Monday, August 27, 2012

Collector cars for sale: Inspect Before You Buy!

“I’d like to warn you about a crooked car dealer . . . .”

How many times have you heard that line, in the collector car world?  Here’s a message I got just this morning:

I would like to warn you about a dealer in Florida who is selling used automobiles on eBay. This fellow sold me a 1980 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith II for $29,900, represented as in excellent condition with no issues. When I received the car, it is basically a rolling wreck, worth maybe $7-9,000. There are numerous problems with it, including brake cylinder leaks, inoperable windows and door locks, apparent body damage that was inexpertly fixed, interior damage that was not disclosed, etc.

After contacting him, he offered to trade the car for anything else he had in stock, which I obviously declined given my first experience. I requested a refund which he refused and now he will not answer my calls or emails. I have reported him to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center ( and am in the process of suing him for the return of my money based on his fraudulent misrepresentation.

How did this situation come to pass?  To put it bluntly, the buyer was naïve.  He accepted the seller’s representations without employing an expert to check them out.  He didn’t ask the seller for references, so he knew nothing about him, either.

By his failure to do any sort of due diligence, the buyer set himself up to be cheated.  It’s just his bad luck the seller was a person ready to exploit that weakness.  Don’t put yourself in that guy's position! 

Before you buy a collector car, I urge you to do three things:
-       Employ an independent qualified expert to check out the car;
-       Make sure you are familiar with the “usual condition” of cars like you are buying, so you can put the car you are considering in proper context.
-       Investigate the reputation of the seller.

If that had been done the story above would never have unfolded.  The inspector would have disqualified the car based on its condition, and the investigation of the seller would have revealed a history of similar complaints.  The deal would have never happened.

Do not assume "your lawyer will handle it," or "you will just get your money back."  In many states, as-is means as is, and your lawyer will not get anywhere.  When you make a decision to buy something, it's final.  Credit card companies often steer clear of motor vehicle arguments also.  Help from them is chancy at best.  When you buy a car with no warranty from a dealer 1,000 miles away you should assume you got what you paid for - a car with no warranty from a dealer 1,000 miles away.  Even if the seller is required to offer warranty, that won't generally cover the cost of shipping, and his obligations under any required warranty are usually very limited.  The lesson:  Do not rely on any implied used car warranty.  

So how do you find an expert?  That’s not always easy.  Ideally, you need an inspector who has some kind of qualification for the car you want to buy.  You might look at the people who are tech consultants for the car club of whatever you want to buy (like the Rolls-Royce Owner’s Club, or the Porsche Club of America.)  You might even call club headquarters and ask them for a reference.

If the car is a later model you might call the dealer, though they are not usually much help for cars more than 20 years old.  I would only use the so-called “vehicle inspection services” as a last resort.  Inspection services are accustomed to looking for common safety problems on ordinary cars.  They will not know the vagaries of antiques and collectibles.

Finally, whenever possible, have the car inspected in a shop, where you are in a neutral environment with proper tools to lift and examine the vehicle.  It’s very hard to fully evaluate a car in the owner’s suburban driveway.

When we inspect cars I encourage the seller to be present for some or all of our inspection.  That way whatever problems we find can be brought to his attention and explained while the car is still in the shop.  Doing so heads off arguments about the accuracy of inspection, where the buyer says “the car needs brake work” and the seller says, “I just did brakes!”  By showing the seller exactly what we are reporting there is no confusion.

Mechanical condition is very important to me because so many “restorations” are cosmetic only, leaving a beautiful car that is barely safe to drive.  We check driveline condition, steering, brakes, suspension, and operation of all accessories.  We make sure the car is free of objectionable rattles, wind noises, or vibrations. 

We check the mechanical condition of the car, and we also look the body over carefully.  We do out best to identify rust, corrosion, and accident repairs.  We distinguish good original parts from what is restored or still damaged.  We also point out substandard repairs and modifications wherever possible.

When we look at the paint, trim, and interior, we put it in context with other similarly priced cars.  For example, when we look at Silver Shadows, we have one expectation for a $5,000 example and another totally different expectation for a $25,000 example.  We are asked to examine cars at both ends of that curve regularly and it’s important to put the inspection report in proper perspective with the buyers expectations and the stated price.

In some cases we get the sense that the buyer’s expectation is not realistic in some way.  The most often areas of misalignment are in the areas of value for dollars, and anticipated performance and reliability.  Most antique cars will not have either the finish quality or the performance and reliability of a modern Mercedes S550.

Other times we are asked to get serial numbers from components, evaluate their originality (were the numbers original, or re-stamped into blank new components?) and check the numbers themselves against manufacturer databases.  We may be asked to check service histories or local records as well.

Pre purchase inspection of a collector car is very different from pre purchase inspection of a three year old Toyota.  The more unusual the car, the more specialized the inspector you will need.

Remember that there are plenty of honest and good dealers out there, but there are a lot of crooks too.  As the old adage says, “Trust but Verify!”

John Robison

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Unraveling date codes on fuel filters and other par

How old is that fuel filter?  Should it be changed?

We ask that question every time a fuel injected car comes into our shop for a check-over.  Modern fuel filters are generally metal, so we can’t see inside.  That leaves us one evaluation option – age.

Most carmakers recommend fuel filter replacement on a three to six year interval.  How do you know when that time is passed, if you have no records?  The obvious answer  . . . read the date code from the filter itself.

If you have a Bosch filter (Robison Service is a Bosch authorized service center) you can find and decode the date stamp.  Here’s an example.

The part number – 0 450 905 295 is the biggest and most obvious number, as it should be.  The number in the oval (957) is the factory code.  The date code is the dot matrix printing at the edge.  In this case the code reads 863.13.1.06

We turn to our Bosch date code index to decode the year and month, 863:

According to our chart, this filter was made in March of 1998.  The next number, 13, tells us the date of manufacture.  The final numbers are plant specific, identifying a particular assembly line or location.
Seeing this part on a 1999 Rolls Royce we can say with some confidence that it’s the original filter.

What if the date code is newer?  How closely can we date a filter on a car from these numbers?  The answer – not too close.  A check of brand new filters from Bentley revealed date codes from April 2010 to June 2011 in August 2012.  That suggests filters for high end cars may sit in warehouses several years before being installed.

A check of date codes on higher volume Mercedes/BMW/Audi filters shows much quicker turnaround.  The filters on their shelves left the factory 2-4 months previously.

So what’s the rule of thumb?

In our shop, if we are looking at an exotic or rare car, I’d allow 2 years for a filter to sit before being installed, and I’d expect it to last 10 years in light use.  So I’d replace any filter whose date code was more than 12 years in the past. 

With a more common car, I’d look to replace any filter whose date code was more than six years in the past.

These are the rules we apply at Robison Service, but your mileage may vary.  Obviously a load of bad gas can clog even a brand new filter, and some filters that are a decade in service are as clean as when they were installed.

Till next time
John Robison

Monday, August 13, 2012

Will my car insurance really cover that? No way!

Here at Robison Service we see lots of unusual failures.  Many of the cars we work on come from a long way away, which means their owners do all their “easy service” close to home.  What we are left with is the difficult, complex, and time-consuming work no one else can do.

Sometimes that work is at the customer’s expense.  However, we find ourselves working for insurance companies more often that you’d think.  Most of the time, our clients do not know the problem with their car may be covered by insurance until we tell them.

What kinds of problems are covered?  I’ll give you some examples.  But first, let’s go over the components of your insurance policy.

Basically, you have three kinds of coverage:
·      Liability insurance covers injures to other people and their cars and property.  We don’t usually make use of the liability parts of people’s policies unless we are fixing a car someone else damaged, and that third parties’ insurance is paying.
·      Collision coverage pays when you damage your car by hitting something you could or should have foreseen.  This is the part of the policy that pays for repairs if you hit another car, a guardrail, or a tree.  It would also cover damage to the undercarriage if you hit a deep pothole.
·      Comprehensive coverage covers “all other risks” to your car.  The scope of coverage varies slightly from state to state, but in general, comprehensive covers all damage to your car that is not covered by collision, and is not a result of normal wear, negligence, abuse, racing, or certain other excluded activities.  People often refer to this part of a policy as “fire and theft coverage” because those are the best-known comprehensive claims.

On more than one occasion, customers have called me to say their car stopped running, and they were having it towed in.  When the car arrived we found it out of oil or coolant, with a damaged engine.  If the car “ran dry” due to a simple leak and the owner’s failure to check his fluids, he’s on his own.  But if there is a crack or hole because the owner hit something . . . we probably have a comprehensive insurance claim.

Am impact to the engine is covered just the same as an impact to the hood or windshield.  The difference is, an impact to the oil pan can lead to $10,000 in damage where an impact to the windshield is seldom more than a few hundred dollars. 

If you make a claim for engine damage don’t be surprised if the insurance company asks for proof the car was running well before the loss.  If they are asked to pay for a new engine they will try and determine the condition of the old engine before deciding what to offer in terms of repair.

That’s one more reason regular service and maintenance records are so vitally important! 

Every time we have a rain that suddenly floods roadways I hear from motorists whose cars swallowed water while driving through puddles where they expected clear road.  Most often water ingestion ruins the engine, and this too results in a comprehensive claim. 

What about damage under the car, when nothing was run over?  A common example comes from the Land Rover world.  The front drive shafts on Discovery II models are notorious for coming apart.  When that happens the shaft starts swinging round under the car.  If the vehicle is moving fast when this happens that shaft can do a lot of damage.  I see transmission cases smashed, floors torn up, and more.  Damage can easily exceed $5,000.

Damage from driveshaft failure will often be covered by comprehensive coverage.  The driveshaft breakage is a routine mechanical failure, which is not covered. However, all the damage that failed driveshaft causes is covered.   That fact is sometimes a surprise to appraisers, but here’s the theory, presented via a different example: Say your steering linkage breaks, and you lose control and crash into the guardrail.  “Of course crashing into the guardrail is covered,” you say.  Well, the guardrail crash was the consequential result of steering linkage failure.  And the torn up undercarriage is the consequential damage that results from the driveshaft failure.  Both should be covered under the same theory of coverage.

By excluding the specific failed mechanical part, and them making a claim for all consequential mechanical damage it is often possible to get a surprising amout of mechanical repair covered under the comprehensive insurance umbrella.

Another example:  A car won’t start, and we find the computer compartment filled with water.  The cause:  A water drain that was blocked with pollen.  The  repair: Thousands of dollars of new electronic modules to replace the ones that got immersed in water.  This claim isn’t so clear-cut.  If the car has drains, someone should be blowing them clean.  If the drain-cleaning is part of a scheduled maintenance activity, and the customer can show that was done, he should be all set.  If the drains clogged after a local “pollen storm” that will probably cover him too.   However, if the area is filled with rotted leaves and debris and it’s obvious the drains have not been cleaned in years – watch out!  The insurance company may tell the owner he caused the problem by failing to maintain the car as required.  The technical term for that is contributory negligence, and it can leave someone on his own with no coverage or reduced coverage.  The moral:  Always check stuff like that when the car is in for service.  You never know what you will find and a simple thing like leaves in a drain tube can have huge consequences if left unnoticed.

The final thing I’ll mention is rodent damage.  Some of our biggest insurance claims come when mice get into collector cars, and chew them up.  If they inhabit a car for long they leave a stench that cannot be cleaned except by upholstery replacement.  This damage too is covered by comprehensive insurance, and claims on Rolls-Royce and other collector cars can run into six figures.

Rodents can also cause fires, if they chew into electrical harnesses and they subsequently short out.  The moral:  pay attention to where you store your cars, and try and keep them rodent free.

I actually have a whole blog essay on rodent damage for those who have this problem.

In closing I will also add that I'm not a lawyer but coverage questions have more to do with reading the policy carefully and interpreting it that they do with the law.  I'm also not an insurance agent, or employed by any insurance company, except insofar as they pay us to fix their insured's cars.

Insurance rules vary, as do policies.  Read yours carefully.

Best wishes and bye for now
John Robison

Friday, August 3, 2012

Smoking brakes and Crewe era Bentley and Rolls-Royce hydraulics

The Rolls-Royce in the photo above is a prize-winner, as the one in this story.  Just not the night it failed to proceed.  Imagine the scene . . . .

You’re driving down the highway, thinking all is well.  Gradually, you come to notice a vibration.  You look in back, and see smoke.  Applying the brakes, the pedal feels funny; like it goes to the floor.  The brake warning light comes on.  The car stops, and you wonder what went wrong.  Smoke comes from one rear wheel arch.

Your motorcar assumes the British Position, on the back of a car carrier, and you find a ride home.

Later, your car arrives at the shop.  When the tow truck drops it off, it looks and runs fine.  No smoking, no brake drag.  Brake fluid is full.  There are no obvious problems.  They put he car on the lift and see a trace of grease on the inside of the rear brake rotor.  Did it come out of the hub?  Maybe.

Sound familiar?  Many owners of 1965-1980 Silver Shadow cars have experienced this, or something similar.  What happened here?

I had this happen, here at Robison Service, last week.  I’ve described how we figured out the failure, both because it may happen to you, and the process may help understand how we solve problems with these cars complex hydraulics.

We realized one of two things must have happened:
  • ·      The wheel bearing could have failed and overheated the area
  • ·      The brake could have dragged and overheated the rotor and hub

Either failure would account for all the symptoms
  • ·      The overheated parts would smoke
  • ·      The hot rotor would vibrate
  • ·      If the rotor got hot enough, it would boil the brake fluid, which would make the pedal go to the floor, and light the lamp
  • ·      If the hub got hot enough, grease would melt out of the bearing and perhaps remain on the brake disc.
  • ·      There would be no loss of fluid and it would look fine when cool.

The wheel bearing is a simple failure, whose cause would be visible in the hub.  A brake drag could be caused by several things in an early Shadow
  • ·      The caliper pistons could be frozen
  • ·      Pads could be rusted in the caliper
  • ·      The conventional master cylinder to the rear wheels could have stuck
  • ·      One of the distribution valves might have leaked
  • ·      The brake hoses might have swelled, preventing release of fluid

We felt this car’s problem was probably in the brakes, because incipient wheel bearing failures are noisy, and the hub on this car was silent when driven on our lift. 

A simple “pry test” showed us that the caliper pistons moved back, and the pads were free in the caliper.  So we did not have an obvious caliper failure.  When we looked at the drip tray we saw substantial leakage from the distribution valves, suggesting wear inside.  Valves that leak externally can also fail to seal shut, venting pressure to the wheels and causing drag.  Teardown would tell the story.

Above - the distribution valves show much greater than normal leakage.  They leave six-inch puddles overnight with the cover removed.  That will be addressed after fixing the drag, unless distribution valve failure is the cause of drag.

We began at the right rear, where the failure was originally observed.

Above - the driveshaft yoke as removed by the Rolls-Royce hub tool

We began by taking apart the hub and brake assembly.  Why?  Because the hub has to come apart either way, if it’s been that hot.  At the least, we would need to repack the bearings.  At worst, we would find a failing or failed bearing.

Above - the rear hub bearings,  Note the outer is greasy, while the inner bearing is about dry.  Neither has failed, but without attention, the inner bearing would have burnt up soon.

As you can see, we found a hub that had not yet failed, but had lost all the grease from the inner bearing.  Probably a combination of age and heat.  Either way, at 40 years of age, this car will get new bearings and seals.

Now we moved onto the brake caliper.  We popped off the rubber dust covers and applied shop air to pop out the pistons.  This is usually a simple process where the pistons pop out into your hand.  Not on this car.  The small pistons (the ones that go to the backup master) were very tightly stuck.  The main pistons were tighter than they should be too.

Above - a failed caliper piston.  The rust line is where the piston enters the seal area.

Above - the other side was worse

Above - a closeup of the corresponding caliper bore shows rust damage and roughening.  This surface must be perfectly smooth and even.  If it's too rusty to clean up, we split the caliper, bore it oversize, and press in a sleeve.

Once they were out and wiped off the reason was clear – rust, coming in from the outside.  When you look at RR brake pistons you can see rust inside, or coming inward from outside.  Rust on the inside is very bad, because it means there are corrosives in the fluid and the whole system must come apart.  Sludge in the caliper means the same thing – complete teardown.  Luckily this car did not have those problems.

We used a scope to look inside the brake pipes and found them clean.  When you look inside you are looking for swelling of the rubber, or rust in the steel.  We didn’t see either on this car.  So no line repair is needed.

The brake pads tell their own story.  Look at the left and right sides, next to each other.  As you can see, the pads on the side that smoked are melted and glazed on their surfaces.  The glazing is concentrated on the part of the pad that is above the sticky small pistons.

With these observations, we can paint a picture of how and why this system failed.

  1. The small pistons in the right rear caliper corroded and became tight, which made the brakes drag slightly.
  2. When the car got up to speed the drag got the brakes hotter and hotter, which eventually warped the rotor and caused the shake.
  3. The hot rotor melted the grease causing some to run out onto the rotor as the car cooled.  That was what we saw, and it caused the smoke the driver saw.
  4. The hot brakes boiled the fluid, which caused the pedal to go to the floor, and light the lamp
  5. The leaking distribution valves were not part of this failure, but they leak excessively and should be changed before they cause a bigger problem

So what now?

Above - the other side's caliper pistons were not dragging as much, but they all show rust breaking through, which is the seed of failure whether now, next year, or two years hence.  Best fix it before it leaves the car stranded.

With the piston damage we see in back, the wise action will be to overhaul all four calipers.  The right rear pads are visibly damaged so we will change the rear pads too.  Seeing the grease run out of the inboard bearing, we should pull apart the other side hub and service it too.  Having pulled apart the hubs (an all-day job requiring a RR hydraulic hub tool) we should replace the rotors.

In the front of the car we’ll be servicing the calipers, and we’ll check the hub bearings.  We will also replace the leaking distribution valves, and make sure the valve block linkage is in good order.  Check back and we’ll report on this job as it progresses.

Bear in mind that the damage you see in these photos is on a well-maintained car.  This is not damage from neglect.  The brake fluid is clean and clear, but nothing stops rust from outside, especially in a car that lives near the ocean, as this car has for 30+ years.

Above - For comparison, here is what fluid looks like in a system that was neglected.   Needless to say, that car has much bigger problems.

It’s just another day in the life of a Rolls-Royce repairman.