MOTHER’s Mechanic Jon shares his thirty-five years of car repair tips and know-how . . . under the hood.
Car Repair Tips
No matter what the guys in the garage business tell you
about spending years in less than ideal working conditions,
and almost always being underpaid for the
increasingly technical nature of what they perform for the
public, some of us just love what we do for a living.
Many years ago, l had to make the fateful decision
between wearing a shirt and tie every day for the rest of
my life and doing what I really loved. With every
passing day I am more grateful for choosing the garage.
Every day is different from the day before, and poses
an entirely new set of challenges. I don’t have a
million bucks, but I’ve enjoyed (almost) every day of my
career for nearly 30 years. Name ten tie wearers who can
say the same.
My Ford Escort four cylinder with fuel injection
plugged a fuel filter and even though I managed to replace
it, the engine still wouldn’t start. I eventually had a
garage tow it in and the mechanics had it running in less
than an hour. What did I miss and how did they fix it in such a hurry?
Fort Wayne, IN
Dig out your owner’s manual and you will find reference to
a “Reset Button” somewhere, probably in the “engine
maintenance” section. This “Reset Button” is very much like
any circuit breaker in your house, and is intended to trip
off the fuel pump if there is a problem with the system.
Because your fuel pump will continue to pump fuel even to a
plugged filter, it has to be protected from itself, and you
need to be protected from a potentially dangerous
situation. For some cars without this provision, it is
often necessary to buy a new electric fuel pump (which
costs a good 300 bucks) even if the original problem is
nothing more complicated than a fuel filter plugged with
dirt and water. You will find the reset under the plastic
panel on the left when the deck lid is lifted. If yours is
like most I’ve seen, you will likely need a screwdriver to
remove the plastic guard before you can press the button
with your finger.
By the way, replacing a fuel filter underneath a car can
get you in over your head in a hurry, so don’t try it
without all the proper tools and jacks. Line wrenches are a
must, and be sure there are no ignition sources anywhere
around that might ignite the inevitable small spills that
happen during the filter replacement process. I recommend a
yearly replacement of these critical fuel filters, which
might be more often than your maintenance schedule
suggests. Do it anyway. Some “dry gas” added to a fresh
tank each month will also help get the most from your
system. It will keep water from building up in the fuel
supply, and one can will neutralize about a teaspoon of
water. As a kid I once saw a gent coast down a hill in his
stalled car to a copse by the roadside, run in to get a jug
of the local “dry gas” hidden inside a hollow old tree,
pour it into his gas tank and take off down the road again
with the car running fine. From what I heard, that was a
common use of bad “moonshine.” It gives me chills just to
think about anyone drinking it.
As a present for her seventeenth birthday, 1 gave my
daughter our ’89 Chevy Caprice. She loves it, but 1 feel a
bit nervous about her driving it far from home when she
knows so little about engines and maintenance. How would
you suggest giving her a crash course?
Well, that’s a good one! I married a farm girl who could
drive the family tractors at 12 but still doesn’t check the
oil on our cars after being married to a technician for 35
years. So let’s begin there. You can certainly show her how
to check the engine oil level on the dipstick, which is
best done in the morning when the engine hasn’t been
running all night. Next show her where the power steering
oil reservoir is and how to check that, and then go to the
transmission oil, stressing that the transmission is always
checked with the engine running. Tell her how to recognize
air filter, fan belt, and hose wear and to eyeball the
engine for these problems every week. Change a tire with
her twice, doing it first with her watching and then again
with you watching. Make sure that she has both a breaker
bar and a deep well socket in the trunk for such occasions,
and show her how to stand on the breaker bar to break the
lugnuts loose. The first time she comes home to brag about
how she changed a tire on a girlfriend’s car while they
were away, you will know your own success. Make sure that
you have the state registration and insurance card (in a
zip lock bag) in the glove compartment along with the phone
number of the local AAA agency, your membership number, and finally the phone number of an
approved AAA towing service. The last thing you want is her
stranded in the middle of nowhere, cold-calling “Joe’s
$10,000 Per Axle Towing Service” if a hose is punctured or
a belt breaks and falls off.
Auto parts stores have or can get packages for a few bucks
that contain jumper cables, a reliable flashlight, a set of
signs which include one that says “Help,” “Call the Police”
and several other necessary items for stranded motorists.
But be sure you know how to use a set of jumper
cables before you try to teach her. I would also recommend
that she keep an extra set of all belts the car might need,
(a dealership parts salesman will hook you up with the
right set). We carry fire extinguishers, as well, in all
our cars in my family. A ten pound fire extinguisher will
fit nicely out of sight, and if it doesn’t, next time buy a
bigger car. There can be no frustration like that of
standing by helplessly while a fire ignites in your car
that you are helpless to address.
Now she’s ready for the road.
A few weeks ago, 1 had a garage put new tierod ends on
my Buick and no more than a week later, one fell off on one side, causing a minor accident. My
insurance paid but I’m still disturbed by this. How can this happen?
Actually millions of tons of fake replacement parts are
shipped into this country every year by “junk makers” all
over the world. Simply stated, junk makers do not have to
meet international standards to export junk, and the parts
have found their way into virtually every shop in the
country. I acquired a handful of junk nuts and bolts myself
at an auction, so even a relatively trained eye can get
tricked. One of the worst problems we have in our business
is junk sheet metal. We are habitually checking if the
replacement parts were actually approved by the car maker,
or if at least they were made in this country by a
reputable company. We try to watch as we assemble your car
on our racks but some unmarked nuts and bolts are going to
get through. It is a continuing problem especially where
the guy doing the work doesn’t buy the nuts and bolts
himself. But please don’t make the technician into a
scapegoat. Most state inspection agencies have already made
him a permanent scapegoat without your help.
The problem ultimately lies at Congress’s doorstep. Making
manufacturing specifications a necessity and not just a
suggestion will mean a lot less tierod ends falling off.
I found the spare in my 1988 Chevy flat when I needed
it but when I took it in to be repaired, nobody would fix
it for me. I tried three different tire shops and all
refused, saying they were not allowed to fix them. Why?
Believe it or not, the shop’s refusal to fix temporary
“donut” tires is something you might ultimately be thankful
for. Small spares are inherently dangerous and were only
invented to increase trunk space. Better to replace the
factory donut immediately with a normal sized rim and tire.
It is not only infinitely preferable in the case of a flat,
but can also be rotated into the mix and extend the life of
your tire set.
If your car or truck is getting you down and you need some practical answers fast, write Jon at “MOTHER’s Mechanic,” c/o MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Arden, NC or via E-mail at MEarthNews (at) aol.com. Don’t forget to include your phone number and a photo.