is inspired by a reader, a college kid who wants to learn to work
on cars but doesnt 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. Thats 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 cant find
the dipstick in his $60,000 luxury car?
Anyhow, I gave
the kid some advice based on my own autodidactical automotive
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 didnt
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.
about, can check the condition of (and replace if need be) a cars
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 its no Great Mystery most
car owners manuals will have a section, with pictures, to
walk you through the procedure and its 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 its an automatic-equipped
car), the overflow reservoir for the cooling system, the radiator
and the hoses that connect to it.
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 youll 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 youre 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.
youll need to buy some basic tools. Set aside some cash for:
- A floor
jack a good floor jack. One rated for more capacity
than youll be dealing with. Its 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 youve
tucked them under a stable hard point (such as the cars
frame) and theyre standing on a hard, flat surface (cement
driveway) the car is staying up in the air until you want it to
- 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.
the rest of the article
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columnist and author of Automotive
Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his
© 2012 Eric Peters
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