By on August 13, 2012


TTAC Commentator Pete Zaitcev writes:

Dear Sajeev:

I am reading a rather interesting book right now, “Owner Assisted Aircraft Maintenance” by Dan MacDonald. It discusses the maintenance tasks that an airplane owner can perform without being a licensed Airframe & Powerplant mechanic. This got me wondering if a book exists that deals with the maintenance of a 20 to 30-year-old car in general.

Obviously, there is a Haynes manual, but it assumes a certain familiarity with the topic, into which a new owner of an obsolete car needs to be inducted. An auto maintenance textbook for a vocational school may be too heavy a reading for an owner. Do you think a book like this makes sense, and does it exist?


Sajeev answers:

This question got surprisingly personal. So let’s do this thing.

A gentleman named John Muir made a book just like this, but I think the days of books covering everything about a make and model are dead and gone. Why do I say that?  Because most 20 to 30-year-old cars are no VW Beetle, they are too damn complicated. Emissions bits, obsolete parts you’ll never get outside of a junkyard or eBay, and complicated electrics that require a lot of background information to accurately fix. And while it gets easier as you get into the 1990s, there’s one reason a book like this isn’t necessary.

Forums: Automotive make and model specific forums.  They cover the granular detail, the general knowledge and everything in between. And on the forums you will find people doing it all in one fell swoop, a full restoration of whatever vehicle you’d like. Even something insane like a 1983 Lincoln Continental Valentino, like me.  I don’t even know where to start: perhaps telling you that this project’s been in the planning stages for well over a decade is a good idea.  And telling you that there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that I’ve forgotten about my Lincoln may be a little creepy…but it’s the truth.

Welcome to my Madness.

Believe it or not, one day I plan on writing the definitive book on the Ford Fox Body, including a bit on my savings account destroying, nut and bolt restoration of my Continental Valentino.

And perhaps I hope no one buys it, just to prove my point.

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

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22 Comments on “Piston Slap: Owner Assisted Hooptie Maintenance?...”

  • avatar

    Actually, there are a few books covering this topic, along with a national support group: “The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous”

    There is a line of insanity one crosses between ‘restoration,’ and keeping a vehicle ‘limping along.’ Most vehicles have enough parts bin content that O’Reilly’s can keep your ride on the road.

    Special trim packages, model specific electronics, obscure powertrains and anything else that doesn’t get reproduced by some plant in China for your run of the mill pony car is a foray into the unknown.

    If you want a easy restoration / daily driver that any hack speed shop can over charge you for, get a muscle car. If you want something that will keep you up at night with cold sweats after you tear down an interior trim panel, get a car like Sajeev’s ’83 Valentino (sick) or my 84 diesel Lincoln Continental.

    If you’re looking for some mechanical insight, keep a secondary car and just start taking apart your vehicle with a Hanes manual. They provide enough info where you can ‘connect the dots.’ Nothing is more satisfying than the light bulb going off in your head when you have figured out how to do something on your own.

  • avatar

    This book exists because there are only a few things you can do as a pilot in regards to aircraft maintenance without a licensed mechanic. There are really very few differences between the aircraft manufacturers products on the whole, at least compared with cars.

    As Sajeev mentioned, the scope of the book required for cars couldn’t cover everything,especially considering how much has changed computer wise ( both in design and usage)

    A 72 Impala for example, shares only it’s name with today’s car. A 72 Cessna Skyhawk shares a lot with an 82,97 or 2012 Skyhawk. Light aircraft are fairly simple birds, but everything must be done to the letter. There are very few “hooptie” airplanes, although the experimental realm allows much room for improvisation. You build it and you can fix it, because only you know how it went together.

  • avatar

    SO in other words, NO if you didn’t learn it at your daddy’s knee you’ll never fix a car. I have a vocational school text and even it sucks pretty bad.

    One book taught me how to brew, One book taught me how to race, one book taught me how to FLY (sort of). Sure I then went on to use other books to expand that knowledge, but there really is no book that can take someone from “wheels make the car go” into somebody who can actually follow a Haynes or factory manual and fix things?

    Gee and I wonder why newer generations aren’t interested in cars. Not everyone’s dad knew their way around under a hood.

    • 0 avatar

      What text is that? Please name the author and the title. Should be better than nothing.

      • 0 avatar

        “Modern Automotive Technology” 7th Ed. James E. Duffy

        It’s huge and text book priced, but is still meant to work with an instructor. I got it when i took a suspension and alignment night class. Very little was learned.

    • 0 avatar

      My Dad didn’t teach me s**t, my cars are 26, 20, 13, and 24 years old, I’m not an engineer or all that smart, and I haven’t gone to a shop for a repair or maintenance item in 10 years.

      Sajeev is right that if you don’t know how to do something, then get on the forums and ask. They are a very good resource. If they respond with something like “Hook up the volt meter and see how many Kreltons the aft blow-by canister is turning” and you have no clue what that means, then ask them to break it down or direct you to a place that can give you a step-by-step.

      You have to be a little bit realistic as well. If you’ve never changed the oil before, you probably should not dive right in to replacing an ABS system.

      As far as very basic stuff goes, there is always the “Auto Repair for Dummies” type books.

      • 0 avatar

        The For dummies book is sort of a genneral primer but doesn’t really get in depth with the big stuff. I’m going to look into it though simply because it’s cheap, but from my background I don’t like just “Trying stuff” because when it fails (and it usually does) I can’t even tell WHY it failed and so I learn nothing.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      What I learned from my dad was that you don’t have to be a mechanic to fix a car. However, I learned to replace worn out window regulators and how to troubleshoot OBDII emissions issues by following advice and pictures posted on internet forums. My dad has replaced clutches and transmissions on RWD trucks, but he never adapted to a world where engines don’t even need a tuneup, but accessories break.

  • avatar

    I used to own a Fox Mustang so you have a customer here!

  • avatar
    Carl in NH

    As someone who does both, in both cases there is a lot that can only be learned from a combination of experience (sure, do the reading/study, but at some point — just get in and do it !), and wise input from those with lots of experience. For cars, you got a lot of online resources as pointed out; for airplanes, you got online resources (the type-specific clubs, for example) but nowhere near the numbers of people, of course. And for both, acquaintances with the expertise are an invaluable resource, so best to start networking.

    • 0 avatar

      That still does not actually help if you don’t understand the “shape” of the job. For instance, A friend and I want to rebuild a 79 Chevy V-6 to put in his Malibu wagon (I can’t convince him that a 350 with modern bits and a 4 speed will make equal mileage.)

      The problem is we can’t get started, we have a spare engine, but there’s no “shape” to the work. We don’t know what tools we need, we don’t know why we need to do certain things, and we don’t know what choices to make along the way.

      Now I know there are 350 rebuild books out there and this engine is basically a 350 – 2 cylinders, but the rebuild books assume you know already what to do. And following that how then do you put a new overdrive transmission behind it?

      The only people either of us know who are mechanics work 12hr days 6 days a week, they couldn’t be considered friends really, and the last thing they want to do on their one day off is work on a car.

      So basically what you are saying is it’s oral tradition only for the primary understanding. I’m beginning to understand why the techs at my dealerships can’t do anything.

      • 0 avatar
        Carl in NH


        Yep, a big part of experience is doing the work and making the mistakes (some folks, such as myself, make more than others before they learn).

        I personally have been building my skill level in an evolutionary manner, and that seems to work for me. Looking back, I went from knowing sweet f— all about Thinges Mechanicale until I settled down in a place of my own a dozen or so years ago. I started acquiring lawn equipment which needed maintenance, so have been accreting tools to wrench on them with; and of course I started digging into the inevitable small engine problems to deal with the lawn equipment, later my toys (ATV, snowmobile) as well. Regarding autos: early on, got tired of paying someone to do stuff like change my brakes & rotors on the cars (I have a heavy foot) so started doing that; have started recently getting into troubleshooting some of the sensors; did a CV axle for $60 rather than pay a shop 4~5 times the amount. And etc etc and so forth. I look back and yes, I have come a long way in terms of skill level, and it was done by a combo of online forum research, Haynes manuals and the like, and getting input from people with some experience

        The engine swap of the sort you are doing is an extreme case perhaps, and waaay beyond my skill level, but I would bet that there are folks on forums who would have bits of the overall picture.

      • 0 avatar

        mate a transmission to the engine, then try to deck the powertrain to the car. Cut holes/mount braces where needed. That sort of stuff comes from experience, unless of course you’re wanting to do something that someone else has done and there are online guides (5 speed swaps for Panthers and 3rd Gen F Bodies come to mind).

        Helping a friend swap out a trans on his Explorer not only gave me a ‘no fear’ attitude towards wrenching on my cars, but it also taught me expensive lessons when we both had to have the ‘new’ trans we found in a junk yard rebuilt. I didn’t have a mechanically inclined father to pass down knowledge, you just have to get your hands dirty. Acquire the tools when you need them and welcome delays / work stoppages as learning experiences/chances to buy more cool tools.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    If something breaks on your car the worst case scenario is getting in a wreck; usually your car goes away on a flatbed wrecker. If something breaks on a plane, gravity wins. The effects of something breaking on a plane are exponentially worse than a vehicle.

    • 0 avatar

      Which is why pilots are only allowed to do a few things, none of which are structural or major engine work. Basically it’s Lightbulbs, topping up fluids, wheel bearings, etc.. and even then you are “supposed” to be referring to the aircraft service manual.

  • avatar

    Guildenstern, maybe try a local bookstore or a Half Price Books for your specific case. A book on rebuilding GM V8 or V6 engines would give a starting point, finding a Haynes manual specific to that car would be the next step. You Tube for how-to videos on whatever you can’t quite get the handle on?

    I am lucky that my Dad is an aircraft mechanic and loves cars too. But a great teacher he isn’t. I learned a lot watching him while growing up, but I have done a lot by just jumping in and doing stuff when I became an adult. Sometimes it works and sometimes not. I’d be more inclined to do “heavy” work like a rebuild, but I don’t have a project to do that with.

    • 0 avatar

      I find the problem is the step BEFORE the specific case, I’ve always had Haynes or Chiltons for my cars (still waiting on my current car Bentley manuals….) And have used them to some degree of success for simple things like getting a dash board out and such.

      It’s getting the understanding underneath, a sort of a Haynes manual for Haynes manuals if you will.

      • 0 avatar

        You need the fundamentals. Try the Bosch Automotive Handbook, now in its 7th edition. As a life-long non-professional gearhead, I’ve taught myself large chunks of automotive engineering with this text. It has been invaluable when I just could not get the “why” of things. It’s the bible.

  • avatar

    How much of a book do you really need to learn how to use duct tape and coat hangers?

  • avatar

    +1000 on car-specific Internet Forums.

    They really will teach you ALL you need to know in most cases, as long as they car has been in production for a while. Cars just are not rocket science, even modern German ones. Though I am a computer engineer by profession, so perhaps I have an unfair advantage there.

    I am pretty comfortable with doing nearly any DIY on a car, but I do draw the line at rebuilding engines and transmissions. There is some art involved in those tasks, and no small amount of learning by fire.

  • avatar
    punkybrewstershubby aka Troy D.

    While the few try to fix their own stuff, a few fail. Thats where I come in, and will charge you by the hour to fix your “fix…”

  • avatar

    Key point there punky. The DIY are great for what you can do and what you cannot. I left rear trailing arm bushings for my independent mechanic as a normal transaction, but was able to do the front control arms myself. I don’t mind a special tool, but there are places where you need to have done one prior to do this one right.

    Knowing that line is key to successful DIY

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