Car Maintenance for Womenfolk
November 29, 2014 7:07 AM   Subscribe

I aspire to be a woman who knows how to take care of a car. Where do I begin?

This is not the first car I've purchased, but it's the first car I actually want to know how to take care of. It's in great shape, has been beautifully maintained and I want to keep it that way. In the past I've relied on AAA (and I will renew my membership) and been pretty good about taking the car in for regular oil changes, but now I want to learn how to to become more knowledgeable about cars generally and car maintenance specifically.

I've realized, however, that there's a gender bent to my "car" fears: as a woman, I tend to feel intimidated by auto professionals who "know about cars". I also have zero women role models who know about cars. All of the women in my family have relied on male family members, boyfriends or dubious mechanics. Many of them have also had terrible experiences with cars going haywire, and being taken advantage of by car dealerships and/or auto service centers that exploited their lack of car knowledge.

So, here are my questions:

1. Are there any women-centered resources for learning about cars and car maintenance?
2. How do I get over my gendered car-maintenance insecurities? (specific stories from people who have overcome such anxieties appreciated)
3. What are the most important things every woman should ideally know about taking care of a car? Things that come to mind: how to change a tire, how to winterize a vehicle, learning about fluids and how to change them.. what am I overlooking??
4. Tangentially related: what would you suggest we do to celebrate buying a car after a really long, really frustrating search?
posted by Gray Skies to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Here's an online one!
posted by cecic at 7:30 AM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One low-investment/high-payoff/high-privacy thing I've done is to listen to "Car Talk." I didn't realize how much concrete information I had absorbed until I correctly diagnosed my MIL's car problem as a stuck caliper. It won't teach you everything, but it's a resource that can help you become more familiar with terminology. (I realize that this is not women-centered -- but it is a non-intimidating route.)

I tend to research my car problems before I go to my mechanic. When I have a general idea of the problem, I call for an appointment and am specific about what I'd like him to look for. When I drop my car off, I 1) wear a no-nonsense outfit I feel good in; 2) reiterate my specific concerns and expectations ("If it's [small thing], go ahead and replace it; over [X$ or Y hours], please call and check with me"], and 3) save the kinfolking -- the small, connecting conversations about kids and gardening -- until *after* the business bit has been addressed.

To know: How far can your car go once the Empty light comes on?

The best-ever mechanic in my life was not only incredibly old-school skilled, but also a good person. Dave (blessed be his retired name) was a resource I shared with a boyfriend. When we broke up, my ex and I were distant, and I had little idea how he was doing. One day, when I dropped my car off with Dave, he said, "Hey, your ex was here last week." He frowned, just a little, and shook his head. "And the inside of his car was a mess." YES. Mechanics are people too. Ask around among your women friends, and pay attention if they say "That mechanic never makes me feel stupid."
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:40 AM on November 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

This isn't exactly what you are asking, but you can easily learn to change your own air filters. I felt like such a bad-ass when I did this the first time.
posted by megancita at 7:52 AM on November 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Huh. This question is very much up my alley* and I feel like I should have better answers than I actually do.

1. There's all kinds of material on the Internet aimed at women. I haven't used any of it, though, so I can't speak to the quality of it. Some community colleges offer programs like this, as well.
2. Knowledge is power! A few years before I started dinking around with motors, a mechanic charged me $80 for an exhaust hanger for my old Rabbit. When I actually saw the exhaust hanger years later, I got very upset. If I had known about the part I was buying, I'd have known I was being overcharged. The more you know, the harder it is to get swindled.
3. You should definitely know how to change a tire, add washer fluid and change your air filter (these are things you'll need even if your car is brand-new). If your car is older or not so reliable, you should also know how to add coolant and oil.
4. I think a new car is an excellent occasion for a road trip!

I'm completely capable of changing my oil and swapping from summer to winter tires, but I don't actually do these things myself. Though I know how to do them, it's not worth my time. My local quick lube place is fast and efficient, and my local tire shop swaps my wheels every spring and fall for free. So I'm wondering if your goal is to actually perform these types of maintenance, or if you simply want to know more so you're more confident as you navigate the world.

Either answer is fine; I enjoy working on motorcycles but I no longer get joy from working on cars, so I don't do it much anymore.

* I'm a woman. While I was in college, I rebuilt two old Fords, a 1960 Falcon and a 1964 Thunderbird. I'm a competent (though not excellent) mechanic and I have a thorough understanding of modern and vintage bikes and cars. Currently I own a motorcycle shop; the wall behind the chair I'm sitting in right now is a brake pad display.
posted by workerant at 7:55 AM on November 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: If you haven't already, you should read your car's manual. There's usually a section on basic maintenance (adding/changing fluids, replacing consumables like air/oil filters, inflating/changing tires, etc.) that's usually fairly approachable and will be specifically tailored to your car. It'll also tell you about maintenance considerations that may be unique to your car, such as what their recommended maintenance timeline is and such.
posted by Aleyn at 7:59 AM on November 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Is there a community college near you? Those generally have auto shop classes. The community/continuing education catalog might have a "for women" type class that may be more to your liking.

I've taken welding and blacksmithing and was the only woman because it was a tiny specialized class. The shop classes are likely going to be mostly young guys but I'd be surprised if you were the only woman. While teaching gender equality isn't my goal or responsibility, it's a nice extra that these young guys see a woman jumping in and getting her hands dirty. It's a community college in a rural area, too, and I've never had an issue with sexism. It's a known phenomenon that women are often better at traditionally male tasks. Women (not all) know what they don't know and are willing to learn. Men (not all) come in and try to show what they already know (usually bad habits). All but the worst instructors are happy to teach anyone who wants to learn.

Good luck! It's incredibly satisfying to me to learn not-traditionally-female skills and be able to take care of myself. You are smart to learn this stuff!
posted by Beti at 8:21 AM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: From a different angle: like anything (tech support, trying new activities), a lot of it will be based on your willingness to "break stuff" and fail a bit. I remember when I felt like a real knitter: knowing how to back out of a problem spot and make it tidy again.

So your first task is really just to build that willingness and a spirit of just seeing what happens. At that point, you can learn just about anything from YouTube :)

You can also start with small things. When our side mirror cracked, I (finally) ordered a new one online for 11 bucks. It would have cost $150 and an afternoon in a shop.

YouTube was tremendously helpful when I replaced my car stereo, and then my husband replaced our brakes -- which seemed easy enough when I watched. I might try it myself next time.

The other part of that brake repair was twofold: what to do when the repair doesn't go your way, and how to get familiar with a place like AutoZone or O'Reilly's. The first time we did the brakes, the wheel was stuck to the drum, so we got a rubber mallet. The second time, we had a rusted-on bolt that stopped our progress for quite a while, so we needed either a tap-and-die kit. Sometimes if you heat it up using a butane torch, it's enough to get it off. (My husband knows that. I had to ask him. I need to be better at this stuff myself :P)

Those kinds of things would absolutely stop me in my tracks and not want to continue if I were doing it on my own for the first time. You just have to build up the kind of confidence that says, "I have absolutely no idea how to fix it, but I have to keep going anyway."

Good luck!
posted by Madamina at 9:08 AM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Getting the Haynes Manual for my car, on the suggestion of my mechanic at the time, really helped me feel more comfortable about car things.

But we only have one car, so I have to be sure that I don't try anything that might make it undrivable. So all I've really done is change out the spark plugs and wires, but I feel far more comfortable when talking with my mechanic about what needs to be done. I still have them do the oil changes every 3 months just to have it all looked at.

I've also learned a lot by reading through forums for my specific model of car. The people who do modifications know so much about what you can do to, or what to watch for on their cars.

And sometimes Dr Google is right. There was suddenly a new burning waxy smell coming from the car, and several people over the years in various places to other people suggested that it was a plastic bag stuck to the exhaust. They were right.
posted by monopas at 9:57 AM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There are a few parts to this. I am a woman who feels decently capable with my car. Though to be fair part of that is deciding what stuff is stuff I want to do and what isn't. So, for example, I do know how to change my oil but I am okay paying someone to do this for me. I grew up with a dad who was good with cars but he basically didn't impart this information on to me so my plan for cars growing up was "Ask dad" which wasn't really good for my own independence with things. So here are a few things that I think would help

1. Find a good mechanic - a really good mechanic will let you know what things you can do yourself and what things you should have the mechanic do. They will give you an option to get factory or "aftermarket" parts (parts that are from other places and/or used which might save you some money) and will explain what they are doing, give you estimates and generally be on time and make you walk out of there feeling like you made the right decision. Not all mechanics are good communicators and sometimes the failure modes fall out along gender lines, so work til you find one that you click with, get suggestions from other people or Angie's List or Front Porch Forum or Yelp. Over time, I've been able to get to the point where I knew there was a problem with my car and determine if it was a "big problem" or a "little problem" and figure out how to manage that. You'll still be at the mechanic for big problems so its good to have one.

2. Have tools for the things you can do yourself - whether it's changing a fuse or a tire, it's much better to have a good toolkit in the car. There are a lot of other threads about basic toolkits for cars, but this includes stuff like screwdrivers and a socket wrench but also jumper cables and a can of fix-a-flat and a space blanket. Check your spare and your jack and make sure you know how they work. Learn how to buy spare parts so you can replace a headlight or a door handle (having a Haynes manual will really help with this). Learn which things are meant to be user-servicable and which are not.

3. Take a class or read a book - there are a lot of good books aimed towards women and automobiles. AAA may even give a class near you. You may have an adult education center that gives one of these. I am really lucky because my local vocational high school has an auto tech program and they pay special attention to women/girls getting skills so they have women in the program (which equals more trailed/skilled women in my community) and they lead classes for women in the evenings. It was a huge game changer for me, having a regular mechanic who was communicative and very mindful of me not wanting to feel stupid really helped me learn in a supportive and "safe" environment.

Good luck, realize that part of this is just learning new limits, you're not going to become a greasemonkey overnight but you will learn to talk to them and learn new confidence with maintaining and taking care of your car.
posted by jessamyn at 10:06 AM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am a woman-type person, and I realize I was really fortunate on two fronts: 1) my Dad taught me how to do basic stuff on 2) his bare-bones Datsun that I used while I was in college.

He taught me how to check and change the oil/oil filter, rotate the tires, jack it up and change a flat, change air filters, check tire pressure and fill them, change the spark plugs, check and fill radiator and wiper fluids. Thanks, Dad!

This was possible/easier for a beginner like me because this car (a 1981 2-door Datsun GX) was little more than four wheels and an engine. No cruise control, no air conditioning, no automatic transmission, nothing under the hood to really get in the way of working on the engine. (Also, because it was a stick shift, and because the starter was iffy sometimes, I had to learn how to push start it - that was fun!)

Since then, my cars (and cars in general) have gotten more bells and whistles, and rely more on computers to monitor stuff. These days, I don't do much more myself than fill up wiper fluid and check tire pressure/fill tires. But it's good to know I could do more if I had to in a pinch.

I have a good mechanic I trust and take the car in in spring and fall for oil changes and general tuneups. I found Gabriel thru the "Mechanics Files" part of the Car Talk website.

I would Nth the advice above to: read your owner's manual, both for general operating stuff and the maintenance schedule; get and read the repair manual for your car; OMG YES, get a good sense of how much further you can drive when the needle is on E. On a nice sunny afternoon, practice taking off a tire and putting on the spare. Figure out how to open the hood and where the wiper fluid goes. Buy some new wiper blades and change them.

You said the guys in your family take care of the car stuff - would any of them be willing to teach you? (Assuming any of them are actually any good at car stuff. Having male-type body parts does not automagically confer automotive knowledge.) I was/am mechanically inclined and like to tinker/fix/make/learn about stuff. I would be more inclined to trust someone similar to teach me about cars - or other hands-on skills I wanted to learn.

Celebrating a new car? Give it a name!
posted by mon-ma-tron at 10:59 AM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

A garage near me offers car-maintenance classes that are just for women. I don't know how you'd find one in your neighborhood -- Facebook? Calling around?
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:18 AM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a woman and I am hardly an authority on this - I wish I was a lot better with cars than I am, but I have had a few successful car-related projects over the years. The first thing you should do is get a repair manual for your car. When I was 16 I used the Haynes manual to replace the speakers and stereo in my car myself, and I found it very clearly written and very easy to follow. It wasn't intimidating in the least. I also highly recommend just puttering around on youtube and finding tutorials for whatever it is you are interested in learning about; I suffer from social anxiety moreso than gender-related intimidation, but I vastly prefer watching online tutorials and reading manuals to dealing with people and asking questions. If I am confused by a video, I just find another video or change my google search and find a different tutorial. I replaced both my alternator and battery this way.

Other than adding windshield washer fluid, changing the windshield wipers is probably the easiest "repair" that you can handle yourself.
posted by gatorae at 11:51 AM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I’m not sure how you get over your gendered car-maintenance insecurities, except maybe to realize that there are are plenty upon plenty of men who know exactly zero or less about car maintenance. It’s kind of like, you being a woman doesn’t mean you know how to darn socks, how to hem pants, or even how to thread a needle.

There is no reason for you to know about general car maintenance. You only need to know about YOUR CAR.

Step 1: Read the manual. Front to back. It usually includes a maintenance schedule, or an option of maintenance schedules based on how drive your car. The manual is not comprehensive, so this is just a starting place for your knowledge. You will need to figure out which parts of the manual may not apply based on the specific options you got on your car. However, most of it will apply.

Step 2: Look up general car maintenance articles. Read them. If you live in certain weather conditions (desert, permafrost, etc), be sure to look for those articles as well.

Step 3: Look up general maintenance recommendations as they apply (or not) to your car. For example, do you need to lube the chassis? Many cars now come with a sealed system, so the answer may be no.

Step 4: Figure out what products your car takes. What kind of oil? What kind of anti-freeze? Anything special about anything else?

Step 5a: Learn to change a tire. Watch a video or two, look up some safety tips. Look up “troubleshooting.” Learn what to do if the wheel doesn’t come off— which I think is the most common problem after figuring out how to place the jack.

Step 5b: Take out your car jack, figure out where the jack goes, position it and lift the car a couple of inches. Figure out how to loosen a lug nut on your wheel. If you have a spare tire, lift the spare to see how heavy it is. Then put everything back, and maybe tuck a work blanket or a big towel in the back of the trunk in case you ever need to get on the ground next to the freeway.

You will now know pretty much what there is to know about maintaining your car. It will be your option whether you want to learn to change your own filters, etc.
posted by zennie at 5:25 PM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding gatorae, re: getting a Haynes manual. Not the Chilton. Get the Haynes.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:19 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Most every make and model has an online forum dedicated to it, with lots of good info on maintenance and repairs. I've done a number of moderate to advanced repairs that I could never have done without the detailed writeups and picture on those sorts of sites. Lots of make/model specific videos on Youtube too.
posted by aerotive at 6:26 PM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I picked up a copy of Every Woman's Quick and Easy Car Care a few years ago. There are checklists and simple maintenance schedules to follow. I didn't care for the sections on car seats and other typically "female" car concerns but I respect that they broke down car maintenance and repair in a very easy-to-understand fashion. I would recommend it as a book for men or women looking to get the basics of car care.
posted by therewolf at 11:55 PM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

So, my tire pressure indicator light went off the other day, and I had to use my gauge to figure out which one(s) were low (no obvious flat).

A tire pressure gauge is a great thing to have handy. You just unscrew the little cap on the valve stem where the air goes into the tire, and press the business end of the gauge firmly onto the stem. It may take a couple of tries to get a feel for it, don't sweat it. Also works for bikes. Go get one, they're pretty dang cheap. (Christmakwanzukkah is coming!)

BUT! don't get one of those pencil-type ones (like the piece-of-crap one I have), splash out a few extra bucks and get one of the dial ones.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 7:35 PM on December 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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