To Wrench, Or Not To Wrench

That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler to suffer the dealers and technicians that cost an outrageous fortune, or to take up tools against a sea of troubles, and by himself end them.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

Tavarish recently asked why a car enthusiast might not work on their own car, and have shops and warranties handle it instead. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend a day under a car trying everything possible (and impossible) to remove that one final bolt that’s molecularly bonded to to the nut and refuses to budge, complete with loose rust flaking into your eyes the whole time? Why, yes, this is the voice of experience talking. I’ve done it both ways, in fact, and I understand both perspectives quite well. So here’s how I see it.

To Wrench

To Wrench, Or Not To Wrench

Though I’ve always been interested in cars, I haven’t always been an enthusiast. My first car, a hand-me-down 1982 Pontiac 6000LE, reflected that. I didn’t know the first thing about working on it, but I knew that typical ’80s GM [un]reliability was costing me a lot of money that I, as a poor college student, didn’t have. When my front brakes were past squeaking and onto grinding, and I couldn’t afford to get them fixed, my townie friend Cecil, who I met and talked with regularly on the ham radio, offered to do the job with me for the cost of parts. My dad objected, despite having been a bit of a wrench himself on our 1974 Super Beetle (think Torchinsky’s without the stripe). But I was desperate and there was no way I could afford a shop, so I took him up on it anyway. We picked up pads and rotors at the local parts store, and then he taught me how to replace them. Soon enough, I had good brakes again, and for a fraction of what a shop would have charged.

Since then, being willing to wrench on my own cars let me own and enjoy some pretty interesting stuff for not a lot of money. I started tackling more and more work on my own cars – mainly to save money. But soon I found myself enjoying the process and learning more about how they work. I picked up my first project car, a 1983 BMW 320i, to autocross with Boston BMW CCA, and to have fun tinkering with. The more I tinkered, the better I got at it, and the more effective my modifications were. When my first Miata ran out of oil at an autocross, I kept the original engine after having it replaced, and took it apart to literally see what made it tick. It was a fun project, and lucrative, too. Because 99% of the motor was still good, I sold off half the parts, and made back half the cost of the replacement motor.

To Wrench, Or Not To Wrench

Even after the dot com bust in the early 2000s, I’ve still been fortunate enough to own and play with a variety of interesting cars by buying cheap older cars and working on them myself. I had a free Civic wagon (front wheel drive), three different Miatas, an AW11 MR2, a nicely modified Saturn SL2, a RT4WD Civic wagon, a B13 Sentra SE-R, and a Crown Vic ex-cop car. Despite my low income during those lean years, I kept my costs down and had a blast, thoroughly enjoying both driving and wrenching on these cars. And doing the majority of the wrenching on them myself was how I made it work.

Not To Wrench

But at this point in my life, times have changed. Due to a long, complicated set of circumstances that I won’t bore you with, I’m living in a rented condo these days. I only have room for one car, so I can’t afford to have my car out of commission for days at a time and miss work. I also don’t have any shelter, such as a garage or carport, to work on my car – especially during the six month long New England winter. I also can’t keep my tools near my car, making it a pain to get any work done on it. Even swapping from summer to winter wheels and tires is an ordeal, since I have to carry everything a good distance out and back. So the location isn’t ideal.

To Wrench, Or Not To Wrench1

So last year, I bought my BRZ. Being a new car, nothing should go wrong with it for a very long time, and even if it does I have a warranty to back it up. Ironically, that warranty is the very reason I won’t do so much as my own oil changes. Why? Because I want the documentation of a professional establishment proving that I have done all of the required maintenance in case of any warranty issues. Sure, I could show them a receipt for a filter and a few quarts of oil, but that doesn’t prove that they actually went into the car at the appropriate time. I’m also not making any radical modifications to the car – nothing that should void the warranty, at least. I’ve still made some minor tweaks, like adding a backup camera, mud flaps, a ham radio, a trunkmonkey, and dipping the stock wheels gold to complete the Subaru rally look. But that’s about it.

Which Is Better?

In my opinion, neither. They’re just different means to the same end. I would never consider someone to not be a true gearhead because they don’t wrench on their own car. Not everybody is cut out for it, and that’s OK. Or, like me, different phases of life require different approaches. I love my BRZ, but I do miss having a cheap beater I didn’t mind stuffing into a snowbank at a winter rallycross.

In a perfect world, I’d have it both ways. I’d keep my BRZ, and keep doing what I’m doing with it, which is mainly daily driving. But I’d have another older, cheaper car as well that I could tinker and play with as I please. These days, off-pavement pursuits such as rallycross and eventually stage rally interest me, so something I could slide through the cones and eventually down the stages that I could tinker with myself would be great. I’d have the best of both worlds – a car I didn’t have to worry about, and a car I could play with.

Original article posted on Opposite Lock