Everyone wants to be independent.
The opportunity to live a self-reliant life is embedded in the American ethos of rugged individualism. We want freedom, and that burning desire causes us to try to achieve all that we can and master our own domain.
In the old days it was the farm and the livestock. Today, the do-it-yourself lifestyle encompasses much of daily living — from renovating our homes to sous-vide cooking to fixing our cellphones (despite the five-lobe screws from a certain fruity maker meant to discourage such tinkering.)
Cars, however, have gone in the opposite direction; they have grown more difficult, expensive, and mysterious for those who have no compunction about tackling any other repair on their own.
It's not their fault home auto maintenance has become so difficult. Everything from predatory pricing to government regulation is keeping the aspiring DIY auto mechanic estranged from their engine bay. There are entire industries and bureaucracies now partially aimed at keeping car repair in the hands of the few rather than the many.
Here are some of the culprits keeping folks at arm's length from their own cars:
Motor Oil: Changing your own oil used to be the way to get to know your car. Until a few years ago, you could get DIY oil change specials for $9.99 at your local auto parts store. Hardcore enthusiasts could always rely on a few motor oil companies that would virtually give away their newest oil brand formulations, and Black Friday oil change deals were often as cheap as $5.
Those deals are long gone; the basic ones now run more than $20, and more advanced synthetic oils can run $5 a quart, quickly erasing any cost advantage for DIYers over the local quick-lube place. This comes despite a dramatic increase in supply thanks to the development of recycled motor oil, which is cheaper to refine, and the development of motor oils that are based on natural gas. By the time you drain, replace and recycle the oil, you might have paid for the privilege.
Plastic Shrouds: Baseball hall-of-famer Yogi Berra used to say, "Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical." Although his math was wrong, the psychology of doing your own maintenance is mainly a mental challenge. The physical act of twisting screws and bolts is easy, but the engine shrouds aren't designed for easy removal, and all of a sudden all those “easy” parts become intimidatingly hidden from the novice eye.
Until a few years ago, plastic shrouds were mainly on top of engines, but now you can find them covering batteries, fluid containers, and in some extreme cases, nearly everything else under the hood. This serves, in part, to keep the dealership in business and to keep you from entering the DIY mindset.
Gravel Shields: These are also called stone protectors and are located directly underneath the front of your car. Along with underbody mouldings, these parts used to be short and uncommon, but automakers have expanded their breadth and flimsiness in the pursuit of better fuel economy via a reduction of aerodynamic turbulence.
Want to change your oil? In a lot of newer cars, you have to remove over a dozen plastic screws and clips just to get access to the filter and drain plug. Plus, after you’ve unfastened and refastened these plastic fasteners enough times, they usually break and require replacement. Most DIY mechanics will simply wind up tossing these plasticized annoyances in the trash where they belong. The owner who has never changed his oil, but wants to do it? Consider him or her effectively discouraged; obstacles like this make it that much harder to do the deed.
Sealed containers: When was the last time you pulled a dipstick?Oil dipsticks are now becoming a thing of the past thanks to the use of sensors that track your oil's service life. This may be a good thing for those folks who never bother lifting the hood. But for the millions of us who want to maintain our own cars, the lack of a simple measuring dipstick makes DIY maintenance that much less of a hands-on experience. It also serves as another technology-driven impediment, disappointing those who want to measure and add new motor oil before the level gets to a danger point.
The same holds for every fluid other than windshield cleaner. Want to check the transmission fluid in your vehicle? Good luck. A slew of automakers have now made it virtually impossible to inspect the quality (i.e. color and smell) and level of your transmission fluid.
Lifetime fluids: A big part of the blame should go to the manufacturers who have propagated a lie that has built planned obsolescence back into your daily driver: “lifetime fluids.” These only exist in a legal world where the word "lifetime" magically translates to “only the duration of your warranty period.” Once that warranty ends, so does that so-called lifetime. This myth is destroying the economics of owning a car for hundreds of thousands of consumers thanks to the use of lifetime fluids in continuously-variable transmissions which are virtually impossible to rebuild after they break.
What used to be one simple transmission pan or drain plug that needed turning every couple of years has morphed into a fortress of impenetrable steel that will likely grenade itself if you plan on being a long-term car keeper. In short, lifetime fluids aren’t.
Longer Maintenance Intervals: Back in the late 1990s, a lot of owners believed in the hype of 3,000-mile oil changes that was primarily promoted by oil and lube companies. As an unintended consequence, many owners began to change their own oil every 3,000 miles which meant that DIY maintenance became a more frequent routine for those folks.
These days most manufacturers are recommending oil changes every 7,500 to 10,000 miles, with synthetic fluids also becoming the recommended oil of many manufacturers. Even the cheapest new cars in today's market, such as the Mazda 2 and Ford Fiesta, now recommend synthetic motor oil. This has unfortunately resulted in owners who now maintain their cars far less frequently and have less of an incentive to become a do-it-yourself owner.
Computer Diagnostics: In 1996, the OBD-II standard became a requirement for all new cars sold in the United States. This not only helped better diagnose emissions-related issues, but also gave the DIY mechanic a simple plug-in tool that could help diagnose small issues before they became big ones. OBD-II is likely the greatest contributor to the increased longevity of vehicles over the last 20 years.
Unfortunately, automakers have fought back by attempting to make these once-simple diagnostics tools costly and proprietary. This has led to right-to-repair laws that help independent shops use the same tools as manufacturers and dealerships at a reasonable cost. In recent years, inexpensive OBD-II tools have become less effective for late-model vehicles that now need special, higher-end diagnostic equipment — keeping the would-be home mechanic busy with something else.
Top photo: Vanou via Flickr