It all started a couple of months ago. Maybe you are familiar with the feeling: You are driving along a scenic, winding mountain road, nice and quiet in second gear because of the steep gradient. In some corners you need to shift back into first. Then you hear a strange sound and feel a slight tug in the steering wheel, but as scenery changes the moment fades away in the back of your memory.
A few days later you hear it again and you start thinking you are having a déjà vu, but reckon that you probably hit a stone. However, when it happens once again and you see that the road is a smooth as can be, the memory trickles back and you start anticipating when it may happen again.
The First Signs of a Major Problem
Over the course of a few weeks of driving in the mountains in southern Peru [read about it here], on perfect asphalt, I had nailed it. When driving curves steep uphill in first gear, both the sound and the steering-wheel-tug were there. Well, most of the times.
“I think there is something wrong with the steering linkage. Possibly we need to replace a few tie-rod-ends,” I told Karin-Marijke.
“But you replaced one in Suriname,” she replied.
“I know. I’ll have a look at it in town.”
Problem Solving in Arequipa?
When we drove into Arequipa we passed a new, shiny Toyota dealership. I thought this might be a sign, so I pointed the Land Cruiser’s nose towards it. Inside warm coffee welcomed me as I inquired whether they had tie-rod-ends in stock. Alas it was not to be [maybe that was a sign as well?] and the guy behind the desk told me not to expect them in Lima either and that if I wanted them, they would have to be ordered from Japan.
We reeled out of the dealership only to be flagged down 25 meters down the road by Enrique, a Facebook fan who works at the Conauto Perú Car Wash. He offered to wash our car for free. He was thrilled to see us and showed us his father’s old FJ40 which he had been restoring in his free time.
Problem Solving in Lima?
Fast forward. Some weeks later we found ourselves in Lima at Fire Wheels, arguably the best workshop in Peru [read about it here], where we checked the tie-rod-ends but found nothing wrong with them. I had been drawing the wrong conclusions. With the mechanic I did notice that the right front wheel bearing wasn’t tight enough and the two engine mounts had a play of about 5 mms.
We fixed these issues and went for a short test drive. In Lima it is difficult to find a steep gradient hill with sharp bends, but we found a few and I was happy to notice that the sound and the tugging of the steering wheel had gone.
Not until Ecuador that was, where we returned to driving steep hills.
“That sound is back!” Karin-Marijke exclaimed.
“Yeah, I know, it was never gone I think.”
“But I thought you said you got it tackled in Lima.”
“So I thought. I guess it has to be something else then.”
And there I went again, straight back in my thinking box, and my brain kept on grinding what it could possibly be. Maybe I needed to check the wheel bearings again, or I could take the steering apart to have a look. On and on it went in my head, eliminating silly ideas and keeping the good ones on a virtual list.
Add to the List: The Horn Honking Itself
When we drove the narrow gravel roads the sound was gone, or we didn’t hear it. However, it was replaced by something more annoying. With every little bump, pothole or ditch the horn honked, especially if another car or person was near. In itself not bad when some good-looking girls were about, but it did embarrass me when we drove past a police checkpoint or traversed a small town.
Another thing seemed related to the horn or the steering wheel issues as well. As we drove off-roads, the steering shaft made an eerie rasping sound like you hear when somebody draws a fork over a ceramic plate, or draws a piece of chalk on a board. You know, the sound that gives you goosebumps. Karin-Marijke made sure this issue immediately moved up the car-problem-priority hit parade as number one.
I had a closer look at the steering wheel and saw that the rag-joint was completely pushed in. It was not the flat piece of rubber it once was, and I was sure this was the piece that was causing all the problems. Could it be that simple?
In Cuenca, we met up with Lenny, a retired North American who has been restoring his FJ40 named The Beast. We spent an afternoon talking about various subjects, one being our Land Cruisers, of course. Lenny imports most of his parts, so I didn’t even bother to ask if he thought I could score an original rag-joint in Cuenca; it would have to wait until the capital, Quito.
Add to the To-do List – an Un-centered Hood
During our loops left and right of the Pan-American Highway we drove around and up some wicked volcanoes. I noticed the hood sitting a bit awkward. It was no longer centered and stuck out a bit to the left, something I added to the mix of things already in the back of my head.
Still accompanying us were the goose bump sounds and at the horn continue to honk itself as well at random moments and places. When we camped at the base of the Cotopaxi Volcano and were enjoying our homemade bread [read about it here], I noticed that there was no mud on the inside of the left fender.
That’s odd, I thought and headed over to the right fender. Yeah, mud, as it is supposed to after driving an off-road track. Now why wouldn’t there be any mud on the left one? Over coffee I slowly turned my head from left to right inside the left fender and I noticed four loose washers.
“Wow, that’s it,” I shouted.
“What?” Karin-Marijke turned her head to see what I was doing.
“Look these washers moving loosely up and down. That means these bolts aren’t tight enough and the whole fender can move up and down a little.”
“Maybe that explains the crooked hood.”
“Yes, and maybe also the clacking sound in the corners?”
“But not the steering tug, do you think?”
“No, you’re right, but how about the rag-joint…”
Problem Solving in Ecuador?
I was set to find some answers in Quito. So when we arrived I there, I was disillusioned by the non-existent workshop that Dare2Go had mentioned [which coincidently I found a week later, more on that in part two]. I drove around the block and found some open-air body workshops owners. They told me they could help me out. I felt confident about one of the places and wanted to return the next day.
However, that afternoon one of the police officers at the Carolina Parque police station [where we camped, for GPS Waypoint see here] came for a chat about the Land Cruiser. He told me his dream about going with his family on an extended South America tour. One thing led to another and half an hour later we were at his friend’s workshop. Would that be an option?
“That rag-joint looks fine and has nothing to do with your horn problem,” he stated bluntly.
“What about the warped hood? Do you think the loose fender could be it?” I asked him.
“Well, I can’t help you. I’m a mechanic, not a body workshop.”
Searching for the Right Body Workshop
Meanwhile we saw some of Quito’s magnificent historic center, went running at 06.30am every other day with loads of other like-minded sporty citizens. We treated ourselves to Nike caps and dry-fit running shirts as the shop offered remarkable discounts that day. While paying at the counter we met two friendly Venezuelan tourists who at the sight of our cash dollars jumped up and offered to pay for our purchases with their credit card if we gave them our notes. Apparently, the situation in Venezuela worsened rapidly and cash was hard to get, a story that sounded similar to that of Argentineans.
At the locally-made outdoor-clothes store of Tatoo we replaced my six-year-old, tattered trekking pants. We met with Mauricio, the owner, and Diego, a very amiable marketing strategist. The latter offered us a hot shower, washing machine and a family dinner. We talked endlessly, ended up sleeping in the parking lot in front of Diego’s apartment building. The next day I received a message from Diego saying that he talked to his friend Pedro, who has a workshop nearby and that he was expecting us.
Yes, the Solution – New Leaf Springs
When we drove in the large, covered workshop, I immediately noticed some beautifully colored antique cars – not your everyday shiny gray, white or black, modern, plastic people transporter. We parked between a light-blue old-series Land Rover and a bit darker-blue Datsun 1200. Next to these stood a second generation dark-blue Toyota Celica and a bright-red Auto Union. Across from us were old Mercedes Benz saloons, a gray Peugeot 504, a cute little blue Renault which model I didn’t recognize, a bright red BMW 2002 and remarkably a Trabant. I felt right at home.
“So how can we help you?” Pedro asked.
“Well, if you can help me sort out this crooked hood that would be great.” I showed him the hood and the loose fender.
“Okay, let me call my bodywork guy and I’ll have him have take a look this afternoon,” he said while taking his mobile phone from his shirt to start calling.
While on the phone he walked around our Land Cruiser and pointed to our rear suspension and gestured it was sitting low. I nodded and he motioned me to follow him. Still talking on the phone he pointed out some grayish thick leafs from what looked like a modern car. He hung up.
“Okay, Washington can do that work on the hood and it will take him two days, he said. He wants to take apart the complete front end. But he can’t make it today. He’ll be here on Wednesday. In the meantime I noticed that you Land Cruiser is hanging low in the back and not driving in an aerodynamic position.”
Pedro looked at me smilingly as we both knew that aerodynamics is not something we worry about with our car. I like him. He has humor, comes right to the point and tells me what he can and can’t do, pointing out things he sees are wrong and offers solutions.
He had some dismantled leafs from a Volkswagen Amarok and suggested to replace three thinner leafs with two long, thick leafs so that we would ride a little more comfortable and the Land Cruiser would gain a few centimeters as well. We could camp in the workshop so we didn’t have to worry about having to work on a day-to-day basis and move every night.
“Great, let’s do it,” I told him.
“Good, I’ll give you Julio to help you take down the rear suspension.”
Julio and I hit it off and had the leaf-springs down in an hour. The shocks were still in good working condition but Pedro didn’t like the looks of the Old Man Emu shackles. He disappeared and returned with two newer models that have thicker plates but lacked the grease nipples.
“We’ll have the torneo drill holes here and add a rosca so that you can re-use the grease nipples on these.”
When Julio and I dismantled the leaf-spring packs Pedro showed me an even thicker leaf from an Izusu truck and smiled. I smiled back and knew what he was thinking. We would get the rear suspension solved once and for all. I just knew.
Restoring Utterly Rusted Rims
Meanwhile Pedro walked around the back of the car and stopped to look at the spare wheel.
“Hey, Coen. Have a look at this.” And he pointed at rusty spots on the rim.
“Yeah, when we repaired the tire the last time, the vulcanisadora told me I had to get those rims looked at in the future.”
“Well, the future is here now and we’ll see if we can find a solution.”
Santiago, a friend of Pedro, was joining the conversations as he knew a sandblaster who might be able to help us out. Santiago and his namesake son were spending the holidays in the workshop. During the ten days they were in the workshop as well, we spent quite some time together and the Santiagos took us out on a few nights around town to show us the sights.
We were supplied with various solutions to the rim problem. One being buying second-hand rims for 75 USD a piece, but I was not sure about second-hand rims as I know Graeme [read about A2A’s adventure here] had some serious issues with the ones he bought in Chile a few months earlier. The sandblasting thing would set me back a 35 USD without paint and the guy had not even seen the rims yet.
Pedro had an idea and took the worst rim. With Santiago we drove a few blocks north to a cromadora where they can acid-dip the rims until all rust has gone and then galvanize them. The man calculated a friendly price of 35 USD including paint and all. I said I had to discuss it with my financial director first —my wife—and they all had to laugh. It really was a good price for the work they offered, but in these cases I also don’t want to be pushed into something I regret later, so it’s good to have some time to think about it. He said that the job would probably take at least a week.
While the three of us drove around town, Pedro had another brilliant idea. We stopped at the main Toyota distributor in Quito’s Casabaca, because we had heard the vulcanisadora talk about a possible hidden stash of old, steel split-rims in some forgotten warehouse. We met with various walks in the Toyota hierarchy and all were willing to help in one way or another, but they all made it clear that there was no secret hide-out full of our wanted 16-inch rims. So we were back to square one.
Back at Landcruising Adventure HQ, Karin-Marijke quickly approved of the 180 USD for five rims to be de-rusted and galvanized. Which left me with a week of free time on my hand in a big workshop with great expertise and tools. I decided to shorten the ever-present to-do list of chores on the Land Cruiser.
While checking the fluids I noticed a low oil level in the gearbox and when I opened the filler plug of the transfer case, I was surprised by an overflow of oil. Quickly I tapped the hole and looked for a bucket. My mind was racing while traveling back to Manaus, Brazil where Platinado offered to take down the gearbox to put my mind at ease about the possibility of a leaking seal between the gearbox and the transfer case.
At the time I didn’t feel up to the job, but now I wondered, could I do it here? When I showed Pedro my findings he instantly offered to take down the combination and inspect it. I was in doubt. I had never taken on a job like that.
“It’s not the first gearbox we take apart.” Pedro offered when he felt my doubt.
“Okay, I’ll do it. I have a week so that should be doable I guess,” I responded.
The moment I was lying under the Land Cruiser and Freddy, the main mechanic, was pointing me what I had to loosen where, I felt confident. He told me we only had to take down the transfer case to replace the seal and so I was fueled with even more enthusiasm. When we took down the PTO cover I knew what to expect and told Freddy to be careful of the weight.
The manual overdrive that sits inside the PTO chamber baffled him. Never had he seen those gears and showed me that in order to access the seal we needed to get to the bolts that were half obscured by the big-teethed wheels of the overdrive.
So yes, the entire gearbox had to come down, as I feared. Freddy assured me it was just a few more bolts and I got to it with vigor so that by the end of the day I would have the whole thing cleared, so it would be ready to be taken down first thing in the morning. I gathered my tools but when I rolled away from under the Toyota, I spotted it.
Tiny pieces of the big puzzle slowly fell into place. I turned white, but with a faint smile.