In early August, I flew to Germany to prepare a 1994 Chrysler Voyager (diesel, manual!) for an epic road trip through Europe. The plan was to wrench for a month, then live in the van for a month, visiting readers and cool automotive sites, and just generally have fun. But now the first month has elapsed, and I still have far too much work to do. Especially given that I plan to leave in the next two weeks.
Things are a bit tricky here in Germany. Getting parts for my American minivan isn’t easy. Despite the fact that Chrysler (well, technically a joint venture with Steyr-Daimler-Puch called Eurostar) built my van in Austria, the reality is that there aren’t lots of old Chrysler minivans roaming the streets of Germany any longer, so the need to keep parts in stock locally just isn’t there.
Couple this with the fact that Germany doesn’t exactly have an O’Reilly Auto Parts on every street corner like the U.S. does, and I find myself waiting a long time for parts. I feel like I’ve spent most of this month tracking shipments from eBay, Amazon.de or kfzteile24.
Of course, there are upsides to this downtime. I’m not just sitting around the garage waiting for parts arrive. Last week, I went to a fair in downtown Nürnberg with my brother and his awesome girlfriend, Catalina:
I also recently went to a Porsche-hosted press event at the fabled Hockenheimring track, where I managed to drive a car off-course and into dirt, narrowly missing a wall (more on that later):
I even went on a drive with former auto journalist and total Jalop Andreas Jüngling in his manual diesel Mercedes E-Class. Andreas took me to an incredible car-themed cafe east of Nürnberg. The strawberry rhubarb cake was sublime, and so were the cars:
I’ve also been going to small gatherings — two housewarming parties and one birthday party — and meeting some extremely kind Germans who have been teaching me great words like Krass, which means “awesome.” (I now refer to my van as the Krassler Voyager.) And they taught me the fascinating term Gräberle, which means the space between cushions on a couch or the crack between mattresses on a bed. (Germans love pushing two twins mattresses together and calling it a king. It’s odd.)
But it’s not just my vocabulary enrichment that makes my German friends so great. I turned 29 on August 17th, and Andreas, Josi and Tobi came to the shop with gifts (one of which is so heartwarming and relevant to my road trip that I may devote an entire series of articles to it — more on that later), and fed me a perfect cake Josi had baked. Man I love peaches:
I’ve also been hanging out with my parents and their dog, talking about the meaning of life, hiking and enjoying the amazing German cuisine that I grew up eating (lots of meat and potatoes). Plus, I went on a date with a Polish girl; we walked around a giant lake and drank beer. It was pleasant enough.
On an extremely different note, while waiting on parts, I had a conversation with a guy my friends claim is a Reichsburger. You’ll want to Google that to get the full rundown, but I’ll just say that the guy was a bit “out there,” saying he thinks COVID-19 is a hoax and that somehow Bill Gates is behind it. He mentioned a bunch of other conspiracy theories and rather unsettling views on certain groups of people. I won’t get into it, but the point is that there are oddballs pretty much everywhere. And even though their views differ from mine, speaking with them makes me feel a sense of growth as I gain a deeper understanding of humanity (even if I feel like my IQ dropped a bit).
Anyway, all of this is to say that even if I haven’t done much with my van in the last month, I have been smelling the roses.
I’ve even been driving my friend Andreas’s lovely Toyota MR2, shown above. I recently witnessed the car go through the German TÜV inspection, and I have to say: I’m deeply nervous for my van.
Speaking of, I should probably start writing about that. That’s probably why you clicked this story.
Waiting on parts is one thing, but I have to admit that the main reason my van isn’t done yet—and why I haven’t been posting nearly enough updates—has to do with the automotive passion that consistently drove me for the first 29 years of my life. It weakened greatly and for the first time earlier this year, and I’m working to rebuild it. The progress is slow, but any motivation from you, dear readers, helps.
I look back on my POStal Jeep and think about how excited and motivated I was. I miss that fire. Is it gone forever, or does it still lurk below the surface? I hope the answer is the latter, because it’s that automotive love that gets me through even the worst of wrenching shitshows. And if I’m honest, I think there’s one brewing; something tells me that this van—outfitted with a VM Motori diesel engine renowned for its lack of reliability—isn’t going to drive 4,000 miles through Europe without a hitch.
Anyway, it’s time for me to just admit how much work I have left. It’s quite a bit.
You may recall from my last update how my friends helped me get the van running, and how, during its maiden voyage, I noticed clicking coming from the front axle CV joint. This sound is a classic sign of bad bearings in the outer Rzeppa joint. Normally, to fix this I’d buy a new axle shaft and install it. But because parts are a bit more expensive here in Germany, I instead opted to buy only the outer part of the axle shaft from a random seller on eBay.de for about $40 each.
As you can see in the video at the top of this section, I simply undid the two bolts holding the van’s steering knuckle to the strut and removed the ball joint pinch bolt holding the lower control arm to the knuckle. With that done, and the main axle nut and brake caliper removed, I swung the knuckle out of the way, pried the axle out of the transmission and removed the outer joint. (The ABS ring fell off, as you can see below):
Once I’d separated the outer joint from the shaft, I slipped the new rubber boot in place along with a little retaining clip in the groove at the end of the splined shaft and hammered the new CV joint in place. Then I squeezed a bunch of grease into the joint, tied the boot up with clamps and installed the axle shaft back into the transmission.
While putting things back together, I ran into some issues:
I noticed while installing the shaft that the ball joint and tie rod end both had cracked boots. The tie rod end will be easy to replace, but the ball joint must be pressed out of the control arm; this is not going to be fun. I also noticed that the cheap wheel bearing that I’d bought for far too little money (again, a brand I’d never heard of) was the wrong size.
So I had to wait for new wheel bearings, ball joints and tie rod ends. This took roughly four days. With the parts now in hand, I have to tear down the whole front suspension, install the new parts, rebuild the axle shaft on the passenger side and refill the transmission, which drained after removing the driver-side axle.
Once that is done, I’ll grind down the welds my friend Tim laid down on my muffler to repair the holes in it.
Then I need to install new tires and replace the worn bushings that are contributing to the sloppiness in the transmission shift lever. I also have to install new engine mounts (one is still in the mail), a radio and possibly a water pump and accessory belt. (I’ll at least inspect the belt.) Then I intend to make the van actually livable with a bed platform and other amenities.
On top of all that, I need to fix the cracked headlight and turn signal lenses — you can see the crack in the orange part of the left light above — on the passenger side.
The good news is that I’ve replaced the rotten front sway-bar bushings, and I’ve installed new rear shocks. Actually, my dad did that for me. It was pretty great:
But anyway, I have a lot of work left to do:
- Front ball joints
- Tie rod ends
- Front wheel bearings
- Front brake pads
- Shifter bushings
- Engine mounts
- New tires
- Maybe install a new water pump and accessory belt (inspect the belt, at least).
- Fix/replace headlight and turn signal on the passenger side
- Get alignment (since I took apart the front suspension)
- Register and insure the vehicle
- Take the vehicle to TÜV to be inspected
- Outfit the vehicle for sleeping
Then I have to finalize my route, setting appointments with the people I’m visiting. And I’ll have to sign up with ADAC (it’s like AAA for Europe) in case I break down and can’t save myself from the the inevitable shitstorm that would ensue.
My Airbnb rental in downtown Nürnberg expires in five days. Something tells me that I may need an extension.