Getting in Touch With Your Wheels on the Road to Automotive Self-Sufficiency

Highway 1 contributor Deanna Sclar is the Los Angeles-based author of "Auto Repair for Dummies" and "Buying a Car for Dummies," both forthcoming from IDG Books

Getting a driver's license is an event that can run second only to earning a degree or taking out a marriage license.

Most of us succeed the first time in receiving this life-enhancing benediction from the California Department of Motor Vehicles--would that success were so easy in college or marriage--and with new permit in hand believe we are fully prepared for the freedom of roads ahead.

Sadly, few of us know the first thing about this machine we've been licensed to drive. And this can turn a ticket to freedom into a ticket to trouble, especially if we depend on others for the care and repair of our automobiles.

If you are oblivious to the whirrings and workings of a car, you tend to drive until something goes wrong. Then you incur the expense of replacing worn and burned-out parts, even the entire engine (that big, noisy, hot, smelly lump under the hood), when low-cost, regular maintenance could have kept your wheels turning for a long time.

Even honest mechanics may not notify you, as your dentist and poodle groomer will, that it is time for a checkup. Even charitable souls are not going to put their time and energies into making your car work without charging heavily and making healthy, middlemen profits on parts and labor.

And as a woman who has gotten into a serious relationship with her car, I'm here to tell you that we don't have to stand for service-bay brushoffs, rip-offs, mechanical deceit and plain old highway robbery.

In addition, getting in touch with your wheels is easy, enjoyable, satisfying--and makes for great cocktail party conversation with the guys.

In the months ahead, come with me and learn about tools, the parts that make your car go and all of the major systems: electrical, fuel, cooling, lubrication, suspension, transmission, steering and braking.

One more note for my fellow females: No matter how liberated you've become, or how committed you still are to life as the little woman, you cannot fail to enjoy the heady pleasure that comes with being able to stride up to a garage mechanic and tell him you've recently rebuilt your carburetor.

Lesson 1: Jacking Up the Car

Simple laws of physics: Cars weigh more than a ton; we do not. Cars are very hard; we are rather soft. So the cardinal concern when jacking up a car is to make sure that no part of it falls on any portion of us.

Sclar's Law: Even if you are a member of the Auto Club, there is always a chance that you will find yourself stuck with a flat tire on a remote road with no telephone in sight and a dead battery in your cell phone. Particularly scary for women is that on such occasions, traffic invariably vanishes, leaving you helpless--unless you know how to do the job yourself.

We all have a general idea of what's involved, but there are a couple of places where jacking up a car gets sticky, and unless you are prepared and properly equipped, you can find yourself out of luck and in for a long wait for help.

Equipment. Cars come from the factory with jacks, some with cranks that turn like an old phonograph, a few with long handles rotating a jack screw; others have short bars for ratcheting the jack up and down.

Find yours. Rehearse. Before trouble occurs, learn exactly how it raises and unlocks for lowering, and check the owner's manual to locate the safe jacking points for your particular car. Under the frame? In a mounting bracket attached for the sole purpose of jacking? And know where not to place the jack, lest the dead weight of the car rest on something that can bend, break or give. Like the underside of a fender.

Precaution. If you don't have a jack, go to a parts store and spend $15.99 on a two-ton hydraulic jack. Now, if you plan to do any work beneath your car, you will also need metal jack stands. With these, you can jack up the car, place the stands firmly beneath its frame, and remove the jack. Stands keep the car off the ground with less danger of slipping and enable you to jack up the entire front or back end. Or one side. Or both. Do not use boxes or bricks for jacks! They can slip and break while you are under the car.

Preparation. Always park the car on level ground before jacking it up, then chock the wheels to prevent the car from rolling. Use bricks, big rocks or wooden blocks at the opposite end of the car from the end that is to be raised. And wedge them into the rolling, not the trailing, face of the tire. If you don't have chocks, at least turn your front wheels tight into the curb.

Be sure that the car is in park, or in first gear, with the emergency brake on. If the ground is soft, place something flat and hard that can handle pressure beneath the base of the jack. If using a ratchet jack, make sure its base plate is firmly attached.

Execution. Place the jack under the solid part of the car that it will contact when raised. If you plan to use jack stands, place them near the jack. Double-check to make sure that all equipment and safety measures are in place. Now pump, crank or turn the jack handle using even, fluid movements until the jack is jammed in place and that big, old wheel is inching skyward.


Next time: We'll teach you how to change that tire.



Steve Parker discusses the facts--and myths--behind the "100,000-mile" tuneup. W15


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