DIY Auto Fixing Isn’t What It Used to Be

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Recently by Eric Peters: The De Facto Mandate

Probably the single biggest impediment to doing DIY work on a late-model car is the space issue – getting at the engine, being able to reach the part that needs attention. If you can’t get your hands – or a tool – on it, you can’t fix or replace it.

Some late model cars are better in this respect than others – but all of them are pretty bad, relative to the old stuff – “old stuff” being the cars of the pre-1980s era. Back then, most cars were rear-drive and so had their engines mounted longitudinally – facing forward, with the transmission bolted to the back of the engine. The transmission, in turn, fed the power to the back wheels and a separate axle assembly via a long driveshaft. This spread out the components that made up the car’s drivetrain – allowing for more room under the hood. Cars were also – generally – larger – and many had larger engine compartments. It made working on them physically easier – and also less intimidating.

More on this in a moment.

Most modern cars, in contrast, are front-wheel-drive or based on a FWD layout. Their engines are typically mounted transversely – that is, sideways. This can make it a challenge to get at – or even see – the other side of V-6 engines, which have one cylinder bank crammed up against the firewall.

Also, even in the relative handful of RWD cars still being made, what’s called “packaging” in the lingo of the car business is much tighter than it used to be. The automakers use every inch of available space. There is very little daylight on either side of the engine. When you open the hood, you see a mass of wires and brackets and components all snugged up together thick as thieves.

You look at it and wonder: How did they ever get all that in there? Well, the answer often is: They put the engine in first – and built the car around the engine. Some late model cars had their engines put in from below, as they moved down the assembly line.

All of this can make getting at even routine maintenance items such as drive belts, spark plugs, coolant hoses and so on a knuckle-busting, extra frustrating job. It can also put the kibosh on even thinking about doing DIY work. You pop the hood, look at all that – and say, forget it.

I’ll just take it to the man.

But, don’t let the fear keep you from proceeding.

I think part of the reason people in my generation (Generation X) and those before us took more to working on cars than today’s generation is because when my generation was in high school, working on cars seemed simpler. You popped the hood – and there it was, the engine. You could see it – and get at it. For a kid just learning the ropes, it didn’t take all that much courage to spin off the wingnut that held the top of the air cleaner in place and take a look at the filter. Or buy a cheap socket set and remove a spark plug. After all, it was right there. Anyone could do it.

And so, we did. We learned more as we got better at it – but taking that first step made all the difference.

In most new cars, there is an air box – typically held in place by several complicated-looking screws or snaps. Sometimes you have to take off a plastic engine cover just to get at that. It’s intimidating if you haven’t done it before – and don’t know where to start.

Which is probably why many people never start.

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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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