Autoblog Maintenance 301: Front suspension/steering refresh, Part I
Suspension components, charged with providing articulation while withstanding a constant beating from rough roads, live an incredibly tough life. Proper maintenance that includes regular lubrication helps, but once the odometer clicks over the sixth digit, it's often time for some fresh components. While the slow onset of wear might mask any issues, all it'll take is a spin in a newer vehicle or a look at the tread wear pattern to get some perspective on the problem.
Fortunately, for most of us, like-new handling precision can be restored with a few hours, a couple hundred bucks of parts (and maybe that much again for some specialty tools), and a skinned knuckle or two. We're going to tear into the front end of our 155,000-mile Buick Roadmaster to show you how it's done, and it might get some mild upgrades while we're at it.
Worn components can often be diagnosed by wiggling and prying things in a variety of ways, but we've found several components that felt fine on the jackstands but were on the verge of failure. The best results are often obtained by replacing all the usual suspects - ball joints, tie rod ends, center links, idler arms, Pitman arms (the previous three being specific to those vehicles with recirculating-ball steering boxes), control arm bushings, sway bar bushings, and sway bar endlinks. Yes, that's quite the list of parts, but trying to replace one or two at a time often doesn't pay off when labor and alignment costs are considered.
Start off by lifting and safely supporting the vehicle, and remove the front wheels. Generally speaking, more room under the car is better - go with some tall (so-called "6-ton") jackstands, or a lift. It's not a bad idea to open the driver's window and unlock the steering column, as you may need to swing the wheel back and forth repeatedly throughout the project.
A shot of penetrating oil - our favorite is PB Blaster - on all of the fasteners is highly recommended before breaking out the tools. Remember, these components have seen more corrosive elements than just about any other part of the car, so expect to encounter some resistance.
Proceed with the project by removing cotter pins from the various castellated nuts. A pair of standard diagonal cutters or end cutters works well for this.
Break free the nuts with a suitable amount of leverage. 1/2"-drive six-point sockets and breaker bars are your friends for projects like this - leave the dainty stuff in the toolbox. Don't remove the nut just yet - leave it engaged by at least a few threads.
Grab the trusty "pickle fork" and a large hammer...
... and use them to separate the tapered joint between the tie rod end and the spindle (in case it's not clear, the fork has a wedge shape and pops apart the joint with a few light hits). Some folks will claim that other methods can be used for this task, but trust us - the pickle fork is inexpensive ($25 or so), readily available, and worth every penny. The downside is that it often rips the rubber boot on the component, but it'll get new ones upon reassembly.
Unbolt the sway bar from the lower control arm. If your vehicle uses end links, like this one, expect them to snap with the first few turns of the wrench.
Now we move on towards removing the front shocks. The bottom end is easy enough to remove on this vehicle - it's just a couple of bolts.
The upper shock mount on this vehicle is a bit trickier. It requires a special tool that keeps the shock shaft from spinning as the mounting nut is removed.
Here's a shot of the tool and the shock hardware - hopefully this makes things a bit more clear. This is yet another specialized tool that's relatively inexpensive (we recall spending $15 for it at NAPA) and worth every penny.
Support the lower control arm with a floor jack, install a spring compressor ($80 or so), and loosen the lower ball joint nut. Loosening the lower control arm pivot bolts may also be required on some vehicles (this being one of them).
Separate the taper using the pickle fork, remove the nut completely, and slowly lower the floor jack. Keep in mind that the spring is compressed with several hundred pounds of force, and so it needs to be treated with respect so that the compressor doesn't slip out of place.
The Mickey Thompson drag radial in the background is unrelated to this project, but speaks to the overall coolness of our garage.
Here's a view of the uncompressed stock spring (top), and the shorter spring from an Impala SS (bottom) that will eventually be installed in its place. The length of the soft Roadmaster spring made it especially tricky to remove - some of the shorter ones just about fall out (even without use of a compressor), while this one took some wrangling. Just remember to be gentle, and think about ways to keep some distance between yourself and the spring while removing it from the car and loosening the compressor.
If the upper ball joints need replacement, proceed to separate them from the spindles at this time. They often outlast the lower ball joints on this type of vehicle, however, as they don't support any vehicle weight.
Remove the pivot bolts for the lower control arm if bushing replacement is required, and remove the control arm from the vehicle. Once again, repeat the same for the upper control arm if required (which wasn't the case on this vehicle).
Using a ball joint press ($100, or available through Autozone's "tool loan" program), pop out the ball joints and bushings (upper control arms usually have ball joints that are riveted in place). In the case of this control arm, we had to weld some spacers into the arm before pressing out the bushings; otherwise, the thin web of the control arm will crush before the bushings pop loose.
We hit the arms with a shot of shiny black paint, and then pressed in new bushings and a heavy-duty ball joint.
If you're not up to that sort of hassle, loaded arms are often available that include new bushings and ball joints. The cost differential is considerable (in this case, it was about $50 for the replacement components vs. $200 for a new control arm), but we won't deny the difference in convenience, and it's not unheard-of for control arms to be rendered unusable by corrosion. The choice is there for you to make.
In our next installment, we'll put the suspension back together, and replace the steering components.