Entries in repairs (3)


The Bad Taste in My Mouth

Today did not feel good.

No video or pics today, wasnt able to get things together, but spent much of my day wrenching on the car. Spent the last week concerned about a misfire at low RPM, and two weeks with the return of the ABS light.

As usual, much of my spare time gets spent researching what it could be. I'm not a trained mechanic, so solutions don't always come to me right away. The trouble with asking the internet for specific answers that pertain to a 20 year old car is that you often don't get a lot of direct answers. As such I am left with the possibilities ranging from catastrophic vacuum leak to simply air in the brake control module.

Either way, it's been 50,000 miles and 3 years since I replaced the fuel filter, which may contribute to part of the issue. Easy enough, I slide under there, unbolt the old and swap in the new. While I'm under there, I see a worrying amount of rust aft of the rear axle. Really bad rust, such that it might mean failing a safety inspection if I catch the guy on a bad day. This would require cutting and welding to resolve long term: two things beyond my shadetree mechanic experience.

Nothing I can do today. Now the misfire: no signs of a vacuum leak, spark connections look all right. But a new diagnostic computer I just got shows timing advance and fuel trim bouncing around quite a lot for just sitting at idle.

Can't figure that out. Go to the brakes.

My new acquisition shows trouble with the right front speed sensor. But I just replaced all that wiring, so is the sensor itself bad? Also, the ABS module says the rear control will not move. Air in the system?

Bleed the control module, there's a fair amount of air coming out, but eventually clears. Bleed the front brake lines, okay. Bleed the rear left: nothing coming out. Check the other side: still nothing. Back to the fronts, just fine. Module again, clear. Back to the rears, nothing comes out.

Getting dark. Here comes the rain, too.

Usually, as I'm packing up the tools and putting them all back in the trunk, I feel a sense of accomplishment for the work I've done. There's no dopamine fix for today. As I set out to fix two problems, I solved neither and have been alerted to deep rust in the lower frame.

There's a half a bottle of rum on the shelf. It will likely be empty by the morning.


#SaveEddie, Part II: The Consequence of Inertia

This is the second part in a series of articles chronicling my illogical attempts to repair and restore my long-time owned Pontiac Sunfire, affectionately dubbed "Eddie." Do not anticipate expert repair advice. Trust me, an actual mechanic would have sorted this all out years ago.

Previous entry:
Part I: The Coefficient of Friction

I’ve been in traffic collisions before. Never at high speed, only ever in stop-and-go traffic. That’s when you’re paying less attention, because there’s less at risk.

Nearly ten years ago, I failed to stop my hand-me-down ’93 Dodge Caravan. Normally, a 10mph collision would be nothing. But I drive in an area with pickup trucks, which just happens to be what I hit. And this pickup just happened to have a trailer hitch mounted perfectly level with the Caravan’s front grill.

A trailer hitch needs to be strong, so they tend to be forged from substantial steel and either bolted or welded directly to the vehicle’s frame. This makes them very immobile compared to the rest of the car or truck, which is why there is no flex in them when you whack one with your shin. It also makes it much stronger than the ABS plastic that makes up the crosshair grill of the early-nineties Chrysler AS platform minivan. And the air conditioning coil behind it. And the radiator behind that. So much stronger, in fact, that it pushes said radiator far back enough to punch a hole in the battery.

Nowadays, I might have tried to salvage my Caravan. It might have been easier then, given automotive engineering at the time of its manufacture. Instead, we, the insured, accepted the insurer’s verdict of a total loss and surrendered the minivan to the wrecker. Some time and a Craigslist search later, we found Eddie.

Flash forward to today’s age on that slick road in Arlington. Friction has failed to overcome momentum, and carnage is the result.

Time doesn’t really slow down like in the movies. Instead, it’s just over. Expletives are uttered and on go the hazard flashers as I step out to check on the other driver. In hindsight, it’s curious the other driver was on his phone before even opening his door, but Eddie is my primary concern now, as it was then. He’s up and moving around, not complaining of any injury, and I’m fine, so I get on the phone to my insurer.

While I’m describing the event and damage in triplicate to the claims agent, a county cop pulls up behind us, confirms we’re okay, and instructs us to turn onto a side street, out of the way of traffic. He takes our information, writes it up on an incident report, gives us copies, and goes on his way. I’m on the phone another twenty minutes, if feels like, before the agent asks if I need a tow truck.

Eddie isn’t leaking any fluid and there’s no apparent suspension damage or misalignment, so Eddie is drivable, even with only one headlight properly aligned. I drive him the remaining two miles to my apartment’s garage, where I take multiple pictures with my phone for an initial damage assessment.

Immediately noticeable is the driver’s side headlight lens, broken free from its mounting points, is tucked up underneath the hood, which has crumpled under the stress of impact. Paint flicks off the bumper in spiderweb patterns at the whim of a slight breeze. The left fender is creased at the leading edge and bows out above the front wheel, and the black plastic inner fender is in two pieces.

These are all relatively easy fixes, and good news is the windshield washer reservoir and the battery, both in close proximity to the impact, are untouched. However, some measuring shows the subframe is bent back, so new parts may not fit properly if we attempted to install them.

Two things worked as advertised, however: the bumper reinforcement, a tube of steel protecting the radiator from damage in all but high-speed crashes, and the front absorber, which is a grid of plastic designed to collapse before any structural metal takes damage.

All signs show relatively minor damage, save for the bending in the subframe. I’m not a professional mechanic by any means, so I suspect I won’t be able to fix that by myself. Doesn’t mean I won’t try.


LeadFoot Video: Oil, Wind and Fire

I take pride in my car.  A 1999 model year Pontiac Sunfire sedan with a 2.2 liter engine, 3-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, aftermarket radio and tasteful body-colored rear spoiler.  I call him, “Eddy.”

Sure, it’s fifteen years old.  Sure, we got it just before GM canned the Pontiac brand.  Sure, it hasn’t got much power, it shakes the front passenger door panel when the compressor’s on, someone in the parking lot at work put a big dent in the rear driver’s side door, and it’s not great on gas (despite its four-cylinder engine; damn the three-speed auto).

But beyond all this, I love it.  The car has grown on me these past five (almost six) years.  In that time, much has been done.

Before we even got it, it had been in a front-end collision.  This was immediately apparent, because the front passenger door doesn’t fit right in the frame and generates significant wind noise at highway speed. In addition, the plastic bits in the front-right wheel well aren’t in good shape, and rub against the wheel in full-left steering lock.  This became gloriously apparent when a bolt on the water pump wore a hole in the coolant hose, and half a dozen pieces of plastic had to be removed to attach a new hose (with proper screw hose clamps and the old hose wrapped around the new one for protection.

Actually, now that I’m thinking of it, I should probably investigate that hose.  It has been a while.  Next time.

If I recall correctly, the next thing we did was regular maintenance (brakes and the like).  There was a coolant temperature sensor that went bad, which made for some interesting readings on the dash.  And almost three years ago, we found the starter motor was going.  The OBD reader was throwing off some weird codes because of the voltage drop on that occasion.  Replaced that part in a parking lot.

Then two years ago, the air conditioning died.  In the middle of summer.  After an entirely new system was installed, we eventually we’d found that multiple slow oil leaks had worn out the rubber bushings in the torque strut mount, and without the dampening effect of the mount, the engine was rocking forward, rubbing the AC hose on the radiator fan grille, rubbing a hole in the line, allowing Freon to escape.

Replacing the mount would have been cheaper than rebuilding the engine (the ultimate solution to the problem), and we had a warranty on the earlier AC system work, since we were at the same shop, so we had them install a new mount and they’d replace the AC line for free.

(Between this and the next service, the cooling fan motor had gone, which was an interesting day in and of itself, and I shall detail it another time.)

To their credit, when they did the complimentary AC work, they’d wrapped the line with rubber hose, like one from a coolant system, and zip-tied it on.  This was very kind of them, and I’ve always respected them for this.  But in practice, rubber is a soft material, and if you beat on it enough times even with plastic, it will be eaten away.

Lately I haven’t been driving as much, living so close to work, so I haven’t been able to notice the recurring problems with the Sunfire.  As summer has been rolling in, I’ve finally noticed the air conditioning wasn’t working again.  This meant another possibly damaged hose.  I watched the engine as I shifted from neutral to drive and reverse, and saw that dramatic rock-forward as the transmission shifted into reverse and the engine pushed against the torque converter, pressing the AC line on the radiator fan grille, rubbing in that ever-irksome hole in the system through the rubber covering.

Upon learning this, I immediately banned myself from using reverse gear to prevent further damage.  This meant I would be walking to work more often (especially because the scooter has decided to go on strike; All this time I thought it was Chinese, turns out it was French).  It made it interesting when I had to back out of my parking space at home, and there’s a big column on the driver’s side that would have hit the door, so I was pushing from the passenger side and hoping the steering would stay straight.

One day, I was running too late for work to walk, so I braved driving.  Sitting at an annoyingly long light, I saw the engine temperature climbing uncomfortably high.  Oh, crap, there goes the cooling fan again.

So to sum up so far, we’ve got no AC, no reverse, and no cooling without forward momentum; a veritable trifecta of problems.  I’d guessed I’d need a whole day to resolve them.

So finally comes a day off from work, and I get down to business.  Quick trip to [insert national auto parts store here], and I had a torque mount, cooling fan motor, some engine degreaser and a headlight polishing kit.

Let’s get this out of the way: I’ve seen the results of those kits that involve just wiping the oxidation away.  Do yourselves a favor and use a kit that needs a drill.  It’s just better.  Eddy’s headlights are sparkling now, and they light up the end of the street.

With the car on ramps, I doused the oily bits with engine degreaser and followed it up with a spray from the hose.  It did all right, but there’s so much caked-on oil, I’d need a stronger product.  In the meantime, elbow grease took care of the worst engine grease, especially around the torque strut brackets.  They’re nice and clean now.  Or, at least, they will be for a little bit before oil gets on them again.

Removing a torque strut mount is a simple affair: wedge some plastic parts out of the way and loosen the two bolts, letting the mount fall free.  One normally has to loosen the bolts about an inch and they can be pulled out (there’s only thread on one side of the bracket, and not in the torque strut itself).  Such was not the case.  As soon as the bolt was free of the thread, the engine pulled on the strut, holding the bolt at an angle so I had no choice but to unscrew it the entire length.  The front bolt, having more play, took on some especially interesting angles.

At last, it was free and I could further clean the grime off the brackets.  Then came time to put in the new one.  Rear bolt in: Check.  Front bolt in: Um, the bracket’s not supposed to be that far away…

The engine had shifted forward almost two inches, and my arm strength from underneath the car was not enough to force it into place, let alone hold it there while my other hand inserted the bolt.  A super-strong, eighteen-inch screwdriver employed as a pry bar couldn’t give me the necessary leverage, either.  I had a ratchet strap in my trunk, and I was able to find two suitable points for the strap, but it was such a piece of [expletive] it couldn’t even move the engine half an inch without slipping.  And every time it did slip, it did with such force and noise I thought the world was going to end.  I’m amazed my heart’s kept beating to this day after seeing all that.

It’s worth saying now, I think, that I had taken the car to my parents’ house.  My lease prohibits automotive repair done in the garage (though I’ve done quite a bit to the scooter there), and my dad had a set of ramps I could use to raise the car.  (They’re old, so I put some blocks of wood underneath them for peace of mind, as I’m not fond of 3000 pounds of metal landing on my face, but they held up all the same.  Good job there.)  There’s also a power drill for the headlight polishing, a hose for the engine cleaning, and a much shorter walk to a refreshing drink of water.  It’s been kind of hot lately.  The house also has a backup vehicle in case I needed to make a run to the national chain parts store.

My folks are on vacation, having taken the minivan, because it’s better at carrying many things.  My dad’s car is a Honda subcompact with a manual.  His old car is a Nissan subcompact with an automatic, which my sister now drives to her work.  She was home while the folks were away, just hadn’t gotten home until I’d gotten to the torque strut part.

Having realized manual labor and a lousy ratchet strap wouldn’t be enough to move the engine, I knew I’d need to make an additional purchase.  An educated guess told me Harbor Freight should have something.

Side note: This mention of Harbor Freight is an actual endorsement.  I’m not being paid for this, I just think it’s a great place to buy that one tool you need for that one occasion you didn’t have a tool for before, and probably won’t need again, and getting a decent price on it.  That said, it took a while for me to find what I was looking for.  In my head, I was looking for a bigger, badder ratchet strap than what I had, but ended up with a steel cable ratchet that was hiding in the “Trailer Hitch” section.  I was thinking it would have been in the “Rope” section, which didn’t exist in the first place.

An earlier Skype conversation had granted me permission to use the Honda if need be, so when I’d come to the decision to go to the store, the only thing in my head was, “Okay, I’m going to borrow the Honda, get the part, and be back before the dinner my sister cooked gets cold.”  My sister was home, as was the Nissan, but still it wasn’t until I got to the second main street after a couple of hard shifts before I asked myself, “Why didn’t I take the AUTOMATIC Nissan?”

But as a gearhead, I was already committed, and in my defense, it was only the fifth time I’d driven a stick-shift. So a couple of rough shifts and two stalls on uphill starts later, I’m back with a cable come-along.

Used in conjunction with the lousy ratchet strap (which works better at shorter lengths, and adds length to the new steel cable ratchet), I was able to move the engine into place and hold it there to screw in the bolts (which are, thankfully, thick enough to withstand the forces involved).

Much cursing and grinding of teeth got me this far, and the sun was going down, so something involved as replacing the radiator fan motor would warrant checking simpler solutions first.  So, multimeter in hand, I disconnected the fan motor cable and pulled the coolant temperature sensor connector, forcing the fan to turn on.  Sure enough, the car’s computer wasn’t sending the necessary 12V to turn the fan in even the worst of circumstances.  This meant there was an electrical problem bigger than the motor, which I didn’t have time or resources to diagnose. So I called it a day, feeling I’d at least accomplished three of my four goals.

The fan motor turned out to be a bad fuse upon another trip to the national auto parts chain store.  While I was there, I grabbed an air conditioning system stop-leak product, along with a recharge kit.  Hell, it’s worth a shot, right? And if it works, it’s better than half-a-grand in shop repair.

So here we are, in the end, I have a new torque mount, clear headlights, and (kind of) clean engine,  a working fan motor, and a (for now) working air conditioning system.  I’ll call it a win for at least two weeks.  Beyond then, Eddy probably needs AC work…