Control arms, ball joints, and tie rods


#1

I took my car (97 Explorer with 140,000 miles) to two different mechanics for the annual Virginia safety inspection.



One said the “left upper and lower control arm and ball joint” needed replacement and “both outer tie rods were loose” and this was going to cost $1400 to fix. The other one did not find any problem with these parts.



I am not sure whether to believe the first mechanic was trying to rip me off, or the second mechanic is incompetent and failed to notice something. Obviously I’m going to happily accept the sticker that says I passed the safety inspection, but is this just papering over a real problem?



If these problems are real, and I only plan to own this car for another two years, tops, can I get away with not fixing them? What is the potential risk of driving with bad / loose control arms, ball joints, and tie rods?


#2

The real safety issues are a worn ball joint followed by a worn tie rod end… A loose control arm bushing or tie rod can be lived with for the most part.

Since it is claimed the left front suffers multiple problems I would jack the the left front up just enough to get the tire off the ground.
Grasp the tire at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions. Exert some force and try to move it around. I would think that if you have this many claimed problems there should be some very noticeable movement in the tire/wheel assembly. Also do this at the 12 and the 6 o’clock.
If it feels tight then the original shop may have been trying to generate some profit based on a very subjective opinion at the least.

I would also think that the left front tire should be showing some signs of abnormal tire wear since it is claimed the LF has so many issues. A badly worn front suspension may also cause handling problems such as wandering while going down the road or a wallowing feeling during a turn on a curved roadway. Noises MAY be present; groaning, creaking, grinding, popping, etc.

I’m not familiar with how your state does inspections, but what kind of facility was the first inspection station? Was this a Firestone, Midas, or something like that?


#3

The first inspection station was a local mechanic who (for what it’s worth) is the AAA recommended mechanic in the area. Not a Midas. Reasonably big place with “certified” mechanics.

When you say “move the tire around” do you mean in and out, up and down, back and forth? If it moves in any dimension except around the axle, that’s bad?

I am not sure where to go for a third opinion. I would think a tire store would be able to tell me if the suspension is messed up, but I am fairly unimpressed with the local tire stores (Goodyear, Merchant’s, Mr Tire) based on past experience.


#4

Is this a 2WD or 4WD Exploder? Tie rod end play is relatively simple to spot. Get under the front of the vehicle. (Be sure it is supported properly if raised, but being fairly high, maybe you can crawl under it wheels on ground.) Have someone turn the steering wheel ever so slightly back and forth while you observe the tie rod ends. You should not be able to see any play. Ball joints are more tricky.

Many years ago, I took a car to three shops. Each told me that there was something different wrong with the front suspension and steering of that car. All three were trying to get money for uneeded repairs. That is when I learned to look myself. Now I don’t do it any more because I have a shop I trust.


#5

You can check this yourself, you really can. You will need a Floor Jack and a 4’ long 2X4. Place the jack so it lifts the wheel by raising the lower control arm. Slide it in right next to the ball-joint and lift from there. When the wheel is off the ground 4" or so, grab the tire at the front and back and twist it back and forth like it would move when steering. There should be virtually no “play” in the steering linkage (the tie-rod end). A helper can look under the car and watch the tie-rod end for play. A loose one is easy to spot.

Now for the ball joints. Stick that 2X4 under the tire 6" or so and lift the other end. If the tire can be lifted any noticeable amount, (not the whole car, just the tire) that play is in the ball joint. Again, a helper can look at the joint while you lift the tire. If movement can be seen, (more than 1/8th inch) the joint is shot. When you are checking the tie-rod ends, you MIGHT feel a LITTLE play in the wheel bearings. A tiny amount is normal.

Remember, if the SPRING is resting on the lower control arm, the JACK must also support the wheel on the lower control arm in order to “unload” the ball-joints. If you lift from the frame, the spring keeps heavy tension on the ball-joint and it will not show looseness. On vehicles where the spring rests on the Upper control arm, then lift from the frame to unload the joints.

If this is all to much for you, have a front-end shop, wheel, frame & axle type place, NOT a tire store or lube shop, but a real repair shop, check it for you. This inspection takes no more than 10 minutes.


#6

Unless you have lost control of the vehicle and hit a curb really hard, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with the control arms or bushings. The ball joints should also be OK as well, but they do have a slightly higher probability for wear than the control arm bushings. Tie rod ends have the highest probability for wear but even they should be ok.

I was stationed in Virginia for about 6 years. I did not care for their inspection system, I always felt like some of them were a bunch of crooks. Different inspectors would find different things, each seemed to have their little specialties. I had one car rejected for window tint, even though the tint was legal. It passed several time before. Another one passed several times for a crack in the windshield, but I ran into one guy that had a real unusual interpretation of the law. I think he flunked geometry, he didn’t know the difference between diameter and radius.