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The engine is gone, complete chaos

Bringing a dilapidated old Merc home from the Arctic in the winter

16/08/2013 06:48 |  Comments: 

Editor-in-chief

The guy behind the idea of the English-language Totalcar site, the totalcarmagazine.com, also serving as an editor at the Hungarian totalcar.hu , our mother site. Serial collector of sorry old things that have internal combustion engines in them, as a newfound religion, Zsolt is keeping a family under the terror of rust. Being in the business for the best part of the last 19 years, he landed at Totalcar after serving at a huge round of printed automotive magazines. Has a wife, two small(ish) children and a pet rabbit.

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We were almost halfway through our journey, but then, as a final blow, the oil pressure needle started waving an alert. The trip from then on turned into real horror.

See, I bought this half century-old Mercedes in Sweden, in the winter, 2700 kms away from my home. And I decided to take it home on its own dear wheels. Under its own steam. Mind you, the car hadn't run since 1976 and it wasn't restored either. At its inception it seemed to be a good idea, but by the time we got to the northern town of Domsjö, I was scared shitless – I had already written a post about that part of the journey earlier.

Then, on the way home, the car broke down with an electric problem after the first few kilometres and a few hundred kms further a Finnish lorry crashed into us in Harnosänd at 1 AM. I had a post on that one too. Business as usual, one is tempted to say. But the car could still be driven, so we managed to get to Stockholm. That is where we left off last time, with a broken, but otherwise seemingly healthy Mercedes of grandfather's age sleeping overnight in the underground parking lot of an uptown hotel in the Swedish capital. We just had 1952 kilometres to go.

Next morning in Stockholm we lost my wife. No, it wasn't a case of divorce on the spot, she just had to take the easy way and fly home, because her work was calling. My old buddy and repair-it-all good man Karesz got in the seat where she had sat before. From there on the weather turned a bit warmer and we had a great time cruising along the peaceful Swedish motorway, having a stop here for a coffee, another there to adjust the ignition, check the small filter in the carburettor, take a note of the oil level.

But there was a faint sound developing in the engine room, the source of which I just couldn't identify. And, according to the meter, the oil pressure on the dashboard also seemed to be a bit down from previous day's level. Not by much, but at normal engine speeds it sometimes faltered off the maximum mark which was a bit alarming. You might want to know that this needle in a Mercedes should always stay at the 3 bar level when the engine is running at anything above idle speed.

But still, the trip was magnificent from Stockholm to Malmö. To have a ride in a half century-old car at an easy 110 kph in the winter sunshine is a kind of serenity that all of us would have to experience at one time or another. It might be a bit vulgar, but it is possibly better than Zen.

We crossed the Öresund Bridge, leading from Malmö to Copenhagen with fireworks cracking around us, or at least that was how it seemed. I felt like a wealthy guy from Karlstadt in the 60's, who decided to stretch to a Mercedes instead of buying a Volvo Amazon or a Saab 93, basking in the rightness of his decision, crossing the borders to new countries. See, although this 180 was sort of a leftover model, the lowliest of all Benzes available in 1962 (because the new small Fintail series replacing it had already been introduced a year before, in 1961), it still wasn't a cheap car. But by being an entry-level model, no wonder mine had a dead-mouse-grey colour scheme, and no extras apart from the seat belts up front which must have been looked upon as an eccentricity comparable to the pedestrian airbag of today's Volvo V50.

I tried to imagine the long-forgotten first owner of this car (according to the Swedish registration, my BPP-795 had had nine owners before) who must have witnessed the still struggling, slowly rising Swedish economy at the beginning of the 60's. In his ownership the Mercedes might have taken him to Frankfurt, Nice, even Agrigento, as I imagine. Who knows, he may even have crossed the iron-curtained borders of my country at that time. With a reliable car like this, there are almost no limits to role playing.

Crossing the Öresund Bridge was a very moving moment. The vision of this old, broken, sneezing car, crossing the sea towards a new home and a new life doubtlessly was romantic, and even more so, because it was myself driving it. But danger was on the horizon: the oil pressure needle started to falter alarmingly at times and the whirring noise from the engine was becoming ever more noticeable.

Optimism kills.

Of course we lost trace of our Opel service car at the outskirts of Copenhagen in the night. We programmed and reprogrammed the GPS, found the way and blasted after the Insignia. This was the moment when I briefly noticed that the oil pressure meter was reading just 2.4 bars (instead of the max. 3) at the speed of 80 kph. Sweat was quietly gathering on my forehead, although it wasn't exactly hot in the car – to say the least.

Karesz started popping instructions at me: “The aged oil has probably disintegrated, so don't push the car! In Germany we'll look for a petrol station, put some new 20W-50 mineral oil in it when we can. Just keep this 70 kph and watch the meter closely.”

My eyes were glued on the needle for the next 150 kilometres – see, these old Mercedes cars had no red lights for low oil pressure, just a meter barely noticeable in the dark. Given that most of the illuminating lights were shot in the instrument cluster (and the speedo wasn't working either), I really had a hard time judging if it was still safe to carry on. During that section of the journey I probably knew nothing of the road, so I must have handed over the steering wheel to my guardian angel. In turn, to this day I remember every little flicker of that bloody meter's lousy little needle. It was already midnight, I started falling asleep every now and then. Still, I noticed when it came. The meter dropped to 0.8. Now, that was no event to joke about.

Upon my shouting in disbelief, Karesz woke up in a blink of an eye. In a moment he got out and was already waist-deep in the engine compartment, and for this one lucky instance there wasn't a cigarette, but a glowing torch between his teeth instead. He unscrewed one end of the small tube from the engine which carries the pressure to the meter in the dashboard. “Start the engine!”, he yelled. I did as I was told. Oil should have started squirting from the tube like water from a kid's summer toy, but nothing came. Trouble lay at our feet; our oil pressure now was really AWOL.

“Out with the rope!”, he commanded.

Well, this is how my freshly bought beautiful Mercedes finally landed on a tow rope behind a new Opel Insignia at the 1300th kilometre of our journey. The car was towed on the ferry (the officers looked away), and in the belly of the ship Karesz got out his tools. Amidst the startled look of lorry drivers he started dismantling the engine. Once or twice he got stuck, his head started turning purple, but then he just lit another fag, got out an even bigger wrench than the previous one he used and continued with his work. In about a quarter of an hour he triumphantly showed up a piece of steel with horrible grind marks on it.

“The oil pressure relief valve, I should have known it!”, he was shouting anxiously. Now we also got to know it. For some reason this part, which is there to prevent seals from blowing up when the engine is revved when cold with the thick oil, was ground away in situ. But that also signalled the end of the journey for us for sure.

We off-loaded the car from the ferry on the German side and found a cheap and dirty trucker's hotel nearby. My boss Tibby sat down by his computer to write a post on our Hungarian blog that was being followed by about 30-80 thousand readers at that time. Guess what – in ten minutes three guys sitting in a 320d Touring BMW read the new post and they replied: “We're heading home from the north of Germany with an empty trailer behind, in a few hours we'll get to your place and give a lift for the Ponton”. A quick call was made, we told the guys that we're in Puttgarden, then we tried to get at least a few hours' sleep.

My eyes popped open at 6 AM. WHERE ARE THEY? They should have arrived around 5 in the morning in the worst case. What happened? I made a call. “Hi, we've just arrived at the place you said, but we certainly can't see any hotels here”, came the reply.

“How come?”, I answered. “There's almost nothing in Puttgarden except for the ferry station and this beat up hotel. I'll give you the coordinates from the GPS, okay?” And I did so.

Well, well, well. It turned out that there are two of these “Put” settlements in Germany, one is called Puttgarden (our place), the other Putgarten. Over the phone they really sound similar, both are at the northern seaside of Germany and (on the resolution of the GPS screen) there seem to be shipping lines running to both place. Now, these two Puts are about 400 kms apart. Our new friends had arrived at the one to the east (Putgarten), while we were waiting for them at the other (Puttgarden) to the west. A further four hours passed before three, seemingly dead young men climbed out from a dirty BMW station wagon. They hadn't slept for two and a half days by then.

The rest is history. We loaded the Ponton on the trailer, two guys from the BMW (the owner too) got in the back of the Insignia that sped off with them towards Budapest, and we were left to drive the Beemer home with Karesz and one of the incredibly exhausted guys. The two of us had four hours' sleep behind at least.

We started running out of fuel in East Germany in the night. We didn't see a single petrol station that was open for about two hundred kilometres, so we turned to the aid of the GPS POI's, finding a filling station near the autobahn. We headed there. It was closed, so we made our way to the next one, ever getting further from the autobahn. The area was mountainous, the roads were narrow and twitchy, we were pulling a 1.2-ton car with a 1.5-ton car, so our consumption was certainly up a from the factory specification. Guess what, the next one was also closed. The fourth, too.

Not knowing better we drove back to the second one which, as we remembered, endorsed some emergency method for payment. Putting together all of our German knowledge we still couldn't manage to buy a drop of petrol. Thus we started asking young (and very drunk) local chaps about the whereabouts of filling stations that are open at night. At that moment the board computer had been showing “Distance to empty: 0 km” for about half an hour. We knew that if we run out of petrol, our whole train will land on the back of a huge emergency truck for an unbelievable stash of dough.

Believe me, it wasn't the finest moment: to drive around in a borrowed BMW in the night in Eastern Germany, having a none too good trailer hooked to it with a broken Mercedes on its back that cost a few years of savings, with a range in the pulling car reading zero, a fuel meter having dropped to the bottom of its travel about an hour ago, riding along on third-level roads among mountains you have never seen, through villages that look like having come out of a sci-fi movie with a title “After the N-bomb” isn't the best of utopias.

Finally we found one. An open station. We filled up, 63.27 litres Diesel went in the tank. A small detail – a BMW E46-series has a capacity of 63 litres in theory ...

The rest of the journey was peaceful and optimistic. We almost turned the whole train upside down on the autobahn next morning, when a sudden gust of wind caused an incurable wobble (all the cars on the autobahn stopped dead around us, so it must have looked serious, and it damn felt bad behind the steering wheel).It also started snowing in Austria, but within a week's time after starting we landed in Visz with the Ponton, the place of Karesz's home and workshop.

Two days passed after our parting. Karesz called: “Guess what, those guys in Sweden probably really had the engine rehauled, but they put in the wrong timing chain. This one is for the six-cylinder Ponton and it is two eyes longer than the one that goes into the smaller version. The chain tensioner couldn't take up this huge slack completely, so the chain was grinding against the oil pressure relief valve's housing all the time, eroding it. But I had a guess that the busted pressure relief valve is the same with the newer W115 petrol engine. I had one in the garden, got it out, and it fit perfectly. I also bought a new chain for about a fistful of pebbles, put it in, had the engine washed four times internally, and look – it is perfect now, it runs beautifully!” My dear good old mate who never rests, thought I.

In two days I went to pick up the Ponton, and although it wasn't looking too healthy, I drove it home to Budapest without a hiccup. But from this point the insurance company has to evaluate the harm that has been done to it, so the future isn't very bright. And although I planned to have a rolling restoration for the car while using it, because of the crash, I know that I will have to take the Mercedes apart completely. A lesson learned: you should always have a B plan, shouldn't you?

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