I love working on my cars. Because most of my time is spent chasing and writing stories, good old-fashioned working with my hands has always been therapeutic. When my trusty FIAT 500, “Luigi,” started violently shaking under acceleration, It naturally raised concerns. This happened while on a day trip back and forth to Monterey from my home in Orange County California. At first I was concerned it was a misfire, but the car seemed to idle and rev smoothly … I just put a new clutch in the car, so that certainly wasn’t the case.
When I returned from the trip, I plugged my OBD scanner into the car, and it came back clean — not a single code. The last issue, in the back of my mind was the CV (Constant Velocity) joint. Sure enough, after pulling the driver’s side tire, the issue was revealed: the boot over the inner CV joint had broken in half, spilling all the grease onto the control arm. Closer inspection showed a damaged roller bearing in the CV. Having done CV joints before, I thought, “Simple enough job, should take an hour and a half with the part. Should be done by lunch.” So began the shade-tree mechanic not-so-hour-and-a-half experience, that looked almost like an episode of I Love Lucy… In eleven easy steps!
1. Order the part. I looked in all the usual chatrooms, in the interest of not re-inventing the wheel. Then found an aftermarket half-shaft and CV complete assembly on eBay. $72.00, Cool! Wrote to the seller, asking if there was a difference between automatic and manual — as mine is a manual. No response after a couple of hours, so I just ordered it. (We will talk about this later).
2. Amazing, the part arrived right on time before the weekend. I got right to work on it after the holiday revelry (New Years). Spent a few hours on Saturday organizing the shop which needed a good cleaning out) in anticipation of the job.
3. Work day arrives — the Monday holiday for New Years. I put on my grubbies, and headed to the garage, put my Porsche racecar on the street and pull Luigi into the shop. Jack up the car, remove the front wheel, pull the center cap and remount and drop the car to get the hub bolt off… Uh-oh! My largest socket, a 32 mm, which works for other hub bolts, is too small. I went to NAPA and got a 36 mm impact socket. Amazingly, the socket and breaker bar (with a little help from the jack handle) do the trick. This is going to be easy I thought.
4. I went to jack the car back up. Crap, my aluminum floor jack, already showing signs of hydraulic failure gave out. I take the jack on the bench and try to pump the air out of the hydraulics by removing the fill screw and adding some brake fluid. Looking down at the jack as I pumped the air out — SPLAT! A perfectly placed money shot of brake fluid hits me in the left eye. I ran to the downstairs bathroom and flushed my eye (was fine — didn’t burn). I gave up on the jack. Time for a new one anyway…
5. I called my friend and neighbor Mark, who just happens to pull into my driveway as the phone rings … “Dude, I need to borrow your floor jack.” “No problem,” he says, “I need a favor too. Can you help me run my work-truck over to the office?” I offer that I do not have a working vehicle, so I follow him in his other truck (whole event takes about an hour).
6. I got the floor jack and lifted the front of the car off the ground, settling it on jack-stands all the way around. After undoing the front drive, brakes, etc, the old CV half-shaft spits needle bearings and rollers all over the floor as it comes out. I grabbed a pry bar and remove the cap and drive shaft — and the tranny empties itself of all its oil all over the floor. Laughing at my oversight, I used a half-roll of paper towels, soaking up the mess. I will need to go get some 80W-95 trans oil on my next trip to the parts store.
7. Time to put in the new CV assembly. Lining up the drive shaft to the differential and a slight push. Oh Man, this is the wrong part! I wrote to the eBay seller, who later kindly offered a refund. By then I had a car in pieces in the garage (which is home for the racecar) and no part. I call the parts department at my local dealer Orange Coast FIAT/Alfa Romeo (where I also bought the car) and they quote me an assembly for over $400, Crikey! So naturally I ask for the part number (do you think I should have asked for this before step one?). I Google the part number and find a dealer, The Autobarn, in the town of my birth, Evanston, Illinois, who offers the part for $179-plus shipping and a $50 core charge: out the door $250. I place the order and find a parking spot off the street for my racecar and cover the open windows with a tarp and bungee cords.
8. The next morning I got an email about my part order: “We will process (despite already cashing my payment) your order in the next 24-48 hours.” I called the dealer and asked if they could expedite the order today and overnight me the part — I am willing to pay extra. “No sir, we do not do expedited shipping. Only ground, and your part will ship tomorrow. You should get it by next Tuesday.” CANCEL! Back to my local dealer and a call to the General Manager. I explained my ability to get a certain price on the part and offer the core and the grand total of the Autobarn order. “That is under our cost!” replies the GM. We negotiate and in the end, she agrees to sell me the part for $322 out the door, with my core.
9. My wife arrived home from work and I drove over to Orange Coast FIAT with the core. It is now after the parts department has closed and I met up with the general manager. They look at the the core (the broken part) and decide that I have not brought them the whole piece — though I have — and nearly refuse to sell me the CV! I spend the next five minutes explaining the parts of the CV and how it works and that I need to keep my drive gear and cylinder to make the car go. We finally come to an understanding and $322 later, I am back on the road with my new part. Just before leaving, the deal done, I asked the GM why the part was so damned expensive? She gave me a one word answer: “MOPAR.”
10. Wednesday morning: I bench assembled the drive gear to the CV and install. It goes smoothly — as I had predicted at the beginning of this fiasco. I get everything wrenched back together. Now it is time to fill the gear oil in the transmission case. The fill/level hole is on the side of the transmission case and is easily reachable. It is a Torx nut. I reached in my tool box and pulled out my largest T-55 Torx socket. Oh. My. Lord! Too small. So now I was alone at home, my kids are at school, my wife is at work … Time to pull down my bicycle and ride three blocks back to NAPA, where I got a T-60 socket.
11. Thankfully, the torx socket fit. The rest of the process is finished … I was tired and took the car for a test drive — amazingly it all worked. I got the racecar back in the garage (right before a torrential downpour), all with an hour to spare to pick up the kids at school by way of a shower.
Does this sound like your typical shade-tree adventure? In what should have taken me an hour and a half, ended up being a three-day adventure in mechanics, logistics, busted knuckles, business, negotiation and sweat (some exercise on the bicycle). I love working on my cars. It’s therapeutic!