My $1 Oldsmobile’s Suspension Rotted Off While I Was Driving And Even An Inspection Wouldn’t Have Prevented It

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“Whew, finally this thing is fixed!” I cheerfully chirped to my friend sitting shotgun in the $1 Oldsmobile that has for years been breaking faster than I can fix it. “Let’s drop this off before some bullshit happens and I have to replace the sus—” CLUNK! I heard a noise under the car. “What was that?!” my friend blurted. SCREECH! We heard some nasty rubbing from the back end, timed exactly when I touched the brake pedal. “I’m sure that’s just a bad rear brake,” I assured him, since my ABS light was on. We limped the vehicle home and discovered that the problem was much, much worse.

I realize that the idea of a car that I bought for $1 being a pile of shit isn’t exactly surprising for many of you. But you have to understand that this Oldsmobile was my friend’s daily driver just a few years ago before its ignition system went bad. I replaced that and drove the Michigan vehicle 1,400 miles to and from Virginia. It performed admirably, offering a smooth ride and 30 MPG. It seemed like a great car.

But after that trip, things started to get really strange. The car stopped running due to a bad fuse block. My landlord, whom I had given the car after he totaled his Kia Rio, asked me to fix it for him. Unable to decline The Greatest Landlord in History – a couple that has put up with all sorts of my crap for far too long — I agreed. When that job was done, on my test drive prior to delivering the car, the radiator failed. Then the transmission cooler started leaking. Then I handed the car back to my landlord, and in short order, he came over to my house to tell me he had lost braking power while driving. The cause: a rotted-out brake line. I replaced all the lines, but of course, snapped those going to the rear calipers, requiring me to get new calipers and bleed the whole system.

Then the coolant outlet port failed, leaking fluid all over the place. I fixed that last month, took the car on a test drive, and headed to my landlord’s place to deliver their vehicle. The car stalled at a stop sign.

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After a bit of diagnostic work, I discovered an intake manifold leak, so yesterday a friend and I took off the plastic intake, replaced the gasket, and bolted everything back up. I later found a bad hose causing another vacuum leak, leading the engine to idle erratically; I replaced the hose, and the car worked well. The brakes were nice, the steering felt smooth, the 2.4-liter Twin-Cam derivative of the legendary Quad-4 engine hummed beautifully, and my landlords were moments from taking delivery of a fully operational vehicle.

Keen to avoid a dirt road, since at the time I wasn’t 100 percent sure I had fixed all intake manifold leaks and preferred to keep the motor from ingesting dust, I executed a U-turn near my house. Lazy man that I am, and since I wanted to put the car through its paces before delivering it, I didn’t do a three-point turn, but instead drove off the road into a shallow depression, then emerged back onto the road. That’s when my friend and I heard the loud bang. And from there, when I tapped the brakes, we heard a rubbing noise, which I thought was just the brake locking up since I hadn’t bled the ABS module after replacing the rear calipers (the brakes worked fine, however).

I limped the car home, walked to the two rear tires, and tried pushing them around, looking for any sort of play, perhaps from a bad bearing or worn bushing. What I found shocked even me, a man intimately familiar with deathtraps:

The rear trailing arm had snapped, and the rubbing noise was the tire moving forward and backwards relative to the car, abrading the inner fender liner. This is an extremely dangerous failure, as the trailing arm’s job is to locate the tire in the fore-aft direction; during braking, or when hitting a bump, the trailing arm goes into tension and compression, holding the wheel in place. Without it, the lateral links would tend to bend, and the wheel could end up breaking away from the vehicle. This, obviously, could be catastrophic.

What exactly happened? And how did I not catch it? Well, let’s have a look at the trailing arm on N-body GM cars like the Oldsmobile Alero:

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You can see that they’re stamped into a U-shaped bar, with a bushing/through-bolt connection on one end (this connects to the chassis) and a threaded axial rod connection on the other. The threaded rod squeezes two bushings on each side of the rear wheel carrier (you could call it a rear knuckle, though knuckle often refers to the front steering knuckle), locating the wheel carrier in the fore-aft direction. Here’s how it should look:

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Here’s what it now looks like under my landlord’s car on the driver’s side:

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What happened in the case of the dastardly $1 Olds is not that the bolt snapped (that was my first thought); actually, the threaded end of the trailing arm itself snapped, and not anywhere that an inspector could have seen — the failed portion was hidden by the bushings.

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You can see that water and dirt somehow made its way between the two bushings, inside the hole in the rear wheel carrier/knuckle. Over time, rust just ate away at the steel until it was basically coarse, brown sand. This is just incredible (notice the end of the bolt; it’s in great shape!):

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This, to me, is the scariest of vehicle failures — something that you cannot see. This horribly-rusted section of that trailing arm was wedged between some rubber bushings inside an aluminum rear knuckle, and there was really no easy way to detect it. Some of you may say “Well, the control arms themselves were coated in rust. You should have just replaced those,” but that’s just not how things work in the rust belt. If you replaced every control arm with rust on it, you wouldn’t be able to afford to drive; also, it’s wasteful.

The best thing one can do is become aware of the potential failure modes on their car. Do some research; see what types of issues people are having. Ask around on message boards, and I bet someone will tell you: “You might want to check between those bushings in your trailing arm. Those tend to rust there.” Knowledge is power. And safety.

I’m not entirely sure what to do about this Alero. It’s actually in decent shape overall, but this failure here means I’m going to slide underneath and take a very close look, not just at parts that appear rusty, but parts that could be hiding rust. From there, I’ll give my landlord a recommendation on if (and why) it’s finally time to ship the $1 Oldsmobile off to the great junkyard in the sky.

 

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63 Responses

  1. I mean, yes, things get rusty in the rust belt. One look at the underside of that car, though, and I think it’s fairly clear that a major structural failure is at least possible. That ain’t just “a little surface rust on the welds.”

    Another clue that something bad was brewing is the absolutely horrible condition of the bushings. Those obviously should have been replaced some time ago.

    You had the failure and lived to tell the tale, clearly people get away with driving around like that all the time. If you’re the kind of person who is willing to perform even *minimal* preventative maintenance to avoid major issues while driving, though? You would have wound up replacing those parts, and probably several others, looong ago.

    From owning a Toyota truck with frame rust that a lawsuit hasn’t forced them to recall yet I can also promise that the situation is only going to get worse and lead to more serious issues unless you do something about it. That rust needs to be ground down, treated, and painted. Not worth it on that car.

  2. Old suspensions used grease in places like that, to prevent issues like this.

    Why are so many modern solutions so much worse?

    I get that maintenance-free is a desirable trait, but not “maintenance-free until one day it it fails and kills you”.

    Are there some advantages that I’m not aware of?

    Even though I feel like I’m missing out when I think of all the wrenching I used to do and how much I enjoyed finishing each project, every day when I walk out to my car I think a few words of thanks that I’m not stuck driving total shitboxes anymore.

  3. This is crusher bait. DT, I agree with you that your landlord deserves something that runs. It is a shame that you don’t have any vehicles just sitting around collecting dust that you could bequeath him…

  4. I mean, to be fair – those bushings SCREAM “replace me”, so I can’t say it’s all that surprising – though I’d have just expected clunking noises rather than all out failure.

    But such is the nature of rust!

  5. It’s all fun and games until the car tries to kill you. Time to move on and send it to the scrap heap. It’s just not the risk. You will never know what you don’t know and how could you ever trust that you truly found everything?

    1. Yeah I live in the similar Canadian salt/rust zone, it is the big final killer of daily driven cars here.
      The myopic politicians like it because it is good for the economy and “saves lives”.

      My mind is blown by all the structurally sound vehicles that get junked elsewhere.
      For somebody wanting a project, “local, cheap and runs” can often be blended with a cheap solid roller from elsewhere with good results.

    2. The way it’s supposed to work is, you buy a cheap fairly rusty POS, because every car is doomed after its first winter. Then when the first rust related bit breaks, you bin it and buy another one for way less than the cost of actually fixing all the issues the previous one had.

      It’s the circle of life.

      Pouring tons of time and effort into keeping a winter level beater on the road is an unnatural act going against the natural order of things.

    1. Back in the mid-00’s, I attended a talk on the use of ultrasound machines to locate cracks and fractures in jet fighter airframes. Might be expensive, but I imagine the technique could apply.

      1. UT would work but you have to have a smooth surface and use couplant (to provide a contact with no air gap between the probe and the surface) – the rust would have to be cleaned off first and I suspect at that point the crack would have been visible to the naked eye.

      1. Dude – perhaps bushings like that are considered acceptable in the rust belt, but I personally wouldn’t drive the car if the bushings looked like that. Or rather, I’d get them replaced ASAP before driving it too far. I think any owner who did a visual inspection and saw those bushings should have replaced them out of the merest modicum of caution. I would say I’m not being judgmental, but I guess I am.

        This kinda reminds me of a story involving my sister and BIL not long after they were married. They had driven from California to Colorado to visit us. He mentioned his car (a 1996 Acura Integra) was handling funny. I gave it a quick visual inspection and saw that, although the tread on the tires looked fine from the outside, the inside edge of every tire were worn down to the steel belts and there were steel and nylon fibers sticking through the paper-thin rubber. He confessed he had never rotated them (duh!). I told him he needed to get some new tires ASAP and his response was “Well, they got us all the way out here, I guess they’ll get us back.” I said, “Let me rephrase that – my sister is not getting back into that car until you get four new tires on it.” He saw that I was serious and took it to get new tires that afternoon.

        1. The problem with these particular bushings is that, eventually, you’d start to lose little pieces of them, and then you’d gradually get more and more play in the suspension. As it sat though, the suspension was tight and probably would have remained so for another few years. Out of caution, yes, replacing those bushings would have been a good call, though I’m definitely not in the “if there are cracks in your bushings, you must replace them” camp. Some cracks are okay, you just have to use judgement.

          I was on the phone with a technician in California a few months ago. He’d inspected my friend’s Jeep and noted the front upper/lower control arm bushings were a bit cracked. He agreed that it wasn’t something that had to be mended immediately, since the vehicle was handling well and everything seemed tight. With old cars, you have to be smart about replacing parts. It’s wrenching triage, and to execute it, you’ll have to leverage either your own experience or the experiences of people who have been there (plus, you have to understand how systems work and the ramifications for inaction — bushings are generally forgiving in this area). Ball joint or tie rod end with play in it? Get rid of it. Ball joint or tie rod end with a torn boot? Pay attention to the handling, but get ready to get rid of it. etc etc.

          1. I see a lot more causes for concern in those photos and video than just the rotted bushings. The axle beam itself looks as though it’s partially disintegrated. It’s also important to remember that modern unibodies are a lot more susceptible to structural rust damage than older body-on-frame chassis designs. You could replace the entire rear axle, control arms, bushings, etc. only to have the subframe completely fail down the road. That car is trying to tell you something, and you’d be wise to listen.

              1. My parents lost an ’01 Grand Prix to the frame breaking near there. Fortunately it was in their driveway on the farm and not on the highway. That era of GM had bulletproof, over designed engines and transmissions that would go forever if cared for, but the frames/bodies were trash…..

          2. “With old cars, you have to be smart about replacing parts. ”
            I totally agree, which is why I never would have let anyone drive that car with those bushings. A few cracks are fine – that’s exactly what I said in my previous post. But THAT horror show? No way. I know, it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, but seriously, I think a better inspection WOULD have prevented this problem – not that you would have seen the rust on the control arm, but because that rust would have become apparent if you had tried to change the bushings. I know you have acceptance limits for jankiness that are off the charts for most of us, but that’s just how I see it. I respect and appreciate what you do and the kind, caring person you are. I just don’t agree with a lot of decisions you make about what levels of rust and decay are acceptable on a vehicle.

            1. That’s fair. I will say that pretty much every experienced wrencher I know would look at those bushings (take a look at the passenger’s side one to see what it looks when it hasn’t rusted out), wiggle the wheel, say “Hmm, yeah, things are still tight; you can run it for a little bit, but those are gonna need to be replaced soon,” and keep a close eye on it. (Obviously, if you know to be concerned about internal rust, as in this case, you’re a bit less lenient).

          3. Rubber bushings, engine mounts and similar should be designed in a way that if the rubber fails, the joint stays safe.

            GM f’d up this design where water ingress due to cracking allowed catastrophic corrosion.

            Being in the rust belt of the north here in Montreal, I fully agree that most mechanics would have let that bushing go, maybe letting the customer know that they’re worn and letting them know that they should plan to change them at one point.

  6. I have a theory that a car will let you know when it doesn’t want to be your car any more. It usually starts with nickel and diming you but if you ignore the signs, it will eventually try and kill you. This car is totally trying to tell you it wants to move on.

    It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway) CHANGE THE LINK ON BOTH SIDES! If one is gone, the other can’t be far behind…..

  7. “Here’s how it should look”. That’s what it SHOULD look like?! FFS, Tracy, after reading this story and seeing those pictures, I genuinely believe that you’re actively trying to kill your landlord.

  8. This is where having boundaries is important. I understand that you may be close with them, but you provide them money in exchange for housing. It is not fair for them to expect you to work on a 20+ year old car that they were given for free. If they want something reliable and don’t want to pay for or DIY, maybe they should consider leasing. I’m sure that they can afford it.

    My brother (as a professional mechanic) has had to do the same thing over the years. He’s happy to help out here and there with simple jobs, but it’s way too easy to say yes to people and before you know it all of your free time is gone. It’s nice helping someone save a few bucks, but ultimately they’re adults that can figure things out on their own.

    As for rust belt cars, as a lifelong resident, it really depends on how you take care of it. My parents have a 2008 Trailblazer that’s spent its entire life in SE Michigan and been driven year round. My Dad also takes care to take it to the car wash once a week in the winter and get the underbody flush. I was under it recently and it’s clean enough to eat off of. Rust is inevitable but the progression to this level is not. Our neighbors growing up would buy new cars every 5-6 years (in the 2000’s) and they’d be rusted out by the time they got a new one, which is absurd. But they never, ever washed their vehicles. Sure, the rust belt is harder on your cars than the sunbelt. A lot of people just suck at taking care of their stuff though. I suspect that’s what happened here.

  9. Man, am I glad I live in the dry southwest. This thing is 21 years old, and every photo you’ve shown us of the underside is a pure horror show of dissolving metal. My Cougar is 52 years old and its underside looks dusty perhaps, maybe a tad greasy here and there, but is entirely structurally intact. Even when I look at the Olds pictures before the Thanksgiving trip nearly five years ago, when the car was only 16 years old, the rust looks alarming to me.

    David, once you’re out here in L.A. for a couple of years and you have more experience with working on and living with old cars that have spent their whole lives away from salty roads, I’ll be very surprised if you ever want to move back to Michigan again. Cars just don’t dissolve right under your seat before your very eyes out here.

    1. Quite seriously – I worry a bit about David overreacting to the condition of old cars in California. He’s going to end up with 20 or 30 unrepairable cars within the first two weeks. The fact that they are rust free is simply going to blind him to their other problems.

      What’s the old saying? (Paraphrasing here) –

      If an old car is for sale, it’s because someone else got tired of dealing with its bullshit.

  10. The car is screaming that it is at the end of life stage and wants to go into the light (or be completely restored, which—of course—would make no sense to do). With the time and money, you’d probably be halfway to getting your landlord something with some life left in it by now. You might be the other half before it will go a few weeks without breaking again (or maybe another third in this market, depending on the area).

  11. In a rare unanimous ruling today, the U.S Supreme Court has upheld a Michigan decision referred to as David’s Law. This law prevents male persons named David from giving or selling motor vehicles to anyone if the words, “I fixed it,” are uttered during the presentation. No protests are planned.

  12. Pennsylvania I’m pretty sure would have failed that bushing, therefore stopping the problem before it could start. I’m 100% for keeping dot guv out of our lives, but there is something to be said for a basic safety inspection. It (probably) helps avoid a catastrophic failure like this at 75 on the interstate.

    1. The problem with PA is that inspections aren’t done by hardass stickler bureaucrats like TÜV, or even disinterested minimum wage clockwatchers like the emissions inspectors in Cleveland where I grew up, but by any old shop. They can take a bribe or do you a favor to pass a noncompliant car, OR they can tell you that it won’t pass without an expensive repair you don’t need. It’s the worst of all worlds.
      Also counterfeit and stolen inspection stickers…

    2. Right? As a former PA resident with a propensity for shitty old Jeeps, I saw that bushing and knew it’d be a definite issue for inspection. Kind of surprised that David, someone who’s fought his way through TUV, said this wouldn’t have been caught by an inspection.

  13. Here in the Minnesota sector of the rust belt this kinda failure happens everyday. Got a 2003 Golf TDI that looks solid, but I’ve already replaced a bunch of springs and brake lines that were rusted and failing/failed. Surface rust on everything underneath, and no way to tell if it’s just surface rust or all the way through. Drove fine ’til I had to hit the brakes and the right front locked up- A-arm had broken and let the wheel rub up against the wheel well. Kept it under control, safely parked, and towed home then replaced both A-Arms. Still runs fine, I keep it around for a spare but hopefully I’ll never have to drive it.

  14. Whenever I do my seasonal winter/summer tire swaps, I take the opportunity to check out how things are behind the wheels. Take a look at the brakes, visible suspension components etc. One time, I had the front wheel off on my GTI and I discovered a broken spring (rotted out). The car had been driving and handling just fine, so I thought maybe it had snapped from the weight of the wheel when I jacked the car up. I decided to limp the car over to my mechanic to fix. It drove fine going there (although I didn’t really push it). I told my mechanic it probably just snapped as I jacked it up. He took a look and said, “judging by the condition of the strut, it’s been broken quite a while.”

    I thought to myself, Geez, I just did a 1500KM highway road trip on a (probably) broken spring!

    I had him replace the other side while he was in there.

  15. David,

    I have to say, you’ve put a lot of work into this vehicle, all in hopes of somehow making it up to your landlord for enabling your obsession with rusty and non running vehicles.

    While that’s admirable, I think that you might also consider the future when determining whether this Olds will be worth saving. while up to now you’ve been local and made yourself available when this poor geezer inevitably had issues, you’ve recently committed to taking your operation to the west coast!

    perhaps one of the last gifts ( besides clearing out your entire fleet of rust collectors and their parts) you can give your landlord is telling them to get a newer vehicle that you will not feel beholden to fixing once you’re gone!

  16. Someone should invent a passive sensor for that. Something on the outside of that bushing that changes color when it’s gone bad inside. Like those labels that show if a package has been dropped too hard, or gotten too hot, or been rotated from vertical.

    Barring that, some kind of a cheap electronic tool that would measure (resistance? capacitance? conducted vibration?) from the metal from one end of the bushing to the other and detect a fault if present.

    1. Back in the mid-00’s, I attended a talk on the use of ultrasound machines to locate cracks and fractures in jet fighter airframes. Might be expensive, but I imagine the technique could apply.

  17. So there’s this shop I used to take my Mustang to for its inspection and they were pretty laid back about it, they even overlooked my um.. aftermarket.. exhaust because hell, it passed the computer test and all the safety requirements. That though I think even they would have concerns about.

  18. The frame of the ’04 Toyota Tacoma I was driving was a real rust haven. Yes, I know Toyota had a problem with these back in the day, but this one went to the dealer who said “Naaaaah, it’s all cool” and the owner believed it.

    Fast-forward a few years and the back of the frame looked like iron oxide-coated Swiss cheese. The brake proportioning valve in the rear failed, and we took it to a mechanic, who ripped away the offending part and said “This ain’t NEVER going back on!” He was right: there was nothing to bolt it to. While it was on a lift, I looked at the rear spring shackles (what was left of them) and said “It’s Boneyard Time.” We got some money for it, probably because the tires were only a year old and it had half a tank of gas….

    The car I bought to replace it has almost no rust belowdecks. It was cheap and I don’t love it, but that’s no surprise. Buying a car in Massachusetts is probably no dumber than buying one in Michigan. You just have to know when to fold ’em!

  19. We use salt on roads because it’s an effective deicing agent (at least down to a certain temp) and it’s inexpensive for road agencies to procure. But look at all of the external costs! Agencies spend $$$ to buy everything the salt might touch out of stainless steel (equipment is usually a different budget than salt), all of the bridges they build have extra cost for epoxy-coated rebar or stainless steel, not to mention all of the damage chlorides do to existing infrastructure (pavements, bridges, etc.). Then you start counting the costs to the average resident in terms of the extra rust-proofing on cars (which I’m guessing everyone pays – or if a car is going to be sold in Arizona, does it have less rust-proofing than one going to Michigan?), and then the costs associated with rust repairs on the cars themselves. And we’re not even getting to the possible environmental costs of the chloride runoff. Really makes me wonder if you added up all of those costs if it wouldn’t be less expensive (society-wise) if we used some other substance to lower the freezing point of water? I’ve heard there may be some possible alternatives (sugar?), but I really don’t know much about them. Is road salt really the best solution (no pun intended…) we have?

    1. Electrical resistance wires embedded in the road could work. I have no idea what the cost is or how much electricity it would take but I’m guessing the numbers are big.
      Or we could embed radioactive isotopes into asphalt which will heat up the ground when they decay. That might be worse than salt though…

      1. They used to use sand and cinders for traction, and also not scrape all the way down to the asphalt to allow for smooth sheet ice to form, and just tell everyone to use snow tires and/or chains.

        When salt first started to be used in the late 1930s/early 1940s, the United States treated 3.2 million miles of road with 164,000 tons of salt per year – with generally harsher winters than we have now, a lot more unpaved roads than we have now, and a fleet of all-RWD cars with drum brakes and no traction control.

        80 years later, our road network has grown from 3.2 million miles to 4.2 million, and the amount of salt used has grown from 164,000 tons per year to 24 million. That’s excessive, any way you slice it, and its destroying our infrastructure – rotting out steel rebar in concrete bridges, corroding steel bridges, breaking down pavement, in addition to rotting out cars and polluting bodies of water.

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