A year ago we had a tentative plan to head for Alaska in 2016. However by mid-winter we realized that having put forth absolutely no effort to plan that trip we probably weren’t going to make it this year. Besides there were some issues with the bus that I really wanted to get corrected before we head up that long road to the north. As it happened our inability to plan ahead worked to our advantage this time.
I’d heard good things on the forums about a bus garage in Chattanooga so in late February I gave the Choo Choo Express Garage a call to arrange an appointment. I figured we’d get there sometime in late April. So when we left south Texas we went north to Austin to visit my cousin Warren and Judy and then started working our way east along the gulf coast. Along the way we also visited a few bike trails and had some great food along the way.
We pulled into the Choo Choo Garage lot on a Sunday afternoon. In the morning we met Don and Joel the proprietors of this fine establishment. Joel does the wrenching and Don answers the phone and manages the business side. I had a list of issues I wanted corrected and I think Joel was a little overwhelmed as he hadn’t had a day off in 3 months! However, he never said a word, just went to work. It will soon become evident that Joel is a very hard-workin’ man and an excellent mechanic. I don’t think I have ever had anyone work so hard on my behalf as Joel worked on our bus.
First step was to pull the bus into the shop over the pit and do an inspection and service. Right away he found the cause of our steering issues and abnormal tire wear! A missing retaining plate on the right front radius rod. He also discovered a lot of oil in the air system indicating a worn compressor on the engine.
The passenger side front wheel bearing was bad and the seal on the left side was leaking. Oh, the front brake pads were past their wear marks and the left tag axle air bag was leaking! No wonder the air system went flat so quickly. I knew there was a leak, but I never could find it. I’d fixed a few myself but this one eluded me for years.
Besides these new additions to the list I also wanted the leaky transmission looked at and the leaky mitre box (that I tried to fix once) over the engine fixed. By 5 o’clock Monday Joel had: completed his inspection, changed the oil in both engine and transmission, changed all of the filters, adjusted the brakes, lubricated the chassis, replaced radius rod bushings on the front driver side and fabricated a new oil filler hose. We pulled out of the shop for the night.
The next day we pulled back in the shop and Joel started working on the left tag axle air bag. Whoa! what a job!
Unbelievable, but the brand new air bag also leaks! I know the words I’d be spouting at that point, but Joel is unflappable. All he said was, “well, I won’t charge you for that”. A new bag is on order, so on to other tasks. We pull out of the shop and park in the wash area for the rest of our stay.
Joel gets to work on the front end issues. I had mentioned earlier that I had jack stands built for the bus so Joel has me get them out to put under the front axle while he works on the hubs and radius rods. I keep the stands in the old spare tire compartment behind the front bumper. As I drop the bumper down to access the space, I find oil dripping off the frame and tow hitch! One of the power steering hoses has sprung a leak! Another task goes on the list. On Monday Don and Joel were confident we’d be back on the road by Thursday. That is looking more and more unlikely.
First job is to pull the brake drums. We knew the pads needed replacement, but one quick look at the drums and it was obvious they were also shot. These drums cannot be turned, so replacement was the only choice.
In the meanwhile, Wendy is not feeling well and we decide she needs to see a doctor. Again, Choo Choo Garage comes through for us! Don very generously offers the use of his car! (read all about that here). While we’re gone Joel installs a new air compressor on the engine. No pics, sorry.
It is finally time to take a look at the mitre box – the main reason we came here! So while Joel works on the front end I get the mitre box ready to remove. Its a tricky job that doesn’t look possible at first glance due the fan shrouds being larger than the opening they have to come out through. The trick is to spin them around and bring the back sides out first. It’s still barely enough, but the whole assembly will come out as a whole. Getting it back in is just the reverse process. Trust me getting it out was the easy part.
In addition to the work Joel did to fix the front suspension and brakes, I also had to buy two new steer tires. These are very expensive so I didn’t want to ruin them like the last set. So a front end alignment was essential. Don calls his friend Chis Webber of Tri-State Mobile Alignment. Chris was friendly, efficient and had the toe-out condition corrected in no time.
I can’t begin to express my a gratitude and appreciation of the generosity, hospitality and competence of Joel and Don at the Choo Choo Express Garage. They not only fixed our bus, but they offered us their car, the use of their lot and made a difficult situation into a manageable one. On the last day Joel even pulled out an old air solenoid and some brass fittings and explained to me how to install it so I can unload the tag axle from the driver seat!
New front brake pads and drums; all new radius rod bushings up front; right front wheel bearings and race and new seals left and right; used spider on left front hub; retaining plate on right front radius rod; new power steering hoses up front; left tag axle air bag; complete inspection and service; repaired leaky modulator on transmission; new air compressor; fabricated new oil filler spout; repair and replace mitre box; air tank drain cables; new steer tires; front end alignment.
And while Joel did his magic I installed a new freezer in the center bay, installed a switch at the driver seat to unload the tag axle, fixed the minor problem with the new backup camera. Those can wait for another blog.