DEAR CAR TALK: On a recent business trip to Minnesota, I succumbed to a local Craigslist posting for a 1988 Mercedes 560 SL convertible. Rust-free and smooth-shifting, it was more than your brother ever asked for in a car. I bought the car, parked it in a friend's barn and flew home to Oregon until I can return to make the road trip.
I know the timing chain and slide rails were recently replaced, and the brakes were serviced with new pads and rotors not 10,000 miles ago. The battery is new, the tires are good and the transmission fluid and coolant have been flushed at an appropriate interval.
I am not a mechanic. What preparations should I take to ensure strife-free travel to the West Coast so I don't end up as bison food while passing through Yellowstone?
This is what I have on my checklist so far: screwdrivers and crescent wrenches, multi-tool with assorted torques and other bits, flashlight, small battery jump pack, mini air compressor, assorted fuses, rags, spare set of belts, two quarts of oil, a spare oil filter, a gallon of water, AAA membership with 200-mile tow, and a cellphone with the Greyhound bus reservation line on speed dial.
What else should I consider when taking a road trip with this 32-year-old car? I'll send you a postcard from wherever I break down.
DEAR READER: Well, make sure you have your hairpiece glued on really well because the first thing to break will be the hydraulic mechanism that puts the convertible top back up. The problem, Richard, is that there's really no way to fully prepare for an adventure like this. You've covered yourself for 15 or 20 things that can go wrong. But there are thousands of things that can go wrong. And it's simply impossible to anticipate them all. And Murphy's Law (which is called Mercedes Law in Germany, by the way) says that what does go wrong will be something that requires a part that hasn't been in production since 1998.
So you have to make a choice. Either you want the adventure of making this trip, with all the thrills and potential tragedies and stories to tell that come along with it. Or you really just want to get the car home, in which case you can pay a car carrier $1,200 to trailer the car home for you and discover what's wrong with it while staying within "Hi hon, can you come pick me up?" distance.
If you really want the adventure, then accept that it's largely unpredictable, and you could get stuck for a month waiting for parts in Wyoming. If I were you, I'd plot out any Mercedes dealerships between Minnesota and Oregon on a map and plan a route that takes you right by every one of them. Finding someone who can work on this car and getting parts may be your biggest challenges if you have an unusual problem.
And then, plan to make the trip in the summer, when you won't freeze to death if you do get stranded. But take some fall and winter clothes with you, just in case. Enjoy, Richard.
DEAR CAR TALK: I have a 2004 Nissan Xterra with a standard transmission. There is a pretty substantial leak that is dark. It looks like oil, but my oil level isn't dropping.
The leak is under the engine on the passenger side. Since the oil level isn't dropping, what could it be? My power steering level is fine. Thanks.
DEAR READER: If it's really dark, it could be a 2016 Preston Vineyards Petite Syrah. But more likely, the leak is coming from your front differential.
Differentials allow the left and right wheels to rotate at different speeds, which they have to do when you're turning, or you'll drag your outside wheel all the way through the turn. You have two differentials on this Xterra because it has four-wheel drive; one on the front axle and one in the rear. And guess where the front differential sits? Under the engine, just to the passenger side of the oil pan. Bingo!
Unfortunately, it's hard to check the oil level in the differential, because it doesn't have a dipstick. We check it by removing the plug on the outside of the housing, sticking a finger in there (the original dipstick!) and seeing if our finger comes out with oil on it. My guess is yours won't, Jeff. So you'll save a little money on soap, and you can put that toward your new differential.
Actually, you might be OK. It depends on how low the oil level has gotten and how long you've been driving it this way. If you already hear a howling sound when you drive — if you keep looking in the rearview mirror, wondering why the state police are after you — then the differential is shot, and you'll have to replace it. But if it's not making noise yet, you can have your mechanic find the leak and fix it. It's most likely leaking from the pinion seal, which is right next to the oil pan. Although it could be one of the axle seals, too. Replacing the seals is actually a relatively easy job. It doesn't require removing the differential, and it'll probably cost you in the neighborhood of $250.
On the other hand, if it starts howling, you'll need to find yourself a good, used differential, and you'll be looking at three to five times that price. So stop reading and go get it taken care of now, Jeff.
Ray Magliozzi dispenses advice about cars in Car Talk every Saturday. Email him by visiting cartalk.com