Niagara Gazette

March 20, 2014

TOM'S CORNER: Winter gives way to spring in the car world

By Tom Torbjornsen
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — This past winter was a particularly brutal one. Cars suffered all kinds of damage this year because of brutal winter weather conditions. The best place to begin looking at your car to get ready for spring is with the undercarriage:

Undercarriage damage

Have the vehicle closely inspected for undercarriage damage. Just to make it clear what we’re talking about here; any part of the car that is exposed to the roadway is considered undercarriage. Have the fuel, brake & emission system lines checked for damage. If during winter you ended up with a lit check engine light, you may have tore an emission system line from the underside of the car when you went over a frozen snowdrift. If a brake light is lit on the dash you may have torn a brake fluid line loose resulting in a hydraulic imbalance of the system. Emergency brake cables can freeze, causing the brakes to stay in the applied position wearing the brakes out, so have the e-brake brake cables checked for ease of movement and application. Repair/replace any questionable components. Electrical wiring closely affixed to the underside of the vehicle can be easily torn from their seats resulting in inaccurate fuel level readings, malfunctioning air ride systems, brake/turn signal/or running lights not lit and a host of other electrical gremlins poking their head up to the light of day. Diagnose and repair.


Steering system damage

On cars that have rack & pinion steering, tie rod ends are covered with a protective boot called a “Bellow.” These bellows look like an accordion to allow for left and right extension of the tie rods when turning corners. They protect the ball & socket joints that make up the tie rod systems. When the bellows tear, lubricant is lost, and the environmental elements are allowed in, which causes degradation of the joint/s. Over time, the ball & socket joints can separate resulting in loss of steering control. Replace any torn steering bellows. In vehicles with conventional steering systems, there are a lot more ball & socket joints to check along with protective rubber boots. Unfortunately, with torn boots on these types of systems, the whole tie rod end should be replaced. Additionally on conventional steering systems check idler and pitman arms for wear & replace any components that exhibit movement because this will wear tires and cause poor vehicle control.

Suspension system damage

During winter, suspension systems suffer great stress. Springs, control arms, shocks/struts, & mounts go can bad causing all kinds of cornering and handling problems. You might not even be aware of the damage done until now because of roadways being clear and you being able to drive your car at normal highway speeds. If you’re experiencing cornering-handling problems, get the car into the shop and have the suspension checked for damage. Repair anything that needs repairing.


Wheel alignment

If any of the components in the steering or suspension system/s are damaged or worn, it can result in misalignment of the tires. This will not become apparent until some time down the road when the tires display excessive tire wear. So if the car is handling poorly and a steering/suspension inspection turns up no apparent damage or excessive wear, have the wheel alignment checked, it may be out and need adjustment.


Drivetrain damage

The drivetrain includes the transmission, CV/Universal Joints, Driveshaft/s, wheel hub assemblies… virtually anything that is responsible for driving the vehicle’s wheels. After winter passes through, problems with the drivetrain usually become evident because we now can drive at normal highway speeds. Noises that could not be heard before now sound off front & center! Drivetrain vibrations become apparent on acceleration and deceleration. Clicking when turning corners is now heard from worn CV Joints. A good idea is to give the system the “once-over” the next time you go in for an oil change. Check for low or discolored fluids; check the CV/Universal joints for tightness, on front wheel drive vehicles check the CV Joint boots for tears. If torn, replace right away or your CV Joints will suffer the result of lost lubricant and exposure to the weather and roadway elements.


Tire/wheel damage

Tire and wheel damage is a big one. Tires suffer impact breaks in sidewalls from slamming into curbs. Wheels also can get bent from this type of carnage. If you’re experiencing steering wheel shimmy at all speeds, have the wheels checked for being bent. If a small bubble is starting to protrude out from the sidewall, have it checked. It may be an impact break starting to push out much like a hernia, rendering the tire dangerous & useless in need of replacement.


Pothole carnage

Based on the severity of this year’s winter, we can safely assume that potholes will pock the landscape throughout the countryside like “No Man’s Land” in WWI. I have already driven through some pretty nasty areas where these beauties reside. All I can say here is to slow down and take is easy when traversing one of these damaging roadway anomalies. What can you expect if you slam through a pothole? Well, depending on the severity of the offending-hole, the speed at which you are going, and the mechanical condition of your vehicle any one of these problems:

Tire/wheel damage — If the edge of the pothole is sharp, the tire can suffer an impact break in the sidewall to total failure and thus, blowout. The wheel can get bent. If a steel wheel, you MAY be able to straighten it at a repair shop. If an aluminum or alloy wheel, usually replacement, which can be very expensive.

Steering/suspension damage — Steering and suspension systems are put together with either ball & socket or pivot joints. In the case of severe shock from going through a pothole that’s deep and has sharp edges at a high rate of speed, usually at least the wheel alignment is negatively affected (knocked out) and needs realignment. If your steering /suspension system has in it an excessively worn ball & socket or pivot joint; the sharp jolt of going through the pothole can cause joint separation resulting in loss of vehicle control, if the component is simply worn, this accelerates wheel misalignment and thus, tire wear. If shocks or struts are worn, they can break causing clanging noises and/or loss of vehicle control.

Well that’s it for this year’s spring car care checklist!

‘Til next time ... Keep Rollin’

"America's Car Show" with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.