With seven grease-covered days behind us, Jacqui and I finally paused to proudly observe our completed motor installation. It was late in the day and we were exhausted, which added to our decision to wait until morning to start up the engine. After all, with a conversion of this magnitude there were bound to be hiccups and I didn’t want discovering them to pollute my night’s sleep.
Little did I know, any start up issues we were about to encounter would pale in comparison to what was lurking in our near future.
The morning dawned, we crossed the street from our shady motel to the DIY garage and got to work. We topped off all the fluids, disconnected the electrical to the injection pump and cranked the engine over a few times to get the oil pumping. After one final check over, Jacqui and I each took a deep, long breath and took our positions.
While I went off to the driver’s seat Jacqui scrambled to prepare a video. Sitting there waiting for a thumbs up from Jacqui, I was far from thrilled about the concept of her capturing the first start. The thought of something going catastrophically wrong and being filmed wasn’t the warmest thing rolling around in my imagination.
Jacqui finally gave me the go-ahead so I turned the key and with unbelievable speed and a puff of smoke, PennyWagon Version 2.0 roared to life.
Our first start was a success! The idle was rough and there was a minor coolant leak coming from an aftermarket coolant flange, but nonetheless, we had every right to pat ourselves on the back. Well, somehow that minor coolant leak managed to eat up an entire day. I tried to figure out why this brand new flange was leaking and it broke in my hand. Frustrated, we took long Uber rides to get a new one, which broke in the exact same manner. Now it was obvious we should have stuck with the stock, plastic flange. Ok, fine! Could be worse, right?
At last we prepared PennyWagon sufficiently to take her on a test drive and I was ecstatic, though fully aware she wasn’t running perfect. Having never driven a TDI-powered Vanagon before I had nothing to compare with, but I recognized it was a little challenging to make idle and there was a ton of turbo lag which I knew to be uncharacteristic of this power-plant. Regardless, the fine-tuning could come with time. The hard parts were over so it was time to head to the exhaust shop.
After eight days of DIY madness we were out of the shady hotel and on the road once again. We clocked 100 miles between the shop and our friends’ house without a single hiccup. We had significantly more power than our air-cooled motor ever offered and we were thrilled to get 28.25mpg at the first fill up. Which, with current diesel prices in Southern California, was putting us at a nice even 10 cents per mile.
We swung by Quality German to show Thomas our work and were rewarded with his praise for this install being one of the more beautiful he’d seen completed. Finally, we were going to have a dependable adventure-mobile worthy of world exploration! For anyone following our vehicle-related trials the last 18 months you can probably imagine our excitement.
When at last we turned our wheels north for a cautious drive we were full of smiles and talk of a grand future ahead. For three months we prepped, planned and waited to start this swap. We drove from Guatemala to Texas, then Texas to California. We put our dream of driving to South America on hold (for a second time) and were looking forward to spending time in the US with family and friends while kiteboarding and exploring the Pacific Northwest. We felt relieved that perhaps we could finally spend our time adventuring instead of on car repair, which had become just about the only thing we ever do since our accident in March 2014.
However, we have been told by more than one of our fellow travelers we are cursed or have the worst luck. When I give a rundown of the trials associated with our travels listeners express their utter disbelief, whether through words or facial expressions. One traveler even held her fingers in a cross to ward off our unlucky spirits. Knowing that, it may not surprise you to hear that whenever we say things are finally going our way that's customarily when things go terribly wrong. Clearly today was going to be something quite ordinary, for us.
While cruising highway I-15 I downshifted for a steep grade and smiled at how much more power was at my disposal for hill-climbs. As I crested the hill I depressed the clutch and tried to move from 3rd to 4th gear, I never made it to 4th.
The engine immediately started screaming as if I was holding the gas pedal to the floor in neutral, the only thing was I wasn’t touching the gas. I quickly cycled the ignition off and the engine didn’t care it was running full-speed on it’s own. Immediately adrenaline started pumping through my skull and I knew I needed to get this van off the road and shut the engine down immediately.
“We have a major emergency! Diesel runaway syndrome, it could explode!”
My eyes were wide and I scanned for a safe spot. With no time to react I nearly locked the brakes and came to a stop in the middle of six lanes of traffic. We were at the base of the infamous Grapevine, splitting the lanes that usher truckers to the right and cars to the left.
“No, no, no, no, no!” Black smoke so thick you could cut it with a knife was billowing out the back of the van while our engine, even with the key out, was screaming deafeningly loud. In a panic I ran around and leapt under the van, grabbed the fuel line leading from the gas tank and tried to fold it in half, but there wasn’t enough slack.
“Nooooooooooo!!!!” I couldn’t even hear myself scream over the high-pitched wail of the engine as it continued to rev as fast as physics would allow. I furiously ripped the fuel lines out of the bottom of the van with all my strength and folded them in half so they wouldn’t spill all over the highway. I found myself laying half under the van with an up close view as the motor continued to scream and cook itself, diesel and coolant were puking all over the ground while the unbelievably thick, monstrous cloud of smoke engulfed everything.
“No, no, please, no.” I was almost crying the words as I watched our hard work destroy itself while I lay in the center of the highway completely powerless.
I looked up to see Jacqui 15 yards down the highway. Apparently when I declared our state of emergency the only words she heard were “runaway” and “explode”. Thus when the van stopped she took off sprinting down the freeway, barefoot. I needed to get out from under the van and tie off the fuel lines, I started waving Jacqui over in panic and she immediately sprinted to my side. Over the roar of the engine I yelled, “Hold this!” and went to grab a zip tie.
Finally, with the fuel lines tied off, we stepped back in disbelief as the motor continued to scream, time was a blur. Staring at the deafening loud van billowing black smoke we were waiting for everything we owned to catch fire and burn to the ground. We dared not approach or try to save our belongings stored above the engine compartment. If the motor decided to come apart we didn’t want to be in the debris field.
As abruptly as it had started, it stopped. Our engine finally used up all the residual fuel in the fuel filter and lines; there was no fire.
Many of you probably don’t understand how our engine could possibly do this. We had the rare diesel runaway syndrome and it’s easy enough to find a YouTube video of other unlucky fellows who have experienced this.
A diesel engine, unlike its gasoline cousin, doesn’t require electricity to run. The gasoline engine sucks in fuel and air then uses a spark to ignite the mixture. A diesel, on the other hand, simply squeezes air so tight it creates enough heat for the fuel to spontaneously combust when added. That’s why diesels are so amazing, so robust, so simple, and will run on just about anything. Put vegetable oil, diesel, kerosene, propane, or even engine oil in them and they will run, though some of those fuels won’t exactly make them last very long.
In our case, the engine started getting fuel from a source that was no longer controlled by me, and that’s all it needed to get a mind of its own. If you plan on shutting off a diesel you need to either have control of the fuel or the air entering the engine. I couldn’t get to the air-intake located behind the tail-light so I attacked the fuel source and was very, very lucky that the engine wasn’t somehow sucking oil. If it was, it would have continued running until it ran out, blew up, or welded itself into a useless hunk of metal. I guess you could say this is both the beauty and the danger of diesels. Their robust ability to run anywhere and on anything is why they are the selected engines for industrial use, and why so many travelers prefer them.
I repeat: this is a rare thing to happen. Unless of course, you’re us.
I'm actually shocked how quickly Jacqui and I emotionally recovered from the insanity of this whole situation. Maybe the unbelievable number of mishaps on the road has made us callous. As soon as we knew our van wasn’t burning down, we were basically just concerned about calling a tow-truck and handling the warranty regarding our new motor.
When we finally entered the safety of the tow-truck the adrenaline and tension subsided and was replaced by the kind of chuckling that can only come from utter disbelief. The kind of semi-crazed laughter that only comes with the epiphany that your circumstances are absolutely, positively, ludicrous. But more than anything, despite this being our first ever diesel run-away, this whole scenario felt somehow ordinary.
Regarding the warranty, Thomas from Quality German is a great guy and has been in business for over 30 years. Once we collectively determined it was in fact the special pump that failed (the pump that Jacqui and I waited 8 weeks to receive) and no fault due to our install, he took full control to make things right. He and his pump builder were dumbfounded. This is the first time one of their pumps has ever failed and ran away. Someone had to be the first and we were the obvious choice I guess; must be that damn curse everyone keeps telling us we have. We don’t even believe in curses, but at a certain point you start to wonder.
Well, Thomas from Quality German did take amazing care of Jacqui and me. We received a rebuilt, zero-mile engine (an upgrade from the low mileage, used one that just destroyed itself) and a completely different pump. In order to quickly get us back on the road Thomas himself drove to Colorado over the weekend to pick up everything, and was hiring a world-class professional diesel mechanic to do the install so we wouldn’t have to lift a finger. He was doing everything in his power to not only make this right, but to get us on the road as quickly as possible.
Perhaps it’s a bit strange, but Jacqui and I both felt bad that Thomas would had to go through all this trouble. It’s not like he’s personally at fault for the pump failing, he hires a third-party specialist to build them, but we were also very grateful that we were catching a break on getting this resolved.
After close to two weeks passed we got our van back! Absolutely incredible! Honestly this motor and the previous weren’t even comparable. Since Thomas’ specialist Marcello did the install he was able to do the fine-tuning to really make the whole thing sing in harmony. It drove with smile-inducing beauty...for 25 miles.
There are three things I have to be concerned with regarding on our diesel: the injection pump, the engine assembly and the turbo. Each one of them is durable and rebuild-able. With the failure of the last pump that killed the motor, we now had two of those three items with basically zero miles on them. Fresh and ready to go.
The only thing is, that custom injection pump we’ve had built twice now, failed again. Interesting thing is, this time it’s actually the fault of a part purchased from Bosch. As in the massive auto parts manufacturer. A little pin inside the pump which was brand-spanking new had a bad weld. Something you’d only see with a microscope.
Our motor swap experience has been, I don’t know…uncanny? Ridiculous? A statistical anomaly? The chances that we would receive the first run-away pump these guys have ever built is already crazy. But, thanks to some tiny manufacturing error in a pin the size of a paper clip made by an auto-parts giant, we also got their second pump that has ever failed and ran away. So basically we’ve had the very rare diesel runaway syndrome in two separate engines, in less than 300 miles.
We are currently accepting crossed fingers, prayers and best wishes for when we get our van running a third time.
**Super special thanks to our friends Helen, Martin and baby Elliott. We’ve been living with them for over seven weeks before, during and after all this insanity and they’ve been extremely patient with these "boomerang kids".
***Another side note. In no way do I want this blog post to put a negative light on Quality German Auto Parts, Thomas, or the installer Marcello. Quite the opposite, actually. I’ve worked in the auto repair industry long enough to tell you that no place on earth has a 100% perfect track record in every repair they do, and especially not in custom builds. It’s simply impossible. In fact, I don’t measure the quality of a shop by whether or not a mistake has been made; I measure it by how they treat you after the mistake.
Based on that, these are excellent businesses and excellent people.
Now for some photos.
Running around trying to get 5 gallons of diesel (Target shopping carts totally help), our twice broken coolant flange that ate up a whole day, Thomas' shop kitty 'Grease' and saying goodbye to the guys at Your Dream Garage.
All the tow trucks associated with runaway #1, leaving all our stuff that behind at Quality German, meeting Marcello the diesel mechanic, then experiencing runaway #2.
It's a good thing these guys keep taking us back. Someday we will stop pestering them.