This column is inspired by a reader, a college kid who wants to learn to work on cars but doesn't know where to begin. There are probably millions of kids - and adults - just like him. And growing. Probably because tinkering with machinery is not nearly as common as it used to be. That's a function of a number of developments, including vehicles that require less in the way of everyday (or every month, anyhow) tinkering, a throw-it-away (as opposed to fix it and keep it going) "consumer" mentality and also, specialization. Have you noticed how helpless some very smart and well-educated people often are? The surgeon who can't find the dipstick in his $60,000 luxury car? Anyhow, I gave the kid some advice - based on my own autodidactical automotive edumacation.
I told him, for openers, that you can learn a lot by doing. Ideally, by working under the guidance of someone who knows. This is how knowledge was once passed on - even in the professions. A person interested in becoming a lawyer, say, would apprentice with an established attorney and learn by doing, under the supervision of the attorney. Of course, the kid - like a lot f kids today - didn't have a parent or big brother or friend who could be his mechanical mentor. Well, neither did I. But I was interested - and determined. So I started to piddle - which is what I recommended the kid do.
Anyone, just about, can check the condition of (and replace if need be) a car's air filter. You might need a screwdriver or a basic socket set ($25 or so) with a later-model car, to open the little box that contains the air filter element. But it's no Great Mystery - most car owner's manuals will have a section, with pictures, to walk you through the procedure - and it's an excellent first step on your journey. Having opened the hood, you can also use the opportunity to find and identify such things as the dipsticks for the engine oil and transmission fluid (if it's an automatic-equipped car), the overflow reservoir for the cooling system, the radiator and the hoses that connect to it. Lights will begin to come on in your head as to the purpose of these things.
A repair manual is the next step because before you do, you ought to read. This will lead to understanding - or at least, something better than guessing. There are two basic types of manuals: The factory shop manual (more expensive and technical) and the DIY mechanic type (more basic and less expensive). You want the DIY mechanic type for the sort of entry-level stuff you'll be attempting. Haynes and Chilton are two of the big names.
Almost any big auto parts store will carry them - or find them online at Amazon. Just punch in the make/model/year of the vehicle you're planning to use as your first victim. The cost is about $25. Now read the thing. Then again. There are chapters for the various systems - brakes, for example - and individual sub-sections for things like doing an oil change. Which is the next job for you to tackle.
But first, you'll need to buy some basic tools. Set aside some cash for:
* A floor jack - a good floor jack. One rated for more capacity than you'll be dealing with. It's not only safer, it makes raising the car much easier. I use a 3 ton model, which is a ton more than any car I own.
* A pair of sturdy jackstands. Never get under a car supported by just a jack. Jacks are hydraulic - and they can lose pressure. Jackstands are solid metal. Provided you've tucked them under a stable hard point (such as the car's frame) and they're standing on a hard, flat surface (cement driveway) the car is staying up in the air until you want it to come down.
* An oil filter wrench to fit the oil filter your car uses (ask at the auto parts store), a plastic drain pan to catch the oil and funnel to pour the new oil into the engine without making a mess.
* Basic metric or standard socket set (find out what kind you need for your car before you buy), screwdriver set (different sizes standard and Phillips) and build on this as you go.