Care and feeding of the Motor Vehicle (longish)

Among the people I know, I’m the guy who can fix things. I’ve hammered together old cars, stereos, dishwashers, tractors, computers, etc. etc. etc.

The family and a select group of close friends have come to know me as the guy whom they can trust to look at their cars and honestly tell them what is wrong with them.

This is fine by me. Often, when looking at someone’s vehicle, determining the cause of the problem is only a short step or a small expense away from fixing it, and more often than not, I do. Depending on the person, and their financial status, I do or don’t give them the receipt for the parts.(so they know what it cost me, should they decide to pay for the parts.) Usually I don’t.

I enjoy helping people, and people rarely (intentionally) take advantage of me. However, there are some things my beloved family and friends do to me, that to them seem perfectly normal but cause me unending grief; therefore, in case they might read this, and in case anyone else could use the advice, here is a layperson’s guide to automobile ownership.

First: Auto maintenance is a must. I know you know little or nothing about cars, but you merely have to look in the owners manual to know when to change the oil, when to change the spark plugs, when to service all the major components of your car. These instructions are there for one purpose: to help you take proper care of your car. Take the owners guide out of the glove compartment and read it.

There are a few things, like oil changes and tune-up intervals that can be debated; almost invariably, sticking to the recommendations in the owner’s manual will do you no harm.

That should be a pretty straightforward deal, but it’s important; don’t let it slip.

Now, if something happens to your car, here are a few guidelines to help you make sure your car holds together and doesn’t fail you.

If something happens that causes damage to your car, you hit a curb, you run over a moose, you accidentally set fire to the trunk, you put diesel fuel in the tank instead of gasoline, you put gasoline in the tank instead of diesel, you put oil/antifreeze/windshield washer fluid/transmission fluid in the wrong place, you have to tell me. (Or your mechanic) If I have to play a guessing game as to why your car won’t run it just uses up a lot of my valuable time. Don’t just bring me your car, tell me it doesn’t run but you “don’t know why”, when you know perfectly well that it’s not running because you allowed the engine to run completely out of oil and then drove it to Muncie, Indiana with the “check engine” light on the whole way. Clue me in to these things; it’ll take me less time to figure out what is wrong. Adding oil just before bringing me the car because you’re “embarrassed” to let me know you ran it dry does me no good. Nor you. Nor your car.

If you have some idea what is wrong with your car, tell me. Don’t assume you can diagnose it because you probably can’t.

“Hey, if I buy a new starter for my van, will you put it on for me?”
“Sure, you going to have it towed over?”
“Nah, I’ll just drive it”
“?? Thought you said the starter was bad?”
“It is. It cranks and cranks and cranks, and doesn’t start for a long time”
“The part that cranks is the starter. If the starter was bad it wouldn’t be cranking.”
“Oh. So will I have to buy the starter or will you?”
“You don’t need a starter”
“But it won’t start all the time”
“It won’t start because something else is wrong. Your starter is probably fine. How long has it been since you had a tune-up? Has it been since the last time I did it?”
“Well, once it starts it runs fine so it doesn’t need a tune-up, it just needs a starter”
“Bring it over and I’ll look at it”

Two hours and $78.45 in tune-up parts later, van starts and runs like a champ. The spark plugs have been in the van for 78,000 miles, I know, because I put them there myself, and I keep maintenance records of all the vehicles I work on. They are worn almost away. The distributor cap and rotor are so burned and corroded the contacts don’t even look like they are made of metal anymore. Once in place, the key barely turns before the engine starts and settles down to a sewing machine-like hum, smooth as silk.

“Well, I told you it was the starter”
“No, I didn’t change the starter, I tuned it up”
“It didn’t need a tune-up, I hope you don’t expect me to pay for those parts”
<<Sigh>>“No. It’ll be fine”
“Well, I guess I’ll just have to go to a shop and get the starter changed. Thanks for nothing.”

I know this isn’t a problem because now that it will start quickly the thought of bringing it to anyone will never even occur to him. If this was in an Adam Sandler movie, it would be hilarious. Instead, it’s my life. This is a transcript of an actual event. This is the cousin of my closest friend.

If something is going wrong, tell me sooner rather than later.

Friend brings his car to me because it’s making a bad noise. I take off the wheel and see that the lower ball joint is just gone, nothing whatsoever holding it together. I tell him to get a ride and I’ll fix it the next evening, but I’m at work and can’t do anything about it.

Two days later it shows up on my doorstep with the wheel/axle/strut assembly no longer attached to the rest of the car.

“The noise went away so I thought it fixed itself”
"Fixed itself? "(Thinking, what universe do you live in?)
“Yeah, that can happen, right?”
“Uh, no.”

Instead of being a 19-dollar repair (new ball joint) it’s a 340-dollar repair (new axle halfshaft and a lot of blood sweat and tears).

“If you’d told me this could happen I’d have never driven it this way”
“I did tell you”
“Yeah, but you didn’t tell me it would break this bad”
<<sigh>> “Well, it’s OK now. If it makes a noise like that again, get me, don’t wait until it does this again”

Then there’s the hopeless causes.
“My daughter just bought a car- could you come by and see why it’s not running?”
<<Groan>> “Sure, I’ll stop by on my way home from work. How old is this car?”
“It’s a 1991 Escort. With 180,000 miles”
<<Groan>>“Okay, and did it run when she bought it?”
“No, but she liked the color so she decided she wanted it. And her old car is getting rusty and the heat doesn’t work”
<<Long groan>>“Please at least let me know before you buy something next time, so I can decide if it’s even worth working on”

I managed to wade through a junkyard full of greasy knee-deep mud to find a new injection computer. Plugged it in and it worked. Has been running well ever since. Why, I don’t know. The car should have been scrapped years ago. The young lady in question has now been driving it almost six months, and she recently brought it to me to have the air conditioning fixed.

There are tons and tons of other examples, but here are the basic rules:

Don’t wait until the noise gets louder.

Don’t wait until the smell goes away.

Don’t hope the light will go out.

Don’t assume it will go away.

Don’t just turn up the radio.

Don’t drive a passenger vehicle like it was a Monster Truck.

Don’t continue to drive a vehicle, which has problems of any kind, ever.
Do look under the car every time you drive off. If you see fluids on the ground, find out what and why. NOTE: The exception to this rule is in the summer, when you are using the air conditioning; there will be a puddle of plain water under the car when you stop or when it sits for a while after driving. This is normal, do not panic. (I get at least five of these calls every spring)

Do look at your car every time you drive it; see that all four tires have air. And tread of some nature. And are capable of being pointed more or less all in the same direction.

Please notice if any large parts of the car are missing, or somewhere they aren’t supposed to be. Like the bumper is jammed into the passenger side door.

Do take your car to someone when it starts making a noise. Or driving differently than it usually does. Or a light or alarm goes on. Or there is a noticeable change in the amount of fuel/coolant/any other fluid it uses.

Do not attempt to fix something yourself using household items. Wrapping a radiator hose with duct tape may be a good temporary repair but it is not permanent and should not be treated as such.
Last but not least, if you have someone who is nice enough to take the time to fix your vehicle for free after you’ve trashed it over and over again, have the courtesy to him/her to let it happen at their convenience, and don’t demand it be done at your convenience.

Carry on.


Excellent, excellent advice–although I do think some of these people are taking advantage of you.

It’s just like me and all my friends with computers… although I’m not proficient at every little thing, and they act offended when they find out. Here’s how it is… I can build you a computer. The basics. Pop in a motherboard, hard drive, processor, a sound and video card, a network card, etc. What I can’t do is troubleshoot… there’s a lot I don’t know (I try to get this across before I say anything else). I don’t know why your video capture card isn’t working right. I don’t know why your home network isn’t connecting to the Internet. And no, I don’t know how to solve the conflicts with your SCSI card, firewire card, mirro card, and video card.

I try what I can, but sometimes I don’t think people hear me when I say “I don’t think I can fix that, but I’ll see what I can do,” nor do I think they listen when I give them advice on what to do, such as “Defrag your hard drive at least once a month”.

Anyway, a good rant, and good advice. Say, my car was leaking radiator coolant the other day… wanna take a look? :smiley:

Sure, Spoofe, bring it over. S’pose you can help me link up all these Linux boxes in my basement?


Jesus, Billy, when did you decide to become a doormat? Absolutely no offense intended, but you are a fucking SAINT to put up with this crap and you should NEVER do so. If people don’t have the decency to respect your knowledge and what you have done for them…well, fuck 'em! Stop giving it away to people who don’t appreciate it!

Great advice, by the way.

And may I add… I recently purchase a brand new Toyota Matrix. I am notoriously hard on cars (cosmetically, generally) but I read something Suze Ormon wrote that really hit home with me, and I share it here: Cars are usually the largest purchase we make apart from our homes. These days a basic, unexciting vehicle has an average cost of $20,000. So how about instead of referring to (and thinking of) our cars as something we have ** bought **, we start referring to them (and thinking of them) as something we have ** * invested in. * ** Most of us don’t treat our investments like shit…we protect them and do what we can to get them to hold their value. Your car is an investment you have made. Treat it like that.


Yet another reason why being a doctor is like being a mechanic. When you come to me please don’t say “I need an antibiotic for a sinus infection”. Tell me your symptoms, and let me see if you have a sinus infection or something else. Your “urinary tract infection” just might be pregnancy, like with the patient I saw yesterday and the wrong antibiotic could harm your baby.
So, anyway, is it OK to keep to the maintenance schedule in my owner’s manual? It says for rough driving to change the oil every 5000 miles which I do religiously but the repair guys always tell me I should do it at 3000. Do they know better than the folks who built the car?

Psycho, If you use good quality oil and change at the owner’s manual reccomendations or more frequently you probably can’t go wrong. I have a hard commute, 110 miles each day, and I use full synthetic oils, which I change at 10,000 mile intervals. Engine shows no signs of wear whatsoever, and runs extremely well, at 100,000 miles. I expect at least another 200,000 miles out of it.

Driving conditions and habits make all the difference. If you drive a lot but do a lot of stop/start driving, turning your engine on and off all the time, one type of oil might be better than others. If you have a 15 mile commute and don’t drive the car other than that, normal oils and normal intervals will probably do all you need.


hey, I got this poison ivy, can you write for some corticosteroids? :: d&r ::

Crap, you mean I’m supposed to change the oil rather than add as needed? No wonder my '95 Altima runs like a goddamn tank.

As a corolary please tell me exactly what happened.

I’m at home one day and get a call from a good friend. She says “My car won’t start I need some help.”

I say “what’s wrong”?

friend: “It won’t start, I need you to pick me up a starter and come put it in.”

Me: “What happened, are you sure you need a starter?”

Her: “Please just get me a starter, mine’s bad I need to drive to home in Michigan and I’m late”
So I go to the store buy her starter, and start towards her house.

I give her a call and tell her that I’m almost to her house.

She says “I’m not at my house, I’m on the side of the road at Federal and 44th.”

Me “um, why are you there?”

her: “Cause that’s where my car stalled, and won’t start now”

Me “stalled?”

Her "Yeah, I was driving along, then it sounded wierd and stopped, then it wouldn’t start for more than a couple seconds, now it won’t start at all. "

Me “did a bunch of dummy lights on the dash come on, and the radio freak out?”

Her “Yeah”

Me “I’ll be there in about thirty minutes” as I sigh and turn around to go back to the store and exchange my starter for an alternator.

Oh man. I feel dumb after reading this thread. There’s so much I don’t know about cars.

Back in The Olden Days, all the teenagers knew everything there was to know about cars, and baffled their elders with how much they knew. Nowadays, it’s the same way, but with computers. I could program a replacement shell for Windows, but damned if I know what a worn out spark plug looks like. :frowning:

Oh man. I feel dumb after reading this thread. There’s so much I don’t know about cars.

Back in The Olden Days, all the teenagers knew everything there was to know about cars, and baffled their elders with how much they knew. Nowadays, it’s the same way, but with computers. I could program a replacement shell for Windows, but damned if I know what a worn out spark plug looks like. :frowning:

Wow, that’s an impressive load of B.S. for getting a vehicle fixed for free. Even if you enjoy spending your money and time fixing other people’s cars, they are taking advantage of you.

This part cracked me up.

I’m going to take my car in next week to have it checked out. It seems to be eating a bit of power steering fluid, and I’ve been putting it off, but you’ve shown me the light, Billy.

Billy, I feel your pain. I get the same kinds of calls for home repairs. And either you are really a saint, or I have become a curmudgeon, because I think Stoid is right. Fuck 'em if they don’t appreciate it. Whenever I get shit from somebody, when I’m doing them a favor, it’s the last one, or at least the last freebie, they get. After that, the answers they get are: “Here is the estimate; I’m too busy; I don’t have the necessary tools, (nearly impossible); I just don’t know how to do it”.

Oh, and if your ever out this way, stop by. There are a couple of problems on my old Studebaker I would like you to check out for me.

Nah, just jokin’! At least about the Stude. Feel free to stop by and have a beer.

Yeah. Thanks tons for your sympathies, folks, but I really do love these people who abuse me.

I didn’t say I was smart, just that i could fix things.

Helps to vent. Hence the existence of the pit.

And Toad, I love old studebakers. I used to have a Lark, and my dad had a Commander. The only picture I have of my dad is him standing in front of a Commander.


Jees, two days after I type this, I realise it’s my very first pit OP totally devoid of obscenity.

Well, unless you count “Muncie, Indiana”.


Wow, wish I had a friend like you. :smiley:

This after I just got a new muffler put on my car.

I have a 1988 Acura Legend with 128,000 miles on it. It was my first car, ever. That car has been soooooo good to me. The body is in good condition and it runs very well. Not having a car payment helps, too. I’ve considered buying a new car but I just can’t part with it. It runs too well and doesn’t really have that many miles on it. I worry though, if I think anything is wrong with my car because I don’t know that much about it. I’m on the opposite side of those people who never get their car looked at - as soon as something is off, I lift the hood and peer at everything with a manual in hand.

I get my oil changed every 2,000-2,500 miles. I know I don’t need to but my car is 15 years old and I drive about 1 mile to work each day. Lots of short trips. And I sure don’t want my car to go ka-put because I delayed oil changes.

You’re a saint, Billy. I don’t know anyone in town who could diagnose my car and who I trust 100% and that would sure mean a lot to me.


Billy, if you like Studes, check out this website. I really like my '62 Hawk, but I would also like to have a '53-'55 Commander 2dr hdtp, or a '55 President.

For no reason at all, that tickles me. Can I have it as a quote?

So long as you credit me for it, or at least link to the OP.


Bah, your batch of ingrates don’t know a good thing when they’ve got one, billy. If you were in my neck of the woods looking after my vehicle, you could expect me to take your advice, be as helpful as possible, be very grateful, pay for the parts, and throw in a case of the beer of your choice. At the very least. So, are you, like, moving to Calgary any time soon? :smiley: