travelog 43

How to Change an Axle

"The crate from hell", our 700kg (about 1400 pound) heavy crate with a new rear axle and different spare parts, has finally arrived! Roughly at the same time as winter here in Prescott, Arizona.

Some of you may be wondering why we need a new rear axle for a "new" vehicle. Well, many people in the USA and Canada have tinkered with this vehicle, mechanics and wannabe mechanics. Some have worked on it, others unfortunately botched it so that we have had to replace seals, bearings, brake disss, etc. every year. With every replacement, another so-called mechanic tinkered with the axle, thus screwing it up even more. It turned out in the end that it was a lot cheaper to ship a brand new axle from Germany to Arizona instead of dealing with the handiwork of various people every year.

The axle was ordered and shipped relatively quickly. It arrives by sea because air traffic is at a standstill due to September 11th. Before long we have to contact Sandra in Phoenix; she deals with the payment of duty for Schenker. We are soon under the impression that Sandra works more for American customs than for us. The whole thing proves to be very difficult... One of us has to go to a notary public to certify that we are who we say we are. Fortunately the notary public lives around the corner from Thilo's and he really likes our vehicle. Anyway, he thinks that the American customs should chase "evil" Islamic terrorists rather than harass innocent Swiss tourists. For every paper we fax, we have to fill out another form. But the best joke of all comes when we have to sign a statement confirming that the 14 liters of gear oil (it's impossible to find this brand anywhere in the US but Mercedes requires us to use this brand) are really non-toxic. We are tempted to tell the officials that this oil can be very toxic indeed if you drink it. But finally we're informed that the axle has gone through customs and is on its way to Prescott.

On Monday December 3rd 2001, the garage remains closed. We don't want to get distracted when we remove the old axle, we don't want to mix up any cables or wiring. We label everything very neatly so that we don't have to puzzle over the new axle and which wiring leads where. Outside a snowstorm rages and soon everything is blanketed in white. Inside it's nice and warm - not only because of the heating but also because of the strenuous work. Most of the time the two of us are only the audience, but sometimes we also get our hands dirty. Thilo and Beau do most of the hard work, they also have the most experience in this kind of work. Normally, Thilo only repairs smaller vehicles, old military Unimogs and Pinzgauers, but since many people in Germany had assured us that there is nothing mystical about the installation of a new rear axle, we convinced Thilo to lend us a hand. Even the people in Gaggenau assured us that we don't need to go to a garage specializing in Mercedes (which we would never have found here anyway...). Besides, we have all the instructions for the repairs with us on microfiche, what could go wrong!? A lot, as we soon learn - but let's start at the beginning!

We jack PocoLoco up with four jacks. More jacks support the axle while we slowly and carefully dismantle all the parts. Thilo's garage is a real treasure-house for useful things and we find practically everything we need to dismantle the old axle. If we don't have the right wrench, Thilo makes one which is sure to reach even the tightest spots. We place the old axle beside the new one with the fork-lift, so that all the wiring can be connected here at the side of the truck.

But, God help us, the two axles look different in two places! The "piece-of-cake" job turns out to be more complicated. So we have to contact Germany, and of course everybody's already asleep there by the time we find out about the discrepancies. But the next day they assure us that the principle of the differential has not been changed at all, it has simply been integrated into the axle. And how lucky for us that they also made the bolt for the ventilation a little bit smaller than the old one - and didn't bother sending the right bolt with the new axle. Doing the rounds of all the shops that repair foreign cars and all the car accessories places looking for our banjo bolt is unsuccessful. Finally we get the right bolt, already used though, at a VW garage. But no matter how hard we try, we can't find the banjo fitting. The best advice we get in one garage is: "Drop in at Thilo's shop, he might have something like that!".

So now we have to make a banjo bolt with fitting for the ventilation at Thilo's garage. We also have to extend some of the air lines because the differential is attached in a different place. Of course, the connection is also different from the old axle, it's metric size and in America everything is "standard", so it's impossible to buy the right piece here. With a bit of luck, we find it in our exhaustive collection of spare parts. Now that we are over all the hurdles, we can finally start to install the new axle. We can already see ourselves in Mexico...

Putting everything together is no big deal... Until we realize on Friday afternoon that they have only sent one mount for the stabilizer from Germany with the new axle. Naturally we try to use the old mount but it turns out that they have changed not only the differential but also the diameter of the axle! This means that our old mount no longer fits. How practical! Even better, the weekend has already started in Germany, so we have to wait until Monday to ask them to order the part and send it asap to the USA.

Alas, we must spend two more weekends in the beautiful city of Prescott. We like the town and the area but we have no idea what to do here anymore. Besides two surprise snowstorms which have blanketed the Agave plant in white, nothing exciting is happening. At night, the temperatures drop to 5 Fahrenheit (= -13 Celsius). This does not correspond with our idea of camping. When we finally find out that our man in Germany has sent the missing part not by FedEx but through the regular post office (!), and this of all times during the Holidays, we finally run out of patience. We leave for Tucson where we know people, and where it's by far not as cold as in the highlands of Arizona.

We have lost faith in the postal system, which is not doing its job. The parcel was mailed with the whole nine yards - express, insurance, registered, etc. Over the Internet we try to track and trace our parcel on the website of the German Post Office, but without success. Nor can our man in Germany find out anymore by calling them. They only tell him that after September 11th every parcel is opened by customs. September 11th seems to be the excuse for everything these days... So we spend Christmas and New Years in Tucson. There we visit with a German-Canadian couple who is cycling from New Orleans to Winnipeg, where they eventually want to settle down. Andreas used to work for Unicat (the company that built our PocoLoco), so we do some minor repairs on our vehicle - we don't want boredom to set in!

The year 2002 has a promising start: our long-expected parcel arrives despite all adversities in Prescott. From there it only has to be sent to Tucson where, fortunately for us, we find out after three weeks of waiting, that the parts fit our vehicle! Now nothing can stop us from leaving the US; we're finally on our way to Mexico!

December 2001

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen