Sending me to braking point

Blog post posted on 26/06/18 |

I like building flat-pack furniture. Not enough to actually want to spend any time in IKEA, but enough to view flat-pack as a grown up version of Airfix, with a bit of added practical value.  My colleagues and I agreed this morning that it can be an enjoyable, somewhat therapeutic pastime, but doesn’t always result in furniture that possesses a great deal of structural integrity. This is particularly true if the protagonist is either: (a) lacking in physical strength or dexterity, (b) in possession of inadequate tooling, or (c) somewhat gung-ho in their attitude towards instruction manuals. My own collection of sturdily built home furnishings can be attributed to a deliberate circumvention of these factors. Note that in some cases the necessary physical strength has been achieved through team working.

Why is it, then, that the complete opposite is true of my attempts to fix cars? Surely, someone who’s reasonably able-bodied, has a decent selection of tools and a Haynes manual can change a set of brake discs and pads in the same time it takes them to construct a medium-sized Arkelstorp sideboard? Sadly, no. My efforts as a mechanic are usually a perfect storm of factors (a), (b) and (c): excessive physical exertion resulting in injury, the frequent realisation that I need to buy yet another ‘special’ tool, all exacerbated by a totally irrational belief that “I’ve done it before so it should only take an hour or two”.  And you can forget about team working. My endless torrent of expletives is usually enough to deter any potential volunteers.

It’s not all my own fault. Replacing my car’s front discs and pads the other week should have been straightforward, but as ever, there were unexpected hurdles right from the outset. Now, I’m aware that wheels sometimes can get a bit stuck to the hubs when they haven’t been removed in a while, but it’s rarely something that can’t be solved with a bit of blunt force either from a boot or a mallet. Not so on this occasion. The nearside wheel hadn’t budged despite all my physical strength, fifteen minutes of kicking, whacking, wrestling, and WD40 being sprayed into every available crevice. It even held out despite being bombarded with some of my most venomous swearing. I calmed down a bit and decided to use my noggin. By which I mean internet. YouTube and owners’ club forums can be a brilliant source of tips for DIY mechanics, although it must be said that not all of the suggestions can necessarily be recommended from a safety point of view, so exercising a bit of common sense is always a must.

One tip sounded like a potential winner: put the wheel nuts back on loosely, then lower the car back onto the wheel, thereby using the car’s own weight to break the seal. Slightly nerve-wracking but it seemed plausible. I tried it several times, with the wheel in different positions, but it still stayed resolutely stuck. It was worth a shot. In the end, I discovered a couple of small notches where the wheel meets the surface of the brake disc, which I could just about wedge a bent screwdriver into. Five minutes of tapping the screwdriver into the notches (and then waggling it almost to point of breaking the tip off) saw a gap open up that I could finally get some proper leverage on and off came the wheel. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a sense of achievement from such a brutish exercise. Total time: one hour.

Examination of the mating surfaces of the wheel and the disc showed that very little grease had been applied to stop them seizing together: something to note when putting the wheels back on later. Part of the problem was that the brake discs on my current car (unlike previous cars) are not bolted to the hub, but rely on the wheel and wheel nuts to ‘sandwich’ them in place. Fine in theory, but when the disc is stuck so firmly to the wheel, waggling the wheel around just results in the disc waggling with it. I’m just glad I found all of this out in the relative comfort of my own driveway, rather than in a roadside puncture situation!

Anyway, it was nice to be able to start renewing the brakes, finally. Or at least it would have been, had it not been for the usual tooling issues: see (b) above. Until this point, I’d never seen a 7mm hex key in my life, and had assumed that such a thing either didn’t exist, or was largely eschewed by the automotive industry and was therefore an unnecessary inclusion in a typical motorist’s toolkit. Ford had apparently staged an elaborate practical joke at my expense: to get the slide pins out of the calipers, you need a 7mm hex key. I didn’t fancy putting the wheel back on and clearing up my mess just to be able to drive to a tool shop to buy a tool that I ought to have had already only to then return and take the wheel off again. Lucky that I had another car at my disposal or the air would have got even bluer than it was already.

Having finally dismantled the brake assembly, it seemed to me that both the disc and pads were on their last legs, despite having passed the recent MOT with only an advisory about corrosion on the disc surface. Putting the old pads side-by-side with the new ones was enough to make me feel safer just looking at them. Happily, the rest of the procedure was relatively straightforward and a bit boring, and although the offside wheel turned out to be just as recalcitrant as his brother on the nearside, this time I was ready with the hammer and screwdriver. Anyway, enough about the job, what about the results? The brakes are now much quieter and most of the dead travel at the pedal has gone. I still plan to renew the fluid and bleed the brakes, which should improve them even more, but for now the improved performance and reassurance have already been worth the hassle.

Everyone keeps asking me why I don’t pay an actual mechanic to do these kinds of jobs on my car. There are several reasons but the main one is that, despite the pain, the colourful language and the amount of time it takes, I actually enjoy it. It’s also a great way to understand more about the car, which I find quite reassuring. For example, I now know that my hubs are well greased and in the event of a puncture it should be a breeze to change a wheel at the roadside. And, just like when you buy your furniture flat-packed rather than ready-built, you get to save a bit of money too, although I’ve heard that there are people you can pay to come round and build it for you if you get stuck!

By Gary Bates, IAM RoadSmart's marketing manager