Do front wheel bearings still need to be packed?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Mar 01, 2003

Dear Tom and Ray:

When I was a youth working at a gas station, we used to repack front wheel bearings. Since then, I went away to college and forgot how to use a screwdriver. Now, 40 years later, the guy who changed the oil in my 1990 Mustang convertible told me that my front wheel bearings need attention. It suddenly occurred to me that I have never had the front wheel bearings repacked, nor has my friendly Ford dealer ever suggested it. I was reassured by the fact that the Ford dealer has tried to sell me every imaginable maintenance service he can think of, but repacking the front wheel bearings has never been one of them. Is this a legitimate service that has slipped through the proverbial cracks, or do modern (1990) cars just not need this service? -- Pat

RAY: Good question, Pat. Wheel bearings are the supports that hold the wheels onto the axles of the car. And, since they're spinning all the time, they need constant lubrication. Repacking the wheel bearings is simply "changing" the grease that lubricates the bearing -- pushing out the old stuff and putting new, clean grease back in.

TOM: Now, back when you were a youth (or "yoot," as Joe Pesci said in "My Cousin Vinnie"), cars were all rear-wheel drive. And those cars all had "serviceable" front wheel bearings. That means they were designed to be repacked from time to time.

RAY: But during the past 25 years, front-wheel drive has become the norm, and the vast majority of front wheel bearings are now "sealed," which means they never need to be repacked. In fact, they cannot be repacked.

TOM: From 1994 on, even the rear-wheel-drive Mustang switched over to sealed front wheel bearings.

RAY: But before 1994, all Mustangs, including your car, DID come with serviceable front wheel bearings. And they SHOULD be repacked and adjusted on a regular basis.

TOM: So, there are two possible reasons why the Ford dealer hasn't talked you into repacking your front bearings. One is that the folks at the dealership are relative "yoots" and never think about wheel bearings anymore, since the vast majority of the cars they service have sealed bearings.

RAY: Of course, they're missing a huge profit center here. We net 100 percent profit every time we repack a sealed wheel bearing!

TOM: But the more likely explanation is that they DID repack your bearings during a recent brake job, and just didn't bother mentioning it. In order to replace the disc rotors on your Mustang (which you've probably done at least once or twice since 1990), you HAVE to remove the wheel bearings. And once they're removed, no self-respecting mechanic would reinstall them without repacking them first.

RAY: But you can make sure it's done next time by specifying it on your repair order. Tell them you want your wheel bearings repacked. And if one of the "yoots" looks at you like you've got three noses, ask to speak to an older mechanic -- one who has fond memories of a youth squandered repacking wheel bearings.

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