Smoke from wheels

Driving home from work today, my 94 Wrangler’s front wheels started smoking. I think the problem might be as simple as needing new brake pads… is his reasonable

Nope. The problem is more likely a stuck caliper. At this age, change both sides.

You need to fix this ASAP. It will cause collateral damage and you could even lose your brakes suddenly.

New brake pads definitely won’t fix this. You either have a caliper sticking or a hose restriction. If your hoses have a steel bracket holding them away from moving parts, the first thing I would do is try to spread the bracket apart from the hose and get any rust out of there, or replace the hoses. Opening a bleeder and trying to push the piston back will show if it’s the calipers. I’m pretty sure your Wrangler has steel brackets on the brake hoses, and that’s my #1 suspect. After driving it that way, you may very well need new brake pads though, and rotors too.

Well, if you didn’t need new brake pads previously, you probably need them now!

What you describe is not simply the symptom of worn brake pads. What you describe is unusual, and does not result from brakes that are simply worn. Smoke from any of the wheels is a very serious issue, and could be the result of a bad wheel bearing or–more likely–a dragging brake.

I strongly suggest that the OP have the vehicle towed to a reputable independent mechanic (NOT Midas, Meineke, Monro, Sears, Discount Tire, Les Schwab, or any other chain operation) for evaluation. Bear in mind that if the problem is a dragging brake, it is likely that the rotor(s) will need to be replaced, along with pad(s), and calipers, and perhaps other brake system components.

I’ve scheduled an appointment for tomorrow morning at a shop less than 1 mile away. Can anyone offer a rough estimate of repair cost for a stuck caliper?
Also, is there anything I could have done to prevent this? I generally take pretty good care of the vehicle.

Repair costs vary widely for different areas. Calipers for your car are usually pretty cheap, but you likely need pads and rotors now, too. Definitely make sure they check out your brake hoses too. These are very often overlooked and it would not be pleasant for you to leave with all new front brakes and the same problem. I have even seen experienced mechanics overlook this because a brake hose restriction looks exactly like a stuck caliper unless you are specifically looking for a hose restriction.

Mark makes an excellent point. A brake hose problem has vexed a lot of car owners and their mechanics, so the time to check for this is when the car is in the shop for pad/rotor/caliper repairs.

Bear in mind that brake hose problems can be the result of the wrong fluid having been placed in the master cylinder, and quick lube places are notorious for this type of screw-up. Has this vehicle ever been serviced by a quick lube joint?

I have actually seen the result of the wrong fluid being put in the master cylinder. The owner added power steering fluid, thinking it was the same as brake fluid. That stuff ate the hoses, seals, and o-rings alive! It caused a terribly spongy pedal. I don’t think that would cause what the OP is experiencing. The hose problem I think the OP has is the result of the steel bracket on the hose rusting and squeezing the hose, restricting flow and causing the caliper to drag.

The owner added power steering fluid, thinking it was the same as brake fluid.

30 years ago it was the same as brake fluid.

This guy was in his early 20’s. He had a mid 90’s Silverado with side pipes he ran himself by using a torch to cut holes in the frame under the cab so they would work!!! I will never forget that vehicle. I refused to test drive it for fear that it would break in half.