I don’t know how this happened, but my $1 Oldsmobile Alero—with its unknown service history and only recent “running” status after 11 months in a coma—is now my best car. As such, I’m taking it on a 1,400 mile road trip. God I hope I don’t have to celebrate Thanksgiving on the shoulder of a Pennsylvania interstate.
I say the 2001 Alero is my “best” car because, even though I do have a pair of Cherokees that technically function, one of them has the ride quality of a wooden rollercoaster, the other blows turn signal fuses every five minutes, and both get the fuel economy of an Australian road train.
My extremely slow Willys CJ-2A is down for repairs (I have to replace the kingpin bearings), my Jeep J10 has been sitting in my backyard for years, and my Grand Wagoneer isn’t even close to roadworthy.
Since I couldn’t manage to grab a press car, that leaves me with the Oldsmobile, a vehicle that I hadn’t even inspected since towing it from my friend’s house. But since I’m driving nearly 700 miles to Virginia on Wednesday, that changed today.
A few months ago, I bought my friend’s 2001 Oldsmobile Alero for $1 with plans to destroy the car in an upcoming video series. But, after a bit of junkyard-diving for ignition parts, I got the car running and driving so well that I decided I couldn’t junk it. It just wouldn’t be right.
A few weeks ago, I replaced the car’s radiator, which was plagued with a transmission fluid leak. But with that taken care of, I’m ready to do some validation testing before I trade this Quad 4-powered family sedan for my landlords’ Kia Rio. If this fine machine can make it back and forth from Michigan to Virginia, I’ll feel a heck of a lot more comfortable handing the keys to my landlords, who have the power to take the roof from over my head at any moment.
(Admittedly, if the car doesn’t make the drive, I literally have no backup plan. If the water pump dies on some random Pennsylvania road, and my copilot Brandon has to spend his Thanksgiving eating gas station food with me on the shoulder, he’ll never forgive me).
The good news is, based on my inspection, I’m not sure I should be so worried.
Last year, I wrote a story detailing the proper way to inspect a car to make sure it’s safe. My check-up on this Oldsmobile was an abbreviated version of that process. The first thing I did was take off each wheel, and have a look at the tires, control arms, ball joints, tie rod ends, bushings, brake parts and axles. These are the most important bits to inspect, as their failure can be catastrophic.
The rotors looked fine. They didn’t have any deep grooves, and they weren’t warped (a fact that’s confirmed by a lack of shuddering during high-speed braking).
The brake pads also had plenty of material on them (see above) both on the front and back sides of each rotor—this was also confirmed by a lack of squeaking during braking.
I also had a look at the rubber bushings connecting the vital suspension arms to the knuckles on one end, and the suspension cradle on the other; the bushings were old and cracked, but they hadn’t disintegrated, and the connections remained tight. So I’m going to call it good for now.
The rubber CV axle boots, which contain the grease that lubricates the constant velocity joints, were all free from tears. This is a good thing, as if water enters those boots, the CV axles will fail in no-time, making it impossible to drive the Lansing, Michigan-built sedan anywhere but downhill. The red sway bar bushings also looked decent.
I also had a nice gander at the rubber tie rod end boots (both inner and outer). If those tear and let water in, the connection between the steering wheel and the wheels can be compromised—a potentially dangerous situation. Luckily, mine were in solid shape.
Like a tie rod end breaking, one of the most frightening failure modes—and one that keeps me up at night—is a bad ball joint. Because a ball joint attaches the knuckle (to which the wheel hub is attached) to the car, a bad ball joint can tear the wheel right off, making a driver lose control. Both of the rubber boots on my ball joints looked nice.
But a good rubber boot doesn’t mean the part is necessarily safe. Those inner and outer tie rods, as well as the ball joints, could still have worn down over the years. The way to check whether the parts are in good order is to jack each wheel up, and grab hold of the tire from the sides.
If you can easily turn the tire about the steering axis, then there’s likely an issue with the tie rods. If you grab the wheel by the top and bottom, and there’s lots of play, then a ball joint is likely bad. In my case, the Oldsmobile got nice green check marks across the board.
I’m a little concerned about the rust starting on the subframe. It’s not flaking off, so there’s still a decent amount of strong metal there. But a few more Michigan winters, and I’d probably want to revisit the suspension mounting points with a hammer just to be sure.
After having a quick peek at the brake hoses (looking for cracks) and lines (looking for rust), I moved on to the tires.
The tire on the right was the one mounted up front on the passenger’s side, and the one on the left was in the back. Like on the driver’s side, the front tire was worn down much worse than the rear, and was causing issues maintaining traction in wet weather. The car had a tendency to rip one-wheel burnouts when accelerating, and turns were far too understeer-y for my tastes.
So I swapped the worn down fronts (which are barely holding on in the center of the tread, but the outsides are past the wear bars) for the rears, and the difference in turning, braking and accelerating is dramatic.
When I get back from this road trip (god willing), my landlord will want to swap those rear tires (especially before it snows to avoid “fishtailing”), but for my road trip on Wednesday, I think the rubber will be just fine.
With all my suspension and steering bits in decent shape (I also greased whatever parts had zerk fittings) and my lug nuts torqued to spec, I moved on to fluids, because even if I’m not going to crash due to a suspension or brake failure, I’d also prefer not to be stranded on the side of the road because of a powertrain-related issue.
And the best way to prevent a powertrain or drivetrain failure is to keep the fluids clean and properly filled. So naturally, I checked my coolant, which looked decent.
Then I popped my oil dipstick out, and there appeared to be enough in there.
Checking the transmission fluid was a little bit more complex, but not too difficult. I just started up that Quad 4 engine (which, believe it or not, was the basis of the amazing 1,000 horsepower engine in the Oldsmobile Aerotech concept), and left the car running in park on level ground. Then I removed the drain plug shown above, and because a bit of fluid dripped out, I knew I had sufficient trans oil.
After checking my air filter, I went ahead and popped the trunk to make sure there was a decent spare back there in case of a blowout. What I found was a donut that was in good enough shape, but probably could use some air. Luckily, I have an air compressor in my emergency kit:
The kit includes oil, coolant, jumper cables, a compressor, a floor jack, and a tire iron. Between these, a tool set that I’m bringing along, and a renewed AAA membership, I’ll be ready for a breakdown if the car gods decide to curse me with one.
As of now, all systems appear to be in tip-top shape aside from my gauge cluster, which—even after replacing it with a new unit—continues to malfunction. Looks like I’ll be driving with no fuel, speed, RPM or coolant temperature gauges.
Maybe I should consider throwing a jerry can into that emergency kit.