Welcome to our Goof of the Month, June 2015 edition! Every month, we ask for stories from our network of mechanic buddies, which highlight the need to understand one’s vehicle, how to maintain it, and how it works. We read the submissions, check out the stories, and pick the winner, announcing the monthly Goof in our regular column about the most mechanically declined folks on the road.
This month’s genius came to us again from mechanic Nick Labrie, who says his clueless customer had no idea that certain parts of a vehicle wear out over time, and need to be replaced.
The Complaint: “My Pontiac Sunfire is making weird noises from the front end. I think it needs to be looked at. Also, my brakes feel like they’re not working properly. Can you take a look?”
The Mechanic: “This customer’s initial complaint had me thinking I’d need to do a little suspension work and pop in a new set of brake pads, or maybe clean out some debris from the dust-shield around the brake rotors, which can cause noise. We see a lot of ball-joints and bushings needing replacement in the course of a week, which cause unwanted front-end sounds, too. Usually, brake-related complaints are caused by worn out pads, and maybe rotors. This didn’t sound like a big job, and I told the customer to leave the car for a while, so I could test-drive it and make an assessment”.
Labrie never got out of his shop’s parking lot.
“I didn’t even get to listen for front-end noise on a test drive, since I didn’t make it onto the road. When I attempted to stop before the road at the edge of the parking lot, the brake pedal went quickly to the floor, there was a horrible grinding sound, and the car barely slowed down. That’s scary. This machine went straight to the hoist”.
The Diagnosis: The front-end noise the customer complained of was the sound of the brake pad backing plates grinding into the brake rotors. Brake pads have a friction material bonded to a steel backing plate, with the friction material creating stopping power when they’re pressed, by the caliper, into the rotating brake disc, or rotor. Stopping wears this friction material down over time, and once there’s less than a certain thickness of friction material remaining, the pads need to be replaced.
In this customer’s Sunfire, the front brake pads had worn down so badly that they had no friction material left at all. The vehicle was stopping only because of the steel-on-steel contact between the back of the brake pads and the steel brake rotor. One of the brake pad backing plates had actually fallen out of the brake caliper, leaving the caliper piston to grind into the brake rotor. Though the pads, rotors and calipers were all destroyed, it’s amazing that this condition didn’t ruin the seal around the caliper piston, causing a massive brake fluid leak and total brake system failure.
The Outcome: It’s anyone’s guess how this situation didn’t result in a serious accident, and Labrie suggested his customer go buy a lottery ticket. The customer was driving a vehicle thousands of kilometers beyond the point where it desperately needed attention, and with a fraction of its brake system performance available. Luck is likely the only thing that prevented a serious crash. Only once the brakes were so far gone that the noise which Labrie described as “loud and awful” annoyed the customer for some time, was the vehicle brought in.
After Labrie explained the dire state of the vehicle’s braking system, the customer admitted to simply being unaware that parts of the vehicle other than tires wear out and need replacing. Labrie figured that the stopping power probably diminished over a long period on this low-mileage vehicle, so perhaps the customer didn’t dramatically notice the poor pedal feel and extra distance required to stop.
Lesson Learned: Stopping isn’t optional, and any loss of brake system performance should be investigated by your mechanic. In most cases, you’ll be on your way after a new set of brake pads. Brakes are designed to make an irritating squeal when they’re worn down too, which drivers should take as a warning that they’ll need to visit a shop for replacement parts ASAP.
This month’s goof had no concept of the principle of consumable parts, and received a massive repair bill for new rotors, pads and calipers, since allowing the worn-down pads to go unattended so long ruined other braking system parts. Luckily, June’s Goof of the Month promised to come in for a brake system inspection the next time an unwelcome sound was detected.