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by David Zatz
Changing brake pads used to be a rather difficult chore, requiring special tools, patience, time, and perhaps some skill. That was in the bad old days of drum brakes. How times have changed!
This is a guide to replacing front disk brake pads and rotors on modern cars. Our sample car is a 1995 Neon, which had its brake pads replaced at 65,000 miles and then developed a warped front rotor at about 94,000 miles - still on the original rotors, front and back. We replaced both front rotors and both front pads, and it took us 45 minutes from start to finish, even though we have not done it for over ten years.
The first step is to assemble your tools. You will need the handle from your jack (it's usually in the trunk, with the spare tire or tucked into the side, in our case in a blue suede bag), moderately big C clamp, a bottle jack (sold at K-Mart and car parts stores, inexpensive, get more capacity than you need), chocks (wedges of wood or another material), socket wrenches, a pliers or similar tool, a syringe ("dosing device") or turkey baster, a strong piece of flexible wire, brake fluid - make sure it's the right kind - and a big flat screwdriver. The replacement parts are also handy.
Open the hood and take the cap off the brake fluid reservoir. If you're going to be replacing the brake pads, remove about 1/3 of the fluid and put it into a very clean container. I usually use a glass jar because I don't trust any old plastic to hold brake fluid. Brake fluid is toxic waste and must be disposed of properly!
Next, put the car onto a flat, hard surface (not dirt or gravel!), activate the emergency brake, and put it in gear. Then loosen, but do not remove, the wheel lug nuts from one wheel. Put the chocks in front and back of two other wheels for safety, then position the bottle jack underneath the arm that holds the wheel on, as close as you can to the wheel, and so that the bottle jack, when raised, will push up against the flat part of the arm. Make sure the bottom of the bottle jack is perfectly flat against the ground.
Note - if the bottle jack is too tall to fit, you can drive up onto a plank of wood, so that the bottle jack still fits right next to the wheel, but the tire is raised up a bit. Or you can buy a more appropriately sized bottle jack.
Raise the wheel with the bottle jack, just enough to lift the tire slightly off the ground. The rest of the car will probably stay right where it is, which is why we use a nice, safe bottle jack instead of the jack that came with the car. That one raises the body, and as it does, the springs stretch so the body goes up and the tire stays in place. This way, you take advantage of the spring - the tire goes up and the car stays in place. Just make sure you don't knock the jack out (either way) and that you don't go under the wheel.
Now remove the wheel nuts entirely and take the wheel off. Inspect the CV joint boot (that rubber thing) and if it's torn...go get another one, it's very important. Also check the brake lines and if any seem worn or leaky...replace them.
Whether you want to replace the rotor or the pads or both, you need to get the caliper off. First, remove the two (on the Neon) placement bolts on the back of the caliper (the big steel thing the brake pads are in). A Hayne's, Chilton's, Clymer's, or factory service manual is very useful in identifying which bolts these are. In our Neon, they seemed to be the only two bolts. Removing the bolts frees the caliper to move, but it probably will not.
Look carefully at the caliper and note how it is attached, and how it fits with the other things. Taking a digital photo can't hurt.
You can use a clamp to push the brake pad in...but usually you can simply pry off the caliper without much force, using the big flat screwdriver between the caliper and the rusty steel center of the wheel. Don't gouge the rotor unless you're replacing it anyway. This may require some jiggling, study the way it is held in and remove it accordingly. It may be surprisingly heavy so be prepared.
Once the rotor is off, the hard part is largely over. Use the wire to tie it onto the spring - actually, I usually balance it on the arm, but if it falls, it will probably break your brake lines, and you don't want that.
To replace the rotor, if it is factory original, you will first need to take your pliers and snip/tear off a single thin metal retainer. This was put there for factory use and you don't need it, so tear it and throw it away.
Once that's off, the rotor will gently slide off. (Though it may need a little gentle encouragement from a piece of wood or a hammer.) Then the new one slides right on. The caliper and wheel will hold it in place.
Next, whether you replace the brake pads or not - we recommend it - you need to open the caliper, which adjusts to the brake pads and rotor by moving the pads slowly inwards. If they are too far in, you won't be able to fit the caliper back onto the rotor, so take your C-clamp, position the brake pad on one side and the end of the rotor on the other, and slowly tighten so that the rubber boot which pushes against the brake pad compresses. As you do this, brake fluid will be forced into the reservoir, which you cleverly removed some of the fluid from earlier so nothing would spill.
You remove Neon brake pads by pulling the side without obvious clips straight out (toward the other pad), and by gently prying off the clips from the other pad. The new ones go in the same way - one pushes right in, the other has a clip which slides over the caliper.
Gently position the caliper over the rotor, and then get it into place. Slide the positioning bolts back in (if applicable) and tighten to a bit more than finger tight. Then put on the wheel, tighten all the lug nuts as much as possible in a rotating pattern (see your owner's manual for details if needed), lower the car, tighten the lug nuts again, and do it all on the opposite side.
Then remember to check the brake fluid level, add fluid if needed, and put the cap back on.
Very carefully take a test drive. The brakes may not work well at all the first few times you use them. Listen for odd noises. Try a couple of moderately hard stops (with plenty of room in front just in case.) Remember, you have an emergency brake which is mechanically operated - on a separate system.
If your brakes seem spongy, air has gotten into the line and you will need to bleed them - but that's an article for another day. There is a lot of information on how to bleed brakes in other sources.
Note: this job cost us $124. That's $82 for two brake rotors from a local dealer, and $42 for pads from NAPA - we overpaid. A local mechanic quoted us $460, the tire dealer $550, and a disreputable Chrysler dealer has charged acquaintances $650 (a reputable one came in at around $300). That means that under one hour of labor saved us at least $340, and the time and inconvenience of bringing it to the mechanic or dealer.
I think you can do it, too.
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