Bill Gardiner has seen this before, but even he is astounded. We’re under a Ford Explorer at Kal Tire on St. James Street looking at where the front stabilizer-bar link used to be. It’s completely gone. So, too, is any stabilizer action, so this driver should have noticed much more sway in turns than usual.
“This is the part that’s going to fail first,” said Gardiner, an independent mechanic, the resident wrench on TSN’s Motoring TV and, today, spokesman for Kal Tire.
It’s easy to see why: the stabilizer-bar link takes every bump, every pothole and every sharp turn. It connects to the lower control arm and rises about six inches to the stabilizer bar, and takes more of a pounding than most suspension components. Its function is to transmit the movement of one wheel to the other, through a thick bar running under the engine to the other side. Working properly, it serves to equalize wheel movement in turns and reduce body sway. A failure here is often misdiagnosed as a bad strut, Gardiner said.
In this case, this link is the perfect demonstration of the havoc winter can wreak on your car. Road salt, slush, sand, slime and other detritus is kicked up on the rubber boots on such components as the stabilizer link, constant-velocity joints, steering rack and ball joints. The grit helps wear through the rubber and eventually exposes the lubrication inside to the elements. The lubrication doesn’t stay behind long, and, combined with erosive action of any grit inside, quickly leads to failure of the joint.
This Explorer is not alone, and the failure is no fault of the Ford. It just happens, and to the best of components. But Gardiner said with routine inspections, it’s possible to catch these problems before they become, well, problems. The stabilizer link isn’t an immediate emergency, but imagine what happens if similar neglect causes a tie-rod end to fail in a similar manner. You’d immediately lose all steering control.
Gardiner said most such components, as original equipment, come lubed for life. They don’t require you to lubricate them and you couldn’t if you wanted to. But he’s quick to point out that means the lifetime of the component, not the car. On one ball joint he had with him, there was only the rubber boot holding it together: the joint itself was so shot, once the boot was cut, the entire thing fell apart.
Aftermarket products sometimes often come with a grease nipple for periodic lubrication. They need it every 25,000 or so kilometres, or about eight oil changes. It can take an eagle-eyed technician to see the nipple, especially if that person is expecting the part to be OEM and not require lubrication. Gardiner said it’s one reason why establishing a relationship with your mechanic is a good idea.
“I know which vehicles where I’ve replaced the ball joints, so I know to touch them up with lube,” he said. Indeed, he suggests for any work on your car, utilize only places with Red Seal-certified technicians. They’re trained to spot problems, and while it makes good business sense for the company, it can also save the customer money in the long run. “We don’t want the customer with the new set of tires to leave here with bad alignment,” he said of Kal Tire. “He’s only going to be back.”
Alignment is also one of the hazards of winter, when a pothole or a slide into a curb can throw it off. Bad alignment shows up in a variety of ways, depending on which characteristic is out of spec. It may shows up in a number of ways, but it usually comes down to one result: premature failure of the tire.
Gardiner said spring is the perfect time to have your car checked out. By now, the slush has melted off and is no longer camouflaging problems. “If your strut is leaking, and it’s covered with slush and snow, it’s very hard to tell if that liquid is a leak or just water.”
He also said with cars today, it’s more important than ever to have them checked. New cars can be quiet enough, you might not hear those audible clues you once did.
“You’d be amazed at the problems a good car can hide,” he said.