Picture this: your car starts running ragged or you hear an unexpected sound, pop the trunk, and have no idea what you’re looking at. You don’t have to become a master NASCAR mechanic, but you ought to know your transmission from your engine and how to change your spark plugs.

The Basic Engine


Image via Flickr by Luke Jones

The engine is one the most important things under your hood. Succinctly, your engine is responsible for converting your gas into energy, or motion. There are all sorts of engines, such as gas turbine and diesel, along with rotaries, two-strokes, and HEMIs. Most of them, however, have several basic things in common:


  • The spark plugs, which ignite your air and fuel mixture so that combustion actually happens
  • The pistons and the piston rings, which work together to keep the combustion chamber in good condition
  • The valves, which are essential in releasing exhaust
  • The connecting rod, which connects your piston to your crankshaft
  • The crankshaft, which is responsible for turning the piston properly
  • And the sump, which is around the crankshaft and gathers excess oil


Many times, you’ll want to have the professionals go over your engine. However, basic maintenance, such as changing the spark plugs and tightening the piston rings, is entirely within the realm of DIY.

The ABCs of Battery Maintenance

Your car’s battery is essential. Fortunately, it’s easy to take care of yourself. Batteries die, so it’s worthwhile to know how to replace it. You should also have a good set of jumper cables, which you should know how to attach to jump-start a dead or dying battery.

What else can you easily fix? All on your own, you can take care of water, dirt, and corrosion (with a little baking soda or Coca Cola, usually), loose bolts and hold-downs, and even frayed cables. If you have a cracked case or cell cover, then a replacement is probably necessary.

Fundamental Fluids


Image via Flickr by Robert Couse-Baker

You can check and replace most of your car’s fluids yourself. Knowing how to check and change your oil is vital, and you also need to know how to check the antifreeze in your radiator to keep your car from overheating. Knowing how to check transmission fluid yourself can also save you a costly trip to your mechanic. The same goes for brake fluid. The washer fluid for your wipers is probably the easiest fluid to replace.

Belts and Hoses, Oh My

There’s a bevy of belts and hoses under the hood, most of which you can take care of yourself. You need to look at them once a month, to keep an eye out for any fraying, wear, or glazing. If you can feel more than half an inch worth of slack in the belt, it needs tightening. The only exception is when you have spring-loaded tension belts.

Keep in mind that if your belts or hoses are getting brittle or rotten, they need replacing. You should feel them for extreme softness or hardness. It’s important to know what a good belt or hose feels like first, so you can judge.

Knowing what’s going on under the hood saves money, time, and stress. What mechanical skills do you have under your belt?