Mechanical Mysteries – a Late Night Comedy
The Topes (speed bumps) in Mexico had proven a bit too much for the tired old shocks and springs especially after running over a few at full speed…. So, we planned a maintenance stop in Oaxaca at Overland Oasis. We ordered a complete new set of Terra Firma shocks and new front Springs for the Landy and decided that we had better order a new Temperature sensor as well since the temp gauge, with every long climb, headed towards the red. It had all started as we left the colder areas of the USA for warmer climes.
Hot or Not?
The gauge doesn’t have any actual degree markings, simply a band of black followed by a white bar and then red at the extreme right. Since the grounding issue after the clutch replacement in the Yukon was fixed the needle never wavered from the middle. Being overly paranoid, however, or just a dial watcher, I kept the gauge in view anyway making sure it bravely stayed where I thought it should. That was until we left Death Valley. With winter forgotten and summer on the horizon we climbed a long sloping hill out of the lowest place in North America to a comfortable 25C and very low humidity. Despite the almost ideal temperatures the gauge went up just to what I would call the ¾ mark, extremely close to crossing into the red. I didn’t panic but pulled over to the side of the road to let it cool down for a few minutes.
This then continued with every longer hill and I started worrying that perhaps the thermostat was starting to go. A new one was ordered and sent to Napa Auto Parts in Joshua Tree, but we didn’t change it immediately and thought it was safe to simply have it with us changing it only when necessary. The supposed over heating problem didn’t show itself all that much in Baja Mexico, it is after all relatively flat, but seemed to get worse once we hit the hillier mainland. Having to pull over and stop several times along the Mexican toll roads was not a lot of fun in the blistering heat so at the camp ground on the outskirts of Etzatlan I finally decided to change the thermostat. I moved the car to a dusty area just outside the campground. Thankfully the engine designers at Land Rover put it in a very easily reachable position – directly at the highest point of the motor – so I was able to swap it out without much coolant loss. However, at the first long climb we sadly realized that it was all for nothing! The needle moved once again toward the red
The ‘Baloo’ of Oaxaca
Calvin from Overland Oasis, used to be heavily involved in the racing scene and had some good contacts and recommendations for mechanics that could help us out with our planned maintenance. The first part was to have the shocks and springs replaced, as well as change out the axle oil for that Calvin recommended one of his old buddies who runs a little VW specialty shop. Marco is a huge man, head and shoulders above me and about as wide as both Frederike and I if we stood next to each other. Arriving at his shop we found him bent almost double over the hood of an old souped-up VW Scirocco providing us an unrestricted and rather shocking view of his ample plumbers’ butt. Frederike and I looked at each other smirked and tried not to laugh aloud before turning back to watch the show. At length he turned around and greeted us with a warm smile giving us the impression of a huge cuddly teddy bear, reminding me a little of Baloo in Disney’s the jungle book. Even though his specialty is VW he made a good impression on us, good enough to trust him to do the job unsupervised – which is not something I like to do often. So, leaving our new shocks and springs with Marco we headed out into town for a bit of sight-seeing instead of hovering and looking over his shoulder all the while. Later in the evening we returned to find the Landy sitting much higher all the way around; we had gained a full 50mm clearance and suddenly it took a bit of effort to climb into the seats. What we didn’t notice right away was that the passenger side was sitting a bit higher than the drivers-side which I couldn’t quite understand. It wasn’t until weeks later that we discovered that the springs we bought for our Defender have two different lengths – the drivers-side is a bit longer or stiffer to account for the extra weight on that side of the vehicle. Marco didn’t know it either apparently, and didn’t see the DS (Drivers-side) and PS (Passenger-side) printed on the springs. Now, several weeks later and quite far from Oaxaca we realized we couldn’t leave it that way. Somewhat annoyed that we didn’t notice it beforehand we decided to get it swapped in San Cristobal. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a lot more difficult than we thought as finding someone who was willing to simply swap left spring for right seemed almost impossible. Landrover Defenders are practically unheard of in Mexico and we kept getting a “Don’t know it, won’t do it” as an answer at the more professional garages. Finally, we found a backyard mechanic who at least had the right equipment and was willing to give it a go and let me supervise the work.
“Sucio, muy sucio!”
With one maintenance issue completed we needed to deal with our suspected over-heating problem. For that we were introduced to Misael who owns a radiator shop just around the corner from Marco and as the photos on the wall in his shop showed he too was in the racing scene for a number of years. What we didn’t know at that point is that he has a kind of reputation, as Calvin said rather diplomatically is that he tends to concentrate on unimportant things. What he meant by that at the time I wasn’t sure, nevertheless Misael turned out to be a real original. His shop, however, was very clean – almost too clean really – and too well organized for what we had expected to find in Mexico. We explained the problem to him as best we could with our non-existent Spanish and the help of Google Translate and made an appointment for the following morning. Also, we tried to explain the situation with our vehicle – as it is our home we would absolutely need as a place sleep at night. Since Frederike got food poisoning the day before she would be left at the Overland Oasis with nothing but our camping chairs and table. I took the Landy in early the next morning hoping that one day would be enough to figure out the problem. Where Marco was huge and cuddly Misael was small and compact, friendly, though with a serious note and quite possibly a bit of Napoleon syndrome on top. Shortly after arriving he snapped a few commands at his helpers who scurried about as though whipped before starting to take the front grille off the Landy to gain access to the radiator. After a few minutes the intercooler, rad, and every single hose and clamp that transported coolant was removed to the back of the shop where one of the workers was assigned to cleaning all the hoses. Misael sent the rad out to be cleaned and told me to come back at 6 or 7pm when it should be finished. Having nothing else to do I headed out into Oaxaca once again to while away the hours.
Returning at 6pm I fully expected the Landy to be finished with how quickly they moved about the shop, however, I walked in to find it still disassembled and not a bit farther along as I had left it several hours ago! Apparently the rad came back from its bath in a similar state, completely disassembled! They had taken it completely apart and cleaned/scraped all the fins and were now busy re-soldering it all back together! In just about any other country they would have simply replaced it with a new one if not satisfied with simply flushing it, not in Mexico. The labor prices are low enough that things still actually get repaired instead of simply being swapped out. Never mind all that though, I was not particularly happy about the situation. My thoughts went to Frederike and how she was holding up in the heat. I stood to the side and impatiently watched while the radiator was reassembled piece by piece willing with all my being that the lad doing the soldering would just hurry the hell up! Just when I thought it was finished he went and submerged it in some kind of water bath to test it for leaks. I’m sure it’s important and all but I was seriously starting to lose my patience. As they were just about to start putting the Landy back together Misael came over and inspected the area. He was not happy! His helpers had not cleaned the oil that had spilled when disconnecting the oil lines to the radiators built in oil cooler. He took one glimpse at it and with a disgusted look on his face simply pointed at the mess and walked away shaking his head. His helper scurried about with rags and cleaner to sop up the spilled oil. “What! Now of all times? WTF?” I screamed in my mind, “there is no need to worry about a bit of dirt man! It’s 9:30pm, his employees have been working non-stop since 8am, Frederike is waiting outside in the dark, probably worried and he’s concerned about a bit of oil and grime!” I couldn’t remain silent any longer and said that I was totally ok with the dirt and needed to be going, my wife is waiting, sick and without any comforts. To which he answered “Sucio, muy Sucio” (Dirty, very Dirty!), walked to his desk and sat down ignoring the pleading look on my face. A half hour later the youth had finished with cleaning and the reassembly could continue, but not without Misael muttering under his breath about the not yet spotless working conditions, apparently there was still a bit of oil residue. The look of fear on the helpers’ face spoke volumes and he hurriedly polished away the specks of dirt and oil that Misael had seen. “Please, oh please don’t delay any bloody longer because of the dirt, just put the damn thing back together!” I wanted to yell. With his OCD on max he paused and pointed a few more times at what he thought was dirty – he just couldn’t leave the dirt alone if he started to wash the car I was going to go postal! A vein in my temple started to throb I had more than once momentary thought of extreme unmitigated violence. Then his cellphone started ringing; it was Calvin asking what the hell was going on and if I was ok? In the meantime, the entire Overlander Oasis had started worrying about me – those of you who may wonder why he just didn’t call me on my Cell, we haven’t bothered with them for several reasons since the first month of our trip. I spoke briefly to Calvin, told him the gist of it and that it shouldn’t be much longer hoping that Misael would also realize the late hour. Finally, at 10:30pm the radiator was back in, without its thermostat and only water. I was to return the next morning for the engine flush and then a test drive. Almost at my wits end I drove back to the Overland Oasis trying not to race. As I arrived I was greeted to cheering and back slapping almost as though I had just returned from some fantastic adventure, which in a way I had.
Misael, Act 2, Scene 1
After a very short night and fearing that it could take the whole day I drove back to Misaels radiator shop. This time, however, I decided to stick around to make sure things moved along at a pace that I could live with. Peter, a German Overlander who was also staying at the Overland Oasis, followed me to Misaels. He had a leaky radiator and needed to get it replaced. I did warn him that it could take longer than he could anticipate – knowing from firsthand experience – but peter didn’t seem to realize what exactly that meant. Pleased though I was with Misaels work thus far we were shocked and stunned when they drained Peters radiator onto the road and into a nearby storm drain! Coolant is highly poisonous and that would land you a hefty environmental fine in Germany, but here in Mexico no one seemed to spare a thought about its highly toxic nature and that it would most likely land in some river poisoning and killing any fish that may live there. That probably wasn’t the first time or the last nor could we even begin to realize how much toxic chemicals simply ended up in the drains and rivers without a second thought. We may be in a developing country where environmental protection takes a back seat to more basic needs, nevertheless, we were both shocked and somehow had a bad conscience being suddenly and involuntarily part of the problem.
Misael was busy supervising the start of our engine flush, which would clear out any residue or calcification that may have formed, when after only a couple of minutes Peter decided to ask when his new Radiator would be installed. Misael looked up from his work and placing thumb and forefinger a few millimeters apart in the international sign for “give me a minute” and said “Momentito.” Peter is a somewhat hectic person and took the word momentito literally – not knowing that in Mexico Momentito could mean just about any length of time from a moment (which is very rare) to a few minutes or hours – so I couldn’t hold back a grin when not a minute later he went over to interrupt Misael again. The look from Misael was what I would call “Schooled annoyance” before politely sending him away as expected with another Momentito. Not something Peter was expecting to hear; and it didn’t do his nerves any good either. He wanted to be on his way as quickly as possible and his nervous shifting from foot to foot as he stood waiting next to me was infecting even though I had resigned myself to spending the entire day. “Look, Peter” I said, “This is not Germany, momentito doesn’t actually mean one minute, he will come when he is ready, just try to be patient” Almost vibrating with impatience he waited a few minutes longer before finally giving up and heading to his camper to annoy his wife.
… Scene 2
Sometime later the Landy was back together with new coolant, we were finally ready for the test drive. Misael hopped into the passenger seat and we took off for the nearby surrounding mountains to put some stress on the motor. As we pulled out I noticed that one of the helpers was busy installing Peters new radiator, he looked happy and a bit less nervous and waved a hearty goodbye and good luck. I didn’t hold back on the accelerator as we motored up the curvy mountain road to see what would happen. Sure enough, the indicator on the gauge left its usual location and started moving towards the red! Ah hell! The whole work and almost two days wasted, and it didn’t help a damn bit! At the ¾ mark I pulled over but unfortunately Misael had forgotten his laser temperature gauge at the shop! So, there we were in the middle of some mountain pass and he couldn’t even tell me what the real temperature was to give us better idea what may be wrong. But even without it he wasn’t particularly worried. I wasn’t quite sure if he was expecting the coolant to be boiling, as far as I am aware coolant with our ratio boils at 106C and with a pressurized system it pushes the boiling point even higher. With temperatures in access of 110C I would also expect to need a new head gasket or worse yet a cracked head or any number of other problems. Although the thermostat opens at 88C I have no idea what temperature the redline is supposed to be, the only thing I know is that if it goes into the red it is bad, very bad. Terrible things happen when an engine overheats, very bad destructive things that cost a lot of money to fix if they are at all fixable. Furthermore, the gauge in the Land Rover is notoriously inaccurate as many have told me. So, I was a bit surprised at Misael’s reaction, or lack thereof. He did seem a bit puzzled and was also annoyed at himself for not bringing his laser gauge – but not nearly as annoyed as I was. Nevertheless, he was under the impression that if the system wasn’t boiling it wasn’t over-heating. That might be true for a non-pressurized 100% water system but from what I’ve read if the coolant reaches its boiling point there may well end up being damage to the vehicle. Perhaps Misael had experience with other vehicles that have more accurate or sensitive measurement systems but I didn’t want to risk anything.
Back at the shop, Misael suggested ordering some diagnostic equipment from Mexico City which he offered to pay for out of pocket! The guy may well be a bit crazy, but he spent hours and hours helping us and wasn’t happy that he was unable to fix the problem. It’s not very often you encounter someone so dedicated, and helpful which we certainly appreciated. It was almost unbelievable how much energy and time he invested in his work – and at such little costs, but at this point we had no desire to spend any more time, money, or nerve on further diagnostics. The viscous fan seemed to be working well and the only thing left was either to get a larger radiator custom made or simply take it easier on the long climbs. I had an idea what may be causing the supposed over heating problem but of course I was not positive. We had bought a full-sized aluminum intercooler before leaving for the trip, the original is a small clumpy inefficient thing that sits beside the radiator, and it promised to increase power and reduce fuel consumption. What I didn’t think through was that increasing the oxygen flow into the engine and improving the burn rate would also increase the temperature – almost like blowing on hot coals increases the temperature – and since the new intercooler sits directly in front of the radiator the air that would normally pass through the fins is also no longer at the outside temperature – but elevated by the act of cooling the compressed air from the turbo. Clear as mud right? Even though the fins are quite coarse it would probably reduce the radiators ability to cool effectively. At least that was my assumption. With a larger radiator, the coolant would stay in the fins longer having more time to cool even with the hotter air from the intercooler.
In retrospect, we should have ordered the larger radiator from Misael as the over-heating problem continues and a few times since it has crept over the ¾ mark and approached red. I am not sure if we have managed to cause damage to the engine, I hope to hell we haven’t, but if so thankfully it has not made itself noticeable, yet. In the meantime, we will have to continue to monitor the situation and when necessary crawl up the hills like the tractor-trailers do or simply pull over and give the engine time to cool down we aren’t in a hurry anyway and it’s all part of the adventure, just like my surreal experience with Misael which always brings a smile to my face when I think of it.
Not so funny huh! well at least you got to move on and have taken in the wonder of some people’s dedication.
Sounds scary, but at least you made it to Ushuaia, must have been not that bad :)