I had a lot riding on the stickshift HHR I’d bought for $3000. It was to take me across Michigan to a Ford F-150 Raptor R media drive, then the other direction all the way to New York for a party and to be handed off to its new owners. The only problem was: The HHR was unbelievably broken — so broken, in fact, that I wasn’t sure that I, a wrencher with over a decade of experience working on the crustiest of machines, could even fix it. So instead of driving the HHR to western Michigan to drive the 700 horsepower Ford pickup, I just drove my Jeep J10. When I got back to my house after the drive, though, I decided to try one last time to see if I could fix the HHR for my New York trip. Luckily, this time, I had a secret weapon: Jamie.
Jamison Anton is a former-Jalopnik super-reader, and is now just my friend Jamie. The guy rules; he texts me when he sees stuff at the junkyard that I might want, he invites me over to hang out with his college friends and his awesome family, and he always lends a wrenching hand when I need one.
I don’t know if him being a dad has anything to do with this, or if it’s just that he’s still in the engineering field, but his mind works a little differently than mine. I’m always moving at 1,000 miles an hour trying to get things done, while he’s got a slightly slower, more methodical method of solving problems, and he’s someone who can devise bizarre solutions out of thin air; there’s a reason he’s my secret wrenching weapon.
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Allow me to remind you of the problem. The Chevy HHR and its platform-mate, the Chevrolet Cobalt, feature front lower control arms (both of which were shot on my HHR) that are each mounted to the body via a big bolt that also goes through the subframe (see below diagram for a visual).
The bolt tends to do one of two things: 1. It seizes in the nut in the body, such that when you try to loosen the bolt, the nut bends the welded cage that’s meant to prevent it from rotating, and the bolt just spins endlessly. 2. The bolt seizes to the sleeve in the control arm bushing, so trying to spin the bolt just either breaks the head off or it rotates the sleeve, preventing the bolt from unthreading (since the sleeve just runs into the subframe). Either case is a disaster.
I described the problem in more detail in my two previous articles, even linking to videos from folks who’ve had to deal with this same issue. Their advice?: Just cut the bolt. Then, once the bolt is cut, you just remove the bushing sleeve and then hammer the crap out of the remaining bolt until it breaks the cage that holds the nut to the body. From there, they advise, just pull the piece of bolt through the top, and Bob’s your uncle. Of course, this is so much easier said than done, especially if your HHR’s bolts are as rusty as mine.
First off, as seen in the video above, cutting through the bushing sleeve was difficult. I even went out and bought the best Sawzall I could, but the access was so limited that I wasn’t able to use the tool to its potential; not only did it take forever to make even a shallow cut, but I sprained my wrist in the process. It still hurts a bit.
To get better access to the bushing sleeves, I actually cut my control arms off with a sawzall, as shown above. That left just a bolt seized inside a sleeve squished between two bits of subframe.
On top on the passenger’s side, there was just a nut, since the cage — normally welded to the flat horizontal surface of the body to keep the nut from rotating — had broken away, presumably after a previous owner tried doing a similar repair job:
I actually found the cage flattened and bouncing around inside the main unibody rail:
I was happy that the cage had been busted free from the body, since this meant that, once the bolt was unseized from the sleeve, it should just pull straight up and out of the top of that subframe mount on the body. Things were a bit different on the driver’s side:
As you can see, the square nut is below a cage that’s welded to the HHR’s body in a location that’s extremely hard to see, let alone reach. The only way to remove that bolt is to break that cage free from the body and then pull it and the bolt out.
Removing The Passenger’s Side Bolt
Step one on the passenger’s side was to just cut the sleeve (and the bolt rusted inside it). This required heavy use of the “death-wheel,” though after about three-quarters the way through, the cutoff wheel started to interfere with the body and subframe:
I had to use the sawzall with the most expensive carbide blade I could find, but eventually I got through the sleeve and bolt with only a messed-up wrist to show for it. From there, my man Jamie stepped up to the plate with a critical bit of wrenching gear necessary for breaking spot welds: an air chisel:
First, Jamie hit the bolt with his pointy chisel, hoping he could unseize the bolt from the sleeve, shooting the bolt out the top while dropping the sleeve from the bottom. Sadly, the sleeve and bolt had truly become one, so Jamie broke out his flat air chisel, and even used my angle grinder to sharpen it a bit:
Here you can see Jamie removing some sleeve material with that sharp air chisel:
After a bit of chiseling, we broke out a drill to help demolish that dastardly sleeve:
Then came the MAPP gas torch to see if thermal expansion and increased malleability might help us free the bolt from the sleeve:
More chiseling made the interface between the bolt and sleeve more apparent, indicating perhaps some amount of motion:
This all happened at night. Temperatures were around 50 degrees, so not horrible, but not ideal.
With some more chiseling and heat, Jamie accomplished his mission. Side one was complete:
Here’s the moment Jamie’s pointy air chisel knocked the bolt out the top, causing the sleeve to drop (you can see the sleeve sitting on the top of the lower subframe ledge). Notice all the rust pouring down around the chisel:
I snuck my hand into the tiny space on the back side of the body’s subframe mounting surface, and grabbed the bolt that had frustrated me so:
But this was the easy side — the one without the cage welded to the body. The driver’s side threatened to be much more difficult.
Removing The Driver’s Side Bolt
On the driver’s side, I’d actually rounded the head of the lower control arm bolt instead of snapping it off. Still, I had to cut the sleeve, so that’s what I did, using the death wheel and sawzall. This resulted in what you see above: a bolt and sleeve seized together, with the former threaded into a nut above a part of the body.
Like on the other side, the first step was to remove the sleeve from the bolt. We started by using a little cutting wheel on a dremel to slice a bit of the sleeve.
From there, all it took was a bit of pounding with the pointy air chisel, and the sleeve dropped right off the bolt, as you can see above. At that point, we were hopeful that a few more whacks with the air chisel would break the bolt free — in other words, break the welded cage free from the body, allowing the bolt to move upward.
Of course, this didn’t work. The welds holding that cage to the body were strong.
My wrist complained as I kept trying that air chisel trigger for probably five minutes, but that cage wouldn’t budge, and the bolt wouldn’t move upward.
We placed a 3/8-inch socket extension on a jack, which we used to push up against the broken bolt hanging down below the body. We lifted the HHR off its jack stands, but the cage still refused to budge.
I grabbed a punch and a hammer, and just started banging on the bottom of that bolt – but no luck. As I did that, Jamie disappeared. After a few minutes, he reemerged, having wandered through my garage thinking of tools he could use to help our plight.
What he grabbed was a pickle fork and two brake pads.
“Brake pads?” I asked. “What are we doing with these?”
“I mean, maybe if you can put the pads between the two parts of the subframe you can use the pickle fork to force them up against the bolt?”
This wasn’t a bad idea. The only problem was that the subframe wasn’t very thick in that spot, so instead of the pickle fork acting as a ramp/wedge that shoves the bolt up, it just wanted to flex the bottom part of the subframe downward. Our solution was to place a floor jack below the subframe to give it a bit more stiffness. Then, with the two pads in the gap in the subframe and the pickle fork wedged below, I started wailing:
After a few strong hits, the pickle fork shoved the pads up with such force, Jamie and I heard a “pop!” Here’s a look at that glorious moment:
The cage hadn’t broken completely free; one or two welds remained. Still, it was out of the way enough for me to extract the bolt. Here it is with the nut still attached; that thing was rusted on there!
Now you may be wondering: “How did you get new bolts fastened up when there’s no longer a nut up there held in place via a cage? It’s a great question, because there’s very, very little room on the back side of that body mounting surface. I tried getting a wrench on the nuts I had bought for my new bolts (which I had to buy from a dealership for ~$9 each), but there was no use. This is where I caught a break; the only 14mm nuts I could find at Home Depot were flange nuts with serrations on it — ones like this:
All these nuts need to resist rotation is axial force acting against those serrations, so I simply wedged a wrench between the lower control arm bolt head and the subframe, and cranked down on that bolt while prying. The nut grabbed the flat surface on the body mount surface that I couldn’t see or access, and in short order, I had the lower control arm bolts tightened to spec.
Driving To New York
The next morning, Saturday morning, I finished up the front suspension. This involved some more bullshit (I had to cut the sway bar links off due to stubbornly rusty nuts), but eventually I got the car sorted, I popped on some new Saab wheels I’d snagged from a junkyard, and then I had the front end aligned. Then I headed east through Canada:
My goal had been to attend my very first Murder Mystery party with my friend Andrew Collins and his lovely wife, Sydney. I drove for 14 hours straight, scoring 30 MPG on average:
The HHR was beautifully comfortable, quiet, and efficient. There’s a bit of a shudder when letting go of the clutch when upshifting; I reckon there’s a transmission mount that needs to be swapped at some point. Plus, there’s a little clunk in the steering column, but it’s nothing major. Overall, it was a fantastic road-trip car. I’ve never been able to drive 14 hours straight (with a few 10 minute naps) in one of my Jeeps, but this HHR coddled me like a baby. I genuinely believe it to be one of the best deals one can get on a used car. It’s practical, efficient, comfortable, and — perhaps most important — safe, featuring modern features like side airbags, stability control, and automatic headlights. It’s honestly a great car, and I fell in love with it driving the beautiful roads in upstate New York.
I did end up missing that murder-mystery party, which was a bummer because because I’m told there were some single women there. But that’s all good, because I spent the next day with Andrew and Sydney, who are a joy to be around. Plus, I dropped the HHR off to its new owners, who seemed happy to no longer have to pay $400 a week on a rental:
That’s Bob and Susan above — two people who have been in my life for over 15 years now, as they’re my good friend Bobby’s parents (you all know Bobby as STAB, the navy pilot). When it comes to helping my close friends avoid the minefield that is the used car market, I tend to get obsessive. It’s an opportunity to use something I’m skilled at for good. Not only did I find Bob and Susan a cheap, relatively low-mileage, relatively rust-free car with an engine known to last until the end of time, but I fixed its maladies (even if it almost killed me), and I got them two sets of decent tires. The ones on the Saab wheels are all-season Firestones with probably another couple of years left on them, and these winter tires are Bridgestone Blizzaks that have never been used (I scored them for a song):
I hope this HHR kicks butt in Albany, and I hope the Mackays can drive this thing for years to come without any concerns about reliability, fuel economy, or safety. That’s all anyone can ask for, right?
David, I don’t know how you’ve wrenched on Michigan cars without an oxy acetylene torch set or a battery-powered impact wrench.
Also, most bushings are hardened enough that sawzall blades won’t touch them. Death wheel or cut with oxygen.
Great times buddy. I’m going to miss our late-night battles against rusty garbage if/when you move to California.
Side note, you can see in the wide shot of the driveway above that I arrived at Dave’s house in my own blue 2000’s-era GM 5-door hatchback. However mine is 3 years older and has at least 3x the miles on it. Strangely, it doesn’t have any issues like the HHR. I wonder why? Oh yeah, it’s actually a Corolla hatchback in Pontiac disguise 😉
Even just a passing mention of STAB makes me laugh. He has one legendarily hilarious story….
What’s the over/under on percentage of DT headlines and 1st paragraphs that include the word “rusty”.
“I did end up missing that murder-mystery party, which was a bummer because because I’m told there were some single women there.”
There’s a “breaking loose a rusted nut” joke in there somewhere, but I’m too classy to make it. Besides, you’re going to California at some point before the heat death of the sun, and the Beach Boys/David Lee Roth may have been right when they sang “I wish they all could be California girrrrrrrrrrrrrls.”
I actually like the HHR. It’s like Chevy said “Let’s make a PT Cruiser…but you know, one that’s not a Chrysler.” I would cheerfully accept an HHR SS if offered. A regular HHR would be a good, non-rusty daily for you in Cali, though I still say convertible is the way to fly.
My late father’s old pickle fork- that he probably bought in the ’60’s- has SAVED MY ASS more times than I can count. Definitely a top-5 must-have tool.
Don’t be a MacGruber. SPELL IT THE RIGHT WAY!
David, you have the patience of Job. I’ve worked on my share of rusty suspension components here in southern NE but without my oxy-propane rig, I think I would have reached for the sledgehammer to put that car out of its misery…. BTW, oxy-propane works very similare to oxy-acetylene for most tasks (not gas welding) but you don’t have the worries of the acetylene tank tipping over and blowing up….
It looks like that bushing was not hardened steel, so an oscillating saw with a metal cutting blade probably would have worked much better than the sawzall – it looks like you should have been able to get it all the way through the bolt based on what one can discern from the photos. Go buy your own compressor and air tools when you get back to Michigan – you will smile every time you use them.
You need to add an oxy/acetylene torch to your tool box, especially if you’re going to work on Michigany cars. With one of those this would have been a 15 min job.
But then, it wouldn’t have been this long of an article……
Good on you David for trying to do the right thing, and helping out your friends, even at the expense of hurting your wrist the process. Yet I truly feel your pain and frustration here. Jesus. This ordeal feels like a journey of a thousand steps taken just to be able to move a foot forward. There has got to be a better way to skin this cat…And some folks wonder why I will never own another GM pos? They engineer their shit like a retarded and blind monkey with ADHD. NFW, ever! BTW, you are blessed to have such a good friend here. One who places your problems above his own common sense in order to help you out…
I said the same thing about Ford when I owned one. Never again.
What you really should invest in is a portable oxy-acetylene torch. I have a cheapo from HF and it has saved me countless hours of labor.
Second that, just had to remove a cat on my G35x to replace the front driveshaft. There wasn’t enough nut/bolt head left to even imagine that a socket could be of any use so the flame wrench came out and fixed that issue in short order. Forget mapp gas, acetylene and oxygen is where the function is at.
>Plus, there’s a little clunk in the steering column, but it’s nothing major.
Intermediate steering shaft? GMs of the time seemed to be notorious for that – the midsize Epsilons at least, but probably other models too. I don’t think there was really a fix for it, just grease it and then do it again down the line when it starts back up.
My GMT800 has had this since it was about 5 years old. 45-180 degrees of steering angle and hitting some bumps, sounds like someone bouncing a tennis ball between a racket and a wall quickly
Guarantee that’s it. They’re notorious for failing on the Cobalt/G5. My Wife’s G5 went through 3 of them.
I am amazed you’ve went this long without an air chisel. I used to wrench on rusty shit quite a bit and that was one of the first things I had out. It was pretty much muscle memory. Nice move with the pickle fork! Amazing what a BFH with a little focused expansion can do.
ALL your fams & friends CANNOT wait for you to source cars in Cali for them. A little 3-in-0ne, a slight taptap, coupla wiper blades……Jason’s yer Uncle!
Maybe the most emotional and physical effort ever expended on “The Poorer Man’s PT Cruiser”
Your reward will be in heaven, if not on earth.
-and having creative friends helps
You are a true mensch. Jamie too.
I’m not sure if this is the case where if it ends well all is good. It’s fun to read about David’s rust struggles but boy I’m starting to feel for him.