple. Just hook your $10,000 IDS or Autologic system to the car and reset air suspension. Presto, you're set. But what if you don't have an IDS or Autologic . . . .??

If that's the case, you have an even bigger problem, because you can't set up the parking brake without one. Here our technician uses one of our test systems to release the parking brake cables on this LR3. If the tester isn't used properly the result is usually a smoked parting brake a few hundred miles down the road, and a fresh $800 repair bill.

It's still possible to do some work on these new vehicles at home, and local garages can still handle quite a bit of general service. For example, anyone can swap pads only - no special tools are needed for that. However, these particular Rovers are notorious for eating up rotors. Here's a worn out one to prove my point at 25,000 miles . . . .

The trick is knowing the limits of what you can do without special tools. In one of my last posts I wrote about all the trouble I had over a wrong spark plugs brand in another Land Rover. Sometimes there is just no substitute for experience.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Time for brakes and struts?

This is the look of new brakes and struts on a Porsche . . .

Struts need to be changed when they blow out. When that happens, the side of the strut will be black with dirty oil, and the vehicle will bounce like a pogo stick over bumps. All too often people look at struts during other service, and they say "These look okay" if they are dry.

But are struts really okay, just because they're not leaking?

In this car, the struts were not visibly failed. However, the car was 8 years old, and the struts had over 60,000 miles on them. In the mind of this particular owner - a driver enthusiast - that was reason enough to take the strut loose for inspection.

That proved to be a good call. When compressed and extended on the workbench, there was a night and day difference in the damping power of the old struts versus the new replacements. The old struts hardly had any damping left, it seemed. And when we installed them that feeling translated into much firmer handling. The car once again drove like new. It just goes to show, a quick visual check often fails to tell the whole story.

What about brakes? Can they be checked visually?

In the "before" photo above, you can see a ridge along the outer circumference of the brake rotor. That visible ridge is a sign the rotor is at or near the wear limit. How do I know? Simple . . . modern cars don't have a huge margin for allowable wear. But the time the wear is visible at the rotor edge, you are near the end. If you want to know more precisely, you can gauge the rotor and look up the thickness in the workshop manual, but this rule of thumb will serve you well most of the time.

There is also a good rule of thumb for pads. Most European carmakers say pads should be changed when the friction material is worn to the same thickness as the metal backing plate. You can't see that in this photo, but if you'd crawled into the monitor and looked sideways you'd surely have seen the worn pads.

Max Klawath and the Global Detour

Everyone should do something fun before they are 25. I had my years with rock n roll bands and sound companies. Today I’d like to introduce you to Max Kawlath, a German fellow who’s going round the world in a Land Rover at 23. So far he's been to France, Spain , Italy, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, Holland, England, The Faroes, Iceland, Canada and now the USA

Here's Max's Land Rover. It's a well equipped Defender 110

All Defenders are capable off road. We had to be careful with this one in brushy terrain because he has a roof top camper setup.

I met Max at the Amherst Brewery this Saturday night. He came down from Canada, where he landed when his Rover was shipped from Iceland. He stayed with my friend Julie Jones, who is hosting him here through a group called Couch Surfing

Max is on Facebook, and he has a website, Global Detour where you can follow his journey.

When I heard he was coming to town I called my friend Dave Rifken and we got our three Rovers together for what turned out to be Max’s first experience snow driving. Here are Max and Dave, on their respective Defenders:

Here are a few shots of our run . . .

We went up and over Mount Toby at the end of our day. The area is popular with hikers, and we met a group of four lost in the middle of the woods. I don’t think they had any grasp of the difficulties they’d have been in once it got dark out there. Anyway, I stuffed them into my red Discovery and brought them out of the woods.

It’s not often that we see foreign vehicles in Western Massachusetts. It was really cool, having Max and his Land Rover pass through on his way round. We wish him the best of luck in his travels . . .

Friday, December 4, 2009

Check those axles before you find yourself walking . . .

With winter coming it’s a good idea to check your car’s axles and cv joints. If you read the auto magazines, you’re already getting lots of advice about batteries, antifreeze, and wiper blades. But I’ll bet you haven’t heard a peep about axles, till now. Why not, you ask? Axles aren’t cute or sexy, and they aren’t sold by mass merchandisers. Yet they will strand you more completely than anything short of a broken timing belt.

How could such an important part of your car be so badly overlooked? I don’t know. But there you have it. Today, I am going to take you on a journey toward automotive enlightenment.

Have you considered how the power gets from your car’s engine to its wheels? Many of you know there’s a transmission between the engine and wheels, and some know there’s a differential, the thing that allows the wheels to roll at different speeds on corners.

Some of you know the differential as the thing that lets you get stuck, for it’s the differential that lets one wheel sit still on dry pavement while the opposite wheel spins helplessly on ice.

What connects that differential to the wheels? Axles. The axles are shafts with flexible joints on each end, to allow them to bend up and down as the suspension moves and the wheels steer. Those flexible joints are called cv joints, or constant velocity joints.

Each joint is packed in grease and wrapped in a flexible rubber boot. Joints are supposed to last the life of the car, but they seldom do. What happens is this: The rubber boot cracks and splits, which allows the grease to escape and gritty dirt to get in. When gravel gets exchanged for grease, the joint soon fails, and it comes apart. As soon as that happens, passengers in the vehicle experience the thrill of pedestrian conversion.

Pedestrian life isn’t too bad if it happens somewhere like New York’s Fifth Avenue, but it totally sucks at 2AM on a snowy night in Vermont. Unfortunately, that’s when joints tend to fail.

You see, a boot can crack during the summer and nothing much happens. The grease escapes slowly, but nothing really gets in to hurt the innards. However, when winter arrives, everything changes. The grease gets cold, and it gets thrown off more easily. At the same time, the axle is sprayed with wet salty water from winter roads. A joint that would survive months in the summer can come apart in weeks or days in a new England winter.

And there is no warning that this is going on . . . unless you look. So that is what I urge you to do. Here are some photos to guide you.

In this first shot, you can see a complete undamaged axle. The axle is the black shaft extending across the frame from the left. You can see the rubber boot at the axle’s right end. The wheel hub is on the far right, and the tire would be fastened to that. Chances are, you’ll see something similar if you look under your own car.

This is what a broken boot looks like. In fact, you are looking at the very same axle, when it arrived at our shop. My thumb is spreading the split boot to make it more visible. You can see the beginnings of dirt working their way into the axle.

Here’s what the axle looks like removed from the car. Now the damage is obvious.

This is what the joint looks like inside. As you can imagine, it does not thrive on dirt and salt water

And here we are, fixing the thing. Master technician Bob Toti has taken the axle apart and fitted new boots on each end after cleaning the joints and packing them with fresh grease. The whole process takes a few hours, but it’s vital to the car’s health.

Today, the roads are clean and dry. Tomorrow it may snow. Check your axles and cv joints now.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The persistent check engine light

Last week, we had a Land Rover in our shop with a check engine light. The first step with any warning light is to connect the diagnostic system to the car’s service port to see what its computers have to say. Sometimes the tester points you straight to a repair; other times the results are more ambiguous.

In this case we had a simple fault, a misfire on cylinder #3. Unfortunately, it wasn’t acting up at the moment we tested it. If the car had a misfire code and it was actually missing, diagnosis would be easy. But repairs seldom play out that way. This particular Rover was running just fine but it had that code. It also had brand new Bosch spark plugs fitted. Could it have a defective plug? Maybe. A flaky plug wire was also a possibility. We decided to change the #3 plug and the wire.

The car drove 200 miles before setting the same fault codes. At that point, we figured we had eliminated the plug and the wire, so the next step was the coil pack. We changed that, and the car went 100 miles and set the #3 misfire again.

We were now on our third try with a simple-seeming misfire. What should we do? I considered our plight. The car had a new coil, new wires, and new plugs. There seemed to be three possibilities:

1) The diagnostic equipment might be lying to us as to the nature of the fault.
2) One or more of the new parts might be defective.
3) The car might have some really bizarre problem that will defy resolution a bit longer

In my time as a service manager, I have seen all three situations. In this case, I had already tested the car with two different diagnostic systems, both of which said the same thing. Either they are colluding to trick me, or the car really has a #3 miss. I ruled out the possibility of lying test equipment for now.

I knew the car might have a one-of-a-kind problem, but I hoped it didn’t. The easiest possibility to test was the parts. I decided to start with spark plugs. I replaced the eight new Bosch plugs with a set of genuine Land Rover plugs.

The problem went away. I cringed, thinking we swapped all that other stuff and the problem was wrong plugs, all the time. We had started with plugs, but I had simply replaced the new Bosch plug with another new Bosch plug. I had not thought to try a different kind of plug.

We relied on the parts catalog, which told us what Bosch plug was right for the car. Obviously, the catalog was wrong for this particular vehicle. It would be easy to say, those people at Bosch just sell incompatible parts! But I have seen many other Land Rovers with those same plugs, and they don’t miss. I know from experience that those Bosch plugs work just fine in many Rovers. Did I get a batch of bad plugs? Or is this car particularly sensitive? We have no way of knowing. All I know is, it’s fixed.

What can we learn from that experience? Some cars are very sensitive to spark plug brand, and this model of Rover may be one of them. Next time I plug plugs in a 2003 Discovery, I will make sure they are genuine Land Rover plugs.

Parts compatibility is a big problem in this industry. Bosch is the world’s largest auto parts maker. They sell millions of spark plugs to car makers every year, and millions more to the aftermarket. Yet their plug did not work in this car.

Yet there are other situations where an aftermarket part is better. For example, Bilstein shocks outperform the stock Rover shocks every time. But how do you know which parts will be better, and which ones worse? There is no substitute for experience, and sometimes it’s hard won.