Thursday, May 18, 2017

Tech Inspection and Track Days - what we look for and why

I’ve been a tech inspector for track events for the Porsche and Ferrari Clubs for the past 20 years.  Sometimes people ask what we require in a tech inspection, and how it differs from Massachusetts state inspection.  In this essay I will show you.

The purpose of Tech Inspection is to make sure the car you run on the track is safe.  That’s really our only concern.  We don’t want you to be a danger to yourself, and we don’t want to see you creating a hazard for others.  To that end, we focus on these things:

We start by putting the car on a lift and checking tires, wheels, brakes and suspension.
Some classes allow racing tires, and you may be changing tires for the event.  If so, we note that on the form and someone will check your race tires at trackside.
We make sure the tires are free of cuts, bruises, and punctures.  They can’t be visibly patches or damaged in any way.  If they are street tires they must have legal (1/16) tread across the tire, and the date code must be less than 6 years ago.  The tires need to have the proper rating for the capability of the car.

Sidewall and tread cracks are unsafe, and they won't pass no matter what the age
The rims must appear round (no dents) and free of cracks or damage.
If you are running the tires that the car comes to us with we will torque the wheels in the shop.

We check for dents and damage, particularly inside the wheel rims

Most track events call for street legal tread depth
Splits in line with the treat are often hard to see

We look in at the brakes and suspension.  Brake pads must be less than half worn (this means the pad material must be noticeably thicker than the backing plate) with no “low pad” lamp showing on the dash.  Brake rotors must be free of excessive ridges (that would mean they are worn too thin) and they must be free of rust streaking (see the example of a bad rotor) and finally if the rotors are drilled they may not have excessive cracking.  The photos below show a rotor that is at the limit.  This car will need new brakes for subsequent events.

This brake rotor is showing cracks at the vent holes and some ridge at the edge.  It''s ready to be replaced

This rotor is unsafe on the track because the rust stripes reduce braking efficiency

You need fresh brake fluid every year no matter what, and if you run in the more aggressive classes you will need fresh fluid every so many runs.  We often flush fluid as part of inspection.  Some cars can be bled by pressure or foot pumps while others require use of a tool to activate pumps.

Brake hoses must be less than 10 years old, unless the carmaker specifies changing then sooner, in which case they need to be within that limit.  This car’s brake hoses are obviously original.  The next photo shows a replacement hose for comparison – the difference is obvious.

An original brake hose
These replacement lines stand out under the car

We check for cracks and damage to the suspension arms.  We look for loose ball and socket joints in the suspension and steering,  We check for tears and wear in the bushings.  No broken boots on the steering or suspension joints.

Close up of a split ball joint boot.  The joint will ingest water and grit and eventually fail.
Moving on, we check to make sure there is nothing loose or in danger of falling off under the car.  You may enjoy the experience of shedding unwanted parts but the driver behind you won’t see things so favorably.

We also look for leaks.  Seepage is ok, but we won’t pass a car that shows bulging water lines or leaks at oil hose edges, because they could blow on the track.  A cooling system blowout or oil line failure could put the following cars into the guardrails in an instant.

Your throttle, brake, and clutch linkages must work smoothly with no binds.  Drive and axle shafts must be tight with no broken or split boots.  Fuel lines and pipes must be correct and tight with no signs of cracking or ageing. 

We check the steering linkage to make sure everything is tight.  This includes the steering wheel attachment, if yours is a quick release.

The outside body check is usually pretty quick. No cracked or broken lights.  Headlights and brake lights have to work.  No cracks in the windshield.  Wipers/washers have to be working properly.  Door latches must be solid.

Lights must work, no cracks, and they must be tight.  If they are glass, some class will require safety tape.  These newer lights are plastic 
Inside the car we expect to seat correct seat belts for the class – this may mean stock belts or competition harnesses.  You may need a roll bar and the rules for that vary.  Note that it’s your responsibility to make sure your car is fitted properly for its class.

We track inspectors mostly look at street interiors but we do see the occasional full-on race car like this Bentley GT3:

For a street car we expect a fire extinguisher with a current label and it needs to be installed in a solid metal bracket.  The plastic brackets sold for home use are not safe as they can let go on the track.  A race car like the Bentley above would have a built in fire suppression system.

Some track forms ask us to certify that you showed us your helmet, and it had valid stickers inside.  Others will inspect helmets at the track. We do not check your registration status, nor do we check the status of your club registration or competition license.  It’s your responsibility to manage those things as you may be queried trackside.  We require an exhaust that conforms to street rules (if the car is registered) or track rules (if it’s a track car)  We do not test emissions for tech inspections. 

With all that we hope you can go to the track, have fun, and stay safe.

John Elder Robison

A Bentley leads around the turn when the Pirelli GT Series came to Lime Rock in CT

(c) 2017 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Porsche, Ferrari, Bentley, BMW/MINI, Mercedes, Land Rover, and Rolls-Royce restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British and German motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Future of Collectible Land Rovers - Defender, Discovery, Range Rover Classic

Fifty years of off-road prowess built Land Rover an enviable reputation.  Even their newest and plushest offerings lived up to the 1960s slogan – No Road, No Problem.  From its introduction in the 1950s the Land Rover was consistently one of the most capable off-road vehicles in the world.  After Ford sold Land Rover to Tata the company seemed to take a different direction.  They moved away from their rugged roots and became more urban, and far more luxurious.  Skid plates vanished or were scaled back. Fragile plastic trim hung perilously close to the ground.  Handling on the freeway improved greatly, at the expense of rock crawling and river crossing capability.

Who cares about those things, anyway?

The answer is, those things matter to collectors.  They matter to people who keep Land Rovers at summer homes on the Cape and Islands.  They matter to people who keep Land Rovers at their ski homes in Colorado.  Those are some of the people who send Land Rovers to us for overhaul and restoration.

Collectors tend to see Land Rovers like vintage tractors or Army Jeeps – they expect function and ruggedness, not luxury.  Most will never subject their Land Rovers to extreme conditions.  Few are hard-core off roaders.  Yet they are the enthusiast group who drives the late model Land Rover collector market.  The question is, what do they collect?

The Series Land Rovers (built from the 1950s through the 1970s) have always maintained a cult following in the United States. Those are the vehicles we saw in National Geographic and on television shows like Wild Kingdom 50 years ago.  We have restored Series Land Rovers for many years at Robison Service.  Parts are surprisingly available through Rovers North and other suppliers. 

Series Land Rovers are available at a wide range of prices.  Rougher examples that are suitable for local use on the farm or in the woods can be had for $10k or less.   Concours restorations of those same models sell a little above or below the $100k mark.  Interest in the Series trucks has diminished a bit as similar looking but more capable Defenders make their way into the market, but there is still a loyal group of Series enthusiasts out there.

Most Series Land Rovers have small 4-cylinder gas engines that offer a cruising speed in the 50mph range.   Some have normally aspirated diesels with a similar level of performance.  A few trucks have been repowered with larger engines but those tend to be shunned by purists.  The little engines have all the power that's needed to pick your way through rough country, but these early Land Rovers remain very spartan vehicles.  Heat is optional, air conditioning non existent.  Manual steering, manual transmission is the rule, and you work for every three point turn.

One distinguishing feature of Series Land Rovers is the suspension.  All but the last Series vehicles feature leaf spring suspension, like a World War II Jeep.  This is a simple and rugged suspension setup but it’s hard riding and provides limited suspension travel for extreme off-roading.  The coil spring system that was introduced in the 1980s was widely hailed as a major improvement.  

With that in mind, many people see magic in the coil-spring V8 powered solid axle Land Rovers that were sold in America through 2004.  The newer LR3, Range Rover, and Range Rover Sport were very successful as suburban people-haulers but they never really caught on as off-road vehicles.  

The most desirable Land Rovers of modern times are the few hundred 1993 model year Defender 110 models that were sold in America.  Next come the few thousand Defender 90s that were sold in 1994, 1995, and 1997.   The best examples of these Defenders sell well over $100k, with concours 110 restorations fetching as much as $250k.

At those prices you do not see many of these trucks crashing through the woods of Western Massachusetts and Vermont, or mountaineering in Moab. They are just too valuable, and the Series trucks are too old.  Yet we have plenty of clients with Defenders on Long Island, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard. 

A small number of Defenders were privately imported to the United States, and a few more trickle in every year.  Those trucks occupy a lower price point that the US market Defenders, with most of the same characteristics.  The grey market Defenders often come with diesel engines and other options that were never sold in the USA – something many enthusiasts find very desirable.

Models with the 300TDI and TD5 engines are particularly desirable, as are military models.  We are seeing more and more call to restore gray market Land Rovers.  Some of these vehicles are simpler than US-market trucks but overall the jobs of restoration are similar.

In the past decade we have seen two other Land Rover models emerge as collectible and restorable – the 2003-4 Discovery II and the 1993-1995 Range Rover County LWB.

Land Rover did a facelift of the popular Discovery II for the 2003 model year.  Headlights changed and the 4.0 engine was upgraded to the 4.6 liter version from the Range Rover HSE. 

Good original Discovery II trucks sell for $5k or less, and they can be mechanically overhauled for at most $25k.  Even when adding in costs for paint and interior the cost to redo a 2004 Discovery is far below the cost to buy a good Defender. The Discovery II has (with the exception of longer wheelbase) essentially the same off-road capabilities as a Defender, at 1/3 the price. 
Discovery II trucks have gotten a reputation in some quarters for having thinner frames that rust and break, and for having liner failures in the 4.6 engines.  Those things lead to costly repairs but when compared to buying and fixing a Defender they remain dirt cheap.

There is hardly a day when we don’t have one or more late Discovery II trucks at Robison Service for overhaul.  We rebuild engines with the new flanged liners, repair and replace the weak frames late Discoveries are blessed with, and redo bodies and interiors.  We also install custom gear like winches and roof racks.

The other Land Rover that’s become collectible is the final evolution of what we now call the Range Rover Classic – the vehicle that re-introduced Land Rover to the American market in 1987.  That model was sold here from 1987 through the 1995 model year, which it was replaced with the P38, or “new” Range Rover. 

I can still remember how impressed I was the first time I drove an 87 Range Rover over a mountain here in Western Massachusetts.  The skinny Michelin tires seemed to have grip that would never end, and the ground clearance and maneuverability was just amazing.  What a world of difference from the Land Rovers of my teenage years!

For 1993 the American market received an upscale version of the Range Rover called the County LWB.  “County” was the designation for the fanciest trim level, while LWB referred to the fact that the body was stretched for six extra inches of rear seat legroom.  With the longer body the engine displacement was increased from 3.9 to 4.2 liters; a small change in size that made a noticeable difference in takeoff.

With their plush interiors many people saw those cars as “British Suburbans.”  They were well loved from the moment they were introduced.  The 1993 models were the first Land Rovers to come to American with air suspension instead of steel springs.  The system was popular at first but as the trucks aged it became problematic, and most trucks were converted to coil springs.  For 1995 all Range Rovers received the dual-airbag dashboard from the Discovery, a change most people saw as an improvement.   That dash made the 1995 trucks unique and they remain the most desirable of the Range Rover Classics today.

Good unrestored Range Rover Classics sell in the $10-20k price range.  LWB models tend to fetch a bit more than standard wheelbase models.  With their finer leather interiors and more complex body structure the cost of restoring Range Rover Classics is higher than similar costs for Discovery II models.  All things being equal, restoration costs for Range Rover Classic trucks will exceed costs for similar work on Defenders.

Some people say that's crazy - spending $100k on a Range Rover Classic.  Not so fast, I tell them.  It was not too many years ago when $100k restorations on Defenders sounded crazy and now they are ordinary.  What's happened is that the folks who did those jobs early on lifted the standard for everyone who followed.  It's the same for the Classic now.  The fact is, a top quality restoration on any car is going to be expensive. There is not yet a market for restored RR Classics at auctions like Barrett-Jackson, but when there is you can bet the high water mark will rise fast.

Between the Discovery II, Range Rover Classic, and Defender models we see a collector marketplace taking shape where vehicles range in cost from $20-200k; covering a wide range and accommodating enthusiasts of any budget.

As of this writing (spring 2017) it’s still possible to find decent unrestored Land Rovers from the 1990s.  In the next decade the supply of original vehicles will dry up, and the choice will be between professionally restored trucks at high process and amateur restorations at far lower prices.  The problem with the latter trucks is that it can cost more to correct work that was done poorly than it would to do the job right in the first place.  That will have the general effect of raising costs, and that combined with increasing scarcity will mean increased market values overall for these vehicles.   At least that’s my prediction.  As always, your mileage may vary.

Land Rovers like those in this article inhabit summer homes, mountain retreats, and winter ski places.  We see them on Land Rover Club outings in Vermont and beyond and they are often seen on upscale beaches of New England.

John Elder Robison

(c) 2017 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Bentley, BMW/MINI, Mercedes, Land Rover, and Rolls-Royce restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British and German motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.  

Monday, May 1, 2017

Tech Session for the Yankee Region RROC Rolls-Royce and Bentley club

On Sunday April 30 we were pleased to host the Yankee Region of the RROC - the national club for Bentley and Rolls-Royce motorcar enthusiasts - at our complex in Springfield, MA.  We looked at a bunch of member cars and we showed off some of our projects, including the work of our students in the TCS Auto Program.

First to arrive was this Bentley Arnage T.  The T was a higher performance version of the 6.75 Arnage (otherwise known as the Red Label)  These are what I call "transition cars" made after British corporate parent Vickers decided to sell Rolls-Royce and Bentley but before the companies actually parted ways (2003.)

Next to arrive was this nice SII/Cloud era car, still in the original buyer's family . . .

A few members arrived with cars for sale, including this Bentley Turbo and the Rolls-Royce Silver Spur behind it.  We checked out both cars in our service department and felt either could make a nice car for a new owner.

Weather turned sharply cooler around noon and many of us retreated into the office to await lunch from our local Panera

In this photo Bob Toti demonstrates the use of the Bentley Omitec scan tool, which is the correct factory tool for testing all pre-VW and pre-BMW Bentley and Rolls-Royce cars from the 1990s onward.

RROC member Matt Strauss drive down from Burlington VT in this nice Mulliner Spur.

While his car was on the lift he and others admired the engine bay on the Rando car, winner of its class at the 2016 RROC National Meet in Asheville.

Alex Turner handles parts at Robison Service.  In this photo you can see him with the "Mexico or Bust" car our TCS high school students are preparing to race the Carrera Panamericana through Mexico . . .

Meanwhile across the parking lot John Manning looks over this 1970s car on a lift.  They were in pursuit of a suspension noise in this photo.

Bob Toti shows a Cloud owner some details on an early V8 engine, similar to the one in his car.

Meanwhile other members check out the Cloud in the background.

There was a lot of interest in details and automotive arcana . . .

In this image John Manning shows a British motorcar owner why American Jeeps won World War Two.  This particular example is a postwar command car - known to civilians as a Jeepster - dating from 1948

They say only a Rolls-Royce owner can lean on another Rolls, and only then to speak to a Bentley driver.  As shown in this photo . . .

One car assumed the British Position on a flatbed after failing to proceed on the way to the event.

Later in the day all of us gathered for a group photo.  A few people had to leave before this was taken  . . . you know who you are!

John Elder Robison

(c) 2016 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Bentley, BMW/MINI, Mercedes, Land Rover, and Rolls-Royce restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the car clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine British and German motorcars.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.