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Olympia Express Club - repair project

This is about an old Olympia Express Club machine that recently came into my possession. According to the serial number, this particular machine was build in 1975. It has been used quite a bit, it's not been maintained very well, but considering its age, it's still in surprisingly good shape.


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Olympia Express Club

About the manufacturer

Olympia Express is a small Swiss manufacturer of espresso machines. Only a thousand leave the factory each year, and all are entirely handmade. The company has a reputation for producing machines without cutting corners, using only tried and tested technology, and high quality components.
Olympia Express puts the emphasis on timeless styling and durability, rather than on low-cost, mass-production. That is a rare thing these days. Although it does mean sales-prices of the machines tend to be on the high side, they are definitely build to last. As a long-term purchase, it'll be worth it.
For this reason the New York Times once voted the Olympia Express Cremina the best home espresso machine.
The Cremina is the only Olympia Express machine still in production.

About the machine

Unlike other home lever machines (such as the popular Pavoni's), the Olympia Express Club is a spring operated piston/lever machine. It is a piston pump that delivers the pressure, but it's not the user him/herself delivering the pump pressure directly. Rather, there's a high-tension spring in the pump chamber that does the trick. By pulling down the lever, the barista compresses a spring; the force of subsequently expanding spring is used to push down the piston, which in turn pumps the water through the coffee. In all, this type of lever espresso machine delivers a more controlled pressure.

Inside the machine is a decent sized 3.0 liter boiler, sufficient for quite a few espressos. The boiler pressure (and, consequently, its temperature) is controlled by a membrane/microswitch setup - usually called a pressure-stat, or p-stat, for short. It's a basic feedback system; the expansion of the membrane corresponds to the pressure inside the boiler, and the microswitch turns the power to the heating element on or off, depending on whether the pressure is too high or too low.
There are two additional control devices for safety, a thermostat (triggered if the p-stat fails and the temperature gets too high), and a mechanical pressure-relief valve (if everything else fails).
The normal operating pressure of the boiler is just a notch over 1 bar, corresponding to a temperature of around 120 º C (248 F). This is excellent for steaming milk to make cappuccinos, but it's too hot to brew a decent espresso. Therefor the machine relies on the large coffee group to act as a heat sink; water entering the pump chamber should cool down a few degrees to 95 º C (203 F), which would be just right for making coffee.

The Olympia Express Club is in many ways superior to other home piston/lever machines. Its spring lever system is capable of producing better espresso and it has the largest boiler found in any home machine. Wish Olympia Express still made this model...

About repairing...

Of course, all that's been said above is just theory at the mo.
The machine does need quite some fixing up before it will work as described. Fortunately, this machine was made with durability in mind. It's very well-made, and, considering its age, it's basically in decent shape. If this were a car, I'd say the chassis and body are in almost impecable condition, and he engine can be repaired.

On the outside, it's hard to tell the machine is 28 years old. The frame (enamelled steel) shows no signs of corrosion, and, apart from the odd scratch here and there, the stainless steel and chrome body is almost like new.
A look under the hood is slightly more worrying. The good news is that the most important parts are still in near perfect shape. To rephrase that slightly more accurately, the basic "espresso machine" seems to be ok. The boiler and all tubes connected to it are probably stainless steel, and there appears to be nothing wrong in this department. It's high quality stuff all around, and no indications of connections leaking or other trouble. Even the heating element, and the p-stat seem to be alright - although I still need to test that.

All that said, time, use, and poor maintenance do take their toll. Use any coffee maker long enough, and some parts will inevitably wear, due to contact with heat, water, and coffee oils. The machine definitely needs some work. Part of that is "just" replacing gaskets, but there are a few less encouraging problems.
The following is an initial assessment of what I think needs to be done:
  1. replacing the safety thermostat (currently not functional, and not safe);
  2. "repairing" or probably removing the boiler insulation - inasfar as possible;
  3. replacing probably all gaskets - including the piston gaskets, and possibly the boiler sealing ring;
  4. checking, and probably replacing, the piston spring;
  5. probably redoing the wiring, since the isolation on the wires and connectors is flaking;
  6. while the exterior is overall in good condition, I may also want to renew some of the handles, and knobs.

My objective is to bring this Olympia Express Club back to near-new condition. In other words, it'll be a full rebuild, rather than a quick & dirty repair jobbie.

The plan is to start with the essentials, summed up in the above. That'll probably keep me busy for a few months. Then, after double checking the wiring, I need test the machine - fill up the boiler, switch on the power, and see if it works as expected, and what else needs to be done. For example, maybe a leaking connection needs to be fixed. Or perhaps the pressure switch isn't as good as it appears, and needs to be replaced. Although this machine is "low-tech", there are dozens of things that can go wrong. Rebuilding will be a time consuming process of testing, fixing, testing again, and fixing some more.

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