How To Get Started Fixing Cars
Updated: Aug 14, 2021
Are you ready to do work that actually requires taking some wheels off but have no idea where to start? Got a beat up project car that needs more love than just checking the oil? Want to learn automotive mechanics but not sure how? This blog post is for you.
Around three years ago I took the plunge and decided I was going to fix my 1999 Miata. I needed to change the front wheel hubs (spoiler alert - the actual issue was not the wheel hubs) and I had no idea where to start. I talked to a handful of DIY friends and put together a list of basic tools, and lucked out when I could borrow a space.
Yup. That's me doing my first real repair job.
This post covers all the tips I learned in my journey that would have made getting started easier. This assumes you generally have no experience fixing cars and have no idea where to start, just like I didn't.
If you don't have a car yet, I highly recommend learning about automotive mechanics ahead of time even without a car. Having some understanding will make a repair job go a lot smoother and reinforce what you've learned.
If you have a car, I personally prefer to research and learn about a task before I attempt it. This is helpful for both safety and not breaking things more (aka spending more) than you need to.
Some of my favorite DIY mechanics include:
ChrisFix - Concise, enthusiastic "how to" videos.
EngineeringExplained - Technical explanations about how car things work.
Owner's manual - Good place to start with the absolute basics of understanding your car.
Manufacturer's manual - If it's available, this would give you the most accurate repair info.
After market - Other manuals exist with similar information, like Haynes.
Automotive Service: Inspection, Maintenance by Tim Gilles (online preview) - Used in my De Anza Automotive Tech classes. Not everyone loves textbooks but for those who are like me, I did enjoy this one.
Find a space to wrench
It's important to know where you will be able to store and fix a car. Sometimes your car will end up stuck and inoperable, often without warning, so it's preferable to find a safe place your car won't have to move for a few days or possibly weeks.
Garage or driveway
If you are lucky enough to have access to a garage, awesome! If you don't, it's possible a friend might let you borrow their garage or a driveway to park your car.
Work at or volunteer for a real automotive shop. Sometimes if you are curious and enthusiastic enough, they might be willing to take you on as an apprentice and in exchange give you shop access after hours.
Auto parts store
Lookup your local automotive parts store like AutoZone or O'Reillys. These places often expect some minor automotive work to be done on their premises. The bonus is store employees are often willing to help. They might also offer guidance for some larger repair jobs, what tools to use, and the best place to do it.
Street parking or parking lots ⚠️
These spaces are more successful for small, quick, last-ditch effort projects that can be wrapped up since cars often can't stay in public spaces for too long.
⚠️ Caution: This option isn't ideal but it makes the dream of fixing a car feel tangible. Be sure to look up any applicable laws or neighborhood rules to make sure things are ok. For example, in some cities in California, parking on the street cannot exceed more than 3 nights before your car needs to be moved. Don't get towed or upset your neighbors!
Get a car to fix
Learning about cars is definitely helpful but the physical act of doing so is an entirely different experience from reading about it.
Cars to fix could include:
Your own car!
If you already own one, try picking up a small task like changing the oil. Be careful about large fixes because you don't want to make your car inoperable if it's your only daily driver.
A family member or friend's car.
People love help fixing their cars. Maybe the grandparents have an old beater they don't drive anymore worth fixing up that you can practice on.
A project car!
If you're feeling ambitious you can find a cheap project car. Maybe the junkyard has something that runs for a few hundred. It's also worth inquiring automotive shops since they often hold onto broken cars customers no longer want or decide are not worth fixing.
Plenty of repair jobs can be done with a basic set of tools. Let's face it - tools aren't cheap, so if you're on a budget stick to the very basics, buy only what you need, and rent or borrow speciality tools as they are needed. Heck, you could even borrow tools from friends.
The floor jack should be rated to lift however much your car weighs. For example, there are smaller floor jacks rated for smaller, lighter-weight cars. The Mazda Miata weighs around 2,300 lbs so if that was the only car you planned to wrench a 3 ton floor jack should be enough.
Needed to rest your car on once its lifted by a jack.
Safety is important. These will ensure your car doesn't roll away.
Used to loosen lug nuts on the wheels.
Always torque your lug nuts to spec as this is a critical safety requirement. Pay attention to torque specs, as some jobs will require inch-pounds or foot-pounds. A good starting point is choosing a torque wrench that at least torques to your car's wheel lug nuts.
Having a basic set of sockets, ratchets, wrenches, tools is critical. Pay special attention to what your car will primarily need since different years and manufacturers will use either metric or standard tools. If your car is coming from Japan, for example, most likely it will be metric.
Protecting your hands from harmful chemicals or scratches is a good idea. Gloves come in a variety of thickness so be sure to get gloves thick enough to provide adequate protection (4-8 mil). Too thin and you'll find your gloves ripping often while wrenching.
The mechanic tool set should be a good start but sometimes cars require specific socket sizes that are not included. For example, the stock Miata lug nuts require 21 mm sockets which exceed my basic set so I had to buy that separately. Or maybe if you are doing a special repair job such as wheel hubs it will require a much larger socket for the axle nut.
Used for extra persuasion while wrenching.
Being able to see in small spaces and underneath your car is important. Consider also getting external, battery operated lights for extra convenience.
Paper towels, shop towels, special oil absorbent towels, whatever you think you'll need. Remember, you're going to make a mess!
There's a good chance that once you take a look at your car, something will stand out to you. Was it screechy brakes? Dirty oil? Worn out tires? Do a thorough inspection or test drive of your car, even if you're not sure what you're looking for, and something might stand out to you.
If you still have your owner's manual, it might outline manufacturer recommended maintenance that you can read about and get ideas from too.
Here are some ideas:
Change brake pads
Now that you have a few ideas on how to get started remember that picking up a car hobby is a journey. Enjoy learning and just have fun! 🏎💨