Art by Jason Torchinsky

This past week, I replaced rotted-out brake lines under my landlord’s $1 Oldsmobile, and let me just say: It was total hell. I wrenched in my wet, dark driveway as my neighbor anxiously waited for his only mode of transportation to be fixed, and all the while, my hands bled from the sharp rust and my eyes watered from little rust particles falling into them. I think I need to leave Michigan.

Knock Knock, I heard at my door on Monday as I sat at my computer, browsing Craigslist—I mean, writing blogs about cars. After emailing the seller—oops! Saving my draft, I meant to say, I walked to the door to find my landlord standing there.

“Hey David, is the car ready?” he asked. “I’ve been sitting at home because I don’t have a way to get around.”

Ef.

The car, a deathtrap whose brakes had gone out on the poor guy just a few days prior, was not ready.

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I had spent Saturday night yanking the rusty brake lines out of the car, a job that required removing the battery and battery tray, undoing all the clamps that held the brake lines to the body (the black things in the photo above and below), and snipping the brake lines at their fittings with a pair of metal shears.

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Cutting the lines at the fittings was pretty much the only option, because using a flare-nut wrench to unscrew those rusty things without rounding them was just not going to happen. I know this because I tried, and just about rounded every corner off one of those Fe2O3-laden fittings as it remained firmly seized into the brake line.

With the old lines cut, I slapped a socket on the fittings, and carefully cranked them off with the help of a mapp torch—which I was worried to death would melt right through the rubber brake hose—and Cleveland’s finest penetrating lubricant.

One by one, I cut rusty brake lines, hit fittings with a torch while carefully avoiding rubber or fuel lines, sprayed penetrating oil, slapped a socket wrench on the fittings and prayed. Luckily, after what felt like forever, the fittings were out of the brake hoses and out of the ABS pump at the front of the car.

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I had to follow a similar procedure when removing the bolts holding the brake line brackets onto the unibody. Those, like damn near the whole underbody, looked like a sunken ship.

With the fittings removed, the lines cut, and the brackets undone, I began yanking out the front brake lines, and replacing them with new ones. The fronts are the shortest, and they run toward the ABS pump from the sides of the vehicle, so it wasn’t too bad trying to snake the new lines across and up in between all the junk in the engine bay.

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Installing the front two lines in the correct spots, and screwing their fittings into the brake hoses near the wheels took probably about half an hour. On the ABS pump side, I managed to screw the passenger’s side brake fitting in, but the driver’s side wouldn’t thread. I figured I was not threading in at a right angle, and decided to worry about this later. I moved on to the rear lines.

This, I later found out, would be a mistake.

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Removing the rear lines was a pain in the ass, since I had to pull them from the ABS pump at the front of the engine bay all the way past the engine and transmission and under the firewall without getting them caught on something. At the rear of the car, the lines were tucked up above the evap canister, so I had to carefully remove that (by undoing an extremely rusty bolt, and somehow not breaking it) first before yanking those lines. In retrospect, I should have just cut the suckers to bits.

Still, after about an hour, I managed to extract all of the crusty rear brake lines, which wasn’t nearly as difficult as putting in new lines, which I had to be careful not to ruin.

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Starting with pre-formed lines instead of making my own from scratch made installing the lines easier than it could have been, but still, getting them up along that firewall and fishing them up towards the ABS pump without bending to shearing them was a rough, rough time. Especially at night.

Eventually, I did get the lines up and forward through all that crap in the engine bay, and right near the ABS pump, but when it came time to thread in the front and rear driver’s side lines, I ran into some trouble.

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Unfortunately, the brake line outfit from whom I’d told my landlord to purchase the parts somehow sent me pre-formed lines for a 2001 Oldsmobile Alero with the wrong fittings—the threads were too coarse. This meant, after all that work to get them in, I had to yank two of my brake lines all the way back out.

This was a crushing blow, because I really didn’t want to waste my whole weekend working on this crusty car (I still had to do an oil change, fill the car’s tires with air, and top up the coolant, along with other issues I’d later run into), and were it not for this setback, I was certain I’d have had the brake lines done by Saturday night, about 11 hours after I’d started.

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Luckily, the Ebay seller was from Shelby Township in Michigan, not too far away, so I drove 20 minutes up there, dropped the lines off, and later came back to pick up the modified parts free of charge. (Yes, in retrospect, I could have just cut and flared a fitting myself or used an adapter).

With the fittings swapped, I installed the two new lines, as well as lines going from the master cylinder to the ABS pump, and things were looking good:

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Thing weren’t looking so good at the rear, though. When I went to fasten the lines to the body, and thread the rear fittings into their brake hoses, I spotted some nasty rust on the fuel lines. Like, horrible dark brown, crusty corrosion that I was extremely worried I might puncture as I moved them around to fit the new brake lines.

How long do these fuel lines have before they spring a leak? Not long. I’ll be recommending to my landlord that he replace them as soon as he can so he doesn’t leave a trail of gasoline on his driveway. I’ll probably volunteer to do this, because I’m a wrenching masochist.

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Also problematic at the rear of the car was the caliper, the bleeder screw of which I tried to loosen in an effort to fill the new brake lines with fresh fluid. Unfortunately, the dreaded “broken steel bleeder screw in aluminum caliper” struck yet again, even after I used my patented method of heating the screw and quenching it with PB Blaster lubricant. The screw sheared right off.

I even tried drilling the damn bleeder screw out with a left-hand drill-bit, but it was no use. It was forever seized into that caliper, which now had to be replaced. Yet another setback thanks to corrosion.

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So I ran to AutoZone, dropped $55 on a remanufactured caliper, then installed the thing on the rear driver’s side hub, only to be set back yet again when I saw how little pad material was left. At this point, it was midnight on Tuesday, and I had work the following day. But I was tired of spending my days wrenching on the Olds; it was time to get this done.

So I went around loosening calipers and replacing all the brake pads (the fronts, one pad of which is shown above, were very low). Then, using my one-person brake-bleeding tool, I filled the reservoir, loosened the bleeder screw on each caliper starting with the one farthest from the master cylinder, and began pumping the brakes until a clean line of fluid came out into my bleeding tool.

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I did this for all four corners into the night until about 1:30 a.m., when I tightened the driver’s side front caliper’s bleeder screw, screwed on the reservoir cap, and hopped behind the wheel. It was time to take a test drive.

Thank god, I didn’t see any major leaks from the crusty fuel lines, and the car stopped well, except the damn Anti-Lock light popped up on the dash. This is probably a result of some air stuck in the ABS pump—a bleeding operation that I’m not sure I have the specialized tools to do (I’ll recommend that my landlord do that at a dealer), or it could be that I accidentally pulled a wheel sensor connector off or broke a wire.

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Who knows. But the good news is: even though ABS may not function, the brakes feel great, and the car slows down quickly and in a controlled manner.

What doesn’t feel great is my body, which by the end of this ordeal was covered in cuts from all the underbody rust (there’s even a rust “stain” on my finger in the picture below, if you look closely), my face was showered in tiny rust particles after lying under that rotten hulk for hours, I was soaking wet from a rainstorm, I had mosquito bites all over my legs, and frankly, I was mentally exhausted.

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My landlord threw me some cash for the job, making this my very first paid wrenching experience. Still, even with some project money in my pocket, would I do this job for a stranger? Not in a million years. Which is why I have such respect for mechanics, especially those in the rust belt who have to deal with Cars From Hell like the $1 Oldsmobile probably on a daily basis.