Thursday, August 20, 2015

We guarantee your car will be fixed right, on time, and within budget.

We guarantee your car will be fixed right, on time, and on budget

That is a common statement in the auto repair world.  It sounds great, but how realistic is it? Auto repair is one of the top sources of consumer complaint, with most complaints being repairs that are not right, not on time, not on budget, or some combination of the three.  Which is off base - the repairs or the expectations?

In my opinion, the requirements to complete a job can only be known once the car has been dismantled enough to fully understand what’s needed and how much time and material will ben required. The hard truth is, we are in the business of repairing things, and just as in repairing people, there can always be surprises and complications.  

Motorists often misunderstand what service professionals can know. For example, we look at a car with worn tires and we say, new tires are $xxx.  It seems simple to price out tires, mounting, and balancing.  But what if the tires are dismounted and one of the rims turns out to be cracked?

Suddenly we have a $500 complication – a new rim is needed.  We can’t put the broken rim back on the car because it’s unsafe, and the motorist is left with no choice but to buy a new rim.

Most shops would have quoted a set of tires without any teardown at all.  And they would be very likely to have a customer relations problem when the broken rim was discovered.  This is not a common occurrence – 99% of tire repairs proceed smoothly.  But it can and does happen.

The question is, what can mechanics do about it?  In my opinion we start by setting the correct expectation.  We tell people that tires are $xxx, but there could be surprises.  The rim is one example; as cars get more complex the service complications become more numerous and more common.

You don’t get a promised cure at a guaranteed price at the doctor’s office.  You may pay x dollars for a certain treatment, but there's no guarantee that's all you need to be cured. You may need a lot more. You may be incurable. Why is car repair different?  It’s not, but people mistakenly assume it is. To a large extent that’s because mechanics set unattainable expectations and then they allow themselves to be painted in an unfavorable light for not living up to an impossible standard.

The way we correct that is by being clear what we can control in the offered service, and what we can’t.  Tires are a commodity; we can quote the price for different brands.  Mounting is a standard service too; we can quote time to mount tires on the rims we see.  Most of the time, that’s all that’s involved in a basic tire job. But when we give the motorist those figures we have a duty to inform them of the possible complications.  Some will say, what’s the worst case?  That’s impossible to answer most of the time.  In medicine the worst case is, you die.  In car repair the worst case is, you need a new car.

99.9% of the time those dire complications never come to pass.  But people get old and die, and so do cars.  Treatment and service outcomes will not always be good.  The best we can do as service managers is to disclose what we can, and paint a realistic picture.

Doesn’t the customer always have the last word?  That can be a misconception.  Take the example of the broken wheel rim.  Once discovered, we cannot undo the discovery, nor can we always retrace the steps to get there.  The customer may say “put it back like it was” but sometimes we can’t. The forces to mount and dismount the tire may turn a cracked rim into a cleanly broken one.  There may be no path but forward, and the only choice the motorist has is to buy a new or used wheel rim.  Using the rim he arrived with may simply not be an option.

We may take one thing apart for repair, only to see another broken thing beside it.  If that broken thing is a possible safety hazard, we place ourselves at risk if we do not fix it, so the customer in that case does not have the ability to decline a repair that would compromise safety. They can of course halt the whole job and tow the car away, but that does not do them much good.  The newly discovered safety hazard becomes part of the current repair cost, no matter who does it.

The only options then are abandoning the car, fixing it now, or fixing it later.  At one time cars were simple, and “fix it myself” was an option for many owners but with today’s need for dedicated test computers and special tools it’s a rare owner who has that option.

Here’s the hard truth:  Taking a car apart to evaluate damage may render it inoperative until fixed. Hospitals warn patients in advance when they undertake risky procedures.  Those of us in the auto service business have a responsibility to do the same.

Another common situation is the multi step repair.  Here’s an example:  A car comes in with an inoperative oxygen sensor, and the check engine light is on.  We see the failed sensor and replace it.  A week later the light is on again.  This time the newly repaired oxygen sensor is sniffing an out of range condition, and we repair that next.   It was not possible to see repair #2 without the prior completion of repair #1.  Whenever we repair engine lights we always warn motorists that more than one round may be needed because there are a thousand things that can illuminate that simple light, and they may reveal themselves one by one.

If this sounds complex, costly, and scary, I agree!  Yet it is the world we live in.  Some motorists would accuse me of making excuses in this essay, to which I would ask: Do you say that to your doctor?  Medical treatment and car repair are the two services most of us buy with some regularity.  Medicine is notoriously unpredictable in its outcomes, and costs have skyrocketed in recent years.  Car repair costs have risen too, but to a much lesser degree, and I submit that our outcomes are often more predictable. The fact is, service is more complex than most people know, and the best we can do is predict what will happen "most of the time."  

I've explained this to people, only to have them say, "A good mechanic won't have those problems.  It's the incompetent people that are the problem!"  Competence is a big issue in the auto repair field, and in the absence of standards and certification, a qualified tech is hard to find.  But the thing is, the most competent mechanic in the world still can't see inside your car without taking it apart.  None of us have x-ray vision.  Surprises and complications happen to the best of us.  To say otherwise is to deny reality.

From the shop’s perspective, our duty is to keep our training up to date and make sure we have the latest tools for the jobs we undertake.  We need to use our best abilities to diagnose vehicles, and report our findings promptly and clearly.  We need to be at the top of our game, and do our level best to get good outcomes.  At the same time, we have to be clear to our clients with respect to what may go wrong and why, and what we can do.

That is particularly true for a shop like ours, where we specialize in difficult jobs, and may of the cars we work on are referrals from other shops.  The "easy fixes" have already been tried, without success.   How does one estimate what it will take to go forward to the end?  Many times, we can't.  We can only price each step as we take it.

Often we take step 1 without even knowing what step 3 might be, or if there will be a step 4 or 5.  We have to be flexible and figure a path as we go.  Medicine and other complex diagnostic processes work in a similar manner.  You do a test, and that leads to another test, and a treatment, and eventually - you hope - to a fix or cure.

Cars are complex and service is specialized.  Not every mechanic can fix every car.  In a big shop like hours there are techs who specialize in certain brands (like BMW,) and others who specialize in certain procedures (like convertible tops.)  Knowing what we know, and what we don’t, is always a challenge and an exercise in humility.

(c) 2015 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Rolls-Royce, Land Rover, BMW, Jaguar, and Mercedes restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the cr clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine machines.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Things To Look for - Land Rover Range Rover Sport

Original 2006 Range Rover Sport  (C) JE Robison Service
2011 Range Rover Sport HSE (C) JE Robison Service

From its introduction in 2006, the Range Rover Sport went on to become Land Rover's most successful model in the United States.  It was the best driving and most reliable product from that company, and they've held up well with the passage of time.  With the introduction of a new body style in 2014 these original models have dropped in price, to the point where really nice examples are available for $25k (2017 prices)

As a used car a well maintained 2006-2013 Sport is probably the most reliable Land Rover you can get.  That said, it is not problem free.  Poor maintenance is always a concern, and a high percentage of these vehicles were leased when new.  In my experience, leased vehicles are less likely to receive proper care than privately owned vehicles.  They tend to get somewhat less than the manufacturer service schedule calls for.  Trucks that are above 50,000 miles with marginal care are much more at risk for major failures or premature demise.

Sports come in two versions - standard (with HSE trim option) and supercharged (higher level trim standard.)  Reliability of the two versions is about the same but maintenance costs for the Supercharged trucks are higher.  Brakes are double the cost of standard.  Tires (20 inch in most cases) are quite a bit more.  And the Supercharged trucks can burn through brakes, tires, and fuel faster.

That said, if you drive a standard and a supercharged truck identically, they will return about the same fuel economy.  2006-2009 trucks have the original Jaguar/Land Rover DOHC V8; 2010 and newer trucks have the upgraded engine with significantly more power.  The exterior,  dashboards, and interiors were facelifted for 2010 also.

The 2006-2009 trucks are virtually identical, as are the 2010-2012 models.  

Original Range Rover Sport interior (C) JE Robison Service
Facelifted 2011 Range Rover Sport interior (C) JE Robison Service

The 2010 and newer vehicles have an enlarged engine with Bosch gasoline direct injection.  The GDI system was problematic in some other car lines (like BMW) but the Land Rover implementation has been pretty reliable.  The biggest engine risk in these trucks has been from oil service.  Land Rover stretched the oil change intervals on these vehicles to 10 and then 15 thousand miles, while requiring a costly Land Rover branded Castrol synthetic oil.  The engines were not forgiving of either exceeding the oil change limits or substituting a lower grade oil.  In addition, city driving could make the oil break down before its time.  All those things lead to expensive engine damage and they make good service history vital.

Most late model Sports will be dealer serviced, and you should always look for a car with service records.  There’s no easy way to check service status otherwise.  Gaining access to a spark plug to evaluate freshness used to be a 2 minute job on the first Range Rover.  Now it’s an hour-plus task. The transmission fluid can’t be checked with a dipstick on these trucks.  To service it, you replace the integral pan/filter and fill with fresh fluid from below. 

If you buy a truck with 50k on the clock, and there is no record of recent undercar fluid services I would advise doing them all right away just to be safe.  Newer Range Rovers require special synthetic oil, and we urge you to follow their recommendation with respect to oil and grade.  The late model trucks have gone to an extended oil change interval and we’re not so comfortable with that.  We recommend a more conservative 7,500 miles as an oil change interval and synthetic oil in all years of Sport.  For older Sports we use Mobil 1 0-40.  Newer Sports use the Land Rover specific Castrol oil.

We also recommend changing the front and rear differential lubes, and the transfer case lube.  Land Rover fluid is used in all three.  We suggest a change interval of 4 years or 60k miles.

If the vehicle has been driven in the city don’t be surprised if brake pads and rotors are worn out at 25,000 miles.  That is common.  Tires are often worn out at about that mileage too, though some of the replacements (Michelin for example) have proven longer-lived.

All of these trucks have air suspension, which is generally reliable.  Compressors tend to wear out near 100k miles and they make a $1,200 repair more or less (2015 $)  Struts can develop leaks and that will wear the compressors out faster.  Sensors are valves are generally rugged.

Pay attention to any warning lights or messages.

Other things to look at:
  •  We suggest a scan of all computer systems with a factory-level test system.   These vehicles have many computers (like climate control and security) that do not talk to generic OBD scanners, and they may alert you to significant issues.
  •  Have your nearest dealer check the VIN for open recalls and warranty status.  Checking for open recalls is a no-brainer but warranty status is not so obvious.  If a car is flooded it may not have a salvage title, but Land Rover will have been notified if insurance was involved and they will void the warranty.  A voided warranty status and a good title would be a “run-don’t-walk” flag for me in an inspection.
  •  Tire pressure monitor sensors have a service life of about 8 years, so you should expect to be replacing them soon or now on older trucks.
  •  Alternator failure is common, especially when batteries are allowed to age and overstress the system
  •  Check the cooling system for leaks, level, and correct fluid (orange in color.)  Water pumps and expansion tanks are two common leak areas.  Non-original fluid is a red flag.
  •  Front and rear wheel bearings are weaker than you’d hope on these trucks.  Failure before 100,000 miles is fairly common.
  •  The electric parking brake has been problematic on older vehicles.  The mechanism can corrode and jam, making for a $1,000+ repair and possibly tearing up the parking brake and rotors too.
  •  If the vehicle is in an area where they salt the roads chassis corrosion can be a problem.  Brake and fuel pipes tend to rust out before the frame.
  •  Lower control arms usually wear out between 60-90k miles.  The first thing to go is the bushings, but the joints often fail 30,000 miles later.  Some shops do bushings only as a cost savings but the whole arm will be needed when the ball joint wears out.  Most of the time we recommend changing whole arms for that reason.
  • Sway bars are a problem on these vehicles.  The bars wear where they pass through the chassis bushings, and they develop a heavy thumping vibration.  Replacement is a fair bit of labor as the body must be lifted partway off the frame.
The Range Rover Sport quickly became Land Rover's most successful model.  The Full Size Range Rover (the L322) is bigger and plusher, but also significantly more expensive. And the Sport has the advantage of being a newer design, and somewhat more nimble.

We are now seeing Sports coming through our service department with 200,000+ miles on the odometer and no major failures.  It takes good maintenance to get to that point but the Rovers we've cared for right along to that mileage seem to have plenty of life left in them.

The Terrain Response system made its debut in these models and it provides impressive off-road and bad-road traction.  We have not seen any significant service issues with terrain response; indeed most of the gadgets on these trucks have proven trouble free.

The only disappointment is that there is not a thriving off-road community building around these trucks, as developed around the original Range Rover, Discovery, and Defender.  These are fully worthy vehicles.

(c) 2015/17 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Land Rover restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Land Rover clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine Rovers.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Inspecting Rolls-Royce and Bentley hydraulic systems

How to test and inspect the brake and hydraulic systems in Shadow and Spirit/Spur era Rolls-Royce and Bentley motorcars.

Disclaimer: This article describes a process whereby a knowledgeable owner can get a good approximation of a car's hydraulic system condition in the field without specialized test tools.  It is not meant to replace the procedures described in the factory workshop manuals. Rather, it recognizes that the workshop manual procedure relies on specialized hydraulic gauges which are unavailable to most owners around the world, and the need to test brakes is more widespread than the proper tools to do it.

1983 Corniche drophead (C) JE Robison

The advice in this article is provided as-is, with no warranty as to completeness.  I've done my best to illustrate a complete procedure but there are inevitably circumstances where a car might experience a hydraulic problem that would be missed by this simplified test, yet found by the factory procedures.  Always use the gauge tests if you can  

One of the more unique features of 1965-1998 Rolls-Royce motorcars is the hydraulic system.  The hydraulic system powers the brakes and the rear suspension’s height control.  These systems are legendary for their complexity and potential for bank-breaking repair costs.  In this essay I'll show you how to check yours out so you can get a sense of what's happening before disaster strikes, and hopefully avoid disaster altogether.

The early version of this system (1965-80) is filled with a derivative of conventional brake fluid (RR363).  RR363 is essentially brake fluid with an added lubricant.  The lubricant is needed for the engine driven pumps. Newer cars (until the advent of the Silver Seraph series) used Castrol hydraulic system mineral oil, or HSMO, which by its nature lubricates the pumps and powers the brakes.  The two fluids are not compatible.  Use of the wrong fluid in a car will cause severe system damage.  All reservoirs are clearly labeled RR363 or HSMO.

RR363 fluid reservoir as used from 1966-1980.  Note warning label and style - a simple steel container, normally painted silver as shown.  Windows to check fluid level are visible on the side.
Mineral oil reservoir (and fill bottle) from a post 1980-Rolls (1995 shown) Style varies by model year but colored warning and symbols are the same. Floats to indicate fluid level via a green dot are visible atop the reservoirs.
The fluid in these systems should be changed annually.  Some owners question the need for this, when their cars are rarely driven.  Here's why it needs to be done:  The hydraulic pumps deliver fluid to accumulators where they compress nitrogen gas under very high pressure.  The fluid is separated from the nitrogen by a rubber barrier, but it is inevitable that some nitrogen will make its way into the fluid.  This forms bubbles, and bubbles in the fluid cause the brakes to pull and act erratically.

Any car that has been sitting a long time is sure to have "funny feeling" brakes for this reason  The cure:  Change the fluid annually.

The system contains two hydraulic circuits that operate in parallel for the brakes.  One of the systems also powers the rear height control.   Hydraulic fluid is stored in reservoirs on the left fender well.  Lines carry the fluid to the hydraulic pumps, which are located in the center top of the engine; under the carburetors or the fuel injection.  High-pressure pipes carry the hydraulic fluid to the accumulators under the motor.  From there excess fluid is returned to the reservoirs.  Braided lines carry the high-pressure fluid to the distribution valve assembly located under the driver seat. 

Rolls-Royce brake distribution valves (all Shadow and Spur era cars similar) under driver seat
A network of steel pipes carries hydraulic fluid to the calipers at each wheel and to the rear suspension and height control.   The rear suspension contains height control valves, shocks, and gas springs that sit above the shocks in the trunk area.

All the pumps, valves, and moving parts are subject to failure.  Calipers rust or leak.  Gas springs and accumulators lose their gas charge.  Metal lines rust and rubber hoses deteriorate invisibly.   A system this complex can only be fully tested by trained people using special tools in a workshop.  However, it’s possible to do a pretty good “quick check” without tools, using the following procedure:

Begin with the vehicle sitting, engine cold.  We start by discharging the hydraulics. Get in the car and slowly but steadily pump the brake pedal 25 times.  Open the hood and check the level in the hydraulic reservoirs. (see illustrations above)  If the level is low, look for leaks (as evidenced by wet spots on the calipers, the hoses, or the engine pumps or accumulators) Turn the key on but do not start the engine yet.  You should see two lights illuminated, identified as Brake 1 and Brake 2.  Depending on the year of the car these may be in an electronic unit between the gauges, in a group of lamps to one side, or by themselves in the middle of the dash.

If you do not see the lamps, or if only one is lit, give the brakes 10-20 more pumps.  If the second light does not come (or if neither come on) on you can assume that warning circuit is broken.  That is a big red flag.  A car whose brake safety lamps are not working is not safe to drive, as it could have total brake failure with no warning. To proceed with testing, start the car.  Watch how long it takes for the lights to go out.  They will typically flicker briefly before extinguishing. If one or both lights do not go out you probably have one or two failed pumps, which is a no-drive fault.  If the lights remain on more than 20 seconds the hydraulic pumps are probably weak.  That's not a no drive fault but it indicates the need for professional inspection and probably service.

Run the car 2 more minutes, shut it off, and turn the key back on.  Begin slowly pumping the brake and note how many pumps before the Brake 1 and 2 lamps illuminate.  If you see the lamps come on (either or both) in 5 pumps of less, the car is not safe to drive.  If the light comes on within 5-10 pumps the car should be driven carefully straight to the workshop. Less than 20 pumps indicates the car has weak accumulators and should be serviced soon.

You want the car to endure 20+ pumps without either light coming on.  That indicates a system with sufficient charge to provide a margin of safety in braking, particularly if the engine stalls at highway speed or on a hill.  If you do not get to 20 pumps before seeing a lamp, in each case, the repair needed would be to replace (Spur) or rebuild (Shadow) the accumulators and overhaul the valve bodies.  After that the system would be bled.

** MAKE SURE THE CAR IS IN A SAFE PLACE FOR THE NEXT TEST.  It may lunge and roll when put into gear.  Be sure nothing is at risk for damage or impact **

Now, while holding the pedal down at the 20th or 21st press, start the engine.  Immediately pop the car into gear - get it in gear within a second or so of starting.  What does the car do?  If it lurches forward and then stops in a few seconds as the brakes grab, there is a problem in the warning circuit.  If the car holds firm and does not move the brakes and the warning lamps are ok, and it's good.

If the car holds 21 pumps the brake accumulators should be good for a few more seasons.  Brand new accumulators may hold 40 or more pumps but any number in that range is safe.  If you want to know the exact count, run the car till the lights go out, give it a few more minutes, and slowly pump till both lights illuminate.  Usually one will come on followed by the other.

Once that is done, let the car run and wait for the brake warning lights lights to go out.  Go to the back of the vehicle and bounce each corner.  If the car is soft and pushes down a few inches with your weight that’s normal.  If it’s rock-hard that is a sign of failed gas springs in the rear suspension.

Sit down on the rear bumper (even better, have two people sit on the bumper) and wait 30 seconds. You should feel the car lift to the original (and visibly correct) ride height.  If it does not lift that’s a sign of problems in the height control.

Take the car onto the road.  Try braking slowly and quickly.  Pay attention to any pulling or diving that may indicate caliper problems or air in the lines.  Look for any pulsation or shudder that may indicate warped or damaged rotors.  Let the car come to a stop on a gentle slope and release the brake.  Make sure the vehicle begins rolling smoothly and the brakes do not drag.

Shut the car off and put it in neutral.  Press and release the brakes a few times.

Finally, put the vehicle on a lift and make sure all four wheels spin freely.  If any wheels drag that may be a sign of caliper trouble.  Next check all the components for leakage.  Look at the reservoirs (top left fender well), the pumps (top of the engine), the main valves and accumulators (under side of the engine), the distribution valves (under driver seat), the brake lines and calipers, and the rear suspension components.
Look at the fluid and make sure it looks smooth and uncontaminated.  RR363 (used 1965-1980) should be almost clear; HSMO (used 1980-1998) is dark green.  There should not be any foam, sediment, or sludge visible.  Color should be consistent. 

Look at the rubber hoses to see if they are original.  If your car is more than 10-15 years old I suggest you replace all rubber hoses as they can swell inside, creating invisible failures.  A swollen hose may cause brakes to drag and overheat.  Old hoses are also prone to bursting.

Original Shadow-era brake hoses, overdue for change (C) JE Robison
New style lines and hoses in a restored Shadow (C) JE Robison

If your car passes all these tests you can give yourself and the vehicle a pat on the back.  If you see potential failures, I suggest you find a specialist and get a more thorough evaluation.

If you liked this story, please leave a comment.  And if you want more . . . here are some of my other RR/B essays

Thoughts on buying a used Rolls Royce or Bentley - applies to Silver Cloud and newer series cars

More thoughts on Spur - Spirit - Turbo era car buying

Thoughts on restoration - applies to all cars

Evolution of the RR/B models - Silver Shadow through Arnage/Seraph - original article from the Robison Service website

Inspecting a Rolls Royce or Bentley - Applies to Corniche, Continental, Azure, Turbo R, Mulsanne, Eight, Turbo R, Silver Spur, Silver Dawn, Silver Spirit

More Things to Look For in a 1981-2000 Rolls Royce or Bentley - this is the original article from the Robison Service website

The last Crewe built Rolls Royce convertibles - applies to 2000-2002 final Series Corniche

Repairing convertible top hydraulics - Applies to 1996-2004 Rolls Royce and Bentley Corniche and Azure cars

Head gasket failures in Bentley Turbo cars - applies to Turbo R, Continental R and T, Azure, Arnage

Checking engines after head gasket failure - Applies to all cars

Checking and inspecting Rolls Royce hydraulic systems - all cars after Silver Cloud and print to Silver Seraph. Applies to all Shadow/Spur era vehicles

Case Study - brake failure in a Shadow - Silver Shadow era cars with RR363

Rear suspension gas springs - Applies to all 1981 - 1999 cars prior to Silver Seraph

Changing batteries in seat and ECUs, Applies to 1980s-1990s Silver Spirit / Silver Spur / Mulsanne /Eight / Turbo R

Changing alarm ECU batteries,  Applies to 1980s-1990s Silver Spirit / Silver Spur / Mulsanne /Eight / Turbo R

Servicing Shadow and Spur series brakes - applies to 1966 - 1999 cars after Silver Cloud and prior to Silver Seraph

Alcon racing brakes for Continental and Azure - Applies to all 1990s cars but most particularly to the final series Azure, which had these brakes fitted at the factory - a unique variant

Fixing Power Steering Leaks - applies to 90s cars with the reservoir above the alternator

Questions and answers on collector car storage - Applies to all cars

Evaluating paint - Applies to all cars

John E Robison
JE Robison Service
RROC Tech Consultant

Robison Service has provided independent service, repair, and restoration for Rolls Royce and Bentley owners all over New England for over 25 years. Our company is an authorized Bosch Car Service Center. We also service Mercedes, Jaguar, Land Rover, Porsche, and MINI motorcars. We have flatbed transport throughout the region. We also offer local pickup and delivery for cars in  Springfield, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, Agawam, Westfield, Northampton, and Amherst.