BACK IN the days when the Mini was a novelty — the car and the skirt — one of the skills passed on from father to son was how to fiddle with the oily bits of the family car. Every weekend dads across the land would crawl under the Triumph Herald or the Ford Anglia and change the oil and tinker with carburettors. And sons across the land would pass spanners, learn about feeler gauges and snigger at the mention of grease nipples. For a generation the smell of Swarfega hand cleaner on a Saturday afternoon was as common as the whiff of Brut aftershave on a Saturday night.
Then, in the 1980s, everything changed. Cars no longer had points or carburettors. Everything was electronic, factory-set and clothed with plastic.
But it seems DIY may be making a comeback. A recent survey found that 54% of drivers said they had recently attempted some sort of car repair. The survey, carried out by the spare parts retailer Breakeryard, polled 1,621 car drivers and found that most were turning to DIY because garage repairs were too expensive. However, the most popular reference source wasn’t a Haynes manual, their dad or their friends, but YouTube. The online video-sharing site hosts thousands of DIY videos, purportedly explaining how to carry out every operation from oil changes to complete engine overhauls.
Some of them are very good and have made DIY stars of the likes of Eric the Car Guy, an American mechanic whose videos have been watched more than 40m times. Others are awful, with voiceovers by actors who are clearly reading a script, and some are downright dangerous. If you like watching other people’s incompetence too, there is plenty of choice, including one below on removing a stereo.
The attraction of using a free resource to carry out minor repairs is obvious. According to Warranty Direct, garage labour rates are getting on for £60 an hour in even the cheapest parts of the country. A basic oil and filter change will set you back £50-£80 at the average independent garage, and having a pair of new brake pads fitted will be about £75.
If you do it yourself, you need only pay for the parts: £25-£30 for the oil change and about £50-£60 for a full set of brake pads.
You can spend a fortune on tools and fill your garage with a never-ending supply of equipment, but there are some basic tools that every DIYer will need. Start with a decent socket set (£30-£40) and make sure it comes with a good range of Torx bits for the star-shaped screws often used in cars.
You will also need good sets of spanners (£11) and screwdrivers (£10). Axle stands are essential. Never go underneath a car supported only by a jack. A pair of these potential lifesavers costs about £17. A trolley jack is much better than the wobbly scissor jack supplied with the car and can be bought for less than £25. Finally, an oil filter wrench for £5-£7 will save hours of struggle.
So how do you tell the good videos from the bad? We’ve scoured the internet to find our top choices for a variety of DIY jobs.
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Pollen filter change
If your car has air-conditioning it is almost certain to have a pollen filter (cabin air filter). Along with pollen, it filters out dust, soot, dead flies and anything else your heater tries to suck into the car — even when the air-conditioning is off. If the filter is dirty, the heating and air-conditioning will be less efficient.
The excellent offering from Eurocarparts.com covers all the bases and discusses how the filter may be situated inside the car in a front footwell or in the engine compartment, under the windscreen.
Oil change and oil filter Change
This basic task is made more difficult by the plastic shield that shrouds the underside of the engine on many modern cars; it usually has to be removed for you to get at the engine oil drain plug to remove the old oil.
The best video showing how to do this, by Southside Service Centre, is clear and straightforward. It gives tips on filter removal tools and reminds you to dispose of the old oil in the proper way at the correct council facility. It shows you how to top up the oil after starting the engine — the new filter will absorb some of it. The video’s presenter, Graham Moody, is remarkably accurate in pouring oil into the filler hole. But then he has had years of practice. DIYers should use a pouring jug, or a funnel at least.
Our choice for this quite straightforward operation, from askthemechanic.co.uk, explains why you must disconnect the black terminal first, and how to secure a new battery properly. It also seems to be the only video to point out that the electric windows may need to be reset, and that antilock braking or stability control systems may not work until the car has driven a certain distance, allowing them to recalibrate themselves.
Spark plug change
Worn out or dirty spark plugs are a common cause of misfiring in petrol engines, and cleaning or replacing them can make your car go better. Our first offering is from the DIY manual publisher Haynes but like all Haynes videos it seems to have been made by a video production company with little feeling for cars and narrated by a professional actor. Although it’s technically correct, it’s dull and not particularly informative. So instead watch the video from Eurocarparts.com, which is clear and easy to follow and goes into detail such as how far spark plugs should be tightened — hand-tight plus a further half turn. It also covers modern single-coil-per-plug systems.
Shock absorber change
Bouncy suspension usually indicates worn shock absorbers, which tend to be straightforward to replace. Car Parts Direct contains good information, mainly covering the rear suspension, and pays heed to safety. However, for a simple and quick guide, we like the clip from the Australian parts supplier Supercheap Auto
Air Filter change
Poor fuel economy and impaired performance can be the results of a dirty air filter, and although filter renewal is typically recommended at every second service, few videos cover it. Fortunately, one we found, from the parts supplier Euro Car Parts, is clear and easy to follow.
Diesel heater (glowplug) change
If you have a diesel car and it’s hard to start from cold — and especially reluctant on the coldest days — chances are you have one or more faulty glowplugs. These heat the combustion chambers of the engine cylinders for a few seconds to help the engine fire up from stone cold with minimal exhaust smoke. Fix It Sam has the best video for showing how to test glowplugs and work out how many need renewing. They simply unscrew from the cylinder head once their supply wire is detached.
Also worth a look is the video showing the changing of the glowplugs on a Focus Mk 1, which gives the useful advice that tightening them slightly before unscrewing helps prevent plug-tip breakage.
Upgrading the stereo
Many people upgrade their stereo system to one with features such as Bluetooth connectivity. And for this we have one website to recommend.
Justaudiotips.com gives such good, clear information that it’s best to go there first, and search elsewhere only if your particular car isn’t catered for. The list of models covered is far from complete, but it is growing all the time, and there’s a lot of useful generic information.