Look, there's no shame in not knowing everything about cars. I sure don't, and claiming to know everything only proves that you don't. Still, as a discerning owner, enthusiast, or even basic user of automobiles, there are certain things you should absolutely know how to do. No excuses.
Let's start with the basics, then progress to the intermediate and more advanced levels, shall we?
Change your own oil
Is it absolutely a requirement that you change your car's oil yourself every single time? No, but when you go to a quick-lube place, you run the risk that they'll screw something up. Get a cheap pair of ramps and do it yourself, unless you've got one of those uptight parking-lot security guards staring you down the whole time.
Read a dipstick
Dipsticks tell you if your car has enough or too much oil in it, but that's not all. They'll also give you a sense of how bad the oil is, and potentially how poorly the car is maintained. If you're checking out a used car, for example, and you find grit in the oil that's on the dipstick... just walk away.
Jack up your car
There's a good way and a bad way to jack up your car. Putting a jack under your oil pan, for example, is an excellent way to transfer all of the oil from your engine to the floor of your garage before you replace, well, your oil pan. There are several areas where it's best to put a jack, but if you're unsure, consult your owner's manual. It'll tell you the best spot for your specific car.
Change a tire
The simple fact is that run-flat tires are making the very existence of spare tires more and more rare in today's world. That's no excuse to not know how to jack up your car and change a tire, like the guy in that awful "Handy Man" commercial.
Torque your lug nuts
There are a few points here. First, don't just cinch your lug nuts as tightly as you can get 'em or you'll want to go back in time and kick yourself for doing so as soon as you need to get them off. Use a torque wrench to get them to your manufacturer's specified range -- no more, no less. If you don't have a torque wrench, get one, then use it to torque every other lug nut in a star-shaped pattern (diagonally across from each other) until you've done them all.
Jump-start your car
Look, it's not that difficult. Positive clamp on dead battery. Positive clamp on good battery. Negative clamp on good battery. Negative clamp on bare, grounded metal on car with dead battery. Start good car, wait a couple of minutes, start dead car. Unclamp everything in reverse order and do not touch the clamps to each other. Now go drive your car for a while to let the alternator charge it up.
Or, you know, wait a few hours for AAA to send someone.
Change a spark plug
Unless your car is 100% electric (Nissan LEAF, Tesla, etc.), you've got spark plugs. While they certainly will last an order of magnitude longer than plugs in the olden days, they still need to be changed, and dealerships are truly thrilled at the prospect of overcharging you to do something that can be done at home. If you don't know what you're doing -- and it is a bit more involved than it used to be -- head to YouTube and you'll almost definitely find someone changing the plugs on a car just like yours.
Change a radiator hose
Some cars today have approximately 947 hoses, and you'll never get to all of them if you're attempting a DIY repair on the side of the highway. A coolant hose, however -- the big hose that runs from your radiator -- is the one most likely to go, but it's also the easiest to change, usually.
Identify and change a fuse
Chasing electrical problems is the bane of every shade-tree mechanic's existence. For a given problem -- as in, your taillights all went out at once -- you should first hope that it's just a fuse, then proceed to track down the appropriate culprit based on the symptoms. See your manual for a fuse map.
Understand the difference between HP and torque
One is a rotational force, and the other is a metric based on that rotational force, multiplied by the measured RPM, divided by 5,280.
Buff out minor scratches and swirls
One small scratch might seem like a nuisance, but if you don't take care of one, the next thing you know, your car will be covered in them. Learning how to use things like rubbing and polishing compounds with an orbital or random orbital polisher is a skill that takes just a few hours to adequately learn, and one that pays huge dividends for the rest of your life.
Correctly set tire pressure
If you can't figure this one out, you haven't been paying attention.
Restore headlight lenses
Those foggy, yellow-y headlights on your car are actually kind of a safety hazard, reducing your visibility at night. With less than half an hour of wet sanding with ultra-fine sandpaper and polishing with a rubbing compound, they'll be crystal clear, and you won't look like the rookie car guy who doesn't know a damn thing about polishing.
Change your brake rotors and pads
Companies love to charge you plenty of money to "do a brake job." Why on Earth would you ever pay for something that's almost as simple as jacking up the car and removing a few bolts, replacing a few parts, and tightening everything back down?
Bleed/flush your brakes
If you ever plan on going to a racetrack, you should flush your brake fluid, and bleed it if you've not done so lately, or if your brake pedal is getting soft. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, find your brake fluid reservoir. If the fluid is black, that's very bad.
Optimize a grocery cart's handling
Cars are all about physics. Acceleration, deceleration, friction, heat transfer... you name it. When it comes to handling, a well-engineered car keeps as much of its mass as close to the center of the car as possible -- think mid-engined Ferrari and you've got the idea.
With that in mind, whenever I see someone in the grocery store with a case of beer sitting in the very front of the cart, my first thought is "not a car person." Try it yourself -- put your heaviest objects in the back of the cart (which, when you include yourself in the equation, is the middle), and you'll see how much easier it is to handle around the grocery store. If you take a proper driving line through the store (which you should, because it's fun) it'll give you a whole new appreciation for engineering.
Recover from a spin
This really should be a requirement before you get your driver's license. I'm not talking about some book telling you to turn into the slide and keep your eyes where you want the car to end up, not what you're afraid you'll hit. I mean actually knowing how to do it, using real-world experience in a relatively safe environment. If you've never done it, go somewhere safe and learn.
Take a set
This is very simple. If you don't know what it means to take a set, you've never done it. It's the subtle moment when the struts and shock absorbers have controlled the oscillations of the spring, mid-corner, or, in English, when your car stabilizes while you're cornering quickly. It's a crucial part of high-performance driving, and something any enthusiast needs to understand at an unconscious level.
Explain basic alignment and suspension terminology
Toe, camber, and caster are all huge factors in how your car turns, and how it feels as you do so. Do you have a wishbone or MacPherson strut set-up? What in the heck is rebound and compression? Ackerman? No, I've not made up any of these words. Some of them are more advanced than others, but if you want to understand what's going on with your car at all times, you need to know them well enough to explain them.
Recognize alignment problems based on treadwear
Tires can tell you many things about a car. The wear of a tread pattern can tell you if the alignment is out of whack, and what's off, and if the tires have been over- or under-inflated.
Accomplish anything with zip ties
There are many universal facts that bond car people together, but chief among them is a complete mastery of the modern marvel known as the ziptie. You can make wire separators, handcuffs, brackets... really, there's no limit to what a creative mind can do with them.
Know your chassis and engine codes
In my garage, I have an E30 with its original M20B25, and an F22 with an N20B20. Why does that matter? It doesn't... any more than you knowing what model of iPhone you have, or what version of iOS it's currently running. Simply put, it's a form of coded communication that lets you know someone is an enthusiast, not just a regular person with a nice car.
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