Replacing Front Struts on your 280ZX

The following text describes what I did to my car, and how I overcame the problems I ran into; it is for discussion purposes only and should not be construed as instructions for how to do this to your car. If you want instructions on how to do this, get the factory service manual; it really is very good.

I wrote these notes so that if I ever need to do this again I'll have something to help me remember what I did, the order I did it in, what problems I had and how I solved them this time. Since I had it all written, I thought some other folks might find it interesting. Perhaps those who are contemplating doing this to their cars might gain some idea of what is involved, but do not think of these notes as instructions on how to do it. If you attempt to duplicate what I did and kill or injure yourself or someone else, I am not be responsible. You have been warned.

I did everything by myself with the exception of reinstalling the struts onto the car. I had a friend help guide the tops of the struts into the mounting holes, which was a real help.

Background: I actually had to make two separate attempts to do this job. The first time I got everything off the left side, got the coil spring and upper mounting bearing off, and could not get the gland packing nut loose. Frustrated, I reassembled all of the old parts, then put a question on the Internet Z Car List asking how to get this thing loose. Well, it turns out that my major problem was that I did not have the strut bolted to something solid; a buddy of mine was trying to hold it while I loosened the nut. Believe me, unless you happen to have a cooperative, fully grown mountain gorilla to hold the strut, that won't work (and probably won't work even with a gorilla).

So before the second attempt, I got two 6 inch long, quarter inch bolts with washers (2 washers per bolt) and nuts to use to bolt the strut to a spare 6 foot section of 6x6 landscape tie I had lying around on the patio. This required drilling 5/16 inch holes at the proper distance apart (3 & 1/8 in), and counterboring the holes on one side to allow the heads and washers to countersink enough so that the bolts reached through the bolt holes in the bottom of the strut. With the strut mounted like this, it was easier to get the coil spring compressor on, and getting the gland packing nut off was pretty easy with a 14 inch pipe wrench. An added benefit to having the strut mounted to the 6x6 was that when I pulled out the old insert, I did not have to worry too much about the oil spilling out, although I did have to unbolt the strut to pour the oil into a plastic bottle I had ready.

I've broken the job down into several discreet tasks, with several steps each, to keep things organized. The level of detail in the steps varies a bit; I've left out some simple details and included others. I did try to include all details about the problems I had and the solutions I found. The complete descriptions can be found in the factory service manual.

  • Preliminary preparations
  • Prepare the Car and get Access to the Parts to Replace
  • Bushings, Ball Joints, and Tie Rods
  • Rebuild Struts
  • Reinstall Struts, Shields, Hubs, and Brakes

Task 1 - Preliminary preparations

  1. Purchase all of the parts you want to replace. I replaced the strut inserts (with Toikco Illuminas), the upper strut mounting bearings, the lower ball joints (actually, the only ball joints), the outer tie rod ends, the strut dust boots and bump stops, the tension rod bushings (don't forget new self-locking nuts), and the stabilizer end link and mounting bushings (again, don't forget new self-locking nuts). This would have been an excellent time to replace the front wheel bearings, and brake rotors, calipers and pads, but I wanted to finish within one weekend ;-) Also note that when reinstalling the wheel bearing dust caps, new o-rings are required. When reinstalling the wheel bearing nuts, new cotter pins are required (I used 1.5 inch zinc cotter pins). Incidentally, I got everything except the Tokico strut inserts, the dust boots, and the polyurethane bump stops from Nissan; the quality is good and the ball joints and tie rod ends came with castle nuts and cotter pins.
  2. Get a dozen quart sized, zipper freezer bags (I used GladLock bags, but to each their own), and label, with permanent marker, 6 of them LEFT and 6 of them RIGHT. These are used to store parts like brake pads, wheel bearings, etc., so that they stay clean and so you can get them back on the side they came from.
  3. Make sure you have any special tools you'll need: coil spring compressors, tools to separate the ball joint and tie rod ends from the steering knuckle (I used pickle forks since I was replacing the ball joints and tie rod ends), a big hammer (for hitting the pickle forks), a large screwdriver (to separate the strut from the steering knuckle/lower ball joint), torque wrench in the 25 to 100 ft-lb range, etc. An 18 inch breaker bar also comes in handy.
  4. Definitely have something solid to mount the strut on to loosen the gland packing nut. There is a special socket available for use on the gland packing nut, but I just used a pipe wrench.

Task 2 - Prepare the Car and get Access to the Parts to Replace

  1. Loosen front lug nuts one/half turn.
  2. Jack up car and support front on jack stands (refer to factory service manual or Haynes manual for jack points and jack stand placement).
  3. Remove front wheels.
  4. Remove brake calipers, suspend on spare jack stands. Be sure to not mangle, kink or stretch the flexible brake hoses. The Haynes manual says to disconnect the brake hose and plug it, and I think the reason for that is because the Haynes manual deals mostly with '82 and prior models, which appear to have the brake hose support clip on the struts. My '83 does not have the hose support on the strut, so I did not see any reason to disconnect it. Your milage may vary. If you do have to disconnect the brake hose, be sure to properly bleed the brakes when reinstalling them.
  5. Remove brake pad retainers and brake pads. Put them in the correct bag for the side of the car they came from.
  6. Remove brake caliper mounting brackets.
  7. Remove wheel bearing dust cap, and put it into an appropriately labeled bag. Put it into its own bag; do not put it in the bag with the brake parts!
  8. Remove the cotter pin and discard. Remove the wheel bearing nut cap, wheel bearing nut, washer, and wheel bearing and put them all into an appropriately labeled bad of their own.
  9. Remove wheel hub/brake rotor assemblies. I put mine in cardboard boxes along with the bags for the side that the hubs came from. Then I put these boxes in the hatch until needed for reinstallation.
  10. Clean the spindle; this isn't technically necessary, but it keeps you from getting old grease all over yourself.
  11. Remove deflector shields. This is one of the places I had a bit of a problem. The deflector shields are held to the strut housing with 4 Phillips head screws. After being on there for almost 15 years, they were really tight. No way could I budge them with a screwdriver, so I used a trick I overheard at a recent local Z Club meeting (thanks, Marshall Cone of ZCCNV; I know a good idea when I overhear one). Using a screwdriver with changeable bits, I gently tapped a #3 Phillips bit into one of the screws. Then I used a 3/8" ratchet, 6" extension, and 1/4" socket to turn the bit while it was stuck in the screw. This worked for me.
  12. Loosen all lower bolts one half to one turn (tension rod to control arm, ball joint to control arm, steering knuckle to strut, tie rod adjustment lock nuts, outer tie rod castle nut (remove cotter pin first)).
  13. Loosen all upper strut nuts one half turn (strut insulator mounting nuts, piston nut (only one half turn))

Task 3 - Bushings, Ball Joints, and Tie Rods

  1. Remove tension rod to front mount nut (bushing nut), and withdraw tension rod from front mount.
  2. Separate tie rod ends from steering knuckle.
  3. Remove tie rod ends from steering rack, making sure to hold the threaded part so that it does not turn (use an open end or adjustable wrench to hold it by the flats), and count the number of turns it takes to get the outer tie rod end off. Swap grease fittings to new tie rod ends, or better yet use new grease fittings.
  4. Install new tie rod ends onto steering rack, turning them then same number of turns it took to get them off.
  5. Install tie rod end into steering knuckle; incrementally torque castle nut checking for alignment with cotter pin hole; install new cotter pin. Tighten the tie rod adjustment lock nuts while again holding the threaded part by the flats.
  6. Remove steering knuckle to strut bolts. This is the second problem I ran into. The left side was no problem, but one of the bolts on the right side was so tight that I twisted off the drive square on a 1/2 to 3/8 socket adapter (unfortunately it wasn't a Craftsman or other brand with a replacement guarantee). I did have a spare (also not guaranteed), but I didn't want to break that one since I still had other bolts to loosen. What I did use was a Craftsman combination wrench with a 6 point box; I put it on the nut, sat on the asphalt and pushed on it with my foot. Even then it was very hard to loosen, and I had to push it with my foot three times, moving it about 60 degrees each time, before I could move it with my hand on the wrench. When I finally got it out, the threads looked fine, so I used it during reassembly.
  7. Remove strut mounting insulator nuts (the three nuts that secure the strut mount to the hoodledge, NOT the strut piston nut).
  8. Remove strut and spring assembly and set aside to rebuild later. To get the strut assembly off the car, you have to use a large screwdriver and pry it loose from the steering knuckle, then use the screwdriver to pry down on the control arm/steering knuckle/lower ball joint combination enough to allow the strut to come out. The strut assembly is pretty heavy (I'd estimate about 50 lbs or so), so have a good grip on it during this procedure, and be sure to have a good squatting, kneeling or sitting position so that you don't fall over when the strut comes out.
  9. Remove cotter pin and castle nut from lower ball joint. The castle nut is pretty tight, so you'll need to have the ball joint/tension rod mounting bolts in to keep from deforming the control arm (ask me how I know)
  10. Separate lower ball joint from steering knuckle.
  11. Remove lower ball joint mounting bolts and remove lower joint; swap grease fittings to new lower ball joint, or use new grease fittings (probably better to use new ones).
  12. Install new lower ball joint to control arm, but only put the inner most bolt in for now (the short bolt).
  13. While tension rod mounting bolts are out, install the new tension rod bushings with new self-locking nuts. With the struts out, I laid the control arm end of the tension rods on top of the control arm, which pretty much put the tension rod in an orthogonal orientation to its front mount. I had to clean some rust and rubber off of the bushing caps and the frame before enough of the tension rod threads came through the hole to get the nuts on. Run the nuts on as far as you can with just you fingers.
  14. Install tension rod mounting bolts (the ones that thread into the lower ball joint through the control arm).
  15. Install stabilizer bar end link and mounting bushings now. It is necessary to remove the front lower shield (under the front of the engine) to get to the stabilizer mounting brackets. Torque all stabilizer nuts and bolts to specification. Replace lower front shield.
  16. Install lower ball joint into steering knuckle.
  17. Incrementally torque castle nut on ball joint checking for alignment with cotter pin hole; install cotter pin when the torque on the castle nut is in the specified range and the hole in the ball joint stud lines up with a slot in the nut.
  18. With the struts out, the stabilizer bar held the control arms in such a way that tension rods were still almost orthogonal to their front mounts. Since my torque wrench with a 17mm socket attached would not fit into the small space in the front mounts where the rod bushing nut lives, I used a 17mm open end wrench to just run the new nuts down until they more or less bottomed against the spacer in the middle of the bushing. This is not the official way to do this, but it seems to have worked for me.

Task 4 - Rebuild Struts

  1. Using the two holes in the bottom of the strut where it attaches to the steering knuckle, attach the strut to something solid. When I asked about this on the Z Car List, some folks said that they bolted it to a workbench with the bolts from the car; others used a vice to hold the strut (with wooden blocks to protect the housing). I decided to bolt it to a 6 foot long section of 6x6 landscape timber I had. This required drilling two 5/16" holes 3 and 1/8 inches apart all the way through the 6x6, then counter-boring the holes from one side so that the quarter inch bolt heads and washers would go in far enough to allow the 6 inch long bolts to reach through the holes in the bottom of the strut. I used a 1.5" wood boring bit and counter-bored the holes to a depth of about 2 inches. I attached the strut to the 6x6 about one foot from one end, then supported the ends of that 6x6 on two shorter pieces of 6x6.
  2. Separate the bottom of the old strut boot from the top of the strut housing. I did this by reaching between the coils of the spring and spreading the ends of the lower boot clip until it was free of the strut housing.
  3. Next I compressed the coil spring using my coil spring compressors according to the instructions that came with them.
  4. Once the coil springs were compressed sufficiently to lift the spring slightly out of its lower seat, remove the old strut piston nut. This should be pretty easy if you loosened it a half turn before it came off the car.
  5. Remove the top of the mounting insulator; the bearing might come off with it, or the bearing may stay on the lower half of the mount. Note the orientation of the bearing so that you can get it reinstalled correctly. I cleaned the upper mounts, including the bearing dust cover at this point so that they'd be ready to reinstall later.
  6. Remove the lower half of the mount; the old strut boot and bump stop will come with it. Remove the old strut boot and replace it with the new one. The top of the strut boot just snaps in place on the lower half of the upper strut mount. Then stuff the new bump stop into the boot, making sure to get it right side up. My old ones were in there with the flat side toward the mount and the rounded end toward the strut housing, so that's how I put the new ones in. Transfer the lower dust boot clip to the new dust boot.
  7. At this point you are supposed to release the spring compressors and inspect the spring. You are definitely not supposed to remove the coil spring with the compressor still on it, but I did anyway. I did put the coil spring complete with compressor in a safe place well away from where I was working. None of the corners of my car sagged and the springs looked okay while on the strut, so I figured they were fine. We'll see.
  8. The next step was to remove the gland packing nut. I used a 14" pipe wrench, and I was very careful not to damage the strut housing. The nut was tight, but it came off fairly easily. As a side note, when I was completely finished I noticed that the quarter inch bolts I used to mount the strut to the 6x6 were bent a little and some of the threads were messed up, but since I only paid 86 cents for the bolts, nuts and washers, including tax, I didn't care.
  9. After removing the gland packing nut, there is a rubber seal that holds the internal components in and seals against the gland packing nut to keep the oil in. This must be removed before the internal components will come out. I used an old dental pick to remove the seal.
  10. Slowly remove the internal strut components. The strut housing is full of oil, but if you're careful, you should be able to remove the the internal components without much spillage. After removing the old internal components I unbolted the strut housing and poured the oil into a waiting plastic jug. Be sure to dispose of the old strut components in an environmentally friendly manner.
  11. With the strut housing again bolted to the 6x6, I installed the new Tokico Illumina inserts into the strut housing. The instructions say to shake them around gently to make sure that they are seated in the bottom, so I did that, but I think they were already seated, since they didn't move when I shook them around. Tokico recommends using an oil bath to dissipate heat; they say any oil can be used, but they recommend using a light oil. I used the oil that came out of the old struts. It didn't take much oil, either; the Tokico inserts almost completely fill the strut housing.
  12. Coat the sealing surface of the gland packing nut and washer with multi purpose grease and carefully, so as not to scratch the piston, install the new gland packing nut (the Illuminas came with a new gland packing nut and washer and a new self-locking piston nut).
  13. At this point you're supposed to recompress the coil spring, but since I left the compressor on mine, I skipped this step.
  14. Sit the coil spring in position on the lower spring seat, then position the lower half of the upper mount, complete with boot, bump stop and lower boot clip on the top of the strut piston.
  15. Install the upper strut mount bearings (new or otherwise; I bought new ones, but the old ones looked fine) and the bearing dust covers.
  16. Install the top part of the upper mount, and thread the new self-locking piston nut onto the piston (the Illuminas came with a protective rubber cover on the threads which had to be removed first). Note that the upper part of the mount is keyed to the strut piston; I was able to hold the upper part of the mount and run the nut down until it started to get tight, but not too tight - I torqued it after it was back on the car.
  17. Remove the spring compressor slowly, according to the manufacturers instructions. As the spring expands keep checking to make sure that the ends of the spring are correctly in their seats.
  18. Spread the lower strut dust boot clip so that the bottom end of the boot will fit over the top of the strut housing, then position the clip in place to hold it there. Be sure not to over stretch the boot.
  19. Unbolt the strut from whatever solid mounting you used and its ready for reinstallation.

Task 5 - Reinstall Struts, Shields, Hubs, and Brakes

  1. Reinstall struts (remember to apply sealant to steering knuckle) by inserting the upper insulator bolts into the holes in the hoodledge; this is much easier with a helper guiding the bolts from above while you hold the strut from below. Once the bolts are through the holes, have your helper put the washers on and start the nuts.
  2. Using a large screwdriver, small pry bar, etc., lever the bottom end of the strut over the ball joint castle nut and into position on the steering knuckle. My buddy also helped with this by pushing down on the tension rod just in front of the control arm while I levered the strut into position.
  3. Install and torque the bolts that hold the steering knuckle and bottom of the strut together.
  4. Torque the tension rod mounting bolts.
  5. Torque the upper strut mounting nuts and the strut piston nut.
  6. Install the deflector shields onto the strut housing.
  7. Repack outer wheel bearing, then install wheel hub/brake rotor assembly, wheel bearing, wheel bearing washer, and wheel bearing castle nut. Be sure to follow the FSM instructions for adjusting the wheel bearings. Install the wheel bearing nut cap and cotter pin. Install the wheel bearing dust cap with a new o-ring.
  8. Install brake caliper bracket, brake pads, brake pad retainers, and brake caliper, making sure to torque all bolts to specification.

Task 6 - Reinstall Wheels and Lower Car, Clean Up and Alignment

  1. Install wheels, and snug the lug nuts.
  2. Lower car off jack stands.
  3. Torque wheel lug nuts to specification.
  4. Put away all tools, jack stands, etc.
  5. Get an alignment before you drive too far. This is necessary anytime the tie rod ends or tension rods are removed.

Sources used on this page:

  • Original Article by Andy Anderson