Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The scoop on trackside tech inspections

Summer is track season for our sports car aficionados.  We’ve got the Porsches,  Bimmers, and Ferrari lining up for their track credentials.  Every now and then people ask what we look for at track tech inspection.  Exact requirements vary by club, class and track but the list below gives you a good idea.  The main goal is to make sure the cars are safe to run at speed.

General – no excessive body or chassis corrosion.  You can’t go on the track if it looks like the chassis is weakened by rust.  Scruffy paint is ok.

Windshield Wipers – must be functional and in sound condition.  That means blades are good, arms are tight, and washers work.  And the tank has to be full of washer juice.

Windows – must be secure and in good condition.  Nothing coming out.  No cracks in the glass.  All retaining moldings and trim have to be tight.

Mirrors – must be securely mounted and adjustable.  Car must have an inside rear view mirror.  Requirements for one or two outside mirrors vary.

Pedals – must be secure and exhibit free return (no binding.)  Pads must be secure and in good condition.  Brake pedal must be form without excessive travel.  Some events allow “roughened” metal pedal surfaces but many require rubber pedal pads be in place.

Seats – must be securely mounted, in sound condition.  Stock seats are usually ok, as are competition seats.  If you are in an event where a passenger or instructor is carried the seats generally have to match.

Brake fluid – level must be correct and fluid must be fresh within the last six months.  Most clubs recommend changing fluid before each driving school event.  Most checklists ask the date of the last change.

Brakes – must have sufficient lining thickness (friction material at least as thick as backing plate/no warning lights lit) and rotors or drums must be within wear limits.  Rubber hoses must be free of damage and less than ten years old.  Master cylinder must not show leakdown when steady pressure is applied.  Brake balance must be checked on road test.

Battery – must be securely mounted with no fluid leaks or corroded mountings. Battery must be held down so it will not fall out or short if the car rolls over.

Drive belts – must be in good condition and properly tensioned.  No big cracks, and no noises that warn of impending roller failure.  Fan (if fitted) must be in good shape with no cracks or damaged blades.

Throttle linkage – must work freely without binding, and return properly when released.  Not applicable to drive by wire cars.

Drive shafts and axles – joints must not have excessive play and they must be secure in their mountings.  Rubber boots (if fitted) must be free of damage.

Engine transmission and differential mounts – must be secure and free of damage or deterioration.  We judge this by looking at them and watching to see how much the engine twists if we gun it against the brake with the hood open.

Steering – must be tight but smooth and free of binding throughout the travel.  Steering wheel must be secure.  Power steering system must be free of leaks and properly filled.  All linkage joints must be tight; no torn rubber boots and no slop in anything.  Check control arms and other high strain areas for stress cracks.

Wheel bearings – must be properly adjusted and free of excess play.  No lube leakage onto brake linings.

Wheels – no cracked or bent rims.  Tires must show at least 3/32 tread, except for racing tires.  Tires must have appropriate speed and load ratings.

Leaks – no coolant brake fluid or fuel leaks allowed.  No “excessive” oil leaks.   Excessive generally means no risk of leaking oil on the track.  That means we would pass drips on the oil pan, but a drip on an oil cooler hose fitting could be a sign of impending blowout, so we would fail that.   Coolant must be actual coolant (not water) and at correct level.

Fuel and coolant hoses – must be tight and in good condition with no leakage, swelling, or cracking.

Exhaust – must be secure and in good condition.  All vehicles must be muffled.

Brake lights – must work

Other lights – head lamps may be required; otherwise light units must not be cracked or damaged.

Seat belt, fire extinguisher, and seat belt/harness rules will vary by track and event and class.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Those dreaded P0420/P0430 catalyst efficiency codes and what to do

Is your BMW’s check engine light on, with the scanner showing the dreaded P0420 or P0430 catalytic converter efficiency below threshold fault codes?   If so, you may have already been shocked and horrified by a $3,000+ repair estimate and you’re wondering what to do next.  This article has some answers, and an explanation of what the codes mean . . .

A catalyst efficiency fault means the converter is no longer able to do its job.  The only cure is a new converter.  However, before replacing parts we need to know which converter has failed.

We see quite a few of these faults at Robison Service, especially on 2002-2006 vintage cars.  We begin by connecting the scan tool and reading all the faults.  In this photo you can see a typical set of readings, these from a 2002 330 convertible.

We’ve got oxygen sensor, fuel trim, and catalyst faults – a common combination.  Sometimes the converters just wear out, and you get catalyst faults all by themselves.  However, that is rare in my experience.  Most times, we see fuelling faults and efficiency faults together, and my sense is the fueling errors cause stress on old catalysts, which helps them fail.

They were probably weak already, but the other fuel management issues are the thing that puts them over the edge. So it’s vital that we fix all the problems in a situation like this.

The next step is looking at the live data stream to see if the converters have really gone bad.  Modern cars operate by switching between rich and lean states, sometimes as often as several times a second.  The cycling is seen in a constant oscillation of the oxygen sensor signals before the catalytic converter. 

When things are normal we see that signal swinging back and forth between 0.05 volt and 0.75 volt or so.  You can see an example in the live data view below.

The catalyst should be smoothing the exhaust flow, so that the rear oxygen sensor should show a hear constant signal, somewhere in the middle of the range.  In this car, we see the post-catalyst oxygen sensors swinging in tandem with the front sensors – a sure sign that the cat has failed.  It isn’t doing anything at all anymore.

A look at the live data allows us to see which converters are working and which are not.  We can also observe the oxygen sensor performance, as the sensors are threaded into the catalysts.  If the sensors are old we recommend changing them with the cats because they are probably nearing the end of their useful life and the stress of removal of refit may lead them to fail tomorrow anyway.

Another thing the tester allows us to do is conform which side is which.  Some fault codes refer to Bank 1 or 2, while others refer to Bank A or B.  I’ve seen quite a few capable home mechanics defeated when they read a fault for a Bank A converter, and changed it, only to discover their identification of Bank A was wrong.

Here’s what I suggest:  If you are only changing one cat in the system, unplug its oxygen sensor while watching the live data.  You should see the reading fall to zero, and you know for absolute certain which side is which.   If you unplug what you thought was the right side, and you turn out to be wrong, you’ll thank me for that tip!
Next we looked at the fuel trim faults.  In this car, those were quickly traced to a split intake boot, but there are certainly many other potential fueling issues on these cars.  Be sure you tackle all the faults, otherwise you risk shortening the life of the expensive new converters you are about to install.

The final thing to think about is parts – should you buy original or aftermarket?  Genuine BMW catalysts tend to run near $1,000 each, and our cars have several.  Given that price many people turn to the Internet and the chain stores, where cats can be found for as little as $200.

In my experience, the only cats that work in these cars are the ones from BMW.  You may be able to put a generic converter in a Buick, but BMW seems to ask more of its parts and a generic converter that works when installed will often be giving that same efficiency fault a month or two later.

Frankly, I don’t see how some of these parts are sold, as they are failing before any reasonable warranty period is up.

After a run of bad experiences, all we use are genuine converters.  I have no problem buying the oxygen sensors from Bosch, Denso, or other reputable sources.  I wish there was such a place for converters, but if there is, I have not found it.

This article was written around BMW, but the fault is common on many cars and my advice is applicable to most any modern vehicle.

Good motoring!
John Elder Robison
Founder, J E Robison Service
Springfield, MA

Monday, May 7, 2012

The last of the "original" Rolls Royce convertibles


Have you been thinking about a final series Corniche?  Me. too.  I always liked the style and performance of these vehicles, rare and exotic as they were.  The 2000-2002 convertible was the last design of the old Crewe management and ownership, and as such may be appreciated by future traditionalists and collectors.  Just 375 of these cars were built for the world; they are among the rarest modern RR-B products.

They are also the last Crewe convertible design, which in my opinion bodes well for their future value.   Pristine examples of the Silver Cloud drophead were selling at ten times their original cost forty years after production ended, in 2005.  If these cars follow a similar trajectory they will become very valuable indeed.  The opportunity is particularly great for people who acquire nice final series cars today, because they currently sell for just one-third their original selling price.

The final series Corniche mixed traditional Rolls Royce engineering eccentricities (like the pump/accumulator/mineral oil based brakes) with refinements adapted from other high-end cars (like the Mercedes convertible top mechanism.)  The Corniche was built on the same platform as the Bentley Azure but was considerably less common. 

The blending of technologies made these cars somewhat unusual.  Old standards like the round metal air conditioning vents sat beside modern Alpine stereo.  Seats and convertible top mechanisms had the old familiar Connolly leather facing but their antecedents were immediately recognizable to any German car enthusiast.

Strange as that combination seemed, it worked better than anything Rolls had done in recent years.  No one could argue that BMW influence led to improved operation and reliability.  These were some of the best driving cars to ever emerge from the Crewe factory. 

The venerable Rolls V8 was managed with state of the art electronics.  Suspension was handled by an undated version of the system that debuted on the Bentley Turbo R.  Braking was managed by a modern antilock system and there was even a reasonably good stereo. 

So why are people scared of them today?  They are orphans, some say.  You can’t get parts and they are impossible to fix.  I have been servicing Rolls Royce for 25 years and I can assure you that those concerns are vastly overstated. At least for today.

It’s true that body parts are no longer available, and you will have a problem if you wreck one of these cars.  However, the same is true of any modern Rolls except the Spirit/Spur which can be found in breaker’s yards.  Interior trim was always made to order, and we have it made today.  Convertible tops are still sewn anew from the original patterns and all the common service spares are easy to get.  Brake pads, spark plugs, oil filters and such are shared with other Rolls Royce cars, and there are many sources of supply.

In short, there is no problem with ordinary maintenance parts, or common replacement trim.  Specialty parts are a problem but it’s rare to find something that cannot be repaired or copied, especially given the value of these cars and the resultant sensible budget for repair.

The electronics are becoming a problem but I suspect we will devise ways to adapt other control units as the systems in these cars fail.   The electronic suspension is serviceable today, and when parts vanish, we will look to convert the cars to straight mechanical suspension as found on the original Turbo R.  I expect those parts will be available for many years.

Tires are a problem, as Avon has ceased regular retail production.  They are making small lots for Rolls, who sells them for $650 each as of this writing.  There is no availability problem as long as you’re willing to pay the price.

I was very happy to see that the current “legacy” Bentley laptop diagnostic system takes care of all the electronics on these cars, as well as every other RR/B product back into the 1980s.  These cars do require special tools for springs, hubs, and various body systems.  Those tools were distributed to those of us who supported these cars when new, and they are long out of production today.  I have some concern that the number of specialist service shops keeps dropping, but perhaps that isn't so important as shippings costs drop too.  Even now, we routinely see Rolls Royce cars shipped to us from 500 miles away and more.

So what should a buyer look for?

  • ·      Convertible tops are aging, and you should expect replacement to run $10k with liner and pad.  The whole thing is stitched together and it’s serviced as a unit.  There is no inexpensive path to that repair.
  • ·      The brakes have the same service needs as all 1990s cars – annual bleeding and front and rear accumulator changes every five or so years.
  • ·      Suspension bushings are prone to beating out on all but the smoothest roads.
  • ·      The GM transmissions are rugged, as are the engines.  Oil leaks remain a problem.
  • ·      Many of these cars were treated rather roughly and the interiors suffered as a result.  Repair costs can be high.
  • ·      The electronics can be a problem as that is one area where parts availability is truly spotty.

I strongly suggest have any Rolls Royce motorcar inspected by a competent specialist BEFORE laying down your money. Know what you are getting into.  If a $5-10,000 repair bill will disturb you, buy a different vehicle.  For what these cars are, they are a joy to drive.  Just remember, they cost $350k when new, and 2-4% of original cost is a good rule of thumb when figuring annual upkeep on most automobiles.  4% of a Toyota Camry or even a Mercedes E350 is fairly trivial.  4% of this car is not.

If you own one of these cars now, you know what great drivers they are.  If you are starting the search, I wish you luck with the hunt, and feel free to call if you’re in our area and need an inspection or repair.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Letters from the mail bag - maintenance frustrations

Here is a letter from a frustrated Land Rover owner:

Dear John,

After a lot of conversations my husband and I decided to have a new engine installed in our 2002 Landrover Discovery because the old one had died.  We've had the car since 2006.  The car was in beautiful condition and the service manager stated that with a new engine the car would virtually be like a new car.  He felt it didn't make sense to spend the money on another used car and not know if we'd be purchasing new problems.  With that said we spent the money and invested in the new engine.  Since then, we have experienced numerous issues with the car including the need for a new catalytic converter, exhaust system and just recently we had to replace the crankshaft engine sensor.  This seems odd to me because if we just got a new engine why would this be a problem.  I understand that all cars have problems but is it customary for a service manager to check out all of the other issues a car may have prior to having their customer invest so much time and money into the vehicle.  If we'd known about the other issues we definitely would not have replaced the engine but would have sold the car for parts.  My husband and I are experiencing a significant amount of stress because there always seems to be a problem with the car that requires significant dollars to be spent to repair it.  I feel as if we're being used by this service manager. I am at my wits end.  At this point I know we won't be able recoup what we put into it but we cannot afford to keep spending money on this car.  Help!  What do you recommend we do? 

My answer:   
You ask if it’s customary for the service manager to check for other problems before doing a big job.  That is a very good reason to get to know your service manager, and have him to get to know you.   Then, you would not ask such a question.  

An even better piece of advice would be to assume nothing, and make your wishes explicit and clear.  If the work order for the engine job had a line item that said:  “Check car for other problems and report to owner,” you could have a reasonable expectation that was done.

Otherwise, what you should expect is that the shop did what you paid them to do.  No more and no less.

Some shops (like ours) have a reputation for being thorough but many motorists are simply annoyed when they come in for brakes and get told they have an oil leak.  It may be true but they do not welcome the news and many service managers simply do what’s requested as a result.

You cite a few problems you have had since the engine was changed . . . they are not inside the engine, and hence, probably were not within the scope of the original repair.  You say "I feel the service manage rid using us."  How do you think he would feel if you said that to him?  He isn't the one who caused things to break on your car.  All he's doing is responding to what breaks, and you do not like the cost of that.

It may be that he is not the right service person for you and your car.  But it may also be true that your expectations of what upkeep *should* cost on an old Land Rover are not aligned with the reality of what proper upkeep *will* cost.  In my experience it's going to cost $3-5k per year in repairs and maintenance to keep a ten year old Disco in good order, provided it was well cared for up till now.  If it was neglected, costs could be far higher.

Finally you say you could not recoup what was spent on the car . . . you are not making an investment.  You are keeping your car on the road.  It's important to keep that in mind.   If you owned the car five years and spent a total of $18k on upkeep that would be normal.  When cars are new you spend money invisibly on depreciation.   When cars are old, you spend money visibly on repair.  Either way, you pay to keep a car on the road. 

You buy a vehicle like that new for $45k.  Five years later, it's worth $15k.  So you spent $30 in depreciation, and probably $5k in upkeep for a total of $35k.

Now it's ten years old, and it's worth perhaps $6k.  Let's say you spent $20k over the next 5 years.  At the end of that time, it's probably still a $5k vehicle.  You total cost to run it was $21k.  So the repair costs "skyrocketed" but total cost of ownership dropped.

As much as you feel stressed about repair costs, the depreciation when cars like this are newer costs far more.

If the total numbers are too high, I suggest you get a car whose total cost is lower.  Examples would be a MINI, or a Prius.  In both cases the cars have very low depreciation combined with minimal upkeep.  You have to look at both things when considering the cost of a car.

Neither of those vehicles has the attributes of a Land Rover, and indeed there is no heavy duty four wheel drive that is inexpensive to keep on the road.  The maintenance on a domestic vehicle may cost less but depreciation is even more, so it balances out.

I hope that gives you a different perspective.  At Robison Service we specialize in major jobs on Land Rovers, and people bring them to us (in Western Massachusetts) from all over.  Consequently we hear stories like yours all the time.  In some cases the cars have not been well cared for, and you pay to fix neglect.  Other times, it's just bad luck.  Without seeing your truck it's impossible to say much more