What’s That Loud Crunching Sound?


Immediately after crossing the border into Mexico at Tecate we noticed a terrible crunching sound when turning a tight radius in four wheel drive. We found a local mechanic who inspected the undercarriage and said that the “pitman arms” were both loose and would need to be replaced. When I asked if he could do the work he said “of course.” About 6 months earlier I had a mechanic in Indiana tell me that one of the pitman arms was loose and would need replacing. I got a second opinion and the second mechanic said that it was not loose. Since the cost was going to be between $300 and $400 I opted for the second opinion and did nothing. Now it caught up to me. The mechanic in Tecate replaced both parts and the charge was $110.

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Wow, I thought, that’s a pretty good savings. The bad news was that he said there was a more serious problem in the front differential and that he was not qualified to do that work. He said we’d have to take it to Tijuana, the border town that we purposely avoided in entering the country. Now we’re getting nervous. Barely across the border and we’re having significant car troubles . . . was this a bad idea? Anyway we weighed the options: If we never have to use the four wheel drive the vehicle will perform just fine; if we need it we could be in big trouble. Well with basically the entire journey in front of us we figured we’d better get it fixed. Are they going to do a good job though?

Before leaving Indiana a friend told me if we ever need service on that vehicle down there they’re going to take one look at it and say “no comprende senior.”  As nervous as we were about it we found a shop in Tijuana specializing in Differentiales y Transmissiones. They diagnosed the situation and yes the entire front differential would have to be removed, disassembled, rebuilt and reinstalled. Now in the U.S. you’d likely have to take it to a GM dealer. They would buy a rebuilt differential and replace the old one. While telling this story to another person from the states he told us that he had to have this done on his truck and the cost was about $1,800. These mechanics said they could do all of the work. It would take a day and a half and the cost would be $280. Now I was terrified and extremely skeptical. Do these guys know what they’re doing? Having few other options though we told them to go ahead with the work.

We got a room for a couple of nights (which is another story on its own) and bided our time in Tijuana for a couple of days. Because of my skepticism I continually visited the shop to check on progress. In spite of several cars looking like they all needed service they tore into the work immediately. Unlike most places in the U.S. where you have to wait in the waiting room and are not allowed under the vehicle, they gladly invited me under the car and explained what they were doing using the little English they knew and the little Spanish I knew.

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Let me tell you a front differential is a huge and complicated mechanical device and you’d best not tinker with it unless you know exactly what you’re doing. These guys were true gear heads and it was clear they knew EXACTLY what they were doing! They had the whole thing out and sitting on a table draining oil in short order.


The oil was black with lots of little shiny metallic bits in it. Even to a novice like myself, this was clearly a significant problem. After the oil was drained they set to disassembling the thing. Within about an hour they had parts and gears scattered all over the place. You can’t imagine how many gears go into a four wheel drive front differential. They showed me big gouges in most of the gears and he told me all of these parts will have to be replaced. I was shocked. Can you find all of these parts? “Si, no problemo, it’s what we do.”

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I kept thinking, here it comes, this is going to cost more and take longer, but in spite of my constant queries they kept saying no we can do it, it’ll be done by tomorrow morning. The next morning when I arrived the car was parked close to the front gate facing out and ready to drive away. I looked under the vehicle and the entire differential, including axels and all components, had been meticulously cleaned and even repainted. It looked like a brand new factory installed differential. I went to pay expecting them to say they had to replace far more parts than they expected and the price was going to be much higher. Nope, $280 was the price and the time frame was exactly one and a half days! I took Amelia to a nearby gravel parking lot with plenty of potholes and ruts to put her through the paces. In four wheel drive high and low gears bouncing over bumps with tight radius turns in both directions the vehicle performed flawlessly. Even that very faint whining sound was gone that I first noticed after using the vehicle back home to move a giant granite boulder with a chain in four wheel low. Ann had warned me not to use the vehicle for that but I insisted. That was probably the beginning of the end for those gear parts.

This experience was typical of the “can do” attitude and competency that we found in many of the Mexicans we encountered. It’s not their responsibility to know my language but their persistent attempts to help me understand what was going on was quite refreshing and contrary to the narrative that we often hear in the U.S., that Mexicans are lazy and they no comprende? I don’t think so.



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