Over the past six weeks, my 2005 Dodge Neon (which I’ve dubbed “The Princess” because it’s a whiny little bitch) developed a disturbing vibration in the brakes. Oh, they worked well enough. One genius on the Sixth Street Expressway gave me the opportunity to test them on my way to work one morning. And then I tested my horn and the flexibility of my right middle finger. But still, there was that vibration.
It’s about $250 to have a mechanic replace them. We’d already dropped $300 on the Santa Fe’s, which had a stuck caliper. Then the windshield cracked. So $500 went into what the car we’ve dubbed “Mabel.” (I’ll get into these names tomorrow.) So I decided I’d have to fix it myself. I could have done that with Mabel’s brakes, but Mabel is a Santa Fe. I am not jacking up an SUV with a scissor jack, and we don’t own a hydraulic floor jack. Hence, $300 for brakes. The Neon, however, sits low to the ground, so the scissor jack is merely annoying, not really dangerous.
I bought parts. I actually had pads from four years ago that I bought when I thought Princess’s brakes were going. Turns out Chrysler built them that way. (Considering American cars are designed like Japanese cars – just not as durable – this constitutes a major fail on the part of Mercedes Benz, which owned Chrysler in 2005. Dummpkopfs!) So the pads lay in the trunk for four years. All I needed were rotors, about $40 at Advanced Auto Parts.
I’d changed pads before. Until 1998, I owned an impressive series of decrepit vehicles ranging from the surprisingly durable (a 1985 Toyota Corolla that died at 230,000 miles, and only because the transmission shop ruined it) to the serviceable (1973 Buick Centurion that my best friend and I called “The Bluesmobile”) to the downright dangerous to even look at (1978 Dodge Aspen with a broken frame and shoddy brakes that needed more than just pads and rotors.) I’d had to do a lot of my own mechanical work. It was not work I really enjoyed, but I did it. Brakes were about the easiest thing to do beyond tune-ups and oil changes. I’d even had a caliper pop and did brakes at the side of a road. (At the time, I kept tools in my trunk and I broke down two blocks from a parts store.)
The last time I’d done brakes, though, was on a 92 Geo Metro back in 1998. I had a floor jack back then, and the Metro’s brakes were easy to get to. Now? I barely had the tools. I had to buy a C clamp for the occasion. I had to Google the directions. To put this in perspective, my stepson had not been to kindergarten yet, Clinton was president, and high-speed Internet meant you had a blazing fast 56K modem. Good times.
So Saturday morning, I start work on the brakes. It took about five minutes to jack the car up. I remember the bumper jacks of old taking about thirty seconds, the floor jack I now missed only 10 seconds. That done, I remembered – brake fluid. I took a turkey baster and sucked the reservoir dry, squirting the fluid into a trashcan. (I know. Not the most environmentally sound idea. At least I have a tire shop do my oil changes.) Then I had to get the brakes off. The bolts came out okay, but the calipers…
The motherf*****g sons of b*****s would not f*****g come off without…
That done, I slid the rotor out. After hunting down a hammer and a plastic cover to something to cushion the blows. You’re supposed to use a rubber mallet, which I didn’t own. The hammer did the trick. I took off what I thought was the bad rotor first and saw what the problem was. I knew I’d warped a rotor, where the surface of the brake rotor becomes uneven, but I’d never seen such a thing before. There were gouges all along the inner surface of the disc. I slid the new one on, then went to change the pads.
Yeah, about that. When doing brakes, you take a C clamp to the caliper and open the pads up as far as they will go. Only my clamp wasn’t big enough. Crap. Now I’m going to have to go to the hardware store and hope they have a bigger one. Then the tip popped off the clamps screw, making it fit. Opened up the caliper, popped the old pads, put in the new ones, and…
Why doesn’t this caliper fit any more? I looked at the pads. The looked a little large. Was that my imagination? Taking the other set and putting them up against the old set, I discovered that, in 2008, Auto Zone had sold me the wrong pads. Four years later with no receipt, there would be no refund. Oh, well. Sunk cost. But now, with Nita and AJ gone for the morning (more on that tomorrow), I had to bike it up to Advanced Auto Parts clutching two dirty, used brake pads. Advanced sold me the right parts for $23. Back to work.
I got the caliper in, bolted back on, and the wheel remounted. Great. An hour into the job, not counting my trip to the parts store, and I still had the drivers side to do. So up went the car, off came the wheel, and out came the brakes. Only…
I already knew where my brakes went bad. Removing the drivers side rotor revealed why they went bad. There was a lock washer (my term) on the rotor, which is usually from the factory. The other rotor, with a little coaxing from the hammer to loosen it, came right off. Not this one. I had to bust that washer. Ziggins later told me that the washer meant someone only replaced one wheel on the front, which is, of course, stupid. You always do brakes in pairs. So that took longer than expected.
Finally, I got the damn things on, fresh fluid into the reservoir, and all the tools put away. Now I had to test it. I already liked having full pedal on the brakes. My neighbors were out landscaping. I stopped by and rolled the window down to say, “I’m going for a test drive. If I don’t make it, tell my wife and stepson I love them very much.”
I got the car around the block, making several hard stops along the way. You know what’s cool? No vibration, and the brakes are harder than those soft things Chrysler put on the car. Well, Chrysler and the idiot who only did one wheel.
Best of all, after failing to get Mabel’s flasher relay working the previous night, I proved once and for all that I’m not a complete mechanical incompetent.
But I’m not rebuilding your transmission for you any time soon.