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Automania/Repair & Maintenance


by Bob Hagin

Q. I am interested in buying a cargo van and fix it up according to my needs. After checking the prices of new units (about $20,000 out the door) I've started to look at used units. Since cargo vans are usually run to death, the selection is thin. Then it occurred to me that I could buy something with a decent body cheap, have a mechanic go through the engine and transmission, get the brakes and radiator done and have it mechanically right for thousands less. Not a restoration in the true sense but a solid runner. I've based this thinking on the fact that commercial aircraft or ocean liners are not dumped as we do with cars when engines or anything else needs to be replaced. Does this kind of thinking have any merit whatever or is it just wishful thinking on how to beat the system.
M.C. Sacramento, CA

A. A restoration is a restoration whether it's done to a Chevrolet Corvette or a G-Series van. The only difference is in how much the owner wants to spend on cosmetics. Used vans are usually very high mileage so you have to consider the rest of the components like the rear axle, suspension bushings, steering gear and on more modern units, the electronics. If you plan to use it as hard as you would a new vehicle, you can't afford to overlook anything since you wouldn't have a viable warranty to fall back on. I've owned and restored a couple of cargo vans for myself over the years and there was always some problem cropping up. In one case, the frame cracked around the steering gear mounting. I had an advantage since I did the restoration myself and labor on a project like the one you propose is expensive. Ocean and airliners are salvaged but they get lots of preventive maintenance before it happens.

Q. I'm the original owner of a 1990 Subaru Legacy sedan with 42K miles. I've been faithful about having the car serviced but recently took it into the dealer's shop with a noise in the engine. My extended warranty had just expired and the shop had to tear the engine down to find the problem. The noise was caused by a loose piston on number four cylinder and that piston and connecting rod had to be replaced. The manager said that Subaru would pay half of the $1800 bill. In checking my records, I found that the same job had been done on the same cylinder two years ago and that the company had paid the entire bill. Was the job not done correctly the first time? Are there any factory bulletins on this problem?
M.A. Eugene, OR

A. Many years ago Subaru had this problem and it was traced to incorrect installation of the "wet" piston cylinder liners. They didn't stick up quite high enough and it produced lots of failures and eventually lead to a class-action suit. The problem caused excessive piston wear and I suspect that's what happened to your Legacy. I think that it will happen again if the cylinder wasn't brought up to the proper height.

Q. My 1987 Mitsubishi Galant has 114K miles on it and I recently had a remanufactured cylinder head, head gasket set, timing belt and balance shaft installed. When I start the car, there is no problem with smoke but after the engine warms up to normal operating temperature, plumes of blue smoke come out of it. No diagnostic test has been made yet.
W.B. Chesapeake, VA

A. When a valve job is done on an engine, the cylinders are better sealed. When it's done on a high mileage engine without replacing the piston rings and roughing-up the cylinder walls, there's a risk that the more efficient cylinder head will pull oil up past the worn rings. It's also possible that the head was not rebuilt correctly and that oil is coming past the valve guides. Have your mechanic do a cylinder leak-down test or a dry-and-wet compression check to pin-point the problem.

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