How old must a car be to do "all the work yourself"

How old must a car be to do “all the work yourself”?

ETA: “new” cars you need to take it to a mechanic and use fancy diagnostic equipment to fix right?

There may be some things that require a dealer, like programming the computer if you replace certain electronic components, but shadetree mechanics can still do most of the normal work on cars.

There’s actually quite a bit you can fix on a modern car all by yourself. All modern cars are required to have a standard computer interface called OBD II (on-board diagnostics, version 2). You can pick up an OBD II scanner at ye ol local auto parts store. The OBD II diagnostic codes will often tell you what the engine computer thinks is wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily tell you what actually is wrong.

And let’s face it Brakes are brakes. A starter is a starter. A lot of stuff isn’t that complicated. Changing brake pads on a modern car isn’t much different than changing brakes on an older car. If the car won’t start, some fairly simple tests can tell you if the starter is hosed or if it’s something else.

Personally though (and this is getting into IMHO territory), I draw a dividing line somewhere around the 1980s. Cars before then don’t have much of an emissions system, and generally they have a lot more room to work around in. Newer cars cram everything in so tight that you sometimes have to disassemble a surprisingly large number of parts to do fairly trivial maintenance or repair procedures. Changing an oil filter on a 70s era car for example is as simple as sliding underneath the car and taking off the old filter. On some newer cars, you have to cut the wheels to one side, then remove an access panel, and then struggle like a contortionist to reach through the hole just to remove the oil filter.

The 1980s is when computer controls and more complicated emissions systems started to come into the picture, combined with making engine compartments smaller and cramming everything inside of it. If you’re determined, you can still do a lot of the work yourself on a modern car, but it’s definitely not as enjoyable (IMHO).

Thanks Guys :smiley:

Follow up question:

Are new electric/hybrid cars… is working on the breaks, aligning steering, doing other repairs… is it ore or less the same as a modern car or different?

My cutoff period is the mid to late 1970’s. I had a '74 Datsun that, with the exception of the emission control apparatus, I could do all the work on. Indeed, I replaced the clutch and did a valve adjustment without too much trouble.

I have an '86 Nissan pickup these days and haven’t gone beyond changing the clutch master and slave cylinders, doing the brakes and changing the oil. It’s pretty dark in there and when I can’t see the component I need to work on (from above or below) I give up.

Scanners can often be borrowed from the auto parts store; they’re happy to have you self-diagnose (whether in the parking lot or at home) and then come back to them to buy the parts you need. If you want to buy your own, there are an infinite variety available online, many of which will interface with a laptop computer or smartphone so you can even plot/display engine data in real time.

This. My last car was MY2003, so “fully modern” in terms of computerization. Once it was out of warranty I did most of my own service; this includes an O2 sensor, a valve cover gasket, ABS wheel speed sensor, charcoal canister, and other little odds and ends. I did let the shop handle replacing tie rod ends with loose ball joints, but only because it requires expensive jigs for getting alignment right.

Decades ago people used to have to fiddle with carburetors and distributors. The things that replaced them - pressurized fuel injection and distributorless ignition - don’t need service. To the extent that they do, it has become just a matter of figuring out which component has died, and then replacing it. In many cases, the OBD-II scanner you borrow from the car parts store will tell you which cylinder has a problem, so even that isn’t much of a hurdle. The shadetree expertise comes in when you have to figure out why cylinder #3 isn’t firing. Bad fuel injector? Broken wire leading to it? Bad spark plug? Plug wire? Coil? Just as in the days of yore, these are still things you can DIY (although they happen much more rarely than they used to).

A point to consider.

Early cars really didn’t have much in the way of emissions stuff so they are workable on.

As emmisions standards tightened cars became a nightmare of added on emissions control crap. Or in other words the car makers put on band aid after band aid.

THOSE cars are probably a nightmare these days because of the complexity and lack/expense of any parts to fix that part of the nightmare.

Eventually, the car makers started from scratch and the emissions systems simplified.

I’d peg the nightmare years as mid 80’s to eary 90s.

In some ways they are easier to work on now than ever. Sure there is a bunch of stuff that is impossible to repair, but that is stuff that rarely fails.

Any idiot could work on a carburetor, and every idiot did…and rarely left it better than they started. Fuel injection mostly just works, and the few problems I have seen were not tough to diagnose.

Ignition systems are at the point where a tune-up means changing the spark plugs…and maybe the HT wires if it still has them.

Brakes, suspension, oil changes, clutches, etc. etc. are not substantially different than they have been for decades.

IMO as a shadetree mechanic, the thing I struggle with most is diagnosing the problem.

Case in point, last summer my van started throwing a code which the OBD port told me was a problem in the cooling fan circuit. I did some research on the internet and discovered that the cooling fan control module, a little computer that sits behind the radiator and controls the fan relays based on a few inputs (why is this not handled by the ECU?!?) was likely the culprit, but the cooling fans still worked which meant that I’d have to replace a $280 part on a pure guess, because it could also have been the fans, the relays, or any of the wiring. A few months later the fans stopped working, on a vacation no less, so I tracked down one of the relays which tested bad, replaced it, and declared a minor victory. Until the new relay popped 3 days later, and the replacement relay popped a day after that. Was the cooling fan pulling too much current, or was that control module bad? Either one would have been a multi-hundred dollar shot in the dark.

But the dealership was able to hook it up to their model-specific diagnostic system and pinpoint the problem. That’s the major difference I see now. When I try and diagnose something myself, I end up replacing (increasingly expensive) parts and hoping for the best. On a mid-90’s Honda, that’s a fine strategy because everything’s dirt cheap and there’s not a lot of things to go bad. I’d hate to have to diagnose a lean condition code on a direct injected engine, all of those bits seem way too spendy to start replacing on a hunch.

On another, motoring related, forum that I frequent, We often see people saying that this and that code is showing on their cheap diagnostic computer.

Our resident experts usually suggest that the “shadetree mechanic” (I like that expression) should take the car somewhere that can do a “proper” diagnosis with model specific software. Fault codes frequently have an arms length relationship with the problem.

Some of the laptop/smartphone diagnostic programs can load the mfgr-specific code sets, not just the standardized OBD-II codes.

Here’s an explanation of how that might differ.

Yeah, I was going to say something like that. Although the nightmare years are I think about a decade earlier, basically from 1974 (when the clean air act stuff went into effect) to whenever each car maker finally gave up on the smog carburetor and went to electronic fuel injection, which for most of them was the mid-80’s, although yeah there were a few stragglers that made it to the first couple years of the 90’s. Although of course, if you live in a state that doesn’t do emissions tests (or doesn’t do them for old cars) most of the more troublesome emissions stuff can be, shall we say, retired after long service, giving you a generally more reliable and drivable car.

But I was also going to say that I think early OBD-II cars are a minor sweet spot in terms of user serviceability. Before OBD-II, computers were a bit of a nightmare for a DIY-er because you needed a different tool for every brand. Sometimes you could pull the codes with a paperclip, and there were some relatively inexpensive scan tools that did multiple major brands, but anything beyond the basic got expensive. Being able to buy a $7 adapter that sends codes and realtime sensor information to your smartphone, that works at a basic level with every post-1996 car, makes things way easier. With newer cars there’s much more going on electronically than what you can get with a basic OBD-II scanner, (especially with the ever-creeping menace of infotainment and infotainment integration) but for a lot of late-90’s through early-2000’s cars that little $7 scanner is all you need. (Although FWIW, speaking as an enthusiastic DIY-er who usually avoids the shops at all costs, I’ve never run into a problem on a newer car that required any information to fix that wasn’t provided by the cheap-o scanner.)

One other point I’ll make is that if you live somewhere that has winter (and especially if it also has an enthusiastic roads department) rust makes old cars way harder to work on. As someone who’s always done the vast majority of my own work, as I’ve entered a life stage where I’m driving newer cars instead of the old shitboxes of my ill-spent youth, I am annoyed by things like engine compartment clearance and still miss the simplicity of fiddling with carburetor and distributor, but I am always delighted when I do a job on one of my newer cars and not a single bolt puts up a fight or snaps off. Repairs actually take as long as I think they should instead of randomly turning into weeklong nightmares, which makes wrenching as a hobby on something you’re relying on for transportation a lot easier.

I’m no mechanic, but when I was young, I used to do a lot of the work on my 1966 Chevy 283. Not deep engine stuff, but nearly all the minor repairs (brake jobs, fuel pumps, etc.). Nowadays I wouldn’t attempt to even change a headlight, but I bring the car to my mechanic.

What counts as “all the work”? Is it enough to swap out a broken part with a replacement, or do you have to make the replacement yourself, too? And if swapping out a part counts as doing it yourself, how many parts are you allowed to swap out? For any car, you can always swap out the chassis, the body, and the mechanical systems all at once, but the usual term for that is just “buying a new car”.

I was using the most general terms possible and no very little about fixing cars. I was curious to see how many people still did their own work.

Or the old quote about “you can keep a Model T running forever so long as you know a good blacksmith” comes to mind.

On the old side of the line are distributors and normal aspiration. On the new side is electronic ignitions and fuel injection, in my opinion.

Twice in my life I replaced a fuel pump on the side of the road (easy to do, located up near the engine). Today I wouldn’t dream of it (remove the gas tank…).

I have a 2008 Toyota Yaris that I have done absolutely all the work on in its 98,000 miles (except when I bought new tires). Of course, “all the work” has been oil changes, filter changes, an a/c and alternator drive belt, and one leaky axle shaft seal replacement. The seal took me four hours, because I had never done one before. Now, I could do that job in two hours or less.

I have new brake pads and shoes for it, but they haven’t been necessary yet. Bulbs would be no problem, but none has blown. New cars just don’t require maintenance like they used to and they don’t break down as often.

I haven’t had the car since '95, so my memory may be foggy, but my '63 Lark required oil changes every 2500 miles, along with valve adjustments, chassis greasing, head bolt torquing, and hinge oiling. Spark plugs were to be cleaned, regapped, and replaced then, too. I think the coolant was supposed to be changed annually. In contrast, the Yaris requires oil changes every 5000 miles, the valves only ever need adjustment if they get noisy, spark plugs get replaced at 120,000 miles, and coolant gets replaced at 100,000 miles. There are no grease points.