The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

Congratulations on your purchase of a hopeless project car, be it a crapcan racer or some other monstrosity that "ran when parked." Here are the tools you need to source to keep it from becoming a permanent piece of landscape art — especially if you don't usually do this sort of thing.

If there's one thing I've learned from having to replace the original 944 with a completely new one (bought out of the comments section here, no less), it's that my first step for doing things on the car that I've never done before is going to sound a lot like my standard advice to old people with simple computer problems. Read the freakin' manual, or Google it if the manual is no help.

There are usually people online who've had to fix the same issue and have done this before — especially if you've got a fairly common hooptie that's at least several years old. Someone, somewhere is trying to get it running. Less common and less performance-oriented marques may have less information out there, but it's always worth a shot. If all else fails, someone's probably at least complaining about their Daewoo's noises online, which is better than nothing.

So, here are the things I would gather, keep around and/or source to fumble through working on a car.

Getting the Car Ready

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

Prepare to climb around every inch of your crapbox. Every. Single. Inch.

Lifts are the greatest thing ever. If you have access to a space with a lift, that will make doing anything low on the car much easier. If not, you'll need to get a floor jack and a set of jackstands. Get four so you can put the whole stupid thing up in the air at one time.

If you're so new to this that you've never put a car up on stands before, be sure to put your car up using its jack points. They're usually marked by a notch, metal square or metal circle underneath the car. Some cars are very particular about where you can and can't lift them in the air, so know this before you even buy a jack.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

Be sure to get a breaker bar or impact gun to take the wheels off to access anything behind them and a torque wrench to put the wheels back on. Get a short extension if you're constantly running into your own fender flares.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

Since you'll be climbing all over your vehicle, be sure to have some clothes on hand that you don't mind getting completely filthy. I'm usually very cognizant of potential spills on my person (and tend to eat somewhat slowly accordingly), yet I've discovered a lot of unexpected drips and dribbles in the course of tearing my 944 apart. Things that are not supposed to leak fluids onto me usually do somehow.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

You'll also want to make sure you have good lighting. Race dates don't move just because it gets dark too early, nor are you going to want to drop something in the middle of fixing it because it's late. If it's still warm enough to be outside, I stay outside.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

If you're outside, get a large spotlight or lamp to work with. Inside, you'll still at least need a flashlight to see in certain places.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

You'll also want to keep your space as organized as possible so that tools and parts are easy to find. Get some sturdy storage boxes and sort your spares and tools by type: electrical, engine seals and gaskets, suspension, etc. My favorites are the big, open plastic container (I can see inside) and the green wooden boxes like the one pictured above (there are compartments for small things).

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

Likewise, you'll also want to keep any small hardware you pull from the car and label what you have. Get some plastic baggies and a Sharpie to keep around for small parts. Label where you took the hardware off and keep that for potential use later.

If you ever need to leave notes on the car itself such as "wheel is loose," or "airbox bolts," I like painter's tape. It's easy to write on and easy to peel off as long as you get to the item you left a note for within a day or so. Leave it on too long and it becomes impossible to take off, though. Consider that an incentive to finish items faster.

Sources of Information and Assistance

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

If at all possible, find the factory service manual for your car. These tend to be more detailed and include important info like torque specs, detailed diagrams and much simpler to understand instructions than your average off-the-shelf guide.

Chilton is sometimes better than Haynes, but you're still dealing with one book versus the factory seven binders' worth of info. I couldn't figure out squat from the Haynes manual that came with my first 944. It didn't have enough detail.

I ended up loading the glorious Daneglish PDFs of the "Workshop Manuel" and parts catalog for the 944 onto an iPad. Despite the sometimes nonsensical order of the pages in the manual itself, figuring out how to do otherwise overly complicated and over my head jobs has been much easier.

Hard copies of the full factory service manual are nice to have, but the full set often sells for around $500 for the 944. PDF version it is, then.

When the manual falls short, there's always the Internet. Google it. How-tos, forums and even parts stores' diagrams can be useful tools for finding out how to do something. Make sure you're working in a location with internet access. If not, bring along a cell phone or one of those portable wifi hotspots. (I like to call those "the Internet in my pants.")

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

All of this being said, my problem often isn't information. It's a lack of upper body strength. For this reason, I recommend having other people around, particularly if they have ample experience working on cars themselves.

Sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes, a better set of ears or arms that aren't tired to figure out a problem or break a problem bolt loose. Experience helps a lot, too. Find people who've either worked on your car or one that's similar to it. For example, the person I pulled in to help with the 944's belts hadn't worked on a Porsche before, but since Mitsubishi also uses balance belts to smooth out their engines, the weird two-belt layout wasn't an entirely foreign concept to him.

Bonus points if your source of knowledge and/or brute force is also on your crapcan team.

Basic Tools You Need for Your Crapcan

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

A lot of this list is going to be pretty obvious, but just in case:

  • Sockets and wrenches in your car's system of measurement. In metric, 6mm-24mm encompasses pretty much everything you'd usually touch.
  • Phillips and flathead screwdrivers in various sizes. Keep a larger crappy flathead around to use as a miniature pry bar if needed.
  • Pliers and/or vice grips.
  • Drip pans for oil, fuel, coolant and other fluid droppings.
  • Line wrenches for fittings attached to hard metal fluid lines. These are wrap around more of your six-point nuts and bolts so as to be less likely to strip them.
  • Oil filter wrench for oil changes. The 944's is a weird size, so I got one that fits onto the end of a ratchet that tightens down as you twist the filter off.
  • Extensions for socket wrenches and bendable fittings for those extensions to reach into hard-to-access places. You're going to find a lot of these on a LeMons car.
  • Zip ties. These aren't just great for holding on bits of bodywork. Use them to organize wires, too.
  • Metal tape for patching any holes in your firewall.
  • Electrical tape for wrapping and sealing any open wire connections.
  • Duct tape. Not only can it be used to hold things together, but it can also wrap sharp edges that can cause you to fail tech inspection if you leave them uncovered.
  • Spare fluids for your car: oil, transmission fluid, Dot 4 brake fluid, water for the coolant system (or coolant if you're storing it in the winter and aren't headed to a race), etc. If you spill it, make sure you check the reservoir to see if you need to replace any in the car.
  • Shop towels and/or oil dry or kitty litter. Stuff spills. Clean it up.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

Oh, and let's not forget my favorite tool of all time: a big freakin' hammer.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

Sometimes a big mallet won't fit, but when it does, it's glorious. The appeal of the BFH is all physics: I can hit things much better with more mass to swing around on a longer handle.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

For the same reason, if you can't get a bolt loose, try using a bigger wrench or slip a pipe over the end of the wrench you're using to get more leverage. The longer a lever you're using, the more effective your wuss arms will be at getting something loose, and the less time you'll spend waiting to ask whoever's there for brute force to help you out.

Crapcans' Special Needs

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

Allegedly $500 cars tend to come with a lot of justification as to why they were so cheap in the first place. Rust, stripped bolts, and questionable DIY fixes are the norm. Thus, get some form of penetrating blaster to loosen up stuck hardware...in bulk.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

Tap and die sets and bolt extraction kits are also quite useful, as is a power drill. They're all items that require a bit of arm strength to use and keep steady, but they come in handy far too often.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

A good press can help make a lot of strength-related tasks much easier as well. This is especially nice for replacing rotten, dried-up and dry-rotted bushings. If a bushing needs to be held in the center of a metal opening, just take one small open section of pipe to cover the hole. Use a rod smaller than the bushing on the opposite side to push the bushing in. Ta-da, bushing installation done.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

Speaking of dry rot and rust, wire strippers are good to have on hand for replacing broken connectors and frayed wire ends.

A small piece of sturdy pipe is great for pushing in new round rubber engine seals, too.

The Most Useful Tools For An Inexperienced Car Mechanic

Your crapcan's brake fluid is probably disgusting, too. While vacuum bleeders are nice to have so you can bleed your brakes yourself after every race, all you really need is another person to pump the brakes while you open and close the bleeder valve on each caliper. Attach a clear tube to that valve so you can see bubbles coming out of your brake system and the color of your fluid, and have it dump into a catch bottle of some sort.

Some cars have special tools for all sorts of things. If you can afford these, they're often nice to have, but you can also find many ways people have worked around not having the special tool or made one themselves online. If your car has been out for a while, there may even be an aftermarket company making cheaper versions of the more important special tools, such as timing belt tensioning tools or special wrenches to go into hard-to-access places.

Know When to Ask for Help

Sometimes, it's best to leave certain items up to a professional, or a friend who knows how to do it better. Rollcage construction, timing and balance belts and tire installation are three examples of things I just won't touch without at least being supervised by someone more knowledgeable than myself. They're also items that could ruin my entire weekend if they failed.

If it's related to a safety item that's exempt from budget rules, there's no shame in even taking your car to a shop. In fact, this is what most crapcan series recommend themselves when it comes to welding a rollcage. That's not a project to learn how to weld with.

Mostly, once you find the right set of instructions — be it in the manual or in a detailed write-up online — doing basic maintenance to fix up a crapcan racecar really isn't that hard, and is fairly accessible to anyone with the proper tools, help and time to mess with it.