Goof of the Month: Wheel Bearing Woes

Welcome to Goof of the Month! Every month, we highlight a story or situation that reinforces the need for drivers and shoppers to understand their vehicle, how to maintain it, and how it works.

In this ongoing feature, we’ve highlighted all forms, types and styles of automotive neglect – typically caused by the often total cluelessness of drivers, and the inability of many motorists to grasp the basics of vehicle maintenance. We’ve seen skipped oil changes blow engines. Owners considering maintenance to be optional, and voiding their warranty. Someone who decided to drive around on a completely flat tire for an entire morning before figuring they should see a professional. The list goes on.

But we’ve never delved into the world of the wheel bearing – until today.

Inspired by a video sent my way by editor Jacob Black, I started scouring the web for videos that demonstrate what happens when this all-important part of your vehicle wears out and fails. Numerous great examples weren’t too hard to find.

Bearing safety in mind

In simplified terms, the wheel bearing is a round metal bearing that allows your wheel, and the driveshaft connected to it (if applicable), to spin freely as it passes through a fixed assembly, like the wheel hub. In a nutshell, the wheel bearing allows a rotating shaft or assembly to pass through something which doesn’t rotate.

Think of a door knob. The door doesn’t rotate, but the door knob assembly, which passes through it, does. Notice that your door knob stays fixed on its axis as it’s rotated, even though the door doesn’t move? Similar idea – except that door knobs spin slowly, infrequently, and needn’t support much weight. Wheel bearings, on the other hand, spin very quickly at all times while your vehicle is in motion, while supporting virtually the entire weight of the vehicle.

Wheel bearings wear out over time because of the elements, as well as continual exposure to forces caused by bumps, potholes, steering forces, and the like. As wheel bearings are vital to the steering, handling, braking, and overall control of your vehicle, ensuring that they’re in good shape at all times is very important. A bad wheel bearing can even cause your ABS system to stop working – or much, much worse.

Vehicles are, universally, machines made of parts and pieces and components that eventually wear out and need some TLC. If the TLC your ride requires is to its wheel bearings, you’d best heed the call, otherwise this could happen to you.

We asked our trusty pal, John Kennard, to explain what was happening in the video above. Kennard is a long-time automotive service technician at a dealership in Mississauga, Ontario. After watching the video, he offered his comments.

“Oh, that’s a mess! That could have been really ugly if it had let go on the middle of the 401 (a major Ontario highway). Hopefully nobody got hurt.”

In the video, a Mercury Mountaineer (aka Ford Explorer) suffered extensive damage when a wheel bearing failed, causing the vehicle to lose a wheel and shear off a brake caliper in the process.

In an instant, this vehicle lost its ability to both steer and brake. Thankfully, it looks like there was no collision involved – other than the collapse of the lower front corner of the vehicle’s suspension and wheel hub onto the road surface beneath.

Bears closer inspection

“This was probably an ongoing failure,” Kennard says. “At first, the driver would have been ignoring a faint noise, likely for at least a few weeks. This noise would be louder at higher speed, although it’s not always easy to detect the noise when it’s new. A lot of people just blame it on something else.”

As Kennard has told us before, owners who explain away unusual noises often wind up with serious problems that could have been averted.

“If your vehicle starts to make a strange sound, it’s always best to have a professional take a look. This isn’t your refrigerator – if it’s not working properly, your safety could be at risk – and we often rely on cars to make noises to warn us of problems.”

After ignoring the Mountaineer’s initial wheel bearing noise, the sound would have become worse.

“The next sign a wheel bearing is about to conk out is usually the same as the first sign, just more of it. It’s the same sort of unwanted sound, but louder. It varies by vehicle a little, but it’s a sort of dull roar – almost like a helicopter off in the distance. By the point that a wheel bearing sounds like that, I’d say about 70 percent of them are starting to show signs of play.”

Wheel bearings should not have play, or looseness, to them. Play in a wheel bearing is a sign to replace that wheel bearing, pronto. If your wheel bearing is loose, or exhibiting play, the vehicle’s steering may feel out of whack, the vehicle may stray within its lane, and if the vehicle is lifted from the ground and some force is applied to the wheel in question, it could look something like this.

 “So, probably, a few thousand more kilometres go by with this driver ignoring the noises that give a bad wheel bearing away. By now, we’d hope there was an inspection by a technician to diagnose the noise, and at least, take the steps to prepare for proper repair. This vehicle probably handled like a bag of bolts, too. It would have probably been hard to steer properly, or been steering itself all over the road,” Kennard says.

An unbearable situation

But, because they had things to do and people to see, the driver of this Mountaineer kept on driving anyway.

“Just before this bearing failed, the noise would have been almost unbearable, and totally concerning, to anyone with an IQ superior to a bowl of bean dip,” Kennard says. “I’ve got kids, and a new grandchild, and this sort of thing turns my stomach – knowing this vehicle was on the same road as a school bus full of children.”

Could the vehicle recover from such a spill?

Kennard doubts it: “If they’d just replaced that wheel bearing when they should have, maybe they’d still be driving it. Oh, you could fix it, sure – but on a machine that old, it wouldn’t be worth it. That needs a bunch of new parts, including brakes. It looks like a bomb went off. I hope that vehicle was taken off the road – goodness knows what else might have been wrong with it.”

Ignoring a bad wheel bearing can cost you dearly. 9/14/2018 10:00:00 AM