One of the problems you have when you decide to be your own automotive mechanic is that you will be forced to work on a vehicle when you don’t want to. This happened to me in January. I worked on every car but the D150 project. Since there is no progress there to report on I will talk a little about what I think it takes to be a good mechanic.
So, what does it take to be a good mechanic? What type of mechanic do you want to be? An entry level mechanic should be able to change motor oil and replace worn out brake pads. These are maintenance items that require very few tools and very little skill. Some people don’t want anything to do with even this level of automotive work. There is nothing wrong with that. But what if you want to go further. Replace wheel bearings, shocks or struts? What about head gaskets and transmissions? Maybe rebuild a carburetor? Any of these things I consider past a beginner level. They require more tools, more time and more skill. More than that, you have to overcome a little fear. In most cases this is your only car, the key to the freedom of the road, a way to get to work and most likely your largest investment outside of your house. You are not going to trust it to just anyone so why would you trust yourself unless you are a professionally trained mechanic. If you mess it up then you only have yourself to blame. Here is a short list on what I think it takes to go to the next level.
- Find someone that has done it before. The internet makes this so easy. I can almost guarantee there is a video or a forum post concerning the job you are about to tackle. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Use the right tools. If you can afford it, buy it. If not, rent it. Sometimes there are tools that are so specialized that you can do neither. In that case do as much of the work you can then find a machine shop to do the part you cannot.
- R T F M, really, read all that you can get your hands on. Shop manuals are one of the cheapest and most useful tools you can own.
- Buy good quality parts.
- Take your time, don’t cut corners.
- Don’t lose your temper. I still struggle with this one.
- Don’t give up if you don’t fix it the first time.
Lets talk about that last one. Most of the time the diagnosis is easy. If a part is broken, replace the part. Computer controlled car systems tend to make life easier. You get a code that tells you what is wrong, fix it. Then there are issues that defy common sense, the computer codes do not exist or they don’t match the symptoms you are witnessing. I have my only philosophy on how to tackle these harder issues.
- Eliminate the obvious.
- Start with the easiest fix first.
- If there is a chance a part under $50 is the problem, just replace it.
- Again, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
I am no where near an expert in all things automotive and I cannot call myself a master mechanic yet. The only way I know of to get to that elite level is experience. You know that guy that has your problem diagnosed before you even get out of the car. He’s not psychic or a car whisperer. He knows what he knows because he has seen it hundreds if not thousands of times. If you find this guy, whether you want to be an expert mechanic or no mechanic, make him your friend.
I knew I was going to be a garage mechanic pretty early. My first truck lost second gear. I asked my dad what I should do. He pulled out the jack and jack stands and handed me a tool box full of wrenches. We pulled the transmission, bought a used one from the junk yard and replaced it all in a weekend. He taught me a lot of things that weekend but the one that meant the most was that there was absolutely nothing on that vehicle that I could not fix on my own.
To all the vehicles in my past and the ones to come, I am not afraid of you.