Select Page
DIY attempt with a left rear brake drum

I’ve been a gravel-in-the-belly DIY enthusiast my entire adult life. It’s a trust issue and goes back to high school and my very first car. It was a 1965 Pontiac Tempest convertible, and the switch to put the top up and down went bad. I took it to a dealership, and the mechanics spent hours looking for an affordable switch. I was grateful until they gave me the bill. I paid for all that labor. $38 is not much in 2022 dollars, but it was big deal for a high school junior in 1974 with no money and no know-how.

One of my life regrets is not keeping that car.

As a junior in college, I spent my childhood paper route and caddying money on a 1975 Mercury Comet. To start my senior year, I packed everything I owned into a U-Haul trailer in Minnesota and pulled it to the apartment I would share with my fiance in Crawfordsville, Indiana. A few weeks later, the car refused to go into reverse. That was when I learned that some transmissions were not made for hauling trailers across the country. I took the car to a transmission shop in Lafayette, Indiana, about thirty miles north. The new transmission cost around $500. With an income that year of around $4000, I don’t remember how I came up with enough money to pay for it. But my troubles weren’t over. I drove the car back to Crawfordsville and a nasty rattle started. I called the shop and brought it back, and they told me the flywheel was broken and I could not drive the car until they fixed it. It would cost several hundred more dollars and several days to replace it.

My guts churned when I sat across from this guy who smiled at my misfortune. But he held all the cards. I didn’t know what a flywheel was, or how or why one would break. I had to either assert myself or hitchhike home. They finally agreed to replace the flywheel for the cost of the part, without accepting any responsibility for breaking it. I was fortunate that nothing slammed through the firewall and killed me.

I vowed, never again would anyone take advantage of my naivete. I would embrace DIY and never put myself into a position to blindly trust trust anyone ever again. I spent half a day teaching myself how to change oil, covered myself with oil, and endured ridicule from everyone I knew. The second time, it took about two hours. The next time after that, about a half hour. I haven’t paid for an oil change since 1978. By now, I’m pretty good at it.

I fully embraced DIY after that. One time, I fixed its carburetor with a leftover curtain rod part. After the automatic choke stopped working, I installed a manual choke. But the only way it would fit was upside-down. I eventually sold that car to a family from Costa Rica who didn’t speak English. As I recall, they paid me $175. A few months later, the great state of Illinois demanded I pay a parking ticket for an abandoned car at O’hare Airport. I didn’t pay it.

We moved into our new house in Minnesota in fall, 1985. I started building our deck in spring, 1986, and finished it in the fall. It’s still standing. Well, part of it. We demolished most of it to make room for another addition with a bedroom for our youngest grandson.

In 1991, the head gasket of my ’84 Pontiac J2000 failed. I knew it was a bad head gasket because the oil and coolant mix looked like grey sludge when I checked the oil. I spent a week in our garage replacing the cylinder head and gasket. I discovered the design geniuses at General Motors used a rubber hose with different sized ends for coolant cross-flow. Naturally, the hose was only available from dealers. The car ran for several years after that.

Over the years, I continuously improved my DIY skills. I wired our entire upstairs addition in 2010. I put in a new sliding door and several replacement windows in 2015. And in 2018, when I put in a replacement basement sliding door, I found the header was rotted. And so I took on major house surgery and replaced the header. I discovered a water leak, and spent months finding the source. It turned out, the upstairs door from 2015 needed caulk in one of the joints.

Today, I have a basement full of tools and I’ve come a long way from that skinny college student in 1978, afraid of the guy in the transmission shop who held my economic future and my ride home in his hands.

But I’ll never learn it all. And I decided recently that DIY is not always the answer.

In late May, 2022, my wife’s 2007 Toyota Corolla made a metal-on-metal scraping brake noise. It needed rear brakes anyway, and so I bought the parts and started to work. I took the driver’s side apart and found the brake cylinder was bad when it squirted brake fluid in my face. But the nut connecting it to the brake line was rusted on, and no amount of spray would loosen it. I spent hours overnight Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend buying specialty tools, watching Youtube videos, and trying to get that thing off. Nothing worked.

And then I called Pep Boys and they agreed to finish the job with my parts. I put it back together, brought it in, and a 30-year master mechanic worked on it. Turned out, the front brakes were bad. I scrambled and found new front brake pads and rotors, and they stayed late and did the front and rear brakes. The labor was more than $600. I was happy to pay. The brakes were done.

The car also needed new rear speakers. The headlight assemblies were foggy. And Pep Boys discovered the sway bar linkages were bad. I had new speakers and headlight assemblies, but no appetite to DIY. I brought it in the Tuesday after Memorial Day and they took care of all that for me. The rear speakers were a royal pain; I had watched Youtube videos and replacing them meant tearing apart much of the rear interior. And attaching the headlight assemblies meant removing the front bumper. Pep Boys had to remove the back seat to get to the rear speakers, but the car was ready by Tuesday afternoon. Total cost was more than $900, on top of the $600+ from Saturday.

I haven’t turned anti-DIY. I can still learn how to fix anything. But maybe sometimes, my time today is better spent on other things besides fixing everything that breaks, especially when professionals who do it every day can run rings around me.