Tell Us About How An Automaker’s Poor ‘Design For Serviceability’ Made Your Repair Job A Total Nightmare

Brokenman,car

“Design for serviceability” was the name of the class Chrysler encouraged its engineers to take. A long-haired union technician who has clearly dealt with far, far too much bullshit with engineers like us kindly, but firmly, described how to design cars so they can be easily repaired. This is important not just to customers, who want their vehicles fixed quickly and cheaply, but to Chrysler’s own technicians, who are tired of going through hell just to change a damn spark plug. With this concept in mind, and with me having recently described having gone through wrenching hell to unsuccessfully replace subframe bolts, I’d like to know: What’s the most painfully annoying repair job you’ve attempted?

Last night was just awful. Trying to remove the rear lower control bolts from my HHR has been awful, as I described yesterday. Here’s a diagram describing the problem:

Screen Shot 2022 10 25 At 1.02.29 Pm

Today my right elbow is absolutely killing me from all the vibrations of that sawzall, which — despite wielding the most expensive saw blade one can buy a Home Depot — was unable to slice through the subframe bolt quickly. It was able to slice off the two aluminum control arms quite nicely:

Screen Shot 2022 10 26 At 11.43.11 Am

This exposed the aforementioned subframe bolt:

Screen Shot 2022 10 26 At 11.36.14 Am

 

Unfortunately, this sent aluminum all over my face.

Since the sawzall couldn’t handle that big subframe bolt, I did what any desperate man does: I broke out the Death Wheel — a six-inch cutoff wheel that was able to reach past the control arm brackets in the subframe, and cut the bushing sleeve and the bolt seized inside it.  Here’s the big-ass cutoff wheel and the angle grinder that literally stopped working after about seven or eight minutes of cutting:

Screen Shot 2022 10 26 At 11.30.50 Am

The sawzall was able to handle the tiny amount of cutting still needed to get through the bolt and sleeve, leaving me with this:

Screen Shot 2022 10 26 At 11.31.04 Am

The sleeve is still stuck to the bolt, and though I tried using a dremel to slice the sleeve off (see the diagonal cut in the sleeve above), it started raining last night, and I was uninterested in being electrocuted using power tools in a downpour. So I gave up, and had to cancel my trip to New York. I still have no answer to removing these bolts, but will likely end up buying a pancake-style air compressor and air chisel; hopefully that will solve my issue. I’m tired of screwing around with cutting tools that don’t really fit into the limited space I have.

Anyway, my trip to New York to see Andrew Collins, my friend Bobby’s mom, and Matt Hardigree is officially postponed due to this awful bit of serviceability. [Ed note: Nah, gonna make him come anyway! You’re not getting out of this trip that easily – MH] But this isn’t the only example of an automaker’s poor engineering for serviceability (and to be clear, I consider GM the company with the greatest automotive engineering capability of any company ever, for reasons that I don’t have time to explain. Also, I’ll note that the design here is not specific to GM: Subarus have similar subframe bolt issues. Also worth mentioning is that calling this an engineering flaw is a bit of a stretch, given that it’s only a problem for older cars with over 100,000 miles on them; yes, an engineer should have known that corrosion would cause issues here, but it wasn’t her/his priority when developing the car, and that’s fair enough).

The union tech teaching “Design for Serviceability” at Chrysler mentioned that third-generation (?) Dodge Rams didn’t have crush cans at the front of their frames, meaning a small fender bender would cause catastrophic damage to the frame. Can you imagine that? You bump into a car at a few miles per hour, and your frame is all messed up, requiring a fairly involved (and expensive) repair? I’ve been receiving messages overnight from people who followed my plight on Instagram last night, many consoling me for my struggles, and even more talking about how they had to remove an engine mount to replace an alternator (for example) or how they basically had to bathe in gasoline because their fuel pump removal procedure is such a pain in the arse (and because the pump went out twice within a short span).

Now I’d like to hear from you: What was the worst wrenching experience you ever had to deal with that was a result of poor engineering design for serviceability? Write it up in the comments, and send us diagrams/photos/videos at tips@autopian.com describing the shitshow in detail. We’ll write a follow-up post so the rest of our readers can enjoy learning about your perils.

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203 Responses

  1. Audi headlight, whole front clip of the car loosens and slides forward.
    Hyundai, had to pull the battery to change the headlight.
    Toyota Tacoma, bed had a caged rusted bolt.
    Old Ford truck, ibeam front axle, had to torch out the kingpins to replace the bushings.
    Caterpillar 980,well most wheel loaders have to remove the cab for so many damn reasons, they really should be on hinges.
    Ford edge, outer tie rods are near impossible. You need such a large wrench, to use it you may as well take off the strut and control arm.
    Any car you have to remove the radiator to get the alternator out.
    Saturn Vue, bolts in the air box rust and you can’t change the air filter. Had to use a half inch impact with impact screw bits.
    Mazda, any job at all sucks. Changing the oil on my sister’s Mazda 6 the oil filter was up over the exhaust and was stuck on every time from all the heat.
    After going through this list, I think I’m buying a Honda

  2. The design for serviceability class must have been pretty bad given that Chrysler *actively* tries to make servicing more expensive and more difficult.

    2003 Grand Cherokee. Known issues with the hydraulic fan solenoid going bad. How does Chrysler handle this? By discontinuing the easily replaceable $90 solenoid and requiring the installation of an $1100 (parts only) new fan assembly. The two fans are identical except that the solenoid screws in on the earlier part and appears to be pressed in on the later part. I cannot overstate how much this diminished my already shaky opinion of Chrysler. They are actively choosing to screw their customers.

    You can make the case that this isn’t a part which you would normally design to be serviceable but…the 2003 Grand Cherokee also had a reputation for the HVAC blend doors going bad. Fixing this required either cutting a hole in the glove box or removing the dash. I had the dealer write on the receipt they would replace them if they went bad and, what do you know, 7 hours from home in the middle of the winter they went leaving me with no heat or defrost.

    Dealer replaced them, and went out of business shortly thereafter. So, when the poorly made parts failed again it was on me to fix it. Out came the dash in probably the worst wrenching job I have ever done. Replaced them with aftermarket metal doors. Sold the vehicle not long after that.

    Granted, I believe in the subsequent generation Grand they made the doors easier to service, but at the same time I’ve heard they have similar issues so they didn’t actually correct the defect…

  3. Worst experience was changing the thermostat in a 2005 Mercury Mariner (Ford Escape). I had just started a new job and had to be at work at 7am the following morning. I decided to do this after returning to Raleigh from Thanksgiving holiday with family in VA (first wrong move). It was located on the front end between the block and the radiator, and after shredding even my tiny hands and forearms getting the 10mm bolts out, the real trouble began. As day turned to night and the balmy 50 degree temperatures dipped towards the 30s, hungry tired, and enraged, I threw a wrench across the yard in disgust and took a break. Finally finished around 11pm (after a good 7 hours of wrenching) and collapsed into bed. My wife and I are still happily married, but if we were going to split that would have been the night it all started to slide…

  4. As I have been killing myself remediating frame rust on my 2013 Toyota FJ, I have come across a problem I never had with a vehicle before.

    Bolts which go into the frame screw in to a nut welded to the inside of the frame. The bolts which go in to these nuts are usually considerably longer than they need to be.

    What happens is that the part of the bolt sticking out past the welded nut on the inside of the frame rusts badly. When you go to remove the bolt, it will turn a couple of times with no problem until the corroded portion tries to go through the nut and then it will jam hard. A bolt rusted into its nut is one thing. A bolt that has rusted freely and without the constraints of the nut is another. Heat and Kroil don’t help, and you’ll break the welds on the nut if you try to remove it with too much force.

    Now that I’m thinking of it, what I need to start doing is backing the bolt out and, if it gets stuck, cut or grind the head off then cut a slot or use a drill to screw the nut *in* so it falls into the frame. Not a great solution, but neither is breaking off the welded nut and having to use a rivnut.

    Shorter bolts or higher quality ones would eliminate the problem.

    1. I like that approach. Really can’t think of a better way to get those out.

      I thought about somehow turning the existing welded nut into a ‘die’ by drilling into the interface between the threads of the bolt and welded nut. But that sounds crazy typing it out at this point. Especially since you would damage threads you plan to keep..

      Good luck! I despise rusty fasteners, but they also provide some of the greatest joy when they come out.

  5. I had a PT Cruiser and looked into cleaning the headlights, which were fogging up over time. A best-case scenario would have been something you could unscrew/unclip to get the headlight cover off. What Chrysler did, though, was design a system where you had to jack the car up and take the whole front clip apart. I didn’t have the tools for this and paying someone else to do it would have been prohibitively expensive. My mechanic’s solution to this was to pop the bulb out and go in there with a rag on a stick. When that wasn’t enough anymore I just sold the car.

    1. Also, it’s not my story per se but there’s an episode of MythBusters with some B-roll of Jamie Hyneman complaining about the engineers who designed an early-Aughts Dodge so that it had the battery directly behind the front passenger wheel, which he had to remove to access it. I think about that a lot.

      1. When I first met my now-wife she had a Sebring (i know, right?) and I offered to replace her battery. When I saw where that battery was and what I’d have to do to get at it (remove front driver wheel and well liner, and it was still a bitch wrestling it out and in), I almost walked away and never called her again.

        How Chrysler continues to exist as a company completely escapes me.

  6. Most of these stories involve things I could never do even on a brand new car and if they were perfectly designed to be as simple as possible. Replacing suspension components? Clutches? Oily engine bits? Not in my wheelhouse.

    Here’s something even a klutz like me an usually do though: replace a dead battery. Usually. Except for on my 2017 Ford Focus ST. Check out this procedure, which involves removing the air cleaner assembly for access:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hchTUUcHTBg

    The guy at the auto parts store warned me about it and said that they will straight up not attempt to replace a battery on these models.

    Luckily, it turns out that it does not actually have to be this difficult. You can lift up the front panel on the battery box and tilt it forward enough that you can wiggle the battery out without all the extra shenanigans. Still…

  7. Dave, Your insights on wrenching are just amazing! My 3 contributions here pale by comparison.

    1) 1985 Nissan Sentra – the oil filter was positioned behind the engine, by the firewall, under the exhaust manifold. I could get to it by semi-laying on top of the engine. I only changed that filter once with a hot engine, that manifold was HOT!

    2) 1967 Impala – the heater core was under a cover under the glovebox, by the passenger’s feet. The 4 nuts holding the cover in place were all accessible from inside the car, except for one, which was in the engine compartment. I decided that 3 nuts holding the cover were good enough and just chiseled the bolt off the last one.

    3) 2004 Town Car – to replace a headlight bulb, you have to disassemble much of the front grille assembly. No way to reach the bulb without some wrenching. I replaced both – no sense having to mess with that again!

  8. My mom’s old 2G Isuzu Rodeo. A common issue is leaky intake manifold gasket making the engine surge at idle. No big deal, intake manifold on a V6 is right there on top and easy to get to, right? Well, there’s a bracket on the back of the engine that held a cable or vacuum line or something and this bracket was held in place with 2 bolts, one to the engine and the other to the intake manifold. You can’t take the manifold off to replace the gasket without taking this bracket off. And you can’t take this bracket off easily while the engine is installed because it’s right up against the firewall. AND IT GETS WORSE! There’s barely enough room to get a wrench in there if only this bracket was held on with a normal hex bolt, but for whatever reason Isuzu/GM used Allen bolts for this bracket and there’s absolutely not enough room to get your allen wrench between the bolt and the firewall much less be able to extract it.
    I ended up taking a cutting wheel to my allen wrench to cut off a 1cm bit. Just enough to fit inside the allen bolt with a bit sticking out that I could get a wrench on to loosen the bolt enough to work the rest out by hand. When it came time to reinstall that bracket I used some shorter hex head bolts I had laying around to make it easier for the next guy.
    Seriously, fuck Isuzu and GM for making that decision. That Rodeo is long gone now but I’ve still got my stumpy cutoff allen wrench in my toolbox to remind of it.

  9. Some day we will all look back and yearn for the days when we could actually still climb under a car and fix it ourselves, even if it was a pain in the butt. The concern over “right to repair” is a very real thing, especially with EVs, which are designed more like consumer electronics that need unlocking to fiddle with. You see it happening with Teslas, and even with non-electric vehicles – Agricultural equipment comes to mind.

  10. Not as heavy duty as some of the other comments here, but it blows my mind that to change a headlight bulb on my Saturn Aura, you’re supposed to take off the front of the car (bumper etc.)

  11. Having to remove the fuel injection to replace a starter. Looking at you Toyota UZ series V8.

    This is a succinct synopsis of the procedure that I found on lextreme.com:
    1. Remove the intakes pipes – Pretty self explanatory
    2. Remove the Throttle Body as unit.
    3. Remove the EGR and EGR inlet
    4. Remove the upper intake – You don’t have to remove the injectors.
    5. Remove the Rear radiator fluid bridge. 4 12 mm, two in the front and two in the rear.
    6. Loose the wire harness. Two rear and two front
    7. Remove the starter.

    Then you reverse the procedure.

    After having the starter go out twice in a year, now one of my criteria for a new vehicle is where the starter is located.

  12. Replacing the front HVAC fan in a 4th generation Chrysler Town & Country requires removing the entire dash to do it “correctly”. If I remember right, it’s 10 hours of work for an experienced mechanic.

    After getting started doing it correctly, I said “to hell with this”.

    Instead, I removed the glove box and cut a huge hole in the side of the HVAC system. I was able to replace the fan pretty easily. Then I screwed and hot glued the whole thing back together with a few patch panels made of sections cut from black plastic DVD movie cases and ABS drain pipes I had in the garage. I would have made so much more sense for Chrysler to design an access panel behind the glove box but I guess they never planned for blower motors and heater cores to go bad in that generation of Town & Country.

    The unofficial “wrong way” was a pain in the ass.

    Doing it the “right” way would’ve been much harder, and would have taken at least 5 times as long for me to complete, probably much more. It also could have resulted in screwing up a half dozen other things while I was in there.

  13. I’d like to meet the guy that put round head T55 caliper bolts on the rear discs to suburbans. Because nothing makes a bolt that is subject to high temps and corrosion easier to get out than a T55 and a round head. I can do brakes on damn near anything in a half an hour. That was a 6 hour debacle that after an impact, probably a whole can of blaster, heat, and 3 torx sockets finally ended with me C- clamping the socket to the calipers, putting a wrench on it and beating it into submission with a maul.

  14. Oh, ghods, where should I even start?

    GM10s with the batteries buried in a lower front corner of the engine compartment – something that Chrysler would admiringly copy on the LH cars and some others.

    GM N-bodies with rear wheel bearings that were unitized to the brake disc or drum. And had a lower service life than the brake parts.

    The timing belt procedure on my ’94 Probe GT with the Mazda V6 that began “NOTE: the following procedure may be performed with the engine still installed in the vehicle.” The procedure’s steps, however, were clearly organized around having the engine out on a stand. The second time I did one, I chopped 3 hours off my first effort simply because I knew which steps to rearrange.

    Replacing the spark plugs on a Ford 5.4L 3V engine, especially after one of the inexplicably 2-piece plug bodies fails and you have to get the special magic extractor tool to remove what’s left.

    Just about anything requiring a Special Service Tool to perform a function that could have been done with something deeply conventional had just ONE PERSON had the spine to object in a Design Aid meeting. Looking at those double-square and Torx fasteners in particular.

    Replacing the turn signal, side marker, and parking lamp bulbs on a 2004 Subaru Forester. Given you have to first remove the grille without breaking (too many) of the embrittled plastic clips holding it in place, then remove the headlamp assembly to access the bulbs, it’s no longer a surprise to me how many of them I’ve seen running around with bulbs out.

    Any sort of engine service on anything “cab forward” with a cowl that obscures portions of the engine. The highest-volume culprits are 4th-gen Camarobirds, Chrysler LH cars, and ESPECIALLY ’97-’03 Ford F-150s and Expeditions.

    I grew up in my family’s independent auto repair shop. And when I graduated from college with that BSMechE degree and went to work for Ford, my family – especially my cousins J and B – charged me with making stuff they could work on. I tried. I really did. Didn’t stop me from getting phone calls from the cousins, though, whenever they ran across something Stupid.

    Early on, while still in larval stage as an engineer, I was asked to cover a Design Aid meeting for one of my colleagues, for what was to become the 1992 refresh of the Taurus/Sable. In those days, we didn’t have digital bucks, we had a rig with the powertrain cradle and a cut-off front clip mounted to a jacking system. A fellow young engineer, in charge of the evaporative emissions cannister purge system, proudly stuck the purge solenoid to the dash panel (nee “firewall”) in his preferred position. The UAW tech then dutifully decked the clip down over the powertrain, and… there was absolutely zero way to access the purge solenoid without removing the powertrain. Something very close to this happened next:

    Me: “So, um, how is that supposed to be serviced?”
    Him: “It’s only going to have 2 R/1000.” (That’s repairs per thousand units produced.)
    M: “Okay, is that 12/12 or the 4/50 emissions warranty, since this is an emissions part?”
    H: “Um, 12/12.”
    M: “Right. And we’re planning on making, what, half a million of these things a year?”
    Someone from the vehicle program: “Yes.”
    M: “Okay, so in the first year alone, that’s 1000 of these that will need to be replaced under warranty. R&I for the powertrain is what, 8 hours?”
    FPSD Guy: “Yeah.”
    M: “What’s our labor rate now?”
    FPSD Guy: “$63 an hour.”
    M: “Okay that’s 1000 repairs at 8.5 hours for the powertrain R&I plus the solenoid times $63/hour. [do math on my notepad] $535,500 in warranty labor alone – we’ll take parts as a wash. Now, could you please undeck the clip?”
    UAW Guy: “Sure thing.” [does so]
    M: If you move this about 6 inches over this way [moves solenoid], this should be easily accessible. Would you please re-deck the clip?”
    UAW Guy, amused: “You bet.” [does so]
    M: “Ah, there it is. 10 minute fix, but that translates to a half-hour in warranty payout. 1000 units x 0.5 hours x $63/hour = [more math on notepad] $31,500 in warranty labor, for a savings of $504,000 in the first year alone.”
    H: “But that’ll cost another $0.05/vehicle for the extra hose and wiring.”
    M: “Okay. 500,000 x 0.05 = $25,000 in extra production cost. Subtract that from the $504,000 in labor savings and you’re looking at a net savings to the company of $479,000 in the first year. That’ll just get bigger as the 12/12 expires and the 4/50 emissions warranty takes over.”
    H: “Huh. I never even thought about that.”
    M: [sotto voce] “No shit.” [out loud] “Well, now you know. We have to look at the total cost, not just the production cost.”

    That particular windmill was successfully tilted-at. And the FPSD guy bought me lunch afterward. Unfortunately, over my 18+ year career in Detroit, with stints at each of the Detroit Three, I lost more of those than I won.

    And got a lot of phone calls from my cousins.

  15. 2006 Ford Escape Alternator replacement includes
    Removing Passenger side tire and plastic splash shield
    Removing Passenger side front axle so you can get to the mounting bolts
    Remove serpentine belt
    Remove upper intake manifold
    Remove the alternator by bringing it up along the firewall

    1. Came to the comments section LOOKING for this one, could pull the og alternator out of the wheel well, but somehow could not find a way to jigsaw the new one in, ended up playing a game of catch to drop it through the top next to the firewall

      Another fun one is the PSP on that era escape, love removing an engine mount/subsequently jacking the engine just to replace it.

  16. 2001 Prius. When it came time to replace the serpentine belt I saw the thing was absolutely squeezed up next to the side of the bay. Impossible to get at. The only way to get at it was to jack it up, remove the front passenger side wheel, remove the bottom engine cover, remove the wheel well cover and then gingerly snake a wrench up into the void to snag the tensioner. That took forever. Clearly a design where nobody thought about how hard it would be to get at.

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