Paul and Susie learn about differentials.
So, I am learning a lot about trucks. Driving a 1989 Trooper has helped me to gain a pretty broad Spanish vocabulary of truck parts, and meet lots of mechanics along the way. Just after entering Panama, Phyllis started to get a strange shimmy when we cornered slowly. We ignored it for the first little while, but it kept getting worse and worse. We visited a couple of mechanics, who checked out our front end and confirmed Paul’s suspicion that everything was ok under there… perplexing. We then moved to the unfortunate conclusion that it might be the rear differential. (For those of you who share my lack of technical know-how, since our truck is rear wheel drive, this part both allows power to move to the rear wheels, and allows the rear wheels to move at different rates when cornering as to not screech them.) This part is complicated to work on, and risks imminent failure if the gears shear themselves off. Basically, this is a reall¬¬y bad part to have to fix. The chatter kept getting worse and worse, and we decided that if we were going to find a skilled mechanic and/or parts anywhere, we would probably find them in the larger city centers- Panama City.
We arrived in Panama City and met up with David and Andrea to start the paperwork for the shipping process. By this time our truck was behaving super poorly, and in the back of both of our minds was the thought- why ship the truck if it’s just going to die? Paul drained the fluid from the diff, and found lots of metal in it (not a good sign), he replaced it with thicker fluid for the higher temperatures. We asked around and found a few leads on neighbourhoods to check out where there are many mechanic shops. The major stumbling block in Panama was the TRAFFIC. There is traffic like I have never seen before. We were lost most of the time, and driving a mere 5km through the city took us 2.5 hours. This was horrendous. The mechanics that we did find either could not locate the part on the vehicle, or told us to buy a whole new axle, or told us that it would take 5-7 days to diagnose and fix the problem. FAIL. We struck out here, and decided to ship Phyllis broken and deal with it later. We both realized this this was a risky move, and that we might be throwing away our 1200 dollars that it cost to ship her. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
When we picked up Phyllis in Cartagena, there was one thing on our minds- let’s get her to the mechanic. We visited a man named Nelson who told us he could fix axles, who promptly referred us to his friend Yonnie who apparently specializes in problems such as ours. This seemed sweet until our 9am appointment with him turned out to be in a gravel parking lot (not a shop) to which he was 2 hours late. We talked to him on the phone, and he told us to let his assistants take the diff apart, and that he would diagnose it and work on it when he got there. Paul caught the assistant jumping on the lugnut wrench trying to get the wheel off, who then broke our lugnut. We yelled to get him to stop. CUT. If you can’t take a wheel off a truck you don’t get to work on Phyllis. We peeled out of there no further ahead. Never did meet up with Yonnie.
By now we were getting pretty demoralized. We hedged our bets and went to the one place we don’t usually go. We hit up the Isuzu/Chevrolet dealership to ask them for help. They were surprisingly helpful and connected us up with a mechanic named Jairo. Jairo took our diff apart, and cleaned it. It looked fine to him- no problems. Sometimes it is hard to convince mechanics down here that you actually do have a problem. He did a few other things for us including new sway bar links, and leaf spring bushings. We put some thicker fluid in the diff for the warmer temps (as per the manual) and took her for a test drive. SHE WAS WORSE THAN EVER. Phyllis was barely driveable. She could not corner at all and made horrible noises. Jairo tried to console us by telling us that she was fine as long as you drive straight, and that he could order us a new differential from Bogota for 2 million pesos (1111$). Thanks, but no thanks. So we had a truck that was barely driveable (and could fail at any point), no leads for mechanics in Cartagena, and no way to acquire affordable parts- Lowest point of the trip.
We set off on the highway east in a rather ill-advised mission to the larger city of Barranquilla- one and a half hours from Cartagena. We rolled into the city limped Phyllis to a shop that specializes in 4x4s called Iguana 4x4. The owner of the shop Hernando was immediately receptive and helpful. He is fluent in English- and he understands what we are talking about! He knows about rear differentials, and understands what can go wrong with them! He knows how to work on them! Things are looking up. He was so helpful that he let us keep the truck there, drove us to the bank, and then to a hotel. We later learned that he was getting married in two days, and still found the time to help two disgruntled wayward Canadians. We started the search for parts and seemed to be well connected in the world of Barranquilla auto wreckers. The next morning we went back to the shop and spent most of the day waiting to hear news on the parts search. The Colombian model of the Trooper has a different rear axle, but the Venezuelan model (called the Caribe) has a match. This is great news. At about 3pm the news arrived that there was a part on its way. A local mechanic disassembled the rear diff, and also informed us that it looked as good as new. We were getting pretty sick of hearing that. When the part arrived, it was the wrong one. It was from a Colombian Trooper and would not fit Phyllis. BUT, Hernando had a look at the diff, and informed us that it was a Limited Slip Differential (LSD). This is a special and pretty rare part that would explain the incredible off road performance we were getting out of Phyllis. I won’t go into the details of how it works, because I don’t know how it does, but if you want to nerd out- click here. We went back to the hotel that night with hope that the wrecker could get the right part tomorrow. Paul was surprised he didn’t know we had that part since the guy who sold us the truck didn’t mention it, and Paul even verified with the VIN number that it didn’t came stock with it. It is a pretty rare option that we were lucky to have. Paul stayed up reading and researching all night, I went to bed exhausted and pretty frustrated.
When we got to the shop the next day Paul had a plan. We were going to replace the thick fluid with something much less viscous. An LSD needs special fluid to allow the locking mechanism to slide more freely. His theory was that because we had been using the wrong fluid, the plates were not able to slide against each other, and could be grabbing to make that chattering popping sound. This would explain why the thicker the fluid, the worse the problem. Hernando graciously allowed Paul to use the hoist and put the old girl back together. He drained the fluid, added the new stuff, and we went for a test drive. THAT WAS IT! She was all better. After 3 weeks of worrying and many trips too many mechanics, an extensive search for parts, and lots of emotion, it was the wrong damn fluid. We apologized to Phyllis and would like to thank her for being much more awesome than we initially thought. We learned a lot about LSD. Thank you Iguana 4x4 for being so friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.
Some of the photos are related to the post, and the rest are just from our trip in Colombia thus far.