So Monday evening, there was this big puddle of fluid under the rear of my wife's Jeep Cherokee.
The jeep is an older machine, we bought it new a year after we were married - it was our first major purchase together. The red paint is a little faded nowadays, but it's always been a great vehicle. We've put nearly 300,000 miles on it traveling literally to every corner of the continent, from Florida to Maine to Alaska to Maryland and out to Southern California and finally back to Alaska. We've pulled our trailer and carried our canoe on the roof through the Bad Lands of South Dakota, across Maine's Golden Road from Dover/Foxcroft to the Down East Coast, the entire length of Highways US95, US10, US5 and 101, and the Queen's Highway across the length of Canada. It's started reliably in -40F weather north of Fairbanks and plowed through grill high snow crossing Soldier Summit in the remote Yukon. Like a mule, it climbed surefooted 4000ft up up the glare ice covered road out of Haines into the Chilkoot when other vehicles couldn't move, and done the same in 113F heat to the observatory on top of Mount Palomar in Southern California. I've used it to skid logs and pull 1/2-ton 4x4 pickups out of the ditch. There's not much on it I can't fix, and have over the years. It's gotten a little small for us in recent years, with the kid and the dog and etc. Nowadays I drive a GMC crew cab, and my wife mostly only uses the Jeep in the winter, when we've put her Mustang Convertible away. But it's still in decent shape, and I'm certainly not used to finding a puddle under the rear end.
Hmmm, says I to myself, that can't be good. I had just changed the oil last weekend, and my first thought was maybe I hadn't tightened down the new filter or oil pan drain plug properly. But in that case the puddle should have been under the front of the jeep. So what the hell was this?
Brake fluid. Double plus ungood. The left, rear brake cylinder seal had failed. Brake fluid was draining out through the hub and all over the garage floor. Oh yeah, says my lovely wife, the brakes have been acting funny lately. Oh really? How odd.
Now see, I hate working on cars. I can do it, I just don't like it. I love tools and especially woodwork. Working with wood is clean. The smell of cut wood is something I enjoy. Woodwork is my Zen. Cars? Filthy, oily, smelly mess even in the best of times. And no matter what the problem is - it's always in some impossible to reach spot on the vehicle, where even a four armed, humpbacked chimpanzee would have trouble getting it's hands into. And no matter how large my toolbox is, auto repair inevitably require some kind of special gizmo that I don't have. Always.
So I figured to hell with it, I'll just fill the brake reservoir and take it in to the shop. Great idea, until I got a couple of estimates over the phone and couldn't find a place to do the work until next week, late next week. Palmer is a small town, there's not a lot of options, and I sure as hell didn't want to drive it any further than that. Sigh.
So yesterday I pulled it into the shop and pulled the rear brakes. What a mess, the usual road muck and caked brake dust mixed in a slurry of hydraulic fluid. Nice. Front disc brakes I can change out in an hour, but rear drum brakes? Ugh, special tools, springs and cables and weird little doodads put together by some demented automotive engineer. Who designs this stuff? Seriously? Do they get paid more if they design a connector that instead of a simple standard cotter pin uses three springs, a flange, and a unique retaining pin that can only be purchased from NAPA? And requires a special spring compressor tool, 3 hands, and an arcane combination of cursing to remove? And it's positioned in the most inaccessible recess on the brake support assembly where it is impossible to position a worklight so you can see the dammed thing? What the hell is it with these people?
Wright's First Law: Engineers should not be allowed to wander around the universe without a keeper.
Wright's Own Corollary to Wright's First Law: All engineers should have a large burly assistant, with a mallet, who stands behind the engineer and stops him when the design complexity exceeds common sense.
So, anyway, I eventually got the brakes pulled. In the process I bashed the knuckles on both hands and additionally managed to nearly brain myself on the under carriage when a bolt let go suddenly. Ended up with a scraped forehead and a goose-egg, wonderful. I cleaned the various parts up using my grinder's wire wheel polisher. Degreased the mounting assembly. Made a list of the parts I needed, brake shoes, drums, hydraulic cylinders, new brake lines (hey, if I've got to do it, I'm dammed well going to do a complete overhaul) and etc. And headed into to town to NAPA. And the first question the guy behind the counter asks? What size drums, 9 inch or 10 inch?
WTF? Why? Why? Why, would there be two different sized brake drums made for a 1992 Jeep Cherokee Laredo? Why? What possible Goddammed reason could there be? Or course I hadn't measured them. So I had to run back home, measure the drums, and then go back to the auto parts place. Argh!
Wright's Admonishment to large burly Engineering Assistants: smack the Engineer with your mallet occasionally, for no reason at all.
Eventually, after a third trip to NAPA, I got it mostly done. This morning I've just got to install the new brake lines, fill and bleed the system, and test it.
Test it. As in go drive around the block and test the brakes. So, if you don't hear from me, it's because I screwed something up. But, not to worry, I almost never do that. Almost.