Monday, June 18, 2007

The Fiat and Russia

We are now at the one-third point of our trip around the world.

The speedo on the Bambino just clicked over 11,000 kilometres in less than
3 weeks. This has been nearly all in Russia on pretty terrible roads for
most of the way. Cruise speed on the up-until-now rare smooth roads is
80kph and maximum speed for passing is 85kph so there have been a LOT of
hours on the road.

As previously mentioned, the FIAT 500 has been fighting seriously above
its weight class and has been treated brutally. The atrocious Russian
roads have given the suspension and drive-train a very hard time.

Apart from the broken kingpin, the front transverse spring has been
flattened and the front wheels now sit sloping in at the top instead of
out as normal. It took me quite a number of gradual adjustments, using
trial and error, to the tie-rods to get the toe-in set up to cater for the
weird camber. I have become expert in detecting the slightest uneven wear
on the front tyres and think they can be saved until Garlenda in Italy
before replacement for the American section. Of course the rear tyres are
our Russian replacements for the two destroyed during the broken kingpin
drama on the Vladivostok road. Despite the Russians turning their noses up
at their own product they seem to be soldiering on valiantly with no sign
of wear.

Amazingly the hardest worked items- the shock absorbers – are still
working perfectly. I have to remind myself constantly that the Bambino is
loaded far in excess of manufacturer's limits and all warranties are null
and void. There was probably something in the original warranty about
excessive abuse of the vehicle and off-road driving.

The hard work put in once again by Angelo in Brisbane, assisted by his
young apprentice Damien, has certainly paid off in the heart of the car.
Hours spent fitting metal lock tabs to every conceivable nut and bolt,
adding nylock nuts and even drilling and lock-wiring a number has resulted
in NOT ONE nut or bolt needing tightening after hundreds of miles of
corrugations (washboard) and constant violent pounding through pot-holes.
For those familiar with Bambinos this is a miracle.

The engine is just amazing. It has not missed a beat (apart from a fuel
line coming off the pump and a rock jammed in the fan pulley). I did
engine and gearbox oil changes in Chita after about 5,000km on the rough
road and will do one again in Poland after another 6,500km. Despite
recommendations I decided not to touch the engine – "If it ain't broke
don't fix it!" It is still operating on its original points, plugs and
condenser and tappet settings. It starts instantly hot or cold and is
still producing 20 massive horsepower. I will do all the changes at our
major service in Poland.

The oil is still like honey after well over 5,000km since Chita and I have
just used the last of a 1-litre oil bottle. I would say, by any standards,
that is amazing reliability and performance out of a seriously overworked
baby engine. The engine was not new or totally overhauled to start with.

Despite the steering geometry being "modified' from original by
circumstances, the car drives very well indeed. On rough surfaces the
short wheelbase tends to make it steer like a go-cart but we have never
had any serious situations and after 10 or 12 hours on the road we arrive
still in reasonably good humour.

An excellent decision was the fitting of oil temperature, oil pressure and
ammeter gauges. The original lights give you notice that the priest should
be called for the last rites. The gauges give lots of information on
impending failure and there is an opportunity to do something before major
damage. It is interesting how outside air temperature affects the oil
temperature and how quickly it rises and falls after a climb up a long
hill. Of course the oil pressure moves up and down with the temperature
(multi-grade oils are a bit of an over rated item and don't seem to
compensate for temperature much better than the old single grade). The
enlarged aluminium oil pan with extra capacity and cooling relieves much
of the temperature extremes that must exist with the original small oil

When I refueled this morning it was of a brand I had not used before
(there are many in Russia). I filled with 96 octane. We have been using
95-98 octane fuel all the way where available just to allow a bit of
leeway with the timing and maybe help the engine a little. There is no
discernable performance difference over the usual 92 octane found
everywhere. Fuel prices are around 65 US cents a litre.

I noticed the colour to be a strange yellow but did not think anything of
it. Within a few minutes the oil temperature had climbed to around 100 deg
C, way above the normal 70-80 deg. I tried to think of all the reasons
(timing, valves, leaking head gasket, blocked air filter) but kept coming
back to the far too coincidental refuel.

As soon as half a tank had been used I refueled again and the temperature
dropped to 90 deg. Obviously the fuel was the problem as the contaminated
(probably with diesel) tank dropped its effect when diluted. I ran this
second tank almost dry then, after refueling again, I saw temperatures
back at their old mark. It would have been impossible to even know
temperatures were high and that there was a problem with warning lights

A few small jobs need doing in Poland. Every wheel rim is slightly bent
from hitting pot holes or rocks. Both door locks have broken (they were
cracked when the car was purchased and then welded but the constant
pounding has caused them to fall apart). The previously mentioned axle
drive flange, temporarily welded, will have to be replaced. Unfortunately
the axle will have to be cut to get it out now so that will be new also.
General impression at this stage – an amazing little car!