I have a long history of working on my own cars. This is true: I own a creeper (to get under the car), a greasy pair of overalls, and a full toolbox, plus accessories like timing lights, compression testers and a torque wrench. Although I haven’t seen that last one for a while ... did you borrow it?
I own two cars built in the 1960s, and they’re a piece of cake to work on. I could actually stand in the Dodge to work on its Slant Six engine. Changing the plugs, replacing the coil, putting in a new water pump, tuning up, replacing fluids — all these things are easy because they’re accessible. The same is true of my old Volvo 122S. All the key components of its four-cylinder engine are right there waiting for me to wrench them.
The engine bay of a 1961 Valiant V-100 with Slant Six engine. I had one of these. Notice how nice and accessible everything is? (Photo: Greg Gjerdingen/flickr)
Today’s cars? Forget about it. I wouldn’t know where to begin. Well, actually, I know where to begin — investing in diagnostic equipment. When today’s cars, meeting the federal OBDII standard, go wrong they tell you the problem with an incomprehensible code that your mechanic — but not you — can read.
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Maybe I’d mosey down to Walmart and buy a Launch Tech 301050144 Crv+ Obdii Diagnostic Scan Tool for $54.95. It boasts “a full-color QVGA screen and the ability to graph 2 PIDs of data, along with blazing fast refresh rate for better graphing and live data readings.”
Of course, buying the thing isn’t enough. I’d then have to figure out how to use it. It could be a long, humiliating experience. My 85-year-old stepfather pulled out a diagnostic tool to check on my Volvo’s battery — I wouldn’t have a clue how to use that thing.
It’s not just the codes, it’s also the accessibility. Today’s engine bays are packed, and there’s often some big cover between you and spark plugs, distributor or starter motor. It’s unlikely you’re even going to see any of that if you open the hood.
Here’s a Mazda owner with a pithy quote: “I had my last car for four years and only ever opened the hood to change the wiper fluid. I’ve opened the hood on my new car one time, to show someone the engine. Turned out there wasn’t anything to see — it was all covered up. I don’t intend to open it again.”
Tom Baxter at Grassroots Motorsports asks, “Is there a point at which BMWs can no longer be wrenched on by mere mortals?” I think we’re there already. At IGN.com, a poor sap in need of a replacement alternator paid $176 for the part and then that same amount again to have it installed. I used to do alternators in 10 minutes — slack off the retaining nut, remove the belt, slap the new part in, tighten the belt. Done. Not now. IGN’s Hypoluxa13 reports, “Alternators can be a real bitch to get to on some cars, and require disassembly of other parts just to get to the alternator.” Exactly.
Is there hope. I see glimmers! This lengthy treatise is from a Ford F-150 owner. It’s the most popular vehicle in the U.S., shouldn’t it be easy to work on?
"I usually hear from others that today's cars are so complicated, it’s virtually impossible for an amateur to be able to work on them and actually fix anything. Yesterday I tried and was amazed at how easy it was to do a repair and how little time it took compared to the same task on any car made 20 or more years ago. Nothing big……just replacing a broken side-view mirror on my '98 Ford F150, but that involved taking off and putting back the inside door panel. It took only about 30 minutes, but most of that time was spent trying to figure out the procedure for removing the door panel. Once that was resolved, it was nothing more than one bolt for the door handle, two plastic pins, and lift it off. I have to believe an experience mechanic could do the whole job, including the three bolts for the mirror, in five-to-10 minutes.
Labor would have been $67 plus tax, so he’s happy. But note — this story was posted in 1999, and it’s about a 1998 truck. This kind of job has gotten harder since then, because of all the components packed into door panels these days — electronic controls, power window, mirror and door lock controls, woofers, tweeters, you name it. For many people now, door mirror replacement is daunting — I should know, since I’ve delayed for months tackling the fogged example on the left side of our Honda Fit.
I love what new cars can do, but I miss the old days when I replaced driveshafts, axles and starters just by eyeballing the problem. As for you, if you're a total novice about what's under the hood, watch this video, which will at least identify the basic parts of a car: