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Second-Generation Neon Page | Repairs
by David Zatz
This is a relatively easy job, handled in this case by a definite non-mechanic.
Modern cooling systems are a far cry from the old days: it is rare for a radiator to need replacement before 120,000 miles are up, and even the hoses last longer — in our case, 98,000 miles. We got new hoses from Pomoco Chrysler-Plymouth in Virginia Beach, at 25% off list for dealer stock. They come with very strong spring clamps, which we replaced with screw-type band clamps for ease of installation.
Before removing the old hoses, drain the radiator. The valve is on the passenger side of the car, on the back (human side) of the radiator; on our Neon it was white, and stuck in place. We got it open using a large angle-nosed pliers, working carefully to grab the entire handle of the valve so it wouldn't crack off. Opening the valve requires a decent number of turns before antifreeze starts to dribble out; then we took off the radiator cap for better drainage. Our goal was not to flush the antifreeze, though that makes sense if this operation is planned in advance (one of our hoses went bad, forcing the timing); and that's discussed elsewhere on Allpar. It was just to get the antifreeze into a bucket so when we took off the hose, the poisonous stuff wouldn't end up all over the driveway. We were lucky in having a large plastic tray already (an 8 x 10 photographic tray). We positioned it not just under the spigot opening (it drains through a hole in the radiator support, not out the end of the spigot), but also under the valve itself, which was handy since we unscrewed it a little too much and antifreeze came out of both ends.
We went away for a while, and when we came back, about 3/4 of a gallon of antifreeze had come out; we poured it into a handy metal bucket (normally used for draining our furnace), and proceeded to flush out some more. In the end, we had a couple of gallons of antifreeze and water from the six quart system ready for the recycling yard, sitting in conveniently saved windshield washer bottles and the bucket. (We won't need washer fluid for a while.) Then we simply took off the top hose by squeezing the clamp's ends together with a pliers, and gently - gently - wrestling off the hose, careful not to destroy either the radiator end or the thermostat housing end. This was not especially hard, and there are tools made for this purpose which are fairly inexpensive. Andy wrote that you can also cut the clamp in half with a hacksaw blade, and whether that's easier or not, we don't know. Using the right tool is probably the best plan.
The thermostat housing itself was clean; if it's hard to get a clean, smooth surface, you can replace it fairly cheaply. We replaced the thermostat, careful to get it in right side up ($7 plus $4 for a new gasket — a little round piece of plastic. Go figure. But how often are you in there?) The thermostat had a little hole drilled in the top to allow air bubbles out, a fine idea which would have saved many 2.2 and 2.5 engines' lives.
The bolts were rusty, but came off without too much effort, using a 10mm socket. We had to try two Sears Craftsman 10 mm sockets to get one that was exactly the right size; with the first one we nearly stripped the bolt. It's better to leave the old thermostat in than to strip the bolt. (The top bolt is easy to reach. The bottom one required a four inch extender. We limited our own force by using a quarter-inch socket set. That's all we needed for most of this work, including removing the air dam, which, by the way, was totally unnecessary.)
Thanks, Mario at Branchburg Exxon (908-685-9527) on Route 202 near Somerville, NJ
Getting to the lower hose was a tight fit, and we needn't have bothered working as hard as we did to get the pliers down there to get it off the engine fitting, because it turns out that the other end of the hose had its clamp handles facing the wrong way. We went nuts trying to reach it from underneath, above, to the side, etc., before calling Mario of Branchburg Exxon, who suggested taking the fan out. We checked his advice, and, yes, the fan lifts right out, after you remove two bolts.
This is where the moron and the mechanic take separate paths. We took off one bolt easily, despite heavy rust. The second one stuck. The smart mechanic would have used a metal brush and lots of penetrating oil on it. We simply tried to get it out. Then it got well and truly stuck, and wouldn't respond to oil, brush, drill, or hacksaw. (A better hacksaw would have helped. Our Sears hacksaw lost its teeth in about two minutes.) The nut wiped out the plastic things designed to hold it in place. We finally gave up and cut away the fan shroud's plastic bits that restricted it from being pushed backwards over the washer. If you have to do this, you didn't read the part about penetrating oil and metal brushes. Do that before trying to take out these bolts. (This car spent its nine year life in New Jersey and was originally at a dealer on the shore - in short, it has more rust than most Neons.)
Hint: do not ever store bolts on the battery. They fall off easily.
We finally got the fan shroud off, carefully guiding it out of the wires - some of which we disconnected first to avoid problems - and disconnected the fan itself. These connectors are the foolproof kind, color and size coded, so don't worry about that. Then we had an incredibly good view of the lower hose and suddenly realized why they put the clamp on that way. It's so you don't do something dumb like try to replace it without taking off the fan.
Hayne's Guide, which pretends to do every repair in the book, never mentions this. Maybe they do the repairs or maybe they copy them from the last book (which was copied from the book before), or maybe they do the repairs but don't bother writing down “the obvious stuff.”
Removing and replacing the lower hose was easy, but we had put a nice big hole in the radiator when we were getting rid of that recalcitrant bolt, which we discovered when we were putting water in (which is better than discovering it as you add antifreeze). (Did we mention you should only use distilled water?) Our efforts yielded us a hole in the radiator, not from hitting it, but from the torsional force.
We did a quick Internet foray for new radiator shops. The going price was $105-$120; radiators.com sold us one for $109 plus $5 overnight shipping and tax. The radiator was an almost exact replica, save for an extra bracket - held in with a bolt which, since one of our bolts had corroded while sitting on the battery, turned out to be very helpful, but you should be aware that with the bracket in, the radiator cover next to the fan wouldn't fit. (Our radiator was for early Mexican-built Neons.) Theirs also had automatic transmission fluid openings, which look silly in our manual-transmission Neon, which were capped off. Their radiator fit right in, and works. Then we discovered that a new Chrysler radiator from a discount Internet dealer would be - $109, though we'd have to pay for shipping (which would cost far more than from radiators.com); a normal dealer would charge around $130 to $240.
If you have an automatic transmission, before you take out the radiator, you will need to drain your transmission fluid, then disconnect the two fluid hookups at the base of the radiator, on the driver's side, facing the engine. Make sure you capture all that toxic fluid. If it's recent, save it; otherwise, dump it.
To get the old radiator out, remove the bolts that hold it (and its brackets) in. You can buy new bolts for a buck each, but you probably don't have to. Then gently lift up the air conditioner radiator thingie, which has brackets that sit on top of the radiator, and gently move it out of the way. After that, the radiator moves out with no problem.
The next step after putting the replacement in was to add fluid. We used a tip from John Auto Tech, and poured water and antifreeze into the upper radiator hose to fill the system, then ran it with the cap off on a moderate incline (engine up) to bleed it until there were no more air bubbles, with a 50/50 mix of distilled water and fresh antifreeze. Obviously, with an automatic transmission, you need to refill that fluid too.
This all cost less than having it done sans radiator at the local garage, and we suspect it didn't take much more time, either!
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