Catastrophic bearing failure- Inspect and repack bearings during brake checks?

First post! Glad to be here.

My girlfriend owns a '92 Plymouth Acclaim. We noticed a few weeks ago that there was a clunk/rattle noise coming from one wheel, and since it mostly happened while cornering, thought it might be CV joints or maybe suspension. She brought it to her mechanic who inspected the brakes and found that the rear shocks were bad, but sent her away without fixing anything. The other day, on a long drive, the rattle suddenly intensified, morphed into a loud grinding noise, and then the wheel fell off.

I think I’m going to have to confront the mechanic. The bearings apparently hadn’t been repacked in some time, and were surely the cause of the rattle noise. I’m less concerned with the fact that he might have overlooked an obvious problem as much as neglected to properly service the vehicle.

Are brake techs supposed to check, then tighten wheel bearings or repack them if needed? Any literature that can help me with this?

There’s too much going on in this post to follow your train of thought.

  • you had a clunk/rattle noise, and mention suspecting a CV joint which puts the noise up front
  • but brought it to the mechanic to have the brakes inspected.
  • but were told you needed rear shocks.
  • and shortly afterwards lost a wheel to a bad bearing.

None of it really adds up, so I’m not going to venture a guess as to what the mechanic was told or asked about or should have done or anything else.

If the question is, does a brake inspection include inspecting and repacking wheel bearings the answer is no.

Bad wheel bearings also don’t clunk and rattle. They groan or buzz or hum or drone or something of that nature. Depending on what she told the mechanic or asked him to do it may or may not have been something that should have been picked up on.

"If the question is, does a brake inspection include inspecting and repacking wheel bearings the answer is no."
I’m afraid that this opinion/line of thinking is what has gotten us into this mess. After consulting the Chilton shop manual for the car, I’ve learned that “the lubricant in the rear wheel bearings should be inspected whenever the hubs are removed to inspect or repair the brakes…”

I’m not sure if I’m reading this wrong, I’ll add that the shop where the car is now commented that the bearings obviously hadn’t been repacked in some time.

I’m leaning towards your being way off base by trying to pin something on someone who doesn’t deserve to be pinned.

The mechanic “sent her away” implies that he refused to fix an unsafe car so that begs the question; was your girlfriend prepared to spend any money at all fixing anything on this car?
Rear shocks are cheap. Your girlfriend did not even want those?

Packing wheel bearings is not part of a brake inspection or service.

You did not state which wheel fell off but from the post I gather it was front wheel. The front wheel bearings are sealed units; they cannot be repacked. The rear bearings can be repacked but that is not part of a brake inspection.
This then begs the question: was your girlfriend prepared to pay for cleaning and repacking the rear bearings?

Cigroller is also correct about bearings not clunking and rattling and making a wild guess without seeing the damage I’m almost inclined to think a lower ball joint separated and that’s what caused the loss of the wheel.

Thats a FWD vehicle…you cant pack or tighten or do much at all to those bearings aside from checking for looseness when the vehicle is jacked up with the tire on…Only then will you reveal any “play” in the wheel bearing… Also that bearing HAD to be howling on its way to destruction. I dont think I have ever seen a wheel bearing NOT give clues…audible or otherwise before it departs this earthly realm.

SO…that would bring into play the ball joints…which will produce a nice clunk sound when they start to go bad. People ignore some serious sounds in their vehicles…for FAR too long…they are talking to you.

Friends of mine sometimes hate it when I ride with them…I can tell them so many things about their cars just from the noises… They think I’m “spooky” cause whatever I say to check…bec its about to fail…does fail soon after. Cars make tons of noise…they are talking to you…its not time to turn up the radio…but time to listen to your car.

Hope all of you are OK after that issue…The mechanic MIGHT have checked your wheels/ball joints etc if you asked him to do so or he was doing a related service that brought him into contact with those parts…but not really mandatory checks…Now I PERSONALLY check these things…just cause I am the curious type and it takes no time at all once the car is in the air etc…


We still don’t know which wheel fell off, which would be good to know. The Acclaim does have bearings for the rear wheels which can be serviced. The fronts cannot. If the noise you had initially was coming from the front, and the front wheel later fell off, this cannot be attributed to the mechanic not performing a service you feel you should have received. Did your girlfriend pay the mechanic for any services, including clean/repack wheel bearings (was $18.95 where I used to work, price waived with paid brake service that involved disassembling the bearings)? If she paid nothing, the mechanic is only obligated to give the car back in the same condition it was in when it arrived at the shop. The only plausible way I could see this being pinned on the mechanic (aside from him/her being paid to repair or repack the wheel bearings and not doing the job) is if the wheel that fell off was a rear wheel, and the mechanic had taken apart the wheel bearings during the brake inspection (which has to be done for the drums to be removed on this car if a brake inspection is being done beyond just inspecting the shoes through the inspection windows) and reinstalled them without the cotter pin. Even at that, I am of the opinion that the wheel should have never been allowed to fall off. Maybe I’m just overly picky, but I refuse to drive a vehicle that sounds like it’s going to fall apart any minute, and certainly won’t allow someone I care about to drive a vehicle in that condition until the problem is corrected. Wheel bearings always give lots of advance warning before they fail catastrophically, advance warning that would prevent most people from wanting to drive the car.

As Honda Blackbird tried to allude to, this car has a wheel hub/bearing pack assembly. It is non-servicable, meaning the bearings cannot be separated to be cleaned and re-packed. They are assembled and packed for life at the factory, and are only replaceable once they give signs of being bad. Many cars have been using these since the early 90’s, and still use them today.

I have replaced many of these, and they all give the classic signs you mentioned in your post. A simple hand rotation of the tire/wheel can easily confirm the bearing pack gone bad. This mechanic somehow missed it, but I cannot see how. Even with the weight of the car off the bearing, you can easily tell a bad bearing.

Cigroller, I recently did a bearing pack on a 1996 Plymouth Breeze, similar to the Acclaim, just not as boxey. We, at first, thought it was the CV joint, as the symptoms were nearly identical. But, once on the lift, the tire was so loose, you could almost pull it off the steering knuckle if not for the CV joint. If that center nut were to snap off, the wheel would have indeed gone flying. Once we pulled the CV joint off, the bearing pack seemed to explode apart, sending dry ball bearings everywhere on the shop floor. That was the worst of it, including the clean-up, chasing ball bearings all over. The repair at that point went smoothly on the re-assembly.

So I’m curious BustedKnuckles. What you’re saying is that the Breeze presented only with symptoms of a bad CV joint, but it turned out to be a near-dead wheel bearing? I’d think that it should have been droning up a storm, but I’m curious to know the outward symptoms.

As for the actual post I was mostly confused about whether we were talking about the front or the rear.

In fact, there is going to be no way to know what happened unless we are given more details - like which wheel came off, for instance. IF this car has drum brakes and IF it was a rear wheel that came off then I’d actually suspect there’s some chance that the shop messed up, but not by failure to inspect/repack the bearings but by maybe leaving the pin / retaining nut off after having reinstalled the brake drum & bearings.

Of course, it could have disc brakes in the rear since I think some Acclaims did, and that makes it irrelevant. We could also be talking about the front which also makes it irrelevant.
We could also be talking about something like a ball joint too, as others have noted.

Just another bit of info for the OP. Repacking the front wheel bearings was a standard procedure back in the days of RWD and front drum brakes. It pretty much went away with the introduction of disc brakes and especially with FWD with sealed bearings.

With the old drum brakes in front, you had to remove the outer bearing to pull the drum. If you remove the bearing, then you repack it before putting it back in. Sometimes they would repack the inner bearing too, but that meant replacing the inner seal as well so that would add cost.

With early disc brakes, the wheel bearings only had to be removed if the disc was being changed. In a few models, when the disc was changed, the wheel bearings had to be replaced as well as the races were machined into the disc. With FWD, the bearing is a separate issue all together.

Cigroller, of course when it got to me, they claimed the ‘weird’ sound was there for a while. I was actually fixing a squealing and worn out power steering belt, and they asked me about it. They pulled into the shop while I was in the office, so I didn’t hear it moving, just the squeal of the belt caught my attention. The minute we moved the car, the rattle, groan, and pop sounded like a classic CV joint. When I lifted the car to inspect the joint, I noticed the wheel was very loose. The CV joint was fine, but the wheel looked and felt like it was about to fall off. In fact, the CV joint was the only thing keeping the hub together.

Gosh, I can’t believe I didn’t say which wheel fell off. It was the right rear. There was noise coming from the wheel, but due to some characteristic of the sound, I thought it was the right front. I even was convinced that the front wheel had fallen off, up until the point where I got out of the car and saw which one it in fact was.

The wheel bearing broke, and so did the spindle. I’m not sure in which order, but the evidence according to Les Schwab, who has it now, shows that the bearing had not been cared for properly in previous hub work. I would love to “pin it on” someone, but I’ll bet that the original mechanic didn’t even check the rear brakes by removing the drums - that’s more work than they’re willing to do for free.

I hope you guys aren’t annoyed by my questions. I kind of thought it would be an interesting story, with the possible subplot of a dirtbag brake tech putting my gf’s life in danger.

Oops. I just assumed it was a front wheel based on my experience with the Breeze. My bad.

I still cannot believe a mechanic can’t ID a bad wheel bearing. I’ve spotted too many to count based simply with a hand rotation of a wheel.

I also assumed it was the front. but with the rears, the bearings are usually only looked at as a separate item. Unless you ask for it, it wont be done.

You might ask whether or not the shop inspected the rear brakes. If they are drum brakes, to the best of my knowledge, on these cars you do have to pull the wheel bearings to pull the drum. The main nut for the wheel bearing is not under a lot of torque - its just snugged a little. So it gets a cover over it that is locked in place with a large cotter pin to keep the nut in place. If the rear drums were pulled to inspect those brakes then its possible that the shop messed something up.

On the flip side of that, however, a bearing problem whether from age or poor work won’t go from fine to flying off in an instant. Someone inside of that car was ignoring a lot of noise and probably a lot of vibration.

Back in the day when all cars had drum brakes, packing the front wheel bearings was pretty much standard with a brake job…You had to pull the hub and drum off anyway…If you drove it until the wheel fell off, burned through the spindle, it must have been making quite a commotion for quite a while before that would happen…It would have been smoking hot and easy to spot just by stopping and walking around the car…

I’m a bit undecided on this one without a few more details.

Was there any growling, howling, or whatever from the wheel that fell off before the brakes were checked or any handling problems with the car such as wandering and so on?

If not, and IF the rear drums were pulled to inspect the rear brakes, I would say that it’s at least possible that someone may have reinstalled a drum without using a cotter pin or washer lock tab (I’m not familiar with the Acclaim) on the rear wheel bearing nut. The nut could have worked loose which could then have created grinding noises from the drum rubbing on the backing plate and/or the bearings disentegrating from all of the slop, not lack of grease or failure to repack them.
Wheel falls off, spindle hits the pavement, and that’s it.

About all I can suggest is ask the shop a few questions without providing any information about this incident and save all of the broken parts.
Visual examination of the bearing and races should tell if it was a lube, or lack of, failure.
Also look at that broken spindle and see if it still has the bearing nut and any cotter pin or lock washer in place.
If the shop says they removed the drums, the bearings/races are not fried, and the cotter pin/lock washer is not in place then I’m leaning towards a mistake on their part.

If a certain mechanic does ALL the maintenance on your car…then he/she SHOULD suggest what type of service is needed. Repacking the wheel bearing is something I’ve ALWAYS done whenever I serviced the brakes on a vehicle (some vehicles you can’t very easily) it’s NOT a requirement. BUT they should be checked and repacked regularly…It should be spelled out in the owners manual. A good mechanic should know what cars have serviceable bearings. If he’s been taking care of the car all this time then why weren’t they ever checked??? If he’s just some mechanic your gf used once or just every once in a while…then all bets are off.