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Working On Your Own Junk

White Dodge Grand Caravan Part of Car Lust is living with vehicles that have seen better days. Sure it would be nice to drive the newest and latest and greatest, but the reality is for me, and many others, that we drive the wheels off what we have, and what we have is rarely all that good.

Late last week I ordered a radiator online for our 2001 Dodge Caravan with the 3.3-liter V-6. The original radiator with 212,000 miles had sprung a leak and was losing fluid; it had me worried it might rupture in an inopportune time. I live in a small town in southern Minnesota, so I called around locally and discovered there wasn't a radiator shop in town, with the closest being 15 miles away. Radiator replacement is usually pretty straightforward, so as I have more time and skills than money, I decided to do it myself.

Mechanically, I can hold my own. I grew up in my grandfather's car shop watching my grandpa and my dad work on our cars. I also spent many years working alongside my father in his motorcycle shop, where I really learned to be competent with a wrench. Add to that the fact that, with money tight, I have spent my whole life working on my own vehicles, and on the surface this seemed like a no-brainer job for me.

So at 4 PM I started taking the radiator out. I have done many radiators in my years, but this one was unlike any other.  A little over 2.5 hours later I finally had the radiator out and was missing a sizable chunk of flesh from the palm of my hand. My hand had slipped and caught a sharp metal post on the radiator housing about an hour in, just in time for me to bleed on everything and just before I started draining the system. Fun.

When I tackled the project, I didn't know that I would need to disassemble most of the front of the van.  Honestly, it would have been easier to remove the front bumper, quite likely saving time and headache. I did remove the grill portion that is attached to the bumper. There are some little clips that hold this on that are an absolute nightmare to get off, especially if you have arms larger in diameter than those of a 4th-grade girl. You have to remove a cross member (one of the few easy things), all the plastic above the engine, the hood latch and both electric fans. The fans fight the whole way, but if you stick to it, they eventually come. By this point your lower back is barking; since I'm 6'3" and fat, mine really was barking.  And then the fun began.

Getting the radiator to separate from the air conditioning radiator was a real chore. On the left side where the AC lines run, there is a peg on the A/C cooler that sticks into a hole on the radiator. This is darn near impossible to lift out with the A/C lines fighting you and the tolerance being very slim. After fighting and fighting--and subsequently contemplating opening the garage door and pushing the van out into the street and lighting it on fire--I finally got apart. But the fun didn't end there. Then I had to get the radiator out. Everything possible fights you--all the wiring and everything else in the front half of the engine bay. There isn't much space to get it out, but slowly and surely, once I wiggled it back and forth and pulled off everything that seemed to grab it on the way up, I was eventually holding the radiator in my hands.

It seemed like a victory, until I realized I still had to put the other one back in. The good news is that reassembly took only about half the time as removal, since all the rusted bolts were loose and I had figured out how everything goes. But it is by no means easy or enjoyable.  

I checked the hoses, refilled the fluids, double checked everything was tight and made sure I didn't have any left-over parts--check. Then it was time for the test drive--if everything came up to temp and held pressure, I'd be in the clear. Thankfully, everything checked out after my test drive.  

On a scale of 1-10 for special skills, this really wasn't all that special--probably a 4. But on a difficulty scale, this was an 8 or 9 simply for the continual frustration I experienced because of the design. There are few other shade-tree projects I have undertaken that pegged my frustration like this did. I wanted to break things about halfway through, and that never helps the work process.

Add to this the horrible experience of installing the rear spark plugs (the fronts are easy) and both O2 sensors in this van, and I am quickly learning to loathe this vehicle. The only good design I've encountered on this van is the fan relay switch that was burned out when I got the van. Remove the glovebox and two small screws, one wiring plug and you're done--a three-minute job. Otherwise, everything else I've touched on this van has taken at least three times longer than I'd like, and twice as long as any similar project on a different vehicle.

 But in the end I achieved victory, albeit almost four hours later with a desperate need for Advil. I no longer have to worry about my van stranding me on a cold winter night in Minnesota, and that peace of mind is worth a lot with a 6-month-old son. 

--Big Chris


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This is why the first thing I buy for each new (to me) car I get is a Chilton's or Haynes manual. I have done radiator replacements before as well, but my god it is so much easier to just "know" what you are up against.

I love to disassemble, I HATE to get to the point where it is just not fun anymore. Working on cars as a chore can ruin a whole week for me.

Grr...that reminds me of the O2 sensor I just had to replace on my '91 Accord. You see, the sensor is on the exhaust manifold, easy to see, hard to get to, because there is maybe an inch of clearance between the radiator fan and the sensor. To make things worse, the exhaust manifold heat shield (which subsequently was not reattached, and now sits in the limbo of spare parts known as my trunk) has to come off, which means taking off the radiator fan, which, like most anything else on this car, means jacking it up and contending with, as you put it, spaces for arms belonging to a 4th grade girl. Of course, the AC hoses fight like hell getting it out and back in. But, on the bright side, since the manifold shield is out, replacing O2 sensors in the future will be a cinch (with the $10 special tight space O2 sensor socket, of course).

But,that job pales in comparison to replacing the battery cable, which made replacing both CV shafts seem like lighthearted fun by comparison. After three hours of roasting in the pavement in a hot Mobile, AL parking lot, I finally got it replaced. Once again, one of those bonehead simple jobs, but frustratingly difficult due to the complete lack of space for hands.

Great post, Big Chris, and I agree wholeheartedly with you, Ron. I get a manual...and usually, I start with the Chilton/Haynes manual then upgrade later to the factory shop manual, mostly because the factory book has info that the others leave out for various reasons. I'm in the same boat, though, I have to work on my own stuff pretty much all the time, because with 5 kids to support, I don't have any extra money to throw at either a) a mechanic to fix my old-and-busted, or b) some new hotness from the local stealership. Though I have good mechanical/technical aptitude, I never really did much work on cars when I was younger, so I'm at a bigger disadvantage and always have to spend a lot more time reading stuff in the manual(s) or online to get info.

I have learned a few rules, though, as I've spent the last several years diving into working on cars:

1. No matter how hard you try, or how thick your gloves are, you WILL injure your hand(s) at least once in the course of any semi-major automotive project ("semi-major" meaning, taking longer than 45 minutes or when something actually has to be removed from the vehicle).

2. Cars just aren't designed for the DIYer to be able to easily work on them any more. My Ramcharger had a huge engine bay and a simple was also a 1977 model. My '98 Land Rover Discovery wasn't too bad, but I did spend a great deal of time laying on top of the engine to get to things in the back, like ignition coils or the wires for the O2 sensor. My ex-wife's 2001 Mistubishi Eclipse, however...why would you design a car that requires removal of the intake manifold just to get to the spark plugs? Or why route the steel thermactor hose directly next to the spark plugs, thus making it 10x more time-consuming to check/change them, as in my '86 Bronco? The cars of the past 25 years are far more complicated, far more compact, and far more oriented toward design that favors look over function. This completely discounts ease of maintenance, something that should actually be of critical importance in the design process. I guess car engineers only design cars to be built and look good...not to be maintained.

3. No matter what manual you are using, or how well they've documented, there is always one critical piece of intangible taken-for-granted info that is left out. For example, a few years back I replaced the in-tank fuel pump in my '98 Land Rover Discovery. The manual was great, AND I had a write-up from a friend online. Contrary to Rule 2 above, LR DID design this to be a simple pull back the carpet in the cargo area, you unscrew a circular hatch in the floor, and you have full access to the sending unit and all fuel lines. What neither the manual nor the write-up mentioned, however, was how tight the seal for the sending unit was. It was so tight, I had to hook a piece of rope to the conveniently-provided loop on top of the sending unit (perhaps the loop's existence should have tipped me off), stand up as much as I could in the back, and pull with all my might to get it up and out. Worse, it was keyed to only go in a certain way, so I couldn't work it back and forth, and this also made putting it back in almost as bad as getting it out. No one thought to mention that you would need a crane to get it I said, one of those "taken-for-granted-because-we're-all-professional-mechanics-here" kind of things.

Congratulations on keeping a beast like yours running for 212,000 miles in the Northern Tier. We live in Upstate New York, and winter does nasty things to cars. Add 100 inches (average) of lake effect snow to cold that can get nearly as cold as Minnesota, and you can imagine how much sodium chloride our plow drivers spread on the streets. Our last two cars were ready for the junkyard after ten years and about 170,000 miles. And those were Hondas. I see 2001 Chrysler products around here from time to time, and they usually look like they're being held together with duct tape, bubble gum, wire bread ties, and daily saying of the Rosary.

Of course, Mom and Dad's Taxi and Limo Service has been out of business for a couple of years now, and I retired from the Army Reserve in 2004, so our annual mileage is about half what it was (car 1: 11,000 miles, car 2: 7,000 miles). If durability is a function of how much winter driving actually gets done, we ought to be all set for transportation until 2023 when I start getting my Army Reserve pension. Meanwhile, I hope Toyota doesn't go belly up because of their current recall problems, or else I'll have a hell of a time getting parts.

Ugh... transverse mounted V-engines are the WORST. Thank you for reminding me why, after struggling with impossible to reach rear-facing spark plugs, I'm just going to sacrifice power and get 4-cylinders from now on, at least while I still can.

I must admit, it takes a certain amount of skill and bravery to work on minivans and their like. I took a look under the hood of a PT Cruiser once and quickly realized that I wanted nothing to do with that small, narrow engine compartment - I can't imagine a Caravan would be any better. Of course, full-sized vans are a "blast", too, between the nearly non-existent front engine bay and the center console-mounted engine/transmission service area. Either way, kudos to you for getting that radiator out and keeping that thing up and running for over 200,000 miles.

Some time ago I finally admitted to myself that I am just not equipped to do much work on my own vehicle(s). Having an old '78, I still do some stuff just to keep from going to the poorhouse on mechanic bills, but I have devoted myself to other things that I'd rather do than work on cars. Plus, for years while I was in grad school I lived in apartments, so no nice garage or gobs of tools. Even now that I have a house of my own, the garage is still pretty small and I still want to spend my time doing archaeology rather than replace alternators and what-not. But, you know, I'll have a go at replacing carpet (half-successfully), taillights, that sort of thing. Fortunately, I learned enough over the years that I can talk with mechanics without getting taken to the cleaners (and I found a good one who is worth his weight in gold).

I admit I still feel a tinge of manly unworthiness when I bring it in for something fairly straightforward. But now that mine is officially 'vintage', I also look at it as letting the professionals do what they do best and doing it right. And that car is far more reliable (knock wood) these days than anything that old has a right to be.

Yeah, this is a great post and a great thread. I'm learning as I'm starting to try to work on my Audi that:
1) Chilton/Haynes manuals certainly don't have every detail
2) The work itself isn't the hard part; it's *getting* to the work that's hard. Why must I disassemble half the engine to replace the air filter?

This is a great time for all of us to think about our next vehicle. If the car or truck we'll be looking at is difficult to work on, then maybe that 4-cylinder cute-ute or pickup doesn't look so bad after all.

All vehicles will age and need work. Will we be able to do it, or will we need to pay the mechanic?

This is a subject that volumes could be written on. It seems as though the "shade tree mechanic" is an entity of decades ago. For the most part, I do my own basic maintenance, which in itself is a far cry from yesteryear. I had a '69 Dodge Challenger Deputy Coupe with the slant six, and I replaced the points, condenser, and plugs a number of times. I bought the condenser and points from a local parts store for $.99, and the worst part of the installation was that the distributor was on the slant side of the engine, snug between the block and the fender. After putting the point and condenser in, I hooked up the dwell meter for a quick check. The carburetor was right on top, and I could adjust the mixture so that the idle was very slow. I currently have an '89 Buick, which is relatively easy to work on. The plugs are accessible and the O2 sensor can be reached without much difficulty. Now, thanks to the EPA, our automotive lives have changed. The CAFE numbers dictate the engine specs, and how many of us are ready to hook up a laptop to reprogram the chips to change performance? Luckily, I know a mechanic whose rates are reasonable and he (and his crew) are reliable. When it comes to changing radiators or major engine components, they have the expertise.

It had been years since I attempted to repair anything on our '91 Honda or '95 Toyota. The only vehicle in our stable that I felt comfortable working on was/is the '67 Beetle. Simple, simple, simple. But when the tailgate window on the 4Runner ceased to function, I read up on it online and decided it was time to get dirty and save some money. The parts cost only $45 from the local dealership, and all told the job took me 4-5 hours. Now I could probably do it in half that time. But I work very deliberately (see: slowly). When I was finished and cleaning my tools, my wife came out and asked me how it was going? I think she was scared to ask. When I told her it was all finished and she tried the window, which operated smoothly and quietly, the feeling of satisfaction brought a smile to my face. Let's hope the next repair goes as smoothly. Closing in on 200K miles -- I want to see it, and continue to hear, "Are you still driving THAT?"

Here's a little note from the site sponsor. Big Chris bought his radiator online, though not from Amazon--but he could have!

Not necessarily pertinent, just putting it out there ...

Bill T.: "many of us are ready to hook up a laptop to reprogram the chips to change performance?"

Actually, as a guy who wasn't brought up on car maintenance but was brought up on computers, it's much less intimidating for me to hook a laptop to a port and play with the software than to contemplate dissasembly of some nameless but doubtless important component to get to my air filter.

...when i began looking for another car a few years ago, mechanical simplicity was foremost amongst my criteria, but even though i now enjoy the most basic passenger car in current production this side of a tata nano, much of the engine bay remains fussy to access...thankfully, fellow enthusiasts have developed a handy solution which i wish more cars accommodated...

...m...: That makes me want a Spitfire even more!

I know what the guy above is saying about mechanical simplicity. We bought a Land Rover Discovery 3 and I'm not even sure how to get the encasing off the engine never mind fix anything even slightly complicated. Simplicity should never be under-estimated!

@Bill T - If CAFE determines engine specs, why can't we get cars with the smaller, more fuel-efficient engines available on the same cars overseas? Most cars nowadays are overpowered, and could easily give up some power in exchange for better fuel economy.

If anything, CAFE determines chassis design. You have cars out there that are designated light trucks so that automakers can cheat the system. For example, I think ALL Subarus are counted as light trucks. To the extent that this affects engine specs, it allows for larger engines on cars that are NOT counted as trucks than would otherwise be the case.

One of the few complaints I have about my GTI is that there's a big plastic thingy sitting on the top of the engine to . . . as far as I can tell, its sole purpose is to make the engine bay look cooler. It also hides everything, like the plug wires and such, and has no obvious way to be removed, with the effect (possibly intended) of discouraging you from working on the engine yourself.

Contrast that with the immense pre-smog pre-electronics engine room of the Frazer Manhattan. You can name every part you see, reach everything you need to reach, and get the tools in to tighten or loosen it, even climb in next to the engine if you're so inclined and not too husky of build.

On the other hand, the GTI generates twice the horsepower in half the displacement with a lot less in the way of air pollution. Not as easy to shade-tree, but that's a trade-off worth making.

I've actually never really worked on any of my cars. Everything that ever had to be done either fell into simple areas like bulbs/wiper blades, etc, or else was a major failure (transmission in my 85 Cutlass - sort of wich I had that car back, now) that I probably couldn't have handled then as an apartment dweller anyway.

I've had a bunch of motorcycles, and most of that work I did do myself. Clymer manuals are key here as well. Even though you're not confined by an engine bay like on the car, it's still a PITA getting hands or tools into position on a bike as well.

Anymore, for a lot of work (not just on cars, but around the house as well), I sometimes come to the conclusion it's just cheaper to pay someone to do it. Take away my man card, but I figure once I get the parts (possibly multiple trips to Napa/Home Depot/wherever), get the proper tools if I don't have them (ditto), figure out how to do the job, and then actually do it, I've spent close to what I would pay to have someone do it, plus using up a whole Saturday or weekend in the bargain.

Great post, I'm always willing to save a buck or two by tackling auto maintenance projects myself. It certainly creates a love/hate relationship with each particular car depending on how easy the manufacturer made performing the task at hand.

@Chris H. - Skip the Haynes/Chilton manuals, you want a Bentley manual for your new Audi (available at Amazon lol). These are the most detailed books for German cars you can buy unless a factory shop manual exists. They certainly don't talk down to you though, and usually the first step is "remove XXX to change part". Sometimes removing that whatever with no guidance can be just as hard as the actual part replacement though ;)

@Cookie - The decorative cover on your GTI should be held in place by a few Torx bits. VW LOVES using Torx bits whereever they can. It'd be worth taking off just so you can familiarize yourself with the engine a bit more. BTW, your car doesn't have spark plug wires, it uses coil packs for the spark plugs.

Anyone here remember the GM 3.4 DOHC V6 from the 90s? THE absolute worst design ever, an absolute serviceability nightmare. The battery itself was underneath (yes, underneath) the windshield washer bottle, which was halfway underneath the fender, which was underneath a support brace.

I had a '92 Lumina Z34, and during the time I had it I needed a new alternator and timing belt. It was almost funny when I pulled that car into any service bay and watch all the mechanics scatter like roaches with the lights are turned on.

I'm on my 3rd front wheel drive, transverse mounted engine and I am SO over it. It took my dad and I 5 hours to replace the salve cylinder on my 91 Escort GT. The Haynes manual was so laughibly incorrect it was more useful as a set of knee pads. The air filter is secured with 6, count them, SIX screws. no clips, and hardly any of the screws are unobstructed.

I had a Isuzu Trooper and it was 10x easier to work on. Oh well.

Shawn: I second the Bentley manual for the Audi. I have one for a VW that I have lying around and it is SPECTACULAR. Infinitely better than the Haynes manual I started with initially, especially when it comes to the electrical system. Interestingly, I actually found it to be a bit better about "talking down" to me, though - the Haynes manual just skips random steps that it thinks are "self-evident", while the Bentley manual was very solid on detailing each and every step.

As for repairs, I want to give a quick shout out to Kia. I've done some work on my '08 Rio and it's been drop dead simple so far. Everything is easy and accessible. Documentation is free at, including service manuals (!). My only complaint is that the danged thing has a timing belt instead of a more durable chain - past that, cake. No real plastic vanity bits. You can definitely tell that they want to keep labor costs as low as humanly possible to better control their warranty costs. Granted, if I wanted to do some serious performance tuning, it wouldn't be as easy as turning a couple of screws, but at least replacing parts is relatively simple. That's progress.

Am I the only one who thinks that the title of this post is ... ehmmm ... not safe for work?

When the alternator went out on my wife's Mazda MVP, I thought I'd save money and swap it out over a Saturday afternoon; this was something I've done on several cars and a boat. I opened the hood and began surveying the job in front of me.

Let's just say rather than disassembling the entire front half of the car, I decided to let the local garage do the work. I would have spent a week on it.

I have a 2000 Caravan with the 3.0L engine, and I sympathize. It developed the belt-slippage problem where the main belt slides off of the idler at any hint of moisture due to a slightly bent idler bracket. I quickly learned how to replace/reinstall the belts by myself without going the manual-approved route of removing the front wheel and wheel well barrier ... and could do it with a few simple tools in the dark on the side of the road in the rain. (The garage man told me it was not possible to replace that belt without taking off the wheel. Au contraire. I showed him how.) Then I found the fix kit for that design flaw and was forced to let the garage install it, because I could not reach the idler mounts.

It's been a mostly reliable vehicle, which is a very good thing considering what a PITA it is to work on. I miss my old '89 Suburban, where I could literally crawl into the engine compartment to get at things if need be.

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