People working on their own cars happens for a variety of reasons. Maybe you’re a glutton for punishment like I am, or you simply have a weekend free and a transmission that makes a strange grinding sound. Whatever the case may be, here are some cautionary tales of when DIY turned to WTF real quick.
The following stories are from readers whose names have been concealed.
Thanksgiving break four years ago. My best friend says that he needs to replace his oil pump on his V8 dodge truck. He’s pretty competent so I agree to help him. We spend all night in the cold taking the oil pan off and cleaning everything. I’m being very careful - after all, this is his only car and I’m staring at the guts of his engine and removing a main bearing cap. It’s cold and dark, but we finish everything by the next morning.
Then we take the truck for a spin. The oil light comes on. “Oh” he says, “I guess it’s the sender then.” The look on my face is one of utter shock and bewilderment. “You mean you didn’t try replacing the sender first? The easy-to-reach, no-risk sender?”
“Yeah, I figured I’d try replacing the oil pump first.” I asked him why on earth he would try a part that requires major surgery before something held on by two bolts.
“The oil pump was $5 cheaper than the sender.”
Timing belt job on a 1990s Civic. As we were turning the last screws to finish the job, we realized we had managed to install the old belt! On the garage floor lay the new timing belt, silently judging us for our hasty ways.
Worst ever experience I had went like this during the summer of 1992.
Day 1 - I attempt to drive in the rain on bald tires and slide sideways over a granite curb and backward into a stone wall. Totaled beater. That sucked.
Day 2 - I now have no ride, but my brother’s ‘82 POS Subaru needs new brakes and I have the day off. I had never worked on disc brakes where they also act as the emergency/parking brake before, so it was a challenge. I eventually got the pistons screwed back in, leveled off the fluid, seated the pads and took it for a successful test drive. Everything worked great. I cleaned up the mess, cleaned up me and then headed off to pick my brother up from work so he could confirm or deny that the brakes felt like they were supposed to.
Keep in mind here, I’m doing this in a gravel driveway with no internet access for help and assistance and was far less experienced when it came to working on cars. So yeah, the job took way longer than it should have because you WANT the brakes to function and it was July so it was also HOT AND HUMID.
I am now prepared to make my left turn into my brother’s employer’s driveway, waiting for rush hour traffic to clear. Left turn signal on and clicking away properly (verified the lights & signals worked prior to driving the car) after a long day of satisfying “I FIXED THESE BRAKES BRO!” when BOOOM! Some woman, late to her divorce attorney’s office in the car she borrowed from her son (who also forgot to renew his insurance) slams into the rear of the tin-foil Subaru at 40 mph.
Totally ruined that “I FIXED IT!” happiness that you get after working on something... also gave me permanent neck and back injuries when I was 22. And no, you can’t sue for enough money to make you happy about that experience.
Circa 1985 a buddy and I were working on my old Dodge van. I was under the rear of the van with my oxy-acetylene torch. My buddy was taking off the back left wheel. He was using an impact wrench. One of the lug nuts was stubborn and wouldn’t come loose. So I twisted around, still under the van and heated it red hot with the torch. It came loose with a zip and whir. As my buddy pulled the wrench away from the wheel the red hot lug nut flew out of the socket and down the collar of my T shirt. It set the shirt on fire where the T shirt was touching it as well as rolling around on my chest sizzling. I couldn’t get it off me until I dragged myself out from under the van which probably didn’t really take all that long in retrospect but didn’t seem like it at the time. It’s 30 years later and I still have a line of little square marks on my chest where I was branded.
Probably the worst (out of many) times I’ve wrenched on a car was in around 1997 or so. It was late fall in northwest Oregon, pouring rain. My roommate came home at around midnight, saying that his car was making a thumping noise and jumping all over the road whenever he got on/off the throttle. Ended up laying under his 84 Oldsmobile; in a mud puddle; in the pouring rain replacing a motor mount in the parking lot of the only 24 hour parts store in Portland. For a beer.
I’m a car enthusiast, have been modifying cars for a number of years and I do some of the simpler work myself, ie I change my own oil, install various boltons such as intakes, throttle bodies, change wheels, play with exhaust setups, etc so I considered myself pretty handy.
All this DYI confidence went to my head and I embarked on replacing spark plugs on my 2006 G35 coupe with 6MT as it had nearly 100k on the odometer. I’ve done spark plugs on 4 banger Hondas before and it was one of the easiest jobs you could do so nothing gave away the world of hurt I was about to unleash upon myself. I popped the engine cover and stared at what looked like hundreds of various wires that were covering spark plug coils. Hmm, this is going to be a little more complicated than a Honda I thought to myself but I soldered on until I had access to the spark plugs. Spark plug wires had labels on them but they all flaked out at the slightest touch, I guess being around engine heat for a number of years shortened their lifespan considerably. Not to worry, I was confident the wires could only be plugged into the same spark plug they came out of because that’s how I thought it worked on a Honda. Before too long, both sides of the engine were done although I did manage to strip a bolt that connected wiring harness to the engine. Not getting too discouraged about the bolt, I connected everything back up and started the car.
It ran terrible, the whole thing sounded like an army of angry gnomes farting inside of a cave plus I got a CEL light. Not having a code reader around, I drove the car just like that a few miles to the nearest Autozone to get one and lo and behold - the code was multiple cylinder misfire. Thanks, Captain Obvious, but I could have sworn I connected everything correctly so I drove some more - to the nearest dealer. 2 hours and multiple hundred dollar bills later, dealer mechanic told me that wires were switched out on 2 of the sparkplugs and now everything is “fixed” - it must have been the easiest fix in the history of that dealership. I paid them their blood money as I avoid dealer like the plague and went on my way only to discover yet another CEL light. This time it had to do with the catalytic converter oxygen sensor. Now these cats were of the high flow kind, they were expensive and new, less than a few months old in fact. Turns out driving misfiring car a few miles will “blow out” catalyst inside of the catalytic converter on the side that’s misfiring. When catalytic converter was renoved, it looked like if suffered an explosion inside of it and all of the catalytic material was missing. It had to be chased around and collected as bits and pieces of it were stuck at various points of the exhaust piping which of course had to come off as well. Now if I was an average Joe, I’d be out a few grand for all of tyhe labor and two brand new factory cats. Luckily, a friend of mine who is a fabricator was able to weld a brand new Vibrant unit full of new catalyst material to existing cat piping and it was good as new.
In conclusion, my desire to save a few $ on labor, cost me an entire weekend of lost time and I still had to pay stealership just as much as they would have charged for the whole job to begin with. In addition, I had to get catalytic converter fixed and exhaust had to come off to be cleaned. I’ve sold the car about a year later and I’m now driving a G37 6MT coupe and I am fast approaching spark plug changing mileage. I may attempt to do it again since this time I have test pipes instead of cats and a label maker which should save me a lot of headache, in theory.
Early summer 2005, I backed my 600 mile old SRT-4 into a borrowed garage to do it’s first mod: the blowoff blue plate special. That’s right, I had bought the quickest compact car at the time, and my first modification wasn’t to increase boost pressure or do anything about the cars inability to steer at speed without trying to you; no I was going to install a noisemaker that tried (and failed) to imitate a proper blowoff valve’s noise.
After monkeying for what seemed like too long to install the third, and lowest/hardest to access screw, I decided to put the car up on ramps to try to access from below. I fired up the car, and crawled up the ramps, only to get a strong whiff of refined oil.
To access and install the plate I had to loosen an oil fitting next to the turbo, and most of the oil in the engine pushed its way up and out of my new car.
After a brief freak out about how I would explain to the dealership how a brand new engine died of oil starvation, I cleaned up the mess with kitty litter, got a lift to buy 5 quarts of Mobil One oil and gave my car its first, and totally unnecessary oil change. A quick engine bay wash expunged any remaining evidence of my mistake. I never did install the blowoff plate.
These stories are cute. My first engine repair:
1998 Subaru Legacy Outback
As some of you might have already guessed, it was the gaskets. My first engine repair ever. My experience up to this point had been brakes, oil changes, and a brake booster. My girlfriend had gotten this car 20 months prior. At the time of the repair it had 196,000 miles on it. After a few minutes of running the radiator would overflow into a frothy steaming liquid. Classic gasket woes. She didn’t have a lot of money to fix this. Her cheapest quote was $1,100. I decided I would tackle it. I had no idea what I was in for. Some of you may have done this repair, some of you may not. For those who have, was your car driven in New England its entire life? It was covered in rust. You know this repair won’t be easy.
So I’m starting the repair. The EJ25 motor that this car has sits with it’s heads less than 2 inches away from the wheel wells. Pulling the motor is traditional, but I didn’t have a lift and wasn’t confident in my abilities to remove it. So I left it in for the repair. To keep things short, I will just list everything that went wrong:
- Exhaust header bolts completely unrecognizable. Rust had been eating them their entire life. I was able to remove less than half the bolts, the rest were cut out with a dremel.
- Removing the oil covers on the heads was near impossible. My hand didn’t fit and neither did my tools. I had to buy special 6 point sockets to remove them. I had to get my girlfriend in there to remove them.
- Camshaft cap bolts were rounded. This car has clearly had the heads worked on before. I had to cut out two of them. I actually had to destroy a cap retainer. I thought they were replaceable, turns out each one is custom machined to the head and that you can’t simply buy replacements. Great. I had to go to a junkyard to get a used one, then file and sand it to match up the original one.
- EGR pipe from the crank to the head was stuck. I had to cut it out. It was a 3/8 pipe with two fittings. It was $70 to replace...
- The heads were warped. I had to get them machined to specification. The studs I cut out of the exhaust also needed to be removed and replaced. That cost $300.
- I stripped 3-4 screws in the front holding the belt covers.
- Both belt tensioners fell apart when I tried to put them back in
- Everything was together and all fluids were back in. Electrical was hooked up and ready to go. I turn the key and nothing. The battery had died during the repair (a few weeks).
In the end it cost me about $1200 to fix the head and rebuild the entire engine. I also bought about $300 in tools during. Not as cheap as getting it done professionally, however that didn’t include a new oil pump, water pump, oil filter, gaskets, etc for the rebuild. I also have a ton of tools I can use again, so it wasn’t all bad.
As always, if you’d like to share your experiences, feel free to send your DIY horror stories to email@example.com!
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes and makes videos about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world’s cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he’s the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn’t feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.