Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Rolls Royce and The Pittsburgh Vintage Gran Prix

Last weekend my wife Maripat and I had the privilege of visiting the Pittsburgh Vintage Gran Prix as a guest of the Allegheny Region of the RROC.  It was the first time I’d done a car-related workshop in that part of the country and I was honored by their invitation.  Thanks to RROC member Dan Heit who set things up and everyone who worked to make the events of the weekend a success.

We began with a reception at the home of Sandi and Bernie Pinsker.  There were at least a dozen Rolls Royce and Bentley motorcars - and a somewhat larger number of owners – in attendance.  I was surprised and pleased to see several familiar faces and cars, 400-some miles from our home. 

I was also happy to see Dr. Nancy Minshew from the University of Pittsburgh Autism Center of Excellence.  However, I should not have been surprised because the Gran Prix is run as a fundraiser for the Allegheny Valley School and the Pittsburgh chapter of the Autism Society of America.

Being an autistic person myself, I never know what to say in those situations.  I also have trouble with “noise clutter” at gatherings like that. Consequently, my wife and I retreated to the front porch, where we admired the cars and talked to anyone who ventured outside.

As darkness fell we trooped over to the Green Oaks Country Club in nearby Verona for dinner and conversation.  I spoke of my experience growing up, learning about Rolls Royce motorcars, and answered questions from the audience.  It was an interesting night for sure.  Autism disabled me as a child, but it gave me a powerful ability to focus, and an unusual insight into machines.  I believe that is one of the main reasons I have been successful caring for these cars.  I don’t think I’d be an RROC tech consultant without that!  Anyway, I hope the club members in attendance enjoyed my stories.

The following day we joined 400 other vehicles for British Car Day in Schenley Park as the vintage racers ran qualifying laps around our field.  I held an impromptu tech session as we looked over member cars and discussed possible service issues.

I saw a few problems that were common to many of the cars, and I’ll share them here just in case you recognize one or two on your own PMC . . .

Several folks with early fuel injected cars complained of rough idling.  I offered a few suggestions for that.  First – make sure the plugs, wires, cap and rotor are good.  If the engine is still rough, take a wrench and crack the fuel lines at the fuel distributor one at a time.  When you loosen a line you should hear the engine stagger and you should see fuel wetness around the fitting.  Are there any cylinders that don’t respond the same?  If so, swap those injectors and try again.  If there’s no change you probably have low speed clogging in the fuel distributor.

Another cause of rough idle is vacuum leakage. I suggested using a smoke machine (any emission shop should have one) to look for leaks.

Finally, I advised looking at the distributor.  Remove the cap and twist the rotor. Does it turn a few degrees and snap back to position?  If not, there may be a problem in the advance.  Shake the center shaft.  Is it loose?  That will give a rough idle, for sure.

Then I had the question on the BRAKE PRESSURE lamps.  How do you know when they are bad?  Start the car, run it 5 minutes, and shut it off.  Turn the key on, but don’t start the car.  Pump the brakes.  How many pumps do you get before the lights come on?  In my opinion, any number under 20 is marginal.  If you have less brake energy storage than that, and you stall the motor on a hill, you are in big trouble.  You are going to crash.  Three of the cars in the show held ten pumps or less – too little for safety in my opinion.  Change your accumulators – they are cheap, especially when compared to accident repair.

Next we looked at hard ride and bouncy cars.  The most common cause of this is worn out gas springs in the rear suspension.  These “springs” are really balls filled with nitrogen gas behind a Mylar diaphragm.  They are very similar to the brake accumulators, checked in the previous paragraphs.

When you hit a bump, oil flows out of the shock, down a line, and into the gas springs where it compresses the nitrogen gas.  Hence the name “gas spring”  When the springs age nitrogen diffuses through the barrier and into the hydraulic oil where it is lost.  Once the nitrogen is gone there is nothing to compress, and the car rides like it has square wheels.

These nitrogen filled spheres lose their charge as they sit. Driving or storing the car makes little difference.  Expect a 4-6 year service life in most cases. If yours are getting to that age, I suggest taking action now.  Driving on weak brake accumulators is dangerous, and driving on weak gas springs can blow your rear shocks – and that can be a $3,000 problem on some of our cars.

The next thing I will mention is cracked hoses.  I saw many examples of fuel and coolant hoses that had visible dry rot cracking.  Change those hoses right away!  That cracking is the one clue you will get that they need to be changed.  Blow a hose and spray fuel or coolant onto a hot exhaust manifold, and you will lost the car to fire.

And that takes me to my last point.  Fewer than half the cars I looked at had fire extinguishers on board.  You know something?  A fire extinguisher is like a shotgun.  You don’t need it very often, but when you do, there is no substitute.   I strongly suggest every collector car be fitted with a good side unit in the trunk where you can get to it fast.  The best models for collector cars are the CO2 units in the 15lb size range.  Those will knock down engine fires with little to no damage.

The race itself was great, but it's going to have to be the subject of my next posting. Meanwhile, look on my Facebook page for shots of the vintage road action, and stay tuned for my next story.

Best wishes
John Elder Robison

John is the General Manager of J E Robison Service Company of Springfield, Massachusetts.  Robison Service is an independent RR/B service shop that specializes in restoration and major repair of postwar motorcars.  Find them online at

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Land Rover Defender restorations at Robison Service

As we near the end of another extensive Defender restoration, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on what makes a quality restoration, and what it takes to achieve that result.

Looking at the photo of the near-finished truck, it does not look very different from any other new Defender.  Except that this Defender is 19 years old!  And the fact is, with the work we did, it would not matter if the Land Rover we started with was 20, 30, or 40 years old.  The end result would look essentially the same, with the exception of period details.

You can go to any car show and see beautiful paint jobs.  But a paint job does not make a restoration.   Sometimes, all it makes is a mess.

When you paint a modern car, you are repairing damage on a vehicle that’s basically complete and serviceable.  So you can paint a scratch or repair a dent, blend the repair to the existing paint, and you’re fine. 

You can’t do that on an older vehicle like this.  In most cases, vehicles that are 20 years old have started to corrode on the seals and joints.  That’s usually where corrosion begins – there, and the places water is trapped under or inside.

A true restoration won’t hide corrosion.  It will remove it.  And a good restorer will take steps to reduce the chances of corrosion happening again, to the extent possible.

A proper restoration usually requires disassembly of the body.  Not just stripping the paint off – but actual disassembly.  On a job like this, we begin by taking the vehicle apart. We take photos every step of the way, and bag and tag the fasteners and hardware as we go.  Even when we use new hardware – often the case – having the original stuff tells us what sizes we need.

On a Defender we lift the body off the frame, and dismantle each section.  In this photo you can see the rolling chassis – rusted framing and all – in the process of teardown.  

A little while later, we begin the process of assembly – in this case, with a new galvanized frame.  We can use the old frames over – we can even galvanize them – but they are often weakened and building them back up will cost more than a brand new part.  Since the look is the same, we usually go new for this core component on 1990s trucks.  With an older vehicle we may go either way but a restored original frame will almost always end up costing a good bit more and that’s always a consideration.

As soon as the vehicle is apart we begin the process of stripping and overhauling the components.  This is a more extensive process than what we do when a vehicle comes in for component overhaul in our service department.  The difference:  In a restoration, we take everything apart, have the metal tank cleaned and blasted, and then we re-plate or powder coat every part before it goes back on.  The result is a subassembly that’s finished far better than it ever was new, and will hopefully outlast the original version as well.

The body sections are also broken into their component parts, and depending on the job, are liquid painted or powder painted after being cleaned up and repaired as needed.  On this truck we saved almost all the exterior sheet metal, though a good bit of repair was needed on some sections.

Disassembly and paint removal often reveals corrosion you never knew was there!

When the vehicle goes back together we replace or rebuild just about everything we handle under the car.  In many cases, we install upgraded or improved parts.  You can’t see this work unless you look close, but this kind of detail separates a paint job and cleanup from a true restoration.

Many of the parts we plate or powder coat were bare metal when these vehicles left the factory.  That may have been fine a few decades ago, but we cannot let them continue to corrode – in 20 more years there would be nothing left, and no replacement parts to be had.

Here are some examples, all of which are visible in the images of this truck
  • -       We replace the steel fuel lines with stainless
  • -       Rubber brake hoses are swapped for performance braid hoses
  • -       All bushings and joints are new, as are springs and shocks
  • -       Brakes are totally rebuilt with all wear items replaced
  • -       Exhaust is new, and assembled with non-corroding copper fasteners
  • -       Extensive use of stainless hardware to reduce corrosion on the body
  • -       Everything under the car is finished with the same care as the top

We often make subtle improvements.  For example, this vehicle has a custom Badger top.  You can buy cheaper tops from a catalog, but I have never seen a better piece of work than what we get from The Badger.  He’s slow and he’s finicky but if you want the best . . .

This Defender also has the Exmoor premium seating, which looks fairly original but is light-years better than what was supplied in this truck new.

The wheels are another area of change.  In America, these trucks came with allow wheels and BF Goodrich general purpose tires.  For this fellow’s use we installed military Michelin XZL tires on NATO steel wheels – which were also powder coated.  They are very different from original, but they are what armies use on these rigs all over the world, for good reason.

It’s no surprise that we installed a better stereo.  For a beach truck “better” means water resistant.  For that, we turn to marine radio and speaker components.  The original Rover stereo would be ruined in the first rain shower.  This system will shrug that off, and it has Bluetooth, ipod control, and a host of other features.

We’ve also swapped the non-secure wood console for a lockable steel Tuffy Box.  The vehicle is open all the time, and some secure storage is needed, even on a small island. 

A job like this will eat up at least 1,000 hours and require the skills of a number of different craftsmen.  This particular truck employed:
-       general Land Rover mechanics
-       two body men
-       a painter (liquid)
-       a powder coat specialist
-       several metal platers
-       a fabricator/welder
-       several upholstery men
-       a good detailer
-       a stereo/electronics installer

The list goes on . . . this kind of project is far from a one-man task.

We’ll be sending this truck to its summer home in a few more days.  Stay tuned for the finish photos and description . . .