It Came as a Shock (or two)

November, 2013

This may look like a simple minivan, but it's not.

One of the reasons that I no longer drive ‘exotic’ foreign cars is that locating repair parts is a tedious and EXPENSIVE proposition, requiring hours of research online and similar hours spent milling, reshaping, rewiring  and otherwise modifying whatever pieces I could finally locate and/or paying through the nose for the privilege of doing so. I especially remember one trip I made to England where I ended up bringing home car parts in my luggage.  The pleasure derivative of owning a rare beast is one of diminishing returns, and of increasing angst, worry and skepticism that you will be able to keep rolling amidst the dangers of the road.  A smashed fender and you are laid up for three months waiting for metal- or a wheel bearing or axle failure costing you more in dollars than two weekend trips to a fancy B & B.  Sooner or later it’s just not worth the trouble, especially when the bride catches wind of it.

So I went native. It’s a simple equation— locally made car = locally available parts.    Common car = common service procedures.  Common sedan, common convertible, common minivan – commonly less expensive parts. It’s a rare day if it takes me more than an hour to find the part I need, or have it cost more than wholesale pricing. Besides that, I no longer have to follow exotic service procedures like aligning a two-piece driveshaft with a micrometer or repacking a turbocharger.  What I lose in ‘golly wow’ and turned heads, I gain more than triple in peace of mind- usually.

Today I got my first real sticker shock moment in about ten years – and it is for one of the most mundane of the most mundane of automotive replacement parts.  A shock absorber, a tube of steel with a small piston and rubber damper inside – designed to keep your car from jouncing up and down like an oxcart or swaying to and fro like a circus wagon as you travel down the road- a part that usually costs about $35 each in most auto parts stores – runs to about $375 each (retail) for my domestic minivan. It is not without irony that a car part that is meant to absorb shocks should cause them.

But the rule still applies here.  Unbeknownst to me, the Chrysler Corporation slipped me a mickey. Underneath the tail end of my American-made Town & Country minivan, they installed a luxury German-Swedish superwhammo self-enclosed, self-adjusting, self-regulating, self-leveling and self-important rear suspension system – one that is not found in the typical run-of-the mill econo-boxes that rolled off the assembly line in St. Louis and its environs.  It was ‘special’ – not ‘short bus’ special,  but ‘superhero’ special – according to the option book- giving somewhat extra load bearing and trailer hauling performance in the event that you needed to convey more than the usual contingent of  children, groceries or futons.  (It’s called “Nivomat” suspension, and you usually have to go to snooty high-end manufacturers like Volvo to get this kind of skullduggery.)

So, at 14 years and 175,000 miles, various and sundry parts are bound to turn in their notice, springs, MacPherson struts and shock absorbers being among them.  Most manufacturers recommend shock and strut replacement every 50-70,000 miles, but most of us wait until our cars start steering like shopping carts before we start thinking about them.  So– when the ‘ol bus started to lean out a bit on the off-ramps, I decided to swap out the nose gear with some new hardware. For about $250 spent in the right places, I got new struts, springs, brake pads and rotors, and sway bar hardware.  Throw in a wheel alignment, and we’re dutch up front for the next 3 or 4 years.

All this being said, having your front end all solid and stable doesn’t mean a lot if you end up ‘twerking’ your rear bumper all the way down the interstate- due to worn out shocks.  “Now hold on”, you say. “Why don’t you just take off this Nivomat nightmare, and replace it with the $35 plain vanilla shocks from NAPA? That way you won’t end up doing a Miley Cyrus impersonation every time you go over a set of railroad tracks.”  Not so fast. The $375 shocks are only ONE of the ghosts in the graveyard. Apparently there are also not only ‘special’ springs and mounts down there, but also a ‘special’ proportioning valve for the rear brakes that might get pretty hinky if you upset the ecobalance by using paltry OTC shocks.  Not that it can’t be done, mind you, it’s just that there’s a bit more editing involved than a simple cut and paste. So this will involve some research with the Elders of the Internet.

So, in the meantime I get to motor down life’s highway like a humpback whale until I can either cough up $600 ~$800 for exotic suspension parts, or at least try to mill and reshape my way out of this debacle.  Where have I seen this before?