How To Work on Your Own Vehicle

I love my Dad, but he isn’t a car guy. I wish he were, or my Mom was a car girl, so that I could have been introduced to it a bit earlier in life, but, alas, it was up to me to introduce myself to it.

I love going out in the garage, putting on a little music, and fooling around with my cars. I get a great sense of satisfaction out of the fact that my car is unique thanks to my input, and an even greater sense of satisfaction because none are (currently) broken. Well, not broken badly, anyway. They’re running.
My cars aside, many years and a lot of trial and error down the car-guy road, I can offer a few tips to anyone, guy or girl, who is looking to get their hands dirty.

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Consider Getting a Cheap Project Car

Let’s say you have $20,000 to spend on vehicular ambulation. In my opinion, it’s better to have an older used $15000 daily driver that you get around town in and a $5000 project car that you monkey with. Personally, I’m at more like $2000 on my daily and $5000 on my project, but I like driving older used cars. Split the cash up however you like, but this system has several benefits.

First of all, if you daily drive a hopped up project car with a beefy exhaust and a sporty suspension, you are going to be tempted to drive like a fool. Not only is this dangerous and irresponsible, but it will get you tickets and higher insurance rates. Much better, I think, to do your spirited driving on a track or autocross course, and use something slow and comfortable as a daily.

Second, you won’t ever have to lie in the freezing cold driveway to put a water pump in because you have to drive to work later that night and you only have one car. If your project is disassembled and you’re waiting on parts, it can wait.

Third, parts for expensive cars are expensive. Modern cars are basically computers with wheels on them, so they require lots of special tools and knowledge. You can still modify them, of course, but you might find yourself using experts more often than doing it yourself, which means you’ll be spending your cash.

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Put The Idea of Flipping Cars Out of Your Mind

In case you’re thinking you might be able to have a cool little side business where you flip cars and make a few bucks, forget it.

You can buy cars, drive them a while for the fun of it, then sell them on again after a few months, but you’ll be lucky to break even while doing it. It just takes too much time and effort to repair vehicles, and they depreciate like mad during that time. Add your own time to that depreciation, and it’s basically a wash.

Even if you get lucky, find a car being sold for peanuts, buy it, get it home, fix it up, list it, and advertise it for a profit, you still have to deal with selling a car privately. That’s a hassle unto itself mostly because of all the idiots out there who think they can start a cool side business where they flip cars for extra money. Scheduling potential buyers is a hassle, then dealing with them if/when they finally show up is too.

Monkeying with cars for fun is great. But you should understand going in that it’s entertainment and a learning exercise, not a revenue stream.

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Part of Being a Car Guy or Girl is Collecting Tools

Working on cars is all about having the right tool for the job. Even with the right tool, sometimes you’re going to get stuck because some dang fitting won’t come out of some other dang thing and there’s no room to get in there with a heavier tool. You might be tempted to use a pair of vise grips on a bolt head because you don’t have the proper socket size on hand at the moment.

Get the right tool. It makes life so much easier to not be rounding bolts off or snapping studs as much. I say “as much” because those things are going to happen anyway, but at least when they’re wholly by accident you get a little less mental anguish.

For these reasons, expect to spend a decent percentage of whatever cash you have to put into car projects on tools. Save some cash by investigating what tools you can borrow from your local auto retail stores. Things like pulley pullers and tie rod end separators are handy to have when you need them.

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Start Small

A great first project you can do to almost any car is to add a cold air kit. Guess how much horsepower you’ll get if you do. Go on, guess. Did you guess “almost none?” Because that’s how much. But even so, it’s cool, it’s usually pretty easy, and it’ll make your engine sound a little beefier, which is almost always preferable. Save your stock airbox so you can sell it along with the car whenever you decide to get something new.

Or replace your spark plugs, if you have them. Learn to do a brake job. All of these things can be done in the driveway. Personally, I let the pros do my brake work because I find it annoying and filthy, but I do know how.

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Don’t Be Afraid to Screw Things Up

It’s going to happen anyway, so don’t fear it. You’re going to round bolts off, snap them, and otherwise make boneheaded moves that will worsen the road-worthiness of your car. It’s okay. That’s all part of learning. And you’ll get familiar with your local parts shop and/or junk yard, not to mention how to use a tap-and-die set. All good things.

Better to get in there and try to figure things out than to do nothing.

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The Internet Is (Kind Of) Your Friend

6088751332_7da4134066_zWhatever kind of car you choose to tinker with, there is almost certainly a forum dedicated to it. Join that forum, and post questions. There will be people on that forum who have an amount of knowledge about your particular vehicle on par with the vehicle’s original engineering team.

Unfortunately, you’ll also meet people who have the same level of commitment, but to acting as big a jerk as possible. Arguing with these people is like trying to fix a quarter panel dent with your face. Not only will it change nothing, it’ll give you a headache.

Classic Car Restoration Ain’t Cheap

If money is any kind of concern for you, be realistic about your budget for restoring that Mustang II that’s been rusting away in the side yard for twenty years. Whenever possible, overestimate the time and money you’ll need to finish. Come up with a final figure. Quadruple that figure. That’s the budget you’ll eventually overrun if you manage to finish before you pass on from this world at a ripe old age.

Finishing a car project takes a long, long time, and a lot of the work is boring. It’s very easy to lose motivation, so be sure this is something you really enjoy before you embark on a full restoration. Start small. Learn a few things. Talk to people. And get ready to shell out cash ’till your eyes well up with tears.
Oh yeah, baby. That’s the life!

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About Jim Hodgson 6 Articles
Jim Hodgson is a published novelist and car guy. He's run on track and in parking lots with SCCA and the world famous buffoon menagerie that is 24 Hours of LeMons. He's the co-host of homemade car show Crossthreaded, and a thanker of corner workers. Thank you, corner workers! Link: http://crossthreaded.us
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