Tuesday, September 24, 2013

When Ethanol Attacks Your Fuel System

What do you do when your car pours gasoline on the ground?  Do you run, light a match, or call your mechanic?  That is the question for today’s service insight.

Ethanol has snuck into automotive fuel systems over the past 20 years, with some states blending more than 10% into the gas you buy.  They say it’s an invisible change, and that may be true, but it’s not without consequence for your vintage car.

Newer cars (those made in the past 10 years) are designed to use 10-20% ethanol without damage.  Older cars are not so tolerant.  Ethanol can react with the rubbers used in hoses and seals, and cause them to crumble.  When that happens you have leaks, or worse.

Here is an example – a 1996 Bentley Turbo.  This car would be fuel-tight most of the time.  But every now and then – usually when it was cold – the car would gush fuel at a frightening rate.  As you can see, the engine bay in this car is jam-packed, and you can’t see the fuel line connections.  But they are in there.

A day of disassembly revealed the culprit – crumbled o rings on the lines that carry fuel into the injector rails.  There are four of these seals on this engine, and they all looked like this.

What about the other seals?  Carmakers buy their parts from a multitude of vendors.  In this case Rolls Royce Motors bought the fuel injectors from Bosch, and the fuel hoses from a supplier in the UK.  The Bosch injectors (Bosch being a more forward looking company) were supplied with o-rings rated to withstand 20% ethanol for 20 years, and they are fine.

The fuel pipe seals have no rating at all, or none we can find, and they failed.

Are there other lines and seals that can go bad in this car?  Maybe.  It’s hard to know.  The ethanol attacks hoses and rings from inside, so we won’t see the problem until it becomes a blowout.   Knowing that. I think I’d replace the fuel hoses on the car with new ethanol-rated line.

That brings up another problem.  Many of the service parts for vintage cars are new-old-stock, meaning they were made years ago and stored.  If those new/old lines are not made from ethanol resistant hose they are no better than what’s on the car now.  You may have to have new hose fabricated from modern ethanol rated line stock to solve the problem properly.

This is a significant safety hazard that every old car enthusiast should know about.  

Some people ask if there are ethanol-free fuels.  Aviation fuel is ethanol free, as is racing gas.  However both are costly and neither are legal for road use.  More importantly, if ethanol is the standard gas in your area, you would be wise to manage your car as if ethanol is going in the tank regularly.  Be prepared, because that's smarter than being broken.  Or being burnt.

John Elder Robison is a NY Times bestselling author and the founder of J E Robsion Service of Springfield, MA.  Robison Service is a long established Bosch car service specialist, with expertise in BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes, Porsche, and Rolls Royce/Bentley motorcars. Find them online atwww.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Monday, September 23, 2013

British Invasion 2013

The engine started ticking and popping as soon as he shut off the ignition.  He looked up to see the police car with its blue lights flashing in his rearview mirror.  The cop car’s door swung open.  A lawman emerged, a solid three hundred pounds of Vermont’s finest.  He straightened up carefully, then reached into the cruiser, and set a felt hat carefully on his head. When he turned this way his Ray-Ban sunglasses glittered dark under the overcast sky.

He approached the Jaguar.

“I been waitin’ for you,” he said, looking down at the out of state sticker.

“I know.  You see I was comin’ here as fast as I could.”

Back at the British Invasion the Master of Ceremonies had said, “Drive far, and drive fast,” but he wasn’t here now, to pay the ticket.  It was a good thing the guns and the liquor were safely out of sight, and the car was basically legal.  

Three hundred seventy two dollars.  The cop didn't want to take cash, either.  "You gotta pay it at the court."  Sometimes a few hundred more dollars changed their mind, and it was a good deal, to keep the record clean.  Other times they figured to arrest you for a bribe, and things got bad.  It's always dicey, figuring which way to go in a situation like that.  Andrew says it's easier in Russia or Mexico, where you always know where you stand.

“You coulda gone to jail,” he said, “but I gave you a break because you was coming to see me, after all.”

Five miles later, the speedometer was back on the far side of 100.  New Yorkers used to be able to speed right at home, but the cops down there got airplanes, and cameras.  Vermont is like the last frontier, for now.

British Invasion 23 happened the weekend of September 21 in Stowe, Vermont.  Six hundred fifty British motorcars and a thousand-plus owners converged on the Stoweflake Resort, two miles out of town on Route 108.  The public gates opened at nine, and they flooded in too, a tide of seething humanity, shouting and jostling as they waited for the Blood Sport to begin.  They didn't have to wait long.

Land Rover Polo is always popular, and they play the six-truck style up there.  Spikes and battering rams were outlawed years ago at Vermont state fair, but the Invasion still allows them.  It’s the British version of Demolition Derby.  Much more genteel, yet satisfyingly brutal.  Then there is the jousting, and the halberd competition.  I like that the best.

The only hard part is trying to sleep.  The revelry goes on late into the night, with the sounds of metal on metal ringing in the chill air as modern-day knights in armor fight with swords, axes, and spears.  The occasional siren breaks up the rhythm for the ones that go to the hospital, or jail.  Amazingly, the cars themselves are untouched the next morning.   Nothing but a little blood spatter, to wipe off with the dew.  Cars are sacred here.

And some of the best action of the show happens at night.  Bobby Stuart from the Jensen Club set up an impromptu drag race on a deserted stretch of Mountain Road, and they whupped the Aston Martin cretins hard.  There was no sign of the fun the next day - a flatbed hauled the wreckage to Canada before dawn - but two guys in a red Interceptor were boasting of their victory to anyone who would listen, next day on the show field.

The real high point of the night was when the MG club outlaws raced through Smuggler's Notch at 2AM.  They close the road up there this time of year but proper British car enthusiasts always have bolt cutters in their ever-present tool bags, and some have torches. Those little cars went through the hairpins faster than I'd have thought possible, and most of them made it out alive.

As all that unfolded, the Land Rover guys were replicating Gleason's famous night time crossing of Siberia up on the Mansfield ski slopes.  They'd tried to rent daytime access to the mountain, and been rebuffed, but a night raid was more fun anyway.  The mountain maintenance crews are probably still cleaning up the mess.  

It was two and a half days of gasoline-fueled debauchery.  There was something for everyone.  Solid Land Rover diesels.  Bangers and mash.  Elegant prewar Jaguars.  Drunkards with flagons of stout.  Rare Aston Martins.  Vicious Manchester United fans.  Whatever you wanted, as long as it was British, was there for the finding.

Whether you could do anything with it when you found it . . . now, that was another matter.  It was only seven o’clock, but already the bartender was out of ale.  “Ten casks,” he said, looking with wonder at the singing and carousing patrons. Two supine revelers blocked the road back to the hotel.  I stepped out of the car and dragged them out of the roadway.  Better that, than to leave them to be run over by the next sods, who might not be so considerate.

The next morning I heard one woke up, and the other was eaten by animals.  Bertrand says he heard him screaming, but I couldn't tell . . . the yelling all runs together after midnight.

Our Jaguars didn’t win any prizes this year, but they didn’t sustain any damage either, and sometimes that is prize enough.  But you never know.  I have no idea where the six thousand dollars in my glove box came from.  All I can say for sure is, it’s not there now.  Any car show where you return home a few grand richer is a good one, I say!

We made it home on Sunday.  Here are a few pictures of the spectacle . . . .

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Evaluating Paint When Buying Cars Online

Just yesterday one of our clients called about a 2012 Range Rover in Atlanta.  “It’s got a clean Carfax,” he said, but we both knew that wasn’t enough to make a decision on a 75k-plus automobile.

“Ask the dealer for paint gauge readings,” I suggested.  In this essay I’m going to explain what that means, show you some readings, and help you understand how they are interpreted.

One of the questions any professional appraisers asks is, “Does this car have any paint work?”  When I worked as a used car buyer (in the 1980s and 90s) we could spot 99% of repaired paint with our eyes.  Today, computerized paint matching and improved techniques and materials have made repairs much harder to see.  But paintwork and originality is just as important now as ever.

We used to find paint repairs by careful examination.  We checked to see if all the panels were the same color, and if metallic textures matched.  We looked for masking lines round door handles and lamp fixtures, where those areas were taped over in a repair.  We looked for overspray under door edges and in hard to reach spots.

Good as that was, the Elcometer company revolutionized the industry when they offered us an electronic meter that measured the thickness of the paint in a matter of seconds, by simply touching the gauge to the side of the car.

These gauges burst on the scene about 1994.  Within two years of release it seemed like every body shop manager, and every appraiser worth his salt had one. They are ubiquitous today.

This is an example of a current product:

The paint gauge is a tool any used car professional should own – especially those of us who work with high value cars.  A walk round the car with a gauge will tell us things that simple visual inspection simply won’t reveal. 

Here’s an example on a Ferrari:

This corner has 14.4 thousandths of paint - certainly a repaint, maybe a repair

6 thousandths of paint - possibly original, certainly one less coat than the corner

The right rear corner shows 14.4 thousandths of paint, while the quarter panel two feet away has just 6 thousandths.  That’s a sure sign of repair in the right rear, whether we can see it or not.

Paint on a modern production car is applied by robotics and is highly consistent all over the vehicle.  A car will leave the factory with 4 to 7 thousandths of paint, and the coating will not generally vary by plus or minus a thousandth wherever you look.  When we read the side of a new Range Rover we see 6, 6.4, 6.4, and 6 as we walk from rear corner to rear door to front door to front fender.  That consistent paint thickness is a strong indication that side of the car is original and untouched.  A reading of 9 or12 in the corner would indicate a repair of some kind.

Robotically applied paint will be highly consistent all over the car

Variation from roof to side is under .001 on this original  late model Lexus

Collector cars are often painted by hand, and you will see more variability there.  The paint is also often thicker.  A 1990s Rolls Royce might have 8-12 thousandths even when new, and it could have 4 thousandths variation right out of the factory. 

So you have to interpret the readings in context.  Modern production car = highly consistent readings.  Custom car = variable readings.  Markedly thicker paint on one panel usually indicates rework or repair. 

Paint readings below 4 thousandths indicate paint that was either applied too thin or has worn away to nothing.  That’s a less common issue but you do see it.  Here’s a shot of an antique car with worn out paint.

Three thousandths - you can almost see through the paint!  Worn finish on a 1940s Willys

So what’s the takeaway here?  If you are buying an expensive car online, and you are talking to a dealer as opposed to an owner – ask the seller to send you photos of the paint gauge on all four corners, and in the center of every major panel.   Make a map in your mind, and consider what the results tell you.

In my opinion, if someone is selling a $50k or more car, they should be ready and willing to do this.  Frankly, I'd expect it for any car.  When I used to buy cars for big dealerships I'd be asked for numbers on $10,000 rigs.  It's a reasonable and ordinary request of any used car professional.

Internet photos can make any paint look great.   The Elcometer readings reveal valuable truths that pictures don’t show.

John Elder Robison is a NY Times bestselling author and the founder of J E Robsion Service of Springfield, MA.  Robison Service is a long established Bosch car service specialist, with expertise in BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes, Porsche, and Rolls Royce/Bentley motorcars. Find them online atwww.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Coming Soon - New standards for describing motor oil on invoices

Author's note:  This is an example of the sort of knowledge today's auto technician needs to possess.  I'm very proud to say we are training the technicians of tomorrow - right in the Robison Service Auto Complex - through the most extraordinary special ed high school - TCS Automotive Program  Read more about the program here   Check it out, next time you are in for service.


The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology has made some new recommendations for motor oil information on invoices. These uniform standards direct us to list SAE oil ratings, brand and weight on customer invoices.  Twenty states automatically adopted the standards, and we at Robison Service are going beyond the requirement effective immediately.

For years I have been writing and talking about the importance of correct oil.  Most of the car lines we work on require special synthetic oil formulations, and it seems like every one is different.   Yet most motorists remain totally oblivious to the different requirements and specifications.  What's worse is that many service professionals are not a whole lot more knowledgeable.  "Oil is oil," they say, but they are wrong.

Even saying “I want synthetic oil,” isn’t enough.  You must specify the right synthetic oil because it comes in dozens of grades for different cars and trucks. Choosing the wrong oil can be harmful – even fatal – to your engine.  We’ve see more than one motor destroyed by incorrect oil choice.

The new government standards became effective July 1, 2013, for states that approve, and are outlined in the Uniform Regulation for the Method of Sale of Commodities.  By requiring repair shops to spell out what they use, the hope is that they will use the correct stuff.  Will that happen?  I don't know, but it's a step in the right direction.

At Robison Service, we’ve always told clients the brand and type of oil we install.  For us, using the best possible lubricants has always been a source of pride.  In years past, our invoice for a Mercedes might have said, Mobil 1 0-40, 9 quarts.  Mobil 1 0-40 is the particular type of oil specified for many Mercedes cars and that description told consumers they were getting the right stuff for their Benz.

Now our invoice is a little more detailed.  Today that same line would read Mobil 1 ACEA A3/B3, A3/B4 API SN, SM, SL 0-40 synthetic oil MB229.3/229.5 VW 502 Porsche A40 BMW Longlife 01, 9 quarts.

The ACEA and API codes are the industry standard ratings for that particular oil.  The MB, BMW, VW and Porsche codes mean this oil was tested and approved by those manufacturers. Decoded, they tell you what cars Mobil 1 040 is right for.  We stock nine different blends of Mobil 1, each for a different application.  There are also a few cars that don’t use Mobil 1 – like the newest M-series BMW.  We have even more exotic oils in stock for them.

I use the word "exotic" because few oils meet the specifications of high end carmakers.  Walk the aisles of your local mass merchandiser.  Read the labels on the backs of the fifty-some different oils they should have in stock.  You will be lucky to find one single product that meets the Mercedes 229 spec, and you may not find any!  The same will be true for the VW or BMW requirements.   If you install an oil that does not meet specs for your car you are taking a big risk.

Every oil has its own unique description.  A BMW M3, a Mercedes E350 and a Range Rover all need synthetic oils, but the specific requirements for each car are different.  The result: we stock three different synthetics for those cars alone, one for each make and model.  And that's just motor oil for three sample vehicles - there is just as much variation in transmission fluid, coolant, and every other fluid in a modern automobile. A shop like ours has a lot of different fluids in stock!  

Oil technology is complex, and engines can be damaged when the wrong oil is used.  The requirement for a detailed description on the service bills allows motorists to look and see if the correct lubricant was used.

A 2003 Mercedes engine damaged by using the wrong oil
There are quite a few benefits to using the right fluids in a modern car.  The biggest benefit is that the use of correct oils and regular service can virtually eliminate wear.  Take a look at these two images, showing the same area on two engines; one had the wrong oil, and not enough changes.  The other one used the correct Mobil 1, changed every 7,500 miles from new.   As you can see, one motor is junk while the other looks as clean as the day it left the factory.

This 100,000 mile engine looks new, thanks to good service and the right oil

You will always get the right fluids at Robison Service, and with any luck, this change may encourage others to follow that lead.

John Elder Robison is a NY Times bestselling author and the founder of J E Robsion Service of Springfield, MA.  Robison Service is a long established Bosch car service specialist, with expertise in BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes, Porsche, and Rolls Royce/Bentley motorcars. Find them online atwww.robisonservice.com or in the real world at 413-785-1665