Anyone attempting to become more self-sufficient in times like these has surely considered saving money by doing their own car repairs. But for many, the idea of working on a car seems extremely daunting, something best left to those who know what they’re doing. Faced with a car containing hundreds of unfathomable parts serving who-knows-what purpose, how can the novice possibly learn enough to fix it himself? Doesn’t it take a special knack?
Well no. You don’t have to be an automotive expert in order to fix what’s wrong with your car. You don’t even have to know how the darn thing works. All you have to know is just one thing.
What is that one thing? It’s knowing which particular part happens to be worn out or broken at the moment. And you probably have a friend or relative who can pinpoint your problem. Automobiles are complicated machines, with hundreds of separate parts performing countless functions that are impossible for most people to understand. But usually when something goes wrong with your car, your whole car doesn’t have a problem; it’s usually just one separate piece of your car that has worn out or broken.
Now, to those reading this who are accomplished auto mechanics, that’s a “no duh” statement. But I’m not talking to you guys. I’m talking to the person for whom cars and everything about them is as mysterious as deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The fact is, if you can follow a simple recipe in the kitchen, you probably have the skills to work on your car in the driveway. It may take awhile your first time, as you carefully feel your way, but your next repair will be easy as baking a cake.
Unlike most of my teenage peers, I had no interest in cars whatsoever, other than the desire to own one. If one of my friends said “look at that boss looking Chevy!” I had no idea which car he was referring to. I didn’t know a Chevy from a Ford, a Mustang from an Impala. And as for all that complicated stuff under the hood, I had no clue what any of it was for. It all has something to do with the engine, right?
Sometime after I bought my first used car, I was listening to an author plugging her book on the radio. Her name was Deanna Sklar, and the book was Auto Repair For Dummies. (This was in the 1970s and hers was the first ever “Dummies” book, predating DOS For Dummies by decades.) Sklar described her book as intended for those who know absolutely nothing whatsoever about cars, but who want to save money by doing their own repairs. That sounded like me. I went out and bought it.
Sklar wasn’t kidding when she said she wrote the book for dummies. She didn’t assume anything about the reader. Just in case you didn’t know what a screwdriver or a wrench looked like, she included a picture for you. This book was perfect for an ignoramus like me.
It wasn’t long after I bought the book when, driving home from work one day, something under my hood went kablooey. Of course, my first thought was that the whole car was finished. But I was told my water pump -whatever that was- had worn out and needed to be replaced.
I not only didn’t know where my water pump was situated, I didn’t even know what a water pump was. What I did know at the time was the price I was quoted to fix it was beyond my means. I didn’t know what a water pump was or what it did, or even where it was located on the car, but I was either going to have to fix it myself, or start walking to work.
And this is key to unlocking the mystery. You don’t have to know what a particular part does or how it works in order to replace it. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to understand the workings of an automobile. But in order to service the occasional problems the typical car owner has, it isn’t necessary to take months of classes in auto repair, or know how to overhaul an engine. All you have to do is know where that one part is and how to get at it. Then you take that piece out and put a working one back in.
Think of your car as a big Lego structure with lots of interlocking pieces. Everything on your car is attached to something next to it. They don’t exactly snap onto each other like Lego bricks, but they are attached in some way. Eventually one of the parts in that Lego structure is going to wear out or go bad and you’ll have to replace it with a new piece that does work. Then all you do is detach the bad part from whatever it is connected to, and reattach a new one in its place. It’s that simple.
Okay, maybe it isn’t that simple. If you’re new at this, you’ll want to allow yourself plenty of time so you can take it slow and think it through. Don’t rush or you’ll misplace something. Still, the idea is simple, and if you follow the rules for safety, you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to dispel the fog of mystery about car repair.
Taking That First Big Leap
Buoyed by the confidence I had attained from reading Auto Repair For Dummies, I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers (mentally of course; I was going to need to work with my fingers uncrossed) and decided to tackle the water pump project.
I had a friend drive me to an auto parts store where I bought the replacement part, which was astonishingly cheap compared to the price I had been quoted to have the whole job done professionally. Following the step by step process outlined in the book, it was just a matter of unbolting this to get at that, then moving aside this other thing to access something else. Once I had detached the old water pump, it was a simple matter of replacing it with the new one, tighten the bolts back up, and voila! I was suddenly an accomplished mechanic!
But what about tools, you ask? If I’m going to attempt to fix my car, don’t I have to own a lot of expensive tools?
As Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino confides, nobody goes out and buys a bunch of tools all at once. You accumulate them over time. Most of the car repairs I’ve done required only a couple of screwdrivers and a basic set of wrenches, which may set you back ten bucks. It often helps to own a ratchet wrench, so that’s a few dollars more. Sometimes a job might require a special tool for a particular purpose, one you’ll probably only need once in the life of the car. Some auto parts chains will now rent those tools out as long as you leave a deposit. At any rate, even most specialized tools aren’t very expensive, and you may even know someone you can borrow one from.
I’ll tell you the most important tool you’ll want to have: another book. Actually there are two books to choose from, each compiled by competing publishers, Haynes and Chilton. Either one will do. These manuals provide detailed instructions for repairing your particular model car and year. No matter what the project you’re working on, these manuals provide clear, step by step instructions with photos, sketches, and diagrams specifically intended for the very car you own. I wouldn’t even think about starting a repair without consulting either one.
And here’s the good news: the older your car, the better your chances of finding new or nearly new Haynes or Chilton manual online for next to nothing, because as time passes, those manuals for older cars are not much in demand. My current car is a 1988 Ford Taurus, and I was able to find both the Haynes and the Chilton manuals for $2.99 each plus shipping. That’s a lot better than paying up to $29.99 retail at the auto parts store.
I prefer to own both manuals because depending on the project, one may have more detailed information or pictures than the other, and together they are the perfect complement. Perhaps the most valuable thing these manuals provide, in addition to detail, is the important safety precautions and heads up regarding varying jobs. If you don’t know what to watch out for, you could hurt yourself or your car.
When I’m washing up after completing some repair I once thought myself completely incapable of, I’m not only pleased about the money I just saved, but my wife thinks of me as a hero. I feel just like I did at three years old when I got praise from a grownup. Yes indeed. I am a big boy.