Feb 2012

Blog, North America

DISCUSSION 10 Comments

El Golpeador Tries Volkswagen Mechanics

El Golpeador was a squat man who moved about hurriedly.  He was missing half of his little finger, likely due to the rapidity with which he carried out his projects.  As he approached Nacho, I could see through the pouring rain that he was carrying a bucket full of tools, none of which were intended for a rear wheel bearing replacement; a pipe wrench, a long bar, a hammer, vise grips.  I got that sinking feeling, the one you get when you forget to set the emergency brake, and then watch the station wagon carrying your whole family roll backwards into fast moving traffic.

How did we get here?  It all started when I failed to fix this problem in Guanajuato, as I eluded to in my last post.

On the way to San Miguel de Allende I carried out a meticulous series of troubleshooting steps to hone in on the problem.  A casual observer might have seen me swerving violently, randomly pulling the hand brake, revving the engine, slamming on the brakes, creating an aura of danger about Nacho.  To the trained professional, I was troubleshooting.  The Van Whisperer.  The frequency of vibration was independent from engine speed, so it wasn’t in the engine or transmission.  Braking didn’t change the sound, so it probably wasn’t a CV joint.  The vibration could be momentarily eliminated during hard right turns, so it probably had something to do with a wheel on the right side.  The vibration couldn’t be felt through the hand brake, while it could be felt in the foot brake, so it was likely in the front wheel.  There we go, front right wheel.  So easy a mere child could do it!

When we arrived at the campground in San Miguel de Allende we settled in amongst enormous German and Swiss overlanding rigs, sliding into a state of rig envy.  We’d been inside a few of these types at the Overland Expo, and knew they were luxurious.  The elaborate electrical systems, the plush interiors, the indentured servants.  The only vibration these things feel while driving is caused by crushing lowly Vanagons under their enormous tires.  Yeah, we told ourselves, but good luck parallel parking. Lying to ourselves is a defense mechanism.

Over the course of our stay, we found San Miguel de Allende to be charming.  The people were pleasant, the streets were kept clean, and its cobbled roads and brightly colored shops made it seem quaint.  The place is full of retired foreigners; Americans, Germans, British, Canadians.  Whereas this would usually bother us, it actually kind of works in San Miguel.  It lacked the obnoxious English language solicitations and predatory corner-lurking salesmen.  The town operated as a Mexican mountain town where foreigners happened to live.  On nice days, groups of friends would meet at the tennis courts for a few games.  Bulletin boards advertised Spanish emersion programs.  I walked into a wine bar to ask where I could buy European beer, and toward the end of our conversation the woman asked if I spoke English.  Turned out she was American too, albeit with a convincing Mexican accent, but it was never presumed that we would do business in English.  This was, after all, Mexico.  It was all very refreshing to know that a town like this was possible.

One afternoon we spoke to Hans, whose family operated our campground, to see if he knew of any good mechanics.  The next morning, Silverio, a suspension specialist with 10 years’ experience, showed up with an assistant in tow.

I told Silverio that we wanted all of our front wheel bearings replaced.  He crawled under Nacho and showed me that, in addition to our wheel bearings, our rack and pinion had too much play, and that the bushings holding the rack and pinion to the frame were all shot.  For good measure, we asked him to have the brake rotors resurfaced as well, and to replace the front brake pads.  We were going to lick this problem with the “replace everything” method.  To make a good situation great, we didn’t even have to move Nacho from his place in the campground.  Sheena, who at this time had been feeling ill for a few days, was able to sleep upstairs the whole time they worked.  See? Breaking down in Mexico makes getting sick fun!

Without hesitation, the two of them started in on Nacho.  Within minutes the rotors were off, they had the rack and pinion removed, and they were tapping the wheel bearings out.  Before we knew it, they were walking into town carrying our rotors and the rack and pinion. By evening the rotors were machined, they had tightened up the steering, replaced the rack and pinion bushings, the front wheel bearings, and the front brake pads.  The total cost was $102.

The next day, when the sun came up we hit the road.  Shortly thereafter, terror settled upon us like a wet blanket.  The sound was back, the low hum and vibration.  I swerved violently a few times and grabbed the hand brake, just to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.

We pulled into the next town and asked about a mechanic, which is how we became acquainted with El Golpeador.  I took him for a ride, showed him all of the symptoms, and told him what we’d already done.  He walked around a bit, looked under the car, and made his announcement.

“It’s the muffler.”

He said it with such confidence, in the way that a politician makes a promise.  I reiterated my extensive troubleshooting results, and he decided it was indeed not the muffler, and instead must be a rear wheel bearing.  It was at this point that he disappeared into his garage, and emerging through the pouring rain with his collection of incorrect tools.

El Golpeador first grabbed his pipe wrench, slid his long bar over the handle, and tried unsuccessfully to remove the axle lock nut. After giving up, he jacked Nacho up and removed the wheel, but that was apparently the extent of his expertise.  His next move was to use his hammer to ravish, with all of his strength, Nacho’s delicate brake drum.

“Stoooop!  What are you doing!?”  He looked up at me as if I were insane.  “All you have to do is remove these two bolts and it’ll slide off!”  He pulled out his vise-grips and removed the bolts while my mood continued to darken.  As I watched him remove our brake pads, it was clear he had no idea what he was doing.  He proceeded to loosen the brake backing plate before realizing that he couldn’t actually remove it without removing the hub lock nut.  Next, he reached behind and started loosening the bolts that hold the hub housing together.  Having done this job before myself, I knew this was a time consuming dead end road.

“What exactly are you hoping to accomplish?  Once you get those bolts undone you still won’t be able to get the bearings out.  You need to remove the lock nut.”

He tried to convince me that he could get the bearings off from the back of the stub axle.  At this point I told him to stop, I got out the Bentley manual, and showed him an exploded view of the rear hub assembly.  He still tried to convince me that he could do it, that he could defy the laws of the universe, that he could bend the space-time continuum.  At this, I kindly asked him to put everything back together, which took considerable time, and then we left.

Dumbass.  Everyone knows that Chuck Norris is the only one who can bend the space-time continuum.  And so we flipped Nacho around and slowly made our way back to San Miguel de Allende to see Silverio again.  The Mexican Chuck Norris.

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  1. Billy

    What a beautiful area that is! My wife and I are back in the states now but a few years ago we were traveling Mexico in our 89 westy and liked it so much we just stayed there for a year and a half. I’ve got friends in the Deloris hildago area. We got rearended there and got everything fixed and repainted for 200 pesos. Hard to beat that!!

    Comment by Billy on February 13, 2012 at 4:42 pm

  2. Tor

    Ach – sounds like a headache! Hope you get Nacho fixed, but you could be stuck in a lot worse places than San Miguel! By chance, have you asked the nice folks at The Samba yet? Somebody’s bound to know exactly what’s wrong. Good luck!

    Comment by Tor on February 13, 2012 at 4:55 pm

  3. Richard J

    Brad… sorry to hear that Nacho is sick too. Hope Sheena is feeling better.
    This might sound crazy, but my dodge caravan had a similar issue. I tried everything… eventually had to replace the tires for a difference reason, and it went completely away. The crazy thing was that the tires were relatively new… but none the less, unbalanced and causing a vibration that drove us crazy.
    Good luck!

    Comment by Richard J on February 13, 2012 at 5:16 pm

  4. I haven’t asked TheSamba yet, but I suppose that would be my next move. Silverio and Mario are working on it now. I took Silverio for a ride and he seemed sure it was the rear (I didn’t take him out the last time). We should know by the end of the day if it worked. In any case, we’ll have more new parts and won’t be out much dinero.

    @Richard: I swapped out the spare tire for the one I thought was causing the sound, but it didn’t change. I guess I could try changing it to all 4 tires and see.

    Comment by Brad on February 13, 2012 at 5:32 pm

  5. johngo

    Have no envy for those so called “overland” rigs. They are obscenely and unnecessarily humungo, resource hogs in every way, cost more then the GDP of most countries they travel thru, remove you from the locals, are gas pigs, and yes, a bitch to parallel park. People who think you need a rig like this to drive the world are deluded. (Note how it’s mostly Germans who do this.)

    It’s the same as the 100′ motor yacht vs the 30 foot sailboat – both can travel around the world; the latter needs more expertise and skill.

    Comment by johngo on February 13, 2012 at 6:19 pm

  6. Sven

    Mexican Chuck Norris! :)

    Comment by Sven on February 13, 2012 at 6:46 pm

  7. @Billy: The Germans in the white rig came here 3 years ago and never left. They’ve been in the same spot at the campground for 3 years! We stopped in Dolores Hidalgo on the way here and had some food. Very nice little town.

    Comment by Brad on February 13, 2012 at 7:36 pm

  8. Brian in San Diego

    Wow, what an adventure guys. My dad and I are following your blog with much interest. He’s got a 1990 westy with a 2.5 gowesty motor, with little left of the van that hasn’t been modded or restored. I drive a jeep cherokee and pull a simple trailer since the interior of the car is filled with my wife and 3 daughters. As the girls have grown and have become more “campable” we’ve definitely looked @ westy’s as a possible upgrade, and definitely appreciate your opinions and observations about going on this type of journey.

    Good luck with the repairs. I’m sure it’ll get sorted. What’s great is in the end you’ll have a keen knowledge of what condition individual systems are in within the undercarriage/suspension system. Cheers and God bless.

    Comment by Brian in San Diego on February 15, 2012 at 3:29 pm

  9. LM

    Loving following your adventures do you follow the Dennings who are traveling Mexico in their veggie powered truck (accept they have 5 kids with them!) Good luck with getting the repairs done!

    Comment by LM on February 15, 2012 at 11:42 pm

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