Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hurricanes, Seawater and Cars - a bad combination

If you’ve been watching the news these past few days you’ve probably seen plenty of images of waterlogged cars.  New York City alone has thousands of flooded vehicles.  Some were immersed to the tops of the tires, while others were totally underwater.  What will happen to them?  All are junk; useful for scrap metal and body panels only.  But that’s not where many will end up . . .

Most of the cars will be covered by insurance, and they will be written off and sold as salvage.  For months to come, salvage auctions all over the East Coast will be processing these cars.  Some will look perfect, but they aren’t.  There’s a reason they were declared scrap.  If only they ended up that way.  The fact that they don’t is one of the dirty little secrets of the insurance business.

When an insurance company declares a vehicle a total loss, they are in essence buying the car from the owner at its pre-loss value.  But insurance companies are not in the business of fixing cars; they are in the business of money.  Therefore their goal is to turn that piece of totaled iron into cash in the most efficient way possible.

That’s where salvage auctions come in. Insurance companies hire these auctions to gather the wrecked, burnt, and flooded cars from individuals wherever they may be.  They then clean them up – if such a thing is possible – and auction them to the highest bidder.

Bidders at these salvage sales are supposed to be recyclers – junkyards, to use the more traditional term.  However, many buyers of flood cars are shady used car operations.  These people don’t buy the salvage for parts. They buy them to fix it up and sell – often to some unsuspecting used car buyer.

Insurance companies could stop this practice in a moment, if they wanted.  They could require flood cars to be cut up for scrap, and they could ban sales to so-called “rebuilders.”  Why don’t they do that?  Money.  A buyer of scrap might pay $10,000 for a flooded Porsche, because that’s the value of the salable parts.  But another bidder might pay $15,000 knowing he can sell the car to some unsuspecting motorist while it still drives.

From my perspective, it looks like that want the top bid – which probably comes from a “rebuilder” – more than they want these ruined cars off the road.

Why are they ruined, you ask?  How can a car be ruined while it still looks brand new, especially if it drives like new, too?  Here’s how it happens . . .

The first thing to fail is the electrical system. Most modern cars have wire harnesses running under the carpet – on the floor – and many have control modules down there too.  If seawater rises above the door sills these areas will be submerged.  When that happens, salt water invades the wiring, control units and electrical connectors and begins the invisible process of corrosion that ends up like the rusty junk you see, washed up on beaches.

Once it starts, there’s no turning back this process.  The only cure would be to strip out all the wiring and controllers and install new parts – a task that might cost $10,000 on an ordinary Toyota or Chevrolet, and that’s just the beginning . . .

When seats and upholstery are submerged their cushions and innards become waterlogged.  They can’t dry because the water is sealed inside by impermeable vinyl and leather coverings.  So the water stays in their, growing mold and rotting the interior from within.  It’s not a very pretty picture, when you cut it apart six months later.  Once again, it could be fixed, but the cost to take apart every bit of interior and wring it dry would be prohibitive and destructive, because most of thise pieces were never meant to be disassembled.

Then we come to the running gear.  Modern cars were not designed to operate in water.  Seals and gaskets keep oil and grease from escaping outward often can’t prevent seawater from making its way inward.  When salt water gets inside it ruins the oil, and begins the familiar process of corrosion whenever it comes in contact with bare steel. 

Seawater damage to wheel bearings and axles may be insidious – the bearings may fail one by one, over a period of years.  But fail they will.  The ocean will always win.  The Army learned this when they started driving truck up beaches – today, they strip and overhaul any axle assembly that’s been in salt water for this very reason.  You can do that in an ordinary car, too, but the cost will be high and it’s one more reason cars get scrapped.

The same thing happens in a engine.  If the engine is running when submerged it usually dies a violent death as incompressible water is sucked into the cylinders, shattering or bending the pistons and rods.  If the engine is off, the damage may not be as apparent, but the corrosion will begin inside, and the engine will fail long before its time.  This will happen even if the oil is changed.

Insurance companies know these things.  That’s why they declare flood cars to be total losses.  But to some dealers, they look too good to scrap, and there’s money to be made. 

These people will buy flood cars, change fluids, change failed control units, and get the vehicles running as best they can.  Then they offer them for sale, usually far below book value.  The cars often have salvage titles, which tell buyers the cars are reconstructed, but buyers look at the cars and tell themselves all is well, because they look so good.  Wrong!  A saltwater flood car will never stop presenting problems; it was written off originally for a very good reason.

A true repair of a saltwater flood car would consist of new wiring and control units, dried out or new upholstery, and completely overhauled or new drivetrain and running gear.   The cost of that work will far exceed the value of any ordinary car.

The take-away from all this:  Be very careful if you’re in the market for a used car in the next six months.  Steer clear of anything with a salvage title, no matter how god it looks.  If a car has a clear title, look at where it’s from. If it lived in an area impacted by Sandy – be very careful. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Storing newer collector cars for winter

If you live in snow country you know convertible and sports car season is coming to an end.  Soon it will be time to put our pets away till next year.  In this article I’d like to offer some pointers for storing late model collector cars.

Start by filling your car with fuel and pouring in the correct amount of fuel stabilizer.  I suggest Sta-Bil brand but alternatives are available.  A full gas tank minimizes the chance of condensation which happens when water vapor from the air condenses on the inside of the gas tank as temps drop in the evening.  If this happens every day in a car that’s in storage you can accumulate a great deal of water in the fuel.  Filling the tank to the top will prevent it.

I also suggest pouring in a bottle of octane booster as the fuel will lose octane rating the longer it is stored.

Note:  cars built after the 1990s have sealed fuel tanks which should not allow free circulation of vapors.  For these cars filling the tank is less important and indeed you may want to keep their fuel level low so you can fill with fresh gas in the spring.

Run the car at least 30 minutes to get it thoroughly warmed up; an hour’s hard run is better.   You want to make sure you have boiled any stray moisture out of the engine and exhaust system before shutting the car off for the season.

You want to store the car with reasonably clean oil; some suggest changing oil right before winter storage while others argue for changing the oil first thing in the spring.  In my opinion, the oil in your collector car should always be fairly clean so that no special attention is required for storage.  As a practical matter, I can say with confidence that cars often go into the shop to be "checked over for spring" where shop visits to "prep for winter" are fairly uncommon.

If you don't know the age of your coolant I suggest you either change it (most cars should get fresh coolant at 2-5 years intervals) or at least tests its ph to make sure it has not become corrosive.

The next step is washing your car, and vacuuming and cleaning the interior and trunk.  Spots that wash off easily now may not be so removable if left till next spring!  If your car is going to be stored in an area where mice may invade I suggest putting mothballs or some other repellant in the car to improve the chances that they won’t move in.

Check all your fluids and top them off right to the full lines before parking the car.  Make sure the antifreeze protection is good and the windshield washer system has solvent, not water, so that it does not freeze.

Spray all the door seals and the trunk seal with silicone spray before putting the car away.  Oil the hood, door, and trunk hinges, too.  If there are throttle linkage pieces on the engine I’d hit them with oil, and I’d also oil any moving pivots (like the parking brake linkage) under the car.

Before parking your car I suggest inflating your tires to the maximum pressures as shown on the tire sidewall.  This will minimize the tendency of your tires to develop flat spots as they sit.

Switch off the radio, heat, air conditioner and all other accessories before you shut the car off.  The will minimize the electrical load and transients when you reconnect power next spring.  It’s your best way to prevent electrical failures.

Drive your car into the spot where it will be stored.  Close the windows, and shut off the engine and remove the key.  If your car was made before the airbag and electronic engine management era you can go ahead and disconnect the battery.  If you have a newer car – wait a minute!   Newer cars often need as much as twenty minutes for their computers to store data and shift to low power mode.  If you disconnect the battery before that process is complete you can set fault codes that will require a trip to the shop to correct next year.

In the worst case, disconnecting the battery can even cause major electronic systems to fail.  Land Rover – for example – has a problem with this on their 2000-2005 Range Rovers.  Disconnecting the battery too quickly can send the navigation computer to never-never land where the only cure is a new $1,000+ unit.  Be patient and avoid problems.

If you are disconnecting the battery I certainly suggest you take the keys out of the vehicle.  The reason – when you connect the battery in the spring there is always a chance the central locking system will power up and lock the vehicle.  If that happens and the keys are inside, you’re stuck!

Modern batteries lose about 10% of their charge every month while sitting.  If you park the car at the beginning of November a good battery will still have enough juice to start the car in March.  Connecting a trickle charger will keep it at 100% buy you’ll need access to an electrical outlet.

The best way to protect your tires is to put wood blocks under the suspension at all four corners, lifting the car’s wheels slightly off the ground.  That will ensure the tires are round next season.

Do not set the parking brake.  Leaving the parking brake under tension all winter may well result in a brake that won’t release next spring. 

If you have a convertible you should usually store the car with the top up to prevent shrinkage.  Once it's closed don't open it until you have a warm day to heat the canvas unless you are in a heated space in which case that does not matter.  Every year we see plastic rear windows that split when opened on a cold day.

Some people prefer car covers; others leave their pets uncovered.  There’s one school of thought that says pulling the cover off and on will scratch the car and another that says the protection is invaluable.  If you want to get a cover and the car is indoors I recommend the heavy flannel.  If it’s outdoors Technalon is the ticket.

These tips will maximize your chances of an uneventful winter of storage.  I wish you the best of luck with executing the plan.  And remember to keep your insurance in force.  If there’s a water leak in the garage, or mice eat holes in the seats . . . those things are covered by comprehensive insurance in most states.  The times you are not driving the car may well be the times you need insurance most.

John E Robison

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

Monday, October 1, 2012

When speakers stop speaking

Is the radio in your vintage car sounding tinny, scratchy, or generally awful?  If the vehicle is all original, and it’s more than 10 years old, there’s a good chance your speakers are shot.

Even if the car is hardly driven at all speaker cones are prone to dry out and fail.  The part that fails is generally the surround, which is the bit that connects the main body of the cone to the frame.

Take a look at these two photos and see the difference – one shows a good surround, while the other shows a surround that has fallen to pieces.  In this speaker the surround was made of foam, and the foam turned to dust and vanished.  When the speaker is played it will sound terribly scratchy because the voice coil (hidden under the cone) is scraping the frame.  If left unrepaired the coil may short out, and damage the radio electronics.

Interestingly, the speakers most prone to failure are those made with foam surrounds in the 1980s and 1990s.  Older speakers had rubberized cardboard surrounds, or simple paper, and they fare batter with time. 

And time isn’t the only thing that kills speakers – volume will do them in, too.  When you play the radio loud the speaker cones are pushed in and out greater distances, which stresses the cones and surrounds and will eventually lead to failure.

Speaker technology has improved quite a bit in the past decade, which means the speakers you can buy today are far better than what was in the older cars.  For that reason we tend to turn to suppliers like Crutchfield rather than buy oem from the carmaker.

If you are changing speakers in a 1970s car (or something older) you may find there’s only one wire to the speaker.  In those installations the other terminal on the speaker is connected to ground.  When wiring the speakers you’ll see the terminals marked in red, or with a + sign.  Ground the black or – terminal.

The polarity of speakers is important whenever there is more than one installed in a system.  When they are the same, they are said to be in phase, and they reinforce each other   When they are backwards they tend to cancel each other out.  Out of phase systems tend to sound tinny and faint.

Look at the speakers you are replacing and make sure the polarity is the same when you connect the wires to the new ones.