2020 Vacation Trip (Yellowstone day 1)

I think we could have spent the entire week at Yellowstone and not seen everything. The first day saw limited visibility due to smoke from fires in CA and within Yellowstone itself. In fact, there were two roads closed due to wildfires. Still, the park was amazingly beautiful, and I’m sure we will be back again.

We spent part of the first day exploring the volcanic part of the park. We saw steam vents, geysers, boiling springs, boiling mud pots, and all kinds of things that you don’t see anywhere else. One of the things that surprised me was the life found everywhere. Even places where you would think nothing could survive have plants around them and microbes living around the edges.

2020 Vacation Trip (Days 1 & 2)

In late August we left on another road trip to the West. Our goal was to hit Yellowstone National Park, Devil’s Tower, and the Badlands including a stop at Mt. Rushmore. In all we were gone seven days and drove just a bit under 2,500 miles. Highway cruising in the Mercedes makes extended days of driving a pleasure.

We stopped in Powell, WY to visit with some of Lisa’s family. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Connie and Freddy and other family members before leaving for our first overnight stay in Cody, WY. The next morning it was on to Yellowstone.

Front brakes done

When I pulled the left front wheel to get access to the ABC accumulator and windshield washer pump, I was very surprised that the shop didn’t call out the front brakes. The rotor is worn significantly, and the pads looked like they had as little or less material than the rear brakes had (more on that later). I decided to go ahead and replace them — we’re launching on a week long road trip soon, planning to cover somewhere between 2 and 3 thousand miles, and I don’t want to have to worry about the brakes — or anything else, really.

A local Advance Auto Parts had the Akebono Euro pads I wanted to use to keep the front and rear pads the same. While they don’t carry Brembo rotors, I’m not as set on using those. The factory rotors are fine, as are (I’m sure) most others. With a nice little 20% off coupon code they emailed me, the total cost for pads and rotors was $167.75. I can re-use the wear sensor, since it hasn’t hit the rotor.

When I pulled the front pads, I found that they actually weren’t worn as much as I thought. Apparently the last time the brakes were serviced (at a Mercedes-Benz dealer, by the way) only the pads were replaced. I say that because the rotors had a good 3/32 or more wear, and the ridge around the outer edge of the rotor was overhanging the pad and made it look like they were much more worn than they looked. But, now we have nice new rotors and ceramic Akebono pads that will hopefully not turn the front of the car black with brake dust.

Suspension Done

One of the more expensive items on the shop estimate for the Mercedes was the suspension. The quote included replacing the front and rear accumulators and the pulsation damper as well as the pump. Finding no real evidence that the pump is actually leaking, I decided to defer that and replace the damper and accumulators.

I bought the new accumulators from FCP Euro for about $175 less than the shop quoted. The new damper came from M-B of Laredo at a $100 savings. The real heavy hitter was the pump; they quoted $1628, and I can buy it new from a dealer for $1106. There are rebuilt units out there for about half that, but I won’t criticize the shop for not wanting to use them. Given my experience with rebuilt mechanical parts, I wouldn’t use them either.

Shop quote: $3,612.72
Parts: $517.00 (after core charge for the damper, and including fluid)
Service bay: $200.00
Total cost: $717.00
Total savings: $2,913.72

To be fair, I’ll even knock the cost of the pump that I elected not to replace and a couple of hours shop labor off their quote. That brings it down to a $1073 savings. Not bad for four hours of work. But that’s just for now; I’m sure I’ll be replacing that pump at some point. Mine is seeping oil, though I believe it’s power steering fluid and not ABS fluid. But, it’s not urgent yet. I’ll put that down as deferred maintenance for the time being.

Fuel injection/misfire

I was able to get the fuel rail freed up enough to pull the #8 and #9 injectors. I ran them both through an ultrasonic cleaner for about 20 minutes and swapped them, so what was the #9 injector is now in the #8 cylinder and vice versa. So one of three things will happen…

  1. The problem is gone, meaning the ultrasonic cleaner fixed the problem.
  2. The problem moves to cylinder #8, meaning I need to replace an injector.
  3. The problem stays with cylinder #9, meaning I probably have a bad coil pack (which is still under warranty). There is a very remote chance of a bad plug on #9.

To avoid uncertainty, I am considering swapping the plugs between cylinder #9 and #10. I am however NOT a fan of pulling the coil pack again… if everything else goes well this afternoon and I have time to do it, I’ll do that

Cooling System Done

For a while now, I’ve been chasing a coolant problem on the Mercedes. You can drive the car as much as you want, and never loose any significant amount of coolant (more on that later). However, on occasion — sometimes every night, sometimes not for a week — it will dump anywhere from a half pint to a quart of coolant on the driveway as it sits overnight. Never when it’s hot; only when it cools down.

The shop I talked to said it was likely the radiator. There’s an aluminum radiator with plastic tanks, and as the materials cool down and contract at different rates it can open up a marginal seal and leak coolant. OK, I can see that happening. Radiators aren’t expensive; a good quality, brand new one can be had for under $175. I had plans to replace mine.

I have, however, had the cooling system open. While replacing the coil packs and the air/oil separator, I had to remove the thermostat housing. From what I have read, it’s virtually impossible to get the cooling system completely full and purged of air without using a vacuum fill tool.

How could this be something so simple as air in the system? After refilling the coolant, I ran the car for quite a while with the front and rear heat on full, and spent some time squeezing the upper radiator hose to encourage any trapped air to exit. Well, the other night I went to check the coolant level, and found it overflowing the expansion tank when I removed the cap. Slowly squeezing the radiator hose resulted in some gurgling and the coolant level dropped when I released it, so there was definitely trapped air.

So the question becomes — is this all just because there’s air that needs to be bled out? Or, is it sucking air IN through the leaky O-ring as the engine cools, perpetuating the problem? I guess we’ll find out. I have the tool to fill and bleed the system, and today I took a look. After draining the coolant, I pulled a vacuum on the cooling system. I was able to get about 0.65 bar of vacuum, but when I shut off the air it was obvious there was a leak. I decided to take a look at that leaking O-ring. It was worse than I remembered, with evidence of coolant around the area. I think it had been sucking air in during cooldown and wreaking havoc.

I did see what the shop referred to as corrosion on the driver side turbo frost plug. It was just a little evaporated coolant; the plug is directly below the coolant lone that was leaking. I managed (after a couple hours of cussing and all) to get the O-ring replaced and the line secured. Now I’m able to pull .8 bar of vacuum, with no leakage at all after a couple minutes sitting with no additional evacuation. I refilled with coolant and will watch what happens, but I think that will fix it. I found zero evidence of any other problems — no leaks around the radiator or anywhere else.

Shop estimate to repair cooling system: $3281.23
Parts cost: $7.88
Tools & Materials: $101
Shop time (service bay rental): $120.00
Total spent: $228.83
Total Saved: $3052.35

And that includes the cooling system fill/test kit, which I’ll no doubt use many more times.

Rear brakes done

Parts have started arriving for the Mercedes. The Rock Auto order arrived Friday with the brake parts and washer pump, plus a couple of filters for the Volvo my wife drives. On Saturday Pete and I replaced the rear brake rotors and pads. The old ones were not yet down to the wear sensors, and had maybe 3/16 or so of pad material left. Serviceable, but worn. The rotors looked to be in good condition, but of course there was a noticeable ridge at the edge.

Having two people really sped things up. The calipers and rotors came off without a fuss. We cleaned off the new Brembo coated brake rotors and installed them, followed by the new Akebono Euro pads. I got the two massive rear tires back on and torqued down the bolts. The test drive was utterly uneventful. Brake pedal feels just a bit more firm, and there is of course no shudder or noise whatsoever – as I would expect.

Cost quoted by shop (incl. tax): $698.85
Total parts cost (incl. tax and shipping): $188.82
Total savings : $510.03

In other words, we saved about $170.00 per hour for our labor to replace the pads & rotors. Put another way, I shaved about 73% of the cost off of the rear brakes by spending a Saturday afternoon in my garage.

Yesterday the box from FCP Euro arrived with the ABC accumulators and hydraulic fluid. One more parts order and I’ll be ready to tackle the ABC issues. I’ll have to remember to call DIY Garage and reserve a bay for next weekend.

How to Save Money on Car Repairs

So, I took the Mercedes in to a local independent repair shop specializing in Mercedes and other Euro cars. Everyone — and I do mean everyone – that I asked told me that these were THE guys to go to with problems. I had a few nagging little things wrong that I didn’t feel like fixing myself, so I took it in with a laundry list of stuff to look at. The car would frequently dump some coolant on the driveway overnight after being driven, for example. I have a persistent problem with the #9 fuel injector being clogged or sticky, which had me chasing non-existent ignition issues for months. The ride is harsher than it should be. The A/C doesn’t work for the first 5-10 minutes on a hot day, again only when you drive it for the first time before it’s warmed up. And finally, the transmission shifts from 1-2 and 2-3 are very harsh, but only when the car is cold — after a few minutes of driving, it’s smooth as silk.

After a week I got a call from the mechanic with their quote to sort out everything. It was (I swear I’m not making this up) $14,319.86. According to them…

  • The coolant leak was from the driver side turbo. I’m aware of that tiny little leak; it’s a $.35 O-ring that looks like a pain in the ass to replace, so I left it. I’d gladly pay a shop 3-4 hours labor to replace it. They want to pull the turbo and replace the coolant lines for $3200-plus. Unfortunately, they say the car didn’t puke any coolant while they had it like it has for me… a symptom for which they told me by phone before I took it in probably indicated a bad radiator. So, after paying over $3K to fix a bad O-ring on a coolant line, I’d still have the same original problem that I wanted fixed.
  • The A/C problem could be the compressor, or could be a bad suction hose. They propose replacing both for a little under $1750.
  • According to them, the ABC pump (actually the power steering pump, which also supplies hydraulic power to the ABC suspension) is leaking and the accumulators are bad. Another $3.6K plus to fix all that
  • $400 for a transmission fluid and filter change. I just did that a few months ago, but I didn’t flush the torque converter so it probably does need new fluid.
  • $700 for the rear brakes. No, they haven’t fallen off, nor does that include new calipers. Just the brake disks and pads.
  • $247.70 for an oil change. Right. I pay about $6 for a filter, and $23 for five quarts of Mobil 1 full synthetic. The air filters they want to replace (at $68 for the pair) were just replaced a few months back and are quite clean. And cheap, at roughly $26 for a pair.
  • $4,338.40 to replace the brand new spark plugs and both freshly rebuilt coil packs that I just put in back in March or April, to chase a non-existent ignition problem that I already know (and specifically told them) is actually a sticking fuel injector.
  • Though I specifically asked them to pull the fuel injectors and clean/flush/test them, there was no mention of that at all. The diagnostics point to the coil packs… just as I had told them when I dropped it off. Sigh…

Needless to say, I was a bit surprised. One thing that surprised me was that they are apparently using full retail Mercedes dealer parts counter pricing on parts, than marking that up. Marking it up quite a bit, in fact. An example: They listed the A/C compressor at $784.00. Now, I can buy a brand new one from a Mercedes-Benz dealer for $497.59 ( a bit over 33% discount) – or pay even less for the same part from one of a couple of very good parts retailers who guarantee their parts for life.

That’s just one example, end not the worst one. There’s a 55% markup on the brake rotors (plus I can buy new Brembo rotors for even less), and a whopping 68% markup on the power steering pump. Holy crap…

Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m not complaining about their $117 per hour shop rate; I don’t think that’s too high at all. I also don’t have a problem with shops making a little on parts. They’re going to have to lay out the cash and wait for me to pay, there’s risk involved, yadda yadda yadda. But come on. That’s just egregious. I’m guessing they count on the fact that, first, not many Mercedes-Benz owners would consider turning a wrench on their own car; and second, some seem to take some sort of perverse joy in spending large amounts of money to keep their cars running. With some people it seems to be a point of pride to show off four- and five-figure shop bills. That has never appealed to me, to be honest.

So, I have parts coming to do this stuff myself. I am fairly disappointed that I have still not found a shop where I can take this car, have it repaired and maintained by a competent mechanic, and pay a fair price for the work performed. I’d happily pay their shop rate to avoid doing this, but I’m not going to shell out fourteen grand for what really should be a couple thousand bucks’ worth of parts and labor. We’ll just have to differ in opinion on the power steering pump… I’m willing to replace the accumulators and see how long the pump lasts before taking that step. Even so, that was a drop in the bucket of their $14K-plus quote. So here’s what I have planned for the next couple of weeks, as parts arrive and I have the time to devote to getting greasy:

  • Rear brakes: I ordered new Brembo brake rotors and Akebono pads. Let’s be generous and include the shipping cost and say that all cost me about $185.
  • ABC accumulators: I ordered new parts from FCP Euro and Mercedes-Benz of Laredo. Great people to deal with, by the way. Call it a little under $490, with shipping and 5 liters of hydraulic fluid.
  • I’ll do the transmission flush myself for around $60 to $80 worth of transmission fluid. The filter was just replaced, so there’s really no need to crack the pan open again for that.
  • The oil was just changed a couple of months ago, I’m not sure why that was even on the list. The car itself should have told them that. It’s showing 8 months until the next service due.
  • I’ll continue to feed it fuel injector cleaner to address the injector issue. I have been alternating between Techron and Red Line. The problem is about 90 to 95% gone… if I have to, I’ll pull the fuel rail and injectors and flush them myself, I just figured if I were going to have the car in for the radiator and all, I’d have them do that too.
  • I’ll look for another shop to do the A/C service. I can buy the hose for about $155 (the shop wanted $275 for it!) and have a place that specializes in A/C do the work. I doubt very much it’s the compressor; the collapsed suction hose is a known issue with these cars.
  • I put some fluorescent dye in the coolant, and I’m waiting for it to dump it again so I can trace where it’s coming from. While a new radiator is not terribly expensive, there are a couple of other potential sources for the coolant and I want to make sure I fix it once.

Some of this needs to be done soon, as we’re planning another long vacation road trip soon. I definitely want to fix the suspension and coolant issues and replace the rear brakes, and I’d really like to have it all sorted before we leave. We’re fortunate enough to have a place in Bellevue that rents service bays with hydraulic lifts, so I should be able to do everything in a day, possibly two. I’ll follow up with more details on the work performed and the total cost — I’ll even track the hours to estimate what a shop would have been justified in charging.

Oh, and when I dropped the car off, my windshield washer was fine… when I picked it up, it’s not working. Awesome. Don’t know if they knocked a plug loose, or if it was just a coincidental spontaneous failure. We’ll see when I get the fender liner out to replace the ABC accumulators and pulsation damper..

More engine progress

Last week I temporarily installed the camshaft, and after a bit of a learning curve got it degreed. I could have saved the effort; the cam reads within half a degree or so of the specs on the cam card. It’s well within my confidence of the measurement process, parallax errors when reading the degree wheel, etc. So, it’s getting installed straight up. The cam is a Summit Racing K3600, which has substantially more lift than the stock cam but not enough to require screw-in studs and the resulting head machine work. Once the cam was checked, I slathered it with the supplied assembly moly lube and re-installed it along with the timing gear and double roller timing chain.

With that done, I went to work on the heads. The stock ’66 289 heads aren’t bad for compression at about 9.3:1. They are not, however, renowned for their excellent flow characteristics to say the least. While this engine was not thermactor equipped, there were large lumps cast into the exhaust ports for air injection. I say there “were“, because they’re gone now. I’d never used a die grinder before, never modified a cylinder head, any of that… but the heads have the thermactor lumps ground out, exhaust ports smoothed as much as I could manage, and I even took the time to gasket-match the ports. I’ll do the same to the exhaust manifolds before re-installing them. I probably removed a pound of cast iron from those heads; what a mess.

Sunday the 5th I got all 8 pistons back in the block, just not torqued yet. And why is that? Because there’s one block, eight pistons, eight connecting rods, eight rod bearings, eight rod caps, and fifteen nuts to secure the rod caps. Where is nut #16? I do not know. My best guess would be, “Somewhere on the garage floor”… although “buried on the workbench” would not be an unreasonable guess either. Sigh. The hunt continues.

As the re-assembly moves on, I’m giving some thought to painting the engine once it’s all back together. One issue is the extreme grime on the oil pan, along with a few other bits. I believe I’m going to gather up the external bits — oil pan, heads, valve covers, timing cover, maybe the exhaust manifolds — and take them to a car wash with a can or two of oven cleaner. I don’t have access to a parts washer or hot tank (which would destroy the timing cover anyway). The valve covers won’t need much since they’re chrome… I’m debating whether to leave them alone or paint them to match. I’ll probably leave them chromed.

Crankshaft back in

Last night I was back in the garage. I decided to check the main bearing clearance. The journals are smooth and measured exactly where they should be. I had never used Plastigauge before, but the concept is pretty basic. Sure enough, the Plastigauge shows about .00125 to just under .002 main bearing clearance.

I applied a generous amount of Lucas assembly lube, which is a thick green lube that looks like it would be pretty good around Halloween. I had to drive the pin out of the rear main bearing to accommodate the new rear main seal. I cleaned up the area with brake cleaner, then plugged the hole with a little silicone gasket compound. I installed the rear main seal and the main bearing caps, tightening them all down to 65 ft-lb.

The Moore rebuilding book says to use silicone on the mating faces of the block and rear main bearing cap. I’m generally not in favor of using silicone sealant anywhere in an engine or fuel system. I have some Permatex Aviation Form-A-Gasket that I considered using, but in the end I used the silicone gasket maker that I had bought for this project. I figured that the amount needed between the cap and block would be so small that it really didn’t matter much what I used, so I wiped on a thin film and tightened the bolts down. I’ll probably re-torque them tonight just to be on the safe side.

I ground the lumps out of the other head; in fact, it’s better than the first one so I’ll have to do a little more on that one. The carbide grinding burrs I bought do an outstanding job of removing iron from castings. I’ll clean them up with a flap wheel later on, but I’m not going to go for a complete polished exhaust port. This is a street engine, and just removing those big lumps of cast iron will do a lot for air flow.