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What Dad Taught Us About Auto Repair and Cars

June 2019 | By Youssef Sleiman

This Father's Day, we share real-life lessons from the dads who taught America how to turn a wrench. Profound, funny or practical, fathers taught daughters and sons what they could about life, cars and fixing both.

Dads across America are often our first mechanics. 

They’re also the first to teach us about car repair. How to change a tire. How to check your oil. How to jump-start a car.

Fathers aren’t perfect. Sometimes, all they pass on is the number for roadside assistance. Fathers of the fortunate passed on lessons about socket wrenches, oil filters and courage.

This Father’s Day, we’re sharing real-life stories of car repair from sons and daughters. They’re sharing what their dads taught them about cars, life and fixing both.

What they learned is inspiring, handy and sometimes hilarious 

"Work one bolt at a time"

Let me start with a story of my own. Not many of the people in my life know my dad, Mr. Sleiman, worked as an auto mechanic early in his life.

Growing up, I remember the musical snicketty-snick of socket wrenches in the garage, awful smells and new swear words when oil spilled on him – and how Dad curbed his language when he saw me watching. Even so, he didn’t teach me much about auto repair.

That is, until I was in college.

One summer, I drove home with a check engine light on my 1997 Ford Taurus. I worried about the drive back and said so on a hot Friday afternoon. That day, he took me to a parts shop. We bought a new EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) valve, oxygen sensor wires and my own set of socket wrenches. When we got home, I thought he might walk me through replacing it. Instead, he began working on the lawn mower. After a few uncertain minutes, I went to him and admitted I didn’t know what to do.

Dad squinted sidelong at the exposed engine behind me. “I don’t either. I never worked on one of those. Just work it one bolt at a time. You’ll figure it out.”

I didn’t feel like I would figure it out.

Even so, I took apart the throttle body, air filter housing and most of the airflow sensor (which isn’t exactly where the oxygen sensor would eventually go) just by repeating “work one bolt at a time.” After an hour, I had isolated the EGR valve. After six hours, I replaced it by working one bolt at a time. After we made an appointment to replace the oxygen sensor later, he nodded sagely and said, “See? You figured it out.”

Dad didn’t teach me much that I would eventually use in my career. However, when an assignment seems too complex, I remember his Anne Lamott-like advice.

Then I work one bolt at a time.

"Never shy away from fixing things."

As a certified personal trainer in Tustin, California, Lynn Montoya works on human bodies rather than automotive bodies. However, her dad’s influence left an impact on her that reaches all the way to this day.

“When I was younger, I always helped my dad fix our cars,” Lynn said. “He was a 70s man who fixed everything himself. The knowledge I gained by helping him has helped me throughout my life. Although I’m a woman, I own and use all the tools he used.

“And I never shy away from fixing things.”

How to push-start a manual - if you only weigh 95 pounds

Childbirth is more than telling someone to “Push!” A doula works with soon-to-be moms to support them through labor and postpartum, as Doulas of Bellingham in Washington state will tell you.

There was a time when co-owner Christi Banks did shout, “Push!” Back then, it was to a helpful passerby willing to help her push-start her first car.

It was a manual 1979 Audi Fox. Her father, Bob Losinger, fixed it for six months while 15-year-old Christi watched before he handed her the keys. What still didn’t work was the starter.

“Before I could even test for my license, my dad pulled me aside for car lessons. He taught me how to check all my fluids, made me check my oil, watch him change the oil, and made me change a tire,” she said.

“And yes, he taught my 95-pound self how to push-start that old car.”

To push-start a manual car when you’re lighter than a flyweight boxer:

  1. Park on a downhill slope whenever possible.
  2. When it’s not, push and never give up.
  3. Pop the transmission from park to neutral.
  4. Push the car from the open driver’s door.
  5. When it’s moving 5-10 mph, make like an action hero: Jump in and slam into first gear. The car starts.

Thanks to her father, she also knows how to turn a wrench.

Christi is 39 now, a business owner and married with two kids. She’s replaced her own door cables, sunroof drain plugs and replaced the ignition coils on her husband’s BMW. His co-workers are a teensy bit jealous that she’s fixed his car. Christi knows more about auto repair than many men she’s known.

“That’s something you may not expect from a doula who works with women in childbirth,” she said. “My dad always said, ‘Don’t be afraid of an engine just because you aren’t a boy. My daughters will know how to maintain a vehicle.’”

More than teaching her to start her car, Christi’s father started a legacy.

She and her husband, Micah, are teaching their 16-year-old daughter to do her own repair work. The repair world is different in the digital age, though. Her husband taught her to use an on-board diagnostics (OBD) reader to diagnose problems on her 2003 Jetta and to research the repair steps via YouTube and internet resources.

“It’s important for both of us that she can fix her own car, and she is incredibly empowered by the car lessons her dad has given her,” Christi said.

She’s glad to report that grandpa is proud.

How to verify a bad front wheel bearing

The first step to solving any engine issue is diagnosing it accurately.

Alabama resident Amberly Whitworth learned a lot from her father. She worked 11 years as center manager in her father’s Mr. Transmission shop. From adjusting pinion nuts to complete tear-down-and-rebuild of rear differential assemblies, Amberly’s father taught her quite about solving problems.

Including how to diagnose them accurately.

Randy Whitworth taught Amberly to distinguish misfire data on a scanner from a transmission shuddering issue and to pick out the clicking sound of constant velocity (CV) axles by turning the steering wheel slowly. She also learned to identify bad wheel bearing sounds with a performance check, a handy bit of advice when you’re trying to find the source of a humming or rumbling noise.

To verify a bad front wheel bearing:

  1. Start driving the car. Get up to speed until you hear the noise.
  2. Turn the wheel slowly back and forth.
  3. If the noise changes directions, it’s one of the front wheel bearings.

Wheels make noise for plenty of reasons.

If you’re hearing a humming noise and you suspect you’ve got a bad wheel bearing somewhere, try out the trick Amberly’s father taught her.

How (not) to fix a radiator with a blowtorch

Dad sometimes offers a great example of what not to do. Dr. Tim Lynch learned to never listen to what his dad said about auto repair.

He also learned never to give his dad anything remotely flame-related for Father’s Day.

Today, Tim manufactures gaming computers and consults as a “robopsychologist” with a Ph.D. in psychology of computers and intelligent machines from Boston University.

But once, Tim was just a 17-year-old kid looking for a good Father’s Day gift.

“One year, I decided to give Dad a blowtorch for Father's Day. (Yes, I said blowtorch.) That week, my Dad's car [a four-door Dodge Dart] developed a radiator leak,” Tim said. “He then uttered that ominous four-word phrase: ‘I have an idea.’”

Not every idea deserves a try. But that would be a lesson for another day. Tim’s dad decided that week would be a good time to test out the blowtorch while repairing the radiator. If you already know how this ends, you can thank Dad or the wise mechanic who trained you.

“So we removed the radiator from the car – a good idea as it turned out – drained it and set it in the backyard. He lit the blowtorch and touched it to the radiator,” Tim said.

The radiator holds antifreeze, and it turns out that antifreeze is mostly alcohol. Even when drained, there was still some left in the radiator.

“Flame hit radiator. Boom! The radiator exploded and launched 50 feet in the air,” Tim said.

“We vowed to never use the blowtorch again.”


What did your dad teach you about car repair? Tell us on Facebook or Twitter

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