“What does it say?” my husband asked me. I was looking at an oil dipstick for the first time in my life. I looked at it. I looked closer at it. It did not appear to be speaking to me.
“How do I tell what it’s saying?” I asked.
My husband sighed. “Send me a picture.”
This is what I sent him:
He simply replied, “No.”
And this is how I began my journey to learning basic automotive maintenance.
Last week, I admitted that I don’t know how to drive a manual transmission, and while I’m in the mood to admit things, I might as well go ahead and admit another one: With the exception of coolant, I had never checked or changed my car’s fluids until my husband bought me a 1996 Pontiac Firebird as The Car In Which To Learn All The Things.
I know, I know. This probably makes me a bad Car Guy. But when I was driving as a teen, I wasn’t actually allowed to check fluids (or get my own gas). When I went to college, I normally had fluids checked and/or changed twice a year by mechanics: Once during my yearly inspection, and again before I let it sit for the winter. Then I got married, and I was more than happy to let my husband do it. The most I learned to do was to add coolant to my Mazda2 because it would get toasty on long Texas road trips.
But with the Firebird sitting in the yard and my husband in another country, someone was going to have to check those fluids, and I am not yet capable of driving it to the shop to get that taken care of. I’d have to do it myself.
We started, though, with the code reader. I didn’t own one, so my husband had one shipped from Amazon. I popped it open, called my husband, and said, “Walk me through it.”
Thankfully, I knew the basics of the code reader, since I’d seen my dad do it before. You plug the reader into the vehicle, turn on the ignition, and then... something would happen. At that point, there’d usually be a lot of cursing, and I’d kinda tune out the rest.
The code reader bit was pretty self-explanatory. I found the stored and active alerts on the reader, which basically just told me that my oxygen sensors were faulty. I reset the reader, and the “check engine” light went away on the dashboard. I tried to figure out if the code reader would tell me the water temperature, since that gauge doesn’t look to be working, and I couldn’t figure that out. But while I was out there letting the engine run to see if that light would pop back on when things got heated up, my husband suggested that I might as well check the fluids.
“I don’t know how,” I told him.
“I’ll walk you through it. Just go get some paper towels.”
Well, how hard could it be? Apparently a lot harder than I was expecting.
I’m choosing to blame this on my husband. We started by checking the oil levels, but he was telling me to look for a yellow cap attached to a dipstick. I found a cap that said oil. I opened the cap. There was no dipstick.
“There’s no dipstick,” I said.
“What do you mean there’s no dipstick,” he said.
“I mean I took the cap off and there’s no dipstick,” I said.
“Oh my god,” he said. “That’s the oil reservoir. You want to check the levels. Find the yellow loop.”
Well, a loop made sense. I found the yellow loop. I pulled out out, cleaned it off, dipped it back in, then pulled it out. I had no idea what I was looking for. I had no idea how far up the dipstick I should be looking. I sent my husband the aforementioned picture, and he was not pleased. Then I looked at the very tip of the dipstick, and it all made sense. There were the levels. Apparently there’s nothing to be learned from looking at the very tippy top of this long-ass metal stick, the bit nearest the yellow loop.
The oil level was fine. It was not dirty, but would need a change in the near future, and it wasn’t dry as a bone. Easy.
“In my defense,” I told my husband, “this is very hard to do with one hand because I am also trying to hold the phone.”
“Just put it back in and find the brake fluid,” he said, sighing.
“I see everything but the brake fluid,” I said. I was looking near the radiator, which for some reason made sense. Instead, I found the washer fluid. The brake fluid was in the white plastic reservoir near the driver’s side windshield that I had assumed would be the washer fluid. I sent my husband a photo to confirm:
I would also like to note that I cannot send him text messages while we are on the phone together because pictures don’t go through while we’re talking. Instead, I have to send Twitter DMs, like a chump.
“That’s the one,” he said. “Check the level.”
“How,” I said.
“It should either have a dipstick or a level indicator on the side,” he said.
I opened it. “Well, there’s no dipstick.”
“Okay, then check the level on the side,” he said
“I’m not seeing any levels on the side,” I said
“It might be grimy. Wipe it off,” I said.
It was definitely grimy. The grime did not wipe off. I said, “I’ll just send you a picture of the inside. It kinda looks like there’s fluid in there, but only a little bit on the bottom.”
He looked at the picture and agreed that it would need brake fluid. He also emphasized that it would need DOT 3 brake fluid several times. He did not like that I told him I could read it just fine on the fluid reservoir. He proceeded to explain to me that I could lose brakes if I put in the wrong fluid. I said that sucks, but I can read what it needs on the brake reservoir, now can we please check the power steering fluid because I have a headache and I can see the cap for it.
He sighed. “Do the same thing you did with the oil. Pull it out, wipe off the dipstick, then put it back in and check the levels.”
I pulled it out. “Is that even a dipstick?” I asked.
“What,” he said.
“It’s a little plastic nubbin,” I said. “This is nothing like the other dipstick.”
“It’s still a dipstick,” he said. I wiped it off, dipped it back in, then sent him a picture to confirm:
It was true. Apparently that plastic nublette qualifies as a dipstick, and it told me that I needed power steering fluid, but that what was in there wasn’t a dirty mess. My husband told me how to add it: fill to the ‘C’ for cold while the engine is cold, then let it warm up and add more fluid until you hit the ‘H’. Makes sense.
I capped the power steering fluid and checked the coolant — it had recently been topped up — and the windshield wiper fluid — it was mostly empty. Then my husband tells me to check the transmission fluid.
“It should be a loop just like the oil one,” he said. “It’s probably on the passenger side in the back near the firewall. They make them red now, but I don’t know if they did in ‘96.”
After a few minutes of listening to me hum as I searched, he asked, “Did you find it?”
“I can’t say I know what I’m looking for,” I said. “I’ll send you a picture.”
“Huh,” he said. “Maybe it’s on the driver’s side.”
I looked. “I don’t know about that.”
“Weird,” he said. “It’s usually back there. Do you have the manual?”
I do not have the manual.
“Then we’ll have to Google it later.”
We ended the evening as all good couples do: by making a list of all the engine juices I’d need to buy at the store in order to make the engine function and not totally destroy everything.
But I have to admit: Even that very meager and truly basic amount of maintenance education felt nice. I felt a lot more in control than I had before, like I actually owned the car and had a say in its function — which people keep telling me is the sensation I’ll have when I finally get behind the wheel and learn how to drive a manual transmission. Until then, though, I will bask in the glory of opening some reservoirs and looking at some sticks.