Help me be less ignorant about cars.
August 7, 2011 8:35 PM   Subscribe

I would like to not feel panicky when things go wrong with my car. Where can I learn the basics of how cars work and how to troubleshoot them?

My car wouldn't start for a while this afternoon, and this caused all the usual panic and fear that comes with car trouble for me.

I am ignorant of cars and how they work; I know how to check my oil, water, and transmission fluid levels and which holes these fluids go into, but beyond that I am almost totally helpless. I would like to learn more, so that I at least have some clue as to whether a problem is serious or not. I don't want to have to take what my mechanic says completely on faith.

What are some good resources for learning how to troubleshoot car trouble? Where can I learn what things are safe to try and which things might cause expensive damage to the engine? (For example, is it safe to hold the gas pedal down while trying to start the car?)

Is this the kind of thing I can learn from books/websites? Or is there a class I should be looking at for this stuff? Thanks!
posted by JDHarper to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
In my city there are classes in basic car maintenance and repair in the continuing education catalogues, i.e. the night school things where you pay a couple of hundred dollars and then go to a class one night a week for a few weeks. I did one just for women, and it was great. We had eight evenings, and on some we did actual work on our own cars (changing oil, wheels, filters, spark plugs, etc, under supervision of a mechanic). On other nights we did things like taking an engine apart and seeing how it worked, hoisting a car up and going underneath to learn what all the parts are, learning what questions to ask when you take your car to the mechanic, and how to check they did a good job, etc.

Maybe there is something like this where you are? Try community colleges, maybe?
posted by lollusc at 9:08 PM on August 7, 2011

Try Car Talk- Tom and Ray Magliozzi's NPR radio show. I've linked to a menu of info about owning cars, but there is a LOT of info here, including other resources.
posted by drhydro at 9:12 PM on August 7, 2011

You would find Car Smarts: An Easy-to-Use Guide to Understanding Your Car and Communicating with Your Mechanic by Mary Jackson very helpful. I own a copy and have given several others as gifts.
posted by mlis at 9:24 PM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Community college auto shop is a good idea. Also, if you know how to properly check your transmission fluid (level ground, engine running, etc.) then you're ahead of the curve already.
posted by davejay at 10:15 PM on August 7, 2011

Best answer: You'll be pleased to learn that almost every car has a book. Two, in fact. The Haynes Manual and the Chilton's Manual. These are available at any auto parts store and also on the usual book sellers like Amazon. Just look for the one on your specific vehicle.

The great thing about these books is that they tell you how to do almost everything, and also they tell you when to go to a real mechanic. So if your car isn't starting, head to the troubleshooting section and check out some of the likely causes. If you need to change your oil, go to the "basic maintenance" section and look at the pictures/text on how to do it.

I've been working on cars since I was a little kid and I use these books all the time. I think everyone should buy one and throw it under the seat for that moment when something goes wrong. I recently bought a Toyota pickup and the manual has helped me find, for example, the transmission drain plug and also helped me figure out how to change the headlight (it has a weird inconvenient clamp that holds it in place). That alone saved me two or three times the price of the book.

Also, cars are pretty durable things. The best way to learn is to do - with help from a book like this - so don't be afraid to try doing things. The manual will caution you so you won't break stuff. ALSO OMG don't forget Youtube. Here's a great example teaching you how to change your own oil. Or rather my oil, as I have a truck like that.
posted by fake at 11:06 PM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: seconding the Haynes manual (they carry them at most auto supply stores like auto zone or pep boys...they generally dont make them for every single model of car...they'll say something like 'toyota corolla 1989-1997' on the cover)...i'd start with Auto Repair for Dummies, helped me go from total ignorance through "ah, that's what that thing does"...the Haynes manual allowed me to then go "ah, that's where that thing is on MY car" and "oh, i have to take the glove compartment completely out to get at it"
posted by sexyrobot at 12:41 AM on August 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've found it shockingly useful to just log on to the discussion forums set up by and for owners of my make and model.
I've learned what problems to expect from my car before they happens, and when it happens, I already know what the problem is and what is required to fix it.
You can also ask questions and get replies that often know more than a regular mechanic would, yet which costs nothing.

Forums will be more useful if your car is a kind that some owners have a passion for, or have as their hobby car, but regardless, other people's expertise and experience is invaluable.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:07 AM on August 8, 2011

Best answer: For example, is it safe to hold the gas pedal down while trying to start the car?

Yes. Typically this will "tell" the car to attempt to clear a flooded engine - I think it will turn a few cycles without spraying fuel in the cylinders, before attempting a normal start again. In any event, it's safe.
posted by lohmannn at 4:45 AM on August 8, 2011

2nding Auto Repair for Dummies. I must have saved thousands in auto repair bills over the years by diagnosing and fixing simple stuff myself with the help of the For Dummies book.
posted by COD at 4:55 AM on August 8, 2011

Chilton's helped me replace the alternator on my 89 Mazda mx6 when I was 21. (wouldn't start, went through the diagnostic process in the yard)

A very handy friend talked me through replacing the slave cylinder on my Rodeo's clutch a few years later. (brakes got soft, found the leak.)

Based on these two experiences, I'll add that if you can't find a way to fit under your car, you may want a taller car. Replacing the alternator didn't require me to shimmy under (though I changed the oil once. Only once.) the Rodeo was downright spacious underneath.
posted by bilabial at 5:31 AM on August 8, 2011

Best answer: As someone who knows enough about my car to be a good car owner, but not enough to actually fix anything myself, I will say that I can't truly imagine that panicky feeling entirely going away.
The thing is, cars that suddenly stop running perfectly will induce panic, no matter whether you ought to know better or not. The more you know about cars, the more informed you panic will be. You will have a voice of reason telling you that the car is not about to explode, that your chances of driving 3 more miles to a service station are pretty good, that there are a lot of possible causes your car won't start and the really expensive ones wouldn't have appeared with no previous symptoms. But still, that doesn't help much with the fear of the worst-case scenario repair bill, the knowledge you're surely going to be late to where you're supposed to be going right now, the panicky annoyance that your day is out of control, and trying to judge whether it's time to call a tow truck or not when it feels like every answer is the wrong answer.
My best remedy for that is, have an emergency fund. Have a AAA membership or be comfortable calling a tow truck yourself. Have a mechanic you have at least some faith in. Have a cell phone that's programmed with their phone number. Have the Haynes manual handy so that you can decide how you want to handle the current problem. This all adds up to having a plan. Plans calm me down a lot.
posted by aimedwander at 8:31 AM on August 8, 2011

I'll add that if you can't find a way to fit under your car, you may want a taller car.

Or invest in a moderately-cheap hydraulic floor jack and at least 2 jack stands. NEVER go under your car if it's only lifted up on a jack; if the jack collapses, tips over, or rolls for any reason you can be seriously injured or killed. The jack stands are designed to be stable.
posted by owtytrof at 9:38 AM on August 8, 2011

I use a set of ramps to get under my Mazda. I don't think they were more than $20 or $30.
posted by COD at 9:42 AM on August 8, 2011

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