How to Fix a Car
In past articles, I have boasted about how by owning a reliable car and keeping driving to a minimum, you will find that car maintenance becomes almost negligible: an oil change every year or so whether it needs it or not, and simple things like spark plugs or air filters even less often – as the instruction manual recommends. I make a point of doing all these simple things myself, to get more comfortable with car maintenance in general.
But just recently, my luck ran out. Just before heading to Canada for the summer, I noticed that my Honda minivan started making a humming tire tread sound from the back left wheel. I figured it was just the tire, since sometimes old tires will develop a “feathering” pattern where alternating treads wear out faster than their neighbors and you’re left with a noisy Jeep-tire-like sound. I turned up the stereo a bit louder and made the 1500 mile drive without incident, rushing a bit because my Mom (Grandma Money Mustache to you) needed my help.
Once settled in to Hamilton, I used some spare time one afternoon to visit Costco, where I had them replace the old back tires while I stocked up on some groceries for Mum’s place. The new Pirelli P4s looked great when I got out, so I eagerly started the engine and started driving home.
And the roaring sound was still there, just as loud as ever. Shit.
This meant it was an actual mechanical problem, which I had not encountered before. How do you fix your car in a situation like this, when you have no idea what is wrong with it?
Most people take the car in to a service center or even a car dealer, of course, and emerge eventually with a fixed car and a shocking bill. A few hundred here, a couple thousand there. Oh well, put it on the credit card, it’s a necessity. It’s a fine strategy for some, but it can really jack up the price of keeping an older car on the road – the spectre of high repair bills even scares people into the folly of buying brand-new cars, despite the fact that this costs them far more, once you do the math.
But what if you want to take things to the next level? To slice the cost of car maintenance down by 75%, and transform yourself into one of those mythical people who can keep a 20-year-old car purring like a top and looking brand-new? Or the freaks who can buy a undervalued high-quality car on Craigslist, drive and maintain it for 5 years, and still sell it for more than they paid?
My goal is to become one of those people myself. And I’ve already got the general techniques figured out, which I now present to you:
Mr. Money Mustache’s Guide to Automotive Independence
- Describe the Symptoms, and then search for them online: For me, the symptom was “noise from rear wheels“, so that is what I typed into Google. This rapidly led me to the idea of worn-out wheel-bearings. Then I typed “wheel bearing noise” into YouTube, and found a video where a guy drives his car with the problem and it sounded exactly like my problem. I also found some discussions on online forums reporting that mechanics charge $250-400 to fix it* – if you can find a reliable one.
- Go to YouTube and type in what you want to learn: “1999 Odyssey replace rear wheel bearings”. This led me to a video from 1aAuto where they replace the wheel bearings on a van almost like mine. While watching, I learned that most people usually replace the whole “Hub and Bearing assembly”, because it is still an affordable part and it takes less work to swap the whole thing. Since the first video described a 2003 Odyssey with rear disc brakes, I also watched a video from Eric the Car Guy about 1999 Odyssey drum brakes to see how those relate to the hub and bearings. Luckily for me, the procedure looked even easier with drums than discs, because you don’t have to remove the caliper. In the olden days, you had to get knowledge like this by buying the shop manual for your car, but with YouTube, things have been simplfied nicely – a real person is much easier to follow than a cheap black-and-white line drawing.
- Look up the part you need: ”1999 Odyssey rear hub and bearing assembly“. This led me to various auto part stores including Amazon – teaching me more about the part and the rough price range within which it should fall. Only $40.55 – surprisingly low for such an important part.
- Buy the part: If I were still at home in Colorado, I would have simply ordered the parts from Amazon and waited for them to arrive. After all, the van was still working, and I don’t need it for everyday life anyway. But here my options were limited. I need this thing running to safely drive my family another 300 miles to Ottawa later this week. I called around to the Hamilton auto parts stores (which I had found and mapped using the Google Maps website), found a variety of prices ($150 down to $67 for the same thing), and headed out to pick up the best-priced one.
- Acquire any required tools: From the video, I learned that I’ll need a car jack, jack stand, regular socket set, a hammer, and a rare giant socket (36MM) to take off the huge nut that holds the rear hub onto the axle. I bought the large socket at Princess Auto, a Canadian equivalent to Harbor Freight, which sells auto tools rather affordably. The rest of stuff I already owned or could borrow locally.
- Go for it! For maximum fun, it is good to enlist the help of a friend for work like this, for moral support. Or even technical support, if you have any friends who are more mechanically savvy than you. I was able to persuade the Canadian indie rocker known as The Kettle Black (aka Nick) to help me with this project, because I knew he had a 30-year-old Toyota which he has kept running all these years with his own hands.
Nick and I dove into the project. Our equipment was limited (there was no air compressor so I couldn’t use my fancy new air impact gun, and his old car jack was barely big enough for my van), but we improvised as needed and these were the results:
As a final note, Be Patient: There are always hiccups when you do things for the first time. We did well with disassembly, but had a hell of a time putting the new hub on. It was tight, and it requires that you hold it in very straight alignment to avoid getting stuck on the axle. There was a scary moment where I wondered if my van would be stuck in the parking lot behind his apartment building with a missing wheel forever. Then I took a deep breath and remembered that this is not the first time this procedure had been performed on Earth, and if others had done it, I could surely do it t0o. By placing a block of wood over the new hub and hammering it onto the axle, then using the axle nut to crank it on the rest of the way, we got the job done.
The thrill of driving away with my now silky smooth and quiet van, knowing I had learned something new, was one of the highlights of my trip so far. I’m looking forward to more parts wearing out as the vehicle fleet ages, to provide more interesting lessons like this one.
* The reason car repairs are so expensive, is that that you often get a double whammy in the bill: many garages make a big margin on the parts themselves (a Honda dealer might price this $40.55 US hub at $245 for a “genuine Honda” version, for example). Then they earn a labor rate of $60-$120 per hour, which is more than most professionals earn in their day jobs (annualized to full-time, that would be a $120,000-$240,000 salary). If you get good at this stuff, your friends and neighbors will start begging you to fix their cars for you, which would be yet another lucrative and flexible early retirement or side hustle job.
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