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Front End RehabSteering back on track
The myriad parts that comprise the steering system of an automobile are often referred to collectively as the front end. This phrase is often uttered by your mechanic directly before the word 'rebuild' then followed by a large repair bill or estimate. When and if you regain consciousness after the heart palpitations, visions of budget tightening measures, and your mechanic waterskiing across a lake behind a shiny new boat, you will surely be thinking, "I can do this myself, and save money!" This statement may or may not be true. Rebuilding a front end is a difficult but not impossible task for the do-it-yourselfer.
The front end can be a relatively simple mechanical affair, or may contain more knuckles and unions than Al Capone's Chicago. Complexity depends largely on what type of vehicle you drive. A rear-wheel-drive vehicle with a rack-and-pinion MacPherson strut arrangement is fairly simple. Recirculating ball type steering systems offer more complexity. A 4x4 or AWD beastie can get crazy-complex. Thus the first and greatest weapon in the battle of the front-end rebuild is the mighty service manual. The mysteries of your particular front-end arrangement will be revealed in detail and earnest.
In a Pickle
Also in the service manual will be mention of special service tools. You might feel funny going into the store and asking for a pickle fork, but fear not. Many of these tools are available for rental at your local auto parts house. Front-end tools can also be purchased individually or in a kit if you plan on rebuilding front ends for fun. The most useful tool in the arsenal of front-end rebuilding is the short handled four-pound sledgehammer. Its compact size allows for easy hefting in tight spaces and its weight is prefect for breaking up stubborn unions of ball joints and tie rod ends. A well-placed tap on the union in question will quickly end the marriage.
Rattles by the Bushel
Once you have determined which components need replacing by performing the tests outlined in the service manual, and have the tools and the parts lined up for the task, it is of utmost importance not to forget to replace any and all bushings or grommets encountered along the way. Strut rod and sway bar bushings take a true beating from bumps and road elements. Bushings have the difficult task of dampening any rattles by separating steel parts with a cushion of rubber along with holding the parts tightly enough together to provide proper steering. The arrangement allows for a certain amount of flexibility. Worn bushings will not only make for a rattling front end, but can also cause your vehicle to wander about a line on its own due to suspension geometry not paying attention.