Taking an Older Car On A Road Trip – Part 1

When I wrote about this trip a few years ago – my “1 lap of America”- albeit a mini lap at 7,492 miles in 14 days, I thought nothing of taking my car with nearly 300,000 miles. Although for a few months before my mother said on more than one occasion, “Bill, I’m not going to say anything more, but I think you’re a damned fool for taking that old car!

The only place I had to be was Minneapolis for my niece’s wedding.

I showed up on time and guess how the family got ferried around Minneapolis for various functions?



That’s my late car turning 300,000 miles just east of Rawlins WY….The way I knew that car and what went into it, 300,000 miles was just a number. After the wedding, I decided to just continue east and see relatives in West Virginia, Virginia, friends in Oak Ridge TN, New Orleans and drive old Rt 66 through NM and AZ.

On a car with over 300,000 miles.

Then last week, I had another little driving trip through Oregon and Washington, accumulating 2,000 miles (1,950 actually) in 6 days. This car turned 100,000 miles which these days, thanks to improvements in cars, isn’t really such a big deal as long as it has had decent maintenance.

But coming back, I was thinking of posting a few articles on some preventative things you can do on your older car to improve the odds that it will be an “uneventful” trip!

There’s no guarantees with anything in life – you can even have a breakdown in a new car. But there are also some things you have control over.

I have 2 older cars – a 1996 Mercedes-Benz SL500 just about to turn 200,000 miles and a 2000 Mercedes-Benz E430 that just turned 100,000 miles. Lest you think I am just a “Mercedesphile” for nearly 30 years I had a 1st generation Toyota MR2. I loved that car – it was like driving a big go-cart. Drove it over 300,000 miles and only sold it because the E430 became available (my late father’s) and parts were getting hard to find for “Mr. 2”.

So, let’s get started. But here is a truism for breaking down away from home and “on the road”.

A breakdown on the road is more expensive than a breakdown in your hometown. By the time you find a motel, have the car towed (to where? More on that later), they possibly have to order the part (with you waiting X days), your trip is probably shot.

Your car sometimes talks to you – do you listen? 

You don’t have to know mechanics to sense something is wrong with your steed. In that respect you probably know it better than the folks at your shop. You live with it day in and day out!

Do you hear a creaking when you turn the wheel? Could be your ball joints about to go. A little squeak in the engine compartment?

What can really stop a car are bad bearings – and they are all over your car. Anything that moves has a bearing of some kind.

Last year I took the SL to San Diego for a Lexicans get-together. But about a month before my departure date, I noticed – first thing in the morning when I backed the car out of the garage – a bearing noise from the transmission. It was sort of a cross between a “whir” and a “buzz”. Since it hadn’t been there before, I took it to my shop.

A test revealed that the pressure was down, and I was told that the  transmission could last a year or a week.

1996 was the first year for this 5 speed electronic transmission, and while (with maintenance) 160,000 miles is pretty short for an automatic transmission to go, my choice was to roll the dice or get another transmission. (The factory made 3 major revisions to that transmission, used in many Mercedes and Chrysler cars during the DaimlerChrysler era so they are more reliable now).

I decided to get a factory re-manufactured transmission for peace of mind (more on how to select parts in another post).

Can you imagine breaking down in, say, Buttonwillow on I5, with a dead transmission?

Wheel bearings are usually pretty reliable and will last the life of the car. But I have seen them go. Alternator bearings? If they are going you will usually hear them and possibly see smoke coming from the drive belt. Your water pump (actually coolant pump) almost always will start to make noise before they go.

Although years ago when I had a little V6 Ford Capri I was going down Hwy 99 and suddenly saw steam from the hood. You either pull off now or within 30-60 seconds start to see engine damage from overheating.

The coolant pump bearing broke and the impeller (what pushes the coolant through the engine) shattered the pump housing.

Coolant was just pouring out.

I have seen cars disabled and trips ruined all for lack of an idler pulley bearing. These are about $30 (if that) and easy (usually) to replace. Until the 1980s, cars had a drive belt for each device – one for the alternator, one for the a/c compressor, and so on. When designers decided to let one big belt do all the work – a serpentine belt – many times it needs an  idler pulley – simply a pulley that places the belt in the right position for the next device it has to turn. And if that bearing fails, all of the devices the belt turns stop functioning.

When I got my SL 6 years ago that pulley was squeaking.  It was replaced.

A bad $30 idler pulley bearing will stop you in Buttonwillow just as well as a dead transmission. I have seen it happen to others. Imagine having your trip ruined for want of a $30 pulley.

Normally with bad bearings you get weeks or even months warning.

Be in tune with your car and listen!

More later…

Part 2 is here.



Filed under Travel

2 responses to “Taking an Older Car On A Road Trip – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Taking an Older Car on a Road Trip – Part 2 | The Lexicans

  2. Pingback: Check Engine Light | The Lexicans

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