5 Tips For Car Repair
You're a capable weekend car mechanic. You've got basic tools and skills. You've mastered oil changes and tire rotations. But when a big repair comes along, it's decision time. Take it on yourself, or call in a pro?
That's the choice I faced at the end of last summer, when my 1990 Mazda Miata suffered a crankshaft failure. Expecting a quick repair, I soon discovered the car needed a whole new engine—and I discovered this just after I'd disassembled it to the point that it couldn't be put back together.
Instead of paying a mechanic to mend my Miata, I decided to try replacing the engine myself. I did it—eventually—though I made plenty of rookie mistakes on the way. Here's what I learned.
Do Your Research
Aftermarket shop manuals are great for learning the tools and parts you'll need, but they sometimes read like a general overview (step one: remove radiator, front bumper, and windshield washer reservoir). Internet forums can offer detailed instructions and tricks specific to your car, usually with step-by-step photos. Unless you drive something really outlandish, there's probably a site like VWvortex or JeepsUnlimited to help you. But don't forget that Web forums, while helpful, are just Web forums. Get a factory service manual from your manufacturer if you're diving deep into a big repair.
Set Up Your Workspace
I started my teardown in the corner of my parents' two-car garage. I got all set to pull the engine when I discovered I had no room to maneuver my engine hoist. Even with two muscular brothers, moving a half-disassembled car was a masochist's game of Tetris. So don't make my mistake: Clear plenty of space before you start the job, and position your car for maximum elbow room. I found the best spot was right in the center of the garage, though not everyone in my family shared this view.
Expect It to Take Time
The first time doing a repair always takes the longest. Tinkering on nights and weekends, my adventure lasted nearly a month, far beyond what I'd anticipated. There were lots of trips for parts, tools, and advice, and times when sheer frustration halted my progress. Make alternative transportation plans before taking your car out of commission so you don't get fired when your Saturday project is still in pieces on Monday morning.
Take Pictures, Make Notes, Label Everything
When you're on step two of a big job, it's tempting to think you'll remember which bolt goes where, but by step 14 you'll have a plethora of fasteners, washers, and clips lying around that give no indication where they came from. Save yourself a thousand headaches by being organized from the start. Use sandwich bags, empty egg crates, and plenty of labels. A phone camera and a dry-erase board are indispensable for noting the layout of wires, cables, and brackets, and neither one will blow away behind the workbench when you open the garage door.
Use a white-paint pen on metal parts to indicate where parts came from or their orientation. Choose a universal reference point, like "front of the car," "passenger side," or "driver side," and label things with arrows and sides. Label clearly based on situation too. Don't be afraid to write notes directly on the part, or leave yourself notes about how things go back together, such as the orientation of the distributor relative to the block. Masking tape is also a great tool as well. Loop it around a hose, wire, or connector and close a nice 2-inch flap on the other side that you can use to label what it does or where it goes.
Make a Final Checklist
There's a natural excitement to putting everything back together. You'll be tempted to hustle through the final touches. Don't. The last bit of wire routing, bolt tightening, or body-panel aligning is what separates a pro-quality repair from an embarrassing hack job, and if you slap it together for a test drive, you might never get around to correcting it. (Nobody's impressed by a guy in a Miata with no hood, front fenders, or bumper—in case there was any doubt.)
So make yourself a exhaustive final checklist, including everything you need to inspect, double-check, torque, and test before you put that machine back on the road. Go over it at your desk or at the dining table—not in the garage, where you'll be anxious to get going on your first drive.