Being your own mechanic
I grew up in an era when "gear heads" with no formal training in
auto mechanics could build an engine from spare parts (yes, I was
one of those gear heads). There were "shade tree mechanics" and then
there were gear heads. We gear heads bought the service manuals, had
training from highly skilled mechanics/mentors, and often worked
spare time doing tune-ups and repairs for other people.
Today, there's not much call for the extensive skill I developed
in, say, working Holley carburetors. I could build a 1970s hot rod
from nothing but parts, but today I take my car in for most of its
servicing needs. Yet, there are many things I do that any reasonably
mechanical person can do. You need only a few things:
- Drop cord (also called a trouble light). Never work in poor
- A few different screwdrivers.
- A small ratchet set.
Here's a partial list:
- Change the cabin air filter. Most cars have these, today.
They are easy to change. You can probably find a Youtube video
showing you how.
- Change the engine air filter. In the old days, this was a
snap to do. Today, it's a bit trickier on many models. But it's
not particularly challenging. Just be careful and take note of
whatever you disconnect. If you're unfamiliar with what goes
where, literally take notes. On a pad of paper.
- Change oil. Always use synthetic (not a blend, which gives
you zero synthetic advantages while jacking up your cost).
Always change the filter, too. If you have not changed oil
before, find a qualified mechanic to teach you. Nothing ruins an
engine faster than an oil change gone wrong.
- Changing fuses and lamps. These just plug in. The "trick" is
to learn how to read the numbers. It's really not so tricky.
And two that you can do with some training.
- Checking fluids. You should check fluids frequently. My dad
taught me to check every weekend, so naturally I check once a
month. Learn the proper way to check oil, radiator, and power
steering fluid. If you're one of those not fuel-conscious people
who drives an energy-wasting automatic transmission, learn how
to check the fluid level in that properly, too. Changing fluid
and adjusting bands is easy to do, but you should not attempt
this unless you learn the proper way.
- Adjust belts. You need the proper tools to do this, and the
training to understand how to test the tension correctly. It's
not difficult, but people who think they know (but don't) can
really mess things up.
But you can test the belt tension on the "rule of thumb"
principle and take the car in if you suspect they are loose.
Generally, you want one inch of deflection in a belt under a
given amount of lateral tension. In plain English, it means
(with the engine off) you stick your finger behind the belt and
pull until you feel a strong resistance. If the belt moves more
than an inch, it is probably loose. Shorter belts are loose with
- Never use pliers on a nut or other hexagonal fastener. Use a
socket or a wrench of the exact size needed.
- Don't use a screwdriver as a scraper or a prybar. Yes, you
can use a flatblade screwdriver in a very limited, almost no
pressure applied prying situation. But if something won't come
apart, it's better to take the car in before you break
- Always use a fender cloth. An old towel will do.
- Always have a container for any fasteners you remove. A
small coffee can or similar will do. Otherwise, you're going to
Car Care Items