<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> RV Mechanical Breakdowns in Mexico
NOTE: While this is designated as an ARCHIVE FILE, it is retained despite the date of first publication because it offers information of continuing current interest and/or for its historical perspective. Please be guided accordingly.




By David Eidell (10/05)

Fear of a breakdown in a foreign country heads the list when it comes to a typical RVers reluctance to travel in Mexico. It’s quite easy to conjure up an image of being stranded somewhere where no one speaks English. The thought of trudging on foot and abandoning your rig and contents to scavengers makes most people shudder and start biting their nails. Well I can tell you for a fact that there are no mythical recreational vehicle graveyards in Mexico containing vehicles that were abandoned when something broke. As in the USA, one can occasionally find wrecked RVs that were not worth salvaging. And then it is not uncommon to find decrepit rigs that died en route that would have been similarly abandoned in Canada or the United States.

Everything else makes it back. But there is a caveat to be learned: By doing some homework before you leave home you can just about insure that you will save eighty-percent in time and incidental expenses in case your rig decides to break a leg. What you need to do before you leave is to call around and compile a list of dealership parts department telephone numbers. Few dealers it seems are willing to go through the trouble of shipping something out of the country. The best place to check is the Yellow Pages and then go from there. When you find a parts manager willing to send stuff at your request, ask about payment conditions. Sometimes it helps to leave a letter with the dealership cashier that has your credit card information on file. On the information sheet you can additionally list the VIN number, model number of the engine and transmission and the rest of the drive train. It would also be rewarding to make a photocopy of the document so that you have a copy ready.

Purchase a factory manual or manuals that cover the complete engine and drive train plus chassis electrical. Your new vehicle (chassis) dealer can give you information as to how to go about ordering the manuals (allow six weeks for delivery). Factory manuals are invaluable sources of repair information, specifications and troubleshooting technique. Mexican mechanics will go to any length to find a translator so that they can take advantage of a factory shop manual. As an aside if you ever sell the vehicle you can advertise the manuals as an incentive. I would never travel anywhere including the US without my factory service manual on board.


Because I drive vintage RVs I have had to be complacent about breakdowns and getting fixed up. I learned that no matter what the problem (even a flat with stuck lug nuts), open the hood. It might take two or three hours if I am on a lonely road, but sooner or later someone will happen by and stop. Most likely it will be a local or a mechanic and believe me you won’t need a Rosetta Stone to get a message across. When a mechanic shows up it will take him mere minutes to decide whether repairs can be done right there or if a tow truck will be required.


The federal Mexican government maintains a huge fleet of motorist assistance trucks equipped with roadside repair items, fuel, and one or two mechanics. Some of them speak English and all of them have a moderate mechanical aptitude. The service is free to all. Known in Mexico as “Las Angeles Verdes” the service trucks are equipped with long distance communication radios. Each vehicle is supposed to cruise their route twice a day. If a route is designated with a federal highway number (Example “Mex 15”) you can be sure that sooner or later a Green Angel will happen by. Motorists are expected to pay for parts and fuel supplied.


Most of the larger tow trucks can tow a hundred tons so your overweight 12 ton monster is going to be child’s play. It would pay dividends to insure that the tow truck driver is well-aware of the need to disconnect a drive shaft if the RV has an automatic transmission. Show him the long overhang at the rear and then point out low hanging sewer lines.


Once you get to the mechanic’s yard, and get disconnected from the tow truck and have paid the driver (if you have stateside insurance for Mexico and have a policy that covers towing, you must ask the driver to issue you a special receipt called a FACTURA. A factura is an “official” receipt used when dealing with the Mexican government, insurance companies and others). Insurance companies WILL NOT PAY if presented with a standard receipt no matter how official looking.

Most repair yards will connect you to an electrical line and allow you to stay in your rig while it is being repaired. A sturdy lockable compartment can hold cameras, laptops and other expensive gear if you decide to stay in a hotel. Inform the owner of the garage of the existence of the compartment and that you are locking it up and expect him to keep an eye on it. Don’t tell anyone else about it. Some folks feel better if they themselves keep the keys to the castle and unlocked and locked the rig every day. I have done this on occasion. It helps to have some cool drinks handy as well as a few thick novels.


Most Mexican garages look like scrap metal yards. Piles of rusty engines are strewn about ancient stripped sedans on blocks that look vaguely familiar. Gasoline is used to wash parts so its odor will be cloying. Unless you speak fluent Spanish it is best to give the shop a full day to react to your sudden appearance. Maybe the people there are not the owner and are waiting for him to show up from a trip to the big city. Or another reason is that the shop wants to delegate specialty work like a diesel engine or automatic transmission to someone that they know (an outside worker). Maybe the most important thing to remember is to always be polite -- it isn’t their fault that they have never been inside a “gigante casa rodante”, and have never had the opportunity to learn English. I have never broken down and visited a mechanico that did not put my job on the front burner. But for crying out loud, give the shop personnel enough time to determine how to go about fixing the problem. They may elect to pass your job along to a heavy truck shop.


Mexican mechanics are geniuses when it comes to networking, adapting parts, or scrounging up parts from unlikely sources. Just because your automatic transmission blew itself to smithereens doesn’t mean that a likely replacement cannot be residing under a stained tarp in a nearby chicken coop. Mexico is the land of the bizarre coincidence when it comes to auto repair and all that is necessary to endure a snipe hunt is patience. I would be wary about offering to help a mechanic on the hunt either with personal effort or the offer of using your toad for transportation. A full-blown parts snipe hunt is exhausting and mentally fatiguing. Let the mechanic use his cell phone and keep track of who-what-where-when and why.


If for some reason you choose (or have to) have the rig towed back to the United States, don’t forget to also call the Mexican adjuster who services your Mexican automobile insurance. They are thoroughly familiar with such a service even though it is not because of an automobile accident. You’ll want to be made aware of price and procedure to be followed to have the vehicle pass US Customs. I would consider this choice a last ditch move. It is going to be costly so the question is, is it really necessary, or is it going to be towed because of fear of the unknown or worse yet, a conviction that Mexican mechanics “can’t possibly be up to the job”?

Try to follow the following (three) “scenario rationale threads” and see if the progression of effort eventually starts to make sense to you:

2004 Ford F-350 V-10, engine suddenly quit. Tow rig to yard and determine if the problem is fuel or spark related. Let’s say that something in the electronic engine control has failed. [If your mechanic states that there are no V-10 Fords in Mexico, it is time to hire a tow truck and tow the truck to a Ford dealer in the nearest city of 100,000 or more]. Now is the time that the dealership mechanic is going to need that factory repair manual. If the mechanic determines that parts are needed and none are available in Mexico, keep reading (now aren’t you glad that you shook hands with your parts department man before you left home?).

1990 Bounder Motor Home, transmission failure. The gasoline version of this marque uses a GM Turbo Hydromantic 400 transmission. Don’t fool around in villages or smaller towns of less than 100,000 population. Try to avoid dealerships unless it is obvious that they do a lot of automatic transmission work there. A large independent automatic transmission shop would be the best choice. When things have been initiated to do the work, give your friendly parts department man a call and ask his advice (“Gee, what steps are important to make sure of ….?”*). You yourself could always hop on a luxury bus and be at the US border in less than two days. There you can purchase a complete brand new transmission, and haul it back (Bus companies will haul it as freight). As a hint I can tell you that all new seals, clutches (friction & metal), pump, bushings, and torque converter are mandatory as is a thorough flushing of the transmission cooler and lines.
*You would be amazed at what a bribe of a kilo or two of shrimp will accomplish!

1980 Vogue Rear Axle Spindle Failure. Because of the age of this rig and the unlikelihood of a Dodge agency in the US having the entire axle housing/and the complications of searching a USA truck salvage database from Mexico (Will They Ship?), I would not hesitate to opt for installing a locally obtained axle assembly that would be an acceptable substitute.


Let the mechanic, or dealership determine which of “The Big 3” services their address. In rural areas parts are only delivered as far as the local Big 3 office. When I order parts I much prefer to rely on a FAX or email communication because it creates a record of exactly what was ordered and when. I never “assume” that parts are on the way. Instead I check back to make sure that no item has been “backordered”. I also assume that the USA parts people haven’t a clue as to when the parts are actually picked up for delivery. It is common to order parts one day, and have the dealership order up a pickup on day two. This means that I can expect delivery six working days later.

IMPORTANT: Insist that the shipping costs and sales tax NOT appear on your parts invoice. Have the dealership create a second invoice and stuff it DEEP within the package. You will pay almost twenty percent duties on the already hefty shipping charge, and state sales tax if you fail to do this.

REPEAT: Parts imported into Mexico no longer pass through the greedy hands of a local customs official -- the delivery driver or counter person of one of “The Big 3” will collect the duty in cash (pesos), and hand over the parts.

: Yes, I understand that having a breakdown in a strange country can lead to anxious moments. After some forty years of haunting the highways and byways of Mexico I can say with a degree of assurance that the very first thing that you should do is to do whatever it takes to calm down. Just reading and re-reading this article should help you to understand that you are a long way from being stranded or hung-out-to-dry. I didn’t even mention the sudden hospitality, friendship and empathy that strangers are going to show along the way. It’s perfectly OK to admit that you are somewhat afraid, and apprehensive. I will never forget the sight of an elderly American couple clutching each other in an attempt to communicate their worries about blowing out a transmission in the wilds of Oaxaca. I stopped dead in my tracks when the mechanics wife rushed forward and darn near embraced the woman in a wordless show of solidarity and friendship.

I sure hope that prospective visitors take to heart what I wrote about obtaining a factory service manual, and finding a dealership willing to “Big 3” parts into Mexico. The cost of both is minimal and it gives a sense of connection and support that is to say the least reassuring even though the service may never be called upon (but I’ll bet that sooner or later you will share the information with someone that isn’t as fortunate as you).