I haven’t had time to post much lately and I still have a fair amount to catch up with regarding car restoration and repair work. There were several details to take care of that are simple enough to not rate a post on their own. This includes fixing the antenna, dealing with new keys, taking care of the air conditioning, putting in a couple trans mount bolts, and fixing the interior lights. While these are simple, again, I’m blogging all that I do to this car for a couple reasons. One is selfish, so I have a record of everything I’ve done and I know if I’m the only one that reads it, I won’t have motivation to write it. The second is because the Internet community, as a whole, as been a huge help to me. I don’t think I could have started my business and gotten it running if it were not for the help I’ve gotten from people, literally, all over the world who gave me advice in email, on IRC, or through instant messages, about programming or dealing with technical software. While the people working on classic cars are not always going to be those who help people like me with software advice, the people I’ve dealt with on the web have been very helpful when I’ve asked questions about fixing or restoring cars. I’ve already been told, several times, that my posts on the fuel line and the low cost hoist I made for my roof have helped people. With that in mind, let’s look at these small details I’ve had to fix.
I am very lucky with the car I bought. While it’s 22 years old, the actual amount of work it’s needed from the start has been relatively minor (although I did just recently have to put in a new camshaft, but that’s another story for another post). I had it 5 months before having to take it into the shop and when I did, the shop owner, who is a local expert on this model Mercedes, said he was impressed with it. Because of my luck, I don’t know if restoring is the right term to use for any of the work I’ve done (or had done), but it’s the closest there is. I basically bought a classic (technically not an antique until 2010) and have tracked what I need to do to bring this car back to as close to the shape it was in when it left the showroom as possible. That I am able to do so is not because I’m good with cars. I have a LOT to learn. This car can be restored to mint condition (or damned near close to it) because the previous owners, over 22 years of this car’s life, have taken excellent care of it.
The car came with one, maybe two keys. I have a small family and wanted to be sure my sister and Mother, both of whom live within a mile of me, had a key in case they needed to use it in an emergency. I also like to have an extra key that I keep inside but can have in my pocket when I’m working on the car. I don’t want to use the one on my keychain, since it has all the house keys as well. And, last but very important, I want a safety key. When I bought a Jeep Comanche pickup in 1988, within a few weeks the dealer mailed me a plastic sheet about the size of a credit card with two cut out keys in it that could bend out from their connection and be used on the truck. One was for the door and one for the ignition and the credit card sized plastic they were attached to fit perfectly in my wallet. I can remember one time, in particular, where it was pouring rain and I left my keys in the car and that safety key saved me from a miserable experience.
Unfortunately, when I borrowed my sister’s digital camera, it took me a while to get used to it. I found, after some shots I was not likely to take again, that an image could look focused in the display but not be focused. It’s quite different than the nice Nikon 35mm I inherited from my brother. In other words, some images, like the one of the keys, are blurred and not likely to be replaced with good pictures. My apologies!
When I was driving a 1973 450SL, there was no problem with getting a flat key to leave in my wallet. One of the keys from the previous owner was flat and worked fine for that purpose. I don’t know when Mercedes switched, but in 1985, they were using the keys that didn’t have the rises and ridges of a “normal” key and were already using the more secure keys. I had to get replacement keys cut by Mercedes and wait for them to arrive at a cost of $22 per key. All the keys had the rubber around them and it is no longer possible to get the valet keys that don’t open the trunk. To make a safety key, all I had to do is place one key in a vise and cut along the flat side of the key with a hacksaw to cut off some of the rubber. It was quite easy and the picture above shows one regular key, my new safety key after I’ve pulled the key from the rubber, and the left over rubber that has been thrown out. My current walled even has a flap designed for just such a key.
I’ve said it before, even in this post: I got lucky. That’s all there is to it. Even when it’s over 100 degrees and humid, I still drive with the top down. I may crank the fan, but I still drive with the top down, but I figured I might, at some point, want to use AC. I think I’ve used it 4-5 times this summer and for those of you who know what a Richmond summer is like, few people will put up with the heat and humidity together. It just doesn’t bother me that much, but, still, if you’re working with a classic, there’s the urge to get everything working. I realized the car had AC when I first test drove it. When the Mercedes mechanic inspected it (always get a pre-purchase inspection!), he told me the AC was not working. I mentally added a huge chunk to the cost of the car when I heard that because I figured it would cost a lot to fix. A day or so after I got the car home, it was still in March and not warm enough for me to take the hard top off for the season yet (and I want that hard top off as soon as it’s warm enough to drive topless with a heavy sweater!) and I was looking over everything and saw a plaque on the frame, under the hood. I was very lucky because the AC had already been converted over to R134a coolant. For those that aren’t familiar with this, older cars use coolant that can no longer be produced legally in the U.S. Supplies are still around, but conversion cost to the new coolants is expensive. My car was already converted!
The other good point about a car that uses R134a instead of an older system is the valve with the blue cap on it in the picture on the left. That valve is for refilling the AC system with coolant. With the new system, you don’t have to take it in and have a professional do it. For about $20 (I can’t find the receipt, but that’s about what I remember), you can buy a can of coolant like the one on the right. If it’s your first can, you pay more to include the attached hose and valve. Then, once you get it, you can refill your AC system on your own. It’s amazingly simple, but it’s important to remember that while you’re doing this, you’re working with high pressure gases. I’m not going to go into the details of how to do it because the details are not only on the can of coolant, but I’m not about to put myself in a position where someone can do this without reading the can and try to sue me later.
I will include this extra picture, though, of the hose connected to the valve with the gauge showing that it now has the minimal pressure to operate the AC. I used a 2nd can to increase the pressure more into the normal operating zone and turned on the AC. It worked. That was back in the second week of March and now, in September, I’ve tested it again and it’s still working. Many systems lose coolant over a year or several years and it seems that was the only real problem with my AC: it had lost coolant. I have no idea how long it’s been since this car was driven regularly before I bought it. It could have sat for a few years. Either way, this was an amazingly easy fix and I hope others that need to try this find it as easy as following the directions on the can, since that’s all it took for me.
This is underneath the car, in the center, where the transmission ends and the drive shaft continues to the rear wheels. The picture to the left, near the title of this section, shows the mount without the needed bolts. To the right is a slightly out of focus picture with the bolts in place. (Here’s a puzzle: with both pictures I had the digital camera flat on the driveway underneath the car, why is it only out of focus in one?) I went over this with a relative because no matter what I did, the bolts from Mercedes felt like they were too big and I just could not get things to line up. This is a case where I might be able to pass on useful info to another newbie to this field. When I talked with my relative, he said that it was the kind of thing where I’d spend 45 minutes pushing things around to get to the point where it just fit together in 30 seconds. That’s about the best description I can give. If you look at the picture with the bolts missing, it looks like you can just slide the bolt up, use a wrench, and tighten it. If you’ve done this before, that sentence has caused a lot of laughter. I thought things would be lined up and that I should not adjust anything.
That was far from the way it worked. I had to use a screwdriver or two to move things around, to give me leverage to hold parts in place and to align pieces. It does take a while to get things so it just fits in. The best advice I can give to someone is to be careful to not break anything, but to not be afraid to reach up behind the covering that is on the bottom, feel around, see what it is like in there, learn where all the parts are and get a sense of what has to line up with what. Then use a heavy duty screwdriver. Actually, come to think of it, I used a smaller pry bar that I could get up in there, to re-align things so the bolts would finally slip in. If I had talked with my relative before doing this and knew it wasn’t as simple as it looked, it would have taken me about 50 minutes, including driving up on the ramps and putting it in park, which, incidentally, is the wrong thing to do. Leave it in neutral and use blocks and the parking break to keep it in place. As it was, I must have wasted 45 minutes trying to get it to work before he told me to put it in neutral and to use a pry bar to line things up.
My radio worked, but I wasn’t getting good reception. The antenna was not going all the way up! I apologize for not having more pictures of this because this is something that a lot of people seem to have problems with. I started with Man’s Tool #2, WD-40. (And if you don’t know what Man’s Tool #1 is, it’s duct tape!) The problem was that not all the segments were extending. The picture on the left shows how 2 segments stuck in place. Some WD-40 loosened up 1, but that wasn’t enough. I ordered a new antenna mast. The mast includes the metal part we all know as the antenna but also a long, nylon, snake like extension on the end with gear teeth on one side. The nylon part slides into a box in the trunk with the motor and gearing to raise and lower the antenna. It has a large gear that meshes with the long nylon extension on the antenna that coils it up when it lowers the antenna and uncoils it, sending it upwards, when the antenna extends.
I found I had to take the whole antenna gearbox out of the trunk and detach the motor and turn the crank by hand to get the teeth to line up and to get the nylon snake to slide in place. Then, once it was in place, I took it back to the garage, slid the antenna (with the top knob unscrewed) into the hole in the body, then slid the rest of the antenna and the nylon snake through the hole and out of the trunk. Once I got the gearbox back in place and rewired (not hard at all), I had to turn the car on and lower the antenna. This is not an easy job! To raise the antenna, I’d leave the radio switched to on and the antenna switch on the dash to “high”, then turn on the car. The motor would uncoil the nylon snake and try to raise the antenna as high as possible. From there I could raise and lower it by flipping the antenna dash switch to high or low. To fully lower it, I had to turn the radio off. This is where it gets dangerous, both for you and your paint job. It is possible to raise your antenna all the way up so the snake and antenna are ejected from the gear box and fly up and coil up rapidly in the air or on your car. I came close to scratching my car once. It’s best to have one person controlling the radio and dash switch and one person at the antenna, either feeding in the snake if need be, or making sure it doesn’t scratch the car as it slides in.
I took the difficult way and got a long wooden pole and used it to turn the switches on the dash while I was back with the antenna. I don’t recommend this. Once it’s done and slid into place, fasten the antenna mount to the car. This will make sure the antenna can’t extend too far or fly out of the frame. Then be sure to fasten the tip back on the antenna. Without the tip, the antenna can retract too far into it’s holding tube and leave room for rain to fall in. If you work with the antenna, you can count on replacing the rubber grommet around where it connects to the car body. There’s a picture of that above and on the left. It’s about $2 for the grommet, so I’d suggest buying one before starting. They break easily and it helps to have one there so you can put it in when you finish the project.
This was one of the simplest fixes of everything I’ve done. The dome lights are two of the interior lights on the 380SL. There are also lights in each foot well. I thought the lights were not out. I would open and close my door and the lights would not go on as they should. I found out that the dash switch turned them on and off. If the switch, which is a rocker switch, is to the left, the interior lights are always on, if it’s to the left, the interior lights don’t go on and if it’s in the middle, they go on when the door is open. Neither door, when opened, would trigger the lights going on. It took some research and tracing circuit diagrams, but I found out the light in the passenger footwell was out. I replaced it and found that light went on when I opened the passenger door. After asking for help online and checking the circuit diagram, I found the passenger door ONLY turned on that one footwell light. Opening the driver’s door turned on both footwell lights. I tried the driver’s door and no lights turned on. That limited the problem to the switch in the driver’s door or wiring near it. I played with the switch by hand and saw no change. I sprayed some WD-40 on it, then held it down and slid my thumb off so it “jerked” up, which would not happen when I opened the door (the door would not move fast enough). I did this a few times: pushing down on the switch and letting it pop up as fast as the spring pushed it. Within 10 attempts I saw the lights go on. Another few attempts and it worked fine. I had heard that dirt can easily lodge in the door switches and letting the spring work full force had shaken it up enough to dislodge the dirt.