Monday, September 15, 2014

Is a Software Bug Setting MINI Coopers on Fire?

In the summer of 2013, we got a call from the owner of a 2008 MINI Cooper S, an R56 model. She’d gotten in her car to go to work, and her power steering wasn’t working.  We got the car in, and found a burnt steering motor (EPS) and a damaged high power electrical connector.  We replaced the parts, checked the coding, verified that the steering worked, and sent her on her way.  We’ve replaced quite a few steering motors so this one didn’t raise any eyebrows.

A year later the pump failed again.  This time the connector actually melted enough to separate from the steering motor.  When the owner tried to plug it back in the sparks told him to back off.  MINI supplied a new motor and connector under parts warranty, and we changed them.  Once again the steering worked.  We thought it strange that the motor we changed a year ago would fail.

A month later the owner drove the car to dinner and parked it for the night at 8PM.  Twelve hours later – at 8 on a Sunday morning – a neighbor spotted smoke coming from the MINI’s cowl.  The owner opened the hood to find a fire above the new EPS steering motor.  It seemed like it had gotten hot enough to start a fire.  What was going on?

The car was examined by two forensic investigators, each representing insurance companies that might be involved in settling the claim.  The first investigator’s job was to learn whether the EPS started the fire, and if so, if there was a workmanship error in its fitment. There was no error found.  Installation of the motor is simple and straightforward.  

The second investigator built on the first investigator’s findings, in an effort to further understand the cause of the fire.  Both investigators agreed that the fire was started by an overheated EPS unit.  The question was, why would the EPS overheat and start a fire after sitting overnight?  There is no circumstance where the power steering motor should activate in a parked and locked car, 11 hours after it was parked for the night.

The EPS just sits there when the car is parked.  It draws no power at rest, and should have been at ambient temperature by late that night.

A conversation with the owner revealed that this was a pattern of failure.  The steering never failed when the car was in use.  Instead, the motors burned out while the car was parked.  The complaint was, “no steering when I got in the car,” as opposed to, “the power steering quit while I was driving.”

We began to wonder how many other MINI owners had experienced similar failures.  We searched our own service database and realized most MINI power steering failures we’d seen were “in the morning” as opposed to “while driving.” An Internet search raised quite a few more possibilities.  And we read of some troubling and unexplained fires in parked cars.

The investigation has ended – for now at least – with no definite answer.  The car’s insurance will pay off, and the owner will get a new car.  We were never able to determine what woke the car’s electronics up and caused it to start steering till it caught fire.

We were able to determine that the car slept most of the night undisturbed.  An analysis of the charge in the battery told us how much energy the steering motor had absorbed.  A calculation told us how rapidly that had to occur, to build enough heat to start a fire.  Another calculation told us how fast the steering could heat up, given the limitations of fuses and wiring.  We determined that it woke up and started trying to steer 30 minutes to an hour before catching fire.

That raised an interesting possibility.  Could the car have been woken up by radio signals, and come to life in an unexpected and destructive way?  We know the pushbutton entry system can do more than unlock the car.  So can the radio link that the BMW/MINI service and concierge people use.  Might something have come into the car through those channels?  We don’t know.  It’s an idea, but without more evidence we are stumped.

What’s your experience?  Do you know of a MINI that caught fire while parked, with no good explanation?

Robison Service has provided independent service, repair, and restoration for BMW and MINI owners all over New England for over 25 years. Our company is an authorized Bosch Car Service Center. We also service Mercedes, Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche, and Rolls Royce and Bentley motorcars. We have flatbed transport throughout the region. We also offer pickup and delivery for cars in  Springfield, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, Agawam, Westfield, Northampton, and Amherst.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Fixing Grinding Noises in Mercedes Transmisisons

Do you have a grinding noise in your 2007-2013 Mercedes 4Matic gearbox? Do you hear a grind that starts at low speed and increases as the car speeds up until it’s so loud you’re afraid to drive it? Many people confuse the noise with wheel bearing failure, but it’s not. The 2008 and new C-Class 4Matics are prone to this same failure. S550 and C300 4Matics are the most problematic. If you’ve got either of those models, read on.

We’ve seen several W221 S-Class Mercedes 4Matics with noisy transmission / transfer case assemblies, and we’re thinking this may become more common as the vehicles age.  The cars we’re seeing have 60-90,000 miles on their odometers when they start grinding.

Our most recent client came to us after the local Benz dealer told him he needed a new transmission, because Mercedes didn’t want them making internal repairs.  He thought $6,000-some was a lot of money for a bad bearing and he asked if we could help.

Of course we said yes.  Lead tech Danny Ferrari in our Mercedes shop removed the transmission and tore it down, whereupon the failure was obvious.  The bearings had failed. The ones that carry the transfer case shafts and take the load from the driveshaft had totally come apart.  It seemed like an easy fix, but Mercedes does not sell internal parts and they build this gearbox in-house.

We have spent the time to locate sources of original quality repair parts overseas, and we’re now able to fix these formerly unserviceable units. We can generally save you a few thousand dollars over the cost of a dealer exchange part.

Our shop can perform any service or repair on these fine cars, including transmission services. However, there’s no preventative maintenance we know of that will head off this bearing failure. It may be that the load on these bearings is just too much for their size, or there may be another cause.

If you've got an older Benz, look to us for transmission fluid flushes, filters, repairs to the sensor plate, and repair of leaking electrical feed-through connectors.  The older Mercedes transmissions are showing more problems because the years and miles are piling up, but we can fix anything that happens to them.

From what we can see the repaired transmissions will last as long as the originals, and repair takes less than a week, start to finish, for most units.  J E Robison Service is a Bosch Car Service specialist in Springfield, MA.  Find us at 347 Page Boulevard, in the Springfield Auto Complex, in Springfield, MA 01104.

Robison Service has provided independent service, repair, and restoration for Mercedes Benz owners all over New England for over 25 years. We also service BMW, MINI, Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche, and Rolls Royce and Bentley motorcars. We have flatbed transport all over the region. We also offer pickup and delivery for cars in  Springfield, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, Agawam, Westfield, Northampton, and Amherst.

Visit us online at or call 413-785-1665.

(c) 2014 John Elder Robison

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Commodore's Jeepster

When you’re the Commodore and you can buy any new car you want, what do you choose?  It’s a weighty decision.  After all, as Commodore, you set the standard.  That means you can’t just buy a mass-produced idea of style and form.  You must create your own; an expression of automotive craftsmanship fine enough to park beside the finest hand built yachts. You commission a motorcar as others commission a new kitchen.

It’s a hard choice, but someone has to make it.  American or foreign?  You’ve got both, and for this car, it’s going to be American.  They build some beautiful yachts in Europe but our native craftsmen are very fine too.

Sedan or utility?  That’s an easy question.  This vehicle’s job is to travel to the waterfront, and there may be a need to carry rigging, guests, live bait or giant fish.  An open utility is the only answer.

Open car or closed?  It’s summer on the oceanfront, folks! The only way to ride is under and open top.  How else will you move the fishing poles, and how will parade guests stand and wave? Open tourer it is.

Now we’re getting down to it.  Who makes such a vehicle?  Not Cadillac.  Not Lincoln. Not Chrysler. International Scout?  Too boxy.  One of the best loved open top sport utilities in the postwar period is the Willys Jeepster.  That, folks, is the Commodore’s Choice.  Isn’t this a magnificent example?

The common Jeepster had an economy level of finish, with inexpensive vinyl seats and basic, simple trim.  But even simple can be interpreted with beauty.  Basic lacquer can be replaced with the finest Glausurit urethane finishes.  Basic vinyl seating can be replaced with the finest leathers.  Wilton wool can pad the floor better than tar paper.

It didn't start out that way.  This is what we began with. And it was described as "restored!"

What did we do instead? Try powder coated seat frames, new marine plywood bases and cushions, Connolly leather upholstery and top-grade Wilton carpet. Which seats would you prefer?

Some people would change the engine for a new hot-rodded piece of iron.  But why? This engine was good enough to take American solders to victory all around the world.  Surely a rebuilt version can take a few modern day connoisseurs to the club and back!

This is the famous Go-Devil motor, the engine that earned a reputation as “the motor that won World War II” in the original Jeep.

Here's how it began . . .

And he she is today . . .
1948 Jeepster engine bay with Go Devil engine

You won’t win any drag races in this old Jeepster, and you won’t be running the fast lane on the Interstate, but in a car like this you will have something truly unique.  Like a fine wooden boat, this is a car to treasure for a lifetime.

There’s restoration, and then there’s Restoration.

We started with what was optimistically called "a well restored example."

In the image above expert body man Al Keinath looks at what we're facing.  Three different shades of burgundy on the nose alone. A full quarter-inch of plastic filler in some spots. Rust holes covered in household caulk. A cardboard firewall that's painted car color to hide the crumbling. Chips, bangs, and nothing fits. It takes two hands to shut the door, and a good kick to get it open.  The bottom of the hood has a layer of black goo to hide the imperfections.  And the condition of the undercarriage . . .

But we will make it new again! Better than new, in fact. We'll be finishing this with the level of  craftsmanship you find in a fine wood boat. No corners cut in this job . . 

Reshaping the rear contours

The body work is done on a stand

A thousand little parts to refinish or rebuild

Almost ready for paint

Lots of metal work

The burgundy paint is on!

Painting the gloss black two-tone

Some final welding on the body

The convertible top attachments are handmade wood

Inner panels get painted first, in Glausurit

Fitting the frame for the convertible top

Fitting up the interior

The finished body

Rebuilt engine and transmission ready to install.

The Go-Devil engine goes back in place

Installing new vintage wiring

Summer has arrived, and this 1948 Jeepster is once again . . King of the road . . .

At Robison Service, we started out restoring European classics, many years ago. We were lucky to find patrons who appreciated our work and commissioned more and more. As we grew, people asked for higher and higher standards of workmanship.  I wasn't surprised - after all, we worked on some of the finest cars in the world.  Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, and Rolls Royce. Then people said, "Can you do that level of work on my father's old Willys?" And of course we can.  And we did.  These are the cars America grew up with and loved, interpreted in a whole new way.  You may have seen Jeepsters, but I guarantee you've never seen one like this!

The greatest thing about these projects is that each one is totally unique. I'm proud to call them expressions of the auto restorer's art; translating our client's visions into drivable pieces of sculpture..

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent restoration and Bosch Authorized Car Service specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Porsche, and Rolls Royce Owner's Clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Long Life Spark Plugs don't always last forever

Not too long ago spark plugs were replaced every 30,000 miles.  Then 60k became standard and now it's 100k.  30 years ago spark plugs fouled from deposition.  New engines run cleaner, which means wear has become the limiting factor.

The spark plug manufacturers went to exotic metals to reduce wear, and for the most part those materials work.  However, wear of the carbon steel electrodes is still an issue, and a tired engine can actually foul the exotic metal spark plugs more easily than before, because the exotic metal contact area is smaller.

These images clearly illustrate wear in a modern high performance spark plug, from a car that just arrived for service.  The top photo shows how the electrode wore at an angle, and the top-on view of the plug shows how the deposition pattern (left side only) reflects this pattern.

As the plug wears in a sloped pattern the flame front becomes more and more one-sided which leads to knock and misfires.  The worse it gets the more this particular cylinder's timing will be backed off to compensate, with lower efficiency, more heating, and less power as a result. Uneven plug fouling will raise the necessary firing voltage, which will over stress coil packs.

This particular plug came from a 2009 Range Rover with 80,000 miles.  It's clearly due for replacement even with 20% life remaining by the schedule.  The moral of this story - manufacturer service schedules are a guide, not an absolute.  Some cars will benefit from earlier plug changes.

Remember - as a carmaker their goal is to sell new cars, and part of that plan rides on wearing out the old car while another part rests on low advertised cost of ownership (defer it all till the last possible moment!)

As an owner, your goals may be rather different, especially if you plan to keep your car a long time or pass it on to a friend or family member.

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent restoration and Bosch Authorized Car Service specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Porsche, and Rolls Royce Owner's Clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Buying a Used Rolls Royce or Bentley on a Budget - Champagne Value for Beer Prices

You’ve looked at Rolls Royce cars for years, and often dreamed of buying one of your own.  Now the time has come.  You’ve decided to do it.  What should you buy?  This article focuses on sedans that can be had for under $20,000 and convertibles that can be bought under $50,000.  If your budget is bigger, your range of choice is somewhat broader.  

Sedans are more practical, and cost less to buy.   There are many more sedans in existence, so it may be easier to find one in good shape for a good price.  If you are a social person, it’s much easier to take another couple in a sedan.  If you have kids, three of them will fit in the back seat of a sedan, with no need to use the trunk.  If you do use the trunk, it’s carpeted, warm, and inviting.  Most people buy sedans as their entry car into this market.

This Silver Spur was a winner at Newport
Convertibles are always the stars of the collector car world, followed by limited production coupes.  Convertibles of the 1970-1990 era often cost two or three times as much as comparable sedans.  They are much more dear to buy, but have correspondingly greater potential for appreciation.  With a higher value, it’s easier to justify major investments if and when they are needed.  With their shorter wheelbases the coupes and convertibles may be a sportier drive, but the offset is a noticeably harsher ride.

A very clean original 1983 Corniche
How to decide?  If you are looking for a car to match a memory, your mind already contains the answer.  Perhaps it’s a blue sedan like your uncle Bob drove.  Or maybe it’s a red convertible like you saw in a movie.  If you are looking for practicality and utility – to the extent any Rolls Royce can be said to possess those attributes – a sedan is your best bet.  If you have lots of money and want the best chance of a good return a convertible is likely your best option.  If you don’t want to be in the sun, and still want a shot at better appreciation, check out the coupes.

Whatever you decide, the condition of the specific car is of paramount importance.  These cars are often sold with thousands of dollars in deferred maintenance waiting to trap the unwary.  Cosmetically run down cars will cost thousands more to bring back.  A car that needs both is probably a vehicle to be avoided.  Even a good car is going to need some work.  I always tell people to plan for $5,000 in needed work, and maybe $10,000 even if the car checked out good.  There are always unseen issues.  

Before buying any Rolls Royce or Bentley I suggest you have it checked out by a qualified expert.  These cars are very different from your rank and file motorcars, and you need specialized skills to check them out  The best way to find an inspector is to ask other Rolls Royce drivers. If you don’t know any drivers, join the club – - and check out their list of technical experts.  Also check out the advice on the forums. Long time club member Gerry Acquiliano is an expert on these cars, as are Richard Vaughn and others.  There are many members with much to offer on the club forums.

What year car should you buy?  With some cars, the answer is simple – buy the newest one you can afford.  The newer the car, the higher the price.  In the Rolls Royce world things do not work that way.  Good examples of pre-1965 Rolls Royce are markedly more expensive than cars of the 70s and 80s.  Why is that, you ask? Older cars have aged to the point where the good examples are almost all restored, and restoration of these cars is costly.  The price of good examples reflects that substantial additional investment.  It’s still possible to buy mostly original cars from the 80s and 90s, which makes these cars much more affordable.

A 20,000 Series Silver Spur
In my opinion, there are two modern Rolls Royce cars with good investment potential.  The pre-1974 Shadow cars are desirable because of their clean and pretty lines, and their timeless style.  The 74-80 Shadows are a close second.  Unfortunately, time has not been kind to most of these vehicles.  They are often run down beyond practical repair, and it’s very hard to find well-kept examples. 

1980 Silver Shadow
The Silver Spur replaced the Silver Shadow in 1981.  The first few years of this new car were problematic, but the issues were mostly sorted out by the first face lifting of these cars, for the 1988 model year.  These newer vehicles – distinguished by series numbers in the range of 20,000 to 28,000 – were among the most trouble free Rolls Royce cars ever.  They have the benefit of affordability too, with good examples selling under $20,000 as of this writing.   

With a production life from 1981 to 1999, the Spur is the car that comes to mind when most 30-40 year olds think of a Rolls Royce.  It's the model they grew up with, whereas my generation grew up with the Shadows.  You'd think newer is better with Spurs, but that's not necessarily the case. Newer cars were burdened with more and more electronics which was great when new, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to support as the vehicles age and parts become unavailable or costly.

Should you buy a Rolls Royce or a Bentley?  That is an individual decision; in the year range we are discussing the cars are equal in terms of quality and appointment.  The Bentley cars tend to be more sporting, and the Turbo cars are markedly more powerful.  The Rolls Royce cars are more stately and luxurious.  The two brands were very similar in the Shadow era but developed distinct identities in the 1980s.

What about the sub-models and limited editions?  There’s not enough space to describe them all here.  I suggest the Rolls Royce Club websites, both the American and the Australian, and the online guidebook as references.

In closing, what would be the ideal starter Rolls Royce or Bentley for someone with a $20k budget?  If it were me, I’d put the money into a 1988 Bentley Eight, or a 1989 Silver Spur.  If I had twice that money, I’d buy a nice mid to late 1980s Corniche.  But my #1 criteria in choosing a Rolls on a budget would be condition.

Those are my choices, at least on paper.  What are yours?  That remains to be seen . . .

John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, independent restoration and Bosch Authorized Car Service specialists in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover, Porsche, and Rolls Royce Owner's Clubs, and he’s owned and restored many of these fine vehicles.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665