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A Wrench in the Plans of Fixit Fans

November 14, 2001|RONALD D. WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

These are tough times for the "shade-tree" auto mechanic.

The sophistication of today's engines has made it difficult for many owners to tackle all but the most routine maintenance chores. The spread of quick-lube shops and other "do-it-for-me" services has reduced the network of do-it-yourselfers who can swap tools, parts and expertise.

But for many dedicated auto buffs, the problem is even more basic: the lack of a garage, driveway or backyard--let alone a shade tree--and adequate space to work on their cars and trucks.

"Back in the East and the Midwest, real estate is cheaper and people have more room to work on their cars," said Scott Newell, marketing manager for Hotchkis Performance in Santa Fe Springs, which sells suspension components, sway bars and other equipment to customers who once tended to do their own customizing and repairs.

In recent years, however, that has changed, and Hotchkis now installs much of what it sells, often to people who lack the work space and tools to do the job themselves, he said.

"I can sympathize," said Newell, 26, a Torrance resident who has been restoring a 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle. Because he lives in a small housing complex, Newell has to organize his maintenance with the timing and detail of a NASCAR pit crew. His car blocks the alley behind the complex when he tries to work on it, he said, and that has raised the ire of his neighbors.

Newell is part of a vanishing breed: Southern Californians who eke out the time and largely rely on their own savvy and resources to keep their vehicles running and on the road. For some, it's nearly an obsession; for others, it is a labor of love or an absolute necessity.

"The days of the backyard mechanic are just about over. They're almost gone," said John Verdugo, chairman of the automotive technology department at Santa Monica College. "Nowadays, you would need to spend a lot of money on equipment--computerized--to do real work."

Verdugo said he barely works on his own truck now, a late-model Chevy S-10 pickup.

"Oh, I could test it," he said. "Some of these vehicles now have 32 or more on-board computers. I would just need about $50,000 worth of testing equipment."

Mike Brant, an instructor at Santa Monica since 1982, agreed: "Now, you open up the hood and you can't see anything. No plugs, no wires, just a plastic cover. Now, it's all so advanced that a guy is lost unless he has his own diagnostic equipment."

Opportunities also have dwindled for those who lack the proper tools but still want to take care of their own vehicles. Garages that years ago might have been willing to rent out space in their facilities and allow customers to borrow a tool or two will no longer publicly announce any such activity.

"No garage can afford that sort of thing in terms of insurance," said Dennis DeCota, executive director of the California Service Station & Automotive Repair Assn. in Novato. "It's basic liability stuff. But the technology has also driven it. No one is going to want someone off the street using expensive equipment."

*

Despite such obstacles, many vehicle owners won't be denied the right to maintain their own transportation.

Before Leslie Crumb pops the hood on her battered 1965 Dodge Dart station wagon--and can even think about tackling what's ailing its venerable 225-cubic-inch, straight-6 engine--she first has to decide which friend's driveway she can borrow for the job.

Even without a work space of her own, Crumb, 39, of Westchester, remains a dedicated do-it-yourselfer. Then again, she has no choice in the matter, because she suffers from repetitive strain injuries on both hands and gets by on disability income.

"I've put 300,000 miles on it since my cousin gave it to me in 1990," she said of her Dodge. "I can do it because the mechanics are simple, even though I have to adjust the brakes every month.... It's a good car. It's simple and I would never spend a lot of money on a new one."

Petra Wolfe, 34, of Los Angeles, caught the auto-repair bug in high school and went on to earn a degree in automotive technology at Santa Monica College. After a stint at an automotive repair chain, she now works at the college as the tool room attendant.

The challenge, as she sees it, is that many of today's cars and trucks seem to be designed to minimize the amount of work an owner can do.

"We used to have a Honda and we couldn't even get our hands into the engine," Wolfe said. "Working on it just took forever. You [couldn't] reach anything. Either that or it required special tools that just weren't available to the average Joe."

Today, she relies on a 1993 BMW Touring Wagon with a 2.5-liter straight-6 that is eminently simple and accessible.

"It's a wonderful engine. You can change the water pump in half an hour. You can reach everything. It's not like one of these new cars where you have to go through the headlight socket to remove the alternator," Wolfe said.

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