Want To Work On Cars? Don’t Be Afraid

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

This column is inspired by a reader, a college kid who wants to learn to work on cars but doesn’t know where to begin. There are probably millions of kids – and adults – just like him. And growing. Probably because tinkering with machinery is not nearly as common as it used to be.

That’s a function of a number of developments, including vehicles that require less in the way of everyday (or every month, anyhow) tinkering, a throw-it-away (as opposed to fix it and keep it going) “consumer” mentality and also, specialization. Have you noticed how helpless some very smart and well-educated people often are? The surgeon who can’t find the dipstick in his $60,000 luxury car?

Anyhow, I gave the kid some advice – based on my own autodidactical automotive edumacation.

I told him, for openers, that you can learn a lot by doing. Ideally, by working under the guidance of someone who knows. This is how knowledge was once passed on – even in the professions. A person interested in becoming a lawyer, say, would apprentice with an established attorney and learn by doing, under the supervision of the attorney. Of course, the kid – like a lot of kids today – didn’t have a parent or big brother or friend who could be his mechanical mentor. Well, neither did I. But I was interested – and determined.

So I started to piddle – which is what I recommended the kid do.

Anyone, just about, can check the condition of (and replace if need be) a car’s air filter. You might need a screwdriver or a basic socket set ($25 or so) with a later-model car, to open the little box that contains the air filter element. But it’s no Great Mystery – most car owner’s manuals will have a section, with pictures, to walk you through the procedure – and it’s an excellent first step on your journey. Having opened the hood, you can also use the opportunity to find and identify such things as the dipsticks for the engine oil and transmission fluid (if it’s an automatic-equipped car), the overflow reservoir for the cooling system, the radiator and the hoses that connect to it.

Lights will begin to come on in your head as to the purpose of these things.

A repair manual is the next step because before you do, you ought to read. This will lead to understanding – or at least, something better than guessing. There are two basic types of manuals: The factory shop manual (more expensive and technical) and the DIY mechanic type (more basic and less expensive). You want the DIY mechanic type for the sort of entry-level stuff you’ll be attempting. Haynes and Chilton are two of the big names. Almost any big auto parts store will carry them – or find them online at Amazon. Just punch in the make/model/year of the vehicle you’re planning to use as your first victim. The cost is about $25. Now read the thing. Then again. There are chapters for the various systems – brakes, for example – and individual sub-sections for things like doing an oil change.

Which is the next job for you to tackle.

But first, you’ll need to buy some basic tools. Set aside some cash for:

* A floor jack – a good floor jack. One rated for more capacity than you’ll be dealing with. It’s not only safer, it makes raising the car much easier. I use a 3 ton model, which is a ton more than any car I own.

* A pair of sturdy jackstands. Never get under a car supported by just a jack. Jacks are hydraulic – and they can lose pressure. Jackstands are solid metal. Provided you’ve tucked them under a stable hard point (such as the car’s frame) and they’re standing on a hard, flat surface (cement driveway) the car is staying up in the air until you want it to come down.

* An oil filter wrench to fit the oil filter your car uses (ask at the auto parts store), a plastic drain pan to catch the oil and funnel to pour the new oil into the engine without making a mess.

* Basic metric or standard socket set (find out what kind you need for your car before you buy), screwdriver set (different sizes standard and Phillips) and build on this as you go.

Buy individual tools as you need ’em – such as various types of pliers, wrenches and so on. Most can be bought individually or in sets. Try to buy the best quality stuff you can, because the cheap stuff breaks (so you’ll have to buy the same tools twice) and often is poorly made/fitted and will cause you problems as you try to work with them.

Now you’re ready.

The next step is to take your time – and to learn patience. An experienced mechanic can do an oil change in 10 minutes; it will probably take you a lot longer, especially the first time. Budget the time. An afternoon or Saturday. Whatever you do, don’t put yourself in the position of having to get it done in 30 minutes (or two hours). Give yourself plenty of time to take each step in your own good time, after having read (and re-read) the procedure described in the manual and being sure (or as close to sure as you can be) before you start turning any wrenches. If you’re not sure, read the manual again. If that doesn’t do it, ask someone who knows. The guys at the auto parts store are usually pretty knowledgeable.

It’s going to go something like this:

Raise the car, support the car. Let the engine cool. Put a catch pan underneath the plug on the bottom of the oil pan. Carefully turn out the drain plug bolt. Use a socket/wrench that fits the head of the bolt exactly. Do not force it. Steady, even pressure. Once it’s loose, you can turn it out the rest of the way. Be careful! Engine oil may be hot. Wearing gloves is a good idea. If the bolt falls into the pan, don’t sweat it. You can fish it out later. No harm done.

Let the oil drain. Then go after the filter. This part may be more challenging, depending on how much room you’ve got to work with. Be patient! It’s not impossible or even as hard as it looks. Remember: The Quick Lube joints do dozens every day. Trust me, it’s not rocket science. The challenge is overcoming your fear – and being patient.

Twist the new filter on – not too tight! (“Hand tight” is usually just right – but again, read the manual.) Reinstall the drain plug, being careful not to overtighten it. Lower the car. Add the right amount of the right oil (that info will be in the manual, or your owner’s manual – look under “capacities”).

Now start the engine and check for any leaks. If you see any, shut the engine off, find out why – and fix it.


You did it!

And now that you’ve done it yourself, you’re on the path to doing more for yourself . How far you go is up to you. But the more you learn, the more confidence you’ll get – and even if you don’t learn how to do everything yourself, you’ll soon learn enough to feel less helpless when some minor thing happens.

You’ll either be able to fix it yourself – or you’ll have enough of an idea about what’s probably wrong to talk about it confidently with your mechanic (and be less likely to get conned by a dishonest one).

And that’s hard to put a price on


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