The Front End -- A Maze of Maniacal Mechanicca

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Shams + Scams | Glossary

The term “front end” is interpreted by a body repair shop as the area of the car consisting of headlights, grilles and bumpers. But to a mechanic, the front end means the steering and suspension parts underneath the front part of the vehicle. They are those parts that look like pipes, rods, linkages and knotted little metal joints that are mysteriously responsible for holding your wheels together and helping you steer your car down the road. When a mechanic says, “hmmm -- she needs some front end work” you are immediately impressed because you know little or nothing about front end parts and their function other than they are somehow important and related to safety. And that’s about all most customers know, that this jumble of jack straws under his/her car is essential and important, but the pieces and their exact function are vague—shrouded in mystery. Most auto repair customers know less about front end operation than any other area of auto repair except for maybe electrical. And believe me, I’ve seen more than one mechanic take advantage of this fact.

U and CV JOINTS

U-joints are couplers at the front and rear of your driveshaft (the long tube that runs underneath your car). In front-wheel-drive cars they are known as CV, or constant velocity, joints and they are located in the front end.

Both U-joints and CV joints can cause a severe chassis vibration at certain speeds when they are worn. The whole car will shudder and vibrate considerably when a U-joint begins to go. Perhaps your car runs smoothly up to 35 mph, but at 40 mph everything begins to shake. Maybe at 50 mph the shaking stops and the car smooths out again. These are symptoms of bad or worn U-joints. Also, worn CV joints may produce abnormal effects in steering and handling and a metallic swishing noise.

WHEEL and AXLE BEARINGS

You could easily pick up the sound of a worn front wheel bearing, or a worn rear axle bearing, by driving slowly near a concrete wall of a building and listening carefully. Generally, a worn wheel or axle bearing will emit a metallic rumbling sound. The noise will be more low pitched than a brake swish, but could present itself when the brakes are applied. Fortunately a mechanic has just to pull the suspect wheel to determine which problem exists, if both are not prevalent. Wheel bearings come in “inner and outer,” two for each front wheel. If one bearing fails it's common to replace both bearings on that wheel. However, it's not necessary to replace all four front wheel bearings for both front wheels unless there is bearing failure on both sides.

CAUTION

Generally, lower ball joints can last well beyond 70,000 miles of operation, assuming that the vehicle has been driven normally and lubricated periodically. Therefore, a mechanic who insists that you need lower ball joint replacement when your odometer reads 20,000 miles would be cause for suspicion. Under normal driving conditions, lower ball joints (and uppers) are extremely durable when lubricated regularly and can last for the life of the vehicle.

BALL JOINTS

Most cars have an upper and lower ball arrangement designed into the front suspension of the vehicle. Each car has one upper and one lower ball joint per side, or four altogether. The lower ball joint is pressed into and rests in the lower control arm, the upper ball joint, in the upper control arm. Both control arms are hinged, to allow the vertical movement of the wheel. The ball joints are ball and socket joints that support a great deal of vehicle weight. Think of the upper ball joint as keeping things steady (the wheel tight) while the lower ball joint does the same but also supports much more of the vehicle’s weight.

Wear—The lower ball joint often wears out first because it bears more load and receives more direct friction. The upper ball joint frequently lasts the life of the vehicle because it's subjected to less. Routinely, mechanics check the lower ball joint first knowing that it's the better candidate for wear and this is why lower ball joints are replaced frequently. The lower ball joint is equipped with a grease fitting for lubrication (part of the L.O.F.) since it requires constant lubrication to move freely.

Some ball joints are designed with no grease fittings, meaning they are pre-lubed and “factory sealed.” Once they are worn they must be replaced. This forces you to buy a part that was non-serviceable to begin with. Many foreign cars have these types of ball joints.

A combination of age and constant movement can cause a ball joint to wear, leading to sloppy or excess movement. If the protective rubber boot is torn or weathered, it can allow sand and grit to cause friction (which causes wear), leading to eventual replacement. Erratic driving habits like jumping curbs, hitting parking stops, accelerating up drive ways and rough off-road dirt driving can also wear out a ball joint quickly.

New factory ball joints are riveted or welded to the control arm after they have been pressed into the seat. If they are riveted in, a mechanic has to use an air chisel to remove the rivets so the joint can be pressed out. So in many instances, a mechanic who sees a riveted ball joint knows that it has not been replaced before. Mechanics always bolt on a replacement lower ball joint—they don't rivet or weld new ones back into the control arm. The bolts versus the rivet’s situation is something that your mechanic will spot immediately and perhaps it's one thing that you should also know about your car. When checking out a used, near-new car, check to see if the lower ball joints have been replaced by noting if they have been bolted on.

Diagnosing—What does a mechanic do to determine if the lower ball joints are bad and likely to cause problems with alignment and tire wear? The diagnosis is subject to some backyard tricks and speculations on the part of the mechanic. The relative condition of the ball joints can be gauged but not as precisely as many other vehicle parts. A few years ago, most shops relied on a Lomac, a large diagnostic tool shaped like a huge “C” with a dial gauge. It was a highly inaccurate tool that cinched the upper and lower control arms to detect any movement in the ball joints. A mechanic had only to summon the customer over and show him this impressive dial reading to convince him that he had excessive play in the front end ball joints. Excessive play meant that the ball joints were bad and had to be replaced. You would be surprised how many customers did not question the authenticity of this Lomac tool, but instead signed quickly for the repair work. I personally witnessed hundreds of ball joints sold via this scenario. Today the Lomac has been banned by law and is not or should not be used as a legitimate and accurate piece of diagnostic equipment. If you ever see a mechanic using this device, or something similar to it, disclaim the faulty diagnosis and take your vehicle to another repair facility.

Another way to determine if a lower ball joint is bad is to wiggle the grease fitting underneath it. The grease fitting, if it has one, is attached directly to the bottom of the ball under the control arm. If the grease fitting moves it means that the ball is “floating” in the socket, indicating a worn joint. This is excluding the fact that the grease fitting itself is loose. This procedure has to be done under a load; that's , the car should not be up on the rack to make this test. Ironically, this simple procedure is indicated as standard diagnosis in most of the large repair manuals.

I have already discussed how a torn ball joint boot can convince a mechanic that the lower ball joint has come to some harm as a result of contamination. The only problem is that the mechanic doesn’t really know how long that boot has been damaged and how long that ball joint has been subjected to debris. Even if the ball joint appears good (tight) he would most likely suggest that you repair it at once and replace the unit. Boots don't come in separate packages—they are part of the ball joint kit. They will suggest that you replace both lower ball joints (both sides of the vehicle).

What if one ball joint checks out bad and the other appears to be perfect? Well, you could argue the case, especially on a newer vehicle with low mileage and convince him that right now you don’t want two and that he should install one. His defense will be “Well, the other is sure to follow since it’s received the same amount of wear.” I’ve heard the same thinking when it involves front wheel bearings; “When one side goes the other is sure to follow.” Is this law? Is this true? Not really, but it sure sounds good, doesn’t it? The mechanics of today have had it so good with the “replace everything in sets” syndrome that when it comes down to fixing only what is broken, they resist at every turn.

It is safe to say that replacing ball joints is a once-in-a-vehicle lifetime necessity. It’s doubtful that your car will have to undergo this type of repair more than once, or even once, but if it should, the rule of “second opinions” is the advised way to go. Virtually anybody could tell you that the ball joints were bad, even a tire buster, but I would advise you to seek out a mechanic wearing the front end patch or the alignment mechanic.

Other Considerations—A worn ball joint will affect toe-in and camber because it affects the relative position of the tire. Too much play in the lower ball joint lets the tire recover sloppily from a minor jolt or a sudden turn. This puts your front end temporarily out of alignment and this, in itself, wears tires. After you have lower ball joint repair on your car you will be told that an alignment is necessary to put the front end back to specifications. The alignment recommendation is certainly justified even as a precautionary measure (many shops throw in an alignment for free with such front-end work).

If your car was diagnosed as having bad lower ball joints and you were urged to replace all four (upper and lowers), I would not follow this advice for reasons stated previously. Ball joints don't need to be replaced in sets.

TIE ROD ENDS

Tie rod ends function like ball joints, but they have a ball and sleeve design, are smaller and they help steer the car instead of supporting its weight. The tie rods are actually the bars that connect the bottom of the steering shaft with the spindles that are attached to the wheels. The longest leverage bar is called the drag or center link. Attached to the center link are the tie rod bars that turn the wheels. Tie rod ends are subject to push and pull stress as a result of the forces applied during vehicle steering and cornering. They wear in the same fashion as ball joints and must be lubricated frequently. At the bottom of the tie rod end is a grease fitting (some have none and are factory sealed) for lubing.

Diagnosing—The most common way for a mechanic to check the condition of a tie rod end is with the use of a pair of channel locks. While the car is racked, he compresses the tie rod end with the channel locks and watches for movement in the tire. A second mechanic is often required to watch the tire while he performs this simple test. Movement in the wheel indicates excessive play in the tie rod end joint. In this manner, tie rod ends are easier to diagnose since they are smaller, isolated and not part of another system. Like the ball joint, when a tie rod end has a loose grease fitting this points to a worn ball and sleeve and it's therefore time to replace it. Such worn tie rod ends will affect alignment, specifically toe-in and also promote abnormal tire wear.

Worn tie rods may be first noticed in the steering wheel as a lump, bump or grind when making a tight turn or as a grinding/thumping noise while turning the wheel at a dead stop. The steering wheel could feel like it was “knotting” up or binding. If it does, even slightly, this is cause for concern. A worn steering box worm gear would also produce symptoms similar to these, and might even produce too much “free play” in the steering wheel. Either condition is cause for immediate concern and attention. If an outer tie rod end snapped, the wheel in this case would not have any directional support. It would be a case of your wheel going bowlegged or knock-kneed instantly and without warning.

THE IDLER ARM

The idler arm is an L-shaped rod in the front end that's usually attached to the car’s frame and joins the drag, or center link. Its purpose is two-fold; it supports the tie rod bars and drag link, and allows them to turn smoothly without binding. Since the drag link and tie rod bars are very heavy, the repeated shocks and bumps associated with normal driving could damage or bend these parts. It is the job of the idler arm to absorb the heavy shock and vibrations of these long linkage parts and at the same time provide steady support that allows the linkages to turn and recover smoothly.

Most idler arms have a rubber bushing sandwiched between two large flat washers. It is this rubber bushing that absorbs the repeated pounding and shocks when you take a bad dip at high speed, drive too fast over a speed bump or clip a curb. After a while, the bushing simply compresses, wears out, or becomes weathered due to road debris, water and grit. Many idler arms have two joints similar in function to tie rod ends: one joint connects to the drag link, and the other is a swivel joint that connects the idler arm to the frame or body of the car. Many times idler arms are equipped with grease fittings at both swivel joints; then again, many are factory sealed and replaced when they are worn. Generally speaking, you can consider the idler arm a crude shock absorber for the front end parts.

Diagnosis—A mechanic often determines if the idler arm is bad with a simple test to determine excess play in the part. With both wheels suspended above the ground, either by a jack under the frame or cross-member, or with the car on a shop rack, he visually locates the idler arm then he pushes the tire in and out, keeping an eye on the idler arm and how far it moves. If the idler arm is noticeably worn it will jump vertically up and down while he is doing this pull/push test. More than a half-inch of movement would be cause for concern. Again, the make of the automobile and the tolerance allowed by the manufacturer’s specification book will be the final determining factor. Make sure you see the mechanic with the car up in the air. There is no other way for him to diagnose the problem. If he tells you the movement is beyond the tolerance set by the manufacturer, ask to see where it's so written and for a demonstration of the excess play.

It is safe to assume if the idler arm moves more than an inch it's definitely becoming worn—the bushing has lost its flexibility and resiliency. Keep in mind that many idler arms have grease fittings and they should be lubricated as part of the L.O.F. (lube, oil and filter). If a new idler arm is installed on your vehicle just make sure the mechanic lubricates it if it has the fittings for such. A factory sealed idler arm can't be lubed and is simply replaced when it's worn.

CONTROL ARM BUSHINGS

Upper and lower control arm bushings are made of rubber and similar in design to the idler arm bushing. They are located on the inside of the fender well, behind the wheel. There is typically one lower control arm bushing in the lower control arm and it's larger, again depending upon the make of the vehicle. Two bushings are located in the upper control arm, which in this case makes for three bushings per side. We will talk about the diagnosis and replacement of the upper control arm bushings that are generally found on General Motors products; this would be the two upper bushings per side, or the four of them altogether.

What They Do—The upper control arms and bushings allow for the vertical (up-and-down) movement of the front end chassis. They work much like a hinge or lever and the bushings themselves absorb shock so as to delete the transmission of hard jars and bumps to the frame of the car. They suffer twisting and torque pressures and are subjected to moderate amounts of weight load.

The bar connecting both ends of the upper control arm is surrounded and encased by the bushings. These bushings can become worn by repeated movement or they can become weathered and rotted. Some times the rubber bushing fabric can be seen splitting away from the bushing sleeve and projecting out from the control arm, which is a clear indication that the rubber bushing is deteriorating. Upper control arm bushings commonly have grease fittings at their outermost ends and are lubricated in the same way as the other front end parts.

Diagnosing—Diagnosing upper control arm bushings can present some problems for the novice mechanic. In my younger days as a department store R and R mechanic, I was convinced there was only one way to solve a problem—MINE. Such was the way I felt when I was confronted one day with a customer who came into our shop with a loud squeaking problem.

He had a newer model Chevrolet and when I pushed the front of his hood up and down and listened to this familiar sound, I was positively convinced that I knew what was causing it. Nine times out often, as it had been with me, this annoying rusty hinge clamoring noise had pointed to bad upper control arm bushings. The bushings had always been torn, dry and squeaking: the solution was to replace them and the noise would go away. It had usually worked before, and I was quite cocky in my sales pitch to this customer. Only he became quite suspicious and frugal-minded when I told him that the repair package would include replacing both sets at considerable expense. I was, after all, operating on commission. He was not so easily taken. First, he had me spray the bushings with W-D 40 to his satisfaction, to rule out the possibility that they could be externally lubricated. Next, he made me use my stethoscope on the part to isolate the problem area and make sure that it was the bushings at fault. After several more precautionary maneuvers on my part to convince him that I did indeed know what I was talking about, (and that he didn’t) I had him sign the work order for the prescribed repair. He did so very reluctantly.

It took me about two hours to complete the work, whereupon I lowered the car to the ground and immediately heard that wretched squeaking hinge noise! I shoved down hard on the front end of the vehicle but the noise was as prominent as ever. Uh-oh. I spent the next hour climbing around that Chevy hunting down the elusive squeak. Meanwhile the customer called, irritated that it was taking too long; he needed his car. Panic set in. I already knew that I had misdiagnosed this vehicle and charged the customer with major front end work that he obviously did not need. Worse yet, I hadn’t found the real problem for the loud squeak, and if I didn’t find it I would be caught red-handed, with an irate customer on my hands holding a whopping repair receipt. Lastly, I was tying up a rack and the rest of my scheduled workload was choking the parking lot. As a last resort, I examined the upper ball joint then looked at the rest of the grease fittings on the other front end parts. Instantly I noticed that this car had been lubricated some time ago but when I looked at the upper ball joint, it did not show signs of lubrication—the previous mechanic had missed it, or had forgotten about it. The instant I lubricated the upper ball joint the noise went away. Naturally, I lubed the rest of the front end parts thinking desperately that this act was some kind of penance on my part. Thoughts of inspectors from the Bureau and lawsuits flashed through my mind.

A minute later the Chevy owner showed up demanding his old/new bushing parts. He paid his bill in a huff, and screeched off the parking lot. I saw him one hour later. The customer then began to berate me with the news that he had his old bushings checked out by another mechanic and was told that they were in perfect shape, or appeared to be, before they had been so ruthlessly torn out of his vehicle. He demanded satisfaction. In no way did I think about telling this man that I had made a mistake—I was committed. Nor was I about to mention to him that I had forgotten about performing an alignment (which he had been charged for) because I was so pressed for time. All the shop’s mechanics came to my aid, and together we stood our ground and argued as to why the bushings needed to be replaced. Moments later the guy left, much to my relief.

How will a mechanic check out the condition of your upper control arm bushings? Well, not entirely as in the previous example. Although squeaks and torn bushing material can assist in the determination, there is a better way, one that's used often. It involves using two mechanics, one on the ground, the other up in the racked car’s driver seat. While one mechanic applies the brake pedal, the other mechanic below tries to forcibly turn the front wheel in either direction. A firm wrenching motion back and forth works best. If the upper joints have any excess play in them, or if the bushing is compressed or worn, it will show up in the excessive movement of the tire. This testing procedure isolates the control arm bushing and determines its fit or relative tightness. Bad or worn upper control arm bushings can have a direct effect on the wheel alignment of your vehicle. Such worn parts can throw off all the measurements.

It is strongly advised that your car be aligned properly after such work. Many control arms have shims that are used in the alignment procedure. Sometimes a mechanic can mistakenly lose a shim or two while he is removing the control arms from the vehicle, in which case he will have to replace them with new ones once he aligns the car. It bears repeating that the front end man should be doing the front end work unless the other shop mechanics are equally trained in this area.

SHOCKS

The shock absorber is really a simple part in function and concept. It consists of an oil-filled tube that contains a rod and piston, and some high pressure seals. The rod that extends out of the top of the shock connects to the car chassis, in many cases up under the fender well. The bottom part of the shock absorber connects near or on the lower control arm or other similar suspension part. It is the job of the shock absorber, in conjunction with the leaf or coil spring, to dampen and nearly eliminate the shock and vibration transmitted to the car frame or chassis via the tire-to-road contact. It does this by the action of the piston in the fluid-filled tube when force is applied upon the shock bar or shaft. The fluid in the shock is kept within a sealed and pressurized environment. The piston travels up and down in the tube with high resistance from the fluid. Thus the shaft moves against this resistance slowly in either direction. You can liken the action of a shock absorber to a pencil stuck in a clump of hard tar. Pulling the pencil out of the tar is just as difficult as pushing it in— equal force in both directions.

In addition to absorbing road shock and vibration, the shock also serves to keep its respective tire flat to the pavement at all times. This is important while driving over hilly terrain, speed bumps, dips, curbs, pot holes and other obstacles.

Wear—Shocks wear out when the piston wears in the bore of the tube, or when a seal breaks and it loses its fluid. It simply loses its capacity to create resistance and the ride becomes noticeably rougher. According to the repair manuals I have read, the general consensus is that you should replace your original (new factory shocks) at about the 50,000 mile mark; they give no reason for this other than it's non specific practical advice. Mechanics also drool when they examine a car with factory-equipped shocks. Many believe that the original manufacturer’s shock absorber is somehow substandard and prone to pre mature failure. This thinking is prevalent throughout the repair industry with the exception of the dealership mechanic and his obvious debate.

Replacement—Just when should you replace your shocks? It depends. For instance, a person who car pools with three or four individuals in city traffic (suffering the bumps and grinds of gridlock), and does this day after day for years, has not subjected his car to the same wearing forces that an older person would driving moderate speeds in the country with no passengers. Someone who tows a boat or trailer behind him on a fairly regular basis and drives mountain switchbacks and dirt roads is going to replace his shocks faster than one who makes infrequent trips. A four-wheel drive truck or dirt vehicle is certainly going to impose more stress on the suspension of a vehicle than one who rarely drives off the shoulder. There are people in this world who will drive the same way to work every day, forever hitting that frightfully deep rain gutter every morning every time and at the same speed. There are drivers who drive very hard over speed bumps and curbs, bottoming out their suspension parts to where metal meets metal. And there are the others who truly believe that their car is an animate object, treating it as delicately as a cherished pet. So just who says that you “gotta replace them there shocks every 50,000 miles?” If you want to, go ahead, but try a few things first to see if they really need it.

Diagnosing—First, look under your car and locate your shock absorbers. Look for fluid leakage which will darken the lower half of the shock, or appear grime-covered. There might even be some black sand adhering to the bottom of the shock. If you see this it means that a seal is blown in the shock and has leaked fluid. A leaking shock should be replaced.

If one shock on one side needs to be replaced, so does the other side, but not necessarily the other end. In other words, if the right rear shock needs to be replaced, so does the left rear, but if the fronts are okay, then they don’t have to be. Opposing suspension parts must be kept equal in strength and condition. Obviously, if your car leans abnormally to one side, right or left, or dips in one corner, the condition of the shock would be suspect. If at all possible, grasp each shock and wiggle it to make sure that it has not broken away from its mount. It should be immovable and firm to the hand hold. If you can see the tops of your front shocks with your hood open wiggle the top of the threaded shaft, making sure that it's tight. Inspect the rubber grommets at this point and make sure that the retaining nut is tight.

If your shocks pass all these tests, you can perform a rebound test. Two people work best for this procedure. You will need one individual to step on the front bumper of your car. With his hands on the hood for balance, this person should begin to bounce up and down on the vehicle several times then step backwards off the bumper. The rocking motion of the car will continue and the observing person should note how many times the car bounces on its own weight and momentum. A rule of thumb says that a car with good shocks should not bounce any more than two-and- a-half times before it comes to a dead rest. If the car heaves once then stills, certainly it has good shocks. This procedure works well on the rear of the vehicle, too. A safer and more recommended way to do this rebound test is by pushing down hard with the hands on the bumper or hood to start this rocking motion.

Types of Shocks—Almost every shop advertises “heavy-duty” shocks. Heavy-duty simply means that the shock that they are going to sell you is physically larger, has a larger cylinder bore and piston and it will last a bit longer than the original manufacturer’s shock absorber. Generally, if you carry along a lot of weight and drive frequently over rough roads, heavy-duty shocks are a good bet.

Adjustable ride shocks are shocks that have a turning notch system incorporated into the tube assembly. Before the shock is installed a mechanic can make a physical adjustment on the shock by setting it into a position that denotes a specific characteristic. Three settings are usually possible, including: soft, moderate or regular, or firm—or words to that effect. The soft setting would be a more comfortable ride for someone who does not load the vehicle down heavily. The normal position would be used for normal or ordinary vehicle use in which the driver would drive at the speed limit and perhaps load the car or carry passengers on occasion. The firm setting would be used for heavy loads with more passengers and perhaps extended off-road trips, towing utility vehicles, or high performance driving.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that the normal or regular position is where most people have their setting. And this works out to be about the equivalent performance that a heavy-duty shock has. It’s ironic; people pay more for these adjustable shocks and end up aborting their potential. It really doesn’t hurt to put this kind of shock on the firm or very firm setting. This position comes in handy for heavy loads and the ride is not that much more uncomfortable.

Air shocks are commonly installed on the rear of the vehicle only. They are specifically designed to accommodate very heavy loads and towing packages. By the use of a standard tire valve, air shocks can be softened, or stiffened for virtually any load consideration. The plus comes when you realize that by adding air to these shocks you can find any desired ride comfort that suits you. You can also adjust the rear height of your vehicle up or down as much as six to eight inches either way. If you are towing a trailer with a very heavy tongue weight with a back seat full of kids and suitcases, you will soon appreciate how effective air shocks can be. A few squirts of an air hose and up goes the curb height of your vehicle, not to mention these shock’s capacity to take the burdensome load off your other suspension parts. If perchance one of the plastic air lines is severed, and the air escapes, the shocks will still function as normally as a heavy-duty shock. If you’re willing to part with a few extra dollars, this is the place to do it.

MACPHERSON STRUTS

I have fewer kind words for the MacPherson strut, which has become the norm in the front end suspension design of most of today’s newer cars, especially those with front-wheel-drive. I’m thoroughly convinced that the MacPherson shock was designed to filch money from the repair customer and kill mechanics on the workbench. It is complicated, expensive and difficult to work on. I have seen many coupon specials for both regular heavy-duty shocks and MacPherson struts. A regular two-shock special for $24.95 is a great bargain in anyone’s book. A coupon special for two MacPherson shocks at $99.99 (installed) is supposed to be a great bargain also. The difference is a result of the high labor costs required to install the MacPherson variety. In addition, as in the example of the Dodge Rampage and Plymouth Scamp, if the mechanic does not mark the cam location while removing the strut assembly, the vehicle will surely have to be realigned at additional expense. (On these makes the strut bolts to the steering knuckle).

Diagnosing—Faulty or worn MacPherson struts are generally diagnosed with the rebound test, much in the same manner as regular shocks.

Replacement—The main difference between a regular shock and the MacPherson type is that the regular shock is usually mounted independent of the coil spring. The MacPherson shock has a cartridge loaded into a strut damper assembly that's seated between an upper mounted assembly and a lower knuckle. The coil-spring surrounds the strut damper assembly and is also sandwiched between the upper mount assembly and the lower knuckle. At the top of the MacPherson shock is a rebound stop that holds the shock in place. There is not much point in explaining the rest of the parts; there are many, to be sure. Suffice it to say, the removal of the strut damper assembly is quite involved, including the bench work that must be performed to install the replacement cartridge. It should be stated that the cartridge only is replaced and not the damper assembly, coil spring, or other connecting hardware, so don’t let a mechanic sell you these items unless they are obviously defective.

SCARE TACTICS

I had a lady friend call me up in desperation one day. She explained to me over the phone that her foreign car dealership had found a very serious problem with her “whatchamacallit. . . see-see joint. No, boot seal? No, it was the see-boot joint -- what the heck, they said that my wheel was going to fall off!” I deduced that she meant a “CV joint”, or constant velocity joint on a car with front-wheel-drive.

The point to this is that a dishonest mechanic will use three common scare tactics to sell you front end parts. You’ve just read the all time number one draft choice: “If you don’t get this front end part your wheel might fall off.” The second most common phrase will be something like:

“This part affects your steering drastically.” The last one is very effective since the alignment mechanic has penned it as his most favorite expression: “Can’t align your car with a bad front end part like this. Oh, no. You’ll have to get it replaced before the alignment.” Just remember you will hear losing a wheel, losing your steering, or not able to align, as the most frequent and persistent reasons for front end work. Another stock phrase used in addition to the others is, “If you don’t fix that front end part you’ll wear those new expensive tires to pieces.”

Just how valid are all these claims? Well, the tire wear problem probably holds more water than any of the others put together. Because when we are talking about wheels falling off, and losing your steering, we aren’t talking about a problem so bad that it has gone undetected almost forever. In the case of my lady friend, I resented deeply, became irate, over the fact that some high pressure shop had the audacity to scare her like they did, nearly frightening her witless! She had driven her car home at a crawl, and parked it with the intention of never driving it again until she could remedy this mysterious CV joint problem (which turned out to be a split rubber boot that surrounded the CV joint—not the joint itself. Nevertheless she was sold the CV joint as well). This problem wrestled with my conscience because she had a new car. What I objected to was the manner of extreme urgency in which they made the sale—very quickly. Life threatening. A very ugly form of “boo” tactic.

 

  • Beware of scare tactics when going in for front end work. If the problem is major get a second or third opinion.
  • Remember that lower ball joints might wear out once in the lifetime of a car. You will not need two or three sets.
  • Shop for the best deal for front end parts. Specials or package deals for lower ball joints and upper control arm bushings are frequently announced in many news papers. It beats paying the per hour labor charge of other repair facilities. A front end alignment is generally included, or should be. Shop around to find a place that offers it as part of the package.
  • Regular lubrication is the best prevention against pre mature front end part failure. Be sure that with each L.O.F all zerk fittings have been greased. -
  • Sloppy or excessive steering play, bumping and grinding in the front end area, are signals that a front end part might be worn and in need of replacement.
  • Abnormal tire wear such as cups, scalloped edges and feathering, can indicate that the front end is mis aligned or that new front end parts are needed.
  • Erratic driving habits like jumping curbs, hitting parking stops hard, accelerating up driveways and rough off-road dirt driving can wear out all front end parts prematurely.
  • Beware of the Lomac type tool for diagnosing lower ball joints. Such tools are not legal for use any longer. If a mechanic is going to inspect the ball joints, ask what tools he uses. If he says a Lomac, go somewhere else.
  • Replacing upper and lower ball joints at the same time is unusual. Lower ball joints are more frequently re placed, and uppers last much longer.
  • All front end parts should be diagnosed by the certified front end mechanic or the alignment mechanic.
  • Remember that it's common practice to align a car after it has had front end work. The wheels must be reset to manufacturer’s specifications. Make sure this is specified on the repair order before you sign for it.
  • Tie rod ends help steer your car. Therefore, they are the most crucial front end part when dealing with safety. Have them routinely checked if you are having any other front end work done.
  • For the precise diagnosis of worn front end parts, sophisticated dial-indicator gauges should be used. Ask that these specialty tools be used when your front end parts are inspected.
  • Loud squeaks don't mean that the upper control arm bushings are bad. Have upper control arm bushings double-checked by the mechanic, making certain they are defective before replacing them.
  • Perform the push and rebound test to determine the condition of your shock absorbers. Also check for leaks on the shock shaft body. Shocks that rebound more than 2-1/2 times, or leak, need replacement.
  • Air shocks are a good investment when towing heavy packages over an extended period of time.
  • Search out the best deals on MacPherson struts. They can be very expensive, especially on some of the foreign vehicles. Advertised specials are run on MacPherson shocks in many newspapers and trade publications.

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