Mechanic: Check Under Your Own Hoods

Sam Maynard has been spreading the gospel of do-it-yourself car repair for more than 15 years. As people look for ways to save cash, the 70-year-old Los Angeles mechanic hopes more drivers will want to pick up some basic skills.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Whatever your ride of choice may be, you still have to get it fixed, and taking your car in for service can get pricey. Well, you can do a lot of that costly work on your own, and folks like Sam Maynard can help. The Los Angeles mechanic has been working on cars and trucks for more than 50 years. His latest mission is getting drivers to go boldly under their own hoods. Here's NPR's Christopher Johnson.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Sam is that guy, that guy who always knew what he wanted to be.

Mr. SAM MAYNARD (Mechanic, Los Angeles, California): I had a vision when I was nine years old.

JOHNSON: Sam grew up on a farm in Barbados, and he was sound asleep one night when he had a crisp 3-D dream about the inside of a car.

Mr. MAYNARD: I saw the valves, the pistons, the crank shaft, fly wheel; everything that is inside that motor, I've seen it.

JOHNSON: More than 60 years after Sam's boyhood epiphany, he's still obsessed with everything automotive. He's giddy just from popping the hood of a friend's old station wagon and showing off his handiwork.

Mr. MAYNARD: It was full of grease and muck and all of that. So, I cleaned it all up, put new valve cover gaskets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: Sam works out of his driveway crammed with cars in the south LA suburbs. His gray van is parked there; it's got big hand-painted words across the side.

Mr. MAYNARD: Come and learn basic skills. I had that on there for 15 years.

JOHNSON: He's been trying to pass on those basic car-repair skills to anyone who will take informal classes with him. Sam can't help himself; he's always teaching, always churning out a steady stream of maintenance advice.

Mr. MAYNARD: You have to check your water every week, check your oil every week, tires and so forth.

JOHNSON: He pokes his head under an open hood. Dressed in an old-school ocean-blue mechanic jumper, Sam wields a socket wrench like a pointer. See over there? Filthy battery, keep it clean with baking soda and water, and that swollen hose, it's going to blow any day now. Sam doesn't stop.

Mr. MAYNARD: When your brakes get low, your fluid level drops. You don't add fluid; never add fluid. So, just basics, basics.

JOHNSON: Sam says a lot of people just top off their brake fluid when they should get their pads replaced. Before they know it, it's metal on metal. Even then, most of the drivers he knows would rather leave the dirty work to him. He points to a friend's SUV. The head gasket is totally kaput, all gunked up with some kind of mustard-colored slime. Yuck. Sam's definitely upset at what he sees.

Mr. MAYNARD: It's a mess, it's a mess.

JOHNSON: He takes this car repair stuff to heart.

Mr. MAYNARD: Oh, it's my passion, it's my passion, it's my passion, it's my passion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: As a boy, twice on purpose, Sam flunked the entrance exam for the one of the best schools in Barbados just so he could go to trade school instead.

Mr. MAYNARD: I wanted to be the best mechanic in the world.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: Since then, Sam has picked a college degree in motor-vehicle technology. He's done car repair in three countries, working on everything from coopers to semis. But Sam insists you don't need all that book learning or experience to take care of your car; just...

(Soundbite of finger snaps)

JOHNSON: Pay attention.

Mr. MAYNARD: Belts, forgot to change your belts. Have you changed your air filter? If you want to get a little bit more enthusiastic, you could change your spark plugs. It's easy, very, very easy. All you would need is a tool...

JOHNSON: Right, tools. They don't have to be expensive; $80 or less will get you a good set of socket, Allen and crescent wrenches. Toss in some screwdrivers, and you've got a good tool kit for 100 bucks. Think of it as an investment. Remember, just changing the oil twice a year can cost $70. At least that's what the Good News Garage in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will charge you. Ray Magliozzi, co-host of NPR's Car Talk, runs the shop. He fully supports the do-it-yourself spirit. Ray estimates that an adventurous Mr. or Mrs. Fix-it can knock as much as third off their annual mechanic costs.

RAY MAGLIOZZI: So, for example, if the average repair bill for the average car is $1,000 a year, you might be able to whittle off 300 or 400 bucks off of that by doing stuff yourself, and you get the satisfaction of having fixed your own car.

JOHNSON: Ray's do-it-yourself check list looks a lot like Sam's. Even though vehicles are getting more complex, Ray says most people can manage simple car care. But some things he suggests leaving to the pros.

MAGLIOZZI: You know, it's (unintelligible) something like a bolster seat belt might be within your grasp as well. Although you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MAGLIOZZI: You might not want to repair your seat belt if you didn't know what you are doing. It might cost you your life if you did it wrong, and I wouldn't recommend it.

(Soundbite of socket wrench)

JOHNSON: Just like Ray, Sam's a mechanic and he depends on car trouble to stay in business. But he's also a prophet of the practical, and to him, helping folks learn car repair is more about giving peace than getting paid.

Mr. MAYNARD: It gives people confidence. If they know little basic things about their car, they wouldn't get so frustrated when it break. I really like to pass this skill around, because it's such a wonderful skill.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

JOHNSON: With that, Sam hops into his van and heads out on the road...

(Soundbite of engine turning)

JOHNSON: Hoping to win more converts with the Tao of do-it-yourself.

(Soundbite of honking)

JOHNSON: Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: You can see pictures of Sam Maynard with his van and find some links for do-it-yourself car repair at our Web site, npr.org/daydreaming.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

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