I had to return to Gainesville, Fla., the scene of my misspent youth, for a dental visit before we hit the road, and on a whim I dropped by the auto repair facility where I used to work back in the early 1980s before I finally gave up, finished school, and became a pencil pusher. Continental Imports is an independent (non-dealership) repair shop started by two renegade dealership trained Mercedes mechanics back in the late 1970s, and we serviced various brands of European vehicles, each of us mechanics having our own specialty. I took a fair amount of ribbing because I was the Volvo specialist in a shop dominated by Mercedes, BMW, and Porsche repair. I figured that since it took me so long to finally get a Mercedes, I might as well drop by and show them that I had finally come around to the one true faith.
When I got there, it was like old times. One of the shop’s founders and my old boss, Steve Brotherton, was doing an alignment. On an Aston Martin. Probably because everybody else in town was afraid to touch it. Steve made a few choice comments about the British predisposition to provide poor access for adjustment points, but the alignment got done – precisely. On an Aston Martin, they don’t give you a range – you have to adjust caster and camber to an exact number, 3.2 degrees or whatever. 3.1 or 3.3 degrees is wrong. Close enough isn’t close enough, and your two adjustments on each side change both caster AND camber. If you can’t dial in all four parameters simultaneously to within a tenth of a degree, you shouldn’t be working on it.
Continental Imports has built a reputation over the years as a place to bring your expensive and complicated European car if you want people who know what they’re doing to work on it. The shop’s founders, Steve and Walter, weren’t afraid to work on exotics, because the same principles apply from Ford to Ferrari, and once you understand what the engineers were trying to do and how it’s supposed to work, you can do a competent job of repairing it. They’re the ones who gave me the “let’s research the specs, take it apart, and figure out how it works,” approach to mechanizing that later served me well when modifying my Roadtrek. I remember once when we were flummoxed by some problem and were all standing around staring at it. Steve walked by and said, “do something, even if it’s wrong.” Words of wisdom, I later realized. You have to manipulate variables, measure results, deduce the operating principles by observation – kinda like science 😉 They recently worked on a Maybach – swapped out the alternator. It’s a 300-amp monster to run all the peripheral stuff, just like the engine generators on the new Roadtreks, so it had those huge cables on 8 mm studs that we are familiar with.
While I was there I showed Steve my new CS Adventurous, and it was refreshing to talk to someone who could understand how stuff was engineered faster than I could explain it. I picked his brain a bit about his experiences with the OM642 engine that the one-ton Sprinters are running these days and got some good ideas about its strengths and vulnerabilities. This will be very good information to have, both in maintaining my own Roadtrek, and also in helping other Roadtrek owners.
What you get by talking to guys like this is access to a vast database of experience. These days everybody wants to learn a skill in six months and go to work right away making the big bucks – the old apprenticeship system of learning a trade isn’t appealing to them because it takes years and years. Glenn the machine shop head at the Roadtrek factory and I were discussing this when I was up there last summer. People like Glenn and Steve know how to fix problems that happen once in a blue moon because of their decades of observation and experience. There just isn’t any quick and easy way to get this expertise. Walter Bodendorf, Steve’s partner, was born and educated in Germany, where the apprenticeship model was still strong, and was fixing cars from his early teens as part of his training. In the USA, you can go to school until you’re in your mid-20s without ever getting any hands-on experience.
In addition to all these exotic cars, there was a Roadtrek already at the shop when I pulled in – parked outside the last repair bay at the end was an Agile. I didn’t have enough time to ask around to see what they were doing to it, but it looked like some Mercedes engine repair. It doesn’t really surprise me that my old shop would have a Roadtrek there. They’re not the type of folks to give you the old “we don’t work on RVs” brushoff. The problem with the big Sprinters, though, is that it’s challenging to get a lift long enough and strong enough to hold them.