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Project Apollo, Part VIII: Squeak, Rattle, Roll

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Photos by the author.

In the late 80s, I had the distinct displeasure of seeing a very nicely kept Opel GT meet its likely end. The GT lost a ball joint and the driver’s side front wheel came off at about 40 MPH. The car skidded along a busy city street just before I passed by in my original ’74 Buick Apollo. The driver, about my age then, was looking in sorrow at his pride and joy, already a rarity in those years. I have never forgotten the look on his face. It taught me never to ignore chassis noises.

My (sub)frame-on restoration continues. After fixing lots of mistakes in the interior, purchasing aftermarket front seats, and sending the back seat and dash out to a local shop, I intended to get into what would be the home stretch for me: priming and painting the car. Yet on a few local jaunts in the primer-and-patched beast, I kept hearing creaks, squeaks, and thuds from the chassis. I’d had my local shop replace ball joints and check the suspension in 2016, yet troubling noises were coming from down there after the car warmed up a bit.

I like anything called “Apollo,” from the Moon missions that fascinated me as a kid to my current cuppa Joe. Because I can and it’s available, I drink Apollo from Counter Culture Coffee, sold at a locally owned grocer’s. It’s expensive but superb. I enjoy how the bins get moved around a lot; maybe I’m losing my mind but the names of the coffees have taken on a mystical significance. About the time I started fretting about chassis noises, an I-Ching-style message greeted me, spelled out with three brands of coffee: Apollo. Big Trouble. Fast Forward.

After making a cup or two, I got on my creeper and checked every bushing in sight. Nearly every one of them needed to be replaced. First, being a novice, I had to identify all the bushings from the service manuals I’d purchased, one for ’74 Buicks, another for ’74 Chevrolets. You cannot have enough manuals. That Chevrolet manual, with its ample pictures and illustrations of work done on Novas, proved invaluable because it had more photos than the one from Flint.

Back End Bangs
I began with the rear end, where a thud when going over bumps told me I was bottoming out. Soon I was online to order a polyurethane bushing kit from Energy Suspension, and I picked up a bushing-puller kit that cost more than the bushings, yet proved nearly useless in removing them. The local NAPA supplied me with new Monroe shocks that I installed, as proud as I had been when I first changed my own oil. I used the red poly bushings, so I could more easily see which I’d changed already and, later, ID problems easier. I could care less about keeping my ’70s-style custom sleeper stock, and it bored me to have a chassis that was all black!

I won’t bore readers with my scribbles, but my log book shows the agony of the weeks that followed. Even when soaked in penetrating oil, tapped, pounded, cursed at, leered at, and left for dead, the old leaf spring bushings needed to be drilled out, then the inner metal sleeves cut carefully with a reciprocating saw, since a leaf spring does not sit well enough on our shop’s press for me to press the bushings out. Re-aligning the shock tower bushings and bolting it all together again took a great deal of patience and time. I learned how quickly the geometry of the car changes as you jack only one side up. Bolts would never quite align with their original holes, until I lowered the car, changed my props, and started again.

It all was getting more than tedious. Two weeks of evenings crawled by. Once disaster nearly struck, when I was partly under the car. Our lift being in use for another restoration, on an early ’50s International pickup. The front driver’s side was on a stand while I was tapping a leaf spring on the back passenger side when the front end slipped off the stand! It sounded like an angry cough by Godzilla, when the Apollo hit the ground. I had known better than to be under a car on stands, but I was still chastened by that noise. No damage occurred, nor loss of alignment, beyond a bent edge on the backing plate for the front drum. That was easily repaired, but I always kept three tires on the car, afterward, save when I had to lower the rear end and remove the leaf springs. In those cases, I used multiple stands, some big blocks of wood, and my floor jack to support the vehicle.

Lesson to novices: The steps they skip on YouTube are precisely the ones you need to know.

As I removed bushings, I wire-brushed, primed, and painted underbody components, often with a brush. Who will see that on a driver-quality car? Components I removed did, however, get sprayed with epoxy suspension paint. Some of my late father-in-law’s stash of Eastwood chassis paint came in very handy at this point, until I had the back end fastened with my new torque wrench. A road test followed, with the thuds gone but the squeaks from the front of the suspension still very evident. So next I moved up the X-Body’s subframe. When I originally owned an Apollo in the ’70s and ’80s, I was not into wrenching, beyond changing oil; I’d never even known that my car lacked a full frame.

Body To Frame Time
Finding the subframe-to-body bushings were easy; removing them less so even though, in theory, one only needs to remove pressure from the subframe by loosening the bolts and jacking up the body, a little. I found that a block of wood under the pinch welds on the body, something I’d seen in a YouTube video about a Nova, helped, but using two jacks, not one, let me tweak the lift enough to pry out the old bushings.

Many of them looked awful. The otherwise worthless bushing puller proved useful at last, providing spacers I could use to tap the old bushing out of the car’s subframe. Compared to the back end, it was child’s play. And as much as I feared twisting the body when I screwed it back on, it lined up properly. I like to believe that my two-jack trick distributed pressure enough to lift the body and front fender without twisting, even when I had to remove the fender liner. The passenger side subframe bushings also came out, as promised in a YouTube video, in half an hour, but learning the drill on the driver’s side really helped!

Yet when everything was screwed down, the first road test revealed a squeak like none I’d heard before.

A Final Mystery Squeak
On a no-ethanol gas run where I met a nice fellow from Northern Virginia delighted to show off his vintage Falcon, I was embarrassed to hear a terrific squeak from the driver’s side front end. We chatted about restorations; he’d paid to have his done, and it showed. His car met my criteria for Project Apollo: mostly stock looking, with more potent innards and some bling on the wheels. Otherwise, a sleeper.

As I squeaked my way back home, I pondered the bushings I had not replaced. Could the control arms or sway-bar links make such a noise? Were my new front shocks and ball joints bad, already? Should I give up and write a big check as soon as I had the money, since my car would never look as nice as that Ford?

That sort of thinking can drive you insane, especially if you are over budget and have never changed a front shock or ball joint yourself. So I fell back on my academic practices; I teach writing, and when teaching kids analysis I tell them to always apply the principle of Occam’s Razor when confused: given competing explanations, start with the simplest. Test and repeat. Back in the garage, pushing the bumper up and down made the squeak coincide with the flexing of the coil spring, plainly audible. Back on my creeper, I found a spot on the spring where the paint had been rubbed off by minute but repeated contact with the car’s frame. Sure enough, the new coil springs had been slightly larger than stock, the new bushings thicker. I’d subtly changed the car’s geometry, if not its apparent handling, bolting everything back together.

Mystery solved, as soon as I lubed the contact point. The squeak vanished, temporarily. Grinding 1/32 inch of clearance on the frame member made it miss the coil spring.

Even though some bushings still groan a bit and need more lube, that’s not so bad after all I’ve experienced. I called it done.

Reward Yourself!
Projects like this tax your patience and budget constantly, as we’ve seen with Don Homuth’s Corvair Homecoming project. I keep rooting for long-suffering Don, and I was delighted to see his project turn the corner recently from a dark time when I thought he might quit. If a dedicated person like him can have doubts, what about a novice doing a first restoration? I still contend that someone like me can do most of the wrenching to restore an old car. So far I’ve sunk about $7,000 into a vehicle I purchased and shipped for about $6,000. I figure another couple of thousand will finish it, as I’ll prime and paint it myself. Resale value? What is that? I plan to keep it until I can no longer drive. Put a price on that!

It’s wise, however, to treat yourself to something at milestone marks. So now my Apollo wears the sort of Torq Thrust wheels I have wanted, but never been able to afford, since my teens.

My brother-in-law Joe had purchased the mounting and balancing machines from his former employer, when they bought new ones; up to that point, the only machine we had, from the 1960s, would damage alloy wheels. Using the new-to-us equipment we mounted, balanced, and tested the car with the Torq Thrusts, deciding to replace the front brake drums; the one from the corner that had fallen had been tight and scraping, even before the car landed on it. After installation and adjustment, the car braked better.

GM sports mirrors are favorites of mine, and I pulled them from an edge-of-a-cliff ’76 Olds Omega, just before I sold it to a neighbor who plays with X-bodies. We towed it to safety out of our lumber shed with a friend’s son steering, while seated on a cinder block. The entire interior, other than the steering wheel, went to a dad and his 14-year-old son, who is building a ’76 Nova as his first car. That was close enough to my teenage experience to make me feel that a great circle had been closed.

The Apollo, well shod and sporting cool mirrors (a passenger-side mirror sure helps me back out of the garage), is ready for the home stretch. It looks rough but bears no relation to the barely running car I got just before Christmas, 2014. I am building a spray booth and expect to have primed it by October, when a friend from college, who took many rides in my original Buick, visits. He restored a ’57 Chevy four-door with his dad in the ’70s and still has that car. He’s expecting a road trip.

Paint can wait, but the car needs to be one color.

Yes, plans change. Fast Forward. Stay tuned. Just never stop your project.