How This Piece-Of-Crap 2009 Chevy HHR Is Threatening To Ruin My Weekend, Also Possibly My Life

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Last night I reached a local minimum, as they say in calculus. It’s not my absolute wrenching low point, since I’ve been through worse and I suspect I’ll go through worse in the future, but last night was bad. Anytime you’re wielding a sawzall at midnight, lying on your back on an oil-soaked driveway, swearing to the heavens to just let the damn blade cut through the damn broken bolt, you know things are bad. Adding to the pathetic nature of my current situation is the fact that this HHR, which I recently acquired, is my ride to a Ford press event tomorrow, and then to New York the following day. That’s over 1,000 miles in the cards, and I have to get it ready, like, right now. I am screwed.

It Seemed Like A Nice Car That Would Help Two People Out. So I Bought It

A number of months ago, a friend of a friend who’d recently flown to the U.S. from France to work for Stellantis needed a car. He’d been renting during a hot renting market, spending loads of cash each week for some sad econobox, and I just couldn’t bear it. I set out to find him a reliable, cheap, and economical car. To do so, I followed my own advice of buying an “Ugly Stick,” and the ugly stick I chose was the Chevrolet HHR. I figured it’s got a stout 2.2-liter Ecotec engine in it, a good Getrag five-speed manual transmission, and cheap, easy-to-replace bones. (That last part, I’d later find to be only partly true).

Anyway, the French engineer drove the HHR for a few months, and then unexpectedly had to leave Michigan. He put his car up for sale, but struggled to get a buyer despite the fact that the car is almost entirely rust-free, and has only 127,000 miles on the clock. After a number of months, he texted me saying he was having issues parting ways with his HHR, and — as I felt guilty being partly responsible and didn’t want him taking a bath on the car I’d recommended he buy — I bought the vehicle for $3,000, or $200 less than he’d spent.

I’d test-driven the car eight months prior, so I didn’t bother driving it before forking over the cash. I planned to thoroughly inspect the vehicle, then drive it to my good friend Bobby‘s mom’s house in upstate New York. She’d been looking for a good, reliable car, so I figured I could help two folks out at once by being an intermediary. The problem was, the HHR began crumbling, just as many cars tend to at around 100,000 miles.

I’d been through this before when I bought a 2009 Nissan Versa for my brother’s girlfriend. It seemed nice, with only 98,000 miles on the odo, but nothing had been maintained. And this is why I consider cars with between 80,000 and 130,000 miles to be “high risk” purchases, only in that they tend to command a premium over “high mileage” cars, but they don’t necessarily present an advantage from a reliability standpoint. I think it’s safe to say that people tend to defer maintenance as long as they can; that’s the layperson’s strategy, at least. And the reality is that original parts like water pumps, tie rod ends, wheel bearings, ball joints, struts, and spark plugs can hang in there for 100,000 miles. But usually not much longer. In the case of the Versa, I had to replace all of these parts, and this HHR is going down that same path.

I’d rather have just bought a 150,000 mile HHR. At least then I’d have paid less, and I bet the big things like the motor and transmission would have been just fine, as those tend to last well into the 200,000 mile range. Of course, the body likely would have been rustier given that I live in Michigan, so my $3,000 purchase wasn’t a bad one from that perspective, though it is ruining my life.

Let Me Tell You The Idiotic Situation I’m In Right Now

 

 

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This HHR needs to be not just in running condition by the end of the day, it has to be in “capable of driving 1,000 miles”-condition by the end of the day. Why? Because I have the pleasure of driving the new Ford F-150 Raptor R on the west side of Michigan tomorrow. From there I’m driving to New York to hang out with my friend Andrew Collins. Then I chill with The Autopian’s publisher Matt Hardigree before we head into New York City to fly to SEMA in Vegas.

Clearly, getting the HHR driving is important. A Ford event, a Halloween party with Andrew, an opportunity to hang with Matt’s awesome family, and SEMA all rest in the (control) arms of this HHR. I already changed the oil, ground the rust off the bottoms of the doors and repainted them, swapped serpentine belt, and  threw in spark plugs as well as an air filter and cabin air filter. It’s noon, and I still have to do all this:

  1. Replace both wheel front bearings
  2. Replace both front control arms
  3. Replace both inner and outer tie rods
  4. Replace both sets of brake pads
  5. Mount winter wheels to steelies (with new tire pressure sensors)
  6. Mount all-season tires to sick Saab alloys I got at the junkyard (with new tire pressure sensors)
  7. Get an alignment
  8. Have car professionally undercoated (I could do that early tomorrow)

That’s a lot of work, but definitely nothing I couldn’t knock out in a few hours plus whatever time it takes my local shop to mount and balance my tires. The problem is, I live in Michigan, so these simple jobs aren’t actually simple. They’re ruinous.

Chevrolet’s Poorly-Designed Lower Control Arm Fastening Strategy Means I’m So Deeply Screwed

Things are bad, and it’s because of poor forethought on GM’s part. I’ve managed to get all the tie rods and even the wheel bearings off the car, but the one thing that’s holding me up are the dastardly control arms, whose rear bolts thread into a captured nut on the car’s body. Usually what happens is people put a huge breaker bar on the bolt, and when they go to spin it, they break the cage holding the nut free from the body, and the bolt and nut both spin together. Removing the bolt then requires use of a sawzall to cut between the control arm and the control arm brackets on the subframe. In my case, I didn’t break the weld nuts, because the bolt was seized into the metal sleeve in the control arm bushing. Here’s a look at the situation:

Screen Shot 2022 10 25 At 1.02.29 Pm

Basically, the bolt goes up from the bottom, through the subframe, through the sleeve in the center of the control arm’s rubber bushing, through the subframe again, then through the HHR’s body, where there’s a nut that’s held to the body via a welded cage. Usually folks put a breaker bar on the bolt head shown at the bottom, spinning the bolt (in blue), breaking the cage off the body, spinning the nut to no end.

Here’s a closer look at that bushing and its metal sleeve:

Screen Shot 2022 10 25 At 1.06.39 Pm

Here’s the cage that is supposed to keep the nut from spinning. I found this poking out from a hole in the unibody, so clearly someone had tried to remove this bolt before, and broke the cage’s welds:

Screen Shot 2022 10 25 At 1.06.56 Pm

That leaves just the square nut atop that section of the body:

Screen Shot 2022 10 25 At 1.07.07 Pm

In my case, the bolt (in blue in the diagram) seized to the bushing’s metal sleeve (in red), which itself is being squeezed between the two bits of subframe by the clamp load. The result is that the square nut above didn’t spin since the bolt and the clamped sleeve are one thanks to rust. Nope, what happened is, I sheared the bolt head right off:

Screen Shot 2022 10 25 At 12.43.24 Pm

Screen Shot 2022 10 25 At 12.33.33 Pm

This happened despite copious amounts of PB Blaster poured all over the weld nut, and despite tons of heat from a MAPP gas torch. I anticipate a similar result on the driver’s side.

So what do I do about it? Well, I’m going to have to sawzall the crap out of the bolt. Here I am trying to do that last night, but to no avail:

I’m heading to Home Depot now to buy the best Sawzall on the market. Then I’m going to get the best cutting blade on the market, at which point I will try to cut that stupid sleeve and bolt. It will take forever.

Once I’ve done that, I’m going to have to hammer the welded cage (if it’s still there on the driver’s side) with a punch, hopefully breaking the welds so I can slap a regular nut on the back side of the new bolt that I buy from a Chevrolet dealer. This is all going to take a lot of time, and oh [looks at clock] it’s already 12:15. I’m running very late. I leave tomorrow around 11 A.M. for the west side of Michigan to drive that Raptor R.

Anyway, I’m off to get this sawzall, hopefully cut some things, buy a bolt and nut, and maybe cobble all this stuff together while a tire shop installs tires onto wheels. While I’m gone, I’ll leave you with some videos from other poor bastards who have had to deal with this horrible GM design:

This guy says “do not despair,” but I disagree. Despair:

And here’s another poor bastard:

 

Oh, and it’s going to rain tonight and tomorrow morning. Something tells me I’m not taking this HHR anywhere tomorrow.

Why, GM? Why?!

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98 Responses

    1. Ahhh… the Deniliquin Ute Muster happened back on September 30th and Oct 1st 2022…

      Clearly all this wrenching torment that Dave’s describing happened some many months ago and he’s now actually back in the USA struggling through snow and sleet once more. (It’s 32C here in Perth today btw… t-shirt weather at last!)

      It does mean though he could simply *get on with it* and finish up writing about whether he did or didn’t ever get that Valiant Ute up and running and past the roadworthy inspection, plus how the Ute muster went.

  1. David, why do you not already have a compressor and air tools! I would recommend any of the Rolair products, well built and largely made in the U.S.A. The amount of air most air-tools need is not actually that much, my 2.0 HP Rolair never has any issues with the mechanic’s tools (and almost works well with a car wash foamer).

    You may also want to try an oscillating tool – I have had surprising luck using mine to cut even relatively thick steel. Just make sure you get a decent carbide blade (or 10). I have been using Bosch blades, but mostly out of convenience. Customer Jason D has been using these blades to cut his Toyota Tacoma suspension bolts: https://www.ezarctools.com/products/carbide-oscillating-multi-tool-blades?gclid=Cj0KCQjwteOaBhDuARIsADBqRejyaG3fsuC44gLlNY_5ZqZJrFQm_k20vcLBVC9QvugzEDC-4X-24UEaAvAJEALw_wcB

    While the good-name (Lenox, Milwaukee, etc.) sawzall blades will cut metal well if you pick the right blade – I have worked in this industry and the players do take pride in being able to cut everything – although from my experiences the sawzall is really tough to get a good cut started in bare metal because it wants to bounce around – the oscillating saw is much better in this respect and also has a much thinner kerf, so it doesn’t need to work as hard and therefore makes less heat.

  2. Perhaps this is a sacrilegious take on this forum… but I’ll say it any way: Outsourcing a PITA job like this is a legitimate (and preferred IMHO) option. I am stubborn and I don’t like to ask for help and I do want to fix my stuff all by myself… but I also no longer have the time or patience to spend a weekend on my back in my driveway fighting a losing battle trying to repair my vehicles.

    More than once I’ve gotten into what I thought would be a straightforward job only to find rust or bad design getting in the way. In those cases, it was freeing to simply put the car back together and drive it over to my local shop. I gave them money, and THEY fought the battle for me while I did something else. I figure that the money I save doing the easy maintenance and light repair more than makes up for the money I spend letting my mechanic eat rust and bust knuckles.

    And while I fully support DT buying the most powerful sawzall and sharpest blades, there used to be a guy on the radio around here who was famous for saying “The sharpest tool in your toolbox is your checkbook” and the older I get, the more I agree with him! (For my fellow Michiganders – that was from “America’s Handyman,” the late Glenn Haege).

  3. I’m commenting just in hopes David reads this: PB Blaster, although better than nothing, sucks. It has a nice “old school” marketing/branding that I appreciate, but the end of the day it’s just not a very good penetrant. When I have to work Project BadAstro, I’m pretty much always defaulting to the blue or yellow wrench, and a candle. Heat + melt wax into the threads = infinitely better than anything in a spray can. The combination of heat, breaking up the rust particles, then wax melting into the threads via capillary action = WIN.

    Heat + Wax. Try it more often man.

  4. Oof. There are plenty of cars in California that sell for cheap because they can’t pass smog. Just get one of those rust free beaters.

    A few weeks ago I saw a k-swapped 98 civic listed for $4k or if JDM isn’t your thing there are plenty of domestic shit boxes that could be bought for $3k.

    1. im in cali and it’s fantastic. alot of times the fix is pretty simple if you know exactly what you’re doing. I know the volvo P80 platform like the back of my hand…. people get rid of those things super cheap because it doesnt make sense to pay a mechanic to diagnose it and fix it. my last one i picked up ran rough because the Vacuum lines were old and leaking… $800 for a car with 122k miles, and $20 later it ran like new.

  5. David I believe you have a problem with prioritization. When I look at the list of things you “need” to do, knowing the vehicle was being driven beforehand none of the things you listed I bet actually need to be done. Do the brakes, maybe tires and alignment for the road trip. Everything else should have waited.

    1. ^^^ what they said. Tires if they are needed, sure. Brakes? Can they wait until I get back? No fucking way I’m touching ball joints and tie-rods with a hard deadline in front of me. That’s a “multiple trips to the parts store and to pick up loaner tools” sort of project.

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