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TM reader Teacher commented on a post recently, sharing his experience in doing a brake job:

“Last week I changed the front brakes on my 2005 Grand Caravan.  Bendix brake pads cost me $49.  The local Dodge dealer and another garage both wanted $150+ do to the same thing.  The only problem was that the calipers were held onto the brackets by bolts that required a 7mm hex head.   Guess which size is commonly left out of sets of Allen wrenches?  The jerk at the Dodge place first told me he didn’t know what size hex head the calipers took.  When I asked if his manager would know, he fessed up to it being a 7mm, but had no idea where I could get one.  Of course they would be glad to do the brake job for me.  Nope.  Good old NAPA.  The 3/8″ drive hex bit in 7mm was $4.99, USA made.”

If you’re new to auto repair — but love the idea of saving lots of dough doing it yourself — read on past the jump for a few tips on locating the info you need to get the job done.  And if you’re an old-hand at car maintenance, jump in and share your experience via comments!

When I first started working on my car, it took me a long time to figure out just who I could ask for help.  I’ll save you a lot of time: consider their motivation before you ask.  For example, if you ask a dealer parts manager about what kind of tools you need to do your own repairs, they’re going to blow you off.  Their job is to sell parts, and that’s what they’re motivated to do.  A tool retailer — or as in Teacher’s case, a parts house that also sells tools — can sell you the tool, so they’re motivated to answer your question.

But if you’re really stuck — like you can’t remove the part to take it down and try out tools on it — you can always, um, twist the situation around a little.

For example, you might try this: call up the a dealer parts department and ask, “Do you have a front caliper for a 2005 Grand Caravan in stock?”  When they come back and say “yes,” you could respond, “Hey — mine looks a bit strange.  Are you sure it’s the right one?  Mine has 8mm hex bolts.  Does yours?  What size are yours?”  He might think you’re a little wacky, but he’ll probably answer the question.  Try the same thing with another parts house.

Of course, the best way to deal with these situations is to form a good relationship with a parts house near you.  I’ll admit that we’re pretty good friends with the guys at an O’Reilly’s up the street from the TM shop, and after buying thousands of dollars in parts and tools from them, we can now call up and ask questions like, “Have you ever seen one of these things before?  What the hell is it?”

Another way you can improve your chances of convincing retailers to shorten your search by sharing their knowledge is to give them the (correct!) impression that you’re a hard-worker as opposed to a cheapskate.  These guys bust their asses doing a tough job, and they respect those who do the same.  (And, not surprisingly, don’t respect those who don’t.)  Along those lines, don’t be afraid to go into the shop with dirty hands.  They’ll understand.  Also, be respectful when you ask questions — especially those that aren’t going to increase their sales at all.

Finally, remember that in the end it’s your responsibility to figure all this stuff out — not theirs.  If no one will give you the time of day about parts, you may have to actually research it yourself.  To save cash, start with the web.  Google makes a pretty darn decent auto manual, though you have to remember to take whatever you find with a grain of salt.  But consider this: in a few weeks, if someone else put “2005 Grand Caravan brake job caliper hex bolt” into Google, they’ll probably find Teacher’s comment here on TM and know it’s a 7mm.

You can also buy a manual for your car, or sign up for AllDataDIY.com’s service.  You’ll always have better luck asking questions of those in the know if they know that the answer isn’t readily available in the manual.

Of course, I’d guess that TM readers have a lot more of these kind of experiences that they can share, and hopefully they will!


10 Responses to Tip: How To Find Car Repair Information

  1. Steve Thompson says:

    The Technical Information CD’s for my MINI (actually all BMW) have been priceless. I got them on eBay pretty cheap and don’t know what I’d do without them. Also, for BMW owners, the website: RealOEM.com will let you search for part numbers and see exploded diagrams of systems of your BMW. I usually order my MINI parts from out of state (when its not an emergency) dealers who offer better prices and discounts for members of certain MINI communities. Speaking of which, car forums are an endless supply (ad nauseum) of information, how-to’s and such on a lot of vehicles, especially those that appeal to enthusiasts. Google your car, you may be surprised what you find.

  2. Waylan says:

    Manufacturer’s Service Manuals are often the best source of this info. Much better than books published by third parties. After purchasing a car, I’ll hit ebay for the manual. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a reprint at a good price, but if not, they’re usually available on CD as scanned PDF files for pretty cheap.

    It doesn’t hurt to grab one of the third party books as well (always check ebay first). They do a nice job of stepping you through the process, but may come up short on specs, diagrams etc. In a tranny swap I did, we read the Haynes book but when we got under the car and looked at things, we couldn’t figure out what it was talking about. After looking at one of those expanded views of how all the parts fit together from the Service Manual, it all came together. Apparently years of grim and rust had disguised a few seems between parts.

    Depending on your year, make and model, YMMV. I once had a European car in which the Service manual came in multiple books (I think 6) at $300 a pop. Ouch! I had to order the Hayes book from England for an English edition (at a steep price plus shipping across the pond) and it refered to my car’s “bonnet” and “tyres”. In that case, I found a good online forum (and community) specific to that make which was much more helpful and reliable. Those guys lived and breathed those types of vehicles every day. I’ve since found similar communities for other vehicles I’ve had. Unfortunately , I have not been able to find such a community for my most recent purchase.

  3. John says:

    A little off topic, but you mention asking the parts guys if they had ever seen a part before — a disappearing breed is a parts guy you can hand a part to and ask him to find you one like it. Those who enjoy being parts guys will go hunt one down, because chances are they’ve seen it before. The clockwatchers will ask what it fits, look it up on the computer, and then shrug. VERY irritating when you’re working on anything other than the family truckster!

  4. Evan N. says:

    I’ve found the NAPA and Kragen websites are very helpful, as they often have pictures of all the parts, and do a decent job describing them. I think Autozone is even adding features like this to their website. Best of all, they are free reference materials which means you don’t have to go down to the Autozone and watch the high school kid not be able to find the part in his computer. This is especially key when you don’t know the proper name for something — you can click through the parts available under the appropriate category.

    Aside from service manuals, there are often books available on exactly what you are doing, especially broad topics. For example, I think every Gen I small block Chevy owner should own “How to Rebuild Your Small Block Chevy.” It’s an “HP Book” that you can still find in the bookstores. It coaches you through an entire rebuild, which I haven’t done, but I’ve sure referred to it for the specs on a particular fastener or something like that. The automotive books section in a bookstore has so many books like that.

    Lastly, as mentioned above, don’t forget Google, because somebody out there has probably had to do what you are trying to do, and may have written about it.

  5. Scraper says:

    Manuals and the Internet are probably my most important auto tools. I really like the Haynes manuals, but if you can find a factory one (that isn’t too expensive) you should get it. Especially if you have a less popular or more complicated vehicle.

    I also have found a couple of good websites with forums that are vehicle specific. (Like F150online.com and dodgeintrepid.net, can you tell what kind of vehicles I own?)

    As a bonus, I work in a large factory in a semi-rural setting. There are alot of shadetree mechanics here that I can get advice from.

  6. Charlie says:

    The guys at O’Reillys are the bomb. Next best is the Factory Sevice Manual. Then comes good old Google. Also, talk about your car in conversation at work. That usually calls out the car guys. Last, but certainly not least, experience. Nothing else can replace it.

  7. Jin says:

    No need to wait two weeks. Enter “2005 Grand Caravan brake job caliper hex bolt” into Google right now, and this post comes up #1.

  8. TL says:

    Google is your friend. As are factory manuals. For descriptions (and often pictures) of how to do more vehicle specific jobs, check the forums for the specific car. If it is a wierd problem but common to that model vehicle, there WILL be a post out there somewhere on how to fix it (often with far better pictures than the manual has).

    Before shelling out the big bucks for the factory manual from the parts counter, check out eBay and the vehicle specific form sites. For older vehicles, the eBay prices on the factory manuals are often

  9. Old Donn says:

    Factory manuals are great, but not foolproof. They’re only as good as the guy who writes them. I’ve found a few mistakes over the years. That said, they’re indispensible in the garage, and a laptop’s catching up fast. If you’ve got a decent set of tools and can read, you can do pretty much anything. I say pretty much because some jobs require experience. Rebuilding differentials comes to mind.

  10. Rich says:

    Thanks that was helpful…..just have to amke sure I get 7 mm or 3/8 hex head…I knew how to do the job just not what size hex I needed….”F” MOPAR and their metric///same as 13 mm when trying to work on engine

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