Posted by: bkivey | 14 December 2012

Grease Monkey

In my teens and twenties, I owned cars that required a fair amount of hands-on care. Over time, I gained proficiency in car repair, up to and including rebuilding engines. I also acquired a respectable tool collection, until I got to the point where I didn’t have to buy new tools to complete a repair. A lot of my tools are 25+ years old, because I buy the good stuff. Nothing in my tool box says ‘Made in China’.  Better tools not only last longer, they’re machined to higher tolerances, are less prone to breakage, and are just nicer to use.

As I got older and moved into better-paying jobs, I was able to buy better cars. While I still do routine maintenance and the odd replacement part, I haven’t had to do any serious wrenching for years. And I like that. There’s a big difference between working on cars as a hobby and working on your wheels out of necessity. At this point in my life, I prefer my daily drivers to be stone-cold reliable with minimal effort on my part.

But I don’t buy new cars. I’ve just never been able to come to grips with fact that as soon as you drive a new car off the lot, it loses a third of it’s value. The minute you leave the dealership, you’re underwater on the loan. This to me is not good money management. You can mitigate this by trading in every few years, but then you’re essentially renting the car. I prefer to pay cash for a reliable used car, and use the money saved on interest and insurance for other things.

The risk in this strategy is that the car may develop problems that require major repairs. And this is where I found myself recently. My car, the first I’d owned with front-wheel drive, had developed an ominous clunking sound from the left front drive shaft. This is indicative of a CV (constant velocity) joint failure, and it’s Bad News.  If the joint lets go, you are sans wheels. If you take the car to a shop, replacing the drive shaft will run several hundred dollars. Most people don’t want to deal with fixing their cars, and that’s fine. I don’t program my computer anymore, either. But with decades of car repair experience, and a crap load of tools, I figured this was something I could handle.

I reviewed the procedure in my car repair manual, and it seemed pretty straightforward. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, there are any number of videos on repairing just about anything you might come across. I watched several videos on the subject, and made note of the commonly encountered problems.

I decided that if I was going to replace one drive shaft, I might as well replace both, as they were the same age, and if one was going bad, the other might not be too far behind. This turned out to be a good idea. I also decided that if I was going that deep into the car, I may as well replace the ball joints (which have to be removed to get to the drive shaft anyway), tie rod ends, and replace the brake pads and shoes. And throw in a new set of spark plugs. I wanted to replace the wheel bearings, but on my car removal requires a hydraulic press, and I don’t have one.

On a side note, I asked a shop what they’d charge to replace the wheel bearings, and was quoted $700. After my experience with this repair, I can say that that’s about three times what it’s worth.

As I mentioned, if you’re interested in performing any of these procedures, there are a number of videos to watch. I’m just going to highlight some things that weren’t in any of the videos or repair manual procedures. And because I like bicycle racing, I’ll rate each repair from Category 1 to Category 4, after the way climbs are ranked.  On any car, engine removal is HC (hors categorie). On many rear-wheel drive vehicles, transmission removal is fairly easy, but on FWD cars, it’s also HC.  I’m assuming some experience with car repair and a modicum of mechanical ability.

A word on replacing suspension components. These parts have a direct connection to your safety on the road. Car repair manuals will have torque specifications for these component fasteners. YOU MUST FOLLOW THESE SPECS. Your life depends on it.

And a note on car repair in general. It’s a really good idea to procure some cardboard boxes, lay them flat, and use them to cover the surface you’re working on. It’s easier on you, and the cardboard will absorb spills.

Spark Plugs

Category 1 – Category 2

Spark plugs are easy. Most are readily accessible, and it doesn’t take long to do. I’ve had some vehicles where the plugs nearest the firewall had to be accessed through the wheel well (Category 2), but on my current transverse in-line 4, it’s not a problem. The key here is to insert the new plug slowly. Cross-threading is a real possibility, and fixing that is a pain. I speak from experience here.

Ball Joints

Category 2

Removing ball joints requires special tools. The primary tool is the pickle fork, which most auto parts stores will rent for a nominal fee.  Using this tool will wreck the ball joint gasket, but if you’re replacing the part, that’s not a problem. Again, there are videos to watch for the procedure.

Tie Rod Ends

Category 2

Tie rod ends are dead easy, but because they are primary for wheel alignment, there are precautions. The main precaution is to wrap tape around the tie rod snugly against the stop nut. Electrical tape works well. When you replace the part, run the stop nut to the tape, and your wheel alignment will be in the ballpark. A castle nut is used to hold the tie rod end in place, and a there is a hole in the stud for a cotter pin to hold the nut in place. If you’ve tightened the nut to spec, and the hole is obstructed, tighten the nut until the hole is clear. NEVER LOOSEN THE NUT BELOW SPEC. When I replace tie rod ends, I’ll torque the nuts and leave out the cotter pin. I’ll run the car up the road a little ways to check alignment, and then make adjustments. The nut isn’t going anywhere for a drive of a few hundred feet. When I’m close, I’ll put the cotter pin in, and go for a longer drive. I usually don’t have to go through more than two or three pins before alignment is acceptable.

Watch the videos.

Brake Pads

Category 2

The main problem with taking the caliper off the rotor is that the pressure in the brake system will cause the caliper piston to close, making replacement on the rotor impossible. If you’re not replacing the pads, cut a piece out of the flattened boxes you’re using as ground cover, fold it until it’s slightly wider than the gap between the pads, and stuff it in there as you remove the caliper. If you are replacing the pads, there are tools to spread the pads apart, or you can use leverage devices to force them open. Take care not to damage the pads, and don’t touch the surfaces. Your hands are going to be greasy, and if that grease gets on the pads, it won’t come out, and your brakes will be compromised.

You can open the bleeder fitting on the caliper to make it easier to compress the piston, but you’ll have to bleed the brakes.

Again, videos.

I’ll cover the drive shafts in the next post, because that was the main impetus behind this particular project, and they presented unique challenges. I’d done the repairs listed here before, but replacing drive shafts on a FWD car was a first-time experience.  I experienced some things not mentioned in videos or manuals.

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