Sometimes They’re Easy to Fix… and Sometimes Not!

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Contrary to conventional wisdom, maintaining a modern car isn’t always hard.

Sometimes, it’s easier than working on an older car.

It depends on which car you’re working on.

Or, truck.

Some of you already know I recently re-acquired my 2002 Nissan Frontier pick-up, which had been on extended loan to my wife-at-remove. The first thing I did when I got it back from her was to give it a going-over. It needed new brakes, among other minor maintenance.

This is easy maintenance – on this particular truck.

Replacing the front pads does not require removing the calipers. It only requires removing a single 14 mm bolt. Once this bolt is removed, you merely swing up the top part of the caliper, which exposes the pads – which you then slide off easily by hand.

Installation of the new pads is just as simple – and tool-free. In fact, the most tool-intensive part of replacing front brake pads on a circa 1998-2004 Nissan Frontier is jacking up the front end and removing the wheels so you can get at that easy-to-service caliper. Anyone who can change a flat tire can change this Nissan’s brake pads – and that is a huge money (and time) saver.

My “simple” 1976  Trans-Am, on the other hand… .

Raising the front end/removing the wheels is the easy part. To get at the pads, you have to take off each caliper – and that requires both tools and strength (or at least, a breaker bar). There is also the secondary business of dealing with the caliper (which is heavy) once removed. It is not sound policy to leave it dangling by the brake line. Compressing the piston inside the caliper (to make some clearance for the new pads) is also more of a chore due to the one-piece nature of the caliper, which makes access (for the C-clamp) more awkward. With the Nissan, the swing-up top portion (which contains the pistons) is much easier to get a C-clamp on and much easier to work with because the thing isn’t dangling loosely by the brake line.

Another example:

Many new/recent model cars have their oil filters mounted topside, so it’s not necessary to crawl around underneath the car – or jack up the car, to get at the oil filter.

As is necessary with my Nissan. 

The oil filter (four cylinder models) is located on the passenger side of the engine block, in a place that is effectively impossible to reach without raising the body up, so you can reach around the tire and through the fender well to get a filter wrench on the filter. Spillage – and a mess – is also inevitable because the filter is mounted horizontally, so even if you’ve drained the oil pan, there will still be plenty of oil in the filter – and it will all come out (and spill all over) as you remove the filter. Even if you have a catch pan underneath, there’s no avoiding oil slopping all over the engine, frame rail and suspension control arms.

With a topside (and vertically) mounted filter, you can remove/install the filter by hand, with no tools – and no mess. Because the filter will have drained of oil once you’ve drained the oil pan.

On the other hand, Silverbell’s (that’s the name my ex-wife gave her) fuel filter can be replaced without removing the gas tank first.

Did you know about this one?

It’s a hideous one.

Many – I think, most – recent vintage cars have their fuel filters (which, like oil filters, are a routine service item) housed inside the gas tank, a truly vicious (but profit-centered) design. It all but assures a trip to the dealership. Or, people just forget about it – with eventual/inevitable not-good consequences that will result in another (and more expensive) trip to the dealer.  

But Silverbell’s fuel filter is located – conveniently and accessibly – along the passenger side frame rail. It can be removed/replaced without even jacking up the truck (it’s a truck, it has enough ground clearance to allow getting under it without raising). All you need in the way of tools is a flat-blade screwdriver to loosen the two worm clamps at either end. A hemostat (or vise grip, lightly set) is handy to clamp off the hose leading from the tank while you work – to avoid gravity-fed fuel spillage. But this job is still a 10 minute (and hand tools) job.

Pulling a gas tank isn’t.

Neither is replacing the plugs in a FWD car with a transversely (sideways) mounted V6. It is a good thing modern cars (anything made since the early ‘90s) only need new plugs once every 100,000 miles or so. Because this job – getting at the three plugs on the firewall side of the engine – is a knuckle-busting, wrench-hurling mechanical S&M session. You’re more likely to break something than fix something, if you’re inclined toward impatience and haven’t got some specialized tools (like angle-handled/headed wrenches and ratchet drivers).

Meanwhile, a longitudinally  (front to back) mounted four cylinder – as in Silverbell – is an engine whose plugs can be removed and replaced using the finest low-quality Chinese-made Harbor Freight $15 socket set, in less than 15 minutes.

The bottom line is that, regardless of vintage – or make/model – some jobs are easier (and some a lot harder) than others. This includes wrenching on even super-simple cars like the old air-cooled VWs. Yes, it was easy – and cheap – to change the oil and plugs. But the Beetle’s air-cooled flat four had a solid lifter valvetrain that required periodic valve clearance adjustment (else the valves – the exhaust valves especially) would get too tight and – if left that way for too -long – you’d be looking at a not-simple (or cheap) valve job.

Few modern cars ever need valvetrain clearance adjustment – but many do need periodic timing belt changes, a not-cheap (or easy) job.

It’s smart to read up (and ask around) about the quirks – and specific needs – of whatever vintage (and make/model) vehicle you’re considering. Whether you’re planning on doing the work yourself – or paying someone else to do it.

Your knuckles (and wallet) will thank you!

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  1. The one older technology thing I’m glad to be rid of is: Drum brakes!!!!! I LOATHED doing drum brakes! Damn things were like some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption, with all those springs, and trying to hold everything together and center ’em and all! Viva le discs!

  2. changing the oil filter on the Tundra requires removing 14 bolts and a skid plate,
    removing a screwed in plug,(with a special tundra only wrench) then using a small diameter pipe to press in a spring loaded flap and drain the oil from the filter housing into a bottle, then spin off the second plug, then remove the filter element.

    stupidest thing Ive ever seen, and otherwise the Tundra is a far superior pickup than any of the big three.

    I think the old Ford Escorts had the filter upside down on the top back of the engine made a big mess.

  3. Toyota, and probably others, are returning to what was on my ’57 Chevy V8 – a permanent oil filter holder that has a replaceable paper element. Much less convenient than spin-ons.

  4. Wow, I never knew what an easy deal I was getting on the Nissan compared to other pickups. The (diesel)fuel filter that fit on the gas engine was easy to access(for normal people but my arms were too big and I always ended up looking like I’d been in a fight with a bobcat because of the a/c hoses and heater hoses), the fuel filter was accessed easily in the passenger side frame behind the rear tire and it had a clear bowl you could see, always a good deal. That pickup was easy to work on except for some personal clearance problems other people didn’t have.

  5. The only in-tank fuel filter I’ve come across is in my Mazda. Located in the same sub-assembly as the fuel pump. And like every Mazda I’ve worked on the fuel pump is accessed by popping out the rear seat bottom and then removing an access panel in the floor. From there the fuel pump and filter can be removed. So long as that’s how it’s done an in-tank filter is no issue.

    Plus I’ve found the in-tank variety won’t require replacement for a very very long time.


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