DIY auto repair guidance?
January 6, 2005 10:29 AM   Subscribe

I want to fix a couple of things on my car. However, looking under the hood causes to me to collapse with the vapors, forcing me to go purse shopping for an hour to mitigate the effects. Does anyone have an online walkthrough-to-fixin-up-your-car for guys like me? (Details inside.)

I need to replace some sparkplugs and seal/replace a vacuum hose that's leaking. The garage I took it to wanted an arm and a leg (they took out a hacksaw and everything), and I've been told that it'd be super-cheap to fix all this stuff myself.

Plus I don't know shit about what I'm doing. So, yeah, online help? It's a 99 VW Passat, if that helps to narrow down the search. I've googled, but everything I find intimidates and confuses me.
posted by billybunny to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total)
I don't know about online help, probably costs money, but you can always hit up your local library for Chilton's books on your year and model. Or go online if you want to pay.

If I remember complaints from VW owners, excepting the Bus models, the engine space is tighter than on other cars, which means more labor time, which is why repairs that involve getting into these areas are more expensive.

But the Chilton's books give pointers as far as what parts are needed, what goes where and how to get into the spaces needed to replace said parts.

Some people, like my dad, like to buy the manuals that the car manufacturer sells to dealers and repair shops. This is expensive and probably comes with a steeper learning curve. You'd talk to a dealer for this purchase. Good luck!
posted by AlexReynolds at 10:39 AM on January 6, 2005

There are web forums and books specifically for your car, you might wish to start there. The books you must get are the manuals, there are two companies general, Chilton and someone else. It's not so much a how-to so much as it is a description of all the parts for your car and procedures you can do on it. Personally I think these should be issued with the car but what can you do.

I'm no gearhead but I've changed out hoses, belts, spark plugs, and done other routine maintenance. Sometimes the fees that places will charge you are worth it. Some belts, for example, are a real bitch to get off, especially with all the other crap you have to take out to get to them. The same may be true of hoses, I don't know, all the ones I've replaced were really easy. The difficulty with replacing spark plugs is getting the gap right, although that doesn't seem so hard these days.

In the experience of myself and my family, the spanky clean mechanic shops that look nice with air conditioned waiting rooms are often ripoffs. Often the same is true of dealerships. I don't go to dealerships often unless it's under warranty of covered by a recall or something (which, if it is, any decent mechanic can look that up for you). The kind of mechanic you probably want to find is the guy with a grubby shop with no A/C, probably no waiting room, and if he's good, he's probably got a waiting list. I have a guy that I drive 30 miles to go to. He's great. He's cheap.
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:45 AM on January 6, 2005

We have a 99 Passat (V6 sedan) and it's not too hard to change the spark plugs, but belts are something you probably don't want to tackle. (Timing belts, in particular, are not something to fool with if you don't know what you're doing.) Hoses: if you can find the leak, you can put duct tape over it.

What you should do is, buy a six-pack of beer and invite a friend who's changed plugs (or, preferably, done much more extensive work) on his own car. Make sure you have wrenches, replacement plugs, and everything else, so your friend can finish the job and then (afterwards!) drink the beer without annoying delay. Pay attention while he does it, and you'll be able to do it yourself next time. (Actually, you'll probably want to change a couple of 'em while he's there, so that you can ask the question you'll have the first time you do it yourself: "how do you get the plug out of the hole after you unscrew it?" [Answer: long, thin fingers or a magnet.])

I won't take our Passat to the dealer any more: every time I've done that, it's cost $3-500, and something else has come back broken or broke within a few days. I have an independent mechanic I trust now, though; the only problem is he keeps trying to convince me to get rid of the VW. (He's probably right, I should!)
posted by spacewrench at 10:58 AM on January 6, 2005

As mentioned by RustyBrooks try looking for a good web forum. I'm sure there are plenty for Passats as VW has a pretty strong following.
I needed to do the brakes on my 91 Miata and was able to find excellent step by step instructions (with diagrams) on one of the Miata forums. The instructions were better than anything I have seen in Chilton or Haynes manuals (though of the two I would recommend Haynes based on past experience).
posted by evilelf at 11:20 AM on January 6, 2005

I assume from your post that you don't typically do your own work & therefore may be in need of some tools. If so, go to Sears - they often have great deals on tools. You need a 3/8-inch socket set & driver & associated extensions (~2 & 4-inch) to do the plugs - you'll probably have to buy the sparkplug socket separately, but get a whole set, American and Metric while you're at it. Should cost you around $50. You'll need a Phillips-head or regular screwdriver for loosening the hose clamps, or else a pair of pliers/vice-grips if it uses that type of clamp. While you're at the checkout counter, pick up a sparkplug gap gauge.

For the type & level of work you're talking about, a Chilton's or Haynes manual for your model/year vehicle (available at any auto parts store) may be useful - they're a good idea to have but not absolutely necessary. A call to a dealer can get you the sparkplug gap (sparkplugs usually come set close to the gap you'll need anyway) - any parts store can help you on that and the hose purchase - probably won't cost you more than $20 for parts. Spacewrench's advice is also well-taken.

When changing plugs, be CAREFUL about threading the new plug in and if it "feels wrong" going in, stop & take it out and inspect the threads to be sure you're not crossthreading it, or you'll live to regret it. Screw in until it seats and is tight,but don't try to kill it. Do one plug at a time so you don't have to worry about which plug wire went where - DON'T pull on the wire when taking the plug wire off - pull on the wire cap at the plug.
posted by Pressed Rat at 11:26 AM on January 6, 2005

Two things:

First, check out the forums on VW Vortex - you have a MKIII car if it's a '99, so go to those. There is a lot of information and quite a few helpful people.

Second, there is a company called Bentley who makes good shop manuals for VWs. I'd get one.

The job you're trying to do is not a hard one - but you do need some basic tools (metric) and if you're not comfortable turning wrenches and not mentally comfortable with engines, don't screw around with it. Open up the phone book and find someone besides a dealer who will work on VWs. There are plenty of good, honest mechanics out there.
posted by TeamBilly at 11:28 AM on January 6, 2005

No offense to spacewrench, but don't be a half assed mechanic. If you find a cracked vacuum hose, replace it.

To identify a cracked vacuum hose, slowly move an unlit propane torch along every hose, and wait for your idle to change. When it does, you have found the spot where the hose is bad.

German hose is sometimes hard to source, and using the wrong diameter hose is a bad idea. It will eventually catch up to you. Pay the exorbitant rates of the dealer unless you can find an exact replacement.
posted by trharlan at 11:31 AM on January 6, 2005

By "Pay the exorbitant rates of the dealer," I mean "pay the parts department," not "pay them to fix it."

Also, most spark plugs come pre-gapped. The proper plug should be in your manual, and do not allow yourself to be upsold to the platinum tri-electrode plugs. Buy what the book calls for.

It is widely held (but not empirically "proven") that copper and silver plugs are every bit as good and durable as the more expensive plugs.

Also, to carry Pressed Rat a step further, liberally apply anti-seize to the plugs and they should go in and come out nice and easy. A torque wrench is a good investment.

Last, IMO, Lowe's Kobalt Brand tools are better than Craftsman. They stick better and are easier on the hands.
posted by trharlan at 11:38 AM on January 6, 2005

Just make sure you buy metric tools. Ten years of working on German cars and Japanese motorcycles left me with a dynamite set of metrics. Sucked when I tried to install a garage door opener that used SAE tools.

Oh, and Bosch plugs are the correct OEM manufacturer for VWs.

Also - Kobalt, Craftsman, Husky and Snap-On (probably MAC, too) I believe are all forged in the same place. I know the toolboxes are all made by the same company, too.
posted by TeamBilly at 11:45 AM on January 6, 2005

billybunny- A lot of good advice here. I recommend picking up a Chiltons or Haynes manual for your car. Car forums are good; I've used the CarTalk forum successfully.

One point of departure is this: I would recommend NOT investing a bunch of money in top-shelf tools if this is the first time you do a car repair. If you do it and decide you'll never touch a wrench again, you've wasted a bunch of money on tools. I recommend buying the cheapest tools you can find, at somewhere like Harbor Freight. They will be fine for limited use. If you find you're using them all the time and you start breaking sockets or whatever, then buy a better set. But to get going, you'll be laying out less than half what you would for premium tools from Sears, Home Depot or Lowes.
posted by Doohickie at 12:03 PM on January 6, 2005

I've got the tools, actually. Borrowed the roommate's. Don't know why he has 'em, he's worse than I am.

I'll hit the auto shop, grab one of the manuals, and hope for the best.

Thanks for the advice, all. Here's hoping I don't blow shit up.
posted by billybunny at 12:35 PM on January 6, 2005

Here's hoping I don't blow shit up.

I just got a horrible image of bunny bits flung about. Pleeeeeeze don't blow any shit up, including yourself.

And if you do decide to go purse shopping, note that the Saks in Minneapolis has marked down all of its handbag department 40%.
posted by Juicylicious at 12:43 PM on January 6, 2005

Spark plugs are easy easy easy. I put a set of Bosch Platinum +4s in my Elantra about a month after I got it. (And saw about 1 MPG better highway fuel economy.) They came pre-gapped.

I don't know whether your engine block is aluminum, but it may well be. You should be careful about tightening the plugs too much, as you can strip the threads in the block, and this would be very bad. You can use a torque wrench to make sure. I took my chances doing it without a torque wrench. Basically, you get 'em snug, then give 'em a little extra twist, and stop, even though you could go a little further if you pushed harder.

Put some oil on the threads (engine oil is fine) so they'll be eaiser to get out if you need to change 'em again.

Vacuum hoses should also be easy, although I've never done one. I wouldn't try to change a radiator hose myself, though.

"how do you get the plug out of the hole after you unscrew it?"

Your spark plug socket should fit snugly over the boot of the plug (there's usually rubber of some sort inside). When you pull the socket out, the plug will come with it. No long fingers or magnets required.
posted by kindall at 12:46 PM on January 6, 2005

Please do not use oil on your plug threads. Use anti-seize, which is specifically manufactured for applications like this.
posted by trharlan at 1:29 PM on January 6, 2005

I had a book like this for my 1990 GTI, and it was great, albeit a little pricey. If you're lookin' to spend less money, go for the Haynes...from what I remember of those Chilton manuals, the diagrams were crap.
posted by bachelor#3 at 1:33 PM on January 6, 2005

I have the same memory as bachelor, and I find that the manufacturer's shop manual is truly the best of all.

Please tell us how it went!
posted by five fresh fish at 1:42 PM on January 6, 2005

You may already have all the advice you need, but I wanted to mention that Usenet has two newsgroups devoted to the repair and maintenance of VWs: and I posted to one of them a few years ago when a friend of mine was having problems with her Jetta. The folks there were extremely helpful.
posted by Clay201 at 1:49 PM on January 6, 2005

Any chance your car is actually a 99.5 "New Passat"? If so, there's a special spark plug remover tool that came with your car, and you should use it, and not any other type of remover tool. A mechanic ruined every spark plug wire on my Jetta trying to use some standard Snap-On remover.
posted by peep at 2:03 PM on January 6, 2005

A strong recommendation for Craftsman tools comes from both a Marine helicopter mechanic friend and a car rebuilder friend.

Craftsman tools are mediocre. They aren't nearly as ergonomic, strong or well-designed as the real tools (Snap-On). However, a full decent set of Snap-On can cost twenty grand and up. For helicopter maintenance, you need and can afford (or the Marines can afford) it, but for everything else, there's one key feature of Craftsman:

Lifetime no-questions warranty.

You can abuse Craftsman tools for ridiculous, unorthodox purposes. You could, for instance, use a screwdriver as a prybar to bend part of a Huey's armor back into place. Or, you could press a wrench into service as a temporary engine support.

And when it's all over, you can take the shattered, blackened, twisted and melted pieces of your obviously misused tools, go to your nearest Sears, hand the baggie of tool dust to the nearest clerk, and receive a brand new shining replacement tool.

Even though the likelihood of tool failure is higher with Sears, it's very very comforting knowing that if you do -- it doesn't matter.
posted by felix at 2:09 PM on January 6, 2005

A 99 Passat is a B5, so the proper forum would be here , not the mkIII forum.
Be sure to keep in mind that about half the people replying on the 'tex don't have a clue what they are talking about(though that doesn't seem to stop them from offering an opinion. heh).
The Passat forums are much, much better than the mkIV forum, though.

I second the Bentley recommendation, I don't know if Chilton or Hayes even make a book for late model VW's. They didn't when I looked last. The shop manual is very good, but can be expensive.

Regardless, good luck, and remember, the only way to know if you can do it, is to give it a shot.
Hoses and plugs are an easy thing to start with.
posted by madajb at 2:14 PM on January 6, 2005

2. butch bi boy
3. 6-pack of beer
4. ...
5. profit!
posted by stonerose at 2:14 PM on January 6, 2005

Auto Repair for Dummies got me off the ground and told me what I could do myself without causing any major damage. It didn't teach me too much about working on my VW, but it did teach me a lot about cars in general and where to be careful.
posted by spaghetti at 2:17 PM on January 6, 2005

To identify a cracked vacuum hose, slowly move an unlit propane torch along every hose, and wait for your idle to change. When it does, you have found the spot where the hose is bad.

A better idea if this ain't some trailer queen beauty is to spray throttle body cleaner on suspected leaks. It's not flammable so you don't have to worry about going boom because you left the unlit torch on or something.

And Chilton/Haynes blows. Phone up your local dealer and find out the number you need to call to buy a Factory Service Manual. It'll run around $100 but it's the best resource on your car you can buy.

On Sears: Never buy a set at retail. All sets go on sale a few time a year for 50-80% off. If one isn't on sale now just buy the bare minimum you need (rachet/extension/spark plug socket). For the hosers Canadian Tire's Mastercraft brand is IMHO the slightest step down from Craftsman but comes on sale more often.
posted by Mitheral at 3:10 PM on January 6, 2005

For what it's worth, the Husky brand tools at Home Depot and probably Lowe's brand as well have a lifetime warranty. I have seen some not-so-good tools from HD, but I think they've gotten better. Just in case you or a reader needs the tools and is closer to the big orange box.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 3:32 PM on January 6, 2005

Back when I had more free time, I used to take a night school auto shop class at a nearby high school. This involved about 5 minutes of classroom teaching at the start of every term (everyone take the safety test!), and the rest of the class was just fixing cars, helping fix cars, and watching other people fix cars. The school had a full complement of tools, and the teacher was always there to tell you what to do when you were stuck. It was a great experience, and I recommend it.
posted by electro at 4:51 PM on January 6, 2005

I suspect CTire's professional-grade tools are now quite a bit better than their Craftsmen counterparts. They certainly are beautiful, and the few that I've bought seem to be precise, good steel, and nice to handle.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:42 PM on January 6, 2005

A 99 Passat is a B5, so the proper forum would be here , not the mkIII forum.
Be sure to keep in mind that about half the people replying on the 'tex don't have a clue what they are talking about(though that doesn't seem to stop them from offering an opinion. heh).
The Passat forums are much, much better than the mkIV forum, though.

Ah, you're right. My bad. The '99s are MkIVs.
posted by TeamBilly at 6:25 PM on January 6, 2005

Yeah, it's been a long time since I've used it, but I think I have a copy of Auto Repair for Dummies in the garage, too. I used it a lot in the beginning.

For the beginner, Haynes is okay. I prefer their diagrams to those in Chiltons.

And radiator hoses are pretty easy, as long as you can get to 'em. I blew a hose on the freeway once and was fortunate to come to a stop in a parking lot of a restaurant and within walking distance of an auto parts store. I repaired the hose, then got some water from the restaurant, and was back on the road in a couple hours.
posted by Doohickie at 9:51 PM on January 6, 2005

« Older Nurse practitioner experiences?   |   How to find a new situation for a cat Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.