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My Car – My Glorious Car, She Pains Me So

For those of you who care (or even if you don’t, but you’re just bored enough), I have a love-hate relationship with my car. I love. She hates. Lately, she’s feeling extra nasty. If you’ll recall from a few posts back, this is an ongoing battle and I seem to be losing. About a year and a half ago, my car, a silver 2002 Audi A6 Quattro 2.7L BiTurbo, exhibited some peculiar transmission issues. Turns out the transmission had developed a pinhole leak and over time it dumped it’s fluid … not all of it. Just most of it. It’d be great if there was a clear indication from a warning light or diagnostic trouble code that said, “Low fucking transmission fluid, you jerk!” But that’d be too helpful. In fact, since Audi believes the engine has “lifetime fluid”, they don’t even bother giving you a dipstick to check the fluid level yourself. It’s a sealed transmission. But when the transmission stopped shifting correctly, the damage was very much done. By then, all the clutch plates were burned and the whole transmission had to be rebuilt by a trained professional. Several thousand dollars later and I was back on the road, shifting gears with the best of them.

I need to pause a minute to say I’m really happy with the transmission shop. They do all kinds of mechanic work on European cars, exotics, and even antiques. Folks from all over the country send transmissions and even vehicles to Freddie’s Transmissions. They’re the kind of mechanic who takes their time, not because they’re ringing up the invoice, but because they’re meticulous. It must be as good or better than it was when it was delivered from the factory. That, and if you stop in the shop, Joe and Freddie will talk you through the whole process, to ensure you are completely informed about what they’re doing to your car.

Well, that’s the beginning of the story. I took my car in to Freddie’s a week before Christmas, to have them check the transmission fluid and top off the differential gear oil. When they lifted the car up, the mechanic sees that the transmission and the differential are in great shape, great news. It’s the engine that’s the problem. The whole thing is oil leaking like a New Orleans canal during Katrina. The camshaft seals, the valve cover seals, the crankshaft seals, additionally, with nearly 100,000 miles on the car, the timing belt and water pump must be changed ASAP. The timing belt on the 2.7T is rubber, unlike many newer V6’s and V8’s which have chain belts. When that rubber belt dies, or when any of the pulleys connected to it seize, the pistons will slap smack into the valves and it’s time to throw away the whole engine. So it’s a good idea to change that belt. It just so happens that the timing belt, water pump, and all the various seals aren’t exactly easy to reach. In fact, you pretty much have to remove the whole front end of the car and disassemble the top and front of the engine to get to them. If this were a 65’Ford pickup, you could do all that in an afternoon. But with two turbos, an air conditioner, power steering, transmission cooler, oil cooler, two intercoolers (for the turbos), it is slightly more involved on the Audi.

The first day (or at least 9 hours of it) were exhausted while removing the front wheels, bumper, A/C condenser (still charged though), electric and belt-fed fans, and accessory belt tensioner. I’m certain an Audi mechanic could do all of that in a couple of hours at most, but I’m working without a lift, in my driveway, by myself, so I’m giving myself a hefty temporal allowance. I had hoped to complete this entire job in two days, but at this rate, it may be three or four. You may be asking yourself, “Greg, why in the hell are you doing this yourself? It sounds like a lot of fricking work, doesn’t it?” Yes, it does, dear reader, but the answer to your question is a couple of Grover Clevelands. Yes, there are a lot of parts, yes there are a lot of specialty Audi tools, and yes, the price of failure is a new engine. But $2,000 is real damned steep. If I break it I’ll have to pay more, but there’s a big possibility that I won’t, if I’m careful. If I had someone else do it, I’d definitely be $2,000 lighter in the trouser pockets and possibly more if it took the professional mechanics longer than they anticipated. I should add that the $2,000 estimate is for an independent repair shop. If I took the car to the Audi dealer, chances are they’d ask for their share of my home mortgage. ($95/hour labor versus $175/hour) I’m posting photos, and a detailed step-by-step process for those of you who want to retrace my steps and see if I did it right. Or maybe you’re feeling lucky and you’re facing similar issues with your Audi or Volkswagen? In that case, skip to the end of this blog to see if my car blows up before you begin.

Well, I’m now three days into the repairs and I don’t even feel like I’ve made much progress. This is an utterly
frustrating process. I’m totally demoralized and totally in pain. I don’t know how anyone my age or older can crawl in, around, and under a car as cramped as this every day. I like working on cars, really I do, but working on this Audi is a lot less fun this time around. I’d read from other folks doing these maintenance procedures that it’s a pain in the ass. I don’t think that’s a strong enough assessment; rather, I’d say this is a “fucking miserable pain in the ass, and you’ll hate yourself for doing it”.

Timeline

  • Day 1: got the bumper and radiator off, removed accessory belt, tensioner, and fans, sent the wheels off to get trued.
  • Day 2: got the timing belt, pulleys, tensioners, water pump and thermostat removed.
  • Day 3: cleaned water pump surfaces, replaced pump, rollers, tensioners, thermostat, removed diverter pipe, bi-pipes, removed one cylinder head cover, cleaned the cylinder head surface.
  • Day 4: removed the right side air injection combination valve with great pain, removed secondary air injection pump, broke and then subsequently removed the brittle, worthless, and clogged breather hose, removed the left side cam sprocket and camshafts, and the right side cylinder head cover.
  • Day 5: (Driver’s Side) pressure washed the cylinder head cover after soaking it with Simple Green.  Scrubbed and scrubbed and rubbed and sprayed and scrubbed the cylinder head and camshaft caps.  Installed a new tensioner gasket and half moon seal, reinstalled the cams, new camshaft seals, torqued the caps, tensioned the chain, installed new cylinder head cover gasket, and put the cylinder head cover back on.
  • Day 6: (Passenger’s Side) repeated everything from Day 5, and stuck it all back together.  Then I cranked the engine over by hand about 8 times (the manual says 2, but I wanted to be 4X sure that I wouldn’t blow it all up).
  • Day 7: Started the car.  It did not explode.  However, it did have loud exhaust noises from the engine bay.  This was because I’d inadvertently lost a gasket on that stupid air valve on the passenger’s side, near the firewall.  With this fixed, the car started and sounded like normal.  I’m DONE!!!!
  • This Just In: The engine still leaks. There is a rear main crankcase seal that I couldn’t replace.  I suspect it’s the culprit.  To replace it would require dropping the exhaust and the transmission, or pulling the engine … something I just can’t do in my driveway.  So, now, I’m planning to top off the engine oil when it gets low and then put a few gallons of flaming gas and plenty of bullets in it when it stops working.

One thing I did not do, because I couldn’t get the crankshaft locking pin in place, was the front crankshaft seal.  I don’t know if I’ll regret that or not.

A note about disconnecting the radiator …

One other thing, which I don’t know how many folks this would affect … I completely disconnected the radiator from the car, in order to have uninhibited access to the engine and timing belt area.  I had to disconnect the transmission cooler lines to remove it entirely, and I wrapped the lines up in a shop towel and then taped them up.  This was insufficient.  I wound up losing a *significant* amount of transmission fluid (3+ quarts), seeping through the shop towel … I didn’t know how much I’d lost; I foolishly estimated about a cup or so.  The manual says wrap the disconnected lines in a shop towel … obviously this is incorrect when used for an extended period of time.  If I were to do it over again, (and I tried this after the fact, to see how it worked), I’d clip a “finger” off of a nitrile glove and slip it on the transmission cooler line like a condom, taping up very well.

The Cause of All Evil

I believe I found out why my oil leaks were so severe and sudden.  Some Audi drivers may recollect an Audi recall, to remove a grommet in the firewall plenum, sitting underneath the battery tray.  This grommet was inadvertently catching leafs and other environmental garbage, which inadvertently caused the plenum to flood during heavy rains (or a car wash) because of blocked plenum drainage.  Well, this happened to me, before the official recall announcement.  Water flooded the plenum, which seeped into the brake booster (that big black round thing attached to the firewall) … then the brake booster vacuum pump (which creates a vacuum in the brake booster, giving you “power” brakes) unfortunately sucked down all that water and fried it’s little guts out.  No warning lights, nothing.  I happily drove on, not knowing that the vacuum pump was smoked.  This becomes a much larger problem because at least on the 2.7T, the brake booster vacuum pump subsidizes the crankcase ventilation system … with that vacuum pump gone, you’ve got insufficient ventilation of the crankcase, which leads to seal failure, which leads to oil leaking out of the seals, which leads to you spending your entire Christmas break under the hood of your car.

Photos for all you schadenfreude:

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