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Wheel came off my '99 Nissan Quest

Hi. I joined the forum to ask this question. I am really upset right now. My '99 Nissan Quest with 225,000 miles had the driver side rear wheel come off yesterday. The entire wheel came off.

The car is very well maintained. I have a great mechanic that I trust to keep the car safe to drive; if I weren’t comfortable that the car was safe to drive I would buy a new one. I just had two new front tires put on the car about three months ago. My mechanic also aligned the tires at that time. I also had him check the undercarriage this winter to make sure that there is no corrosion. This is the last time any work was done on the tires. The only other work I had done since then was recharging the A/C.

A couple of weekends ago I drove this car about 200 miles from my house to a music festival, where we camped. The car was driving so well on the way over, I even bragged to my husband about how smooth it was driving.

At the campground, we drove the van across the bumpy ground about 100 yards to the camp site, unloaded the car, then drove it out. It was parked all weekend, and then we drove back on the campground to load it back up then drove back out to paved road. Altogether we maybe did 400 yds of off-roading.

As we left, we heard a thumping sound that was obviously related to the wheel rotation. We stopped to see if the axel had gotten bent from the little bit of off-roading we did, or mud had gotten up somewhere in the undercarriage or wheel, and that the tires were all aired up. It was a Sunday, and we were in a rural area, so there was nowhere to stop and have a mechanic look at the car. We couldn’t find anything wrong and drove all the way home with the thumping sound. There is a cover over the lug nuts; we didn’t think to remove the cover and see if the lug nuts were tightened properly/present.

I drove a different car to work for a week or so and finally was able to arrange to get the van to the mechanic yesterday. As I was driving to the mechanic, the wheel came totally off. Fortunately it was a rear wheel and the car is front wheel drive, so I maintained control over the car and got it safely to the side of the road. I had it towed to my mechanic’s.

My mechanic says the studs are not bent or sheared, which is what would happen if the lug nuts had been overtorqued. He said the only way the wheel would come off like that without any damage to the studs was if someone removed the lug nuts. So, I am concerned that while we were at the festival someone sabotaged my car. We didn’t have any run-ins with anyone but there was one kind of nutty person there who seemed harmless but annoying. Maybe she was not so harmless. Or maybe someone else decided to play a “prank.” It was not policed on the campgrounds except some college students riding around on golf carts every so often, but we’ve been at this festival several times and it’s an older crowd of folks looking to enjoy music. It is hard for me to accept that someone would damage a stranger’s car in such a way that it was unsafe to drive it - especially when it’s a minivan and, so, obviously a car that kids might be in. I can see keying it or defacing it, but making the wheel come off? Wow, that’s what you do when you want to kill someone.

Is there any chance that this was not sabotage? I am having my mechanic replace all my lug nuts as a precaution, even though he says the other lug nuts are not stripped. 13 years of tire changes and rotations, I’m sure someone over-torqued these nuts at some point.

This is a huge longshot, but IF the lugnuts were overtightened at some point they could stretch the lugs at the base to where at the appropriate torque the added friction from the threads prevents the jugs from providing proper force on the wheel. The wheel can then slowly work the lug nots off. The way to determine this would be a close inspection and “gaging” (thread gage measurement) of the studs.

One other way to determine this is to remove the wheel and put the lug nuts on fully. If they hit resistance before they go all the way on, the threads are stretched.

Do you think that riding on the bumpy campground might have triggered the nuts to break? It was just, you know, normal campground type of terrain. The car drove so smoothly right up to the campground.

I popped in to add that I am the original owner of the car and I’ve had all the regular maintenance on it, so that’s how I know it’s been well maintained.

No, but if the lug nuts were improperly tightened driving on the bumpy campground could controbute to them working their way off the studs. But it would have probably happened anyway.

Why in the world did you drive 200 miles on a car that is making thumping noises without ever once checking the lug nuts on the wheel?

If my car starts making thumping noises like that, I’m inspecting each wheel, and looking at the lug nuts, in case someone, as you described, is a nutcase, and loosened my lugnuts. Heck, just looking at the wheel from a bit of a distance from the rear of the vehicle should have showed you that the wheel and tire weren’t in the proper appearance compared to the other rear wheel. That would have caused you to pull out the jack, pop off the hubcap, and find the problem right quick.


It’s way too easy to judge what others did after the fact.
And way too easy to forget all the things that we’d have done differently of we’d known then what we know now.
Got any positive suggestions?

My husband was driving at the time. He used to be a mechanic back in the day so I tend to defer to him on car things. I forced him to pull over so we could check out the wheels, because it’s my car and I knew the sound was not right. It didn’t occur to us that it was the lug nuts. We were thinking that it was mud that got up somewhere because it was so muddy that on the way out the car in front of us got stuck in a mud puddle. We hadn’t been driving all weekend except in and out of the camp site, so mud seemed like the most likely cause of the noise.

I may be naive but it is still really hard for me to believe that a stranger would turn my car into a death trap. I made my mechanic replace all the lug nuts just in case the nuts popped, but he is insistent that someone tampered with them because none of the studs is stripped. I absolutely understand his logic, but still think that an old part failing on an old car is much more likely than a stranger sabotaging the car.

The other reason we weren’t looking so much at the lug nuts is that the car was handling and braking well. There was no shimmying or pulling. I guess the brake was keeping the wheel connected pretty well. Also, since the car is front wheel drive it didn’t affect the steering; I was surprised that even when the wheel flew off I had full control over the car. So, we were thinking something was loose and hitting the wheel or axel or something like that.

I’d replace the lugs just because of the beating they received while the wheel was loosening the lug nuts.
They may not look damaged but that doesn’t mean they aren’t damaged. It is pretty cheap insurance to have new ones pressed in.

If you are truly worried about someone doing this to you again(?), perhaps look into getting wheel locks installed. They simply are lug nuts that require a special socket to loosen them. Of course, if you only installed one of them per wheel, the person could still take the other four out. You’d, in effect, have a wheel held in with one lugnut, which is better than having your wheel fall off. In lieu of that, maybe get a double set (so 8 special lugs) so you always have two of these special lug nuts holding your wheel on.

I made my mechanic replace all the lug nuts yesterday. He didn’t think it was necessary as he had inspected all the others, but I feel much better having new ones on. There was an article from car talk that this part gets a lot of abuse over the years with all the tire rotations and replacements and the air wrenches that are used on them, so after 225,000 miles I think replacing them makes sense. I won’t keep driving a car that I don’t feel is safe, so paying a little bit to feel confident that the wheels won’t come off again is worth it for me.

I would be curious to know if your mechanic found, all, some, or none of the lug nuts under the wheel cover when he put the wheel back on. If any are missing they were either removed at the festival or they fell out when the wheel came to a stop. I can think of only two possibilities. The lug nuts were tampered with at the festival requiring someone to remove then replace the wheel cover. Or, the lug nuts weren’t properly tightened the last time the wheel was removed and driving around off road finally loosened them enough to spin free.

I don’t know if there were any lug nuts on the wheel at the time of the accident. The hub cover came off when the wheel came off. The road I was on is heavily travelled, and where the accident happened was a blind curve, so I didn’t look for lug nuts on the road because it wasn’t safe to get into the street and look around.

I think at one point on my van there was aplastic cover instead of actual hub caps. By now they are gone and I haven’t replaced them. There is just a simple plastic insert over the lug nuts that you can easily pull out with no tools. As I thought about whether someone had tampered with the wheel, I realized that if you did want to tamper with a car, this was one of the few options available since you can’t get under the hood without access to the interior. So, it is possible. One friend suggested someone might have been trying to steal the wheel, but since you’d need a jack to do that, it really seems unlikely that someone would try that - not very stealthy.

What makes it seem like it was tampered with is that if the lug nuts just weren’t properly tightened or were over tightened, the stud should be stripped and it is not. As the nuts worked their way loose they wouldn’t just unscrew nicely like if someone were using a tool or their hand to unthread it, the loose wheel would be pushing the nut against the threads and it would strip the threads or at least damage them noticeably. Since there are five lug nuts, the only way they could have all gotten off without stripping a single stud is for them all to have popped off. Sort of unlikely.

It is a common misconception that if the lugs aren’t broken or stripped they haven’t been damaged by overtightening. They can be damaged ini another way, from stretching. I found a picture (see link) of a badly sttretched wheel stud, but even a small amout of stretching can affect the ability of the nuts to be properly applied such that they compress the wheel against the hub properly. And when a wheel makes its way off, it can also do physical damage.

If it were me I’d want to check the studs out. Or at the very least check the new lug nuts regularly for awhile to see that they haven’t come loose.

I think vigilance is the thing. I hadn’t really thought about this part being manipulated so much over the history of the car until this happened. So, now I’m definitely going to keep monitoring the studs and lugs. At least now I have the new lugs but the studs have been on forever.

My overall concern with this is that I have felt that as long as the car is in such great condition, there is no reason to replace it. But, I also have long felt that as soon as the car starts getting unsafe, or when things start getting to the point where they are constantly needing repair, that it will be time to get a new car. So, now I wonder if it is getting to that point where it’s time to replace it. The wheel coming off is exactly the kind of thing that makes me feel like it’s getting to the point where it is dangerous to drive.

Stretched studs, and we don’t yet know that they are, it’s just a possible explanation that I offered for the nuts having come off, in no way suggest that the vehicle is becoming worn out. They’re a result of a ham-fisted mechanic.

You should know also that wheel studs are cheap and easy to replace. The tech only needs to swing the brake calipers up, remove the hub, press out the old studs using an arbor press, and press in new ones. Some guys do it all using a hammer, but I like an arbor press.

Also, know that the studs can very easiy be checked. All one needs to do is remove the wheel, do a visual check, and check to see if the nut goes all the way on without undue resistance with the wheel off. If the stud is stretch or damaged, the nut will bind.

For now I’d just keep an eye on the lug nuts and if they begin to come loose then think about having the old studs pressed out and replaced.

“At least now I have the new lugs but the studs have been on forever.”

I would have been more concerned about the studs rather than the nuts. If the studs were stretched beyond their elastic limits, the increase in stud length may not be enough to check by running the nuts down the stud with wheel removed.

If you suspect the lug nuts were over-torqued in the past, then it would be best to replace the studs on all four wheels. Greasing the studs when tightening the nuts can lead to over-torque; the torque specifications in shop manuals assume dry threads.

A right-handed thread on the left side of a car has a tendency to unscrew if slightly loose; a right-handed thread on the right side of a car, if slightly loose, will be tightened by the rotating wheel under driving conditions.

Chrysler and American Motors used left-handed studs and nuts on the driver’s side many years ago. Not so today. Japanese cars were always right-handed all the way around.

Mercedes and BMW use bolts, not studs and lugs, on the wheels. The bolts are left-handed on the left side of the car — German Engineering.

I usually rotate my tires myself, but if I have it done, I back off the nuts when I get home and re-torque them to specs using a torque wrench. Always paddle your own canoe.

And if you suspect someone diddled with the lug nuts on your left rear wheel, there is a sub-chapter on that in the latest edition of the DSM.

Actually we had a similar thing happen with my sons Pontiac some years ago. He had driven it 200 miles to our in laws where he was going to spend a week with the local doc. He said the wheel was making a clunking sound. I did the same thing and looked at it and didn’t see anything wrong except the front tires looked worn. I picked a couple tires up and drove it a few blocks to have them installed and the thing sounded terrible. At the tire shop we looked at it and three of the lug nuts were gone and the other two were loose. They replaced the nuts and the tires and never had a problem with it again.

I can’t explain how it happened or why but it did and I missed it when I checked it. The only thing would be if the holes in the wheel became elongated it would be a problem. I’m sure you mean that the studs themselves were replaced and not just the nuts that go on the studs. Its probably a good idea to periodically take a wrench and tighten the nuts and they do say to re-torque the nuts after 50 miles when replacing a tire. I guess i’m just saying if everything looks ok, just re-check them for a while. I don’t believe it was sabotage.

I’ll keep you updated. I drove it over the weekend and it was fine. This morning I started driving it into work and it was rattling so hard I turned right around and took another car into work. I’ve got a tow lined up to take it to the mechanic tomorrow.

It’s good to know replacing the studs is not expensive if we need to do that. I like the idea of retorquing at home; not sure how much a torque wrench costs but it might we worth the investment. I’ll be talking to the mechanic tomorrow and will make sure he checks out the studs. No, I didn’t instruct him to replace the studs and now I feel I should have. Many years ago I recognized I am no mechanic and stopped telling mechanics how to do their job; i just come in with symptoms and have the mechanic diagnose what is wrong. This was one time I overrode what he told me because I am really freaked out about the wheel coming off and want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

You can get a beam-type torque wrench at Sears for about $25.
You can get “torque sticks” which limit torque applied for about $50 (they’re sold as sets).
And adjustable torque wrenches for anywhere from $20 (see link) to whatever your budget will support.

You want something that will measuer 80-100 lb-ft. Most regular ones will. And you’ll want a proper size deep socket and an extension.

I like beam-type, but if you plan to carry it with you and adjustable or tork sticks are better…just in case you have to change your tire under a low light condition.

PostScript: you were correct in not telling the mechanic how to do his job. You’d also be correct in pointing out your concenrns to him nd asking thet tha etuds be changed.

What exactly was the sound coming from the wheel before it fell off?
Was there a vibration? A periodic thudding? A grinding sound?