American culture is a car culture, but we've gotten to the point where too much of our income goes to pay for our four-wheeled friends. Not this hombre.
I've taken the bull by the horns and cut the automotive financier and the ASE certified mechanic out of my life. I paid cash for my old beater and keep it on the road, for the most part, with my own two hands. It's a lifestyle that most people don't go for, but in the long run, I come out the winner. And I did it without a bunch of fancy tools or a hydraulic lift. Hell, I don't even have a garage.
I'm going to use this space to explain how, and why, to become a Parking Lot Mechanic. This will be a weekly feature focusing on DIY wrenching.
First, let me disabuse people of the lamest excuse people use for not doing their own work:
I've fixed my own stuff in the weirdest places: in the the street in front of my parents' house, the college dorm parking lot, the concrete slab behind a rented house, an apartment complex parking space, the parking lot next to a newspaper I worked for, I've even slid beneath my car amidst snow, mud and small cacti. Only once have I ever been able to afford a place with a garage (my jalopy collection spiked accordingly over that year), so most of my wrenching has been done in places where my mildly disgusted, non-mechanic neighbors have been likely to walk by, wondering what kind of redneck would gut his transmission in a parking lot.
Me, that's who. And you can, too. Like most people, I don't have a lift, air tools, or a loaner car to get me to and from the parts store in the middle of a repair. But I have hand tools, J.B. Weld, zip ties, and a penchant for non-conventional solutions to tricky problems (i.e. fabricating fixes with beer cans and salvage yard parts). I've decided to buck the have-other-people-do-everything-for-you tradition adopted by so many of my suburbs-raised, middle class counterparts and git 'er done.
Those who already dabble in parking lot auto repair, you know who you are. To the rest I say, join us! Even computer controlled cars are still machines, and things break. Doing your own repairs is a good way to connect with and understand your ride instead of just turning it on and sitting in it. You'll know its sounds and smells; tune in with every minute vibration.
Even if it doesn't save time, fixing things yourself saves you money and you'll appreciate driving your heap more once you get the thing put back together (unless you screw something up). Until you've taken the time to stare a problem down until you figure it out (because you're not going to surrender and call a tow truck, are you?), or indulged in the soul-enriching practice of unleashing a string of profanity upon a recalcitrant car part, you haven't really lived.
Besides, self reliance and gearhead ingenuity are red-blooded American qualities. And regardless of whether you go for the heartlandesque, America-fuck-yeah, you-can-take-my-car-if-you-pry-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands thing, or you opt for public and pedal powered transportation and use a car only occasionally, you need a car to fully enjoy the vast American landscape.
Otherwise you'll be confined to interconnected urban bubbles, and that's no fun. How else are you going to see the world's largest ball of twine, some weird beef jerky stand in the middle of nowhere, or Ron Paul's (unofficial) revolutionary headquarters? Plus, owning your own car is still cool. Zip cars are a novel idea, but they don't cut the mustard. There's nothing quite like driving your own heap around. It can be unique, it can be an expression of your individuality, and if you fix it yourself, you'll feel as if you have a reason for its being.
To get in on this basic parking lot wrenching, you'll need a few basic tools, of course:
- combination wrenches (standard, metric, or both, depending upon what kind of car you have)
- screwdrivers (flathead and phillips, various sizes)
- a socket set
- a breaker bar and pry bars
- some sort of reliable jack and jack stands (or concrete blocks) and/or ramps
- Visegrips or locking pliers
- penetrating oil
- a fire extinguisher
- a bicycle and a big, sturdy backpack (or a girlfriend/roommate's car) for mid-repair parts runs (because there's nothing funnier than being that guy riding a bicycle down main street with a radiator tucked under your arm)
- access to a junkyard
- a not-too-distant source of cold beer
There you have it. To the DIY newbies, welcome. Don't do anything stupid like catch your car on fire or drop it on your foot/fingers/head. Everyone else, listen up, maybe we can come up with a creative new use for duct tape and zip ties. Happy wrenching!
Photo credit: Juliana Schatz/Benjamin Preston/Michael Bishop