Side Street Life - With Geoff and His Huge Mobile Work Shop - Tehachapi, California

A Very Mechanical Journey

Moments … hindsight can be a wonderful thing, allowing reflection on past events, seeing patterns perhaps but in this case to identify a moment in time that changed my mindset in a fairly major way. There are also moments when a shift happens or when an epiphany is reached; moments of wonder, excitement and realisation. As I say moments … an important concept in the normal, seemingly uninterrupted, flow of time in one’s life.

In this case it was the day after my 50th birthday whilst laying on the ground under Hanna outside Marie Fred and Cuauhtémoc’s house in Guadalajara when this particular moment occurred. The events of the preceding 72 hours had led to this (well the preceding 30 years really) moment in time. If you have been following our rather disjointed posts, you will know that on the climb up to Tepic Hanna had started to exhibit major overheating symptoms again causing us to need to climb the hills in that region at around 20Kph.

In the immediate 2 hours prior to this I had been removing the additional fan that I had built in to a stud-wall across the front of Hanna’s radiator in Tepic and replace it with an even more powerful fan that straps through the radiator fins and hopefully help solve our seemingly endless battle with Hanna’s overheating problem; one that we had had since a day in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia back in September 2015.

The work was going well and Sas was online to our wonderful new friends within the Classic Hymers group on FB (without whom we may never have even left Halifax) we had asked questions about our overheating problem so many times in the previous 6 months that on this day I felt a little sheepish to be asking again but as always the group responded with support and help.

So we had full technical analysis from time-served Mercedes mechanics, owners that repair their own vehicles and snippets and notes from other owners chipping in little things that had once happened to them in similar situations. On one of the FB posts I noticed that someone had suggested washing out the radiator with a garden hose to remove crud and allow better airflow and on another post yet another owner had noted that if the earth strap to the chassis of the vehicle was weak then the temperature gauge would read incorrectly.

So after running a hose from the house over the wall I hosed out most of the beach from Baja California from between the fins of the radiator. Next it was a quick slide under the van to where the earth strap was … and in that moment … right there on the street squeezed under Hanna’s ‘massive’ 40cm ground clearance, that the moment happened.

The earth strap was undone, not completely, that would have meant many more symptoms and potentially finding it earlier, but undone enough for the connection to vary according to the shaking of the van or the gradient we were climbing or simply the amount of leaking fluid from the automatic transmission trapped inside the point of contact of the strap and the chassis bolt.

And I saw then, that way back in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia at the very first mechanics we were at, that someone had undone the earth strap to access the rear engine mount (one of the jobs that they spent some time on) and whichever mechanic it was had failed to even wind the nut back to a position prior to final tightening – they had just left it loose with a centimetre of thread showing between the chassis connection and the nut, and I can say with certainty that I checked whether the bolt and nut could have come undone from shaking, it could not it was a nylock nut that resists unscrewing from shaking.

The consequences of this – for a professional mechanic – massive error, tumbled through my mind. We had NEVER had an overheating problem, the gauge read incorrectly and changed its reading according to shakes and gradients and fluid. That we had spent over £1500 in Dartmouth at the garage that caused the problem (with them saying it wasn’t their fault, taking no responsibility for the damage that had occurred on their forecourt) paying for them to diagnose the problem and repair it which they never managed. This included ordering a viscous fan clutch from Mercedes in the UK and having it shipped over and then paying the same garage to fit it. We had endless flushes of coolant (costing $$ every time) trying find an airlock, endless test drives to see if the latest ideas had worked. The ordering of ALL new parts to replace the cooling system that arrived in Bakersfield, California that we then paid Geoff, a great diesel mechanic in Tehachapi, California, to fit while we lived on a side street for a couple of days; that cost us another £1500 or so never mind the stress and daily worry for close on 18,000kms that we lived through as each day of driving became a struggle and a source of discord, argument and lack of enjoyment of our journey.


Hanna With No Grille, Radiator, Belts - Tehachapi, California
Hanna With No Grille, Radiator, Belts – Tehachapi, California


Side Street Life - With Geoff and His Huge Mobile Work Shop - Tehachapi, California
Side Street Life – With Geoff and His Huge Mobile Work Shop – Tehachapi, California


Hanna's - Unnecessary - Shiny New Water Pump - Tehachapi, California
Hanna’s – Unnecessary – Shiny New Water Pump – Tehachapi, California


So back to that moment then – the moment in which I resolved to take 100% responsibility for the diagnosis and repair of Hanna. No longer to give over my power and ability to problem solve (with Google and Classic Hymer’s help of course) mechanical issues with Hanna. I was so angry after that moment, it took me a while to start to let go of the thousands of unnecessary ££s spent, time to accept fully my new role of mechanic, researcher and decision maker with regard to next steps, parts needed, ways of achieving a good outcome without breaking our now dwindling financial resources. But it was that moment right there when it happened. I am glad that it happened I have nearly (but no where near completely) forgiven the unknown mechanic in Dartmouth for his error.

The same day that the overheating started in Nova Scotia another symptom occurred – and that was a spewing and boiling over automatic transmission box. Again the mechanics at the workshop would take no responsibility for the problem saying only that they would help resolve it – paid of course.

That little problem meant that for the next 23,000kms I needed to check the fluid levels in the gearbox every driving day and correct them by adding more fluid whilst watching fluid run off the back and bottom of the gearbox every time we stopped – we must have put 10 to 15 litres of fluid in that gearbox, 100ml at a time, over the next 8 months. Always the filling instructions never seemed correct to me but I couldn’t find out the correct filling procedure until we reached Southern Mexico and a random Google search led me to a Mercedes forum and within one thread I found out that filling the gearbox at exactly 80 degrees C was vital due to the nature of the fluid expansion at differing temperatures. Only at 80C could one be sure that the filling marks on the dipstick were giving a correct reading. I also discovered that although Mercedes themselves specify the ‘correct’ fluid designation to use, their recommendations in this case are something that the classic owners community do not agree with and that for this older transmission only something called Dexron lll would work correctly as the newer specifications of fluid were too thin and wait for it …. expanded too much when hot. Another moment of realisation. The mechanics in Dartmouth had said that they were getting us ready for our long trip and checked the autobox fluid … now I don’t know this for certain, so I am surmising that they didnt know the correct filling temperature either or that they should use dexron lll as opposed to the more common and modern Dexron Vl, so it is entirely possible that on that day, trying to be helpful, someone added more fluid of the incorrect type at the wrong engine temperature.

So that evening, when we left the forecourt for our next stop, two things happened. The temperature shot up on the gauge and the noise from the gearbox suddenly changed as the excess fluid was expelled from the breather port as the gearbox cannot handle even a tad more fluid than it should have. I now know that in an overfilling situation the fluid gets excessively hot firstly, expands secondly, stops lubricating the complicated engineering internally – causing more heat, and then finally this boiling mass expels from the top of the gearbox.


Wet Transmission and the offending Earth Strap Connection - Correctly connected
Wet Transmission and the offending Earth Strap Connection – Correctly connected


Auto-Box Leaking From the Interior Via a Worn O-Ring
Auto-Box Leaking From the Interior Via a Worn O-Ring


Although I seem to be blaming the mechanics in Nova Scotia (which I am) I am also explaining how this very mechanical journey has been both physical and metaphysical for me and the moments in time that have led me to here, now. Meaning that five weeks ago I was preparing a work flow sheet to diagnose all the problems with the gearbox and then, with Saskia’s input, arranging for me to do exploratory work at a local mechanics workshop using his tools – Thanks Jugar (if anyone is reading this and needs a great english speaking mechanic in San Cristobal de las Casas he is your man), test drives, ordering parts from the UK and determining which fluid available here would be the best for Hanna and then last week, after the parts had arrived from the UK (thanks again Simon) working to replace seals (o-rings) on our automatic transmission, removing stuff from the transmission itself and repairing/replacing as per my investigations. I am not a mechanic, but maybe I have the mindset to problem solve and only lack experience and confidence; I can deal with those things and I take full responsibility for the consequences of my work, becoming a more accomplished and experienced engineer at every stage of this very mechanical journey … and who knows maybe I am learning to be a better human because of it.

For completeness sakes the other physical mechanical opportunities that I didn’t take upon myself because I hadn’t reached my moment yet were:

Paying a lovely bunch of guys near Parry Sound Ontario, Canada to, in effect, clean the exciter connection on the alternator.

Paying a lot of cash to watch a very nice guy change our fuel filter in Ash Fork, near the grand canyon – but I learned how to change the fuel filter which I have since done twice.

Only to then breakdown on the side of the freeway outside Flagstaff, Arizona and have to get recovered to High Mountain Diesel Repair, to watch Andy remove the fuel tank, fuel pipes, sender unit filter and empty out 23 years of crud from the tank and pipes, to stop Hanna sucking so hard on the blocked fuel pipes that she drew in air to the system causing loss of power and ultimately a complete I-aint-going-anywhere breakdown. And I have now removed the fuel tank another 3 times to effect the same cleaning, so thank you Andy I learned a lot that day.

The supposed experts in automatic transmissions in Tulum that agreed a fee for a fluid change, new filter and pan seal plus repair of leaking pipes and seals. They actually just took everything apart and put it back together with silicon – oh and they removed a bad rear oil seal and put on one from … oh maybe a tricycle I think, that made it leak more – we ended up not paying them at least – this was after that ‘moment’ and although someone else did the work, I at least inspected the work before payment and discovered their … mmm … bodges.

Then there are the other moments that I let unknown mechanics loose on Hanna and wouldn’t now change or do differently.

The guy in Tulum (recommended) that I paid to remove the ‘broken’ steering box and replace with the one that finally arrived from the UK (thanks Simon).

The other guys in Tulum that changed the oil and filter (we provided and watched the work) – it’s a dirty job and I think we paid £5 for the work plus oil and filter and I didn’t get covered in oil.

The wonderful Kimu in Merida – wouldnt change that experience.

So finally to San Cristobal de las Casas, where I have done the best I can do with automatic gearbox and we will see how well it holds up as we head for Guatemala and beyond.

Moments, of power, transition and personal growth – opportunities come in many varied disguises and the growing pains maybe too painful the first few times around but eventually we have to embrace them and move to the next level. Who knows maybe next I will learn not to be grumpy in the morning … Sas what ya’ reckon? 🙂


12 Responses

  1. Dad
    | Reply

    Great post.

    • Mark
      | Reply

      Thanks Simon x

  2. michael renovich
    | Reply


    • Mark
      | Reply

      Hi Michael – Indeed it is and for now continues to be. x x x

  3. michael renovich
    | Reply

    and loco

    • Mark
      | Reply

      More to come I am sure x x x

  4. Vannie
    | Reply

    Haha. Well done Mark. Truly a learning experience! I guess it proves the adage “If you want something doing properly, do it yourself”! Very glad to hear your confidence is building…my brother in law built his house using YouTube so it clearly can be done with the power of t’internet! Love reading your posts. Love to you both xXx

    • Mark
      | Reply

      Hi Vannie – DIY is a much abused term in the UK but maybe this is the spirit of that acronym. I guess the approach to house building that your brother-in-law used is one that applies to every endeavour … if one wants to do something then learn how to do it, practice it and then do it. Love to you 3. x x x

  5. M & D
    | Reply

    Hi you two Mark I loved the blog so practical. I’m glad you are learning fast hope no more breakdowns. Your grandfather Watson (Marine Engineer in Royal Navy) and grandfather Southgate (Army Engineer in the REME) would both be so proud of you, as we are lots of love us

    • Mark
      | Reply

      Hi Mum and Dad – Thanks for those lovely words; our family heritage is definitely one of DIY in all aspects of life. It was a post that I have been wanting to write for ages and am glad that I managed to get it out there at last. we still have to the final ‘hard drive’ test to see if the seals I changed – and the one I had to repair with gasket maker – will hold under extreme conditions. We are going to try for Guatemala tomorrow. There have been massive road blockades for the last 2 weeks between here and the border and at the border kindly provided by the Mexican teachers union – protesting about the removal of pension rights, long term contracts and the general privatisation of the schools here – so tomorrow we are off to see if we can squeeze Hanna through a couple of gaps in the blockades. Love to you both, Mark and Sas x x x

  6. Sev
    | Reply

    Zen and the Art of Motorhome Maintenance?
    Brilliant post Mark, really enjoyed it. So much of you in there.

    Love from us all xxx

    • Mark
      | Reply

      Hey Sev – That’s a very cool – Thanks Sev and yes absolutley … my zen like attitude does waver though depending on the amount of coffee and the seriousness of the problem. Love to the girls and youself. Mark x

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