During the recent holiday cold snap, the Die Hard battery in my Colorado ZR2 died hard. Dry-docked, I was glad to be able to take my wife’s car to the local auto parts store to get a new one. After about an hour, I wrestled that sucker into the engine bay, my frozen, bloody knuckles protesting but ultimately victorious. There were a lot of unnecessary steps to the process, in my opinion, but YouTube coached me through. I’m not known for being handy around the house so my wife high-fived me when I came back in to warm up, and I’ve been driving fine ever since.
Short Ties and Fox Bodies
What she didn’t know was that back in the 90's my high school offered a class called Automotive Survival. I wasn’t interested in cars whatsoever at the time; I wanted to take Photography. But, my parents made me take the class so I would be better prepared for owning what would prove the be a (very) unreliable first car. I’m glad I did. For one, it was a different world than what most mainstream, college-prep students experience. The teacher, a former shop owner, was really friendly and informative. Naturally, he got on well with the gearheads, but he was very patient with the rest of us. He tied his delightfully tacky ties very short so as not to get them caught in any moving parts. Made sense, I guess. He also reminded a room full of teen drivers that getting to 60 can be fun, but going over that is asking for trouble. Made sense, I guess.
I remember receiving an out-of-date textbook that we really didn’t use. We all pretended to study the book for a week or two, and the only thing taken from it was that engines run on gas, while motors run on electricity. (Only a few journalists abide by that distinction.) Then it was off to the shop where things got interesting. We practiced gapping spark plugs, changing wheels, bleeding breaks, checking fluids. We learned what different smells meant, what white and blue emissions indicate, and why clunks are always bad. We watched the really knowledgeable kids tinker and mod their cars, Mustangs to the last. Trusting parents let us make minor repairs (“repairs?”) to their minivans. It was a lot of fun.
Nowadays, automotive work is increasingly digital. Maintenance and repairs require a much more technical skillset, and manufacturers are moving toward creating more complex systems. Sure, you can still take care of oil changes and whatnot. But most new cars come with a can of fix-a-flat instead of a spare. Performance is programmed, not bolted on. Telematics are more suited for IT professionals than grease monkeys. I play mechanic when working on my mountain bikes, not my truck.
If I were to retake this course, it would probably be held in a computer lab instead of a garage bay. The curriculum would probably reduce the repair work and focus more on how to make it through the buying process. In today’s crazy market, adults are having enough trouble finding a car and ways to pay for it, never mind kids just starting out. I think it would still be worth enrolling, but it wouldn’t be as much fun.
I Will Survive
Unfortunately, most high schools don’t offer these courses anymore—a way for automotive laity to learn the basics of maintaining their vehicles. With specialized equipment comes the need for specialized tools and expertise, which is part of the reason why a lot of this learning is now consigned to vocational schools. It makes sense, to a degree; depending on the vehicle, it is often difficult—if not impossible—for many of us to do much more than just the basics. Even if your wrenching skills are on point, it may not be worth the time spent working on your own car. Still, earning some understanding of the mechanical and electronic systems underpinning modern vehicles can help you deal with inevitable issues and to survive visits to the service center with your wallet and sanity intact. I was reminded that it’s time to refresh my own knowledge, for sure, and I encourage you to try to as well.
Bill hosts a blog and YouTube channel that lead him to think more deeply about what it means to drive. The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.