It’s Halloween, the perfect time to talk about things that haunt us: like parts failures that can cause us to lose control of our vehicles. Here are the scariest automobile failure modes I can think of.
I’m going to limit this list to somewhat-common types of mechanical mishaps, since there are far too many kinds of freak accidents that happen like that pickup truck whose cab flew right off its frame a few weeks ago.
Those “once in a blue moon” accidents aren’t what should keep us all up at night, anyway; what should haunt our nightmares are the little maintenance oversights that can wreak havoc on our cars.
I’ve talked about ball joint failures many times before, mostly because the idea of it scares the crap out of me. I’ve seen dozens of cars missing wheels on the shoulders of various highways, and I know exactly why.
Symptoms of failing ball joints—the things that keep your wheels connected to your car—are relatively subtle considering the possible consequences.
I drove a Honda Accord from New Jersey to Michigan a while ago with that failing ball joint you see in the photo above. Yes, I could hear a banging noise from the passenger’s side wheel well, and the steering wheel shook a bit. But while I knew those symptoms could be a big deal, I doubt the average person would have understood how dire the situation was based on a slightly shaky steering wheel and some noise from one of the wheels.
Just look at the bottom of the ball in that picture above—it was sooo close to coming out of that socket, sending the wheel flying off my vehicle, and possibly causing my car to lose control as the suspension ground against the asphalt.
Of course, there are other ways that wheels can fall off—they can crack, and suspension components can fail—but bad ball joints are usually the primary cause of car turning into a three-legged wreck on the side of the road.
Another one of my nightmares deals with moving parts seizing up, especially while driving at high speeds. And such an occurrence is really not that unlikely, either.
For example, if, for some reason, you accidentally forgot to put your oil’s drain plug back on after a service, or perhaps you own a Volkswagen with an aluminum oil pan that may as well be made of glass and you hit a bump, you may accidentally run your engine out of oil.
If that happens, the lubrication keeping your rings and bearings from grinding against other metal parts will be lost, and your engine can “lock up,” which could send your car spinning out of control on the highway.
Admittedly, engines usually slow down and lose power before locking, so it’s not likely you’ll be going 80 mph one second, and then have your driven wheels lock up the next, but it’s possible that your motor could seize while you’re moving at a reasonable clip, and—especially if you’re in gear with the clutch pedal out—your wheels will lock too, and you could be in for a hell of a ride.
Differentials, transfer cases, and pretty much any sort of gearbox can also seize up (see video above), especially if an over-stressed broken gear tooth gets caught in the mesh between other gears, or if a lack of oil causes a bearing to heat up and weld itself to a stop.
The likelihood of your steering wheel coming off in your hands like in the video above is slim, but there are other ways your car can lose steering.
For one—and this is one I harp on about quite often—tie rod ends can fail, especially if holes in rubber boots allow moisture to contaminate the grease within.
The outer tie rod end connects your steering rack with your knuckle (which holds your wheel). If one of those tie rod ends fails, you’ll be unable to control the direction of one of your wheels, which could be disastrous. Similar consequences exist if your inner tie rod ends—which are protected by rubber bellows—fail.
And it’s not just tie rod ends that make losing steering such a scary idea; my biggest fear is my steering intermediate shaft coming apart—that’s the one that connects the wheel to the steering box. Here’s a look at the u-joint that I pray to the heavens will never let go:
This latter bit about the I-shaft is probably not a reasonable fear, but for some reason, it haunts me even more so than the much-more-common tie rod end failure.
The video above is horrifying, even though it’s clearly just a demonstration. I think we’ve all had nightmares about losing brakes, especially while driving down steep grades.
And while it sounds like it may never happen to you, it totally can. All it takes is a small pinhole in your brake lines, and you can lose some—if not all—of your braking ability, especially if your park brake doesn’t work.
This is something that happens up north in areas where there’s lots of salt on the roads. Not nearly enough car owners get down in the dirt, slide under their vehicles, and inspect their brake lines. I did just that a few months ago, and here’s what I found:
It wasn’t that bad (I gave it a squish to see how scaley that rust was), but after a few winters, that line could become a major problem.
I’ve got all sorts of electrical gremlins in my cars, especially my Jeep Cherokee, whose alternator over-charges its battery for some reason (I think there’s an issue with a corroded wire somewhere).
But just because my car was a junker, doesn’t mean your car won’t have electrical problems. My dad used to drive a 2005 Saturn Vue, whose turn signal stalk actually went up in smoke one day while driving (this is apparently a fairly common issue on Theta-platform GM products). Between that, and the video above showing a Durango up in flames, it’s clear that electrical gremlins can be a big deal on any car.
My biggest fire concern, though—even more so than a rusty fuel line or electrical gremlins—is transmission fluid, which is renowned for bursting into flames if it hits a hot surface like an exhaust manifold. I’m always worried that I’ll overfill my transmission, and ATF will spew out of my dipstick tube and onto my manifold.
Add to that the fact that, if your car has a carburetor, it adds a whole other bag of fire concerns to the game (I myself have caught two carburetors on fire in my lifetime, and I’m sure that number will only go up), and you’ll understand why I keep a fire extinguisher in my cars.
Rust is a bastard. It’ll knock out your brake lines, and it can severely compromise the structural integrity of your vehicle. If those compromises occur near major suspension component—control arms, front cradles, track bar mounts, etc.—you could hit a bump and completely lose control of your vehicle.
Rusted subframes seem to be a huge problem where I live near Detroit. And considering that the subframe holds the engine, trans, and entire driveline to the rest of the body, that’s something to take seriously. Just look at this nastiness:
Other issues are shock mounts. Here’s one from a fairly recent Ford Escape:
What’s worse than a bad shock mount, though, is a bad spring mount, as its in charge of suspending your body above your wheels. Just look at the giant hole in this Jeep’s frame:
I nearly bought that Jeep, too. If I’d have hit a bump, there’s a chance the spring would have poked up through the body, and the wheel would have wedged itself against the wheel well, causing the car to spin out of control.
So, rust is a big deal, but so are axle failures and wear in things like track bars.
A failed c-clip axle can actually cause you to completely lose a wheel (see video above), and a back track bar can cause terrible death wobble, which will make staying in your lane extremely difficult.
Exposure to too much carbon monoxide can kill you, and since carbon monoxide is a byproduct of your engine’s combustion reaction, it’s important that your exhaust system is in good shape to channel those harmful gases away from the cabin.
But, as I’m sure everyone has noticed, exhaust pipes—especially in the salt-belt—are usually the first parts to succumb to rust, in part, because heat catalyzes the reaction. You’ll find rusty exhaust pipes littering the sides of highways across the American north and northeast.
In fact, recently, a police officer reportedly suffered nerve damage from carbon monoxide exposure in a Ford Explorer. This issue is not to be taken lightly.
Don’t buy cheap tires. I did, and when I hit a small piece of metal, my tire popped. Luckily, I was only driving about 35 mph, or this could have been bad. Very bad.
This one’s not so much a mechanical failure, bit if we’re talking about frightening things that can cause us to lose control of our vehicles, we have to mention hacking, which—with the ever-increasing number of computers allowing cars to become more and more automated— has been making the news quite a bit in the past few years.
Of course, it is important to differentiate between mechanical tampering, which is what a lot of these “hacking” videos really demonstrate, and actual remote or wireless hacking, which isn’t really a thing and is incredibly harder to pull off. For now. But it’s a scary thought in many people’s minds, especially as cars become more automated.
So those are the scariest relatively common (sans the hacking one, which I just threw in for a bit of extra Halloween fear-mongering) automotive failures. The good news is, you may be able to prevent these failures reading my article about how to make sure your car is safe to drive.
The bad news is, I said “may be able to.” Enjoy the drive to your Halloween party tonight. I’m sure it will be fine.