When you're faced with simple failures in places that are almost out of reach

I had (have) been writing for Motor Age since May 2000, and so, when I submitted my application for the college instructor’s job in December of that year, I included copies of Motor Age that featured my articles, and to this day, I believe my position as a contributing editor for this magazine was one of the determining factors in landing the job that a whole lot of other guys had applied for. And for those who think they want a college instructor’s job, well, you need to realize going in that it’s as demanding (and sometimes frustrating) as it is rewarding. There were times when I fully believed I had no idea what I was doing there. As of the writing of this article, I am teaching my way through my 19th year and I plan to retire at the end of May from my teaching position.

I’ll still be writing a feature or two for Motor Age every year if Mr. Meier will work with me on that front, but since I’m no longer going to be neck deep in vehicle repairs every week, I’m not sure how many more articles I’ll be able to hammer out, because the articles I’ve been writing for the past 20 years have been real stories from the service bay, and where Motor Age Garage is concerned, that’s the only kind of story that works. My time in the service bay will be limited after May, I’m afraid, and that’s where the photos and stories come from.  The point is that, while I’m not saying you’ve heard the last of me, my articles won’t be quite as regular, although, if I can write enough for Motor Age to hang on to my “senior contributing editor” status, that’d be peachy. Time will tell.

During my teaching tenure at the college, I have forged enough of a reputation with those qualified to have work done in this shop to have lots of real-world repair stories, and those are the stories I tell. Most of the customers we serve like the work we do, so they keep coming back for more, and since experience is the best teacher, my people get hammered with a lot of work, and some of it is pretty doggone tough, but that kind of pressure either molds my people into functional techs or drives them away from the profession. I want them to face tough jobs here so they can handle them out there. I consider my program to be “boot camp,” and they either pass or fail based on what they’re able to handle. My desire is for every graduate to be a living legend, but that’s more up to them than it is to me.

“It’s broke” is all they know

We get vehicles hauled in on wreckers, trailers, and yanked by chains, and sometimes when they show up, nobody even called to tell me they were coming. A couple of weeks ago a 2006 Mazda 6 showed up with the complaint that “something happened, and the timing belt came off,” which made no sense whatsoever on this engine, but then, most every service writer faces this kind of thing. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not ridiculing my customers, but for years it has boggled my mind that some of them don’t even know what year model their vehicle is, let alone which engine is in the vehicle, but that’s OK, because we can figure that out as the work order is being written. But then sometimes they’re not sure how to describe what’s going on, they just know the vehicle is “broke” and can’t be driven and they want us to work some kind of magic.

Even after sitting in the yard for a few months, this Fusion still looked pretty good after it was washed.

In the case of the Mazda, we discovered that the idler pulley bolt had broken off flush with its hole, which, as it turned out, was somewhat difficult to access. There’s a thick aluminum bracket between the pulley/spacer assembly and the hole in the block the bolt is threaded into, but the bracket is designed in such a way that the bolt passes through a long notch instead of a round hole on the way to the block. This is something of a blessing, because you can at least see the broken bolt – but on the other hand, if the bolt was passing all the way through a hole in the bracket and into the block, the bracket would probably support the bolt rather than allowing it to flex and break off.

On this Mazda, with the tire and splash shield removed, the pulley area is fairly accessible and we managed to use a left-hand twist drill bit to succeed in snatching that broken off piece of bolt out. Having worked the requisite “some kind of magic” at this point (it’s what we do, ya know), we had found the original pulley and its spacer lying in there, and so I found a suitable bolt the right length in a can of junk bolts (8mm 1.25 thread pitch), and with a new belt and that replacement bolt in place with the original pulley, we got that one going in short order.

Wait, what? Another one?

About 10 days later, a 2008 Ford Fusion 2.3L, FNR5 Transaxle with 212,564 miles showed up on a trailer. Like the Mazda, this one had been sitting in the yard until all the other pulleys were rusty and there were spiderwebs everywhere. And like the Mazda owner, the Fusion owner struggled to explain what the problem was, but it didn’t take long to figure out that this one had broken the same bolt as the Mazda 6 had. This is obviously a high mileage failure due to the flexing of that bolt.

Well, what we knew from experience was that the first thing we had to do was to get what was left of that broken bolt out of its hole, and that was a LOT harder on this ‘08 Fusion than it had been on the Mazda 6, because the broken bolt wasn’t visible at all – that spot on the end of the engine is about two and a half inches from the car body, and removing the fender splash shield didn’t help this time, because we were looking at two thick layers of steel between us and the broken bolt we needed to extract.

It has always been odd to me how we get two jobs alike within a few days of each other with such similar circumstances. Both cars broke the same bolt and both sat in the yard for a few months before anything was done about it. A few years ago we got two identical Ford Explorer Harmonic balancer failures the same week.

I know the guy whose daughter drives this car well enough that I didn’t need to call and ask him whether I could make a nice round hole in the car body to get to that broken bolt. Heck, the hole would be covered by the splash shield anyway, and it’d make the job a lot easier for the next guy. We did some tape measuring and Sharpie marking, and with a 2-1/4-inch hole saw and an arm-twisting DeWalt 1/2-inch corded electric drill, we made ourselves a nice (if slightly off center) access port, but this broken bolt wasn’t quite as friendly as the one on the Mazda had been.

Everybody who works with a drill in situations like this knows that if you spin the bit too fast, both the bolt and the bit tend to get hot, and that makes the bolt harder and the bit softer – which brings the entire job to a screeching halt – literally, since screeching is the sound the bit makes in those situations. A regular air drill isn’t the best tool for this job, because with the air drills we have, it’s difficult to control the speed of the drill. Using a drill bit extension I snagged from the local Harbor Freight (don’t cuss at me, I like Harbor Freight), we managed to use the electric drill and a new bit to put enough of a hole in that bolt to get it out with a screw extractor. Whew!

Okay, now we needed more than just a new pulley, which was all the parts store had to sell us – we also needed the special spacer that goes behind the pulley, but the Ford place had one in stock, along with a new pulley and bolt, all in one neat package for $28.

My problem with this new Motorcraft part is that the 8.8 Metric bolt isn’t (in my opinion) hard enough. If it was, these bolts wouldn’t be breaking off on more than one vehicle. On the other hand, a harder bolt might be a lot tougher to drill out if it did break. I went with the bolt that Ford included with the pulley, and when we installed a new belt, we found we needed to replace the battery, which was badly cracked around the negative cable, and we had to replace the negative cable end as well, but that wasn’t much of a problem. We checked the oil and coolant and fired the Fusion right up – after setting the tire pressures (they were all low), we put it back on the road.

Coolant leak, Nissan style

Back in 1990, I traveled to Panama City Beach with some friends for a Saturday at Shipwreck Island – we were traveling on 2 vehicles, and one of them was a Toyota van, which sprung an odd coolant leak from the joint of a steel heater hose Y on the way back, and they had to stop and refill the radiator about every fifteen miles or so. Panama City is only 100 miles from where I live (they were from Tuscaloosa), and so, that night we parked the van and I told them I would see if I could do something to plug the leak the next morning after church.

With the van jacked up and the tire and splash shield removed, I wire-brushed the place where the water was trickling out of that tee and used a bottle torch and some acid core solder to forge a repair that got them back to Tuscaloosa without a hitch, and in their eyes, I was Superman with a torch. I have since learned that Toyota had issued TSB 007 on 4-15-88 that read this way: To maximize corrosion resistance of the heater pipes on Vans (YR), the material of the heater tubes has been changed from the previous epoxy powder painted steel type to brass. That’s what the dealer put on their Toyota when they got back home, but they reported later – my repair held all the way.

This is one way to get to a tough spot – the caveat would be that, if the hole were sawed in a load-bearing place, body strength might suffer, but that didn’t look like it would be the case here.

Well, just last week about the time we got done with the 2008 Ford Fusion, a 2000 Nissan Frontier that belongs to one of the college welding instructors came to us on Friday afternoon with a coolant leak vaguely similar to the one I had fixed back in 1990 on the Toyota van. One of the heater hoses is connected to the passenger side of the engine block via a steel 3/8 pipe-to 5/8 hose 90-degree fitting, and the Nissan had just that morning began to pee coolant out of that fitting. We took a photo of the leak and zoomed in to decide if it was the hose or the fitting and determined that it was indeed the fitting after all. Furthermore, we had to remove the starter to access this fitting, and we managed to screw it out of there with a 19mm wrench. The fitting was breached from the inside by electrolysis, it appeared, and while we could have welded it, we decided that replacing the fitting seemed more apropos.

Fortunately, this part wasn’t so terribly proprietary that we couldn’t find another one – except that all the other ones we found that day had 1/2-inch pipe thread rather than 3/8. We ran out of time that first day (which was the end of the week) and so the Nissan had to spend the weekend on the lift before we could get a part, but that job ended well.

Another one bites the hook

Another regular customer came wheeling in with an F150 on a roll-back – it had sheared the driver side lower ball joint, and we had to fix that one outside the shop, but it was fairly straightforward. Get a jack and a stand under it, break out the ball joint service set, pop the old ball joint out and replace it with a new MOOG, and the rest is history.

There was also the 2004 Mercedes E320 with collapsed engine mounts that shook the whole car when you dropped it in reverse – we replaced all three mounts (both engine and the tranny mount) which took about four hours, and in the process found a bent inner tie rod, which we also replaced. Interestingly, the dealer he visited had charged him $700 to replace the upper ball joints (which bolt in, list for $80 each and total listed labor time is an hour) then they quoted him $1100 bucks to replace the two engine mounts, which (list price) are $149 each and the labor is 4 hours. Don’t know where that estimate came from. Based on list price and $100 an hour I could come up with about $750 on the mounts, but using the same standard, I could only justify about $300 for parts and labor for the upper ball joints. We don’t charge labor, but I generally have my students check dealer parts prices and labor times for grins.

About that time, a game warden came in on his 98 Chevy K2500 Crew Cab hunting truck with a popping noise in the front end, hubs that wouldn’t engage, and rear brakes that liked to skid when stopping cold.

The four-wheel drive problem on that K2500 turned out to be a missing fuse, but the popping noise was a lot more serious – the frame had cracked right at the place where the steering box mounts, and when we showed him that, he called a friend who, in his words “fixes these all the time,” but he wanted us to handle the brakes. The shoes on the driver side rear were coming apart and it needed both wheel cylinders, but first we had to bang around on the drum hubs to get those big sixty pounders off. The same rust that had attacked the frame had also tried to weld the drums to the hubs, but we made it happen with some skillful hammer work and a shot or two of PB Blaster®. The warden got new rear brake shoes and wheel cylinders, and he was good to go. By the time all these jobs were done, everybody was sufficiently hammered. A load of happy customers and students who are slightly more experienced made it all worthwhile.

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