Wishbones and stuck door latches.

Taken from TWOA's The Bulletin Issue 51, by Jim TenCate, with a killer tip from Ted Schumacher!

Background. Three or four months ago my driver’s-side door wouldn’t open. The latch stuck in a state midway between open and closed. I’m guessing it’s a "safety" mode that keeps the door from flying open as you’re driving. But frankly I really don’t know why it works that way, it’s just a guess on my part. I took a photo (below) of two latches which show both "states" of the latch. Remarkably in my searching of past TR7 TR8 archives, I couldn’t find any information on how the latches function. Does anyone here know why the latch has three positions, (1) one closed, (2) one closed but the door ajar, and (3) one open? Email me if so. Let’s get on with the story.

I related my door problem to both the World Wide Wedge mailing list and the TWOA Facebook forum. Some people thought it was a stuck "door restraint" (YKC3290), that extra latch found on DHC convertibles to help deal with body flex. These often get gummed up and the "hook" part on the door (ZKC3464) gets jammed in the latch attached to the car. There are quite a few past newsletter articles on this problem. The solution to the issue is simply to hold the door handle in the open position and firmly bang the door open. Then you simply need to clean and regrease the door restraint mechanism and the problem is solved. That was not the case this time, my problem was clearly a latch issue. Sorry, I digress.

A handful of you Emailed me back and reported that you’d had similar problems. I also discovered an Email thread from Clay Thompson in my old email files who said he'd had the same issue with Iguana, his green TR7. He told me that with the door stuck part way open the door weatherstrip seal could be pulled out of the way and it was even possible to remove the door panel. I never did find out how he got the door open in the end, and next time I see the car (it’s in New Mexico) I’ll examine it carefully to see if he pried it open somehow. I also got a couple of Email horror stories from both Odd Hedberg and Michael Hart. In both cases a crowbar was needed to pry the door open, doing major damage to the door in Odd’s case and messing up the paint in Michael’s.

Wayne Simpson, however, relayed perhaps the most useful information. He reported that it’s sometimes just a part of the plastic housing that breaks off and jams up the mechanism. The solution, he wrote, is to hold the latch open and kick the door open, hard. And then try harder if it doesn’t budge the first time. I was willing to do that, especially after the crowbar horror stories. Sure enough it worked. Indeed, there was a piece of white plastic jammed inside which was stuck enough that I couldn’t easily get it out. The red arrow in the photo points to the stuck plastic bit. I promptly replaced the latch with a new one from Rimmers and never thought about it again. I did keep the old latch—it’s hard for me to throw anything out when it comes to our cars—thinking one day I might get around to exploring its function more. But there were more pressing things waiting for me to do. Keep reading.

It happened again! Fast forward about 3 months now. Recently I had pulled out the carpet and seats in my car intending to re-stuff the seats, re-dye all the carpet, and replace the side sill carpet pieces. It was my "interior refresh" summer project, something I’d wanted to do for a long time and the Stay At Home orders here in New Mexico meant I had extra time to do it. Unfortunately, while the seats were away at the upholstery shop, the shop suddenly closed (with 2 cases of COVID-19). So, since I didn’t know when the seats were coming back, I fitted another seat so I could drive the car— more on that elsewhere in this issue—and left the passenger seat out so I could work on the carpets. Well guess what? Like headlights which seem to always fail in pairs, usually within weeks of each other, the passenger door latch failed too, around 3 months after the drivers side latch failed. Planned obsolescence? Are they designed for a 40 year lifetime? No worries, I already knew how to get the door open. Or so I thought.

Unfortunately, this time was different. No amount of banging from the inside, and even the most vigorous efforts to kick the door open wouldn’t budge it. This time the door was really stuck, again in a sort of limbo state between not closed and not open. I tried driving around with it that way and kicking the door again and again. No joy. I was beginning to think that maybe this latch had failed in another way; perhaps something was wrong with the mechanism itself and not just the latch? I decided to take the route Clay Thompson went, I pulled out the door weatherstrip seal (pretty easy) and with a great deal of fussing (and the right panel removing tools), finally managed to get the door panel off too, doing a bit of damage but not much. (I don’t recommend removing the door panel and likely you shouldn’t have to if this happens to you. Keep reading.)

Once I had access to the door mechanism inside the door I took lots of photos, studied it all, even took off the driver’s door panel and compared LH to RH sides. The latch was fine. All the mechanical bits looked OK. I was left with the uneasy feeling that this latch failed in the exact same way as the driver’s side and the plastic piece jamming it was really stuck. I recalled the horror stories from Odd and Michael and was worried I’d have to get out the crowbar eventually. I also considered how I might cut the latch apart with a Dremel tool, thinking the door was ajar just enough to get on to the latch inside. But it was something I wasn’t really looking forward to trying. For good measure I tried driving around on some especially bumpy roads again and tried banging it open some more. It was no use, nothing worked.

The Fix. About this time I got a short Email from Ted Schumacher. His suggestion was simple. Jack up the car near the stuck door latch until the wheels are barely touching the ground. That will allow the body to flex/bend, pulling the door and latch away from the body. Then I should apply "force" once again and with a bit of luck it might pop open.

I also decided that I’d have another look at the old broken door latch (never throw anything away)! With a small screwdriver and a pointy pick tool I managed to extract the plastic piece. It was "really" stuck in there but in the end, it is just a plastic piece and the rest of the latch is metal. So, holding the door handle open and banging forcefully should eventually force the door latch open and together with Ted’s suggestion, I might just get the door to open. For good measure I went out and sprayed a bunch of Teflon lube in the stuck latch before I tried it too. Can’t hurt right?

So, I got out my floor jack, a hockey puck with a hole in it (to put on the pin of the rear jack point), and jacked up the car a bit. Sure enough, the door gap widened somewhat. (Sorry I didn’t get a photo of that.) Then I found a suitable 1” x 4” piece of hardwood board (maple I think) that I was just able to fit into the door gap—with the door seal pulled out of the way. This way force can be applied right where the latch was located. I grabbed my deadblow hammer and safety glasses and was ready to go.

Except I had to climb in the drivers side, over the middle console, and into the passenger side which didn’t have a seat! I thought of Melody’s story of a few issues back wondering if this was harder than what she had to do on the trip to VTR Nationals or not. I should perhaps note that I couldn’t lower the convertible top to make this any easier either, the front corner of the top was trapped, even with a partially open door. This feat of contortions took maybe 15 minutes but I finally got into position. I called up Deb on my cell phone and told her to come outside, I was finally ready.

What you need to hammer the door open. Notice the door restraint YKC 3290 can be seen here and isn’t stuck. I staged this photo after I got the door open and put the door panel back on to show you that you do NOT need to remove the door panel!

Deb grabbed and held open the outer door handle, I grabbed the deadblow hammer and started banging on the wood piece. Nothing at first but with steadily increasing force it finally started to move until finally, it popped free! Deb let out a "Hooray" and then asked me "Is that all you need me for?" and went back inside when I said "Yes".

Now I was able to climb out on the passenger side (much easier!). I released and pulled the jack out of the way, and then I immediately removed the door latch to examine it. Sure enough there was another broken plastic piece in this RH one too, much bigger than the piece from the broken LH latch, and really difficult to remove to examine. The hammer blows had really smashed the piece into the mechanism but in the end, I finally had an open door! I had gotten a good used RH latch from eBay at the start of this, put it on and voila, the car was almost good as new.

Did I do any damage? Yes, you can see a small dent which resulted from the wood + hammering but only if you know where to look. I’m not going to show you a photo as there isn’t room here, you can look for it next time you see my car.

Wishbones and good/bad luck. What about these broken latch pieces though? Are they all going to start failing that way eventually? A better question: Is there something that can be done so you the wedge owner don’t have this problem some day soon too? Perhaps proactively breaking off or removing the piece that always seems to break off? Like removing an appendix before it bursts? Wayne tells me that after he fished out the broken piece on his car he reassembled the latch and it has worked fine ever since. The plastic lever that breaks helps hold a cylindrical rubber bumper as seen in the photo. Green is a good one, red is the bad one. I looked over both of my broken latches. In the first one, I think there’s enough of the holding lever left that it would probably work fine. However, much more of the holding lever is missing on the RH latch and indeed, it will no longer hold the little cylindrical rubber bumper in place. It’s a lot like a turkey wishbone. If you’re lucky, when it snaps you get the biggest piece left, if you’re unlucky, the piece you’re left with is too small. So, depending on how the holding lever breaks, you may just need a new (or used) latch. Perhaps selectively removing a small piece of an intact lever arm isn’t such a bad idea, especially since these are all now around 40 year old. You’ll have to decide that one for yourself. I just replaced both of mine for good measure. (Of course, I kept the old ones too.)

Special thanks goes to Ted Schumacher and he gets: a Most Excellent Tip award. And now it’s also archived in the newsletters and searchable so we can all easily find it again too! Hope this doesn’t happen to you but if it does, don’t despair!