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Ups and downs with:   TOYOTA

Due to the latest episode we will publish in our first follow-up our last experience with Toyota distributors around the world.

2004-2005 Sint Maarten/Netherlands Antilles - Guyana - (Venezuela):
True hopes of having found a friend to overcome the hurdles and the harsh wake-up from this illusion

It began in St. Thomas on the American and increased on Tortola on the British Virgin Islands: Overheating of the engine and slipping of the clutch, although it has been completely replaced “only” 13’500 miles before in Venezuela. Something seemed definitely to have gone wrong back then. In addition, we also discovered more and more often some drops of oil on the floor. We didn’t pay much attention to the overheating problem, because the roads have been so steep on both of the islands, that we were able to make it mostly only in the 1st low gear – taking this as the reason why the engine gets so hot.

We then returned on “MV Cap Canaille” to Sint Maarten on the Netherlands Antilles. Because we were able to park and sleep in the compound of the Toyota distributor F.W. Vlaun & Son N.V. already before visiting the Virgin Islands, we went back to the same place and started discussing our car problems, particularly because the engine continued to overheat here too on the smallest of hills and the clutch increased to slither. He proposed us to do a check on the clutch, but pointed out that spare parts for our model wouldn’t be available at all, and to order them in Japan would take simply too long. The job itself would be done gratis as a support, but every needed part would have to be paid by us. We were glad, of course, to have the work done for free, and apart of that, we could also watch the repairs’ progress. Additionally, Vlaun owns as the second Toyota distributor we came across – the first one was Toyota Norge AS in Norway – a lift powerful enough to raise our vehicle of more than 4 tons, which eases very much the dismantling of the gear box from the engine. It showed immediately that oil was leaking from the seal of the crankshaft, and the disc itself was already so burned out due to the high sliding temperatures and therefore became unusable.

What was now the probable cause? According to documents from Venezuela, we could verify that on the occasion of the clutch’s replacement 13’500 miles ago, the crankshaft’s seal hasn’t been replaced - either knowingly or unknowingly – although it had run by then already for nearly 52’000 miles – the current mileage of 65’500 was simply too much. This omission resulted that the brand-new clutch was thoughtlessly exposed to oil effluence, which makes another replacement unavoidable very soon afterwards. Our luck at this misfortune was that in Sint Maarten it was possible to reline the disc, because it was well known that there are no spare parts to find at all for our LandCruiser in the whole Caribbean region.

After having assembled the clutch, Vlaun’s “budget for free repairs” was consumed – the engine’s overheating was pushed aside, the more that we mentioned to head for a continent again, where such problems are likely to be solved much simpler. But as troubles generally like to accumulate, a new one showed up: An increasing and abrading metallic noise, seeming to originate from the rear differential. As we were not very sure, a mechanic tried to diagnose it and finally confirmed that we were not only guessing rightly but also that the water pump might simultaneously be blocked – most probably the reason of our daily overheating difficulties. But as already mentioned: Absolutely no spare parts around, and due to our lack of knowledge of the local market, we weren’t able to check probable products from the “gray market”. Many times, it’s possible to find the same parts – sometimes even considerably cheaper – but it’s never sure whether one gets palmed-off copied junk from the Far East or “refurbished” secondhand stuff. But the most shocking fact of the declining differential was its new replacement only 9’500 miles ago by Toyota Trinidad & Tobago Ltd. That the job in Trinidad – even if it was more or less for free as we had to pay ‘only’ for the necessary parts – was done carelessly was later on proven during a new repair in Guyana.

To make it short: We had to disconnect the rear drive shaft and store it on the roof rack, what forced us to drive from then on with the front wheel drive only. And at the slightest brief shower, when the road got barely wet and just a little slippery, the front wheels started to spin. We became increasingly “immobile”. Even on the relatively flat island of Sint Maarten we had to look for detours to avoid grades in order to still be able to drive around. Apart of that, the progressively increasing rust all over the body started truly to worry us. As the deteriorating condition of car is weighing heavily on us, it wasn’t too weird that we began to discuss seriously to abandon our faithful companion right here on a scrap yard and consequently end our worldrecordtour – after 20 years a very tough consideration. One advantage to leave the car behind in St. Martin/St. Maarten would be its duty-free status, as there wouldn’t be any problems with the customs authorities. In nearly all oversea countries a car needs the appropriate customs papers or its existence is written into the owner’s passport to avoid any departure without the vehicle. The other benefit would be more from the financial side, e.g. not spending thousands of Dollars for sea freight, if nobody within the “World of Toyota” is willing anymore to support our car’s “survival”, considering the increasing requirements for repairs, which we aren’t anymore able to solve alone.

But after every down, there is an up again! And this “up” showed to be a representative of Toyota Tsusho America, Inc. – that at least was what we assumed back then. He spotted our eye-catching vehicle parked in front of the dealer Vlaun and asked about our plans and the LandCruiser’s well-being. Because the latter was presently all but fine, we told him our sorrows. Unexpectedly, he invited us to send him an email to Miami, containing detailed information about our LandCruiser’s actual situation. He would strive for support at Toyota de Venezuela in Caracas, not only because they know us already personally, but also because they assembled exactly our model about 20 years ago in CumanŠ. Consequently they still ought to have spare parts, even if the time for stock keeping of any vehicle ends usually 10 years after its production stops. Most of the distributors don’t have anymore enough space to warehouse all the parts needed for their huge range of cars, besides of the necessary capital involved.

Fully motivated again, we cancelled our “plans to scrap” and went on the lookout for ships in direction Venezuela. But examining the few possibilities, we had soon to learn that nearly all of the affordable shipping lines call at the port of La Guaira, from where the only road out climbs more than 3000 feet to Caracas – exactly what our car is not able to perform anymore due to the engine’s overheating and the missing rear drive. Every other Venezuela destination involved a so called “transshipment”, which costs instantly US$1’000 more. The somehow odd idea of sailing first to Venezuela’s neighbor country Guyana popped up, because there we knew already the local Toyota distributor Beharry Automotive Ltd. And when firstly its General Manager emailed us ahead that he has the necessary parts on stock for the emergency repairs enabling us to continue overland to Venezuela, secondly the American shipping line SeaboardMarine offered us to ship our vehicle for free in a container from Sint Maarten to Barbados and thirdly the Dutch EWL-Line agreed to carry it on further to Guyana without charge, we really believed that our luck was obviously back. It was an incredible moment of joy!

But this was not yet the end. On November 11th, 2004, we received an email from Toyota Tsusho America requesting all technical details about the problems of our LandCruiser to be solved. Apparently, Toyota de Venezuela reacted positively to our inquiry for an overhaul of our vehicle and would like to check now the availability of the needed spare parts. They only would have to look for a dealer willing to assist us – we were told. What privileged people we are! Under these conditions we don’t mind – once the necessary emergency repairs on the water pump and on the differential are done in Guyana – to drive the 1’500 miles one-way to Caracas once more, although we have driven this stretch already twice before.

Our departure from the Caribbean and how we “moved” from Sint Maarten to Guyana can be read at ‘Goodbye from the Caribbean’, as well as our and our car’s entry into Guyana under ‘Guyana - Part 3: Georgetown’ – both some kind of adventure stories again; nothing, but really not anything can run smoothly! So we did receive neither a reply from Miami nor from Venezuela about the planned procedures of our LandCruiser’s “rejuvenation”, but we blamed the festivities over the end of the year for this missing piece of information. However, as there were still no signs of a reaction in the new year, we started to inquire with some growing worries. The first “knockdown” came on January 18th, 2005, from the USA: Toyota de Venezuela had so far found a dealer in Caracas to overhaul the engine, but new was that they would only provide the required spare parts without charge – i.e. all the labor has to be paid by us and nobody was talking anymore about an overhaul of the badly rusted body and other necessary repairs. This was the first indication that our good luck began obviously to fade away.

On February 8th, 2005, our car was finally released from the Guyana customs authorities. Two weeks later, the emergency repairs started here in Georgetown. If in Europe or America a vehicle is brought on a Monday to a workshop, normally the owner expects it back by the end of the week – particularly if nothing exceptional shows up. In these regions, however, it is advisable to extend the expectations into longer periods. Thus we got our LandCruiser only back on April 8th. As diagnosed, the water pump had to be replaced. Additionally also the radiator was blocked – can happen once in a while. But the shocking discovery was the realization that during the previous differential repair in Trinidad, 9’500 miles ago, the wrong respectively no shims and washers at all have been used, what led inevitably after such a short time to a new breakdown, caused by the pinion bearings.

It was a long period without vehicle, thus we got to learn Georgetown thoroughly by foot. Simultaneously we could deepen our knowledge about an engine’s overhaul from the ‘Toyota engine workshop manual’ and received valuable supplementary advice from Toyota Guyana’s General Manager. An overhaul of a motor doesn’t necessarily mean a revision of a motor, especially, if it has already 375’000 miles on the clock. Once the whole item is disassembled and all the limits given in the workshop manual are observed, it is more than likely that in our specific case most of the movable parts have to be replaced. And this can add-up very fast on the final bill. Due to this true possibility, we wanted to assure beforehand, what the intentions of Toyota de Venezuela are and how much the dealer in Caracas will charge us for his labor, the more that we wouldn’t have been allowed to join or watch the repairs (by the way, Emil was now able to assemble the differential personally due to some lucky circumstances – if not, there was a real chance of new problems showing up after another 9’500 miles!).

After a weekend of testing, we would actually have been ready to approach the famous and notorious track to Lethem, but we were waiting once more to get a reply of our above mentioned email sent to Venezuela. Day by day passed – email after email was sent, but no reaction at all. Although this strange behavior is taking over unfortunately nearly everywhere, we started to get concerned and worried more and more. If somebody wants to do some good, his reaction is usually pretty fast – if a reply stays away, the expectations have to be lowered day by day. This fact forced us not to leave Georgetown, because on one hand we didn’t want to drive in vain the 3’100 miles to Caracas and back – for the 3rd and 4th time – and on the other hand the section of the road through the Iwokrama-Rainforest was practicable only with big difficulties due to the beginning of the rainy season – not necessarily what our LandCruiser - due to its frail condition - needed now the most. The track has actually been improved since our last passage in December 2002, but because the word “maintenance” doesn’t exist in these parts of the world, it has been deteriorating slowly but steadily and might be taken eventually back from the jungle again. Time was running out for us. Thus, on April 27th, 2005, we tried to reach by phone the responsible person at Toyota de Venezuela in Caracas – of course without success. Surprisingly, an email response arrived the same day, which however – read between the lines – predicted just the worst situation, besides of putting us off. Another inquiry, this time at Toyota Tsusho America – we were simply not able to wait for ever in Georgetown – revealed then finally the long awaited, but unfortunate reply from Caracas: “The Schmid’s are treated like every other customer. All the repairs to be done including the necessary material have to been paid fully by them, and the spare parts are only delivered to a licensed dealer”. This was it! Dreams can be trashed so briefly and swiftly.

It’s clear that we have absolutely no “legal right” for any discount or any privilege. But all the people we talked to since share our opinion that we have at least a “moral right” to get some consideration. There are not so many customers who drove a car into the “Guinness Book of World Records”, which offers to manufacturer, distributor or retailer a rare opportunity for a potential promotion. Despite of that, for sure we wouldn’t have shipped from Sint Maarten to Guyana – only to hassle around for three weeks with the customs authorities – if Toyota de Venezuela didn’t misguide us with their behavior and promises. The necessary nearly seven-week-long emergency repairs could have been done also elsewhere in the world. Due to the bad shape of our “buddy”, we unwisely assumed that we found a true friend in Caracas who was genuinely interested on a continuation of our ‘worldrecordtour’ – may be it was also some kind of a naÔve assessment of what to expect from an “outsized” company.

After our huge disappointment we still had to read the following, a little bit cynical remark of Toyota de Venezuela: “There is a very active LandCruiser owner’s organization in Venezuela, who is very interested in getting to know you”. As a matter of fact, this is pretty positive – but just by answering innumerable and curious questions, our vehicle’s appearance doesn’t improve und its future remains still uncertain. Once the inquisitiveness is satisfied, we dare to doubt that there would have been any substantial support – a conclusion of more than 20 years of experience!

Fortunately the story ended with a positive surprise in Guyana: The emergency repairs generously haven’t been billed.