Friday, March 30, 2012

Making the Un-Adjustable Adjustable

Last summer, after Ethan cracked up the MPV, we got him a 2004 Ford Focus (and I assure you, the transition from “totaled the family minivan” to “here’s another car” happened with the same sense of grace and calm as childbirth). The purchase of the Focus ZX3 (two-door hatchback) was a crime of opportunity: I was doing a lot of traveling; I didn’t want him using my BMW wagon; we were looking for a small, easy-on-gas 5-speed; Japanese cars were too pricey; this one needed odds and ends but cost just $2500, had 100k, and the air conditioning worked.

Roundel readers may recall that I, and then Ethan, spent a few years driving a 3-cylinder 5-speed Geo Metro. The Metro was incredible on gas – if you drove it at 55mph on the highway, it did get 53mpg – but it was not a solution that was supportable in the long term. It was more of a parlor trick. Yes the car got amazing mileage, but that was traded off in was most consumers would run from. It was a tin can, uncomfortable to ride in. It had worse acceleration than a '75 Ford Pinto. And the metal was so thin that components on the undercarriage rusted like a throwback to the 70s.

Fast-forward to the Focus. In some ways, I kind of like it. The suspension has all the subtlety of a pogo stick, but the engine has a surprising amount of zip and the shifter is very precise and tight. I haven't measured the mileage at 55mph the way I did with the Metro, but it seems easy on gas.

Ethan left abruptly in January to rejoin Americorps, and I re-inherited the Focus. My youngest son Aaron has his learner’s permit, so better that he burn out the clutch on the Focus while he's learning than Maire Anne’s 2008 Honda Fit my 2001 BMW 325XiT, or, heaven forbid, any of the “fun cars.” So I started driving the Focus to see what damage Ethan had done to it and what needed to be done to ready it for Aaron’s driving lessons.

As I drove it, I was immediately greeted by a cacophony of bangs and buzzes. Man, I thought, this thing makes my 2002 seem quiet. The noises were coming from both front and rear. I addressed the rear first. Turns out the latch for the rear hatch was banging and raising quite a racket. Fortunately, like every car on the planet, the latch for the rear hatch was adjustable, and with a few turns of the wrench, I lowered the latch on its adjustment screws so the hatch snugged down.

Next, the noise in the front. I remembered that, when we bought the car, the hood looked slightly mis-aligned. And in addition to the gap between the hood and the fenders, the hood had a fair amount of play, allowing it to bounce up and down and bang against the latch.

So I did what any DIY mechanic would do. I looked for the hood latch adjustment. I found the two 10mm bolts holding the latch in place, loosened them (itself not an easy task since access to the bolts is impeded by a plastic assembly the latch sits in), and tried the slide the latch downward to adjust it.

It wouldn't move.

It’s not adjustable.

Oh, right, the LATCH isn't adjustable, but he “striker” part of the hood latch – the rod in the bracket that’s bolted to the underside of the hood – must be.

Wrong again.

Not only isn’t adjustable, it’s tack-weleded in place. You can’t even remove it without busting the weld.

Wha-WHAT? How could the hood latching system not be adjustable? What am I missing? 

I read on some Focus-related web sites that, yes, incredibly, the latch is not adjustable. The recommendation was that, if it has play, it's probably bad and you have to replace it. I found a new one on Rockauto for $23. Sure, I thought, I'll throw twenty three bucks at a rattling banging hood and see if it solves the problem.

When the new latch arrived, I tried removing the old one, and was stunned to find you can’t remove it without either pulling the radiator and condenser or destroying a piece of the nose of the car (again, confirmed on Focus message boards).

So, despite my feeling that the Focus was a cut above the Metro, clearly it was designed with the same use-it-and-throw-it away mentality.

Then, I found one post that mentioned “notching” the cage in which the latch is held so the latch could come out.

Right up my alley.

I used a Dremmel tool to cut a thin notch in the plastic, allowing the old latch to be pulled out and the new one installed. Initially I cut a thin notch that let me pull the latch out by passing only the metal backing plate that runs wide of the latch body through the notch, but then I wound up expanding the notch to create some room for the 10mm ratchet wrench to turn, making it so it would rotate more like 1/8 of a turn at a time, instead of 1/16.

When I got the old latch out, I could see that the latch DID have elongated holes that one would've thought could be used to lower the latch, allowing a tighter hood closing. But when I put the new latch in, just like the old one, it wouldn't slide down on the elongated holes; it seemed set in one position. And the new latch didn't pull the hood any tighter than the old one. So much for the "throw $23 at it" solution.

It made no sense that the latch had elongated holes for adjustment but wouldn't move. Clearly something was preventing it from sliding up and down.

Then I saw that the front of the latch had two plastic nibs on it that were meant to sit in grooves in the plastic nose piece in the car. You can see the nibs in the pic below, and one of the triangular notches where the right nib is supposed to sit in the above picture.

I took a wood chisel and sheared off the two plastic nibs. Now, finally, the latch was free to slide down on those oval adjustment holes.

With the latch now adjusted, the hood closed much better, and even aligned with the two front fenders far better than it had.

It turns out the car had been tapped, very lightly, on the front bumper, and that had caused the latched to be pushed slightly upward. I get that there are design choices to be made in setting the price point of a car, but why anyone would design something this way, where the latch itself is supposed to be adjustable but the mechanical structure holding it in place prevents it from being so, seems incredibly short-sighted.

It still may be a disposable car, but at least it's quiet.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Wrench For Hire (sort of)

With my reduction in hours at work, I’ve taken the first tentative steps in the direction of repairing cars for other people. This is huge for me, as there are four chapters in my upcoming book, each titled “Why I Don’t Work On Other People’s Cars” (parts I through IV), each of which details the slow-motion train wreck of doing a favor for someone and having something go wrong, and each ending with the self-admonition “I am never going to do this again, ever.

But I thought I’d dip a toe in the water of hired wrench, carefully choosing the pond to be that of enthusiast cars and their owners. I sent an e-mail to the Nor’East 02ers Group essentially saying “I’m not really a doctor, I just play one on TV, but if you want your appendix removed cheaply, I might be your guy.” I quickly received several responses. The first customer was Charlie, a lovely, easy-going, laid-back gentleman with a pretty Chamonix (white) ’73 2002. In addition to wanting the fluids changed and the valves adjusted, he wanted to learn how to fix the car himself. So this was not to be a drop-it-off-and-fix-it arrangement; he wanted to, essentially, contract me to be the Hack Mechanic I so often pretend to be and hang out with me in my garage and absorb the Hack Mechanic Way. The idea that this might be of value to someone never even crossed my mind.

At the first repair session, we drained the transmission and differential fluids and filled them with Redline, then moved onto the brakes. We were flushing the brake fluid, starting with the wheel furthest from the master cylinder (right rear), when I immediately found that no fluid was coming out of the wheel cylinder, indicating the rubber brake line had swollen itself shut.

This is the classic “rhythm of repair” issue I write about in my upcoming book. You have a car up on jack stands and are in the middle of some repair or procedure when you find the problem is more extensive than you thought, and the mission creeps, and you need additional parts. You, however, are not a BMW dealer; you don’t have a warehouse full of parts behind the repair facility. Neither are you an independent repair shop with contracts with a network of local suppliers who will drop parts by your place of business. You might try to locate said part, but if it’s 4pm on a Saturday, the odds are very much against you. Fortunately, with Charlie’s swollen brake lines, the car had not been immobilized; I could simply put the wheel back on, take the car down off the lift, say “buy new brake lines and call me when you have them,” and send Charlie on his way.

The next repair session, Charlie came with the brake lines and a new set of rear Bilsteins. We installed them both without incident. Maybe, I thought, this working on other people’s cars will be okay. Maybe the curse is gone.

In our third repair session, Charlie came with new Bilstein front struts. Installation of these requires removing the caliper, unbolting the strut from the ball joint at the bottom, detaching the strut bearing at the top from the fender, laying the entire assembly on the floor, compressing the spring, and removing the bearing – all in order to replace the strut cartridge. Typically the most challenging part of this in BMW 2002 is reaching and loosening the one of the three ball joint bolts whose access is occluded by the lower control arm. The trick is to jack up the strut (that’s right – put a jack under the ball joint, on a car that’s already up on jack stands) to change the angle of the lower control arm so it’s not blocking the troublesome bolt. Even doing this, you can only access the bolt with a box-end wrench, not a ratchet wrench and certainly not an air impact wrench, and in a 39 year-old car, it often doesn’t relinquish its tightly-held position easily. Fortunately on Charlie’s car these bolts came right out.

I thought we were home-free.

Foolish me.

We pulled out the first strut assembly, put it on the floor of the garage, compressed the spring with a set of old-fashioned claw compressors, zipped off the big bearing nut at the top with my impact wrench, pulled off the bearing and the spring, and then proceeded to try and take off the big collar nut holding in the strut cartridge. Because the strut tube is several inches in diameter, and because a traditional hex nut would be too big to allow the dust bellows to slide over the tube, these collar nuts are not normal hex nuts – that is, you can’t simply take a big wrench to them. The original nuts are round with two holes in them, intended to receive a large BMW special tool with two pins in it. Very few backyard mechanics own this tool (I don’t), but that’s okay because typically you can simply take a pair of large slip-joint pliers (the BFPs, as I affectionately refer to them) and crank the nut off.

We tried that. Nothing.

Ok, then, the next level of attack is to put a dull chisel into one of the pin holes and smack it repeatedly with a sledgehammer.


Ultimately, getting off stuck nuts is about torque and grip. You can increase torque by increasing the lever arm. If the torque exceeds the grip, the nut comes off, but at some point the grip of the nut may exceed the torque you’re trying to apply, and something gives, and that something is not the something you want. Slip-joint pliers on a round collar nut do not have the grip of a hex wrench on a hex nut, so at first the thing that gave was the ability to hold the nut. I put my hands all the way on the end of the BFPs and squeezed as hard as I could. The next thing that gave was Charile’s ability to hold the assembly still on the garage floor. I found a long piece of angle iron and bolted it to the bracket on the strut housing that is there to hold the brake lines. Charlie stood on both the housing and the angle iron while I grunted and bore down hard on the pliers. The whole assembly started to turn, but not because the nut was loosening; it was moving because we were bending the bracket for the brake line.

We stopped and assessed. We were in real danger of not being able to get the collar nut off, but we had not destroyed anything, at least not yet. Charlie remembered that a Nor’East 02ers member had advertised a pair of cleaned, powder-coated strut housings for a hundred bucks. In addition, I was fairly certain I had an old set under the front porch of my mother’s house. So, if worst came to worst, we had an out that was timely and of acceptable cost.

With that in mind, I figured we had nothing to lose. The only function of the bracket on the strut housing was to hold the brake lines. It was not a structural piece. It could be bent, then straightened, without any loss of functionality of compromising of safety. So I hauled out the only card I had left to play.

The torch.

An oxy-acetylene torch, with its foot-long flame, is a scary-looking thing that can easily melt nearby wiring, but there’s no safer way to use it than with the assembly to which you want to apply it lying prostrate on the garage floor. I heated the collar nut, then tried the BFPs. Nope.

 I did it a second time until the nut began to smoke. Still no action.

I sighed, then with that “well, nothing left to lose might as well go for broke” attitude that virtually guarantees either success or abject miserable failure, put so much heat on the collar nut that not only smoke but flame and particulate matter poured forth from what I assumed at the time (verified upon later postmortem) was the rubber seal at the top of the old strut cartridge melting. One last time, with Charlie standing on the angle iron and the strut and me doing my Hack Mechanic pumping iron bit, I squeezed, bore down, and the wrench rotated.

The collar nut came off.

As is often the case with a bilateral repair, we did the same thing on the other side, only instead of screwing around with other methods, we went straight for the bolt-it-to-the-angle-iron-and-heat-it-until-it-smokes technique. Whereas the first one took two hours I think we had the second one apart inside of 20 minutes.

Having dodged the bullet on the collar nuts, the only remaining hiccup was the spring perch rubber. On one of the struts, the rubber spacer that sits between the spring perch and the spring had partially dissolved. Bavarian Auto Sport in Portsmouth NH is open ‘till 4pm on Saturdays, but I called them and they did not have this part in stock. Charlie got on the phone and called a few Nor’East 02ers, and, miraculously, an acquaintance of his named William appeared to have a pair. Charlie e-mailed him a pic on his iPhone so William could verify he had the correct part.

Further, William was looking for an excuse to go for a ride and offered to drive the parts down to my house so we could complete the repair by the end of the day. If there’s anything that exemplifies the wonderful sense of connection that people have via a shared interest, this is it.

About an hour later, a big BMW touring bike with two big hard saddle bags on the back rode into my driveway, and William, outfitted in full BMW-logo’d riding gear, stepped off. He opened one of the containers and pulled out a cardboard box full of parts, from which he produced the rubber spacers. I looked at them and realized that, unfortunately, they were not for the front spring perches but for the rear. Charlie would’ve had to have taken a photograph from the side in order for William to have been able to tell the difference. But this in no way detracted from our sense of gratitude, or the pleasure of the quick half hour that elapsed swapping a few 2002-related war stories.

Charlie has since located the spacers at Pelican and is having them Fedexed to his house for Tuesday delivery. His pretty Chaminox 2002 is currently sojourning in my garage. It looks very much at home, sitting up on the lift. Too bad I have to give it back.

Maybe this working on other people's cars thing isn't so bad after all...