Auto Mechanic Types - How foolhardy am I being?

Here’s the rundown: I have a '98 Ford Windstar which I purchased from a friend a couple of years ago for $300; it had already been declared totalled by their insurance company twice over before it came to me. The van had been driven through deep water, doing something unspeakable to the transmission so that now it won’t shift out of 1st gear while in D. I have to put it into the Low gear to get it to shift out of first and the thing will struggle to reach 45 miles per hour on a good day.

I suffered two flat tires in the space of about a week recently; I used the full sized spare for one, and on the second flat, the rim got bent all to hell, so I had to use the compact spare for the driver’s side rear wheel. The compact spare was pretty rusty and lo and behold, the holes in the rim for the lug nuts bent out so that the wheel practically fell off (thankfully, not while I was on the road). I found a new wheel and tire at a salvage yard for a good price (under $40 for the whole shebang) and proceeded to put the new wheel on… and one of the bolts for the lug nuts broke off while I was trying to break the nut loose to remove the spare. I went ahead and put the new wheel on, tightened the remaining 4 lug nuts, and took it to a shop to have the lug nuts tightened with a torque wrench. I fully intend to get a replacement for the necessary parts, but I won’t be able to afford it for almost a month on my meager paycheck.

I don’t drive far; typically a mile to work, a mile back, once a week or so maybe another 4 mile round trip to a grocery store. I don’t drive on the highway and rarely exceed 35 mph in any case. What’s my danger/idiot factor if I (cautiously) drive with only 4 out of 5 lug nuts secured?

I would not drive that car for many reasons the wheel is just one of them.

But fixing a broken lugnut stud is trivially easy for any tire shop to do. Look for a local small shop ideally look for a muffler shop run by immigrants. They are used to cheap cash fixes and this does not take an ASE master mechanic.

Yeah, I’m definitely on the lookout for a replacement car ASAP. If it wasn’t the onset of the Newer Dryas right now, I’d be walking everywhere for sure. I’ve got just such a tire shop nearby; I’ll check with them this weekend. Thanks!

I’ve driven cars with 3 out of five lug nuts left. Nothing bad happened, but I did drive easy. Still can’t say that 4 out of five is a good idea, though. Shouldn’t cost much to fix. As for the general condition of your vehicle, the other things you mentioned will at worst put you on the side of the road eventually. Who knows how long that may be? Maybe long enough to save for a better ride.

What speeds do you reach? At highway speeds you should be more cautious about this sort of thing than you should be at 30-45 mph. Not having matching tread patterns on all wheels could be cause for concern as well.

Four out 5 lugnuts is the least of your worries. The slipping transmission is on borrowed time. I’d say don’t waste any pennies on this and get something else.

I don’t drive on highways unless there’s absolutely no other route to a destination, and even then I’m putting along at 45-50 MPH for only short distances. This rarely happens anyway, though.

I’m pretty much just hoping it gets me through the winter at this point, or even till it gets generally warm enough to walk to work and to the bus stop for groceries. So in a sense, it’s a convenience to have a vehicle for now, and I’m trying to squeeze as much use out of it as possible till I have to have it towed to a salvage yard.

The official declaration is oh-my-god-it’s-not-safe-it-could-lead-to-a-fatal-accident.

In the real world, people have driven for months, even years, all kinds of driving, while missing a lug nut without having a problem.

So I’m not going to tell you it’s okay, but I will tell you that if you drive it that way for a while and nothing untoward happens, it won’t be the first time.

I am NOT advising you to use it while it is missing one lug nut. I have seen this done before with no adverse effects, However I am NOT an auto engineer.

As far as the transmission issue, is the fluid level OK? Not to full or not to low? Has the transmission fluid been changed since the high water fording? If the fluid has been changed and is low, add some. If the fluid has not been changed and/or is to high and/or is a milky color, replace both the fluid and the filter. A milky color shows that water has mixed with the transmission fluid. This can be very bad, however with Willys and Jeeps that have had this happen due to a high water fording, changing the filter and fluid has worked wonders. IME, a transmission fluid flush often causes the seals to fail and then the rig will not move under its own power. Do not let the shop talk you into this. A change of the filter and fluid often works wonders.

IHTH, 48.

I’m with Gary’s 3rd sentence.

I am not an engineer. I am not a mechanic. I am not any kind of safety expert. Follow my advice at your own risk.

I have a lot of experience driving cars that are seriously broken in one way or another. I am given to understand that a car will be “fine” on 3 out of 5 lugnuts. In fact I recall this as a recommended fix for losing lugnuts while changing a tire (say, stepped on the hubcap and flipped them into a storm drain or something); just take 1 nut from each of the other wheels so you have 1 with 3 and 3 with 4.
It is good that you plan to get this fixed ASAP, and I agree with others above that it is a simple repair.
If it were my car, I would drive it as-is if I had to, but I would be very careful. Watch for bumps and potholes on that wheel, and basically be constantly prepared for the wheel to fall off. It probably won’t, but you should be ready if it does.

The transmission is what worries me most about this car. That and: what was it totaled for the other time?

This.
I would add that if you broke a lug stud/lug bolt due to all 5 being left loose this is a way different kettle of fish. In this case the remaining lugs will fail in very short order. Been there seen it.

You can also replace broken lugs on many cars with just a hammer. Take the wheel off and see if you can see the back of the hub, where the “head” of the lugs rest. If you can drive the broken one out with a punch and hammer - they are just pressed into the hub - you should be able to get a replacement from Ford or NAPA for a few bucks and drive it in yourself. You then put the wheel back on normally, then overtighten that new lug as much as you can to seat it (100-150 ft-lbs), then back it off loose and retorque it to normal values.

But really, it sounds like you’re driving a vehicle that shouldn’t be on the road. One way or the other, it’s going to hurt someone that may not be you. I fully understand the need for wheels on a flat budget, but…

The missing wheel nuts are the least of your problems, just check them every week or so.
It seems like the car is unroadworthy and should be on the scrap heap.

Get a bicycle, helmet, good coat and ski pants.