Reader Question: Rotor Scam?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply! 

Chi asks: So I took my car to get it inspected and was told the brakes were bad. I was then told I would be buying not just brakes but also brake rotors, as they were also apparently “bad” somehow. The brakes seemed ok to me and all the inspector showed me was that the pads were thin. Is this a rip-off?

My reply: I wish you’d mentioned which make/model car you have as it would help me to better answer your question, but don’t assume the shop is trying to sell you a bill of goods. It is quite possible your car needs new rotors – the discs that the brake calipers clamp onto, using the pads to slow the car via friction; the pads wear down over time as the material they’re made of is consumed during braking.

The rotors can be damaged (warped) by heat – as well as scoring of the surface, if the pads are allowed to wear down too much. In the old days, rotors could usually be turned – material shaved off via a special machine, to restore a true surface. But in our day, rotors are often made much thinner – to save weight, to help increased fuel economy – and (if you’re cynical) to increase service costs, because these rotors don’t have enough material to allow for turning. They must be replaced, which may be the case in your case.

If you can provide the make/model of your vehicle, I can do some checking to see whether the rotors are serviceable or throw-aways. You can also ask the shop to show you something from the manufacturer of your vehicle stating that the rotors can’t be turned, etc.

But, it is also possible you are being ripped off. And not just for rotors you don’t need. It might be worth getting a second opinion, to see whether it jibes with what the shop told you. If it does, then the odds are probable that the car needs the work the first shop says it needs.

. . .

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  1. Rotors have a minimum thickness and eventually will wear below that thickness.
    Turning rotors simply became impractical because rotors became so cheap.

    Old cars with the thick rotors that could be machined (turned) would also have the hubs with the wheel bearings. This meant not only much more material but also having the internal diameters (usually more than one step) machined to have bearing races pressed in. The wheel lugs were also pressed into the rotors.

    Modern cars have the rotors slipped over the lugs on the hubs. So they are simply a hunk of surface machined cast iron. And they are much more simple geometry to cast in the first place. Take in the labor, time, and brake lathe costs and one might as well buy a new rotor even if they were thick enough to machine.

    • I’ve had new-in-box slip on rotors that barely had enough thickness to be turned. Add in a few thousand miles of use and forget about it. For that style of rotor, turning typically costs $12 where a new rotor is usually $20.
      Hell, it’s usually cheaper to replce a caliper for a broken (seized) bleeder than to fix it after figuring labor cost.


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