Tuesday, October 1, 2013


When Vlad became a member of our family, she had an immediately apparent problem which you may have deduced from previous photos.

Her front passenger side spring was broken, inviting the cruel and very un-badass nickname 'Eileen'.

We knew we would have to replace the springs fairly quickly (when you replace a spring one one side, you should always do both). We decided to replace her shocks at the same time, so we ordered new front springs, and front and rear shocks (we haven't actually switched the rears yet, but they will be done soon and I hope won't cause too much pain, so I will just include them in this post).
A few months ago, I joined a meetup group called 'Gearhead Girls', run by a retired female auto shop teacher. After several theoretical classes, the girls in the group were looking to do some actual work on a car, so I volunteered Vlad for a group session. Replacing the springs is something I was pretty scared of. If you've never looked closely at a vehicle's spring, take a look in one of your wheel wells. Your cars springs are designed to support the weight of your car and several passengers. The curb weight alone of a '67 4 door hardtop is well over 3500lb. Add a couple of festively plump Europeans and their large breed dog, plus any of the Scooby Gang along for the ride, and you've got a minimum of around 2 tons of weight those springs need to carry safely away from all manner of demons, ghosts and Leviathans.

Suffice to say, car springs are some heavy duty steel, and operate under an incredible amount of tension. Working on springs is very dangerous and has maimed and killed people. So it's not something this risk-averse girl was looking forward to much, but it needed to be done.

The old broken spring, or half of it.
After the springs and shocks arrived, I set a date with the group and we agreed to meet up one Sunday morning to work in the lovely air-conditioned shop of the group leader. I asked how long she thought it would take to do this job, and was amazed when she said '3-4 hours'. I didn't believe that for a second, but I also didn't think I would still be working on the springs a week later. My best guess is that from start to finish, changing the shocks and springs took around 50 hours (including a couple of lunch breaks and running around for a few parts). I'm imagining real mechanics reading this and having a good belly laugh.

After reading through the shop manual section on suspension, I discovered that Chevy wanted to use a 'special tool' which you had to fabricate from steel and a block of wood to change the springs. That seemed kind of crazy and I couldn't find any information anywhere about how it would work. I looked at several YouTube videos of changing springs (none of them close to the age or type of Vlad) and messaged Rick my YouTube Impala buddy to ask how he had worked on springs. He said he had used a spring compressor, which is what everyone else seems to use too. They can be bought, or rented at places like Autozone or NAPA.

You need an internal spring compressor to do this, and there are two types I came across. The first that we tried (from Autozone) had a hook like top, and a pickle fork type bottom - you hook over the spring inside and insert the bottom plate through the edge of the spring. This is what we used to remove the first (broken) spring. It went somewhat uneventfully, considering the spring was sheared in half, which was kind of terrifying. It didn't go as well trying to compress and install the first new spring though.

The new springs were about 17" tall, but needed to be compressed to around 11" in order to fit into the space. To get into this space, we had to remove the brake drum, take out the old shock, unbolt the strut rod and sway bar, and unbolt the part of the ball joint that attaches to the control arm. Most of these were caked with 40+ years of dirt and grime or rusted with damaged nuts or threads so not too simple to take apart. When you have your spring compressed to a small enough length (this is why you need tickets to the gun show, especially if you have to do this compression/decompression 8+ times like I did for various reasons - not enough thread left, spring compressor not gripping straight, etc)

Once in place (on the Impala, there is a slight tail to the spring which fits in a metal 'pocket' only one way), you put the spring in place, then jack up the control arm until it touches the bottom of the compressed spring, then decompress until the spring fits itself into the pocket. Or, in some cases, the spring compressor might just suddenly decide to release itself and the eager spring will jump into it's new pocket, scaring the shit out of all around and especially the person closest to it (me). My spring-fear began to grow. For this reason I decided I did not like the pickle fork style compressor. It was put on correctly as far as we could see, but it slipped out as soon as a little tension was taken off of it by the jack. I decided to try to find another style of spring compressor which I had seen online, and luckily NAPA had it to rent.

This is the first type of compressor we used:
And this is the second type of spring compressor, which I feel works best for this job:

At this point we were on about day three. I picked up the second style of compressor and we got to work. I also grabbed a heavy duty chain and padlock, and while I compressed the spring, we tightened the chain as we went in the hopes it would give some protection against the spring suddenly decompressing and flying loose around the shop (or through my skull).

The spring in all it's uncompressed glory.
Compressed to roughly the length needed to fit in. The pink string was an idea of how to get the tool out more easily after - it did not work and we didn't use it on the second side.
It was decided that because the first compressor let go of the spring, that it would be safer to put the compressor on, then use hose clamps to hold the compressor in place, to prevent the tool sliding. DO NOT DO THIS. It was a bad idea. It worked, sure, and after compressing the spring for the zillionth time I was able to slide it into place and start to decompress the spring. However, the hose clamps prevented the top piece of the tool coming free, (the bottom hose clamps can be reached and undone) as a couple of them were wedged between the spring and the car frame. On the second spring, I did not use hose clamps at the top (I agreed to use them on the bottom because of debate about this) and there was no slippage.

The stuck top part of the tool. You can see 2 of the hose clamps. 
Much of day 4 consisted of welding a special make-shift tool to get the top part of the spring compressor free and praying feverishly to Castiel. Thankfully, this worked, and once we were able to get the top part free, we were also able to remove three of the top hose clamps. One remains stuck in the spring forever. This knowledge pisses me off, so that's the last I will say about that.
The tool we made to free the compressor - a square pipe (with two more metal pieces added at the top) welded to an impact wrench extension which we used to 'hammer' free the tool. 

Once the spring was in and we put the pieces back together, replacing the shock was fairly simple (you will need a scissor or bottle jack to slightly compress the shock while you bolt it in. We replaced the rest of the parts on the RH side and torqued to specs given in the manual.
The first spring and shock in place. 
One tip to get more play in the ball joint arm is to remove a rubber stopper underneath it - this gave us about 1" more room so that we did not have to compress the spring quite as much. Be careful though as it's old rubber and likely brittle. I was lucky and able to get them in and out fairly easily without breaking. You can use some lube to get it back in. That's what she said.
The cone shaped rubber stopper we removed. 
Getting the drum off the driver's side was not fun. One of the springs in the brake assembly had popped out and expanded the shoes all the way into the drum so it was wedged on. Luckily I had super ex-marine Chere, an awesome lady who had come to the shop every day to help me out. Together we managed to pry the drum off, and got to work unbolting everything prepping the side for the spring. Chere is left handed, and her lefty strength was invaluable undoing many of the awkward bolts. I highly recommend finding a strong lefty for all your car projects!

Cas answered my prayers to never compress a spring again, and T was able to join me on the Saturday to keep working. He compressed the second spring without much to-do, and popped it into place.
T looking way too happy about compressing his spring. I think he only had to do it twice. 
The bushings on the strut rod were totally worn away or missing in some parts, so we decided to order new bushings and put everything back together when they arrived after my trip to CA the following week.
New strut rod bushing vs old.
So 2 weekends later, T and I returned and replaced the left shock, re-assembled the parts and torqued everything. Since we had loosened the brake shoes as much as we could to remove and replace the drums, I adjusted them back again manually and then used the automatic adjuster once she was back on the ground by driving 3ft backwards and forwards like a weirdo lots of times.
Done! About to take her outside to adjust the brakes.
For some reason, even with the new spring in, Vlad is still sitting considerably lower on the passenger side. I don't know if this is because the spring was broken for so long? And we're not sure what to do about it, so that will need more research. If anyone has any ideas please chime in!

The new springs and shocks certainly made for a smoother drive home. Our next big project will be converting the old drum brakes to discs. I'm hoping this will go a little easier, but I am sure it won't!

When we got home, T fitted Vlad with her new plate surrounds that I got him for his birthday. I also got him front AND rear bumper guards.... what a lucky guy! He grumbled that these were really presents for 'both of us'. He got Matchbox Twenty tickets too, so don't feel too sorry for him people.

As a reward for reading all the way to the end, I gift you with this picture of how I looked every night that week.

Parts used in this episode:
Shocks: KYB Gas-A-Just front and rear shocks KYKG4515 and KYKG5507 (www.carparts.com)
Springs: Moog CC609 (www.autopartswarehouse.com)
Replacement bushings for Strut Rod: Moog MOK6092 (www.carparts.com)
Spare cotter pins for putting the drums back together.

Tools needed:
Multiple socket sizes, deep and shallow, with ratchets. An impact wrench is very useful.
Multiple sizes of spanners, or as the Yanks like to call them, 'wrenches'.
Spring compressor - borrow this from NAPA, about $50 returnable deposit.
Torque wrench.
Wire cutters.
Brake adjuster or flat head screwdriver.
Breaker bar.
Floor jack.
Jack stands.
Wheel chocks.
Bottle or scissor jack.
Wire brushes are handy to clean up rusted bolts and nuts.

Sergeant Safety Says:
Don't forget - Gloves, eye protection and also hearing protection if you use an impact wrench.

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