Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Motor Oil for Collector Cars

Motor oil – what to use, when, and why - is a surprisingly contentious topic, especially when it comes to collector cars.  I’ve seen so-called gentlemen get into fistfights over the stuff at more than one holiday party, when the effects of Mobil Synthetic Blend and Smirnoff vodka prove more than one could handle.

As New Years approaches I thought I’d share our philosophy at Robison Service, particularly as regards collector cars.

  • We should begin by looking at what we want the oil to do, in a vintage vehicle
  • We want an oil that has high natural strength – otherwise referred to as film strength or barrier strength.  This is the oil’s ability to prevent metal on metal wear in the moments before the oil pump begins delivering pressurized oil to the bearings.
  • We want an oil that’s fairly thick at running temperature, because older engines have sloppier clearances, but not so thick as to be a drag on performance
  • We want an oil with zinc additive for the metallurgy of vintage motors
  • We want an oil with strong detergents to clean what are often dirty old motors
  • We want an oil that’s free of waxes and compounds that form sludge in long storage and short cycle use.

There are not many oils marketed for this purpose.  The one we are using more and more is Castrol Syntec Edge 5-50 Classic Car Formula.  It’s replaced the older Castol GTX for vintage cars.   Mobil – to the best of my knowledge – does not have a comparable oil.

Readers of my columns know I’m a big believer in synthetic oils.  Their superior strength and durability are beyond dispute.  Some vintage car owners argue that durability does not matter in a car that’s driven 1,000 miles a year with annual oil changes, but the other features of synthetics DO matter. 

Synthetic oil is thinner when cold and stays thicker when hot.  That means a synthetic 5-50 is more pumpable than a conventional 20-50 on cold start, yet is actually thicker at 200 degrees when the motor is running.
The fact that synthetics are thinner when cold means the oil pump will begin circulating oil faster.  Engineers suggest that most wear happens in the seconds before the oil system gets up to pressure so that’s a vital benefit.

Older engines need a different set of additives than those optimized for new cars.  Syntec Classic is one of the few oils to offer vintage-tailored additives.

There are so many different grades of oil now, for so many purposes, that it’s difficult to make a choice for these older vehicles that predate the modern specifications.  We do our best, but we recognize there may be more than one answer.  The main thing we want to avoid is wrong choices that can damage engines.

What oil are you using in your collector car, and why?

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Fine Old Rolls Royce

LCLW9 - The red and black Wraith

1954 Rolls Royce Wraith LCLW9 at Robison Service
I first came to know this old Rolls in 1995, when Yankee Candle founder Mike Kittredge purchased it for $85,000 at the Barrett-Jackson auction.  We see fine Wraiths sell for more today, but eighteen years ago that bid price made this car the most expensive postwar Wraith sold to that date. 

I last saw this car in 2007.  At that time, it remained one of the nicest postwar Wraith limousines in existence.  The cosmetic restoration (which we didn't do) was stunning, and we'd built on that with a lot of mechanical work, including an engine overhaul and extensive chassis upgrades.  It had appeared in shows all over New England, including the prestigious events at Newport, Greenwich (Connecticut), Hildene (Manchester, Vermont) and Stowe, Vermont (The British Invasion.)

Unlike most show cars of this age the Wraith drove to most shows under its own power.  It would cruise all day at 50, and even stop and turn if you had plenty of room.  The inline six cylinder engine, vintage front end, and mechanical brakes were straight out of the 1930s.  Only the automatic transmission - sourced from General Motors - was current.  Rolls Royce was a strong believer in tradition.  Others described that trait as "bullheaded resistance to change."

Another tradition the Rolls Royce people developed was the use of the chassis number to describe a car.  They knew license plates changed, and bodies could be swapped, but the chassis number would always remain the same.  This particular vehicle left the factory carrying the number LCLW9.

When it wasn’t on the show circuit LCLW9 was the centerpiece of the Yankee Candle Car Museum in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.  The car was admired by thousands of museum visitors during those years. When the museum closed in 2002 Connecticut collector Don Colburn bought the car.  He'd owned a succession of Bentley Eight and Turbo R cars, and he decided it was time for an antique Rolls to compliment his more modern fleet.

He showed it at Newport in June of 2004, where it won the Rolls Royce class.  Unfortunately, Mr. Colburn died a few years later without showing the car again.  When his estate was liquidated we arranged its sale to Gull Wing Motors, and I lost track of it from there.

What’s left is its history . . .

In the fall of 1953, Broadway producer Blevins Davis decided he wanted a new Rolls Royce.  Mr. Davis was a former school teacher from Independence, Missouri who grew up with Harry Truman.  Davis achieved considerable success in Independence, building a large mansion that was the site of many events in the years before World War II. In 1946 Davis married Margaret Sawyer Hill, heir of James Jerome Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railway. When she died three years later he inherited nine million dollars.  Armed with that money, he became a well known patron of the arts, producing plays such as Porgy and Bess, Rhapsody, Skipper to God, and A Joy Forever.

Davis became interested in Rolls Royce cars after his marriage, and bought several in rapid succession.  He ordered this car on November 12, 1953. He requested an "all weather tourer" body, which today would be called a 4 door convertible. Fitted with side mount spare tire and the big lights, the original incarnation of this car must have looked like a Rolls-Royce tourer from the Silver Ghost era.

At that time Rolls Royce offered three models. The Silver Dawn was their smaller car. Though custom variants were available on special order, most Silver Dawn models were "standard steel saloons." By that, Rolls Royce meant the cars had standard assembly line steel sedan (saloon) bodies. The Silver Dawn was Rolls-Royce's first production line car.

The larger cars - the Silver Wraith and the Phantom - were quite different. These magnificent cars were referred to as "coach built," which meant Rolls-Royce built a running chassis consisting of a rolling frame and drive train. They delivered the chassis to a coach builder, who built a body. A vanished breed, these builders were descendants of the horse drawn carriage builder. These coachbuilders - Freestone & Webb, H.J. Mulliner - are largely forgotten today.

Using hardwood framing with sheet metal skins, these bodies were built one at a time, piece by piece. Every one was unique. Some cars were completely unique - built to a sketch drawn up between the buyer and builder. Others were built from a standard plan. Even those, though, differed subtly from car to car. Mr. Davis chose Freestone & Webb, one of the smaller builders, to produce the body for his Rolls-Royce.

Eleven months were required to produce this tourer, which was a "one of a kind".  Most of today's new car buyers are accustomed to picking options off a list.  Rolls Royce didn't do things that way.  There were no predefined options - just requests for customization - and the Company billed you for the work when done.  Here's how they defined this car (from the factory record)

Automatic gearbox x53-226.
Extension speaker to radio.                             Auto altimeter.
F.B.A. headlamps with yellow bulbs.            Bonnet locks.
Silver Dawn sealed beam headlamps. White wall tyres (removed).
Dunlop Guardian tyres (fitted).                      2 RD 7470 foglamps.
Spare wheel mounted right front wing.           2 wing mirrors.
Power operated windows and hood.              Left hand door locks.
Pyrene bumpers (no fog lamps).                    Bar type footrest.
Mascot made thief proof.                               Small G.B. plate.
Emergency window handle.                            Under car aerial.
Folding windscreen to rear.                             Hood Valve Key.
"Made In England" plate.                               2 rubber mats; 1 wool rug.
Extra cushion for driver seat (deleted).           Drawer under dash.
Frame to be specially strengthened per AFM/GB's instructions.
Blinker indicators (flasher to be supplied and fitted in U.S.A.).
Exide battery, installed 7/8/54                        Radio, serial #14 11559

On September 12, 1954, Rolls-Royce delivered the new car to Ferryfield Airport, located at Lydd, near Dungeness in Kent. The car was flown to Le Touquet, France, where Mr. Davis was waiting. With its exclusive casino and beaches, Le Touquet was a popular resort.  Its casino was said to be the setting for one of the early James Bond novels.

Mr. Davis paid $16,340 for the Wraith, plus air freight and tax.  That was enough money to buy a good house in those days, when a Cadillac Eldorado - one of the most expensive production cars in America - sold for $4,500 and a good used car was a few hundred bucks.

Presumably the tourer style was not to his liking, because only two months later, on November 11, he returned the car to Rolls-Royce to be re-bodied as a closed limousine. This time he chose H.J. Mulliner to build a body for the car. The rebodied car was returned to him in France on May 18, 1955 by chartered air transport.

In May of 1957, after two years of use, Mr Davis sold the car to his neighbor in Cannes – Col. Jack Trevor – author of The Trouble With Harry and a number of other popular books and screen plays.  Davis then moved to Peru, where he lived for the next decade.  Col. Trevor returned to England and brought the car with him that fall.  Trevor subsequently went bankrupt and the car was sold.  Sometime in the sixties or seventies the car made its way to America after, where it was shuffled from one owner to another and accumulated somewhat over 100,000 hard miles.   

The car next surfaces in public records when it was sent to auction in the fall of 1993.  The listing said, Dark Blue-black/blue leather; P100 headlamps, divider window; poor older repaint, cracking badly, otherwise all original including good interior.

The car was bought and restored by an un-named American collector.  He certainly restored its original grandeur from a cosmetic perspective.  The faded blue and black color scheme was replaced with red and black.  All the leather was replaced, and the wood was refinished.  Other than the change to the color, this car looked just the way it was re-bodied fifty years before.

Unfortunately the 1993 restoration was only skin deep.  When Mike Kittredge got the car he discovered the engine smoked and barely ran. The steering was so sloppy you'd be afraid to go over 25, and there was a hole in the floor where you stuck you boot down to assist the brakes. The worn out drivetrain had been beautifully cleaned and painted but nothing had been done to correct the decades of wear and neglect.  Fine black paint made for a nice museum piece, but Kittredge wanted a car he could drive.

That, of course, is my longstanding philosophy too.  I think there's something wrong with restorations that do not function as good as they look.

Over the next five years we remade this car in that image, going through the engine, transmission, suspension, brakes and running gear.  When we were done it drove better than when it was new, thanks to some modern improvements and careful tuning and balancing.  It was a big hit everywhere it went.  I can still remember gliding into cruise night at the local Burger King, and parking the massive Wraith next to a little T-bucket Ford from the 20s!

I wonder where LCLW9 is today?   If you know, drop us a line . . .

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent restoration and repair specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the RROC and other car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Questions and Answers on Collector Car Storage

Should I start the engine every few weeks?

Some people think the engine should be run every few weeks to keep the oil coating on internal parts.  Others say it should be started and idled to keep the battery charged.  Neither of those notions is really valid, and both overlook the real harm multiple engine starts can cause.

When you start an engine in cold weather, you need a richer mixture. That’s why old cars have chokes.  Cold engines don’t run as well, which is why old cars have fast idle when they warm up.  When an engine runs rich during warm-up one of the things that happens is that unburned gasoline and combustion byproducts leak past the piston rings and into the oil sump.  I’ve seen oil levels rise on cars that sit in storage for this reason – they end up with a quart or more of polluted gas diluting the oil by winter’s end.

Clearly that is not desirable, and the best way to avoid it is by not starting the engine once the car is put away for winter.

OK, then what about the battery?

I suggest you install a battery tender to keep the electrics of your car alive.  If you have a pre-computer car there should not be many drains on the battery when it’s parked, and a slow charge every month or two should be fine.  Cars with computers – especially the ones from the 80s and 90s – tend to need a trickle charger connected all the time to stay healthy.

There’s always a risk the trickle charger will overcharge the battery over four or five months of storage.  To reduce the risk of that I suggest plugging the charger into a timer so it only runs a couple hours a day.  That’s enough to replenish any discharge but not enough to fry the battery.

Make sure your battery is fully charges before you put the car away for winter.

How about lubrication inside the engine?

Oil tends to flow downward.  If you leave an engine sitting for five years, most of the inside of the motor would be dry if you were able to look inside.  Does that matter?  Not really.  What matters is that the engine’s bearings and other moving parts be supplied with oil when the motor is first started.

Oil is trapped in the bearing journals, so there’s just as much oil in the bearings at the end of winter even if some oil has run off the crankcase walls.  But it’s not pressurized like when the engine is running.  It’s just there.  When you start an engine cold, it’s the film strength of the unpressurized oil that keeps metal from crashing into metal.  When that happens, you get wear.  Remember the ads where auto engineers say 90% of engine wear happening in the first ten seconds?  This is what they are talking about.

A modern high performance oil (like Mobil 1 5-30) has a film strength that’s over 100,000 pounds per square inch.  Cheap oil that’s been in a motor 7,000 miles may have a film strength that’s just 20,000 pounds per square inch.  There’s a big difference in protection between the two.

It takes anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds (depends on engine design, oil thickness, and temperature) for the oil pump to start delivering pressurized oil to the bearings so your engine is most vulnerable during that window.  Protect yourself with by filling your engine with fresh high quality oil before storage.

Protect yourself further by keeping your engine speed at idle, and don’t put it under load until it’s had time to warm up a bit.

What’s the talk about “putting a car up on blocks?”

One of the most annoying things that happens when a car sits for a year is called flat spotting.  That’s when the tires develop flat spots where there sat in contact with the floor.  Most times flat spots work themselves out in an hour’s driving next spring but sometimes they don’t. 

Putting the car on blocks – using blocks to lift the tires off the ground – prevents that and ensures your tires will be perfectly round when you start the car in the spring.  If you can't do that over inflating is the next best thing.

Should I store the car full of gas, or empty?

The answer depends on the length of storage.  Petroleum engineers say gas loses perhaps a point of octane rating every month it sits.  So the premium you put in your car this December will be sub-regular a year later.  It may not be good enough to even start the car in five years.

If your car is going to be stored a long time, or an open ended period of time, I suggest draining the fuel system.  Empty the tank and then run the car out of gas in the lines.  

If you are sure the car is only being stored for the season I suggest filling the tank because a full tank is less likely to get condensation inside.  Put Sta-Bil fuel stabilizer in the tank and be sure to fill with the best premium you can find.  If you are near an airport Avgas 100 is significantly better than pump gas for storage (running too) though it’s not legal for road use.  Also, Avgas 100 contains lead, so it's toxic for post-1975 cars with catalytic converters.  But it's great for vintage machines.

How do I keep mice out of my car?

There are a thousand suggestions for keeping mice out of stored cars.  I have yet to see one that works reliably.  

Gerald Acquiliano of the Rolls Royce Club swears by TANK odor eliminator - he says a container of this in the car, windows closed, will repel all pests.  I hope he's right!  He also suggests making sure windows are shut tight, stuffing a rag up the tail pipe (s) and putting a cover over the car.  All good suggestions.

There is one more plan I suggest:  Professional pest control backed up by insurance.

Many comprehensive coverages (comprehensive, collision, and liability are three parts of a typical policy) include damage from rodents.  Some collector policies exclude rodent damage – look at the fine print.

We fix quite a few cars every spring with holes in headliners, holes in seats, and eaten wiring.  Some of the claims run well into five figures, and many collectors are not aware that this kind of damage is often covered by insurance. 

I hope you find these suggestions useful, and I wish you luck and success, putting your cars back on the road for spring 2014!

Best wishes

John Elder Robison

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent restoration and repair specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the RROC and other car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine vehicles.  Find him online at www.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665