How do car engines work?
April 21, 2011 7:17 AM   Subscribe

Are there resources on the internet where I can find information about what's under the hood of my car? I just feel that being a man and all I should have a good idea of what I'm looking at when I pop the hood of my car. I just want to learn the basics and maybe get a better idea of how stuff works under there. I have a Honda and a Toyota, and I know things are built differently under there, but if there's anything specific to those two then that would be preferable.
posted by fiestapais to Technology (13 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
For the basics, HowStuffWorks might be a reasonable starting point.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:32 AM on April 21, 2011

ehow has a big selection of car how-to videos. There's also youtube of course but its a bit of a slog to find what you need there, I think.
posted by freakazoid at 7:33 AM on April 21, 2011

You can try Edmunds online for your particular manuals. My husband needs the books, as he works on our vehicles, and he's been lucky to find the ones he needs from Ebay.

Not sure if you wanted more basic stuff: what's under the hood
posted by BlueHorse at 7:36 AM on April 21, 2011

Seconding the Chilton manuals. Get a manual for the year and model of your vehicle.
The best way to learn is hands on. Once you have that manual, start taking on the basic maintenance yourself. Do little things yourself, and try not to be afraid of making mistakes. One baby step at a time, you'll master the thing.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:51 AM on April 21, 2011

Besides Chilton, Haynes is also a big company in the manual game (check places that sell used books online--if you can live with an old grease-stained copy, you can often find these very cheap). There are factory service manuals as well, but those can be pricier.

Chilton also has a database--you might have online access through your public library.
posted by box at 7:59 AM on April 21, 2011

May I suggest Every Woman's Quick & Easy Car Care?
posted by swift at 7:59 AM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

For a general "how does my car work" overview, it's hard to beat the incredible "How to keep your Volkswagen Alive" (Amazon link). Cars are all more or less the same, differing mostly in how specific sub-systems function, so a book about a 40 year old Beetle will still be relevant. We've replaced carbs with fuel injection and added all sorts of electronics, but deep down all internal combustion motors are more or less the same.

As for being able to point to something and say what it does, you'll need a lot of repair experience or a shop manual for your car or both. Ebay is always a good place to start looking for a repair manual specific to your car. PDF scans of actual factory service manuals are usually under $20, and the Honda FSMs are among the most clearly illustrated ones I've run across.

Have fun!
posted by pjaust at 8:05 AM on April 21, 2011

My local library has a wide variety of repair manuals.
posted by mkb at 8:16 AM on April 21, 2011

Force yourself to do your own repairs. Start with changing your own brake pads and oil, replace your thermostat, change out your alternator when your new battery won't stay charged, etc.

You'll learn a lot more and probably gain an interest in taking on more challenges (and find that you're saving hundreds of bucks on repairs that anybody can do).
posted by PSB at 8:27 AM on April 21, 2011

It's possible that your public library has online repair manuals that you can accesss with your library card. Check with your public librarian to see if they have the Gale Chilton Library or anything similar.
posted by jessamyn at 9:05 AM on April 21, 2011

In all seriousness start with a couple of books about car engines from the kids section, then go on the how stuff works online (or just start there but the kids book can be really good-David Macauley is particularly good). The basic operating principles for cars are not too tough but the actual hands on repair is the hard part. Diagnosis is the hardest part. Once you know what needs to be either cleaned, replaced or adjusted it is usually pretty easy. Some things are best left to professionals or only attempted with the help of someone with experience. Drum Brakes, Transmimssion and differentials are in this category, luckily these items tend to be pretty reliable on most cars.

Good tools are also necessary. Good tools are a pleasure to work with, don't slip or round off nuts and bolts and will work for you not against you. Craftsmen is what i consider the bottom line of good tools, Mac, Matco and Snapon are really good tools with prices to match. Start off small and get the tools you need to change your oil at sears and go from their. There is almost always a how to guide online for your specefic make and model and a forum for specefic problems, partcularly toyota and hondas in my experience. Do a google search for your problem and make sure you include make model and year. Wikipedia has surpisingly good information about specific makes and models and usually useful links for more information.

Toyotas and Hondas are more alike than different but there are some differences, mostly in design choices. Toyotas are cars with an engine and hondas are engines with cars around them, this has to do with the corporate cultures but for an amateur mechanic thier really isn't much difference in how you work on them. Other makes and models also have their little quirks and problems but in the end they all work off the same principles and well understood chemistry and physics. Good luck and you may find you reallly like working on your own machinery, I certainly do.
posted by bartonlong at 9:40 AM on April 21, 2011

It doesn't really have anything to do with being a man, motors are interesting all by themselves.
How much do you know about physics? Principally, the whole idea is to convert energy into work. There is a lot of energy stored in the bonds of organic alkanes (hydrocarbons) like octane. If only you could somehow translate the combustion of flammable chemicals into the torque needed to turn a wheel...
Watch a video (there are plenty on YouTube) with a cross section of how a 2-stroke combustion engine works. Also try to find a video or animation of the crankshaft in motion, especially one that shows the flywheel at the end. Eventually it should become apparent how you can follow the work being done all the way from the piston to where the wheels meet the pavement.
The next part that is useful, is to figure out how electricity is generated in your vehicle. Learn how the chemistry of a battery works, and how simple circuits work. One of the most fundamental concepts of electromagnetism is that a magnet moving through an electric field generates an electric current. This is how your battery can be recharged. If you spin an arm with a helical magnetic brush through a copper coil, you can generate an electric current that can recharge your battery while your battery is being used to power your lights, gauges, radio, cigarette lighter, etc. Luckily, you are already exploding gas and using that to spin gears in your transmission, therefore it's not hard to add a gear that will spin your generator armature. Consider also, that the same basic principles to power the cigarette lighter in your car are exactly how power plants produce the electricity to supply entire cities. A magnetic brush spinning through a copper coil; that's it. The only problem is figuring out how to spin the brush.
After that, the only interesting thing left might be your coolant system. It's pretty basic though, and should be obvious how it works (the heat created from all the friction in your engine needs to be dissipated somewhere. You put a colloidal fluid into the engine block near the combustion chamber that is designed to have a high boiling point and low freezing temperature. The coolant absorbs the heat and when it gets too hot, a thermostat opens up to let it cycle to the radiator, which is basically just a large heat sink that uses air and the properties of surface area and some metals to cool it off until it is ready to go back in.

I guess what I'm saying with all this is, try to focus on the core problems that are being solved with a car. You want to get the most work out of the smallest amount of energy, you want to have electricity, etc. You will see that from make to make, model to model, the fundamental concepts haven't really changed much in the last hundred years. The only major developments have come about by manipulating (engineering) the properties of certain chemicals to better serve the ultimate, and original, goal.
posted by Demogorgon at 9:40 PM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

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