Gearhead Diary: Well, isn’t that special?

PHOTO BY MATT BARTMANN Don't think they aren't serious when the parts box says you need special tools.

Matt Bartmann

“CHIRP CHIRP CHIRP” was what we heard on a recent drive down Rist Canyon on our way to town.

Normally, this would be immediately followed by me asking my wife, “What the heck kind of bird is that?” or my wife saying, “Did you hear that? That was a chirpy chirper,” or whatever sort of bird it was.

But not this time. No, that was our trusty Toyota chirping a message to us. And we both knew exactly what the car was telling us.

I only cringed inside, to myself. Sally was brave enough to say something. “Sounds like a wheel bearing.”

I’ve replaced my share of wheel bearings. All the cars I’ve owned have had tapered roller bearings, and I’m very familiar with replacement of those. Sure, the bearing races are pressed in, but those can usually be handled with a hammer and block of wood.

Not so with front wheel drive cars, like our beloved Toyota. These are generally big ball bearings, and there is no provision for adjusting them. They are either tight and quiet, or they are worn out.

We managed to limp the car to my brother’s shop in town, jacked it up, and sure enough, there was about 1/4” of play in the passenger side front tire.

A quick call to a parts store confirmed they had a bearing and the two seals in stock.

Upon being presented with the new bearing over the counter, the first thing I noticed was a bright yellow sticker on the box: “ATTENTION: Special tools required to install.”

It wasn’t kidding.

Thankfully, the auto parts store we were at had a tool loaner program, and the very helpful clerk spent almost an hour researching exactly which tools we’d need to extract the old bearing and get the new one installed.

And he didn’t mince his words. “This job is a real bugger,” he said. Actually, that’s my family-friendly interpretation of what he said.

He wasn’t kidding.

We settled on two loaner tool kits that would work for us. One to remove, the other to install. $600 deposit.

That was fine. Deposit gets returned when the tools get returned. Problem was, they didn’t have the tools at the store. We’d have to come back the next day.

Back to my brother’s shop, and we start tearing the car apart: removing the hub and spindle assembly that is held together by this pesky bearing. Once down to its simplest form, which is to say, off the car and sitting on the workbench in the shop, my brother and I called it a day.

Next morning, over coffee, my brother declared, “I dreamt about it last night and just started working on it first thing. I got up at 5:30, and got Grandpa’s old 50-ton hydraulic press working. With that and some jigs I welded up, I got the bearing out.”

“In pieces,” he added. I was in awe.

Taller than me and stronger than anything I own, Grandpa’s old hydraulic press was special enough to get the job done.

Pressing that assembly back together with the new parts only took about 10 minutes, thanks to the resurrected hydraulic press. Just line up all the parts in the press, push a button, and all the pieces get squashed together into a single assembly. Good as new! From there, it was just a matter of bolting it back on the car, and done.

There is no doubt in my mind that I would never have gotten this fixed at home. Probably not even with the loaner tools from the parts store. I’ve got a lot of tools, some of which I consider to be pretty special. But a big hydraulic press isn’t one of them. That truly is something special.

I just hope the next chirping noise we hear is just a little bird, calling out to say “hi!” I’m not ready for the car to put out another call for help. Not yet, anyhow.

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