2000 Mazda MiataEnlarge Photo
It's baffling how much some college kids' cars are neglected.
Yes, it's a stressful world studying and writing and cramming constantly. No matter what, there should be enough time to at least check your dipstick at the end of each week to make sure you don't cause any catastrophic engine damage. Even so, I've met people with some huge issues neglected on their cars. Mushy brakes, wheel wobble, etc.
Why will people risk their own safety by neglecting issues with their car? Simple. It's the reason anyone does (or doesn't do) anything in this country: money. Having a professional mechanic do routine maintenance can be massively expensive, especially on a college student's budget.
I'm here to tell you that with the right tools, patience and enough dexterity to build a Lego model you can perform routine maintenance on a car and save yourself hundreds of dollars in labor costs.
The first thing you have to get, and I mean immediately, is a repair manual for your car. Haynes makes very inexpensive and complete manuals for virtually every car sold in large numbers in America for the past few decades. Get one before anything ever goes wrong. It will save the day.
It did for me. I was on my way home in my Miata a couple of spring breaks ago when I noticed the clutch pedal started feeling a little mushy. Then the car wouldn't change gears. For some reason my clutch stopped functioning properly, so I was stuck in fourth gear for the rest of the way home.
When I got home, I asked my father what the problem could be. He replied how he always does:
"Did you read the book?"
So I read the book. That steered me toward the slave cylinder, which was leaking fluid badly. With no real experience with car repair and a bit of my father's help, I jacked up the car and followed the book step by step. An afternoon later, my car was on the road again, with a fresh slave cylinder that I installed and bled all by myself.
If you're a mechanic, you're probably rolling your eyes and saying "big whoop." For a college kid that never repaired something as important as a car before, it was monumental.
Lots of things like air filters, brake pads, spark plugs, etc. are easy to replace on modern cars. Anyone can do it with the right tools and the right instructions. Of course, the really big jobs require hardware that only mechanics will have. Don't expect to go buy a Haynes manual and to turbocharging your car all in a weekend.
However, if you've been putting off that brake job, the book and an afternoon in your parents' or grandparents' garage can save you a huge amount of money.