Saturday, June 23, 2012

On Getting The Van Back

Not My Van, but One Like It

Since this is a personal blog, I don't have much compunction regarding writing about issues like The Van or The Electric Bill or Failed Projects or Illnesses or what have you. It's all part of life and living, stuff we all go through in one way or another. Every now and then the personal might resonate just a little bit beyond the selfish.

Yesterday was the day for picking up The Van in Atwater. The guy I'd left it with -- Jim -- has a general repair shop and every time I've been there, he's the only one there. He's busy, but very friendly and open, quite unlike the chain store repair folks I'm used to dealing with who are basically sales oriented. (Just a side note: we've been having our vehicles serviced and repaired mostly at a Goodyear place in town for many years, through all kinds of staff turnovers. While they generally do a better job than many other places we've tried, and their prices are usually fair, they've screwed up on occasion, and they never miss a chance to "sell." It's all right that they do so, it's just that it's usually unnecessary.)

The van's transmission had gone out while I was driving on the freeway coming into Atwater on the way to New Mexico. Atwater is about 100 miles south of my starting point in the Central Valley. In fact, it happened just before a freeway exit to Atwater. The transmission didn't fail completely, it just got increasingly noisy. I could still drive the van but I didn't think it was safe to do so for any distance. Since it was Saturday (June 9) when this happened, there were few options for repair open, so I had The Van towed to an open smog-check/tire store. They kept it over the weekend and took it to the repair shop across the street on Monday for diagnosis. They repaired what they could -- a loose catalytic converter -- and waited for me to come back to discuss what else needed doing. I got back there last Friday and did a very short test drive -- no way was I going to drive it any distance. So I took it to the repair shop across the street from the smog check/tire shop, and the proprietor greeted me with the friendly statement: "You've got a transmission problem." After discussing what to do, how long it would take and how much it would cost, I left The Van with him to rebuild the transmission. He said he would also check possible other problems that might have been contributing to the noises. He said he thought he would have it done by Wednesday and would call.

I didn't hear from him, so I called him Wednesday afternoon and left a message. Finally Thursday evening he called back, said the transmission was still on the bench but he was almost done with it, thought he would be able to have it back in The Van by Friday but maybe not in the morning. He would call by 10am or so. Fine.

He called about 2:30pm to say it was done. Yay! Ordinarily it's about a two hour drive to Atwater, and that's what I was calculating to get there by 5:00pm since there were some things we had to take care of before we left. I wasn't counting on traffic. Not at all. I've frequently been on northbound Highway 99 that time of day -- on Fridays too -- but not on southbound 99. Traffic was surprisingly heavy and slow on the way south to Atwater. It took almost three hours to get there.  Even though we called while on the road to say we'd be late (!), it looked like the place was closed when we got there. Nobody appeared to be around  and the door looked locked.

Well, surprise. Jim was there, waiting, and said that he runs into inexplicable traffic jams on 99 too, you just can't anticipate how long it's going to take. He didn't mind waiting. He gave a very thorough rundown of what had happened to the van -- a bearing in the transmission gave way, and that's what caused the problems. He said it was a remanufactured transmission, not the original. (The engine and transmission had been replaced before I bought The Van and I bought it for cost from the shop that had done the work when the previous owner never paid.)

Jim had stripped the transmission down and rebuilt it himself. It was not badly damaged, but he said if I had driven it much farther it wouldn't have been as simple to repair by a long shot. He showed me the bearing that had failed and the damaged gears he had replaced, and said it happened because that particular bearing was weak, but more importantly, the driveshaft connection had not been greased since the transmission had been put in, and over time, that starts causing problems inside the transmission until it fails.

And sure enough. It failed. He found some other issues that were easy fixes. For example, when the radiator was replaced a few years ago (that was a saga in its own right), the repair people didn't replace the clip holding the transmission cooling line, so it was loose and leaking. He fixed that. There were some issues with the differential seals, but he figured it would hold for several more years without too much trouble, so he greased the differential and let it be. Finally, he said the intake manifold was leaking (yes, I know) and he gave me a tube of stop-leak to put in the radiator when it is cold which should hold it for another year or so. Actually, the leak has been manageable so far.

His charge was lower than his low estimate -- he said he didn't have to replace that many parts was why. And he was able to take care of some other issues and still come in under his low estimate. He said the Astro van, which of course is no longer manufactured, is his favorite of the Chevy vans because it is so reliable and relatively easy to repair. That's the first time I've heard anybody say it was easy to repair! Every time I've had to have work done on it, I hear much cursing about how difficult it is to get to various things that need fixing. Which is why the intake manifold hasn't been repaired yet. The guy who diagnosed it a couple of months ago said, "It's a beast to fix." I believe him.

As it is, the transmission repair is the most extensive I've had done in the years I've had The Van, and given how much service this van has given over those years, I figure it's well worth it to keep it running a while longer.

In fact, I've had a number of offers to buy it from various people who've serviced it; every time, such offers surprise me. But then, the instant I spotted The Van with a for sale sign, I really didn't hesitate. It was just what I needed and the price was right.

As I drove The Van back north yesterday, intending to reschedule a drive to New Mexico to start today, I was pleased with how smooth it ran, how much it seemed still to enjoy the road and how comforting it was for me in the driver's seat. I was glad and grateful to have it back.

Maybe I won't start on the trip to New Mexico until tomorrow though. Don't want to push it too much too fast.

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