“Would it help if I got out and pushed?” – repairing the MFALCON’s intermittent limp mode, Part 1

After last weekend’s trip to my sister’s graduation in Syracuse, New York, I had enough of “big hills on the highway = engine slows me down to between 55 and 60 and the pedal to the metal doesn’t prevent that.”  So, several purchases of tools and components later, here goes nothing:

Getting the turbo to work properly/fixing the intermittent “limp mode”

Since I initially bought the MFALCON, I have needed to get to work on repairing the intermittent issue with my engine – namely, the lovely problem where the turbo doesn’t kick in above certain speeds sometimes, or at all during other times.  It is mostly likely that this is caused by the vacuum tubing to the engine’s computer (way more technical details than anyone wants can be found here, at the thread I started to ask VW diesel enthusiasts for help with this issue).  So I put on my diesel enthusiasts cap (the figurative one, and then the literal t-shirt iteration…)

Another idea from my friend Tom that I purchased... the "Got no spark" diesel guy shirt

Another idea from my friend Tom that I purchased… the “Got no spark” diesel guy shirt

… and got to work at making this happen.

The hope is to have the engine running properly again, and to make it reach 1 million (1,000,000) miles, if not more.  So I ordered the above glow plug shirt, to help me channel my inner diesel technician.  Or because I am a lonely son’m’betch.  Or something.


In terms of the intermittent limp mode my car encounters, I followed the guide posted in response to my question, on that forum.  I am also going to replace the fuel filter, cabin air filter, and engine air filter (I have no idea when any of those were last replaced, and I want the car to run as efficiently and effectively as possible).

cabin air intake on the left, pine needles and engine comp on the right

cabin air intake on the left, pine needles and engine comp on the right

Then I got the other air filter, which is good as my car sometimes smells VERY slightly of diesel (no sarcasm in this case):

guess which cabin air filter is the old one

guess which cabin air filter is the old one

And the fuel filter got replaced as well, and there was much rejoicing (no photos, too much diesel fuel on my hands!).

This process was only made possible by the Craftsman Mechanic’s tool set I ordered the other day, paying $109 for the $230 product.  That order was only made possible by my good friend and fellow DIY addict, Tom.

setting up my repair shop on the street

setting up my repair shop on the street

So, after setting up “shop” (putting down some rags and the tools onto the street next to my car), it was time to remove the ECU and take a look at it (a process which goes well with replacing the cabin air filter, they are both directly in front of the firewall):

took a while and buying more tools, but I got the engine computer out...

took a while and buying more tools, but I got the engine computer out…

The procuring of 3mm silicone tubing was actually much more difficult than I would have expected, but I eventually succeeded (I ended up cheating and using fuel line).

... and as expected, there was a hole in the vacuum tubing in the comp

… and as expected, there was a hole in the vacuum tubing in the comp

Proper basic functioning –> performance

So, having gotten this working with the help of my friend Tom, my dad’s advice, and ~The Internet~, I put the engine back together and took a drive on 91 North.  The marked improvement in acceleration and boost was almost dangerous at first; I am used to having to apply a LOT of throttle to get the car moving from stop.  But this is an excellent and safe change,  to be able to more easily merge with traffic and enter roads from parking lots or driveways at a faster pace.  The engine computer still shows the same error codes as before, but replacing this tubing has increased performance closer to what it should be.  Stay tuned in the future for more on this process of getting the MFALCON into tip-top shape!


“This baby’s got a few surprises left in her, sweetheart.” – doing some professional detailing to make a 19 year old paintjob look better than new

Getting the paint to look RIDICULOUSLY gorgeous. Like, illegal levels of gorgeousness, in most US states.

As a gift to myself for having survived yet another academic semester and the CSBS (chickenshit bullllllllSHIT <— this link is not safe for work, to be very clear) thereof, I decided to really go all-out and start to take care of my car’s paint and exterior the proper ways, from now until forever (which is ~approximately how long I have planned on it lasting, ad infinitum).  This involved me spending money (a thing I really don’t have enough of, ever . Damn school to the inferno forever and ever, amen), but for the preservation of my car, this seems a noble goal. So I wanted to do this right, and looked up ideas from German-made car owners – 1) because they really love their cars; 2) because their cars are manufactured in similar ways; and 3) because VW and Audi are owned by the same company, so they steps in detailing a car to a professional degree are likely going to be similar.  So I found the proud owner of an Audi and his VERY detailed guide to detailing like a professional, and after cross-checking it with things on Volkswagen-specific forums, I knew which products I wanted to do this job properly.

Plus, given there was dried tree sap or resin on the hood, I wanted to clean the car properly and fully before polishing, glazing, and waxing it.

the dried resin is slowly coming off

the dried resin is slowly coming off

So, as my finishing-the-spring gift to myself, I got the following gear to make this happen, and properly:
* p21s deluxe detailing kit – included the right kinds of shampoo, polish, wax, and wheel cleaner all in one package
*3M Imperial Hand Glaze
* p21s deluxe wax applicators – I want to do this the right way, so I went with their applicator product to use with their wax.  Yes. p21s is a German company.  They make the best cars, so I figure they make the best car care products, too.
* Griot’s paint cleaning clay – Griot’s is a luxury car type of company, and everything I read online pointed me towards their products as well.
* Griot’s Garage microfiber towel – so I wanted the proper sort of towel, as well.
* Turtle Wax Bug and Tar Remover – when I initially bought the car, it looked like some VERY old dried tree resin or sap was on the hood in a few places.  A smorgasbord of internet research has pointed me to this product, and to let it soak for 10 minutes instead of the directions telling me 1 minute.  We shall see.

the cleaning product array

the cleaning product array

The car was fairly clean to begin with, I try to wash it every two weeks or so.

driver's side, pre-detailing

driver’s side, pre-detailing

The process outlined by the Audi owner above took a while, but I would wager it was worth it; please check out the requisite photos of the stages and then the finished and detailed MFALCON:

stock wheel covers, pre-cleaning

stock wheel covers, pre-cleaning

The wheel cleaning product, whatever it was, definitely wasn’t pleasant to get on my skin…

nighttime cleaning of the resin and wheelcovers

nighttime cleaning of the resin and wheelcovers

did so right after krav maga, for that extra arm workout

did so right after krav maga, for that extra arm workout

… but given how easily it got the wheels and wheel covers VERY clean, I suppose that makes a lot of sense:

wheels after cleaning and waxing

wheels after cleaning and waxing

The final product, at first glance, might not necessarily look THAT much nicer without seeing the pre-detailing photos:

driver's side, post-detailing

driver’s side, post-detailing

… but here is the side-by-side comparison, and I still can’t believe how fantastic I got my beloved 19 year-old car to look, after nearly 4 hours of detailing work:

side by side comparison, left is pre-detailing

side by side comparison, left is pre-detailing

She might make better time on the Kessel run, with a detailing job of THIS magnitude!

she'll make better than .5 past light speed, with THIS waxing job

she’ll make better than .5 past light speed, with THIS waxing job


“What a piece of junk!” – restoring 19 year old headlights to glass-like clarity

Being able to see the road is Key – restoring the headlights to a crystal-clear sheen

The vehicle has the stock headlights on it, and they are known to have awful low beams and excellent high beams.  The car is also 19 years old, so the lenses yellowed quite a bit over time.

right headlight lens, pre-restoration

right headlight lens, pre-restoration

Low beams are pretty bad, and my eyes are really bad – and since I cannot easily sand and polish my corneas using a cordless drill, I decided to give the 3M Headlight Restoration Kit I got on sale a try, and after about 2 hours of buffing and grinding and sanding and polishing (with the help of an old but functional cordless drill I got as a gift from a nice guy at krav, thanks Mike!), the headlights were NOTICEABLY clearer.

final product

final product

The true test, however, is comparing pre- and post-restoration light output.  As the following photos demonstrate, there is a LARGE increase in lumen output:

Low beams, left is old

The high beams always seemed like they were just fine to me.  Now that I see both how much clearer I got the lenses and also the comparison photos, I see JUST how wrong I was:

high beams, left is old

All told, the $31 I got for $11 after mail-in-rebates was QUITE the bargain.   Thanks as per ever to the Wallet Destroyer for that find on SlickDeals!  :)

the actual 3M Headlight Restoration Kit

the actual 3M Headlight Restoration Kit

“She might not look like much, kid, but she’s got it where it counts” – buying MFALCON, my 96 Passat TDI

“You’ve never heard of the MFALCON?”

For full disclosure, be forewarned that this post is going to make use of an absurd number of Star Wars references to the namesake of my new car, the Millennium Falcon.  Be forewarned AND entertained, ideally.  Some applicable sound effects to perhaps listen to while reading this post, here.  Also, this car-buying and -fixing trip was taken over spring break, so there are a smattering of photos related to that in the gallery below.


Back in September, I knew two things total.  1) Ryan my roommate was going to a PhD program somewhere, probably not in New Haven, and 2) his car was the only way I was getting to krav maga, which has done me a world of good.  Therefore, I knew I would need to start looking for a car, but with several specifics in mind: namely, that I would be able to insure it cheaper once I turned 25, in February 2013, that it needed to be stupidly efficient and reliable, and have a lot of utility for different applications.  Back in December, after long discussions with my good friend Tom, a Volkswagen enthusiast, I realized I would need to go the VW route, as well.  Through him, I got into touch with a guy from Chicago, who had a VW Passat B4 TDI wagon (Germans manage to even make English titles too long: the full name is a “Volkswagen Passat B4 Turbocharged Diesel Injection station wagon”).  A 1996, the car had 234,000 miles on it, and had been owned by the same person for 17 years; then the guy owned it for a year and put only 4000 miles on it.  He was asking $5000, and would include an extra set of tires, brand new aftermarket shocks, and random spare parts.  To make a long story short, after negotiating and discussing by email for a while, I talked him down to $4100 for it… and then sold those shocks to Tom for $260 and a brand new radio for the car.  So final price for it: $3840 for this car.

This is a large amount of money for a 1996 with 234,000 miles on it, I do not disagree; for that price, “we could just buy our own ship!”  But consider the following: the interior, aside from a few small stains on the sun visors, looks like a brand new car.  The underbody of the vehicle, which spent its entire life in Chicago, has no rust on it.  This makes no sense whatsoever, but I am not going to argue.  The AC looks to be brand new, but doesn’t work, so I assume it just needs to be refilled with freon.  The right rear passenger door only opens from the inside, and the window on it doesn’t work, but those problems will be dealt with eventually.  For now, I have an absurdly well-kept car… that gets between 40 and 50 mpg.  It is a stick shift, yesterday was my sixth day of driving a manual transmission, and I drove 9.5 hours from home to New Haven, and I managed to get 45.1 mpg for the trip.  Not too shabby, right?  “She will indeed make .5 past light speed.”

The trip back was rather enjoyable, though the 90 horsepower engine definitely struggled a bit with the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania; thankfully, I “know a couple of maneuvers,” and was able to always be in the slow lane whenever we would begin to encounter larger inclines… because going any faster than 60mph would see my car begin to inexorably slow down to between 56 and 62 mph up the big hills, which folks driving behind me didn’t usually enjoy.  On the other hand, I now have a keen appreciation for why and how truck drivers of bigger vehicles need to slow down, going up hill.  This is one of several reasons why the first chance I get in warm weather to have the engine tuned, I will do so, and have them focus on boosting horsepower while preserving torque and fuel efficiency.  I will also eventually want to upgrade the exhaust system, to boost hp a bit.  We shall see what the future holds, but being serious about having a trailer hitch on the car, I will need to have it running extremely well and more powerfully, before I can even think about doing so.

But even currently. I got 45.1 mpg for my trip home, which was all highway driving.  While still at home, I got 42 mpg with 75% city driving… so this car is going to save me a big bundle of money in fuel costs (follow my fuel consumption and costs at my profile on Fuelly, another excellent suggestion by Tom!).  Folks have mentioned “well what about the cost of insurance?”  Being such an old car, the insurance company (foolishly) thinks it isn’t worth anything, so it costs me a mere $39 per month to insure it.  Seeing that it cost me $30 per week to use Ryan’s car to get to krav, and the MFALCON will cost approximately $11.50 per week for the same commute… I will save $35 per month on fuel, after the cost of insurance, or $74 saved when comparing fuel costs directly!!  That means that if I make the car last 4 years and one month, it will pay itself off in fuel savings alone (and I am VERY serious about making this delightful car last a very, very long time).  The German-manufactured diesel Volkswagens are easily gotten to 500,000 miles, with proper care and maintenance, and given its well-kept 19 years of life thus far… I plan on continuing that for many years to come.

All of that said, keep your eyes open in the future for more details about the car and its works and way, especially when it comes to my intended projects to boost fuel efficiency and horsepower.  I will then be able to truthfully claim that “I’ve made a lot of special modifications,” which is important; after all, “you [Dylan] lost her to me, fair and square.”

Photos – “She may not look like much, kid, but she’s got it where it counts”

A gallery of some of the delightful angles, details, and small projects thus far on the car: