Front end sounds, what can it be?

Hey guys I hope you can point me in the right direction. I have a 1998 Buick Lesabre with just shy of 160,000 miles. I have been getting a creaking, popping noise from the front end and it seems to be getting worse. I will try my best to explain:

This started about 2 months ago, every now and then. I took it in for an alignment which it need desperately and asked them to see if everything was good under there. They said they did not notice anything that needed replacement except maybe the inner tie rod on the driver’s side (outers are brand new with around 7000 on them and why I took the car in for an alignment, but the noise was there before the tierods were repalced)… The noise persisted and then got worse… I put the car on a jack and noticed the guys who did the alignment had left the lower strut bolts (the bolts that attach the strut to the steering knuckle) loose. Took it back to the alignment shop they redid everything and the sound got better for about a week, then got worse again. While driving I hit a big pot hole very hard, and the sound went away for WEEKS !!! It starting coming back about a week or two ago and is now getting worse again, I have put the car back up on jacks and can’t find anything wrong or loose… I have near zero play in the wheel when pulling from the top and bottom as well as left and right sides. Everything seems tight. I even re-lubed the tie rods.

About the sound:
I only notice it at slow speeds (As in driving around a parking lot, or pulling into a parking space) while turning the wheel, its kind of a creaking noise with an occasional pop. The sound seems to be there in forward or reverse. IT IS NOT, CV joints, I know that sounds and this is not it. I don’t notice the sound at speed, and it does not make the sound 100% of the time but it does seem to be doing it much more often. Where should I look first?? I don’t want to rebuild the whole front end trying to figure this out, and I hope that the fact the sound went away for so long after the pot hole is a clue…
Thanks in advance for any help you can give me.

Unfortunately ball joints can do this without giving any real external indication that they are bad. How are the boots? Do they have a grease fitting? I say “unfortunately” because the only way to really eliminate them is to separate them and see if they are still tight.

The other things that come to mind would be the sway bar bushings and links. Put it on ramps and get a big pry bar on the sway bar or something.

One other thing would be the upper strut bearings/mounts. When it’s creaking, hold the spring while having someone turn the wheel. See if the creaks coincide with vibrations through the springs. Also check the upper retaining nut for looseness.

You have the dreaded spring pop noise! The struts, springs, top mount and the steering bearings on top of the spring all work together, in theory, to allow steering and suspension movement. When one or more of those parts wears out, annoying noises can occur. Heck, sometimes the noise occurs on NEW cars even when all is well!

Since is could be aligned and there is no excessive movement, the struts are OK. One or both steering bearings is likely shot or a strut mount may have failed. You might have a broken spring, too, but just the tail end top or bottom since you inspected it thoroughly. This will require another alignment but remove the strut assemblies and disassemble them. The failed part should be obvious… ball bearings, rubber dust, or a small piece of spring hitting the floor.

That’s a good point Mustang, I did forget to say that I did look for a broken spring both times I had the car on jack stands and I think they are ok.

My biggest issue is that the car does not make any sounds when on jack stands, so I can’t hear it unless under normal driving loads. This makes it very hard to diagnose, LOL… Maybe this is another clue?? It only makes the sound with the wheels on the ground…

It’s a '98 with 160K on it. If those struts are original, you might thing about replacing them either way. And you can probably get a pair of preassembled strut units for not very much (< $300), and they just bolt right in. No big deal. You would need another alignment check when you’re done though.

Inspect the subframe to body bushings. The washers rot away leaving nothing to hold the bushing in place.

I like the strut replacement option. There is a bearing plate on top of strut to allow the strut to turn. It will make noise when worn, but may be quiet when unloaded. And it may not be worn enough to cause alignment issues, just noise. This bearing plate does support the entire weight of the car on that corner. Maybe hitting the bump hard jarred loose some grease, but then the grease ran back off the bearings. To my knowledge, there is not a way to regrease the bearing plate without removing the strut assembly.