Archive for the 'Project Build Reports' Category


Loose Odds and Ends from the Past Week or so

Jun 19, 2013 in Beyond Unboxing, Electric Vehicle Design, mikuvan

Things have been getting exciting in the last week or so as the SUTD Summerkarts Global Leadership Program students have arrived, and we’re now well under way into the Silly Vehicle design phase all over again. Global Leadership Program. That’s such an epic name for 2.00gokart, guys. To be fair, there’s plenty of other things going on for the students too, most of which are ‘leadership’ flavored. In this running of the class, since I’m not being watched over by The Department and need to make sure everyone has paper lab notebooks, the student groups will be blogging their builds! I’ll post a list of links once everyone gets set up.


I’m currently at 380 miles.

Having essentially reached the limit of things that have been going wrong, I’ve been faced with no choice but to start attacking rust. This thing hasn’t even so much as hiccuped a single time since Operation: Bad Timing. I would say that at this moment, having checked everything I think is important, I’d trust a trip out to at least New York City (about 240  miles).

I’ve mostly been spending the past 2 weeks psyching myself out and picking up some materials.


Based on estimating the clooooouuuuuud Internet and asking friends, I got a pile of things from Eastwood – panel sheets, a bucket of sealer, and some rust converter. I was skeptical about the “rust converter” – it allegedly converts iron oxide (“rust”) to iron phosphate or iron tannate, which is some shit I’ve never heard of and only appears in product descriptions plagiarized from Wikipedia. This sounded shady, and success seems to be hit or miss. However, it’s relatively cheap, so we’ll see what this magical potion does. That, plus another haul of random abrasive and sheet metal banging tools from Harbor Freight, ought to round out the basic non-sketchy rust patch. I’m going to try the pound-and-weld-metal route – falling short of soldering since it sounds a tad too hardcore at the moment – instead of throwing fiberglass at it.

All that, and waiting for several days of hot and dry weather to do the majority of the work, just to smoke out any residual moisture from the body holes. Recently, it’s actually been hard to come by, with the Northeast in its Periodic Random-Ass Storm Season (PRASS). There’s no point in tying a puddle up inside my work. Worse come to worst, I’ll point a space heater at the trouble spots for a day before doing anything.

What I’ll do first is probably do all the sanding and grinding; the full-depth investigation, basically, and then post it publicly to get some opinions and appraisals. The idea is to cut or grind off what I can get to, covert and cover over what I can’t abrade off, and then slather external underbody repairs in sealing compound. I also managed to find a matching Chrysler color at Advance Auto Parts to repair the exterior paint afterwards, tested by blasting random areas and staring at it a few minutes later. This may backfire horribly.

Part of the reason I’m hesitant to start is because I have the feeling that things will get more and more Death Race 3000 if I mess something up or discover more structurally unsound areas than I previous anticipated. What you can’t see….

Though, in the limit of Death Race 3000 style modifications, this thing will probably look more and more like a classic wedgebot.

testing the mini-jasontroller

I replaced the full-size caseless Jasontroller in RazEr REV2 with the mini version detailed last week.. I’m definitely a big fan of these now – they’re basically the same as the full size, in a much more useful package.

This is the smaller controller uncased and fully cleaned. I essentially took out every wire I didn’t need, and also locked the speed setting to high internally by jumping the right side orange wire; by default, the “3 speed range” switch comes in the medium range, which means it divides down the throttle input) This has no bearing on its upper speed limit which is still around 540-550 eHz or so, but for low speed motors the throttle response will be substantially retarded otherwise.

These controllers have a discrete logic power switch, unlike the full size Jasontroller, so I also hardwired that internally (left).

I discovered that the entire controller case fit inside the space where my old full size Jasontroller went, minus one corner. So, instead of redrilling the mounting holes for the smaller heat spreader bar, I cut the entire case into an L shape with the board resting in its stock location…

…shrink wrapped the whole thing, and Velcro-mounted it in. Clean and waterproof, and the additional aluminum should still offer some thermal capacity.

The overall height of the controller when stripped of its case is under 0.8″ (in my configuration, it’s not much shorter due to the existing case outline remainder), which opens up the potential to be stuffed into even more things.

I’ve noticed no difference in riding behavior between the mini-Jasontroller and full size, once again confirming they’re basically the same thing. I’ve noticed some slight difference in starting behavior – the mini doesn’t twitch backwards, at least not often. More observation will be needed to discern the differences. In the mean time, I’m officially qualifying the mini-Jasontroller as Certified Legit. You can buy it on this page, and maybe soon from Equals Zero. If you make something using one, post it!

I’ve added this controller to my Scooter Instructable in the EV controllers section.

more silly rideable things

One of the downsides of having 160 cubic feet of self-motive cargo volume is Oh man, this free stuff on Craigslist looks awesome. I’ve previously been limited by what I felt like carrying back on Melonscooter, or worst case, ride back independently. That’s no more.

What you see here is a most-relevant-to-my-interests free Craigslist haul of two nonfunctional electric bike (-like-objects) from a closing e-bike shop. The one on top, as it turned out, is quite the machine. It’s a TidalForce IO cruiser bike, from another one of those small EV companies with an illustrious but ultimately short lived existence, in complete condition. The bottom red pile is a generic Chinese “电动车” or “Chinese moped”. These are sold here and there under various names (here’s one example, and most likely the company that retailed it since it says GREENPOWER on it!). Its condition was a little more beat up, but seemingly just devoid of batteries.

Here’s a better shot of both of them. Being me, I’m actually more a fan of the little red moped – it’s a little weirder and has that Chinese charm to it, but the Tidalforce was much more complete, so I began messing with it first.

The backstory of this machine was that the customer dropped it off for battery service and abandoned it. Apparently, these bikes were notorious for having their NiMH cells degrade very quickly.

Lacking a legitimate charger, I jacked it in on a power supply to 45 volts CV and fed it at about 0.8 amps for basically the better part of a day. The cells inside are nominally 8Ah, so the charge rate is a nice C/10 trickle charge. In case any of the cells were permanently toast, it wouldn’t cause thermal runaway. The battery came off nice and warm, and I rode around until the bike shut down from undervoltage. This charge lasted basically 5 miles with very little pedaling. The original advertised range was 15 or 20, but according to the storytellers realistically 6 or 8 miles, so it didn’t seem that far off the mark.

The termination condition is dictated by the battery management system onboard, and this is where things got difficult. No matter what, I couldn’t convince the charge-o-meter to go above 20%, even when I’ve clearly left the battery on slow trickle for many hours! I suspected that this artificial BMS meddling is what shut the bike down in the first place, since it didn’t feel like it was about to slow down.

I did some research online and came upon this useful page for decyphering the onboard controller for the bike, as well as this flamewar thread on Endless Sphere where someone mentioned that the battery needs to be discharged to under 32v to resynchronize the charge indicator.

This battery is too damned smart. I couldn’t get any output voltage from it unless the bike was on, since it has internal FET switches to shut off the cells from the pack output, so I couldn’t artificially drain it. And even at 44 volts off the charger, I couldn’t get the bike to move more than a couple dozen feet before the BMS shut me down. I hate it when batteries are too smart – I’m forced to crack them open.

Off the front wheel comes. It’s on a quick release, so a latch and some cable pulling later and it comes cleanly off.

Removing the case screws and side, check out this holeaphobia-inducing lotus flower of cells! The terminals all had bits of corrosion on them, but there were no signs of leakage that I could observe.

Hammering on the opposite side of the wheel makes the entire battery structure fall out. This is the important side of things – the BMS board. My mission was to artificially brick the pack via the CELL tabs, draining them to under 32 volts, hoping the BMS would reset or something.

I used this shady arrangement of power resistors, totalling 15 ohms, to drain down the pack over the course of about 3 hours, getting the whole array down to about 30v. Afterwards, I immediately closed everything up and threw it back on the charger. It did exactly jack shit.

The battery meter blinked 20% the whole time! I’m going to guess I did this wrong somehow, or more likely, forgot that Ni batteries bounce back in voltage very well after an initial discharge. By the time I was done connecting things back up, the battery voltage could have been well in excess of 32v, making the BMS think everything was still skullfucked. But it should at least recognize the 7Ah I dumped back into the battery, right?! No such deal.

As of now, I’m currently riding this thing around day to day to burn down the charge in a useful fashion. Apparently, the charge meter blinks in its entirety when the BMS reset point is reached, so I’ll hopefully be ready then.

Why am I trying so hard to use this proprietary-ass stock battery when I could very well just hack the “B” battery with any number of potential long running packs? I’m hesitant to do that because I don’t actually like this thing. It weighs nearly 60 pounds and is enormous, clearly built for a much Manlier Man than I. Plus, I can barely stuff it inside my front door. I guess I’m used to smaller and more portable scooters which can be rolled inside – this sucker is going to need the bike rack. Not really my style.

For now, though, it’s alive and working as yet another Craigslist impulse that turned out to be a little neurotic but otherwise livable day to day. What’s with me and that kind of thing lately?

Let’s move onto the Little Red Moped.

After diddling around with the TidalForce for a few days, I decided one night to get this contraption running along with Adam. I cleaned up the mechanicals and repaired the existing wiring while he created an impromptu brick of 12V7 modules I have on standby for the summer EV design class.

Look at that beautiful… 20 gauge? wire going to the hub motor! This machine is capable of Real Power.  The hub motor appears to be a 48v, 500W (or 750W) brushless type, like this.

Unhitching the electronics box, I discover this wad of wires. If you ever wonder what Jasontrollers and their ilk are actually used for, this is the answer. As you are reading, millions of Asian moped bros are cruising about on machines exactly like this one.

During my wiring cleanup, I found a spider!

Someone clearly was derping around with this after-market and the controller is likely not the original. Someone was also terrible at this. There were plenty of examples of wires just twisted together and electrical taped up, and solder joints like that.

Whatever. It worked, and all I really did was replace some of the decomposing electrical tape and resplice some of the signal wires appropriately.

With the impromptu 48v battery and a random found bike seat, it was ready to roll!  And roll it did. The acceleration was brisk and utilitarian, and the suspension was a bit underdamped but compliant even when riding up curbs. It’s very quiet, and there’s a pedal assist sensor which almost sent me into the wall a few times when I instinctively kicked the pedal out of the way.

Riding it in this form makes me envision myself wearing a straw hat and dark brown Mao suit, riding along a dusty Chinese road to my factory job. With a cage of chickens on the back to be sold at the market later that day.

We agreed it would be more amusing once completely rewired and running on 72 volts, but sadly, Mao’s Little Red Moped did not see that day. For at Swapfest, I was riding around aimlessly for no more than 10 minutes before someone bought it off me on the spot. Sans batteries, but still.

So my net wheel gain for the past few weeks has been 2, both won by the TidalForce bike. Unfortunately, that may increase again, because I’m considering…

a playmate for mikuvan

Your job, Internet, as the guardians to my sanity, is to tell me I do not need another one of these.

Let’s face it. I was originally looking for a science project with Mikuvan, but elected to put in an honest repair effort to have me some of that thar “auto tech” larnin’ y’all kids are into these days. But now it’s running too well, and a few of us are basically invested emotionally in it, and I have a harder time with the thought of tearing everything down again than when it wasn’t running.

Mere weeks after I stated my life goal Passive Non-Career-Derailing Desire was to collect the Legendary Van Trifecta, I discover that I might have a chance to nab the rarest of them all: the USDM Nissan Vanette. Yes, the one which was well known for lighting on fire.

The back story for this find is quite circuitous indeed. It wasn’t by weeks of stalking Craigslist, or a “Hey, I hear you like derpy vans” referral from my “Hey, I heard you like trashy electric scooters” network. Instead, while doing research on the other members of the trifecta, I found this Jalopnik post for a Nissan Van (-shaped-object) in North Carolina. Some link hunting led me to the original sellers album…from 2011.  Out of sheer shits and giggles morbid curiosity, I emailed the seller what amounted to “lol do you still have this”. MFW the answer was yes:

I’m at a loss about what to do.

On the one hand… Whoa, a chance to capture the rarest Legendary Pokévan and train it make it the base for this electric drive project. After all, the way the world apparently works, as I’ve handily found out in the past few months, is you have a functioning car, then you get an explicitly nonfunctional one to mess around with. This van is so explicitly nonrunning the FCC and ASE are about to join forces to erase it from reality. The chassis mechanicals appear to be comparatively rust free (then again, so I thought with Mikuvan).

The downside? Space. Parking. Not even counting the (once yearly) cost of registration and (fairly low) monthly insurance premiums once it’s operational, there’s no such thing as a little empty grassy patch to stick a nonrunning vehicle here. I was lucky with Mikuvan that my one allotted parking spot was open. What I cannot justify is paying hundreds of dollars a month for a parking spot or garage space for a van-shaped lump without the knowledge that I will immediately be able to attend to it, rare or not.  I’m currently in the process of exercising my social network™ to see if anyone is willing to put up with my bullshit. Ideally, there’s a back alley of a nearby industrial space somewhere that I can slip into, or someone’s back yard who thinks this is all too hilarious. I’m not going to try very hard.

So the dilemma goes. I will probably not see one of these in such a complete condition for many years, but maybe in said years I’d be in a better position to start Big Chuck’s Van Adoption Service.

 (All pictures above of the vehicle were provided by the seller)

I’m filing this post also under Beyond Unboxing since so many things were taken apart in one way or another.

The Weekly Adventures of Mikuvan: Operation I-Fixed-Too-Many-Things-At-Once-To-Give-It-All-One-Smarmy-Name

Jun 06, 2013 in mikuvan

As you can see, I’ve already given up on my promise from last time. Or perhaps I didn’t?

When last week wrapped up, I had just finished replacing my front right wheel bearings. On the immediate agenda was repairing the front blower motor, which seems to have gone dead long ago, and I was getting pretty desperate because this past weekend was an early heat wave in the area with temperatures in the low 90s°F. I had already verified that the (resistor based ;___; ) speed regulation circuit was fine with exception of the lowest speed, and that the motor did not respond to direct 12v input.


Like Fanvan. Do you remember Fanvan?

In the Official Derpy Van Strategy Guide, the heater unit had its own dedicated disassembly page:

As you could imagine, it was not very helpful. The gist of it was basically

1. Disassemble everything.

2. No, we mean it. Everything.

The entire dashboard structure had to come out. Not to mention, even, that the step page before this was to disassemble the heater control unit linkages (the things which deflect air to select heat or A/C, floor or … face? vents, etc.)

In my usual style, I suspected something was amiss and that there must be an easier way. Basically what the past few weeks of pretend-automotive-tech has taught me is that everything in a vehicle may have an ‘official” repair procedure, but Raúl and Jimmy at the shop up the block most likely have figured out a way to do it quickly. My plan was to be Raúl as often as possible.

For me, the possible quick route was an in-situ replacement of the fan motor’s brushes.

The motor, for the record, is the little silver can with the round nub near the lower center of the image. Keep in mind all this is well hidden under the lower dashboard. What you’re seeing is me aiming the camera up from the footwell, with the lens under the brake pedal and the flash unit above the brake pedal. The metal rail that dips down in the foreground is the throttle pedal.

After staring for a while, I determined through empirical trials that I could reach my arm under both pedals and up to the motor, leaving just enough space to wiggle a stub Phillips head screwdriver to undo the rear brush cap screws. To get into this position, I would have to extend horizontally out from the driver’s side footwell, facing the base of the driver’s seat. In other words, totally away from the repair point, and the entire repair is to be done by feel. I wish there were pictures of this whole process as it was happening, because it was truly one heroic position.

So why on earth did I think I could just pull the brushes? Typically, in a robot motor, you don’t replace the brushes at all – if they’re gone, that’s it, and the motor is done. More expensive and larger robot motors make it such that you can just remove the brushes by themselves, one by one. Being derived from industrial motors, that’s how the typical robot motor is put together, and it’s what I’m used to.

However, automotive motors tend to be a little modular if they’re not designed to be disposable. I obtained this replacement blower motor online, and was curious as to the internal construction, so I popped it open. Two screws later, the entire brush plate was dangling from the motor commutator for dear life. It turns out I could replace the brush plate as one assembly. A little more research showed me that this is incredibly common for major automotive accessory motors – starters, for instance. Most little motors like power windows seem to be disposable.

Discovering this was basically what led me to think that in-situ repairing the motor was a good idea. Typically, the brushes will go first in a DC motor if it is otherwise mechanically sound and well-lubricated. Being that these automotive motors are basically made of reinforced concrete and solid cast iron stamped steel everywhere with big sintered iron-bronze bushings that last forever, I was betting hard that the brushes had simply disappeared and the rest of the motor was sound.

Here’s the brush assembly removed. Now, if I had just pulled the plate out without thinking much, the brushes and springs would have escaped and scattered very quickly. Drawing from past experience disassembling robot motors such as the venerable EV Warrior, I prepared a Round Thing of Brush Retaining and slid the brushes onto it. The round thing was just some random rubber bump stop discovered in MITERS, besides which I was conveniently yet illegally parked.

When I Assumed the Position and removed the two brush plate screws, this is what fell out at me.

Hey! I didn’t know they made these vans with brushless fan motors! That’s pretty cool, and is just a testament to the legendary reliability engineering that the Japanese put into thei…

I digress. What you see is a small pile of chocolate-flavored cocaine carbon brush fluff where brushes should be. This stuff must have been micro-scale fine. When I blew on this pile, which was caked to the inside of the steel back plate, it generated a cloud of dust completely disproportionate to its original size.

So this confirms the hypothesis that the motor brushes were just toasted.

The harder part was getting the new brush cap back on. I basically only had one shot to do this, and any misalignment or dropping would result in the brushes and springs disappearing forever into the dark crevasses of the dashboard. To facilitate this, I made a doubly-aligning Round Thing of Brush Retaining from a spare bronze bushing. The ID of the bushing was bored out to just over that of the silver sleeve behind the commutator (measured on the spare motor and then increased just a little for margin). That way, if I can get the thing roughly aligned at all, the sleeve will help with placement. The OD was just barely larger than the commutator, which was good: as soon as I push the brush caps off, they should land on the commutator.

And here was what I was dealing with, getting that brush plate rig back onto the little copper nub there.  I was concerned enough about this process to actually simulate it on the spare motor with it sitting around a corner (out of sight) and me wiggling the brush plate through feel alone. I wanted to make sure I knew exactly what the features on the motor back felt like. I “dry ran” once or twice with the old, used brush plate to make sure I could snap the board’s mounting bushings (little rubber blocks) in place.

And after a heartstopping OH MY GOD THE BUSHING IS FALLING OUT moment, the new brush plate is in. Notice the blue things sticking out of the motor now.

Now, I have no victory pictures or videos of this repair, because it’s a fan for crying out loud and the only thing in the video would be a whooshing sound. But it worked! I ran the fan for a little while on low (2nd) speed to seat the new brushes.

I did have a new resistor block, but that one was located too far down to even get a screwdriver into. I tried for 15 minutes with putting bits on universal ratchet joints to no avail. Whatever, I’ll live without the lowest (generally not very useful) fan setting.

After this repair warranted a victory lap to Advance Auto Parts for even more brake cleaner, I came back and took apart the left front wheel to check on the bearings and clean everything up.

This time, I didn’t replace them. The rollers and races did not appear to have any wear or damage, so I just re-stuffed it with grease and torqued it back to spec. I know you’re supposed to symmetrically replace bearings, but I was not in the mood to pound on the races one more time. Again, we’re assuming I don’t grenade everything within 10,000 miles (I’m currently up to 230.)

So what’s next on the list? The next day was a little less intensively hot and I initially brought Mikuvan out to get the Massachusetts state inspection done, but it turns out they really want you to have a front license plate. I was issued two plates, but it was never made with a front license plate holder; and no, stuffing it on the dashboard apparently didn’t count. I was turned down by 3 area shops that I drove around to.

Whatever. I’ll rig up a fix later. For now, let’s rewire the radio.

This post brought to you by K2 Energy. That’s the brick I dissected powering an AC inverter which is running a small soldering iron. Inefficient conversion of power, yes, but I neglected to pick up a cordless iron or butane powered crack torch iron so it’ll have to do.

The van came with a cheap but reasonable modern head unit with CD, aux jack, USB power, and SD card slot, but it was wired incorrectly. I could only get the thing to turn on if I had the ignition in the ON position *and* the headlight switch flipped to accessory/daytime lights. Yes, both. This made no sense whatesoever.

But after reading the electrical manual which is far more helpful, I found that the main power was wired to the dashboard gauge lights (hence requiring the headlight switch to be engaged to accessory) and the backup power was wired to to the ignition switch! That would explain why it never remembered stations or equalizer settings when the key was out.

A quick rewire later and I was in business. The sound system on this thing is truly a product of the 1980s. No highs, no lows, and not even Bose at that. There’s no subwoofer by modern standards – the sub is a small, roughly cookie tin shaped box affixed to the front console’s underside. There are no door speakers, probably because the doors aren’t thick enough to put any in. I’m fairly certain my old $25 computer speakers had better clarity.

Alright, with the sound system now playing a horrifyingly hollow rendition of Vocaloid Dubstep playlist, it’s time to start moving towards the rear. Next on my impromptu list was to repair the center row seats.


For the uninitiated, the center row seats in the 80s Japanese Van Squad could all spin around in a circle, but only the Mitsubishi Van had them on a set of beefy drawer slides so they could also be shifted front and back. Basically, my two seats combined have more degrees of freedom than a Segway. You pull a latch and it unlocks the mechanism (a big steel locking crossbar mounted on a spring which catches in slots in the slides) and move until the mechanism snaps back into another slot elsewhere.

The trouble with mine was that they were stuck in eternal drawer slide mode. The mechanism was jammed or broken, so for the past few weeks I’ve actually been stuffing toolboxes and milk crates of parts in between the seats to hold them in place. Friends going on van adventures were told to brace themselves or be sectioned neatly by the seat belts.

I don’t have any pictures of the mechanism or the underside of the seat. Why? Because as soon as I undid the 4 bolts and started lifting the seat, the mechanism popped back into place.

Well how about that. I decided to not press further and dissect it – instead, I slathered the whole thing with spray-on lithium grease and also thoroughly greased the track. It has yet to be a problem again.  I surmise that someone pulled the worn mechanism too hard and caused the locking bar to pop out of its guides, becoming stuck in the loose position.

I confirmed this suspicion by tugging really hard on the handle and trying to move the seat – at least once, I was able to stick the mechanism. But with the path now greased, a hard slam into one travel stop put the locking bar back in its place. Should have tried that to begin with…

I performed the same jiggle dance to the drivers side center seat.

The seats can lock rotationally in only two positions – full front facing or full back. The mechanism is just a pin-in-a-plate kind of detent stop, so I have half a mind to waterjet a new one that has like 15 degree increment clicks or something, for maximum hilarity.

license to print

All this being said and done, I was still out a front license plate holder. The cheap and hacky way would have been to just drill some holes in the bumper and screw it on. When I was at one of the local garages, I saw someone with this and it was perfectly legitimate.

But surely there’s a better way to do this than machining my exterior. There’s two hidden bolts in the grill-like slit on Mikuvan’s from bumper which I decided to take advantage of.

I don’t know about this solution being “better” so much as “lol a 3d printer” when a bent piece of aluminum would have sufficed, but I whipped up this solid ABS license plate bracket holder in a few minutes and set it running on the Lab Replicator™. The post coming out from the front is a designed-in support structure to hold up the ceiling of the counterbored hole which the bumper bolt will reside. The hole around it is large enough to slip a 1/4″-drive deep ratchet into.

The finished bracket adapter with the artificial support post removed with some wiggling.

Nobody will ever know that it wasn’t OEM!

Now that it’s CERTIFIED LEGIT (until June 2014, anyhow), I’m slowly running out of problems to solve. It just means that soon, I’ll have no choice but to tackle…

The rust.


The Weekly Adventures of Mikuvan: Operation LOST BEARINGS

May 31, 2013 in mikuvan

I solemnly promise to give every major mechanical repair on this thing a cheesy faux-military operation name.

With that aside, I present to the internet my front right wheel bearing:


Ever since Mikuvan has been putzing around under power, I’ve noticed a subtle grinding or rumbling noise at low speeds. It’s a consistent noise, didn’t vary too much with power or turning, and all symptoms pointed to a bad bearing on one wheel. While on the lift last week, I confirmed that the wheel was a bit loose, which was a positive diagnosis. Since tapered roller bearings which have obviously lost preload are most likely torn up and damaged, I went ahead and ordered a new set of front wheel bearings, two (a pair) for each wheel.

That was last week. My general assessment was that local driving on the bad bearing wouldn’t be the end of the world, so in this prescribed shipping gap…

Quite a few Van Adventures ensued with whoever was in the building, on the slightest of whims.

And I finally registered the damned thing.


I also became a delivery driver for Beantown Taqueria.

…Right, just kidding on that. I don’t know why, but that sign fits the vehicle so well. Anyways, the Beantown folks and us residents of the N5x complex are pretty close, so we pitched a delivery sign on the roof one afternoon for giggles.

I also spent some time shopping it around to area auto body repair places to get estimates for repainting and rust patching. Conclusion: …yeah, um, I better learn to love Bondo.  Typical estimates ran in the 3 to 6 thousand range for the full repair, of varying degrees of shady – from fiberglass and filler to custom shaped steel with body solder filling.

Now, I could be trusted to weld a few steel plates in place, but not to make anything look pretty. Left to my own devices, I’d just rattle-can white over the repairs, which would just look like ass. I’m currently debating heavily the make-versus-buy scenario thusly. At the very least, a good white repaint is not out of the question.

Fast forward to Thursday morning, when I was rained on by packages.

There’s a few things from Rock Auto here. First, my new bearings. Second, on the same order, I got a replacement front heater/AC blower motor, and after testing the 3-speed fan circuit with another motor determined the 3-speed resistor block was also damaged (missing speed 1), so there’s also a replacement for that too.

And in a separate order, a replacement annoying thing:

While on a shopping spree, I decided to take care of the power mirror switch too. This cost $5 and actually came from a early 90s Mitsubishi 3000GT. Back in the days when cars shared parts (and all the parts were square…)

(For the Internet record: ’91-’94 Mitsubishi 3000GT power mirror switch fits a ’89 Mitsubishi Vanwagon and presumably ’87 and ’88 too.)

I got cracking as soon as all the white collar folk in the building left for the day so there was parking lot and loading zone space cleared up. The goal was to do both bearings by sundown.

Right. I barely got through disassembling one side by that point, but onwards…

Step 1 is to clean that which has seemingly never been cleaned. I was armed with not less than three cans of brake cleaner – the good kind, with the tetrawhateverthatcanceris, and ended up needing all of them. There was brake dust cakes everywhere. Even the brake dust had brake dust on it. I’m sorry, Earth.

After removing the external dust cap, I realized I forgot one thing: The shop manual.

Now, I basically knew the procedure as “remove the fingery nut thing and take off the hub, check if bearings are present; if they are, add grease to everything in sight and retighten the fingery nut”. This and a few on-site Youtube videos later, I decided to just keep freelancing it.

The shown image is an expression of my gratitute for whoever designed the T-handle right angle drive ratchet that I will not stop spamming until all my friends have one. This thing really is a godsend. I had maybe 15 degrees of motion to loosen the mounting bolts for the brake caliper, and undoing the entire screw like that would have been tortuous. Instead, you break the bolt’s connection and then crank on the little T-handle.

Caliper is loosened and secured out of the way…

And now I’ve removed the castellated nut, the pin holding it in place, and the grease retainer washer. The outer bearing cone proceeds to fall out naturally with a quick tap.

As soon as I pick it up, it rains everywhere:

Here’s both cones removed. The big one is the inner bearing, and it’s not in bad shape, but I’ll replace anyway. The outer cone, though, is a textbook case in metal fatigue!

The previous service round used some red grease which made this entire scene look like some kind of horrific back-alley surgery, which…

…well, it was.

I decided to clean out all the old grease in the hub since it was most likely full of metal powders and chips from the ruined bearing, which would be counterproductive to use a new bearing in. About half a roll of shop towels and another can of cleaner was dedicated to this task alone.

After the degreasing, I found this brilliant example of fatigue-induced spalling. One of the features of the bearing rumble I heard was a regular clicking or detent kind of noise. Well now I know what it is.

There’s an entire field of engineering study dedicated to how bearings fail and how to make them less fail, and it is really quite enjoyable to read around the literature (for me, anyway). Here’s a great page by Timken (and a newer one) illustrating common tapered roller bearing failures. Distressingly enough, the failure most resembles the localized “pinched housing” failure, though it really could have been caused by improper installation when the vehicle was last serviced this way – a well placed punch from driving the ring in and out could have cracked it sight unseen.

How could you mess up installation? Apparently, many ways.

The Official Strategy Guide recommended taking a brass rod and punching (with a hammer) the races in and out for installation. The trouble is, I tried that. For half an hour, to basically no avail. The brass would just dent and deform instead of driving the outer race. I did have to resort to a steel punch in the end to take the rings out. If someone tried the reverse, I easily see how you could trash a bearing by microscopically shattering it.

To get my new races in, I had to make a pressing jig on the lathe from chunks of aluminum – of the proper diameter to press on the ring entirely, and long enough to reach down into the hub, then pitch it on a 3 ton arbor press with me basically hanging off the bar.

How is Tony Stark supposed to be able to do this? In a cave? With a box of scraps?!

With the new rings pressed, it was time to start on the long road to reassembly. I was basically, according to the Internet, grease-slam everything in sight, mashing it into the bearing rollers and pumping the hub full of the stuff. Sounds good.

Full disclosure: I didn’t have a tube of real honest-to-locknuts “nice grease”. That was a minor oversight of sorts. I grabbed from MITERS a bucket of white (presumably lithium) grease that at least had a picture of a car on it. For what specifically, it didn’t say, but the other tubes of lithium grease all said “Not recommended for use in wheel bearings”. Okay.

I don’t exactly mind having to do this in 10,000 miles. We’re assuming I won’t blow it up by then.

The Official Guide also warned against reusing the back side grease seal (which rides on a fluid barrier of grease at all times and keeps the stuff inside contained), but The Internet spoke contrarily this time. Not having a new grease seal, I cleaned and kept it since it appeared to be in good condition – wasn’t torn or feathered or otherwise seeming to not contain grease any time soon.

Torquing the adjust-a-nut to spec. 22 ft-lbs in, untighten, 8 ft-lbs in, then back out to the nearest castle slot for the locking pin. This part I remembered from reading the Official Guide earlier. This is when I’m glad I decided to buy the “I’m sure I’ll need this soon” +1 Torque Wrench of Not Overcranking.

Retaining hardware remounted…

Wait, so you’re saying the only thing preventing the wheel from popping off is a little 5/8″ nut?

If I designed cars, this axle spindle would be a single 3″ diameter shoulder screw.

Finally, a last wad of grease in the dust cap and the reassembly is done. Spins freely and doesn’t wobble – better than when I started I suppose.

About this time when I was sticking my head in the wheelwell to place the brake caliper bolts, I noticed that the secondary A/C condenser fan had basically fallen off the fan motor. Well that’s why it’s making so much noise…

The arrow points to the torn-ass remains of the fan hub. This condenser assembly might be the first to go in terms of parts permanently being dismounted.

Caliper remounted and checked for clean rotation.

Say, how much do I need to torque those lug nuts? 100 ft-lb. My torque wrench doesn’t even go up that high. That amount of torque is basically me standing on the end of the thing.

The front right wheel is now all buttoned up again. I had started around 6:30 – it was now 10:30 and I decided to leave the front left for the weekend. Yeah, you’re supposed to do them both at once, but it’s going to be 95 degrees tomorrow and I’m not doing this outside again. However, now that I know the exact order of operations and have pressing jigs ready, I’m confident I can do the other side in under an hour.

After cleaning everything up, I went on a few rounds of the surrounding area and some loops in a parking lot to check for more noises. The cabin is much quieter now that I’m not grinding metal on metal directly into it. No other bearings are making sounds, and as far as I can tell the suspension isn’t creaking either.

Next on my list is that damned fan motor. Did I mention it’s going to be 95 tomorrow?



Long Live Mikuvan

May 26, 2013 in mikuvan

In the past few days, basically from Sunday to Thursday, I’ve managed to put something like 150 miles on Mikuvan, which is no small feat for purely local – Boston, Cambridge, and associated suburbs driving outside of regular daily commuting. For me, the “daily commute” is something like 1.1 miles by scooter, so for the most part said driving consisted of helping friends move large objects – it being end-of-semester moveout season, picking up more cruft on Craigslist, and purposefully going way too far westwards just to grab lunch (I sincerely recommend Blue Ribbon BBQ in West Newton). And even participating in helping search for a stolen car, but that’s a story for another day.

All in the name of Science, of course – I’ve pretty much been doing all this just to observe the vehicle’s behavior under different driving conditions, ranging from highway to extremely low speed start-stop city driving, to the occasional stoplight pull which will remain undiscussed.

I haven’t been able to break it. For all intents and purposes, Mikuvan is a fully functional car. There hasn’t been any stalling or overheating, no more fluid leaks, no rough shifting or other transmission business. There’s quirks and worn parts typical of a car about as old as I am – the front blower is not functional and the power mirror (oh boy, power mirrors!) switch is also broken, and the air conditioning belt isn’t hooked up (and I’m sure the system is totally drained too). Plus, those rust patches.

The de facto beginning of summer was marked by the start of incessant rain, after which I assume it will actually get warmer. I took the opportunity to give the whole outside a proper washdown, aided by the rain. It had been living under a tree for a month or more, so there was tree drippings and bird shit everywhere, and other environmental deposits.


Lookin’ pretty good. I got rid of most of the grunge from the presumed side-swipe damage on the left lower bodywork also.

One of the nice features of the great N5x building complex, where MITERS and other shop-nests are, is that there is a two-post auto lift installed in the area where the automotive racing teams (FSAE, Solar Car, et. al) work out of. Many students have used it in the past for wrenching on personal cars, and I now join those ranks:

I ran into an interesting problem in that my wheelbase was too short to swing the lift arms under the frame. To fit, I had to remove one pair of lift pads (one is at the end of each arm), swing the front set under, manually push the van a few inches back to clear the rear set, and then reinstall the pads in-place.

The goal of hovering Mikuvan was to perform a full mechanical inspection of the underside as well as to clean the engine and transmission to locate the source of a very small but persistent oil leak.

The belly of the beast, front to the lower right. The engine seems to have been burning or leaking (…or both?) oil for a long time, so there were “sludge bunnies” as we called them everywhere. Most of the underside frame near the engine is coated in a thick sludge film. I suspect it has helpful anti-rust properties, but still. Eww.

For the uninitiated, Mikuvan is actually mid-engined and rear wheel drive. The engine and transmission center of gravity is a few inches rearward from the front axle.

Here’s the underside rear. The clean spot to the left was where the spare tire lived; I had removed this because the rim itself was basically rusted out, and also removed the tire hanger in the process. It’s also where I think the eventual Siemens 1PV5135 will live. There’s many big square frame rails to attach things to in this region. Attachment strategies have been floating in my head and are varied – one part of me thinks I should just buy or Procure Through Alternative Channel a Borg-Warner eGearDrive, a transaxle designed to mate with  the Siemens motor. The other part thinks flipping the diff around and mounting the motor longitudinally (shaft pointing front-back), with an external 2:1 custom reduction, would be better. The differential is a native 4.22:1, so an external 2:1 is almost perfect.

A minor third opinion is to use the guts of the former Mercury Milan hybrid transmission from the old Electric Vehicle Team project, the ELEVEN. It’s basically an embedded eGearDrive, but just a pile of eGears that would require a custom housing. But it comes with a roughly 8:1 total ratio and a parallel-drive (not right angle) differential.

Using several cans of carb, brake, engine, and colonic cleaner, I gave the underside powertrain components a scrubdown. Every once in a while, I’d notice a new dot of oil on the ground while performing pre-drive fluid checks. With the engine and transmission so coated in junk, it was hard to see where it could have been coming from. Hopefully, now, I’ll see a little dark brown slick or something from the point of leakage.

While scrubbing the transmission, I actually found the nameplate! It had been so thoroughly coated I haven’t even noticed it was there.

Interesting enough, the first Google ping for “4G64 AW03-72L” (my model of engine and transmission) is this very theraputic and fascinating teardown video, set to… Christmas music? I’d get to about the 7:00 point and then have exactly shit clue about how to get it all back together.

While lifted, I also went around to the wheels and checked suspension and bearings. Nothing seemed obviously bad about the suspension, but I’m also not a professional suspension inspector. The rubber bushings were not cracked or looking otherwise fatigued.

The bad bearing up front has been confirmed – the front right wheel is a tiny bit loose in all directions. If there’s one thing I know about most car axles, it’s that they use tapered roller bearings which must be preloaded (forced together at all times), so any wobble at all is a bad sign. The alleged (now confirmed) bad bearing had been manifesting itself as a rumbling noise at moderate speeds. I haven’t noticed that wheel center becoming substantially hotter, but I’m also not keen on waiting until that point.

No other wheels were found to be loose, but so long as I’m taking one side apart, the other side will also be replaced at the same time. Guess I know what’s coming up next!

the long term plan

While I was initially excited about taking the summer to get most of the way through an electric conversion, I’m now further in support of the second thought – keep the engine for now, and address all the little mechanical and electrical problems first. Get it in good mechanical shape first, patch the rust holes, and fix the accessories. That way, when I do finally manage to grenade the engine or commit fully and drop it, the rest of the vehicle is ready and able to drive right away with a new power system. Whereas currently, even if I were to somehow install the electric powertrain tomorrow, I’d still be faced with a bad wheel bearing, no front fans (forget even air conditioning!), body rust holes, and such things. Since I don’t depend on a car for daily commuting, I can afford it to be a science project and learn how to address these issues.

Plus, as long as I’m paying insurance on it, it might as well be functional and automotive and stuff. My policy is set to expire, with option to renew, at the end of October, which coincides nicely with the season that Mikuvan should not be on the road to avoid further rust spot damage from road salt (if those have not already been sealed by then).

I think the battle plan will be something like this, in no particular order

High priority

  1. Front wheel bearings – replace Real Soon
  2. All brake system inspection, front and rear, probably to coincide with bearing work since the wheels need to come off anyway.
  3. Front heater/AC blower. It’s one thing to not have air conditioning, it’s another to not have moving air or defrost/defogging. There’s already been a sweltering 80-something degree day in Boston, and it will only get worse from here. Unfortunately this seems to be a deep dashboard dissection job (by the Official Strategy Guide, anyway).

Low priority

  1. Underside body rust holes. Not sure how confident I am on this one, since it would require cutting into the bodywork – luckily in a place where nobody can see me mess it up! The side holes seem to be easily patchable with some steel sheet. The two wheelwell area rust holes are a different story since they will require signficant patching, filling, and contouring. And painting. What? Making something look nice?! This is one job which I may actually throw at a body shop and then hide.
  2. Fix the swivelly-slidy seats, which currently can’t latch into position on the slidy-axis. Currently held in place by a toolbox and a milk crate.
  3. Actual professional repaint of the exterior; the paint in some spots is clearly falling apart, and there’s minor rust patches on the rear hatch where it’s bubbling away around them.
  4. The power mirror switch
  5. Some upholstery which could use replacing, especially up near the driver and passenger footwells where there may also be more rust hiding

Operation: Bad Timing and Mikuvan Adventures

May 20, 2013 in mikuvan

I think my new life mission is to collect the 3 legendary birds derpy Japanese 80s vans. Here’s an interesting review of the 3 competing Japanese marques in the November 1987 issue of Popular Science! As an enthusiast of things which go quicker than they need to, I’m glad to see the Mitsubishi Van win the most sporty award. All of these models were discontinued by 1990, and I think the Nissan in particular is the rarest since there was an active mass recall for them. Definitely next on my list…

Anyways, as previously announced, Operation: BAD TIMING went down Saturday, and I am proud to say that it was a resounding success; the sound you hear is a hilariously lawn-mower-sounding 4 cylinder Mitsubishi 4G64 powering a vehicle which resembles a normal American minivan, just with the nose belt-sanded off and a few corners hit with a deburring tool.

Here’s the story of what all came together on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon in (a basement in) Cambridge.

The scene of the crime. A few days before, I went to the neighborhood Harbor Freight and invested a very low 3-digit sum in a 3-ton hydraulic jack and 3-ton jackstands (among other handy accessories). As someone who has used HF equipment for years, I’m fully aware of the need to de-rate everything Harbor Freight tries to sell you by 50+% in order to use it safely. Especially on a matter which would probably reduce me non-consensually a few inches in thickness if the equipment fails. The van weighs 2910lb (1.5 tons, basically) empty, so 3-ton everything it is. Jackstands were placed according to The Official Derpy Van Strategy Guide – there’s a convenient round frame rail on the underside that fit the stand cradles exactly, almost like they anticipated people doing this or something.

The jackstands enabled free access to the underside of the vehicle in order to release several engine cover/timing belt cover bolts, and to release the lower transmission cooler and radiator coolant feed lines.

To get to the timing belt, the radiator and all accessory belts and pulleys needed to come off. This stage was basically done by Official Strategy Guide and some finger-feeling. The service manual doesn’t show some steps, figuring you know this stuff already.

For instance, the only step in radiator removal was “RADIATOR”, not “Remove these 2 bolts, this hose, and this other hose but from the underside of the car, and drain the transmission first so you can also get these two other hoses. Oh, by the way, the radiator shroud doesn’t clear the main cooling fan, but it will if you yank hard enough so you don’t have to take these 4 other bolts out.”

Yeah. That’s how you do it. “RADIATOR”. We decided that yanking was the best way.

After the radiator was wrestled out, I started attacking the fan and fan clutch. This right angle T-handle drive ratchet came in handy immensely for many of these tasks – among others being a makeshift impact wrench and hammer.

Leverage was used to break the fan bolts hold, then the T-handle used to quickly extract the bolt. There was no space to actually put the electric impact wrench I bought in there.

One of the fan nuts needed some Vise Grip Assist to untighten. It didn’t make it back onto the fan hub afterwards. Surely 3 bolts out of 4 is enough…

About midway into the disassembly process, and all the accessory belts have been removed.  The next stage was to remove the crankshaft accessory pulley, which was another 4-bolts torqued way too tight. I actually had to have Adam counter-torque me through the camshaft pulley (holding a socket wrench locked the other direction from my torquing) and rock my own wrench back and forth to break it loose!

After the accessory pulley came off, a few bolts later and the timing belt cover could be removed.

…and this what fell out as soon as we did that. A ball bearing.

Not a good sign.

As the cover was removed further, several more ball bearings fell out. This was not looking good.

A shot of the front of the engine with timing belt components exposed.  The lower left, short timing belt is the balance shaft belt, to be replaced along with the main timing belt. Its tensioner was actually pretty intact. The main timing belt, however, was a different story.

The tensioner is a “offset cam roller” kind of thing mounted on a swinging, lockable mechanism. The mechanism, a single steel stamping, was just fine. But where the hell is my tensioner?

Oh, there is is! At least, that’s the inner race. The actual tensioner roller itself was freely jiggling around inside the timing belt case. It seems that the bearing disintegrated long ago, scattering balls everywhere inside and causing instantaneous and likely fatal timing loss for the engine.

I purchased a full timing belt components kit, so it came with the 2 tension roller assemblies and belts. This is the new balancer belt assembly.

Bear in mind I was not the person taking the pictures, or you’d likely have gotten a picture of the main tensioner roller with every ball bearing recovered and piled on top of it. Others are not so OCD about photos as me, so for now, enjoy this picture of the lettering on the timing belt.

And this photo of nothing in particular. You can kind of see the new (green shielded) tension roller for the main timing belt installed. Much carb cleaner was used to make sure the mating surfaces and pulley faces were clean, then the new timing belt was installed. We didn’t go to extraordinary steps to clean everything, nor was the water pump replaced.

We had thought that “line up the timing marks” was going to be an arduous process of HERE, HOLD MY EVERYTHING WHILE I PLUG IT IN, but rather found that all the engine parts just sort of rolled into place. The cam shaft has 4 big springy detents from valve actuation, one of which was just the correct timing. The balancer shaft naturally rotated from gravity to the right timing.

It’s almost like it was designed this way or something.

After the timing belts were installed, we plugged the (newly replaced) distributor and rotor in, connected the spark plug cables, and tried a test run. This was the make-or-break here – if something was terribly amiss, it would show itself upon cranking. If the engine still didn’t start, I was prepared to keep removing things on the spot.

The video is of the second test run. On the first, we were all taken by surprise as to how quickly and smoothly it started up. I was honestly expecting explosions or jets of flame or something.

The engine idled smoothly and revved up smoothly. I blipped the throttle to about 2500 RPM briefly before we remembered that it had no cooling whatesoever and decided to end the test. Success for now.

After the test run, everything is getting reinstalled and refilled.

Your pretend-mechanic hoodrats of the day are Adam, Dane, and yours truly.

Buttoning up everything and rerouting all the cables. The passenger engine everything compartment hasn’t been this together since I got the thing.

Finally, after about 5 hours of work, Mikuvan is back together again. We finished at around 7PM Saturday, still early enough for the sun to be out!

Naturally, a high-stakes all-hands test drive was in order.

The total mileage of the first ever test run was about three or so. Not very much, but enough for me to observe that everything was in good working order (up to 3rd gear), that nothing was overheating or making weird noises, or that for some reason it really wanted to turn left. Hell, I’ve ridden in friends’ cars which were consistently less reliable.

The evening resulted in one discovery: the source of the coolant leak. First, a major leak from a misplaced hose clamp on the radiator from our servicing. But second, a persistent but lower flow leak which left me puzzled as to why I was leaving a bread crumb trail of coolant droplets everywhere. It turns out that someone in the van’s 23 year history had sheared a bolt on the thermometer to radiator hose connection, so the gasket was completely uncompressed and leaking.

Well, I sure fixed that.

mission 1

The conclusion of the test drive was the N52 parking lot:

That evening, I topped off the brake fluid and also refilled the gas (with 93 octane premium for sheer kicks) and cleaned off some of the bird shit stains and tree droppings.

Sunday has been filled with gratuitous driving (to places I would normally scooter to or even walk and stuff… amazing, right? It’s the weekend, I can park anywhere!) to double check and recheck reliability in starting and fluid leakage. At this point, I haven’t stalled out once, nor had any more issues with dripping fluids with the exception of some small oil dots that appear after a long period of parking. This tells me that there’s probably a very small but consistent oil leak somewhere. I’d like to get this thing on a lift, still, to fully clean the engine and transmission so I can watch oil leaks form.

Other things I have noticed include a pretty rumbly ride, which could indicate bad bearings. At 151,000+ miles, it’s about time for them to let go. However, during the time on jackstands, I did not notice any wobble or looseness in the front at all. It could just be a natural noise from sitting right over the front suspension.

I have yet to take Mikuvan on any highway cruising to obtain true steady state operation; this is on deck for this coming week. At this point, it only has a pile of minor issues to redress:

  • The body panel rust holes on the underside, and the bumper
  • The swivelly chairs can’t lock in place – the mechanism is obviously broken on both of them.
  • The broken coolant gasket bolt can be resolved by buying a new thermometer unit
  • The idle is still erratic, though I have yet to stall out. It varies between over 1000 RPM and what appears to be 450 or less (expected: 750rpm). The idle air control servo is known to get sticky over time.
  • The front blower is broken! I don’t mind not having air conditioning, but some moving air would be nice. The blower assembly does not seem to be accessible short of an entire-dash teardown, however. I may get desperate enough to do so.
  • Rims
  • Subs

This week, my intention is to maybe take it to a detailing shop to clean the rest of the superficial imperfections out (stuff I can’t attack with a towel and kitchen counter cleaner) and to actually register it. I’m already having immense amounts of fun trolling drivers of more conventional modern cars with its Zeerust-future look and 27 foot turn circle. My ultimate fear is not that I have to learn to handle its peculiarities, but that I’ll forget that everyone else has wheels in front of them. I don’t have front wheels, just middle ones.