Doing the clutch on an '88

Keith Peterson

 For several months, my '88 Formula had been giving clues that its clutch was getting tired. The engagement point seemed high and it was slipping under full throttle after a session of stop and go traffic. After 117,000 miles, it seemed like a reasonable time for a clutch project.

 I found a pretty good deal on the professional replacement option, $495, at Arlington Transmission in Arlington Heights (NIFE members get a discounted price here!). But I decided I would prefer the challenge (and savings) of taking it on myself.

 My project started with research. I reviewed the Chilton's book, and asked advice of several owners who had done the job. I made the choice to do it in the car, rather than removing the engine and cradle together from the car. With some trepidation I dove in, wishing I'd invested in a Helms manual.

 The first challenge was the engine lifting tool. This tool bridges the engine area and has a crossbar with threaded hangers for lifting the engine. Pontiac suggests a fancy adjustable one, but I built one out of some 1-1/4 inch square steel tubing.

 Once the engine had some upward force on it, I lifted the car, thankful that I had invested in a car hoist a while back; jacks would work just fine, although you do need to get the car up pretty high. I found the Chilton's manual had almost no useful information about dealing with the '88 suspension parts, but the way to pull it apart was very obvious. No ball joints need to be removed, no pickle forks are required. It does require a breaker bar for the large bolts and nuts and I was glad to have an impact wrench.

 With the lower arms removed you can swing out the hubs and pop loose the axles. There is no need to remove the boots. If you were clever, you would have already drained the oil in the transmission before this step; avoiding a spill as the axles slide out.

 Chilton's picks this moment to suggest removing the exhaust crossover. I wish I had done that first, with the car still on the ground. It seemed silly to climb a ladder to work on top of the engine.

 Be very careful of the EGR tube during this step, or you'll have another project replacing that when it cracks. Take care with the vacuum actuating tube also, I hear they get fragile with age.  

Back under the car, most of the engine mounts are fairly easy to remove. There is a little difficulty with the coolant crossover tube being in the way of the left front mount, and the left rear had a bolt that was hard to get to until the cradle was lowered slightly.

 I did have some trouble with the rear cradle bolts; one of the nut-plates spun loose inside the frame. I found that an air chisel easily opened a small window in the frame just large enough for vise-grips to reach in and hold it. The keeper that is suppose to hold those self-locking nut-plates is VERY thin. 

The cradle swings down easily, bringing the exhaust and rear sway bar with it. It's a bit of a struggle to work out the movement of various parts past each other. The starter needs to be wired up out of the way. The exhaust pipe has to clear the coolant tube, and the sway bar threads out from between various suspension parts. Cradle down, it's daunting to look up at the engine hanging from two hangers. But with the shift levers removed and the engine lowered as far as possible on the flywheel end, the Muncie 5-speed slid easily off the engine. I used a cable hoist to support the transaxle and just left it hanging from a table. The clutch plate was well worn but still keeping the rivets off the flywheel. The flywheel was discolored but had little wear, no grooves, and no surface cracks. The wear step was less than .005 inch.

 I took the flywheel to Arlington Transmission for resurfacing but they said it only needed to have the glaze broken with an abrasive wheel. They did it for free, and gave me some advice as well. A good place to do business with! I was fortunate to find a wholesale source for the clutch parts. The retail price of the clutch pack which contained the disk, the pressure plate, and the throwout bearing was $172. The wholesale price was $94, but it was clear that this was a special deal and I should not be sending everyone over for the same price. I also paid another way... they gave me the wrong parts the first time around.

 Once I had the correct parts I was ready to reverse the procedure. I noticed that Chilton pictured the same incorrect throwout bearing that I was originally sold. Must be a common error.

 The clutch slid together easily and the throwout bearing fit like a glove. I added some extra white grease on the actuating fork to keep it working smooth. With the pilot shaft removed the transaxle slid right on, no challenge at all. 

The cradle was a bit trickier to get back up. It took several tries to get all the interlocking parts to weave together where they belonged. The engine needed to be muscled around a little to get the engine mounts to line up. A long breaker bar is a good tool for this step.

 With the engine back on it's mounts (and a sigh of relief) there were only details to complete. The suspension parts slid right back together and the many wires and cables popped  back on without any adjustments required. This really is a well designed car! 

I did take time to sand blast and repaint the inner fender wells behind the wheels, up inside, behind the plastic wheel well liners. I learned from NIFE that I would find rust there, and it felt good to blast it clean and get fresh paint on it.

With the Formula back on the ground and fresh oil in the transmission, I was ready for the test drive. Wonderful! The clutch engaged at the correct height, it felt smooth and crisp and there were no signs of clutch dragging.

 Although this seemed like a very daunting project at the start, in hindsight it was not that hard. The only real trick is that engine lifting bar, and I'd be willing to loan the one I built to a NIFE member who promises to bring it back.

 This project also provides a chance to take care of a lot of other details, such as axle seals, engine mounts, the oil pan (is yours rusty?), boots and even struts.

 If you're fairly handy and a little brave you should be able to do the job. Just take your time, apply common sense and don't believe everything you read in a Chilton's manual.


Keith Peterson

Hampshire IL.

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