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Automania/Repair & Maintenance


by Bob Hagin

Q. I am the owner of a 1979 Mercedes 280SE, a "gray market" car which I purchased used in Miami from the original owner in 1989. My problem with this car started shortly after I bought it when Florida started its emissions testing program. It didn't pass and I later learned that it was a German version that had been brought in on a special EPA exemption. Florida allowed me to exercise that exemption if I could get verification from the EPA. I did so and Florida allowed me to operate it without testing from then on. Last year I moved to Illinois and learned that the EPA exemption isn't honored here and that the car would have to pass the test using the same parameters as a US version of the car. I have been told that the cylinder head, manifolds,and exhaust systems will have to be changed to make it comply. The car has been storage for a year and it seems that the only way to get this car to pass the test is to install a US-spec engine.
E.P. Plainfield, IL

A. Gray market cars are vehicles designed for the home market and built to European smog and safety standards. Auto dealers, government agencies and the manufacturers here hate them so don't look for help from any of them. I helped a friend "federalize" a Fiat 20 years ago and I had to change all the lights and lenses (no DOT-approved logo), windshield, tires, plus move the height of the parking lamps. The feds threatened to grab the car and scrap it if we didn't. At this point you only have three choices: Americanize the car, sell it in Florida or Mexico, or start your own Mercedes museum.

Q. We have a 1990 Toyota Camry and I have always been under the impression that we should not use gasoline that has ethanol in it. I called the customer service department of a gas company that advertises the fact that it contains ethanol and was told that all gasolines sold in this country contain ethanol. Then I called two major petroleum companies and was told that their fuels do not have ethanol in them. As you can imagine, I am very confused.
J.S. Sacramento, CA

A. We had a '90 Camry in our family fleet for a couple of years and as usual we perused the owner's manual when we first got it. The manual said in effect that Toyota does not recommend the use of gasoline using methanol, not ethanol. There's a difference. Methanol is wood alcohol and very corrosive to certain metals and "soft" parts in the fuel system. Ethanol is the drinkable stuff and while it's not acceptable to have it in the driver, it's OK in the fuel tank as long as it doesn't make up more than 10 percent of the fuel by volume and the mixture is no lower than 87 octane. Sometimes a gasoline/alcohol mix (commonly called "gasohol") causes hard starting in hot weather and excessive engine knock at which time the owner should stop using the stuff.

Q. I read in your column your response to a parent whose son wants to get into the auto repair business. My daughter is wild about autos, wants to get into the business too but doesn't want to get her hands dirty. How does one get into the non-mechanic side of the business? Are there schools and colleges that specialize in other areas of it?
L.P. Boise, ID

A. Most of the non-mechanic jobs in the auto business involve on-the- job training. Our local auto parts house has several female counter- people and they all started by answering an ad for a driver to deliver parts to shops. The next step was into stock control and then onto the counter. My son-in-law's three auto dealerships employ female car sales people and they all do quite well. Again, the training was on the job. I've always thought that a degree in business administration plus an interest in autos would be the best combination for a young person who wanted to climb up the ladder in the auto business.

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