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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

August 21, 1998

If you think you're being ripped off when you have routine service done on your car, truck or van, you might want to try doing it yourself. You'll quickly learn one of two things: 1) You have a natural talent that you never knew you had for doing mechanical things or 2) your mechanic earns every penny you pay him or her.

If you elect to try it yourself, it will save you many headaches and a lot of frustration if you prepare for the task by taking some preparatory steps. If you're learning to cook, ruining a souffle results in a mess that can be tossed in the garbage but stripping the drain plug threads in you vehicle's oil pan is no so easy to cover up. These are the things you should do if you're a first-timer:

STUDY OWNER'S MANUAL - Remember that funny shaped booklet that you found in the glove box of your car when you bought it? The one that's in that fake leather folder with all the paper work about your car's tires and a lot of other dull stuff. Get a cup of strong coffee to keep you awake, sit down and read it. Somewhere in there you'll find a section that gives a listing of all the periodic maintenance work that's supposed to be done to your car. If you bought your car or truck second hand and don't know what's been done to it or how many miles since it's last service, start from scratch and do everything that's listed. If there are some chores that you can't handle at home, like adjusting the valves, farm it out to a professional shop. Remember: as a car gets old, it need as close or closer attention to maintenance as a brand-new one.

BUY SHOP MANUAL - They say a little knowledge can get you into trouble, so invest in an aftermarket repair manual that covers your vehicle. Haynes Publishing makes pretty good ones, but there's lots of others on the market. Most parts stores and your dealer's parts departments have them. They're specific for a couple of hundred makes and models and they'll probably tell you more than you'll really need to know, but it can't hurt. They can also make you very "hip" auto-wise when you're hanging around the water cooler.

ACQUIRE NECESSARY TOOLS - Don't buy cheap tools! They can be hazardous to your knuckles. In fact, don't buy any new tools at all until you've perused your newly-purchased shop manual - it will probably tell you what you need to do specific jobs. Get a tool box too (a big one) to keep them in and put a padlock on it if you have teen-age sons or you might come across your wrenches next summer rusting quietly in the back yard. It's also a good idea to buy one of those electric etching pencils from a hardware store and use it to mark your tools with your name and driver's license number. This might save you from jurisdictional disputes with friends and neighbors if you're the type who lends them out. I'm not - but I mark them anyway so I can identify them when I find them in the toolboxes of my five adult sons. It also makes return my tools on there own just out of guilt.

GET SKILLS - This may be the hardest part of the whole program. Many secondary school systems and some community colleges offer night classes on basic vehicle maintenance, but their ranks are thinning. If you can find a friend or colleague who is into cars, he or she may be willing to show you how to do specific jobs, but as I've found in trying to understand my computer, amateur teachers mean well but they get impatient if you don't pick it up quickly. If you can find a mentor, professional or amateur, make notes as you go along so you can avoid missteps when you're on your own.

SET UP AREA TO WORK - Even the most mundane service job can be a nightmare if you have to do it in a dirt field or at the curb. The ideal place is in a clean, well-lighted, air conditioned home garage but most of us don't have access to those amenities. A driveway is quite satisfactory (this is where my married sons do oil changes on their trucks) but make sure that part of your "equipment" is a bag of some sort of grease sweep (aftermarket parts stores usually carry it by the bag) and a detergent to clean up the oil spots that we all inevitably leave behind. Also include a plastic bottle of hand cleaning "goop" and a roll of paper towels to do a cursory cleanup of your hands. Your significant other may take exception to having thick, black spots splattered all over your designer bathroom and its fancy fixtures.

PRACTICE ON LIGHT JOBS - If the automatic transmission on your Hummer seems to be slipping a bit between shifts, don't undertake its overhaul as your first venture into the world of auto maintenance. It's too big a job. Start with a simple one like changing the antifreeze in your second car or something equally easy. In my very early youth I tried to repair a leak in the radiator of my '37 Dodge. I had learned to use a soldering iron in my junior high school metal shop class and figured that soldering up a leak in its top tank would be easy. It wasn't and I had to endure the smirks of the guys at our local radiator shop when I took it in in three pieces on my bicycle.

Does automotive home maintenance sound easy so far? If not, I hope you didn't insult you mechanic the last time you took in your vehicle in for some work. Crow never tastes good even if it's cooked.