My son is going to help ‘found a church’. I don’t know exactly why, or how, but it seems to be something he cares about.
His Mother is very religious. I’m more tepid about it all (agnostic often) despite holding a Doctorate of Divinity and being rather fond of exploring the issues. (The D.D. is valid, but don’t get too excited about it. It cost me all of $20 in the ’70s and did not require any specific course of study… Still, it entitles me to put “D.D.” after my name and lets me pontificate with authority and a minor seal of approval from an organized church body. Oh, and I can marry people too. Though I don’t think I can divorce them. Odd that. You would think if you can make a mistake you would be allowed to fix them too; but no, if you marry two folks and it was a Bad Idea you can’t just say “Never Mind, my bad…” and undo it. But I digress…
At any rate, my Son takes after his mother in the area of Religion. He plays in a church band and generally is very wrapped up in the whole thing. My Daughter goes to church sometimes when someone convinces her it might be interesting and does know about religion, but looks on it with a certain amount of suspicion that a lot of these folks are maybe just making stuff up to get money in the door… She takes after me…
What does this have to do with Adventures In Auto Land?
Well, the son is planning to move to Chicago and start a church. Not all on his own, mind you. His flavor of Evangelical Church has an interesting behaviour. They get 30 or 40 folks who all volunteer to move to an area together. Start a church. Then recruit new members. At some future time, another pod forms and repeats. It might be the same folks. It might be some of the “new recruits”. Who knows…
So he is going to quit his job (hopefully getting a new one…) and go do this.
That means that the “stuff” I hauled down to L.A. over the last few years as he ‘moved out’, either gets pitched out (for the crappy or uninteresting bits), shipped to Chicago (for the smallest bits with the most utility that can survive the trip and living in someone’s basement for a few weeks…), sold (for the uninteresting but valuable bits) or hauled back here (for the important bits that are not goimg to be sold, and won’t survive a sudden trip in a suitcase to an unknown place a couple of thousand miles away…)
So I was headed to L.A. to collect, among other things, the bed frame for the ‘loft’ bed that will be put up here for use when ‘visiting’ (back in the room where it started…) and the canonical collection of Hockey Sticks. We’d had season tickets to the Sharks for several years, and a cute kid asking for a stick at the end of a game was often given one. So he’s got a dozen… or two… I’m not sure. They have autographs on them. He knows them all by heart. I remember the Polish dogs with kraut and the beer a bit more than the players….
So that’s the context. Me. The wagon. Off to L.A. on a day trip to pick up some “stuff” (and deliver a pink slip to a motorcycle in pieces to be sold… as shipping a ‘project’ was not attractive…)
We have a Fine Old Mercedes. It is a 1984 300TD. That’s a 3 liter Turbo Diesel. But the T doesn’t stand for Turbo. It stands for Touring. That means it is a wagon. Why a wagon is called a touring is something only Germans can ken. But it is. We first bought this car when the kid was about 3. So about 20 years ago. I ought to look up exactly when, but I won’t. After a couple of decades it doesn’t really matter all that much. It was the first Mercedes I’d ever bought. I traded in my pickup truck for it. (A giant Ford F350 4×4 Crew Cab that seats 6 and had a ride like a brick shit house. It had super duty springs in it that were for towing a 5th wheel trailer. Something the used truck salesman forgot to mention and that did not show up in the test drive on the very smooth streets near their dealership…)
The extra above trade-in went on a credit card (it wasn’t much. The whole thing was about $10,000 asking price and IIRC it was about $1000 or $2000 on the card. Yes, I bought my first Mercedes on a credit card.) It was a gift to the spouse, and she came home to find it in the garage. She then proceeded to not let me drive it hardly at all… so about 4 months later I bought my 2nd Mercedes for $3500 total, also on a credit card. A silver 240D that I drove for about 100,000 miles after that… So yes, inside a couple of months I bought 2 Mercedes, both on credit cards.
At that time, the wagon had 110,000 miles on it. Over the years it has taken various bits of maintenance. A starter motor. An AC Compressor. Many tires… it now has 320,000 or so miles on it. A couple of heater fans. An alternator I think (or maybe that was my car?) But these things can go a Million Miles (just most people can’t as it takes a while…) So we’ve put about 10,000 miles a year on this car for 20 years. It has gone from coast to coast several times that I know of. With the whole family a few times.
Why does this matter? Well, it just does.
Once we were returning from the “see the USA” trip with kids about 10 and 12, or maybe 8 and 10, young, anyway. We had gone to Florida, and up to Virgina and Kentucky, and we were on the home stretch back to California. Folks travel well in a Mercedes, but even though you can do a LOT more miles in one of them, due to the comfort, after a month or so in the car and 4 or 5 thousand miles, well, folks get tired of it. So in Salt Lake City, I put the spouse and kids on a plane to fly home (since there isn’t really much they needed to see between Salt Lake City and San Francisco – having seem some of it from the other side already…) Off they went. I went back to the car full of stuff and pointed it toward home.
Somewhere just past the Great Salt Lake and a tiny bit into Nevada, I wanted a break. The sun was going down, and there was a cube of golden yellow light bulbs in the distance. I took a semi-abandoned off ramp to a place to park (lower than the freeway and essentially out of sight) and took a picture of this structure a few miles off in the distance. ( I suspect some kind of oil refinery or mining operation). I also “made the day” of some poor starving dehydrating bush stuck in this desert near an abandoned and crumbling ex-restaurant via a ‘fluid change’ as I opened another coke.) Then I got in the car and turned the key. Click Click. Click Click. No joy.
Well, a long story short: I’m sitting about 500 miles from nowhere, with nobody knowing where I am, not visible from the road, on an offramp nobody ever takes to a restaurant plaza that was abandoned as nobody every went there. And the sun had gone down. Cell phones? Back then? In the middle of Nevada Empty? On the off chance it was the Bendix sticking, I got a stick and whacked the starter. Click grrr.. Click. I waited about another 1/2 hour as the summer heat cooled… One More Try. Grinind Grrrrind Vrooom! ( Later I found out that when the starter brushes are worn, a very hot starter will just click while a cooled one will still start. A few times… A graceful failure mode.) So I now had a working engine again. Back on the freeway and on my way home! That was at about 150,000 miles, I think.
Now the ‘fun bit’: I don’t know if I can turn this thing off and ever get it started again…
So I just pull into gas stations and ‘fill it up’ with the engine running. Relatively safe with a Diesel. (They are used in mines and other places with flammable atmospheres as there is no ‘spark’ – all combustion is inside the sealed cylinder.) But only having one key, I occasionally had to run inside the station and pay (credit at the pump not being ubiquitous then) and / or buy food and beverages, while leaving the car running and unlocked full of suff.
I drove non-stop (other than fuel and food pit stops with engine running) all the way from one edge of Nevada to Silicon Valley. About 25 hours IIRC (which I likely don’t as I was a bit rummy by the time I got home – floating on coffee).
So in the back of your mind, hold that understanding of what a failing starter motor might be like.
So I’m headed out in this same equipment. It’s been regularly serviced and never left me stuck at the side of the road. (Though I did have to have it towed from home to the mechanic once for my own failure to heed a different ‘graceful failure’ of the ignition switch until the dozenth time when it became ungraceful…) I’m about 70 miles into it, on a modestly winding mountain road, at about noon. Now I “don’t hear so good” as anything above about 3,000 Hz is gone and I occasionally have ringing in the ears. (Don’t ask… the short form is “I got blown up once.” Just accept that the ears don’t catch high frequency sounds well so ‘squeak’ diagnostics are marginal.) I’m cooking along and think “Is that some kind of whistley squeaky sound? A vague “squeal of a belt or metal heard through ears that don’t pick it up and it might matter?”
My typical diagnostic for “Engine or wind noise or just phantoms of the ears?” is to just shut off the engine.
I’m going about 70, so turn the key off. (The Mercedes does NOT lock up the steering wheel if you leave the key in, but off). I think MAYBE the almost sound went away. Or maybe it was just regular engine noise that went away. I restart the engine by sliding it into N (you can do that in this car – pre lockout frenzy ) and it doesn’t want to start. Hmmmm…. Now there isn’t a lot of shoulder in these hills, but I”m on the “mostly downside”. I coast a couple of miles while I think about it. It’s about 9 miles to a truck stop. About 4 to a flat near a dam with some nice wide areas. And a slight upgrade just ahead of it… I’m slowing in the upgrade.
On prior trips, I’ve coasted most of the way to the truck stop in my manual transmission car. This one is an automatic. Can I make the station? Nope. I’ll run out in the flat. And I’m rapidly slowing in the rise. I can MAYBE make it over the last hump at about 10 mph… in the middle of a freeway… or…
A very wide patch of flat graded area with gravel is on the right shoulder. This area is used for folks parking to go fishing. (Hwy 152 near the top of Pacheco Pass near Dinosaur Point at San Luis Lake.) I make my choice. I’ll just pull off in this large (30 meter by 50 meter?) flat area. It has a nice view of the lake. So I exit and burn off my remaining speed, parking with both front and rear ‘open’ to approach with another vehicle and ‘near’ one side of the space, so not in the way.
Now the “fun” begins.
Attempts to start the engine are greeted with “Click wrrr..” or “click clack”. Or “CLIck GRRRrrrr… rrrr..”
Is it the battery dying? The starter having brushes give out? Something worse like a ‘spun bearing’ causing the engine to seize?
OK. We’ve had an experience like this before (as noted above… now you know why it matters). We wait 1/2 hour. BUT it isn’t a cooling desert evening, it’s a hot afternoon. “Click Grrrr.rr.r..” I solicit a truck that pulls in to go fishing “Do you have jumper cables?” They do, I get a jump. BUT, it is a tiny little Oriental Toy Truck with a battery about 1/3 the size of mine and some of the crappiest aluminum jumper cables possible. “GGRRRRrrr RRrrrrr rr…” No Joy.
I thank them, and they go fishing…
I call the spouse. After talking her through where to find various equipment bags (one of which was supposed to be in this car, but wasn’t) she drives an hour and arrives in the Gas Wagon.
We proceed to try jumping it again. The starter has cooled a bit more, but now it’s 2 pm and the day is rather hot. Her battery is about 1/2 the size of the one in the Diesel and the jumper cables are a little better, but still not my industrial strength ones (that are in a bag at home she could not find). “GRRr.. CLIKT Grrr.” But is this because I’ve tried starting it a half dozen times and drained the battery so much that it is insufficient, even with the cables? Or is it that the starter isn’t cool enough? Or what? Perhaps it is corroded terminals?
I’d had the tool box put in the car too.
So I proceed to take the battery terminals off and clean the connections. It helps, but not enough. The “GRRR….” becomes more of a “GGGRRRRRrr…” But never turning the engine over nearly fast enough. Not enough volts? Too much resistance? Brushes marginal? Engine drag too high from internal “issue”? How to solve…
That was the point where, at about 3 pm, I was swapping batteries from one car to the other. My battery had tested about 1/2 dead to 2/3 dead in one cell, with the worlds crappiest floating ball hydrometer from the tool kit. Yet it was able to start her car. Her fine but small battery would not turn over my engine. Just “GGrrr…rrr…rr.” So I put the batteries back where each belongs, she gets the AC back, and I’ve got my battery getting some charge via the jumper cables while I take off the ground strap from the body.
It has some corrosion on the connection lug, so I polish it. The bolt is oxidized, but I can’t effectively clean it. I’ve got sandpaper but can’t get inside the threads effectively. Besides, at this point I’ve drunk about 1/2 gallon of water (thanks honey dear!) yet not made friends with the local shrubbery in this dry parched area… I’m dehydrating… and not thinking so well about things like fine motor skill and cleaning inside threads. Carting around tool boxes, lumps of lead, and such, in the sun, is prone to sweating and fluid loss.
I give it a perfunctory rub with the sandpaper and put the ground strap back on. Still not trusting it fully. I’d be more happy with a nice large bolt to a shiny metal land / pad, not a pressed nut onto iron sheet metal painted on the inside fender… Yet I’ve never had one fail on the Mercedes and it’s been over 20 years. But there’s always a first time, I’m thinking…
Cleaning the ground helps a little. Almost enough to make up for the degree to which the battery is being run down in the various trials.
OK, at about 4 pm I “give it up”. (This is the point where we have about 8 ounces of water left out of 3 quarts and I’m just rinsing “something” I hope isn’t battery acid off the hands) I figure I’ll go home, get the Honda Generator and battery charger, let it charge for a few hours while it cools into the deep evening cool; and then try again. That ought to have all the bases covered. I’d also fully cleaned the terminals in a second round by then, so the only ‘resistance’ places would be the battery to body ground bolt, the starter motor ground (way under a hot engine over sharp gravel with little clearance and I’m not going there…) and the starter brushes.
We head home.
Along the way, the spouse points out that it’s dinner time and I have not eaten. I had coffee at the start of the day, and that was about it. I think I might have had a piece of toast, or maybe not. We stopped at a Hawaiian BBQ place and I downed a whole “Fish Combo” with fish, shrimp, pulled pork, cabbage, rice, and macaroni salad. Now I’m looking a bit “Grim” as I have grease on my hat, my sleeves and one shoulder, and under my fingernails. The guy at the next table strikes up a conversation. It ends up on the ‘state of the car’…
His name is Greg and he has a Dodge Cummins Diesel. They have 2 BIG batteries. He’s offering to help tow it, IFF I rent a trailer. It’s now pushing 6 pm and I’m figuring going shopping for a rental trailer now is likely not a bright idea… but… a BIG jump start might help. So we agree that I’ll take the spouse home and we will go together to try and start the car. At home, I load up.
The Gas Wagon now has a sleeping bag, 1 gallon canteen, full tool box, Honda 1 kW Generator (about the size of 2 large briefcases), battery charger, backpack with laptop, long pants ( I’d been wearing cargo pants cutoffs), jacket, tire air compressor, emergency lighting kit, maglight LED flashlight, Tom Clancy Novel, and a few other odds and ends. I meet up with Greg at the Sonic Drive In on the way toward the hills. ( I’ve now had a very large Pepsi with Dinner and a second very large Coke is in hand and still no visit to the boys room… but I’m feeling less ditzy… Hydration is normalizing). We get to the car about 9 pm. First up, we try jumping it with my very good cables and his dual batteries. The engine actually turns over a bit, but slowly.
I mention that one of the batter cells had been lower than the others, so Greg speculates maybe the battery has a shorted cell and is killing the voltage available. Plausible.
We pull the cables off the battery and try to start it with just the jumpers. No real change. Could be a resistance / ground issue, could be a sticking engine issue. Could be a 16 foot of jumper cables and no battery issue… We try a direct frame ground of the jumper cables. No change.
OK, skipping over some small stuff, we let it sit, charging from his rig for about 1/2 hour. The Honda generator and my charger had shown pulling 8 amps charging current from a 6 amp charger (it will do that) so we know the battery is not charged… and his alternator ought to charge faster. At the end of that time (now about midnight) the engine will barely turn over, but not fast enough. Greg thinks he hears some kind of “Squeaking” sound, like maybe something binding metal on metal toward the front of the engine. But he doesn’t know what is normal for this engine, and I’m 1/2 deaf so can’t really hear it (but thought maybe I heard a squeak… or maybe my ears are just ringing a bit due to being next to a Cummins Diesel for a couple of hours… but at least I had made a “drying to death” plant happy about 11 pm… I was hydrated at last…)
We decide to ‘pack it in’; as, if the engine is damaged, the last thing you want to do is manage to get it started again.
Greg again offers to tow on a trailer if I rent one ( he has a show car and his car and trailer are in another state, so has experience, and a very nice trailer, but not here.) I’d offered to pay his gas, so gave him a $20 and said I’d see if I could rent a trailer the next morning, then pointed out the lack of winch… or a running engine. Greg figured we could block the wheels on the trailer and use the truck to just pull the car onto the trailer up the ramps… The car weights just short of 2 tons.
Greg heads home, and we expect to talk the next day about trailers and moving cars.
I’m about to leave, and figure “What the heck. I can at least find out if the battery takes some charge”. So I decide to stay. I set up the Generator and charger and let it run (about about 2 am it was down to about 6 amps). I rig my portable emergency lighting kit of a drop cord and 11 w CFL bulb to plug into the generator and get in the car, reading Clancy. This starting about midnight and running on for a few hours…
So I’m at about chapter 2 and a large Pickup Truck pulls up next to me. Greg again? I get out. It’s a Game Warden….
We have a little talk about just what I’m doing with 2 Mercedes wagons in a place where people usually park old pickup trucks and why I’ve got fluorescent lighting in my car and a generator. I say “I’m charging the battery. If it won’t start, I’m towing it tomorrow on a flat bed.” He says “You’re charging the battery.” (Dialog is not the strong suit of Game Wardens 50 miles from nowhere at 1 am).
About then, a 2nd game warden truck shows up. They head off down to the lake ( about a 1/4 ? mile hike down hill) and I say “Anything for me to worry about?”, and the other one says “Nope”. I say “Then I’m going back to my book.” and get in the car. About 10 minutes later, up comes the first warden with about 4 guys and their gear. They have a huddle with the other wardens (there was either 2 or 3 all told) and various folks are standing with hands on heads or opening various bags and boxes for about 15 minutes. I”m torn between reading my book and trying to see what’s happening.
I’d carefully (and legally) packed a small Beretta in a locked box (ammunition separated per California Law while driving) as I’m going to be in the Middle Of Nowhere with 2 Mercedes in the Dead Of Night and surrounded by random pods of 2 to a dozen strangers of many backgrounds, often rough. I’m now trying to figure out if I ought to get it ‘prepped’ and into the hidden holster, or leave it locked up; in case someone decides to frisk me, too (even though I’m legal)…. I decide to read my book some more…
About 5 minutes later, both warden trucks load up and leave. The ‘guys’ are loading up to leave too. No idea if anyone got a ticket, or what. Or just harassed in the dead of night for “Fishing While Warden Was Bored”. I’ve locked the door… but the generator is still running. I kill the light and figure I can get ‘prepped’ quick enough if folks just don’t quite load up and leave… but they left.
I turn the light back on and go back to my book.
About 2 am or 2:30 I check the rate of charge. It’s a smidge below 6 amps. I try to start it. “GGGRRRRRrr.r..rrrr…rr.”
I visit the sulking neighbor of the happy plant from earlier in the evening. Well, at least I’ve got 2 plants in the world thinking there IS a god. They will likely live an added month or two on the water, and the nitrogen is like gold to them. They may also just suck up the nitrogen and hibernate over the dry summer months coming.
I pack up the generator, the lighting kit, et.al.
The car is NOT going to start. It isn’t a battery issue. It isn’t a frame ground issue as we bypassed it.
It can only reasonably be a bad starter (perhaps slowly worn all winter when cold, and never really hot started, to the point where ‘graceful failure on a hot spring’ is not available) or the engine has started seizing up on something. I’m committed to some kind of tow.
The good news it that I managed to burn up 1/2 a tank (about a quart) of somewhat varnish smelling old gasoline in the generator. (Note to self: Run it dry running the Entertainment Cluster in the house in the next couple of days and give it fresh fuel…)
At about 3:15 am I get home. About 4 am I get to sleep.
I wake up at 8 am.
Phoning around and looking at web sites, all the trailer rental places have crappy trailers that don’t have a full flat bed, just two channels the wheels fit in. They show video of folks driving onto these. I wouldn’t want to drive on to one of them. I certainly don’t want to try dragging a car onto one of them using a Giant Pickup Truck using a rope and trying to chock the wheels with chocks sitting on gravel. I find that the car can be towed “4 on the ground” (wheels that is) for up to 70 miles at no more than 30 MPH. After that the transmission gets damaged. I have 90 miles to go and think doing 30 mph on the freeway in the mountains is a bad idea. I also think trying to steer and brake without power steering and power brakes with a nearly 2 ton car in the mountains on the end of rope behind a giant pick up truck is maybe a bad idea too.
I’m also a bit sore and stiff from horsing around large chunks of lead enclosed in plastic and soaking in sulphuric acid and carrying around portable generators and toolboxes full of iron.
I decide that “It’s only money” and call a tow company. $375.
I ride up with them (and call Greg to tell him we will not be trying to shove a 2 ton metal box onto two skinny rails on wheels chocked on gravel with a rope to his truck. He sounds disappointed… it’s Truck Guy Thing, I guess.)
At this point the story is not as interesting. After 2 hours up and 2 hours down, from 10 am to 2 pm, the car is dropped off at the Mechanic. He grills me about the status of the oil and pronounces that he thinks it can not be a spun bearing. “As long as has oil, they don’t do that.” he says in his Czech-German-Swiss accent. He thinks maybe it is just a dead starter motor. I’m still hoping for a crappy ground or dirty positive connection (oil in the cable?) but a new starter sounds not so bad either.
I’m also remembering that a full up deluxe rebuild of the entire engine in one of these runs about $10,000. Which is what I paid for the whole car 20 years and 200,000 miles ago.
While I love the car, I don’t know that I’d “go there” for it. I think I’d likely transplant an engine from a wrecked one first. They are much cheaper and you only risk having no idea what condition it is in…
Some time tomorrow (well, really, later today. It’s 3:30 AM now. For some reason I’m getting used to being awake at 3 am ;-) I’ll get the first opinion from The Mechanic. Later I’ll find out when I might expect to have a car again.
I have a couple of old Mercedes at his shop. He gives me a ‘deal’ on price and I let them sit there for relatively long times. When things are slow, he works on mine. When things are busy, he can let them sit. Right now, I’m down to zero spare cars. This is the first time in about 30 years. It will be an interesting experience…
The Banana Boat is likely fastest to “get ready”. Just needs a regular “large tuneup” and an exhaust leak fixed (welded?). Probably about 3 hours work. But if it’s just the starter on the 300 TD, that could be just an hour or so. If they have / can get the part quick.
It is also possible that the 300 TD has a fried engine and that the Banana Boat has more than expected. ( I kind of pushed it ‘out of spec’ on the return trip. Nobody in Florida really knew how to work on an old side draft carburetor manual transmission mechanical points car, so it had about 10,000 miles on it’s 5,000 mile tune up schedule. It’s possible the valves tightened up enough to burn (but I don’t think so. Typically it’s just the points that wear way out of spec and make it run rough).
So I figure by late Tuesday or early Wednesday I might have a car again. Just in time for the son to visit from L.A. but not in time to run to LA to pick up the bed frame for him to have his bed here. I figure he can sleep on the couch ;-)
If he really cares, he has a job, he can buy a hotel room. At least until he heads off to build a church.