I’m not an expert on cars. I’ll say that now so you don’t take anything in this as actual advice for what you should do with your own vehicles. Over the years I’ve taught myself some things as they came up. There were also some basic things like changing oil or tires which I learned as a child. But I can’t name most of the things I’m working on when I fix things and I can’t always just hear a noise and say, “this must be what is causing that and here’s how I’ll fix it.” This is the story of how I learned how to take care of a car.
Cue the 2001 Chevy S10. The first vehicle I ever got with my own money. Used, obviously. Although I knew how to drive in 2001, I couldn’t legally do so on a public roadway. I don’t remember exactly when I got my S10 but I believe it was sometime around the fall of 2011 when I got my first full-time job.
It was great. I was recently engaged, I had a low but steady income, and now I had a vehicle that I could trust to make it to work and back without any issues and without ruining my nice white shirt when the roof leaks.
I just wish I had known more about car care leading into this. I knew I needed to change the oil every 6 months and was required to take it to get inspected every year. That was about it as far as preventative maintenance, a term which I had unfortunately not learned yet. Living with my mom my whole life, those were the only things I was aware of her ever doing with her vehicles because she sometimes asked me to drop her vehicle off or pick it when she had it done.
So I went on with my regular day to day life. Every 6 months I would change my oil and every year I would take the truck to be inspected. Things went pretty well for the first couple of years.
Then I stalled in the middle of the parkway at a red light. Luckily it was night time so there wasn’t much traffic. It started up again right away but stalled at the next light. I don’t remember the initial plan for that night other than driving around with my brother but since we were right by a Walmart we stopped in the parking lot and I checked the one thing I knew about with engines. The oil level. It was slightly low but not too bad so I got a small amount and put some in. It started fine and had no problem idling without stalling so I knew it would at least last the night and I could look into it in the morning.
It turns out there’s a little cup in the engine that needs to be replaced every couple of oils changes(or every, depending who you ask) and I still had the same one that came with the truck when I got it. I’m guessing this made the oil not last as long before needing to be replaced and since I was doing every 6 months there was more dirty oil going through the engine and causing increased wear.
So I went to the store and grabbed the big book of oil filters to see which one fit my model of truck. I also bought an oil filter wrench, though I found out later they apparently make one which is not as rough on the new filter when you install it.
Now I knew another thing which needed to be done regularly to help extend the life of my vehicles in the future. Things went well for a bit before the next big fix.
Taking A Brake
I kept hearing a squealing noise. Every time I started moving it would squeal until I got up to speed and every time I would slow down it would squeal until I stopped. So I asked one of my friends who is a mechanic what it might be. He told me I needed new brake pads.
That made sense. It was something I knew wore down but I didn’t know how to tell it was time to change them. I guess there is a piece of metal built in which is designed to scrape the rotors when the pads are low so you can have them replaced before they get down to a point when they’ll fail.
So I bought some brake pads and went over to his place so he could help me change them. I had every intention of doing the work, but it was easier for him to just change them while I watched and asked questions. Now I knew how to tell if my brake pads need to be changed. On to the next big fix.
My truck was due for an inspection. It was a very busy time of the year and I wasn’t able to get in to have it inspected until the previous year had already expired. So anything which was found to be wrong would have to be done at the shop. And it wasn’t a good time to be in that situation.
Apparently when I was trying to figure out the squealing of my brake pads the piece of warning metal had gone to town on my rotors and dug large grooves into them. I was told they needed to be replaced, though I never saw them to know if that was true or if they could have been just ground down slightly to even them out. Either way, I couldn’t do the work myself because it needed to be done that day for me to legally drive home.
So I paid the extra money for them to replace the rotors for me and I reinforced the memory to replace my brake pads as soon as they show signs it is necessary to prevent replacing rotors in the future.
I Don’t Need No Starter
The next big thing which started the end of my truck’s life was the starter. Ironic, I suppose.
I was out driving with a friend one night. He was back in town after a school break but it was before he was allowed to go back on campus. So he was staying with me and I wanted to show him something which I found cool. I live near a series of oil wells and it was a time when a few of them were burning off. My brother and I had gone out looking for some a couple nights earlier and found one pretty close to where I lived at the time.
So my friend and I went into the mountains to find the well from a couple nights prior. It was beautiful. A hundred-foot controlled flame shooting out of the ground in the middle of nowhere. It triggers something in the body and really makes you feel alive watching it. After a few minutes we left and I noticed something was wrong. I don’t remember what the problem was but something in me said I should stop and restart my vehicle to fix it.
I should never listen to myself. I stopped, turned the truck off, and then turned the key to restart it.
Nothing. Not even a sound like it was trying but didn’t want to. The electrical components were working but the engine had no interest in starting. So I rolled down the mountain to a slightly safer spot and called my dad to get some help getting towed out since we weren’t too far from his house. Luckily the one street sign I had seen a mile back as enough for him to find us because we had no phone service and that caused the batteries of our phones to drain faster so we quickly had no phones.
He showed up and tried a couple things to try to get the starter to fire just once to get the truck into town to fix it. No luck so we got it to a parking lot and towed it the next day.
I made one of my worst mistakes that day. I chose to let someone else replace the starter for me. I knew at the time I should do it myself but I had other things I wanted to do that day and I’ll never make a decision like that with fixing a vehicle again. This particular starter installation will come up again.
Getting In Tune
Later on, the winter hit. Not just winter in general but the coldest winter we’d had in our area in years. It was so cold peoples batteries were dying overnight and the ones whose batteries weren’t dying were having difficulties starting their cars either way. It wasn’t something most of us in the area were used to or prepared for.
I was one of the unlucky ones who needed to replace a completely dead battery. Luckily that was the worst part of that winter.
The following winter I learned one of the most important lessons about care maintenance that I’ve learned up to this point in my life as of the writing of this post. My truck was making noise but wasn’t starting. And when I did get it started it didn’t always stay on. I was occasionally missing work due to not having a vehicle so I started doing my research and seeing what other people did with the symptoms I had.
I replaced the spark plugs, the wires for them, the fan belt, and some other things. And when I was telling someone at work about it they said, “So it just needed a tune-up.” A tune-up. That thing I had heard about on TV shows. I thought it was just something people did when they were trying to supe up their cars to make hot rods. Turns out it’s a regular preventative maintenance thing. Oh, the money I could have saved if this had been mentioned even in passing at any point of my life before this. But my truck was running and that tune-up project was the second most fun one I’ve ever done because I was doing some real work on the engine.
This was the last full winter my truck survived.
The Final Projects
The next fall I was having trouble starting my truck again. It was making no sound at all so my first thought was to check on the starter. So I looked at how it was installed and checked online to compare how other people installed it. It turns out there are some shims that are supposed to be used to find the correct placement of the starter to prevent excessive wear from being too tight or too loose. None were being used and that caused my year and a half old starter to die. Coincidentally the chain where I got the starter installed went out of business shortly after this event.
My friend from the brake pad story offered to clean the starter out and try to get it working again to no avail. So I bought a new starter and installed it myself, using the shims.
Then I started it up. And it ran. For about 3 seconds. I don’t know how loud it was, but the explosion was enough for my wife to come running outside to see if I was alive. It wasn’t some big movie explosion. And there was no fire afterwards. I don’t know for sure that it was actually a combustion explosion or just an excess of pressure. But my air intake system was shattered.
I had no idea what to do. I didn’t even know what the system of big plastic cases and tubes which were now everywhere in my engine and on the ground was called. I eventually found out what it was and what it did and started looking into how to fix it.
From what I read about the subject the stock air intake system in the S10 was incredibly inefficient due to the length the air needed to travel and the big boxes where it was able to sit and warm up before getting to the engine. It was recommended that I get a cold air intake system which didn’t travel around the entire engine bay before getting to the engine.
I eventually found one from Spectre Performance which was advertised as being legal in my state and came with the proper paperwork and a sticker for inside the hood to prove so. I knew it would end up being louder with this than the stock intake because the length and boxes were designed to reduce sound and I was getting rid of all of it.
This project was the most fun I’ve had working on an engine. I was right in by the parts where all the combustion happens when the engine is one and I knew if I did something wrong it could mean a fire under my hood, or possibly a worse actually explosion.
So I cleaned out the manifold and other parts with the suggested cleaners and cut the fan shroud to allow the new tubing to fit where it needed to go. Then after a couple hours of trying to figure out what different parts which were being referred to were, and moving the same things around again and again to make it all fit correctly, I got the new air intake system installed.
It was the moment of truth. I was going to turn the key and either the truck was going to start or I was going to completely give up and accept the fact that I can’t fix engines. I turned the key and the starter fired. The truck shook for a second and let out a loud roar. Then it set grumbling. I stepped out and just stood there watching it.
My wife came running outside. At first, she didn’t know if it was started correctly or if it was finally dying because it was much louder than before. But after coming out, she was just as excited as me that I got it started.
It ran pretty smoothly for another month or so but finally stopped working again. I don’t know what the final thing was that killed it but I knew I had spent enough time and money on trying to keep it alive compared to what probably needed to be done.
I’m glad I had the opportunities to work on it and learn things which nobody had told me were needed and I never would have thought to ask if they were needed. And I had fun taking parts of the engine apart to replace things and really feel like I was doing something worth doing. After getting rid of the truck I decided to go with a brand new vehicle for a while and continue to extend my knowledge about vehicle repair so someday I’ll know enough to keep my vehicle going longer.