My car eats CV joints. Whether it’s a design shortcoming or deliberate engineering to make sure an otherwise bulletproof model provides some long-term income for dealers, my car ends up with the distinctive clak-clak-clak on sharp turns with eye-rolling regularity. Every two or three years I hear the noise and know it’s another hundred-and-fifty-bucks-or-so to get the thing fixed.
If you look through the Fortune archives, you’ll find a story about when Ross Perot was on the General Motors board. As with two years ago, so it was twenty years ago, with the clueless corporate behemoth circling the drain: Americans had finally gotten a clue and GM couldn’t sell their junk (except for trucks, and the monster SUVs Ford had recently invented with the Explorer). New to newish GM cars were showing up at dealerships with ruined transmissions, often having been repaired previously. Perot, in his inimitable style, commanded a young lieutenant to not ask permission or make excuses, jes’ git out there an’ fix the problem. I imagine the young executive wannabe in his suit and tie poking around GM dealerships wondering what he’s gotten himself into. He has the good fortune to find a dealership mechanic who has it figured out. He too noticed cars with inexplicable transmission leaks which continued after he repaired them with the genuine GM gaskets. When he made his own gaskets out of gasket felt, the cars stayed fixed and the transmissions didn’t fail. The young exec takes the clue back to HQ, where he eventually finds that someone at GM saved the company tens of thousands of bucks by making the gaskets thinner: saving a dime a gasket over millions of cars adds up. That this ended up ruining the cars and GM’s last shreds of reputation was not anticipated.
I wonder if this happened with my 1990 Civic. Pictured above is the new right-side CV axle: the left end goes in the transmission and the right end connects to the wheel. The right end is the problem–this is the part of the shaft that flexes left and right as the steering turns. The black boot protecting the joint inside inevitably tears, exposing the joint to water and dirt. In a few months, clak-clak-clak. It seems simple enough: put on a better boot. But they all come with these boots, and they always tear.
Nothing to be done, really. At one time I remember aftermarket boots one could use instead. I remember them in auto parts stores because of their lurid fluorescent colors, but I haven’t seen them in years. Kids aren’t interested in that kind of thing, and a new shaft with new joints is only fifty bucks. Attention and salesmanship is elsewhere, I guess.
In the past, I heard the noise, groaned, and made calls to figure out where to take it. One would fail and the other would go some months or a year after that, so back again for a few years’ peace. But I am trying to save to not work a job so much, or perhaps at all. I look online and see the part is only fifty bucks. I call three places and nobody calls back, and the best estimate I can get is “uh, about a couple hundred”. The friend who put me up in his forest home has a garage, tools, the necessary spiritual fortitude. I look online and some kind motorhead has posted detailed pictures of how it’s done. It means a morning, or perhaps a day, of wrestling, moderate dirt, and the prospect of failure. On the other end, saving at least a hundred bucks and the modest triumph of having done it myself.
The noise is bad. I email my friend. He’s available Saturday.
Yesterday morning the anticipation makes me a little sick. My friend is offering his free time for something that could be frustrating enough to be friendship-souring. It feels a little like going to work felt on jobs I dreaded, always one wrong word away from the hammer coming down. But it’s sunny and I have the directions ready to be printed out, and last night a high school kid posted it’s easy, half-an-hour tops. Remembering twenty-some years ago to transmission leaks and parts that didn’t fit with the car I had before this one, I am moderately hopeful.
My friend has his engineering organizational skills prepared. Harbor Freight Tools may be another devil importing cheap Chinese tools, but they let him get the things we’ll need for a lot less than Sears or Snap-On. A real shop jack lifts the car, sets it on stands. I shake the car with vigor, remembering someone who had a car fall on him. It’s steady. The black steel 32mm socket, big as a kitten’s head, goes over the axle bolt. It turns with surprising ease. We are both cautiously hopeful.
Like anything else in life, we consult the pictures and are grateful someone wrote down steps to follow. Bolts come out and the arms swing away exactly as described and with an eerie ease. Our biggest mistake is forgetting to have a pan underneath when the transmission side is popped out. It releases lickety-split and red fluid spills. He said to drain it beforehand, right? Yes. No big deal. After many paper towels my friend’s garage floor has a smooth shiny spot.
The old part his heavy, solid, something you trust to deliver power. The boot is torn in half around its circumference, and the bearings and cages that make up the joint are clearly visible. The noise was bad but it doesn’t look like it was in danger of falling apart. We’ve spent maybe forty minutes all told, and the joint is out. We are both amazed as we go inside, lather with the bright orange Goop, get hands clean enough to check local store inventories. I couldn’t get a part beforehand as it comes in two versions, and this can only be determined after the axle is removed. But the closest parts store has one, says the website, and we have a drive in the sun.
I love auto parts stores: the new ones with the pleasant marketing-pro atmosphere or the old dumpy ones with flies in the window and heavy metal on a beat-up radio; the shelves of chemicals; the rows of oil filters and floor mats; the grimy, dog-eared look-up books. It’s the library for boys that don’t like to read, a little temple of physical things that can be touched, removed, made whole, improved. The old part, wrapped in a garbage bag, is set down as the guy looks it up for us: exactly one in stock. It comes in a long narrow box like a round of ammunition. We check them: identical, one dirty, one clean. The guy puts the old one back in the box. I don’t even have to come back for the core return.
It all feels good in a suspended, evolving way. Things are aligning. I will hopefully not take up my friend’s entire day. It is coming together.
My friend and I talk in the car. We are both seeing women and things are working out. There has been great progress and change since I slept on his futon last summer. We are evolving as this little drama is. We are replacing our own broken parts and doing it ourselves with some help.
Installation is reverse of removal. The transmission side slides in, snaps together with a few taps from a rubber mallet; the wheel side slides on with minimal jostling. Just put the strut fork bolt back through the lower arm and it’s done.
Just put the strut fork bolt back through the lower arm and it’s done, but the fork end won’t line up with the lower arm. We puzzle over it, though honestly he does a lot more. We get the jack and some steel blanks and push up on the fork, compressing the spring, but it keeps sliding. We can’t get it lined up to go through the hole. It’s hard to hear him with his head in the wheelwell and I keep jacking the wrong way, at the wrong time. My fear is being realized. I keep working the jack.
So close. How often we come to a wall or a hole at the very end, the one that’s too big. Never does it taunt you. It isn’t defying you. It is too big to know you are there.
My friend has sweat dripping down his nose. We’ve been doing this ten, maybe fifteen minutes. Maybe more. He sits back, stops a minute. By chance he pushes on the lower arm. It goes down. Down to where the fork is. The light instantly goes on. After the bolt goes through it’s another ten minutes and it’s done.
My first car was my mother’s 1971 Ford Pinto, the very lightest powder blue seen as white unless a piece of white paper was placed on the hood. My father and I replaced the water pump one school night. The parts coming off, the new one going on, all the tightening and steps and keeping track culminating in the turn of the key and proper operation. It was dazzling. We could have been flying.
This bright Saturday almost thirty years later it is the same. It’s barely past noon and the car drives out without noise, without red drips, without problems at all. There is a succinct, quiet, giddy sense of triumph.
You deserve a yeoman’s lunch–name your place, I say. He picks upscale Mexican takeout. I feel like I’ve used him but he doesn’t seem to mind. We sit in the fluorescent sterility, an undercurrent of 80s pop as we talk about work and the women we have met, what’s coming, where it’s going. I’m grateful for the talk but it seems like not enough to give. At one point I say I wouldn’t have made the changes I needed without having friends give me a place to go. That place to go is there still, with its tools and shiny floor.
On the way home I stop to get the recommended front-end alignment, and the guy says I need tie rod ends. I thank him and go. I can look up how to do it when I get home.