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CAR CARE | Do It Yourself

Best Time to Prepare for Changing a Tire Is Before You're Stranded on the Highway

July 30, 1998|DEANNA SCLAR

Most of us are sure we'll never have to change a tire.

But if you get a flat far from a phone, service station or AAA tow truck, security lies in being able to do the job yourself. With a little preparation before you get a flat, you won't ever have to rely on the mercy or generosity of strangers.

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Taming the Wild Gorilla: Mechanics use a compressed-air wrench--affectionately called a "gorilla"--to tighten the lug nuts that hold your wheel in place. Unfortunately, mechanics usually tighten them until mere mortals, even 300-pound gorillas, cannot unscrew them. But if you loosen and retighten the lug nuts on your car before trouble strikes, you won't have a hassle when you get a flat on the road.

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Arming Yourself With a Gorilla Killa: Invest about $6 in a cross-shaft lug wrench, which provides much better leverage than the single-shaft wrench that came with your car's tool kit. Then find--or have your local hardware store cut--a piece of metal pipe to fit over one arm of the wrench and extend at least 12 inches beyond it. Ready to begin?

1. Remove the hubcaps or wheel covers that conceal the lug nuts by inserting a broad-bladed screwdriver where the edge of the cap or cover meets the wheel. Apply a little leverage in a couple of places, just like prying a non-screw cap off a jar of jelly. Place the hubcap on its back, so that when you're actually removing the wheel, you can put the lug nuts into it for safekeeping.

2. Place the end of the wrench that fits the lugs on your car over the first nut, so the arms to the right and left are parallel to the ground.

3. Slip the pipe over the left-hand arm of the wrench, and step on it. Amazing. You've now got enough leverage to loosen the nut.

4. As we're not actually changing a tire, don't remove the nut completely. Just tighten it by hand. Now place the wrench over the nut again, and step on the right-hand arm to tighten the nut enough to keep it from working loose. Be firm, but don't play Superperson. You don't want to twist the lugs off the bolts or ruin their threads.

5. Do the same to each of the lug nuts on every wheel. And always work in rotation--clockwise is an easy direction to remember--so you won't miss any during the tightening process.

6. Final precautions: Occasionally examine your spare tire, removing it from the trunk and checking the air pressure. There is nothing worse than removing a tire and finding that your spare is equally flat (especially in the rain). Also, make sure you have a jack and that you know how to use it, following the instructions in last month's Do It Yourself lesson.

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Changing a Flat for Real: Before doing any work, be sure you're out of danger from passing traffic. If the flat is on the side that faces the road, it's better to wait for help. It may be possible to move very short distances, very slowly with a flat tire, in order to limp to a parking lot, side street, rest area or safe curb. Never, ever, try changing a flat alongside a busy freeway.

1. Block the wheels to prevent the car from rolling and check that the transmission is in park (or first gear for manual) and the parking brake is set.

2. Remove the spare from the trunk before you jack up the car. Roll it into your work area where you can reach it easily, and lay it down.

3. Follow the gorilla-killa instructions above to loosen all the lug nuts on the afflicted wheel and tire. But don't remove them until after you've jacked up the car.

4. Jack up the car until the tire is an inch or so clear of the ground. Finish removing the nuts by hand, storing them in the inverted hubcap.

5. Grasp the flat with both hands and pull it toward you. When it clears the end of the bolts--you might have to wriggle it a little--lower the tire to the ground and roll it to one side.

6. Pick up the spare, lift it, and push it onto the lug bolts. (This might require a little more wriggling.)

7. Replace the lug nuts and tighten them by hand, making sure they are well-seated and the wheel is not shaky. Remember: You cannot tighten the nuts completely until the car is resting on the ground.

8. Use the lug wrench to tighten each of the lug nuts in turn. Step on the right-hand arm of the wrench to set each one in place. Make the tightening a sequence in opposition--that is, tighten the top nut, then the bottom nut; move over to the right nut, then across to the left nut--to make sure tightening pressures are applied evenly.

9. Place the hubcap or wheel cover against the wheel and whack it with the heel of your hand in a couple of places to be sure that it's on evenly and securely. Don't hit it with the wrench or you'll dent or break the wheel cover.

10. Remove the wheel blocks and put them, the flat, the jack and the wrench into the trunk.

Don't forget to have that flat fixed.

And think about joining AAA.

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Next time: We'll change the oil.

Highway 1 contributor Deanna Sclar is the Los Angeles-based author of "Auto Repair for Dummies" and "Buying a Car for Dummies," both upcoming from IDG Books.

* DO YOUR HOMEWORK

If you missed Lesson 1, on how to jack up a car, check out Highway 1's Web site: http://www.latimes.com/highway1.

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