By on January 7, 2010

The New Beetle of Damocles?

Having lead a life of high adventure in my youth, scaling pinnacles of rocks and ice, I never imagined that I’d meet my end, flat on my back crushed beneath a falling car. I was setting a new land-speed record for butt-shoulder-shuffling on my way out from under the creaking, swaying mass of 1999 Volkswagen New Beetle-shaped steel groaning menacingly above my body. Moments before the VW started moving it was resting firmly on my tried, and until-that-moment trusted ramps and jack-stands. But now I was going to die, life flashing before my eyes, staring swaying death in the face as my wife’s “cute bug” transformed into Damocles’ Sword, or Poe’s Pendulum, my garage floor playing the Pit. The tremor ceased as my head cleared the oil pan, and the Beetle slowed, then stopped making the horrific creaking noises as the jack-stands stopped wobbling. I cleared the bumper and leapt to my feet in a single motion, and relief swept over me like the expected post-quake tidal wave should. “Damn, I’m still alive!… in fact… I’m completely unharmed!” Running into the house I yelled at the family: ‘Did you guys feel that?!” … only to be met with a non-chalant: “feel what?”

In retrospect the tremor which scared me out from under the car was only a barely-rattle-the-china 3.2 on the Richter Scale, but it drove home an indelible lesson to this DIY mechanic living in a region where three tectonic plates meet: I NEED to get a lift!

flatWith kids heading for college in a few years, the budget was tight, but the family’s financial committee agreed that my life and future earning power were worth an investment of about a thousand bucks or so. Armed with that vote of confidence I perused the web for advice and good deals on a better platform for the home mechanic to raise his car off the ground.

Most of the work I do on my family’s cars involves basic maintenance: Fluid Changes. Tire Rotations. Brake Jobs. Occasionally tasks are a tad more involved, especially with my hobby car, a vintage British sports car, which always seems to have some little thing, and occasionally a big thing wrong with it. Major engine overhauls and complete restorations however are out of my league, so in reality the lift I required could be a light-duty model. Sure, I’d love a deluxe two- or four-post lift, but at the time I was shopping I really had no place to put one, and they were all priced out of my budget. Scissor lifts however seemed to be a good compromise: small, semi-portable, usable in a small garage, and far safer than ramps & jack-stands, while being reasoraisednably priced

At the suggestion of more than one like-minded cheapskate wrench-turner I settled upon the “US General” 6000lb Scissor Lift from Harbor Freight. (Item #46604) It is likely the lowest-price lift on the market. Using a Triple-Word-Score combination of coupons, online specials, and shipping discounts the total price came to about $850 in 2003. I live in the boonies 60-some miles out of Seattle and due to the size and weight (~750lbs) of the lift Harbor Freight would only use a freight forwarder for shipping.

This meant I had to pick it up at a loading dock in Seattle in my battered old farm pickup. It arrived in two pieces: a large wooden crate, with a cardboard box containing the hydraulic control unit strapped to the top of it, which fit right into the short bed of the old Dodge. I borrowed a neighbor’s tractor with a backhoe to unload the bulky unit from the truck’s bed and set it on the concrete floor of my garage. A few months later I relocated it to our barn, which became my workshop after the last of the domestic livestock were moved to better accommodations elsewhere. Moving the whole unit around is unwieldy, yet once upon a concrete slab it is very easy for a single person to maneuver the lift around an open space due to the magic of leverage and physics. The Control unit is essentially designed as a wheeled lever, and the lift is equipped with sturdy rollers at one end, and a lever-eye at the other end.

First, theProblem solved! bad news: Two minor parts failed almost immediately. The original plastic wheels of the control unit are just not up to the task of holding the weight of the lift when used as a lever. They literally crumbled after a few tries moving the lift around. I replaced them with sturdier units from my local hardware store with actual bearings in them. Secondly the control unit is very top-heavy and with the broken wheels it tipped over, falling right onto the fitting for the hydraulic pipe, breaking it. At first I tried calling Harbor Freight’s customer service department to have the pipe replaced. Eventually I gave up that fruitless exercise and had a new pipe fabricated at my local NAPA store. Both repairs have held up for almost six years.

The good news: It is simple to operate, safe, and makes common automotive maintenance work a breeze. Low clearance cars such as my vintage Jaguar require help getting over the folded lift, so I have collected some long 4×4 & 4×6 lumber to arrange around the lift for that purpose. Vehicles with more ground clearance can just drive over it. Moveable arms with adjustable rubber-topped pads provide the lifting surfaces under the car. The pads are scored with right-angled grooves to mate up to the body work of cars like VW, who use flanges as lifting points. The lift has several pre-set ratcheting safety latch points as it goes up, providing safe, stable levels to perform work. To raise the car you operate the hydraulic pump, which runs from a standard household electrical outlet, with a push-button. To lower the car you must hold two levers, one retracting the safety-catch, the other slowly releasing the hydraulic fluid.

Oil changes, tire rotations, and brake work are now super-easy, and so much safer and faster when performed on the lift. Instead of spending lots of time raising, lowering and fiddling with jacks and stands, I can now get right to work. However, since the lift itself is positioned directly under the car working on things like transmissions or exhaust can be problematic depending upon the car. For these applications a traditional lift would be much better, but for the home mechanic on a budget this small lift is a wonderful luxury. I’ve used it countless times for oil and filter changes, and when it came time to sell the New Beetle I was able to do it right with numerous photos of every nook and cranny to put it on eBay Motors.

Had that tremor in 2003 bloomed into a genuine 6.0 or larger quake I might not be here today to enjoy life. Even if you don’t live in a “geological entertainment zone” like I do the peace of mind provided by such a simple and safe working platform is well worth the cost.

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32 Comments on “Product Review: Harbor Freight Hydraulic Scissor Lift...”

  • avatar

    I had a deal with the wife before we bought this house: if she gets a professional range hood, I get a lift.
    We’ve got a range hood,  I’ve got a floor jack.

    Looks like this is $950 now

  • avatar

    Best review ever (from another newslist I patronize)…
    “Buyer beware: No matter what you buy from Harbor Freight,
    two years later it’s a hammer or a door-stop.”

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve had this lift since 2003, and it still works fine. In the review I noted the craptastic wheels, which disintegrated within two months of purchase. The main hydraulic pipe between the control and the lift has also been replaced (due to the wheels’ failure.) Both of those issues were easily repairable by a DIY mechanic.
      I knew exactly what I was getting into when buying from HF. Low prices. Indifferent customer service. Low prices. Likely failure of component parts. Low prices.
      The basic design of the lift is sound, simple, and safe. I expect I’ll be using it for years to come.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve heard hammer, anvil, or door stop. ‘nutcase

  • avatar

    I do have a 4-post lift, but I want one of these too. The 4-post is not handy for changing tires and brakes and such. I paid ~$2300 with shipping for my 4-post 6-7 years ago and it is a wonderful thing to have. I don’t have enough headroom in the garage for a 2-post lift.

    As to Harbor Freight tools, I find they are often “good enough” for casual use. But you definitely have to keep in mind that they are cheap, and cheaply made. But for something you use once in a blue moon they are fine. But my constant use stuff is all “good” Craftsman and a few SnapOn pieces.

  • avatar

    I’ve never bought anything from Harbor freight that lasts worth a damn.
    Junk store quality, all of it.

  • avatar

    Not everything at HF is no-name; they also sell BendPak lifts. Having said that, I checked out a neighbor’s scissor lift and decided it obstructed too much of the underside of the car to be useful for exhaust work or rolling a creeper around. So it’s a 2-post lift for me.

  • avatar

    Ramps and jack stands would have a wider stance then this lift which should make  them safer in a tremor situation .

    • 0 avatar

      Width plays little here compared to the ability for the jack-stands to move independently and overall LATERAL stability. The lift is essentially solid, with over four square feet of padded contact area with the car. Jack-stands have about four square inches in metal-to-metal contact with the car. The non-rolling side of the scissor is much wider than the rolling side, providing a wide platform of steel on the ground as well.
      The 3.2 shake that terrified me moved that car a LOT. Four years after I bought the lift we experienced a 5.0 quake while the Jaguar was up on the lift and it didn’t even squeak.

  • avatar

    Neat. Good story and good pitch. Back in my younger days I would turn my nose up at anything that didn’t have the word ‘Snap’ on it somewhere. Now I know better. I think I’ll find my way over to 5th Street Highway this weekend and see what my local Harbor Freight has to say about this item.

  • avatar

    After a few experiences with Harbor Freight products I would be much less likely to trust my life to their scissors jack than a set of jack stands.

  • avatar

    I too was working on a lifted car once when a small tremor hit in NW PA.  I leaped from my position sensing that the car was/had fallen.  Alas the ’87 Sentra, still resting on my Grandpa’s home-made jack stands confused me until I was informed of the 5.2 magnitude quake located some 25 miles away!

  • avatar

    I missed a chance to buy a lightly used two post lift for $750. A shop had purchased it for their repair shop but the fullsized vehicles they worked on would not fit. Compact cars and minivans were it’s size limitations. I didn’t buy it b/c I didn’t have a garage with enough space.
    I my daydreams I’d have a shop large enough to park four cars and work on two with a two post lift. The kids’ bikes and stuff could live in the garage away from my old cars’ paintjobs.
    Our local Napa store has one of these lifts on display. Sitting on it for over a year is an Opel GT. I was sold until I realized that I could not easily remove a RWD  transmission using the floor lift. I still want one though… GRIN!

    • 0 avatar

      Forget the lift.  I want that Opel GT.  I came close to buying one from my college professor, when I graduated.  Have looked for a decent used one off and on for years since then.

    • 0 avatar

      This guy who owns the Napa display car owns several. Maybe you two should talk…

    • 0 avatar

      It would be perfect for dropping out a FWD drivetrain with sub frame in one piece though :)

      I would have to examine the build of the thing first hand but I imagine a bit of fab work to make the two wheel side cross beams removable would work well for the occasional trans drop or exhaust work. I don’t live in an earthquake zone and they would be in place during lifting lowering and any other time you are not actually working in that area.

  • avatar

    Another alternative is a pit, although those aren’t useful for any wheels-off work.

  • avatar

    I could never trust this as much as ramps.  With the front wheels in gear and the parking brake set on the back, ramps are as safe as it gets, IMO. I also can’t imagine anything being easier than driving onto a set of ramps.
    I’m not a big fan of jack stands, though I do use them when necessary.  Usually 6-ton stands with a 1.5-ton car.  Of course, there are no earthquake concerns in Saskatchewan.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    More made in China crap, I’ll bet.  Went to HF store once.  Every single stinkin’ object in the store was “made in china”….

    Which might explain why you get terrible service at HF….they know they bought the stuff cheap from a fly-by-night knock-off maker in China, know way they can pass service costs back to them….

    When it comes to tools, real Americans buy American.

    • 0 avatar

      That depends on what type of tool you are buying.  For mechanics tools, I couldn’t agree more.  Name brand USA stuff is among the best.  For power tools, though, there are some real quality tools that are made abroad as well as here.  Hilti sources from around the world and are of beautiful quality.  I love my Hilti stuff.  Try a Hilti DX 36M powder actuated fastener and it will blow your mind.  Your Remington will hit the recycle bin after the first try.  At $600 it ain’t cheap but if you want to avoid being “held hostage” to the men in the white vans, you need to do things yourself and quality tools are part of the equation.
      I would love to buy a lift but am afraid of that type of lift described here.  Lucky for me, my wife wants me to buy a lift – give her peace of mind while I work on her car!!  Too bad building the “Garage Mahal” cost me $35K in materials and two years of my life.  Now I can’t afford the lift!  Maybe I should have skipped the radiant heating…
      Chuck, I chuckled at your Scottish Heritage comment…as a freshman in college one of my professors made a comment that a Scottsman is the only one who could buy something from a *** and sell it to a ******** and make a profit!!  *Names withheld to avoid offending anybody…

    • 0 avatar

      How can you buy American  when many of the major American brands are made in China?  Bought a Fluke multimeter a few years back, thinking I’d get a quality unit made in USA.  Wrong!  Back of the meter says “Made in China’.  Sears even sells a second brand of hand tools alongside Craftsman, all made in China.  Yes, HF stuff is sometimes lacking (like the dremel tool knockoff that lasted through one use), but some is quite good (my battery powered drill).

  • avatar

    Never understood the logic of these type vs a decent floor jack and some good jackstands.
    Seems like the mechanism masks most of the underside of the car which is what you are raising it up to work on in the first place.
    I have a clear floor two post lift which is the best solution (assuming you have the 12 foot ceiling height).

    • 0 avatar

      “Never understood the logic of these type vs a decent floor jack and some good jackstands.”

      Did you read the first two paragraphs? I was under a car on jackstands during a small earthquake. You have not experienced true terror until a car held above you by narrow columns of metal and contact patches measures in millimeters starts wobbling!

      “Seems like the mechanism masks most of the underside of the car which is what you are raising it up to work on in the first place.”

      I addressed that in the article as well:
      “Oil changes, tire rotations, and brake work are now super-easy, and so much safer and faster when performed on the lift. Instead of spending lots of time raising, lowering and fiddling with jacks and stands, I can now get right to work. However, since the lift itself is positioned directly under the car working on things like transmissions or exhaust can be problematic depending upon the car. For these applications a traditional lift would be much better, but for the home mechanic on a budget this small lift is a wonderful luxury.”

  • avatar

    The reason for a lift is simple:

    It gets all four wheels off the ground quickly and evenly.

    You can try this with jackstands, obviously. I’ve done it on 4 different cars over the years, and getting the vehicle lifted safely and evenly can be a challenge (time consuming, at best). I’m always watching the opposite corner of the car to see the jackstand begin to rock, then I’ve gotta lower the car and try again. It’s never a very settling feeling.

    However, because this setup blocks the exhaust and some of the tranny, I’m still choosing between ramps and jackstands for my work. For a little better clearance on ramps, I spent $25 on wood and about an hour of my time crafting these extensions:

    Those don’t help for brake/suspension/tire work, though. Maybe one day I’ll have a tall garage for a 2-post lift…

  • avatar

    how high will this lift? does it come with adapters vehicles with higher ground clearance? or does it work well with small/midsize trucks or suvs?

  • avatar

    I have a S-Class Mercedes that I drive, and my wife has a Subaru Outback. I was wondering if the lift has arms long enough to reach the proper lifting points under my car. I love working on my car myself, when I can do the repair, normally just brakes, I also have summer and winter sets of wheels and tires for both our cars. I’d love to be able to just lift the cars instead of lifting each corner seperately.

    What’s the max width of the arms?


  • avatar

    I’d still use this type being typical low ceiling, but for full chassis access just make custom out-rigger stand pivot up supports to allow lift to drop out of the way.

    You drove on top of them instead of timbers to get clearance for the lift.
    With MIG, you can make stuff at will.

    Now throw hinged plywood on lift to creep around or a short stool.
    Exhaust work is a pain being I MIG it solid, no joints.
    Floor clearance is key.

    I currently use a hydraulic factory lift table used by Yamaha motorcycles with side extensions for 4 wheelers. 2k cap.

    The other is a 6k capacity electric pallet lift modded for lifting either end of truck. I can walk under RX1 when on this one.
    Cheers to gaget freaks.

    One tip,
    Stay away from airlift types.
    The cylinders need to be 4x larger in diameter, and they are unpredictable with stiction that makes them free fall a few inches.
    Can’t have that action working on heavy gear when slight adjustments are needed.

    As for Harbor Freight, I have a hard time getting past the China stink as the door opens.
    Some day I’ll analyze what hazard it is.

  • avatar

    What concerns me about this scissors lift (or any scissors lift) is the fact when the vehicle is lifted all the way up, you now are faced with a situation of the car being wider than the lift which makes the whole set-up top-heavy – the car now becomes the base of a prism and the bottom of the lift becomes the apex – it may look safe, but what the lift really needs are some kind of long, long heavy steel extensions that come out and rest on the floor of the unit that would add stability and hopefully stop any kind of “rocking” of the vehicle from side to side. Also, you better make sure the car is centered all the way around or it will slip off and either kill you or maim you for life. I’ve always used 12 ton capacity jack stands on all four corners when doing light maintenance, and never been hurt, and knowing that they are safe for me to get under my Buick – however, at sixty-five I’m re-thinking that perhaps it’s time to let a professional change the oil in the old girl…

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