DIY Car Repair: How It’s Changed Over the Years


Some of us remember when a set of wrenches along with a couple of screwdrivers — both a flat head and a Phillips head — was all you needed to do most of the work necessary on a car.

Rambler convertibleImage Courtesy of Amanda Downing

Over the years, that small kit of tools introduced legions of teenage boys to the world of car repair, and many went on to become expert mechanics.

1935 LaSalleImage Courtesy of Don O’Brien

However, automotive design, regulatory demands, engineering advancements and market pressures have changed radically in the last 20 years. Computers have replaced cables, AWD vehicles have muscled in on some of the 4WD market, and engine exhaust is about as clean as a newborn baby’s first exhaled gasp of air.

It’s Crowded in There

Shell out the bucks for a vintage vehicle, pop the hood, and the first thing you will notice is that there’s enough elbow room to bivouac the army of an emerging nation.

Straight Six CamaroImage Courtesy of Nick Ares

Do the same with one of today’s rides, and there are more tubes, wires, air filters and plastic boxes than you’ll find in the Cedar-Sinai Medical Center intensive care unit.

1970 El Camino Engine compartmentImage Courtesy of Werner Slave

This, of course, poses the first set of problems facing both the shade tree mechanic and the professional technician: gaining access to the parts that need to be inspected, repaired and replaced. Removing the tubes, wires and boxes is often a larger chore than the actual repair itself.

saab engine compartmentImage Courtesy of Martin’s SITCS

Why it’s So Crowded

Detroit and the folks in the various auto-making centers around the world didn’t wake up one day and decide to make life difficult for mechanics. Government regulations, changing technology and market pressures have pushed the car to where it is today.

Not long ago a tune-up basically consisted of changing spark plugs, points and the rotor. Anyone with a few wrenches, a screwdriver and a feeler gauge could pull it off. Today, computer diagnostics are an integral part of the process. Yesterday, a $20 dwell meter was the most advanced piece of electronic gear that a home mechanic might need.

Image Courtesy of Pedro Simoes

Today, guys need a way to hook into the car’s computer system to complete a data dump.

If you think the NSA’s snooping has told the federal government a lot about you, amp that up by a factor of ten with regards to onboard computers snooping on what your drivetrain is up to at any given moment. Sensors located throughout the engine and transmission are constantly feeding real-time information back to your car’s computer network. Computer processors are tweaking performance to meet emission and fuel economy standards, and information about malfunctions is stored.

Back in the day, the main sensor in the car was the driver’s nose. One would notice fairly quickly if something was burning under the hood.

STUDEBAKER, SUMMER 1958Image Courtesy of Robert Huffstutter

Working on the 442Image Courtesy of Jeremy Smith

working on the engineImage Courtesy of Patrick Breen

working on carsImage Courtesy of Jeremy Smith

Market and Technology Factors

A friend of mine recently struggled for an hour just to replace a headlight bulb. For decades, changing the bug-eyed headlights that were standard in virtually every car could be accomplished in a matter of minutes. (While we’re on the subject, thank you Jeep Wrangler for still using the traditional headlight.)

1962 CorvetteImage Courtesy of Don O’Brien

However, the sleek headlight designs that consumers prefer today and the advanced halogen and xenon bulbs that power them have often made this process more difficult. In many cases, the mechanic now has to remove a big plastic box lens into which the new bulb is inserted. This box is easy to get into the vehicle on the assembly line when the engine compartment is empty. Once the engine, tubes, wires and boxes have been stuffed into the engine compartment, however, that is no longer the case.

Porsche Carrera GT headlightImage Courtesy of Axion 23

A Technician in the Truest Sense

Yesterday, “mechanics” worked on cars, and it was the correct label for their job they performed. The word “mechanic” is Latin in origin and refers to manual labor. The auto mechanic’s job was mostly manual labor; although, it was very skilled manual labor.

1957 Chevrolet Bel AirImage Courtesy of Rex Gray

Today, “automotive technicians” work on our new cars and trucks, and that term puts the emphasis on the “art and skill” of working with automobiles. It’s not just about yanking wrenches and twisting screwdrivers. It takes sophisticated gear along with a high level of skill and training to understand how the systems in modern vehicles work and to master the ability to maintain, diagnose and repair them.

Unfortunately, these requirements have left behind many wannabe DIYers.

Carrie Thompson works with Aspen Auto Clinic, assisting those both DIYers and non-DIYers alike in finding good service and repair for their automobiles.

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