Don’t Be The Bad Part

Regular readers of my writing know I like to tinker with cars. They also know life lessons tend to hide between the nuts, bolts, grease fittings and fan belts.

A little more than two months ago, my wife and I moved our family from Rochester, NY to Charlotte, NC for an amazing work opportunity. Around the same time, our oldest teenager earned her driver’s license. The confluence of these two events resulted in the acquisition of a third car. His name is Kenneth and he is a 2005 Volvo with 165,000 miles on him.

When shopping for this car I had a few specific criteria:

  • I wanted a car with engineering and build quality I respected and on which I could work
  • I wanted a manual transmission, because even in 2017 I believe driving a stick shift is an important, albeit esoteric, skill my children should know
  • I wanted it to be from south of NY so I wasn’t dealing with the “salt rot” so common to northern cars
  • I didn’t want to pay too much

After watching eBay auctions for several weeks, I concluded of all the manuals out there, Volvo sedans had the lowest resale values; bad for the guy who bought it new, but good for me.

In early December I saw Kenneth, a 2005 s40. He was from Maryland and nobody seemed to want him… perfect. When the auction was over he was mine for the tidy sum of $1,425. I paid an additional $300 to have him shipped from MD to our new address in NC.


The winning eBay Auction!

Based on the pictures, I knew the car would need a little interior sprucing up, but with a 5-speed you never really know the condition of the clutch. With 165,000 miles, I figured it was the second clutch and towards the end of its life – the perfect time to teach my daughter how to “row the gears.” My estimate was the clutch had anywhere from zero to 20,000 miles left on it.

The car showed up just before Christmas and was exactly as described. The clutch seemed good, but not great. The lot of us Nazarians arrived on December 28th and the stick-shift lessons began. Well, actually it took a few weeks to get things square with the NC DMV, but that’s a whole other violently horrible story for another day.

So, by late January, my daughter and I were beating the Volvo clutch like the proverbial “red headed step-child” on the mean streets of Charlotte.

It took about ten hours of practice, but eventually she was ready, and one warm evening we took a trip to Home Depot for a final certification. On the way home, my daughter turned to me and said, “Hey Dad. Something funny is happening. When I shift into a gear, everything’s fine until the RPMs get up to 3,000, then the engine keeps going faster, but not the car.”

Rut Row! This is classic “clutch slippage” and after a little more investigation I concluded the clutch was toast.

Having never replaced a clutch before, I first inquired about the cost of not doing it. After three phone calls, it looked like the number was $1,500 – more than I paid for the car… not happening.

I quickly ordered a Volvo s40 shop manual and after it arrived, I read all the chapters germane to clutch replacement. At the same time I read every Internet forum about Volvo clutches and I watched every relevant YouTube video. It looked complex, but not impossible so I ordered the following parts:

  • New Clutch (the thing the wears out)
  • New Pressure Plate (the springy part of the mechanism)
  • New release bearing/slave cylinder (the part the pushes on the springy part)

All three of these parts live waaaaaay down in the car inside something called the “Bell Housing.” A few days later the parts arrived and the journey began.

Without getting into unnecessary detail, here are the steps involved in replacing a clutch in a front-wheel drive car.

  • Raise car and place on jack stands, keeping it level
  • Remove two front wheels
  • Remove all large plastic pieces protecting the underside of the engine & front wheel wells
  • Remove battery & battery box
  • Remove air box, intake and all related plastic bits
  • Disconnect about fifty wires and connectors
  • Disassemble ¾ of the front suspension including separating ball joints
  • Remove two of the three motor mounts
  • Separate steering rack from subframe
  • Remove front subframe
  • Remove front drive axles
  • Remove transmission

At this point I feel I should tell you the time estimates for the above were universally around six hours and they were correct. After just over six hours of greasy labor I had the car apart and the transmission on the ground.


The old pressure plate before removal from the engine flywheel.

With all the bits removed, the actual replacement of the three key parts is a quick job, only about fifteen minutes, but in the process of disassembly I discovered a few other things that needed addressing on the drive shafts. They were the kind of thing you might not bother with if the car wasn’t in pieces (bad CV boots), but it was so I ordered the parts I needed and waited a few more days. The parts arrived, I installed them, and began the reassembly.


Disassembled parts on a garage floor. The bad CV boot is the accordion looking thing on the driveshaft in the upper left corner.

The worse part of putting things back together is reacquainting the transmission with the engine. The transmission weighs about fifty pounds and it is rather awkward to maneuver. Furthermore, the car is only about eighteen-inches off the ground so wrangling an oddly-shaped, fifty-pound ball of metal and lifting it up into the underbelly of an engine is, well, difficult.

Did I mention you need to keep it level or gear oil will pour out all over your face?

Once you get it close, the transmission has to line up perfectly before it will slide back onto the engine, but with the help of a friend I got it back on and secured it with the ten bolts that hold it all together. As I heard the conclusive “click” of everything going back together I thought to myself, “thank goodness that’s over.” I then spent four more hours doing the reverse of the list above in eager anticipation of a new and improved driving experience.

Keep in mind, the entire time Kenneth was out of commission, my children were taking my car to school, leaving me marooned here in our new home.

A week ago today I finished all the last bits and pieces. I lowered the car back onto its wheels, and turned the key. Kenneth came to life and no warning lights appeared on the dash – always a good sign after having so much of a car apart.

I depressed the clutch, the pedal went to the floor with almost no resistance and refused to come back up… not good at all.

Later that evening, with the help of my seventh grader, we did some investigating, coming to the conclusion that either I had installed the release bearing/slave cylinder wrong, or the part was bad. Either way the car was coming apart again. The good news is the second time, it only took me two and a half hours to get the transmission on the ground. It was déjà vu all over again, but it certainly was faster.


The troublesome part

The suspect part was installed correctly, so I pulled it and hooked it up to the hydraulic system manually.

After bleeding all the air out of the system I depressed the clutch pedal and the damn thing leaked like a disgruntled State Department bureaucrat.

I called the company from which I had purchased the “clutch kit,” and since I had purchased the parts as part of a kit, all three pieces needed to be removed and returned. It took five more days, but on Saturday I received the replacement parts.

I put it all back together and at 5:00 yesterday I pulled Kenneth out of the driveway under the power of his brand new clutch.

We all have bad moments and even bad days. One day in 2016, a worker in an auto parts factory in Hungary had a bad day (or even just a bad moment) and it cost me many hours of time, frustration, and a significant amount of knuckle skin.

The fact of the matter is, the things for which we are responsible do not exist in isolation.

If someone is counting on you to do a job, it isn’t just YOUR job. Failure on your part can have significant ripple effects across dozens of other people and other tasks. In my case it cost me time away from family and other things, but had this happened to a professional mechanic, there would have been loss of profit and reputation. Not the mechanic’s fault, but try and explain that to the customer who didn’t get his or her car back as promised.

It is Monday morning. As you head out to begin your workweek, accept these facts:

  • There will be moments when you experience frustration
  • There will be moments where you’ll be tempted to not give a shit

When this happens, remember all the people counting on you, and make every effort to not be the bad part. As you shift your car into gear on your drive home, you’ll be glad you did.

Copyright © 2017 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.

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5 thoughts on “Don’t Be The Bad Part

  • Thanks for introducing me to your blog. I admire your persistence without animosity and being able to glean and impart practical wisdom from a frustrating experience. Welcome to Charlotte. Pleased to have you and your family as neighbors. J

  • Enjoyed the story – and appreciated the moral of the story.

    I’ve never tackled anything this ambitious on any of my cars and am now of an age that there are better things to do with my ‘golden years’. But I’m glad to have grown up when cars could be readily repaired – literally under a shade tree.

    Your story reminds me a young co-worker. She was a Georgia Tech grad and our I.T. division head was a Yellowjacket alum, a fact that had something to do with her being hired. (Note: I trust you’ve lived in ACC country long enough to realize no one down here knows what a “UofR Yellowjacket” is.)
    Anyway, this gal was hired to be a programmer and went through the company’s COBOL training program. As part of the final test, each student was given a problem, had to write a program to solve the problem and was given data to run through the program to see if it worked as intended.
    The instructor ran her program and it produced the desired results. But then it was noted that her input was different than the other students. Turned out, she had a bug in her program – and instead of fixing the problem she manipulated the input to make the output look correct.
    Needless to say, her tenure at our company was brief. And now I wonder if she found a job making Volvo parts in Hungary…

    But my main reason for replying is to give a shout-out to a fellow Monroe County’er. (I grew up in Pittsford when it was just starting to transition from a farming community to a bedroom community.)
    I hope Charlotte is as good to you as it has been to our family for the past almost-40 years!

  • I’ve done a few clutches (with better results than yours!) a couple engines, a front suspension rebuild, and all the brake jobs on all my cars since I was 18. It’s always problematic when something doesn’t work as expected when it’s all reassembled! And disheartening! My daughter’s first car was a rear wheel drive Toyota Starlet with a five speed. After we had had it for a couple years her transmission started making whining noises so I got a junk yard tranny and replaced it myself. Unfortunately, it too whined. Initially I thought maybe I had replaced the wrong part but then assumed it must be a common issue and I would be derned lucky if I got another one that was quiet. I took the tranny back to the junk yard and got another. This time it was quiet and I was relieved that I would not have to do that again! However, I heard thru the grapevine a few years later that my daughter’s brother-in-law also had to replace the transmission after he had had the car for a few years.

  • Great moral Steve. As always, you have interwoven wisdom and a purpose to traveling the high road in your story(s).

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