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
View this post on Instagram
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:
- Replace both wheel front bearings
- Replace both front control arms
- Replace both inner and outer tie rods
- Replace both sets of brake pads
- Mount winter wheels to steelies (with new tire pressure sensors)
- Mount all-season tires to sick Saab alloys I got at the junkyard (with new tire pressure sensors)
- Get an alignment
- 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:
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:
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:
That leaves just the square nut atop that section of the body:
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:
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?!
hit it with an air chisel first then try to undo them. Whenever I get into a bolt like this that’s what i do and it shakes off all the rust. this has yet to fail me, and it’s also a lot faster.
David, you need a boring car. A boring, reliable, car. Just buy a Toyota or a Honda in reasonable condition that was made in the last 15 years and sold in the US. A car should not negatively affect your life or career. Work on your project, cuss at it, give up on it for the day, get a good nights sleep, and get in your boring car the next day and live your life. A boring car makes having bat shit crazy projects fun, not life ruining (source: I daily a 2011 4cyl Camry with 160,000 miles 40 miles a day round trip and it is boring as hell, but I am never late for work).
Iirc he had a super reliable land cruiser or Lexus equivalent.
It was too reliable for him.
GM played by the rules:
Is it cheap to produce?
Is it desirable for the target market?
Will it last until the end of warranty?
Will it still have trade in value at 5 years?
Will it avoid rust perforation for 3 years in Detroit?
All the targets are met and the “Best Before Date” expired long before it comes into David’s hands.
As for the Plan B, there is no Plan B, he sold it.
This is why my seized bolt policy is “angle grinder or GTFO”
Similar design to the PT Cruiser, except to get to the caged nut you have to drill a 2 inch hole in the footwell from the interior. Luckily the fine folks at Chrysler put a target where to put the hole, but not enough room for the drill.
The second I saw the headline and the car I knew what was killing your soul.
I ended up cutting out enough access to those stupid nuts to gets a MIG welder in there and tack welded the living hell out of those nuts.
Since my HHR is a Lemons car I’ve dropped the cradle 5+ times since and those nuts have stayed in place.
You may want to give the welder a shot since it’ll hold the nut AND heat up the crud etc.
Good luck sir!
(sighs and shakes head)
I said it once, I’ll say it again: Every time I used PB Blaster, I ended up using Liquid Wrench because the PB Blaster didn’t work.
OK, admittedly you are (were?) in the soup now, but why did these control arms have to come off right now this instant? Were they that bad?
And I know you’re cheap, but wouldn’t it be safer to drive a rental on a full night’s sleep?
TheAutopian needs to expense David an Oxy-Acetylene setup along with appropriate safety gear and a wheel of death and stack of non Harbor Freight metal cutting wheels
Life is easier when you are committed to just cutting it apart
Shoulda bought that Edsel instead….
Could it not wait until after this trip? maybe not 100% but safe nevertheless? It seems unnecessary stressful to have to wrench on such tight deadline without a proper plan b.
Replacing control arms on a fiat 500 took the better half of a weekend because of the front off and subframe off construction, just for a tiny play in the lower ball joint. thanks bilprovningen.
But David, your misery makes for good content even if I get second hand anxiety from some of your posts 🙂
Time to learn the joys of a die grinder. 20,000 RPM with burrs of death will shred any automotive metal in its path. Plus it is small enough to fit in the area you’ve shown.
I have to wonder… WHY? I have heard you, David, in the podcasts – you are obviously a very intelligent and capable young engineer. So why do you struggle with a fleet of barely running cars, when you could have one really reliable vehicle? Sure, my VW Alltrack is not the most exciting car, but it is fun to drive, capable, and always gets me where I need to go.
Any time you ask “Why, GM, why?” the answer is always “Fuck you, that’s why.”
Dave Chappelle’s Pop-Copy! “Why? ”Cause fuck ’em, that’s why”
The problem is you bought an HHR. The end.
Likely much too late, but I just recently went through a similar issue with the toe links on a Dodge Journey rear suspension. Bolts were seized inside the bushings similar to what you are seeing so the only way to get it apart was to cut the bolt just outboard of each side of the bushing. I tried a number of different blades and Milwaukee The Torch blades are the ones to use. Very reasonably priced and cut through both sides of one bolt with one blade in about 15 minutes. Still has teeth left. The other side took 5 blades and about 2.5 hours
First of all, propane and Mapp gas are worthless at getting nature’s locktite to let go……you need an Oxy/Acetylene torch. You get it cherry red and she’ll let go…..sometimes it makes a horrible screeching noise, but it will let go!
Second, I’ve found a cut off wheel in a 4 1/2″ angle grinder to be far more effective – not to mention way faster – than trying to cut something as hard as a suspension bolt with a Sawzall. WAY faster……
The other “fun” one is when the inner metal sleeve inside a rubber bushing is welded to the bolt, you can spin it all day and it’s not coming out. In that case you take a cutoff wheel to the bolt on both sides of the bushing, then the arm comes off and you can get the bushing out……for those who don’t know. There is no other way……
After looking at this design it might just be easier to cut the control arm off close to the end with the Angle grinder. Then you can cut the frozen on end off in pieces. Punch and a sledge will get the remains of the bolt out of the frame.
The problem I found when I did a similar job was that the 4.5″ angle grinder disc would not reach the bolt due to the sheetmetal around the mounting. Sawzall was the only option that actually reached.
So, y’all can blame me just a little because I told David to buy this wonderful thing. 🙂
During darker, less fun times I bought Sheryl a 2009 HHR for $1,000. It had 200,000 miles and some body damage, but ran like a fine sewing machine. On the way home, I realized that whenever she hit the gas, the front wheels moved maybe an inch or two before the car started moving. An inspection later and the culprit was bad control arm bushings.
In that underbody shot, you’ll notice that the lower control arm of David’s HHR is aluminum. Sheryl’s HHR’s lower control arms were also aluminum. What we discovered was that the control arms themselves were great. Sheryl’s had no noticeable corrosion and with a little cleaning, looked new. But the bushings were trashed, and caused a lot of movement when driving.
We decided to change them out because of a mechanic’s warning that they could fail down the road. That, and we couldn’t get an alignment with the bushings so garbage. Plus, we needed to replace the front bearings, too. We looked up the process and thought, “oh, that’s going to be easy!”
It was not.
Thankfully, we went to my diesel truck mechanic friend’s house for the job, where we had access to all sorts of chunky tools, shop air, the works. And holy crap, like with David, things went immediately downhill. First, we had a nightmare getting the bearings out. The hubs were frozen to the knuckles, and required an air chisel and about an hour per side to hammer out.
After winning that battle, we turned to the control arms, starting with the rear bolts. At first, we deployed a breaker bar, and nothing happened. Then we came out with a battery powered impact, and nothing happened. When we brought out fire with the battery powered impact, and nothing happened. Finally, we decided to get a BIG air impact, one normally used for chunky truck bolts. At first, the air impact did a whole lot of nothing…then all of a sudden, things got real loose.
David got lucky. When we failed, the air impact absolutely destroyed the cage and the captive nut, resulting in a big spinning mass of rusted crap. But because of that subframe and the bolt, which survived the ordeal, the control arm was still attached.
Honestly, the problem was never fixed, and we ended up selling the HHR. Sheryl wants to get an HHR SS, but I shudder thinking about these control arms.
The best solution is to remove the cage and weld the crap out of that “captive-ish” nut. Had to do that with my 2006 and it has survived multiple cradle drops since.
Was a PITA to fix but glad I did it then.
Perhaps this doesn’t apply in this instance, but I’ve had better luck with a quality hacksaw blade and frame, than with a Sawzall. The hacksaw blade is much thinner.
Sunk ???????? Cost ???????? Fallacy ????????
Learn it kids, and never let it run your life.
Now this is great automotive literature! It’s like reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea and rooting for Santiago versus the marlin. Who will prevail? DT or the HHR? DT’s life is like a minor league Greek tragedy when a great man falls victim to fatal flaw — a powerful addiction to the rusted squalor of automotive cast offs. DT has the automotive genius of Peter Egan, the everyman affability of Charles Kuralt, the heart of Mother Teresa, and the impulse control of Charlie Sheen!
I regret I have but only one like to give for this comment.
I’m back to worrying for you David.
Some of your masochistic plans end up generating surprisingly good side content.The australia trip for example!Or one of the previous EU trips.
This? This is just bad all round.
You have a backup car right? You have at least *one* reliable car right??
For my job, I do a lot of root cause analysis. Often times it is pretty straight forward, but sometimes even straight forward root causes can become infinitely regressive, leading you down a rabbit hole right past the actual cause and digging deeper and deeper until you are lying in a pool of oil in a Michigan driveway at 1am.
For example, David asserts his predicament is “because of poor forethought on GM’s part.” Seems like a reasonable root cause….except for one issue. To get to that root cause, you have to blow right past “I keep buying cheap econobox vehicles that have enough miles for at least 6 trips round the earth yet expect them to function like vehicles that aren’t cheap econoboxes with enough miles for at least 6 trips round the earth.” <–There you have it. Your real root cause. Love ya David.
You’re right. Plus, I will say: GM did a great job with this car.
Well now you are just delirious and sleep deprived.
How DARE you!
Perhaps, Root cause analysis should lead to one more step: Why can’t GM add a bit of anti-seize during the original install? Expiring minds need to know.
$$$. They don’t care what happens 80,000 miles down the road. Every used car I work on gets either Loctite copper based never-seize or Loctite threadlocker on all hardware. (Threadlocker helps because while it does retain the bolts, it also seals out water which starts the rust process.) For brake bleeder screws I use Loctite 567 on the threads and then cap the end with some silicone vacuum like caps. This keeps the water from getting into the seat area and starting rust there.
I’ve been working on cars as a dedicated amateur for almost 50 years now in NE Ohio, so I am all too familiar with rust. I had a talk with a professional mechanic/technician and he advised me that the nickel-based anti-seize compound I have used for decades (Permatex #81343) is obsolete and will wash away. He recommended Permatex lube #24110 for brake work. Bottom line: No thread lube will last a decade under adverse conditions like salty winters in the Great Lakes region. To coin a phrase, “Rust never sleeps”.
“Bottom line: No thread lube will last a decade under adverse conditions like salty winters in the Great Lakes region. To coin a phrase, “Rust never sleeps”.”
Does it have to? Pretty sure you’ll need new brake pads or fluid within the decade before the anti seize gives up the ghost. Just put a new dab on then too.
Maybe just drill the whole fucking thing out? I know my Norseman bits could do it, but most bits aren’t quite the same.
I would try and pound a ball joint pickle fork between the arm and subframe, hopefully breaking the bolt loose, I had to saw through a ball joint a month or so ago- with a manual hacksaw, now my right arm is twice the size of the left, kidding it just hurt twice as much for a week
With a MANUAL hacksaw? You poor, poor bastard.
“Things are bad, and it’s because of poor forethought on GM’s part…” are we still talking about fixing the HHR, the cheap used car market, or any number of other things?