Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Thoughts on oil change intervals and other fluid matters

How often should you change the oil in your car?  Should I follow the factory schedule?  Sometimes people ask why I recommend deviating from the factory service schedules for fluids in late model cars.  I hope my thoughts on this matter will help you make a good decision for your own vehicle. 

BMW and Mercedes introduced extended service intervals ten years ago.  Oil change intervals of 15,000 miles and even more were supposedly made possible by improvements in engine design and new synthetic oil technology.

When people adhered to that schedule, the results were mixed.  People who drove on the highway, and piled miles on quickly, often had good results.  By “good” I mean they did not suffer any lubrication related failures, and they got the economy of long oil changes.

People who drove mostly around town often had very different experiences.  Those cars often ended up going a year and a half between services, and when we pulled the oil filters, they were often nasty.  A number of those people had lube related problems – lifter noise, and worse.

That tells me the long intervals work for some people, but not everyone.  What’s the sensible solution?  Change your oil a bit more often, with the very best available materials, and whichever kind of driver you are, you should be safe.

With newer BMW, Mercedes, and Land Rover vehicles where a 15k oil change interval is recommended, I suggest reducing that interval to 10,000 miles or annually, whichever comes first.  If you do that on a 2011 Land Rover, Mercedes, or BMW, you will have an engine that’s just like new at 100k miles.

It is imperative to use the proper grade of synthetic oil with the correct extended drain additive packages.  Always make sure the oil you use meets the specific requirements of your car.  For example, some Mercedes, use an oil that meets MB specification 229.51 while others use a different spec.  A wrong choice could cost an engine.

The benefit of more frequent oil changes is extended engine life and the avoidance of sludge damage in the motor.  Since the cost of any such damage will run in the thousands of dollars, that benefit is substantial.  Offsetting that is the cost of the extra oil changes.  Over 100,000 miles, the extra cost of 10k oil changes versus 15k changes might add up to $700.  To me, that is a smart bet - $700 over 100k miles to avoid a multi thousand dollar engine repair.

If you have an older car where the factory calls for 5,000 or 7,500 mile oil changes I suggest you stick to that but use a good synthetic.  The synthetics have better detergents and they will keep your engine cleaner.  At the same time, the synthetic formulations last far longer than 7,500 miles, so oil failure should never be an issue.

The only cars I suggest get more frequent services are antiques with limited filtration and/or sludge in the engines.

In any case, I suggest doing oil annually if the mileage targets are not reached.

More extended drain fluids are found in the transmission, differentials, and power steering/hydraulics.  While synthetic oil technology has produced lubricants that should last ten years or more, that does not mean I feel comfortable leaving them in a car that long.

Few manual gearboxes, power steering systems, and differentials have filters.  That means any contaminants that get into the oil keep making their way through the system.  If dirt gets in, or pieces of metal invade the oil, disaster is ensured with those long change intervals. 

Another big risk is water intrusion.  Differentials in particular are susceptible to water intrusion.  I’ve seen several Mercedes 4Matic transfer cases that were ruined by watery lubricant as well.

For those reasons I suggest checking these fluids every 3 years-30,000 miles or wherever there is a visual suggestion of a problem. 

Automatic transmissions are a different matter, because they have filters.  However, they also put different stresses on their fluid, and having seen what gets drained out at 120,000 miles, I feel most ATF fluids should be done by 60k miles.  The idea of “lifetime fill” simply means a $5,000 repair if it blows up on your watch.  I’d rather up my odds and change the fluid every now and then.  Note that most high-end cars use special fluids and there are few if any generic substitutes. 
What about brake fluid?  The reason for changing brake fluid is that it absorbs moisture, which rusts brake components from the inside.  For many years, European carmakers suggested semi-annual fluid changes, and domestic carmakers didn’t suggest any brake fluid service at all.  The result was frozen calipers on domestics and very little trouble on imports with fluid service.

There have not been any changes in brake fluid technology and brake components are still made from similar materials as 20 years ago.  Therefore, I feel safe suggesting we adhere to the traditional once-every-two-years fluid flush cycle.  The exception to that is cars that get run on the track, where the fluid gets hot, because the heat cycling can accelerate moisture absorption.  For cars that run on the track I recommend annual flushes.

I think the fluid recommendations above represent a sensible balance that favors extending the life of the vehicle’s mechanical systems at minimal added maintenance cost.  They are based on my study of the cars and lubricants, and my 20-some years of experience as a service manager here at J E Robison Service in Springfield.  However, the final decision is up to you as the motorist.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Land Rover service schedules - 2010-2011-2012

Are you wondering what service are due on your late model Land Rover?  Read on . . 

For the 2010 model year, Land Rover changed from 7,500 to 15,000 miles for its basic service interval.  They now recommend service annually, or every 15,000 miles, whichever comes first.  High performance synthetic oil is now required.

Here are the other highlights of the newest service schedule:
  • ·      Thanks to a larger element, the change interval on the air filter has been increased to 60-75,000 miles.
  • ·      The cabin pollen filter is called out for change annually
  • ·      Brake fluid is now changed every three years
  • ·      Coolant is supposedly good for ten years
  • ·      Spark plugs are rated to last 105,000 miles
  • ·      The fan belts are rated to last 105,000 miles
  • ·      Automatic transmission fluid and regular differential fluids are rated to last 10 years
  • ·      Transfer case, locking differential, and dynamic response fluids are rated to last 75,000 miles
  • ·      The fuel filter is rated for ten years
  • ·      Land Rover is now calling for replacement of the flexible brake hoses every six years
  • ·      Instead of calling for a full system scan, LR now says, “If fault lamps are lit check with IDS.”

In many cases, improvements in service parts, fluids, and vehicle design do make these longer service intervals possible without compromise.  Unfortunately, if the extended service intervals prove insufficient, LR warranty will be long since expired, and the owner will be left to face what might have been preventable failures.

If you own a 2010 or newer Land Rover V8 I suggest the following modifications to the factory schedule:

  • ·      Even with long life oils, I suggest oil changes at 10,000 mile intervals or annually.  The incremental costs of these extra oil changes are trivial when compared to the expense of any internal engine repair that might otherwise result from sludge building or accelerated wear.
  • ·      The brake fluid change interval is based on brake fluid’s natural tendency to absorb moisture from the air.  That property has not changed in recent years, so I see no reason to deviate from the two-year recommendation Mercedes, Rover, and many other companies promulgated for many years with good result
  • ·      I think leaving transmission and differential fluids in those components for ten years is ridiculous; it invites disaster.  I would change all those fluids by 75,000 miles, just like the transfer case lube.
  • ·      Land Rover is not the first company to extend coolant change intervals to a decade.  I have my doubts about that, but the ph. of coolant can be tested.  If you plan to leave in in place, I encourage you to test it annually.  If you cant do that, replacement is the safer bet in my opinion.
  • ·      Land Rover no longer recommends scanning all systems at every service, but I recommend that be done anyway.  The reason:  It’s the only way to tell if electronic faults are current or recent.  If you never do a full system scan and clear you could have a system fault when the truck is four years old, and find the relevant diagnostic codes hidden by a plethora of other codes that came and went over the life of the vehicle.  Codes need to be read, evaluated, and cleared on a regular basis.  Not doing so renders the sophisticated diagnostic systems useless.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Upgrading headlamps on a vintage Rolls Royce or Bentley

Have you ever wished for better headlamps on your Corniche, Shadow, or Cloud III?  I sure have.  Those old round headlamps were marginal when the cars were new, and now that both of us have gotten older, they really don’t make it for serious night driving.

The US government finally agreed with that point of view.  Today’s cars have headlights that are at least four times as bright as cars of the seventies, with some ever better than that.  And that comparison is new to new.  Comparing a brand new car’s headlamps to the deteriorated bulbs and wiring of a 1967 automobile makes a much more stark comparison.  Some of the vehicles that come to our shop have such poor lighting I’m amazed the cars weren’t wrecked before getting to our shop!

At Robison Service, our objective is to get as close as possible to modern lighting performance, while remaining true to the car’s vintage look.  In my opinion, that rules out all HID conversions; there was no such thing as gas-discharge car lighting in the seventies.

The simplest conversion is installation of halogen sealed beams in place of the original units.  That’s an improvement, but not enough for me.  Next up the ladder is the fitment of H4 aftermarket headlamps; the most common ones come from Hella and Cibie.  Those are better, but sill not the best we can do.

What we have settled on are a pair of H1 halogen bulbs with Hella bi-focal low beam lenses complimented by a pair of H1 bulbs in Hella parabolic high beams.  These lamps have an external appearance that’s almost indistinguishable from stock, and the brightest and most efficient optics of any lamp in this size class.

We run the lows alone for low beam, and the lows plus the highs for main beam.  This combination gives better up-close visibility and greater range on high beam, and far better all round performance on low beam.

These lenses are the easiest part of the conversion.  They are direct replacements for the sealed beams.  You remove the single screw the holds the headlight cover and lift it away. Three Phillips screws hold each headlamp retaining ring; the screws are loosened and the rings twisted slightly counterclockwise and then pulled clear.  At that point the headlamps drop out, held only by their wires.  Changing that over is what takes all the time.

If you do as we do – fitting H1 lamps – you don’t have any choice about changing wiring because all the headlamp connections are different.  However, plug compatibility is not the only reason for the change.  The other is voltage, or rather, an adequate supply of it. 

Headlamps are rated to deliver a certain amount of light at exactly 12 volts.  If the voltage at the headlamps drops to 11 volts, light output drops to 75% of rating.  If, on the other hand, voltage at the headlamps is 13 volts, the headlamps will deliver 30% more than rated output.  As you see, a small change in voltage makes a big difference in light.

The only tradeoff is bulb life, but that’s not generally a limiting factor on vintage motorcars.  Even at 13 volts, a typical H! bulb will last 200 hours or so, which equates to many years of driving the way most of these cars are used.

For people who drive in parades we fit what Europeans call city lamps.  These are smaller bulbs that light the reflectors of the headlamps without throwing much light on the road.  They make the vehicle visible but using them will not wear out the main beam bulbs.

Modern alternators deliver a solid 14 volts, even under load.  There’s always some loss through the wiring, but we do whatever is necessary to ensure strong voltage at the lights, for maximum brilliance.  We aim for 12.5-13 volts; enough for brightness but not so much as to reduce bulb life unacceptably.

Most of the time, we fit relays beside the radiator, with a heavy cable from them to the alternator.  That takes the load off the switches and wiring, and ensures strong voltage supply.  In addition, we replace the sockets and connectors out at the lamps with high power components that have less resistance.

Taken together, these changes will multiply the light output of your old car many times over.  Night driving will be transformed. 

The photo above shows a new light next to the original outboard high beam

And if that’s not enough . . . we can still get brand new replacements for the old style rectangular driving lamps from the 1970s .  A pair of those under the front bumper will extend your reach even farther.

Monday, February 20, 2012

When Rodents Come Chewing

Here's a fine 1953 Jaguar XK120 Fixed Head Coupe . . . there's just one little problem . . .

Have you ever had mice eat holes in the upholstery of your car?  Have you ever opened the hood to find rodents have devoured the padding, and possibly the wires too?  Have you perhaps started a car only to have the dash go up in smoke because vermin ate the insulation off the wiring?

Here at Robison Service, we have seen all that and more.

Did you know that comprehensive auto insurance covers rodent damage, in almost every case? 

Here’s an example of what can happen when you store your pride and joy in a cat-free, rodentacious environment:

At first glance, there wasn’t much sign this1953 Jaguar 120 had a problem at all.  Then the owner saw the hole.  Something had chewed a quarter-sized hole through the headliner, just forward of the rear window.

When we took a closer look, we saw a smaller hole on the other side.  Apparently, they burrowed all the way across and started eating their way out the other side.

And that was just the beginning . . .

There are little black streaks all over the outside of the car. Those streaks are arranged in paths, marking the lines where rodents ran back and forth while devouring the car.  The paths make their way into the trunk, and under the hood, where brown grains of mouse poop are littered.

To fix that, we will strip out the interior, and then wash the metal with mild bleach and disinfectant.  Same thing for the outside, after which we use a clay bar to smooth the paint, and glaze and wax.

There is no good way to get mouse urine out of carpets, and the smell will linger forever, so we change the rugs as a set.  The other reason for changing rugs as a set is of course color match.  On a show-grade car that is especially critical.

It’s important not to forget the pads or liners under the rugs when replacing trim.  We’ve learned that the hard way, when we change the parts on top, but odor lingers from the pads below.  That’s why we strip these cars down to metal right at the beginning.

One of the big worries for any insurance appraiser is electrical damage.  Rodents eat the insulation off wires.  That leads to strange malfunctions and even electrical fires.  Luckily this car does not seem to have any of those problems.

This is not just a cosmetic issue - mice are carriers of many diseases, and we now approach these cleanups from that perspective.  The most threatening health issue with mice is their ability to spread Salmonella bacteria in their droppings. This is a common cause of food poisoning. Other transmittable organisms are tapeworms, rat-bite fever, infectious jaundice/leptospirosis/ Weil’s Disease, plague, Hantavirus, and possibly poliomyelitis (polio). Given these potentially life threatening diseases, mice should not be tolerated in the tight confines of your car.

The next time mice chew your wiring, think of Robison Service.  We’re rodent damage remediation experts.

In the image above you see rodent droppings all round the wiring, but by great good fortune, the little beasties left the tasty braided harnesses alone.  This owner is lucky.  So is his insurer.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Broke People and Broken Cars

It’s a bad combination, from the perspective of the service manager. 

Our business has changed quite a lot since the economy collapsed in 2008.  One of the biggest ways we see that is in the condition of many middle aged cars – there’s a lot more neglect today. 

The idea of taking care of the whole car has gone out the window for many people, replaced with occasional oil changes at the quick lube.  We see customers less often, and when they do come in, problems have often piled up to a distressing degree.

What seems to happen is this: Motorists feel pressure to save money, so they take their cars to quick lube places, where an oil change is just an oil change.  No one looks the car over carefully, which means there’s no bad news.  There’s no service manager saying, “by the way, your brakes are wearing out and the transmission has a leak.”  Ignorance is bliss, until something fails and the motorist undergoes what we call Pedestrian Conversion, by the side of the road. 

That’s when we get the call; as they are walking where they used to drive.

When the car is towed in we find a fluid leak that we’d have picked up during a routine service.  It emptied the transmission, and the car now needs a $3,500 gearbox replacement.  A belt that we’d have seen cracking comes apart, and another car is towed in with $2,500 of overheating damage.

The worst are the cars that got the wrong oil at the quick lube place, and the cars that didn’t get an oil change at all.  We see sludge-filled engines and repair bills that run eight thousand dollars, maybe even more.  All that for skimping on service.

For some people these are trainable moments that demonstrate the value of preventative maintenance.  Others feel they had no alternative; a viewpoint I find hard to accept.

When you’re a service manager and a car comes in for service, what do you do in this environment?  The way I see it, specialists like me have a duty as experts.  That means we look every car over, and report any incipient problems.  Many times, those incipient problems total up to quite a lot of money.

We’re asked to change the oil and look the vehicle over for obvious problems, and the “obvious” list is long.

We report what we see to the customers, and some are thankful.  These are not usually the people whose cars arrived on a tow truck.  Others are upset.  “I don’t want to hear all this stuff,” or, “you guys are too expensive!”  Either way, their vehicle’s problems are dismissed.
Sometimes I try and push the standards.  If Audi says the brake pads should be changed when 4 millimeters of material remains, I may wait till they are down to 3 millimeters before making the call.  There’s only so much I can do.  Worn brakes will need fixing, sooner or later.  Oil leaks turn from nuisance to hazard, sometimes without warning.  It’s irresponsible not to inform people of these hazards, but so many are not receptive to the news.

Frankly, I wish cars had absolute maintenance standards like airplanes.  Airlines are not allowed to fly, unless the manufacturer’s service checklist is checked off and signed.  That would take the pressure off service managers, as bearers of bad news.  Of course, the penalty for failure in an airplane is greater, but it may not seem that way to a stranded motorist.

This environment makes me appreciate new cars - where the service schedules are generally followed, and failures are covered by warranty; and antiques, which are labors of love for their owners.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Jaguar timing chain tensioner failures

Timing chain tensioners are probably the biggest vulnerabilities 1997-2004 Jaguar V8 engines.  The tensioners get old, and the plastic face that touches the chain gets brittle and breaks.  When that happens the chain flops around excessively, until it fails.

There is no warning of this impending failure from outside.  The only way to know if your guides and tensioners are good, is to remove the cam covers and inspect them.  Inspection – if they are good – is a three-hour job.  Replacement of the upper tensioners – if needed – is a day’s work.  Replacement of the lower chain guides is a much bigger job, most often two days of work.

All those costs pale when compared to the bill for repair, if the chain breaks.  That will often run $8-10,000.

The lesson to be drawn from this:  Check your tensioners, and deal with them before they fail.  New tensioners are a few hundred dollars, plus the labor to put them in.  It's a small price to pay for security.

Robison Service takes Jaguar service from all over the northeast.  We've been catering to British car lovers for over 20 years.  Visit us online at