Saturday, June 23, 2012

PanAm Prep: Vehicle Planning

One fine morning, on the 13th of June of 2012, I decided to skip the auto auction to get some extra sleep. At around 10am, I get a phone call from Tyler: "Miguel, here's something that might interest you, a 300TD diesel wagon with 143k miles and no rust. The owner wants fo'rteen nahnta-naahn". I asked him if this was one of his jokes; it was not. I told him I did not need any more projects, that I would be satisfied with a 30MPG, 4WD Isuzu trooper. However, ten minutes later I realize a daily driver could not hurt, so I headed to the auction to take a look at the car in person.

Perfect color, perfect mileage, runs great, converted suspension... as if it had fallen from heaven!

The car was just what I was looking for, from the beautiful khaki paint, to the aftermarket battery cutoff switch under the glovebox. Excellent. The engine was shaking a little, and made a familiar sound that Mercedes diesels do when their valves are not properly adjusted. There was also an envelope containing some maintenance records from the previous owner, who had replaced the motor mounts and the entire cooling and braking system. $1499 later, I drove it out of the lot.
The hydraulic suspension had been removed, so it sagged a little. Nothing a set of heavy duty springs/shocks won't fix!

For the next days I started doing some basics. I took it to my mechanic, David, who serviced the transmission, changed all the fluids and gave me a refresher on how to adjust the valves, shoulder to shoulder. It took me a while to set them right, but towards the end, with the help of a factory set of wrenches and two feeler gauges, I got the hang of it fast enough. The next day I swapped two manual window regulators from my –now– parts wagon, Orwell, and did a few quick fixes, like replacing the wiper arms or rebuilding the instrument cluster. The next two things on my laundry list are to replace the tailgate struts –Tyler has been hit in the head already– and figure out the vacuum system.


Because I am going to be living in this car for a year, I must make it somewhat of a habitable space. I have thought about the modifications I should make to it, to a point in which I almost loose sleep:

-Sleep: the options should be narrowed to thee, including a roof tent, a hard shell or just sleeping inside. After much thinking, and from a safety/inconspicuousness standpoint, the best option will be to create a living cell inside the car and put curtains and mosquito nets around it. A roof tent would not make the vehicle suitable for urban environments, and a hard shell would have to be extremely tall –and not aerodynamic at all– to accommodate me comfortably.

-Liquids: there are two main fluids in this car, fuel and water. In the event that I drive through an area where fuel is scarce, it is always a good idea to make a fuel cell, which I will mount to the roof of the car and will feed the main tank. Regarding water supply for drinking and hygiene, I decided to take the second row seat out and make it a pressurized water tank with the help of a small 12v compressor. That should make me able to take civilized showers as opposed to the Round-Up pump bottle I have been using in my previous trips. The compressor will be immensely useful to fixing flats as well.

-Electricity: I was gladly surprised at the cheap prices of small solar panels. One should be enough to charge a small motorcycle battery that should punctually power some LED lights and the compressor. There is no point in overdoing this system in such a small vehicle; anything that could charge my laptop is welcome but not required –appliances are more of a luxury than a necessity.

-Storage: the inside of the wagon will be personalized with custom lightweight cabinets in a U-shape around the sleeping cell. All of them will be covered by some kind of fabric to protect them from unwanted attention. A small safe will be welded in the little compartment where the 3rd seat is. Two shelves in the back hatch should provide enough room and clearance for two jerrycans.

-Suspension: obviously, the car needs to be raised a few inches for ground clearance. Nothing a set of heavy duty springs with the correct shims and heavy-duty Bilsterins will not fix.

-Protection: Mercedes-Benz offers a factory skid plate, but it is quite small. A custom one should be made for this long and arduous expedition. I also found a cheap brush guard off a 1980's Ford Ranger, which should fit with little modification.

-Other goodies: additional equipment includes mud ramps, a small shovel, a winch and a dashboard fan to compensate for the lack of AC. At $1000 to repair, I will be almost as happy with a $20 fix.

A quick doodle trying to figure out the best use of the space in the wagon.
Many people have asked why I would put my life in the hands of a byzantine German vehicle, and the answer is simple: it is simple, it is very reliable, I know the car already, and parts are available throughout the trip –a few minutes of research online on the Craig's List equivalent in Latin America, "Mercado Libre", should clear any doubts on the W123 Mercedes being a true world-class car.

During the testing of this Mercedes model, several cars were taken to remote locations and put under severe circumstances (ovens, freezers, wind tunnels, purpose-built tracks) to test its durability. Over 6.7 million sales later, the W123 Mercedes is still ubiquitous all over the world, many a time as a taxi.

The way these cars are designed may seem complex, yet their sturdy construction rarely allows for a catastrophic breakdown. In the event of something being non-functional, the car could still limp to a safe location. This happened to me in the Texas desert, when my alternator and battery died: I still managed, though the sheer power of cylinder compression, to drive for 600 extra miles.

Finally, there is the sentimental factor. The Mercedes W123 wagon has been one of my childhood's favourite automobiles. I have always wanted to own one, and now that I do and I know how to work and troubleshoot them, I have decided to make them the vehicle of a one-in-a-lifetime journey towards the unknown in the depths of the American continent, to the very tip of Argentina.


In the following weeks the material shown here will get exponentially more and more interesting. I will have separate entries for tools, supplies, spare parts and the modification process of this unique, beautiful car. Stay tuned for upcoming updates, and don't forget to make a contribution on my Indiegogo fundraiser to make the absolute best out of this journey and get some perks and goodies!

1 comment:

  1. Mercedes-Benz has sold a number of automobiles with the "190" model name: W121, W110 and W201. This model was produced from 1955 until 1993. Online auto repair manuals Mercedes is available for those cars.