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Thursday, September 23, 2010


Before I was born my father was a mechanic and continued to like to work on cars through my childhood.  He would do basic repairs to our cars himself, only taking it to the shop when it was too big for him or he needed a lift.  When I was young he tried to teach me a fix-it principle.  "Learn how to do it yourself of make enough money to pay someone else to do it."  Probably to his disappointment I didn't like to work on cars, so I tried to opt for the latter.

This year our minivan has had a number of big problems:  air conditioning broken, alternator gone bad, starter coil malfunctioning, etc.  All of these have lead to a couple of thousand dollars in repairs, which has hit our budget pretty hard.  My own Lumina has been having a number of problems and is on its last legs. However, we can't afford to get another vehicle right now so I'm trying to make it last as long as I can. 

One of the big problems that happened recently is my brake lights stopped working. I thought it was the light bulbs but a quick exam showed that it wasn't.  I did some searching on the Internet and discovered that the brake light signal was routed through the multifunction turn signal switch, and it was a known problem that the switch could go bad and lead to the brake lights malfunctioning. Some more searching lead me to a step-by-step tutorial of how to replace the part.  Trying to save more mechanic bills and keeping my father's advice in mind, I decided to give it a try.  So I ordered the part through a local auto part supply store, rented a few tools, and got to work.

Ugh.  I quickly remembered why I didn't become a mechanic, and also again learned why mechanics are usually worth the price.  This switch is down at the bottom of the steering column, which means that I had to take the entire steering wheel apart.  There were also numerous wires to try and disconnect, some of them far under the dashboard.  I discovered that the tutorial didn't have pictures of some of the details, so I was left to figure it out on my own.  I can work my way quickly through the abdominal anatomy of a dog or cat, but making heads or tails of some of those parts and connections is totally confusing.

I've started to come to the conclusion that the automobile industry is in collusion with mechanics to make automobiles as confusing and difficult to work on as possible.  That way an average, untrained person (like myself) gets frustrated and doesn't want to try and do it themselves.  I used four or five different sized sockets, three kinds of screwdriver heads, and several very specialized tools.  I had to remove two fuses, disconnect the battery, take apart the steering wheel, and remove covers and braces under the dash.  Wires were difficult to follow, connections were difficult to see and reach, and I sometimes felt like a contortionist trying to get to everything. It's like car manufacturers deliberately try to make it as complicated as possible.  Yes, I realize that an automobile is a complex machine, but I could see so many ways to make connections simpler and easier to replace.  A personal computer is far easier to work on than a car.

But the good news is that I finally got the job done.  It took me five or six hours, but everything is back in place and the brake lights work fine.  I did learn a lot, and It would probably only take me an hour or so to do it again.  Not that I ever hope too.

Yeah, next time I'm paying my mechanic.  Give me a spelectomy or bladder stone removal over auto repairs any day!