Well, its time for a bit of a petrol-head update. For one reason or another, cars and all things mechanical have been much on my mind of late. So, for those who might be interested in that thought of thing, here is a quick rundown. Volvo, Interrupted.
Our friend (plus superb poet and performer
) Sage was staying with us for a few days, along with her gorgeous dog George, and her classic "brick" 1994 Volvo 940 Turbo wagon. Her car was having a few problems, and kept deciding to stall and leave her stranded. After a San Francisco garage charged her $300 to swap around a spark plug wire and replace a lightbulb, we decided to do a bit of digging to see if the internetz could do a better job of being a mechanic. One good thing about these old Volvo's is that they seem to have a very strong fan club
. We determined that there was a good chance that it might be the fuel-relay, but we replaced that, and the car stalled yet again. I decided I needed to have a chat with the car directly.Chris: Yeah. Your car.
Chris: Very angry.
Sage had to get back to LA, so left the car in my care. I decided that politically-incorrect Native-American voices wouldn't do the job, and started looking into really
talking to the car. It turns out that these Volvo's have a simple "OBD" (OnBoard Diagnostic) port, and that by plugging in a wire and pressing a button, the car will actually tell you whats wrong. A few minutes of morse code later, and the car had told me that it wasn't actually a fuel problem it was an ignition problem - and that the RPM sensor was intermittently failing. So, I ordered a new part (which should arrive in a few day), and it should be a matter of minutes to install - we'll see just how truthful he was being when he told me what was wrong. Lets just hope it doesn't end like this:Chris: The car's still angry, huh?
Sage: Angry? That car is pissed!
Betty lives, and the tale of a bush mechanic
As readers might remember, Jenny and I had a minor car accident
in Betty. The damage wasn't too bad, but the front bumper would rub on the left hand front wheel when turning sharply. Being a well-known bush mechanic (and for once not having an angle-grinder to hand), I found us a nice spot between two trees, unlimbered the winch, a chain, and a couple of straps, and popped the bumper back into place. After that, Betty happily carried us a couple of thousand miles, including into the heart of off-road Death Valley. (photos to follow).
I got a quote for the repairs, but the assessor was more worried about what my insurance company would cover, rather than actually fixing Betty. As the accident was totally the fault of the other driver, I decided it would make a lot more sense to claim from her insurance. The assessors came out, and thoroughly checked out Betty (including pointing out several things that my assessor had missed). The final result was that Betty was a "write-off".
Now, that's not as bad as it sounds. All that means is that the insurance company pays out the total worth of the vehicle, and for a small charge, you get to keep the vehicle itself. In this case, the "residual" was about $1000 - meaning that I got a nice cheque from the insurance company, and got to keep Betty. There are several bureaucratic hoops to jump through to get a "salvage" car re-registered. The most annoying part was the fact that the DMV says in big letters "YOU HAVE 10 DAYS TO COMPLETE THE PAPERWORK", but when I fronted up to the DMV, they couldn't even start
the paperwork, as the salvage note hadn't made it into their system yet. Still, a followup visit a few weeks later, and Betty is now re-registered, and back on the road.
With some hot cash in my hand, of course, I started to think about replacing Betty. She is almost 20 years old, has 115k miles, and although she is in great condition (except for the bent bits), does have her "character" moments. She is also a model from before such items as air-bags, ABS, and Direct Injection diesel, so I figured if there was a time to replace her, now would be it. Above all, the places we take her (and plan on taking her), reliability is key, and a newer truck is bound to be more reliable, right? Or is it?
It turns out that the new engine in Ford trucks in notoriously unreliable. So, that limits my choice of new vehicles. After much research, I decided that a 7.3l diesel F350 4x4, Supercab, with an 8' bed, would be the truck to do the job. I also wanted single rear wheels (not the "dually" sort). After some research, I discovered that Dodge does do a similar truck in the 1-ton style (i.e. with single rear wheels), but those are even harder to find than the Fords.
I tracked down one, a 2003 not too far away, and took it for a test drive. It was great, one owner, pretty good condition, and had some "interesting" aftermarket addons. The woman's asking price was a little high, and after some discussion with Jenny, I decided to make a lower offer. We went back and forth for a few days, and I made an offer that she said "she thought she would accept" - but in the end, sold it to someone else for a little more.
About this time, Betty started being a little finicky - difficult to start, transmission shifting strangely. Did she know that I was driving her, but thinking about another truck? Well after the deal on the new truck fell through, I played around with Betty some to figure out the problem. Some patience, some fiddling, and some harsh words, and I got her started, and seem to have temporarily fixed the problems. Most importantly, I think I know why she wasn't starting well - a simple o-ring leak at the fuel-heater connection. A 20c part, but an hours (smelly) work to pull the filter and heater connection apart. My prodding seems to have slowed the leak, so maybe it was just Betty being difficult.
So, Betty lives on. I am still looking at other trucks, but I'm in no rush, so I can wait patiently for just the right truck, and just the right price. Or maybe Betty will just keep powering on, and really will carry us to the end of the world and back again...Saleen, Uninterrupted
So, flushed from my success as a Volvo-whisperer, I decided that I really should be talking to all of my cars. The Volvo had an older (and unstandardized) "OBD" port, but all US cars manufactured since 1996 include an "OBD-II" port. This makes the old pushbutton/LED method look downright primitive. Using a plugin cable and converter box, it is possible to access all of the cars sensors, and see all of the inputs that the car's ECU (Engine Control Unit) sees. There are many stand-alone boxes, but I decided to opt for a computer interface
, so that I can run software on my laptop, and connect it wirelessly to the car. Although there is a lot of freeware software out there, I chose the ScanXL
software, as it seemed the most competent, and also supports (at an extra fee), all of the "extra" data that Ford cars put out. You see, although the OBDII interface is a standard, that standard only specifies generic parameters. Each manufacturer then adds a bunch of their own custom parameters on top.
As you might remember, I was a tiny bit disappointed with the dyno results
from testing Sally. While she was still putting out a solid 500HP at the wheels, the air-fuel ratio was low (10.0, meaning the car is running rich), and I was expecting a little more power than that. She is still technically under warranty, but there is a long and sad tale about what happened to the Saleen company. In the end, the news was all good for us owners, with not one, but two
companies offering to cover warranties - MJ Acquisitions
(which now owns the "Saleen Inc" brand), and SMS Supercars
(Steve Saleen's new company). I will not comment on the politics of the whole thing, but I got little help from Saleen Inc/MJ when I contacted them about the issue. However, after contacting SMS Supercars, I got a call from an actual Engineer! Not a tech, not a customer support person, but the guy that actually designs and calibrates the engine management systems for SMS (and previously, for Saleen Inc.). He was a wealth of knowledge and help, and with his assistance I am learning a lot about the internal working of the ECU. It is one thing to be able to look at sensor data from and engine, but quite another thing to actually be able to interpret what that data means! Being an Engineer myself, I really appreciate this. I provided them with a new set of captured data, measuring "fuel trims" at idle, which is a great diagnostic tool. The data looked OK to me, as in it didn't seem to indicate any underlying problem such as a vacuum or exhaust leak, but I am waiting on confirmation from SMS. If that is the case, then the next step will probably be to re-dyno the car at another location, to try and eliminate equipment problems in the measurement.
Another thing that OBDII provides is "DCT", or trouble codes - but Sally was clean in this respect, no problems of any kind reported.
I could go into a long discourse about what I have learned about A/F ratios, but here is a potted summary. You can go see wikipedia for more information
if you are interested. In practical (rather than theoretical) terms, an AF ratio of 10.0 is rich - which means that the car is "safe" (an important consideration in high-performance, and particularly supercharged, engines), but not as optimal as it could be. It can also damage catalytic converters, as there is more un-burned fuel in the exhaust than necessary. For a car like this, the target is somewhere around 11.5, although there could be long and detailed discussions over exactly where to aim. If the AF ratio gets up to 13.0, then the car is starting to run "lean". This is the dangerous one, as it pushes combustion temperatures up, and can cause "detonation" - A Bad Thing(tm).
So, an AF ratio of 10.0 is not really a big deal, but never the less, seems to indicate some other issue. It could be as simple as a measurement problem on the origin dyno run, or it could indicate some other problem. The bottom line is, I have found a way that I can nourish my inner petrol-head, without getting my hands dirty - is that not a perfect hobby for Chris? :)
After writing all of that, I felt the other members of the stable might feel a little left out - each one has their own story too!
Mini makes me laugh. The play the hip, cool, retro-Brit image to the hilt. But under that thin veneer, they really are a German car company. (in my best non-PC Clarkson impersonation) "You vill not bving your car in for service before ze due date!". Lola flashed me a message on her message board about a service reminder, but it disappeared again, and the only date I could find in the onboard computer showed the next service as 06/2010. I knew there was supposed to be a 12-month service, and I figured if the 2-year service was due in June 2010, that the 12-month service would be due in June-09. Sounds reasonable? Well, not so... I booked Lola in for a service on July 8th, and when I arrived - they turned me away! The "anniversary" data was July 26th apparently, and Mini does not tolerate early service. This despite the fact that I had received several emails and letters warning me that my service was due (but none of them told me exactly when). I complained to Mini about this (because they "value my feedback") - and was told in no uncertain terms that this is the way things are, and nothing could ever possibly change it, ever. When I suggested that perhaps if they were going to refuse to service cars (I should point out that Mini does foot the bill for the services for the first 3 years), that perhaps they should be a little less enthusiastic with the reminder emails and letters. That suggestion was met with a deafening silence...
Still, i took Lola back a few weeks later, mostly to have a recall done (the original center-mount exhaust tips stick out too far, and can burn incautious legs). They gave me a zippy little BMW 3-series to get around in, which was a good thing because they wound up keeping Lola for two days. When I picked her up (after a little mixup when they bought around the wrong car...), she was shiny and clean - and I swear she has gained some extra HP and throttle response. I really wish that I had my OBDII interface before I put her in, so I could see what had changed, but I'm not going to look a gift tune in the calibrations!
I put the latest Wasp story on yelp
. Here it is again:
This is a review of their service department. I have been coming to San Jose BMW
for service on my BMW
F650 Motorcycles for about 6 years. It was kind of a "Devil you know" thing - they are friendly and helpful, give out loaner bikes, but their actual mechanical aptitude is poor. Perhaps it is because the BMW
F650s are not that common, but this *is* a BMW
house - you would expect them to be the best.
My first bike was a '97 F650. I had starting problems with the bike, and tried several times to get it repaired. After spending a lot of money, I decided it might be a carb issue, so had them rebuild the carbs. I picked up the bike and made it 3 miles before the bike died. Waiting 15 minutes, it would start again, and then die.
Finally I gave up, and bought a new '05 F650 from them. I sold the old bike to a guy, who had to re-rebuild the carbs, and quickly tracked the original problem down to a burned valve, which he fixed. As this is a comment on their service department, I won't go into the problems I had with the purchase procedure.
Being a new bike, my '05 has been pretty trouble free. They had to replace the sprocket and chain after only 10k miles, and when I asked them for some advice as to why, the response from the tech was "I don't really know much about chains" - not the sort of answer I expected from a dealership.
I recently took it in for a new front tire, and oil change. 2 days and 100 miles after the oil change, I walked out to the bike, and noticed that it looked a little odd. Looking closer, I realized that the engine skid-plate (the aluminum piece that sits under the engine) was hanging down, held on by just a few turns of one bolt.
While they were very apologetic about this, and fixed the problem, I am afraid that there is no excuse for parts falling off a motorcycle. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had been taking a corner and the engine guard had come off. They offered nothing more - no refund for the work done. Their apologies were sincere, but no offer of a refund, and no word from upper management (I'm sorry, parts falling off a motorcycle would seem to me to warrant a call from the owner).
And as for the Shelby - well, admittedly I drive her the least, but it is interesting that the oldest car in the stable (she turned 40 last year), is also the least dramatic. She always starts right up, drives beautifully, looks great, and gets more attention on the road than any other car I have owned!