Don’t Be Afraid…

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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 f 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.

Throw it in the Woods?

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Author of "Automotive Atrocities" and "Road Hogs" (MBI). Currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia. 

  81 comments for “Don’t Be Afraid…

  1. Rick_in_VA
    March 28, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Boy, does that bring back memories. Friends and I got in over our heads back then, usually working on the parents’ cars. They weren’t alway thrilled.
    I only have two points:
    First, regarding lawyers. No, no jokes. Most states don’t allow reading law. They will only accept a certified degree in order to take the bar exam.

    Second: regarding auto parts people. As one who spent 20+ years in the parts business, from delivery driver to store manager, mid-sixties-mid-eighties, I find most of the new people know less about cars than the folks you wrote the article for. If they can’t find something on the computer, they are lost.
    My most recent foray in to this world was looking for parts and accessories for my 2012 car. They couldn’t find it on the computer, so they told me is wasn’t available. Item one was a K&N air filter. He said they didn’t make it, or so his computer said.
    Funny thing is they stock K&N. The K&N web site clearly shows it as available, but that didn’t impress him. As much as I’d rather buy locally, it looks like I will be ordering it online. (sigh)
    I guess workethic is truly gone in most cases, thankfully not all.

  2. Tor Munkov
    March 20, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    “Come in my young cousins, and be part of the family.” (Movie Quote)

    Watch Fahrenheit 451 from 1966, only a few years after America’s Great Degradation (of currency and personaly wealth and autonomy)

    Do not be alarmed. Compare this to Avatar, and be amazed at the evident degradation of filmaking.

  3. Fred
    March 19, 2012 at 1:42 am

    I’ve been doing only the very basics on vehicles for decades, including valve adjustments on BMW motorcycle airhead valves, oil and filter changes, air filters, spark plugs, etc.

    As you said, a service or shop manual and some reading should be a prerequisite for working on any car or motorcycle, and I buy one for every vehicle I have ever owned.

    On a side note, this week my electric water heater quit working, and I ended up spending part of today replacing the heating element and the T&P Valve on it. Now it works like a champ again and I saved the couple of hundred dollars plumbers in our area would have charged me to do it for me.

    For me it’s the same with working on the simpler parts of vehicles. I figure if I screw it up, I can always revert to having the expert fix it anyway. So I have little to lose by trying it myself first, and much experience and money savings to potentially gain.

    • March 19, 2012 at 10:57 am

      I try to learn as much as I can about everything I can – and so do as much as I can for myself. It’s very liberating – and enjoyable. My father-in-law knows plumbing and I’ve been trying to glom as much from him as possible (including, incidentally, that bit about replacing the element in the water heater – saving hundreds of dollars vs. buying a new heater and having a plumber come do it for you).

      It’s startling how many smart people are so helpless outside their narrow specialty.

  4. Douglas
    March 18, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    There’s more benefit to learning basic auto maintenance than saving a few bucks from the larcenists with a ASE-certification. The lessons on problem-solving and sticktuitiveness that come with learning to keep and old beast roadworthy pay off in other aspects of life. I learned same with my now 78 y.o. Dad, helping him keep our family ’68 Chevy Bel Air wagon and his ’66 Dodge Coronet (with the poly-head 318 that needed the tappets adjusted every six months and the Stromberg two-barrel that could be ‘rebuilt’ in a hour). I’ve passed it on to my boys. The older one already keeps his ‘fleet’ of three oldies (the ’99 Saturn that I gave him, the ’96 Cherokee that his father-in-law gave to his wife, and her ’04 Kia) running. The younger son is a student at BYU but he still does as much work on his ’03 Jetta (when the apartment managers aren’t hassling him) as possible. For him, it helped to be on good terms with a local that had a garage as doing a brake job in Provo, UT in the dead of winter is NOT an outdoor activity!
    I won’t say that “Gubmint” mandated features and CAFE requirements are a ‘conspiracy’ to eliminate the shade tree mechanic, but that’s the trend. So find a 60’s vintage Plymouth Valiant, a 50’s Dodge power wagon with the flathead six, a pre-1976 VW Bettle, or any six-banger economy car (Nova, Falcon, Maverick, Dart, Valiant, or Rambler) made between 1960 and 1974. Parts can still be had, and the beasts aren’t too hard to figure out, and they’re modern enough to be road-worthy.

  5. Scott
    March 17, 2012 at 7:07 am

    Great article Eric. I’d only add that a person should start work on a car that was designed to be repaired by a home mechanic. Anything built before 1980 would be a good choice in my opinion. Working on the Starship Enterprise as a first effort can be daunting.

    • March 17, 2012 at 9:18 am

      Thanks, Scott – and, agreed!

      Those of us who grew up before cars became the Starship Enterprise probably had a leg up – not just because cars were easier to work on, but also because it was more common for people to work on cars. The need to do annual adjustments, regular tuneups, etc., got more people under the hood. New cars are more maintenance-free… for awhile. But when something eventually does go wrong, it’s more typical for people to take it to the shop than to raise the hood themselves.

  6. March 16, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Great article, Eric. People shouldn’t be afraid of their cars. They aren’t that hard to work on, and you can easily save thousands of dollars annually by picking up a wrench.

    I have to say that *fear* is the biggest response I get when I tell people that I’m putting a 4BD1T Isuzu turbodiesel into my 1999 Suburban. I get “you must be brave,” and “why the heck would you want to do that?”

    First, it’s fun! I really enjoy this stuff–especially when it’s an extra vehicle and I can take my time (already a year into this project–yikes!).

    Second, it’s about personal choice. I can’t buy a 4×4 family hauler that gets 25+ mpg, so I’m building my own. This vehicle will be one-of-a-kind, and really nice for family trips.

    Third, it’s about fuel economy. Some people have put the same engine into a full-size Chevy pickup and got 32 mpg highway. The Suburban’s a big heavier, though, so I may have to add a larger turbo, an intercooler, and turn up the power screw.

    • clark
      March 16, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      “putting a 4BD1T Isuzu turbodiesel into my 1999 Suburban” – that sure seems like a great idea.

      In my area there are quite a few older Ford trucks with 460 motors in them available for cheap. I imagine a small diesel would be great in one, if there’s one that fits without too much trouble.

      • Mark W. Marasch
        March 17, 2012 at 2:49 am

        There are people putting smaller diesels, including the Isuzu 4BD, Cummins 4BT and many other diesels into all kinds of trucks.

        I recommend checking the build threads at 4BTSwaps that are found here:

        Part of my theory was also to take advantage of how people are *dumping* the larger vehicles to score a good deal. My rust-free Suburban was only ~$5k. Since then, I’ve seen the prices continue to drop.

        If I started over, I’d look for a full-sized 4-door pickup with a manual transmission. I’m converting the Suburban to a 5-speed in this build. I think that the low-rpm torque is a bit much for non-diesel automatic transmissions–and the standalone shift controllers cost real $$$.

  7. Gordon Davis Jr
    March 16, 2012 at 2:47 am

    Oil changes are a good way to get your feet wet, but your savings won’t justify the tools you’ll need to buy. Learn to do brake jobs. Brakes are, by far, the biggest profit item in a repair shop. Don’t worry about “cutting” the rotors. Just install the new pads. If the brakes pulse after the new pads are installed, buy a new set of rotors. You’ll still be way ahead of the repair shop game. There’s lots of other stuff to learn, but brakes will save you real money.

    • dom
      March 16, 2012 at 2:54 am

      I agree with you with the exception of the cutting the rotors/drums. Might as well do it, even if just to save the headache of the comeback. Not even to mention the longevity of the pads/shoes if you marry them to a flat surface. Also the more precise stopping because of the perfect mesh.

      • March 16, 2012 at 9:47 am

        I’ve heard that with some late model vehicles, the material is so thin that turning them is often not an option… is that true?

        • Mark W. Marasch
          March 17, 2012 at 2:56 am

          That agrees with my experience. I haven’t turned any in awhile. Even when they are thick enough, turning warped ones simply relieves the metal and they warp further on the next heat cycle.

    • March 16, 2012 at 9:53 am

      Hi Gordon,

      Not at first – but over time, you’ll make it back. Dealers routinely charge $40 or more to change oil. The “quick lube” places charge less – but beware the cheap oil filters (and maybe oil) and service, too. You definitely get what you pay for.

      On brakes: Agree, but with some caveats. It’s important to make sure the rotors aren’t gouged or warped or unevenly worn; if you don’t and just slap on a new set of pads, the car may pull (possibly sharply) to the left or right when pedal pressure is applied; you could get pedal pulsation/feedback; also, the new pads may wear much faster – etc. Calipers need to be checked for proper operation, no sticking pistons, leaky seals – etc. – and repaired as needed.

      Tools – unlike cars – are a good investment. You’ll get your money back and then some over a lifetime. Plus, if you buy good quality tools and take good care of them, they will always have value in themselves and can be sold or passed down to a deserving protege.

      • Mark W. Marasch
        March 17, 2012 at 2:54 am

        Speaking of tools, getting and OBD2 scanner can pay for itself on the first use. I bought a cheap one for ~$20 on eBay a few years ago, and it works fine. You just have to look the codes up once you pull them.

        I was driving past a dealer today who said they’d do diagnostics for “only” $40. That’s a lot to pay for simply pulling codes.

        One more thing on OBD2 scanners: your local auto parts places will normally loan you the scanning tool for free to take it out to the lot and plug it in, hoping that they can sell you the parts.

        • dom
          March 17, 2012 at 2:57 am

          Only $40 is cheap for a shop though. Usually they charge one hour check out. So like $100+. I’ve had an OBDII tool for a decade now. He with OBDII scanner has many friends, so I’ve found.

  8. RichB
    March 15, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Several very good points above. I started with a Haynes manual for my first car. A friend advised me to use it for bedtime reading which I did. Talk of journals, big ends etc was Double Dutch to me at the time as were terms like thermosyphon, however, that last one in the section on cooling became clearer as the whole cooling system made some sort of sense and that is what I started working on. I think I replaced the thermostat early on and as Eric says, you learn greatly by doing. Brent also makes the point that a car is several systems sometimes interacting and sometimes not, so having cracked cooling, ignition followed and a hunger to learn will bring you into contact with like minded more experienced people who can explain in detail the finer points such as mutual induction in coils and the physics of carburation. It’s a natural progression to want to discover the secrets of transmissions or braking systems or whatever after that. I used to be amazed at the stamp marks on components as I pulled apart my first engine. It was as if I was boldly going where no man…………. but of course it was only a voyage of discovery for me: the designers/builders had been there long ago. Don’t be afraid is the ideal attitude.

    • Mark W. Marasch
      March 17, 2012 at 2:37 am

      My experience is similar. Continued reading for me included books on fuel injection, turbochargers, superchargers, and chassis/handling.

      For me, simply fixing things isn’t enough. I feel the need to modify. I don’t feel that a car is truly *mine* until I’ve changed it, somehow.

  9. SicSemperTyrannis
    March 15, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    I got to learn the basics of car repair and maintenance through having much smaller hands and arms than my dad in a family with a Japanese car. Seemed like all through High School, one Saturday a month I was pulled out to the garage to reach a nut while hearing him swear his mantra that “this damned thing has got to be revenge for Hiroshima”.

    I think the biggest thing is not being afraid. I second the idea of getting an old beater – something where it doesn’t matter if you totally mess up and take it out of commission for a couple weeks.

    I think for one small project to learn on, with a modern car, IMO it’s hard to beat disc brakes. In a lot of cases I’ve been able to buy brand new rotors as well and come in under the cost of just labor, and after the first time doing it (and taking 4-5 times longer than it should) I couldn’t believe nobody else does it for themselves.

    Thanks for the article, Eric – I need to repack the bearings on my trailer, and now I feel inspired to do it!

    • March 15, 2012 at 5:34 pm

      Hi Sic,

      yup – you bet!

      I’m just now within sight of finishing a motorcycle project – ’75 Kawasaki S1C resto. Just a few more odds and ends to attend to… been working on it for about a year now…

    • mithrandir
      March 15, 2012 at 5:35 pm

      Changing discs brake pads and rotors is not too difficult in my opinion. It helps to have a C-clamp to compress the brake hydraulics to make room for the new brake pads. Each rotor was only held together by a single screw on the VW Golf.

      It just took me some patience and to only work on one brake at a time.

      The old drum brakes are a pain in the neck without the proper tools.

      One word of caution with the brake pads: The VW rear brake pads required a special tool to remove the brakes (~$10-15).

      • Mark W. Marasch
        March 17, 2012 at 2:59 am

        I’ve checked out that brake tool as a loaner when I did the rear pads on my VW Jetta TDI. The major parts places will let you “buy” their loaner tools, and you get paid back in full when you return them. Or, you can always choose to keep them–as you’ve already paid for them. I’ve done that once or twice, if I liked the tool and the price was OK.

  10. Charlie
    March 15, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    On oil change. Be sure and check that the rubber gasket on the filter has been removed with the old filter. Then place a film of clean oil on the new filter rubber gasket before installing it.

    • Mike Stahl
      March 15, 2012 at 5:37 pm

      I was just about to point that out myself, Charlie. Once one has the experience of starting a car with a double oil filter gasket, generally the incident is not repeated. That said, it IS possible for a double gasket to not leak for a while, years ago I changed the oil on my girlfriend’s car after she had had it at a lube joint, there was a gasket on the filter, and another one hanging from the block…that thing could have broken loose at any time-not good.

      Very easy to keep from happening though, take the extra 30 seconds to double and even triple check the filter gasket.

      Another simple thing I always do when I change oil is look at the tires for uneven wear. Tires should wear pretty evenly across the tread, if they are not it usually either means they are not inflated properly or there is a suspension/alignment issue. You can look up tire wear patterns and what they mean online. A novice likely isn’t going to want to get into alignment problems, but if you detect an issue early, you can save the cost of new tires….not to mention your friendly, and always honest, mechanic talking you into an alignment because you’ve been running around with your driver’s front tire at 15 psi…

      I installed tires for several years when I was a kid, and have spent over a decade racking up around 1000 miles a week as a salesman. I’ve ran a half a dozen cars up over 200k and I have yet to own a car that needed an alignment, ever. Not that it doesn’t happen, just it somehow has not happened to me.

  11. Tor Munkov
    March 15, 2012 at 12:17 pm
    Wilhelm Reich. Unpersoned and murdered by the FDA. Don’t be afraid.

  12. Mark T.
    March 15, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    Great starting point. Another good avenue is to check out your local Community College. Chances are they have an auto tech program. In North Carolina the introductory course (AUT110) you end up with a State Vehicle Inspector Certification BUT, the best part is you’ll get an awesome introduction to auto repair for a couple hundred bucks…an investment that should save you thousands over the years. I’ve ended up taking several engine classes, suspension/brakes, electronics, manual transmissions and others. I now do most of the work on my race car that I couldn’t afford to pay someone to do…not to mention 90% of the stuff on my own vehicles.

  13. MiBu
    March 15, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Another good source of info can be YOUTUBE. There are some great videos such as those uploaded by 1AAuto that are real gems for getting good DIY advice. Of course, they are also selling their parts, but the prices are reasonable and the quality is as good as OEM.

  14. clark
    March 15, 2012 at 8:52 am

    P.M.Lawrence wrote, “if it isn’t moving and it should, use WD-40, and if it’s moving and it shouldn’t, use duct tape”

    I must not have been paying attention when the old timers said that one, I like it. Goes right along with, “Duct tape and bailing wire.”
    Or, was that, “Black tape and bailing wire.”?

    I suppose it depends upon the situation?

    P.M.Lawrence wrote, “I now know enough to be aware of the many things I still don’t know.”

    I like that too. I don’t think it can be learned, like patience, it’s something gained by experience and time.

    I only know some things. Others, they don’t know anything… Heh, or they know everything and we call them Clovers.

    • March 15, 2012 at 9:27 am

      Duct tape is a valuable “tool”! I always keep a couple of rolls handy. Electrical tape, too. Out in the Boonies, sometimes, you have to work with what you’ve got until you can get something better…..

      • clark
        March 15, 2012 at 9:43 am


      • March 16, 2012 at 7:44 am

        Wouldn’t you know it, today’s Lew Rockwell site just put up an article, WD-40, Vice Grips, and Duct Tape, linking to this.

        • Gail
          March 16, 2012 at 11:33 am

          Did you click on the link in the WD-40 article that takes you to the list of 2,000 things you can use WD-40 for?

          Also thought it was interesting, what WD-40 stands for. (It would be a good Jeopardy answer.)

          • March 16, 2012 at 9:47 pm

            I didn’t go any further than the article the Lew Rockwell excerpt page linked to.

  15. March 15, 2012 at 5:36 am

    I thought my father might be joking when he first told me that a tin of valve grinding paste would have a lid on each end. I now know enough to be aware of the many things I still don’t know.

    By the way, I don’t see any mention of that old stalwart, “if it isn’t moving and it should, use WD-40, and if it’s moving and it shouldn’t, use duct tape” (just kidding).

  16. clark
    March 15, 2012 at 5:22 am

    Justin wrote, “The official VW repair manual for a diesel beetle alternator replacement is: “begin by removing both front fenders…””

    Seriously? Jeez. I was leaning towards the VW, as opposed to a 4×4 GM vehicle, just to get away from such. I’m glad it’s only in the manual and not the real situation.
    On my 4×4 one has to disconnect, lower, and support the transmission, among other things, simply to remove the starter.
    The clearance is so tiny, and I soooo wanted to sawsall my way through.

    I guess what you’re saying is, there is value in books like the, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 19 Ed: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot,… as opposed to Only having plain Jane manuals.

    Also, my comment above about the Fast Orange, it suddenly occurred to me how old-school that comment was, don’t most(?) mechanics these days use blue surgical gloves while making repairs?

    I can’t stand wearing gloves while working like that, especially when it’s hot and humid.

    One other also, relying on the internet is ok, kind of, but what would a Person do if they didn’t have internet access, say, from a local disruption, or perhaps an all out national disruption? Or one has to do a repair where the internet isn’t available,… situations like that.
    And, where do you scribble notes on a video for use when you’re in the garage a year from when you first downloaded the video?

    Plus, turning off the internet and spending time in a garage with a machine and a manual is,… well, kind of fun. For some. Sometimes. YMMV.

    • Boothe
      March 15, 2012 at 11:01 am

      @clark: ” I soooo wanted to sawsall my way through” I feel your pain. I used to be the proud owner of an ’88 Toyota 4×4 PU (3.0L, EFI, 5 spd.). At about 120K the starter failed. Being “just the starter” and having replaced them several times before on different vehicles, I never even bothered with the manual. Once I got the starter unwired and unbolted, I turned the bloody thing every way you can imagine trying to get it out. No dice. Between the bell housing, steering components and body there was no space to take it out. After about an hour of fussing with it, I went inside to take a break. I told my wife I’d have to use my air grinder to cut a hole in the fender well to get the starter out. I jacked the truck up, pulled the right front wheel and…there was this small half round plate held in with a sheet metal bolt in the fender well. I pulled the bolt, took off the plate and the starter came right out. When I checked the manual, it started out by saying “Raise front end of vehicle. Support with jack stands. Remove passenger side front wheel…..”

      • clark
        March 15, 2012 at 10:05 pm

        Boothe, you wrote that perfectly.
        I wish I would’ve bought a Toyota back then, but they weren’t available in my area much, when they were, they were expensive … because they built a good truck,
        Trap door, so cool.

    • Justin
      March 15, 2012 at 2:07 pm

      ANY vehicle from Europe is going to be hard to work on and parts are gonna be expensive.

      If you want a fairly reliable, easy to work on 4×4, just get mid 80s to early 90s GM or Ford, Blazer, bronco,F-150 whatever.

      the old K-5 Blazers, made up thru 1992 are solid, and easy to repair. the Ford EFI from 88-96 is very easy to work on once you understand it.

      this book is the best guide to Ford EFI.

      I transplanted a 91 Mustang engine into my 73 Bronco, and using an adapter, swapped in a NV 3550 5 speed trans, used in Wranglers, Dakotas and Rams, into the Bronc also.

      The other poster has good advice, if you want to learn, dont bother with the schools, find a small shop and get a job there.
      or you can do what people ask me to do, all my friends know Im a pretty good mechanic & handyman and several have asked me to supervise them while THEY swap the brake pads, or repair a leaking pipe in their house. They dont want ME to do it, they pay me to TEACH them how to do it.

      • clark
        March 15, 2012 at 10:01 pm

        Justin wrote, “ANY vehicle from Europe is going to be hard to work on”

        Well, I wouldn’t say that. After looking into the older VW’s I think they look like they will be a breeze to work on compared to most cars, foreign or domestic.

        As far as parts being expensive,… every part is likely going to be expensive for ALL cars:

        “Read this post day after day. It will prepare your mind for what is coming and cause you to start preparing for what is sure to be very serious price inflation, most likely double digit inflation.”

        Note: When I wrote VW above, I meant an older VW. So far as I can tell, parts prices are about the same as any other and the supply is here already.

  17. Justin
    March 15, 2012 at 3:44 am

    The best repair manual nowdays is the internet.

    The official VW repair manual for a diesel beetle alternator replacement is: “begin by removing both front fenders…”

    I kid you not.

    Youtube showed me how to do it by simply unbolting the A/C compressor and moving it aside.

    Cost me $140 to have the alt repaired, local VW stealership gets $1450 for the same job.

    • March 16, 2012 at 2:55 pm

      I agree that the Web is a great tool! I still think that DIY and shop manuals are indespensible, too. Lately, I’ve been using online versions of manuals like AllDataDIY and Mitchell1. I keep a computer in my shop, and consult the Web often when I’m pulling things apart.

  18. clark
    March 15, 2012 at 1:58 am

    Another important “tool” is, Fast Orange hand cleaner.
    I haven’t found anything better, and if I can help it, I don’t start a job without some for cleaning up afterwards.

    Also, another place besides Craigslist where you might find quality tools:

  19. Rooney
    March 14, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    I’ve found a lot of information on the net. That’s how we got a copy of the owners manual for my daughter’s car. I’ve also found the owner’s/enthusiast sites very helpful.

  20. March 14, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    You forgot to mention that clovers should probably ease into this by working on a lawnmower first because of their inherent stupidity.

    Or perhaps clovers(because of their perceived superior intelligence) should instead start off with a brake job making sure to use only 2 hydraulic jacks to lift the car with those jack points centrally located for optimum balance purposes.

    • March 14, 2012 at 4:28 pm

      Ah, but Clovers don’t work on things. They don’t do anything, usually. They’re talkers and feelers. They get others to do things for them. Often, by forcing them to do it (via Uncle).

      • Bogey
        March 15, 2012 at 7:24 pm

        What, precisely, is the etymology of “clover?” I get the concept, but it could have been a word such as “plover” or “slover.” Is it rooted in a contraction of “cop lover?”

        • dom
          March 15, 2012 at 7:39 pm

          Clover is the user name of our local representative.

          • Bogey
            March 15, 2012 at 7:50 pm

            I’m afraid I still don’t follow. (Does that make me a clover? I sure hope not.)

        • March 15, 2012 at 8:28 pm
          • Bogey
            March 15, 2012 at 11:42 pm

            That’s a definition, not an etymology. I understand the concept: from whence did the word come? You could have said “Ploverus Americanus,” or “Sloverus Americanus.” Why “Clover?” Why is that term, in particular, used to describe that type of person?

            • March 15, 2012 at 11:47 pm

              There was a troll here – its name was Clover. If you scroll through the posts, you’ll encounter him. I see him as an archetype – and a self-named one at that!

          • Bogey
            March 15, 2012 at 11:45 pm

            For example: “This creature sleeps at night, wakes up in the day time, and is an herbivore. I call it a ‘slicer,’ because . . .” Why?

          • dom
            March 15, 2012 at 11:47 pm

            We have a user that has been coming here for a very long time and acts like a fool. His user name just so happened to be clover. We thought the term was appropriate to describe his mentality and the mind of the many others like him.

          • Bogey
            March 15, 2012 at 11:48 pm

            Ah, I can dig it. It’s a user, as was indicated. Dom’s response was a bit cryptic, though.

          • dom
            March 15, 2012 at 11:52 pm

            “Dom’s response was a bit cryptic, though.” No doubt, I confuse myself a lot too. My bad! I am all over the place throughout the day. 50 miles each way to work, gym at lunch, clover cam the whole time during commute, and all sorts of other shit going on. Took the night off from training this evening and now just got home and drinking a beer.

    • Scott
      March 17, 2012 at 7:30 am

      Turd, Clovers don’t work on things because they’re more important than you and they have better things to do. Clovers, you see, have a gift; they’re smarter and better able to direct the efforts of lesser humans. It would be an offense against nature for Clover to repair a car.

      • BrentP
        March 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm

        And when clovers can’t afford (or don’t think they should have to pay) to have someone do something for them they have the government force others to do it or pay for it.

  21. clark
    March 14, 2012 at 7:03 am

    Jackstands? That’s what large tree limbs and come-alongs are for. Heh. Just kidding,… kind of.

    All I can add is, I wish every car had a manual like this one:

    How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive 19 Ed: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot

    This is the kind of book I would have liked to have had when I started learning about cars.

    Thanks again for recommending it, eric.

    • March 14, 2012 at 9:46 am

      You bet!

      “The Manual” was one of my first. It helped me with the three old VW Beetles I used to own. They’re long gone,but I still have The Manual in the garage someplace!

    • Gail
      March 16, 2012 at 11:27 am

      I used it to learn how to change the oil in my Bugs.

  22. Brandonjin
    March 14, 2012 at 2:54 am

    Wow Eric! Thanks for this! 😀 was my face when I read the first line.
    Changing the air filter /was/ the first thing I learned how to do. I was pretty happy when I did that, years ago. I bought a “how to repair your car” book recently. Though before I buy specific books I’m still trying to get rid of this Accord. Plus, it didn’t have a manual with it when we bought it. (Yes, it’s avalible online but it’s not the same imo).

    My dad still plans to teach me how to change the oil once it stays this warm. It’ll be better with him there, though I could probably figure it out (again, hopfully I won’t be learning with this Accord). I’m also still trying to get an apprenticeship as a mechanic or even at a jiffy lube. These are all great skills to have in life.

    I’m favoriting this article. Thanks for it! Thanks for the site too. Everyone here has been so helpful to me over the past 2 or so years I’ve been here. It’s had quite an influence on me.

    Glad I read that article, whatever article it was, in whatever magazine it was in, back in april of 2010, and decided to join this awesome site. One of the best things to happen to me! Thank you EPautos!

    • dom
      March 14, 2012 at 3:16 am

      If you want to learn to work on cars I would suggest working at a successful mom and pop shop as a mechanic’s helper. Do some research and find a good shop. Then find a good lead tech, the A man. Then let him know you want to learn to wrench. I was lucky enough that the first shop I worked at just so happened to have (even to this day) the best mechanic I’ve ever met. I call him Dr. John. Still do! Holly smokes, that was 17 years ago. I’m getting old. Oh yeah, I say mom and pop because at the dealerships most the issues that come in there are diagnosed/known just by looking at the ticket. Not saying the mechanics are not good there, but they see the same thing over and over. The brain work and heavy problem solving is not there like what you’d find at the mom and pop.

      caveat: You won’t learn shit at Jiffy Lube, Walmart, or any of the speed lube service spots! Don’t waste your time.

      • March 14, 2012 at 9:51 am

        Those Jiffy Lube joints are automotive vivisection shops!

        Stay… away! Keep your car… far away!

        I know someone who did not – and got a cross-threaded, air gun applied oil drain bolt for their prize. Almost cost them an engine, too – as opposed to just a Heli coil.

    • March 14, 2012 at 9:57 am

      You bet, amigo!

      Hey, to paraphrase Dr. Strangelove, I haf a plan…

      You could get a beater bike – downtrodden, needs work but could be made to run again – and use it for experimentation purposes. I am talking about something simple and manageable, like a single cylinder dirt bike. It’s got all the basic systems you’d find in a car, but down-scaled, much more accessible and less intimidating. You could buy such a bike for maybe $200 or so. Work on it for fun, learn as you go.

      Just food for thought….

      • Brandonjin
        March 16, 2012 at 12:29 am

        Points taken. Cheap project bike doesnt seem like a bad idea, will consider it.

  23. BrentP
    March 13, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    The problem with Haynes and Chilton, especially the later is they try to condense a lot of model years into one book and they often just leave out the year to year changes. I consider Chilton’s to often be worse than no manual at all because I’ve found them to be misleading. I found this by working on a 1982 model and finding just about nothing I ever needed in the book had been updated since the late 60s models. Practically nothing applied to what I had in front of me.

    I would recommend the route I took. Which also included theory. I had the advantage of having books to read that were laying around the house from when my father tried to teach himself auto mechanics in the 70s when I was teenager. For the basic intro stuff I read general how-to books on auto maintenance and repair. For more detail on the task and debugging sides I read a 1978 Ford Shop Manual and a more general Motor repair manual. Like Chiltons and Haynes but written for an independent mechanic and it covered every make and model from about the mid/late 60s to 1975 which was the edition of the book. Pretty good… except that just about everything ended with ‘reverse procedure to install’ :)

    For theory of operation I read “Automotive engines” by Crouse. I believe this book is still available, with new editions every few years. My copy is from the early 1970s.

    I also second learning mid 70s to early 80s stuff even if not working on anything of that vintage. The reasoning is that just about everything seen today existed then, but it operated more obviously. Once the theory of operation is grasped it doesn’t take much to then understand what the electronics are doing. More so nibbling away at the complexity in smaller easier to digest pieces.

    Which brings me to another important point. An automobile is machine of multiple systems that often interact and often don’t interact with each other. Learning one system at a time is far easier than trying to grasp the whole machine at once.

    • dom
      March 14, 2012 at 2:33 am

      “I also second learning mid 70s to early 80s stuff even if not working on anything of that vintage. The reasoning is that just about everything seen today existed then, but it operated more obviously.” I agree 100%. When I first stated wrenching on stuff I got lots of satisfaction from its simplicity. Shit, still do! I love older mechanical technology.

    • mikehell
      March 14, 2012 at 1:00 pm

      Brent, I know what you mean about the Chiltons. I was reading thru the one that came with the Toyota truck I bought yesterday. They try to cram every truck year/model into every chapter. It’s really useless. I need something better.

      • March 14, 2012 at 1:11 pm

        For basic stuff – oil changes and the like – they’re adequate. I agree that as you dig into more involved stuff, a more involved (and accurate) manual is worth its weight in gold. I have a factory shop manual for all my vehicles. These easily cost $50 or more… used. But the depth of detail, the pictures/diagrams/schematics, etc. – make major work so much easier.

    • David
      March 15, 2012 at 8:26 pm

      I just changed the starter in my ’81 Mercedes 240D. The Haynes manual (for several years/models) directed me to “remove the through bolt and lower the steering track rod to provide clearance for removal”. I could see this wouldn’t have provided enough clearance and I didn’t want to dismantle the steering anyway. I ended up removing a brace that holds up the air filter – much easier. There are better answers and how-tos on the web than in the manuals.

  24. That One Guy
    March 13, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Great article and great advice. I let a lot of this stuff scare me for a long time. But thrift is a great motivator.

    When I cracked up my wife’s car I had no choice but to run down to Certifit, get the fender, bumper and headlight and throw those puppies on! Got a decent paint job from the local Maaco which we had already budgeted for anyway cause the ol’ Honda paint was starting to reveal quite a bit of metal. You can tell a guy who makes junk mail for a living did it, but you have to really look to be able to tell. Hell it looks better than my Cobra did when I got it back from the Ford dealer body shop the first time!

    Motor in my Ranger is getting a little tired though, and it’s leaking oil like a sieve. That one makes me nervous…

    • March 13, 2012 at 9:15 pm

      Thrift is a great motivator – also self-reliance. It’s a good feeling to be able to deal with stuff – the more stuff, the better!

      On the Ranger: The oil leak is probably no major thing; gaskets and seals (a dirty, sweaty job – but not super difficult, technically speaking). Tired is something else. If it’s using a lot of oil, that’s gonna cause problems with your exhaust (catalytic converter) in addition to costing you in terms of poor mileage and frequent “tune-ups” (clean, replace oil fouled plugs, etc.)

      One option to consider, if the truck is otherwise good, is to swap in a lower miles (or rebuilt) engine. You can save a lot of money this way and get many more years of service out of an otherwise solid vehicle.

      • That One Guy
        March 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm

        Other than the time and tools, is that too terribly difficult? Or is it just more nuts-and-bolts stuff? My experience only goes as far as changing the water pump.

        • clark
          March 15, 2012 at 9:39 am

          Just because no one else chimed in, I would say, maybe.

          Imho, if one can change a water pump, one can replace an engine.

          If an inexperienced sixteen year old working under an old shade tree could replace And rebuild an engine using crappy tools, a come-along, and the back of a pickup bed as a re-building surface, then simply replacing an engine shouldn’t be too difficult for someone new to the scene.
          That is, if reading and following directions is within ones ability. I suppose too, you could, “just do it” but at a minimum, having a manual is a good idea.

          Every car seems to have it’s special requirements when working on it. Knowing those, is helpful. But even if you don’t, things *can* work out ok.
          It just depends on what you expect to produce.

          Time + effort, divided by experience = result.

          If you’ve got a nice place to work on it, a concrete or asphalt floor surrounded by walls (Hey, don’t laugh, doing this outside in Winter with a dirt floor, or in a corn crib, is not my idea of a good time) a good floor jack, some half-way decent tools and a boat load of patience, you’ll likely do ok.

          That’s just my amateur/shade tree mechanic opinion. Don’t take it as gospel. YMMV.

          • March 15, 2012 at 9:50 am


            Now, rebuilding an engine (or doing a cam change, or adjusting valves) involves more fine detail work, including making exacting measurements. For such work, a shop manual, with detailed instructions and specifications/tolerances, etc. is all-but-essential to achieving a good result.

            Pulling/replacing an engine is mostly just grunt work.

  25. Blake
    March 13, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Good advice for a newbie wrench.

    I grew up in the “good old days” when cars had carburetors, and fuel injection was a real marketing feature. If you live in a climate when older, early 80s vintage cars have not rusted away, I’d buy one to learn the basics.

    It was a sad time for performance and reliability compared to today, but the simplicity is great to learn on, and the price will be cheap.

    The major difference between those cars and today’s cars is that previously a function that was handled mechanically (centrifugal force, vacuum, mechanical pumps, etc) is now handled by a computer making the decision of how much and how long.

    Buy a model that was popular – so you’ll have a good chance of your parts store stocking the parts you need.

    Today’s cars do it better – no question. Today’s cars are arguably “safer,” though anyone here in or past their forties seems to have made it through OK. If you learn what each function does on one of these cars, it is a natural progression to today’s cars.

    Or maybe you’ll just say the hell with today’s cars and modify your early eighties (or seventies, or sixties) vintage steel with some new tech to have all the good (aftermarket fuel injection, overdrive transmission, stiff chassis, FAR better seats, better ignition, better wiring connections, sound isolation, etc.) with none of the bad (seat belt warning buzzer, one or several airbags and associated lights, $200+ headlights, warning stickers everywhere, etc.).

    Don’t be afraid to learn. Suck – Squeeze – Bang – Blow.

    • Phil
      March 15, 2012 at 1:44 pm

      “Fuel injection is harder” is a common misconception older car bugs have. I learned on a 1985 Corvette that I got in 2004, which has a semi-primitive computer and injection system. (My father gave me a choice between a functioning cheap car or something cooler that was broken and just as cheap, The thing was in roddy shape and needed a complete rebuild, but I love it) My father, who was a lifelong shade tree mechanic didn’t know what to make of it, but honestly, as I worked on it, and later on older carbureted cars, the fuel injection was in fact way easier to handle (this primitive type at least). The early learning curve is basically flat (put it back on how you took it off, no adjustments needed under normal situations), versus a carburetor which required experience or intense experimentation to work with. Modern plug and play fuel injection systems are just as easy. (Not to mention that I get 22mpg out of the thing all these years later on the highway with a 383 stroker in it, and Ill be damned if I could manage that with a holley)

      All that said, the car was still a basic 350, and there were no glamor plastic parts blocking access to everything (I thought that was the purpose of the hood) so all the basics were still there for learning.

      • March 15, 2012 at 1:50 pm

        That’s true!

        My main objection is the cost. You can easily spend what it would take to rebuild an entire engine in a carbureted older car on just the EFI system in a modern car.

        Plus, they’re less durable.

        A cast iron (or aluminum) conventional wet manifold will last practically forever. Modern plastic “dry” manifolds not so much. A carburetor can be rebuilt almost indefinitely – and inexpensively,if you do it yourself. A lot of EFI stuff is throw it away and replace it with an expensive as hell new part.

        Each has its pros and cons…

    • Bogey
      March 15, 2012 at 7:21 pm

      “Today’s cars are arguably “safer,” though anyone here in or past their forties seems to have made it through OK.”

      So . . . the fact that the people past their 40’s are still alive, because they’re reading this . . . proves that cars in the ’60s and ’70s were safe?

      A lot of people were crushed, impaled or decapitated in those decades. What does their absence from this site tell us about the safety of earlier cars?

      • March 15, 2012 at 8:31 pm

        “Safety” is not the issue – it’s personal choice.

        If I value, say, gas mileage more than theoretical crashworthiness (theoretical, because most “accidents” aren’t and so can be avoided, in which case crashworthiness is abstract) then it should be my decision – not the government’s.

        My “safety” is no one’s rightful business except my family’s – certainly not the government’s.

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