Auto Fixes on the Cheap

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Recently by Eric Peters: Five Things to Consider Before You Buy a New Car      

Preventive care – and caring for your car yourself – can save you a lot of coin and a lot of hassle.Here are some practical tips to keep your car on the road – and money in your pocket:

Fuel system

All cars built since the late 1980s use some type of electronic fuel injection. These systems have fewer moving parts and are less maintenance intensive than the carburetors used in older cars, but problems can still develop – chiefly dirty (or clogged) injectors. While it may end up being necessary to have the system flushed by a professional mechanic using special solvents and injector cleaning equipment, you can sometimes get the same results yourself – and for a lot less cash – by adding a bottle of store-bought fuel injector cleaner (Gumout, STP, etc.) to the tank at each fill-up for 2-3 fill-ups twice each year (once in spring, then again in fall). The extra dose of detergent additives in the cleaner can keep things from ever getting gunked up in the first place – and will sometimes cure a rough-running/hard-starting problem without an expensive trip to see Mr. Goodwrench. There’s no risk of making the problem worse or harming your engine – so it’s worth a shot before giving up and turning the problem over to a pro.


If you really don’t want to pay a lot for that muffler, why not install it yourself? You can buy pre-bent, ready-to-install factory-style replacement exhaust components (and even full systems) over the counter at most auto parts stores (NAPA, Auto Zone, etc.). Everything from the head pipe that bolts up to the exhaust manifold to the catalytic converter and tailpipe. And at discount prices (no repair shop mark-up). If you don’t mind spending a little sweat equity, you can save hundreds of dollars replacing your won’t-pass-inspection rusted out pipes with a set of new ones. Often, it’s just a section of the system that needs replacing – for example, a rotted out muffler or catalytic converter. Grafting in the replacement part is not technically difficult – it just requires some unbolting (soak nuts with a liquid penetrant such as PB Blaster to ease removal) and sawing (either by hand with a hacksaw or – much better – with an electric reciprocating saw ), removal of the bad section and the bolting/clamping on of the new section/part. Often, welding is not necessary to git ‘er done.

The key thing here is not having to bend/force fit generic, one-size-fits-all components; the pre-bent parts are ready-to-install and will fit where they’re supposed to – without “custom work” by ball peen hammer, duct tape and coat hangers. Or cutting with a torch and welding.

Serpentine belt

Many new cars and trucks come with a single “serpentine” belt that drives all the accessories (water pump, alternator, power steering, AC) instead of single belts for each accessory, as was common in the past. The serpentine belt looks pretty intimidating – but replacing it is usually a lot easier than replacing old-style belts. Instead of having to loosen multiple hard-to-get-at mounting bolts and then leveraging each accessory (AC compressor, alternator, etc.) in to get the old belt off – with a serpentine belt there’s just a single tensioner pulley to deal with. Getting the old belt off is usually no more complex than using a wrench or socket to apply enough pressure to relieve the tension holding the belt in place, then slip the old belt off.

The tensioner pulley is usually very easy to identify – it’s the “idler” pully not driving/connected to an engine accessory such as the power steering pump or alternator, etc. It will have a stud/bolt that you can get a wrench on to exert leverage – which will move the pulley enough to release the tension on the belt and allow you to take it off. Installing the new pulley is just as easy. After making sure all the pulleys are clean/free of debris (clean if necessary), work the new pulley around each accessory (there is almost always an underhood sticker with a diagram to show you how – but note the old belt’s position before you remove it and make your own diagram if the sticker’s not there. The final step is using your wrench to manipulate the tensioner enough to work the belt around it – then releasing the tensioner once you’ve got the belt on. Be sure the belt is centered properly on each pully and aligned correctly, etc. before you start the engine. The best part is there’s no need for further adjustment as there would be with old-style drive belts. The tensioner automatically takes up the necessary slack and you’re good to go. You also just saved yourself a half-hour’s worth of labor charges – not to mention a trip to the shop.

Used vs. new parts

A big dilemma for owners of older/high mileage vehicles is whether it makes sense economically speaking to (for example) spend $1,500 on a new transmission when the car itself may only be worth $2,300. But the alternative – throwing away the otherwise still-good car and digging deep for a replacement – can entail even more expense than biting the bullet and fixing what you’ve got. It’s a Catch-22 situation. However, there is a third way – used (but still good) replacement parts. You can buy everything from complete used engines (with wiring harnesses and all accessories) to small parts such as alternators and tail-light housings at used parts retailers. These places “part out” wrecked cars – salvaging undamaged/still-working mechanical and body parts – re-selling the bits and pieces to people looking for a low-cost way to keep their vehicles running. Used parts typically cost much less than what they’d cost you new – and there’s often a guarantee/exchange policy that the used part works. You’ll get your money back (or another replacement part) if it doesn’t. Installing a perfectly good low-mileage transmission from a wrecked car for $300 vs. paying a shop $1,500 to put a brand-new one in your $2,300 car makes a lot of economic sense – and otherwise. Look in the Yellow Pages under “auto parts” (see the sub-section on salvage/used parts, etc.).

Reprinted with permission from

Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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