Fixing Cars for Beginners

Cars have gotten significantly more reliable over the past 30 years.  Unfortunately, many new drivers are on a budget or start with older, used cars that are more prone to breakdowns.

Fixing cars for beginners is a skill every new driver should have.  You don’t need to become an expert mechanic, but knowing the basics of how cars work and what to do in the event of problems can save you time and money and help keep you and your passengers safe.

Basic Overview of How Cars Work

A car can be thought of as four connected systems:

  • Engine
  • Transmission (manual, automatic)
  • Drive train (brakes, differentials, tires)
  • Supporting accessories (odometers, cruise control, fuel gauges, lights, etc.).

Even knowing a little about the basics is helpful. 

At a minimum, we suggest spending 10 minutes on engines as they are the most unfamiliar for most newbies.  Here is a good video that shows the key engine components and how they fit together.

The Problems You’re Most Likely to Face

The list of things that can go wrong with cars is infinite, or at least it feels that way.  Many car problems are “fixable” by even the newest newbie, however some require professional help.  Knowing the difference will come with experience.

Various engine parts

Here’s our view on the most common issues new drivers are likely to encounter.  

  • Warning lights (check the manual immediately!)
  • Sputtering engine
  • Dead battery
  • No headlights
  • No turn signals or brake lights
  • Flat tire
  • Declining fuel mileage
  • Squeaky wheels and brakes
  • Shimmying (steering wheel shakes)
  • Overheating (engine or transmission).

Take declining fuel mileage for example.  This is absolutely something a new driver can address.  Poor mileage means your engine is not operating as efficiently as it used to.  The first thing to check are the filters, e.g., air filter, fuel filters, O2 sensors. 

Filters are much cheaper online than at a dealer and typically take 5-10 minutes to install.  If the problem persists, then go to your dealer or local mechanic.

Building Your Skills – Basic Reading

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way.  First, read through your owners’ manual, AND always keep it in your car.  Most manuals written in the past 10-15 years are excellent with extensive trouble shooting sections.

Readers of Autoshop Accessories are anything but dummies, but the dubiously titled classic book series is a great place to start.

Auto Repair for Dummies

Auto Repair for Dummies is the top selling basic repair guide, approaching a half a million copies sold.  Although the Dummies series varies in quality, this particular book is very good.  I like it for new drivers because it is comprehensive and well organized.

It covers:

  1. Getting to know your vehicle
  2. Powering up with air, fuel and fire
  3. Staying cool and in control
  4. Smoothing the ride (steering, suspension, tires and transmission)
  5. Staying safe and dealing with emergencies
  6. Helping your vehicle look your best.

Parts of the book are too basic for most drivers, like how to fill up at a gas station, but these parts are easily skipped.  This book is simple to use and serves as an excellent quick reference guide. Buy the Kindle version and it will always be available on your phone.

The Idiot’s Guide to Auto Repair and Maintenance is a similar book.  Coming in at 150 pages shorter, it is more succinct with a more “how to” focus. Consider this an alternative to the Dummies book. No need to purchase both.

The “bible” of general auto repair manuals is Tom Newton’s How Cars Work. Published in 1999, this book remains a best seller even today.

How Cars Work

Three things make this book stand out – it is brief (96 pages), well illustrated and has quizzes for each section.

Used by the History Channel to train the staff for Modern Marvels on auto related issues, How Cars Work focuses on the 250 most important car parts and is organized in seven sections:

  • Engine
  • Drive train
  • Fuel system
  • Cooling system
  • Running gear
  • Breaks
  • Electrical system.

Each section ends with a mini test. Four appendices cover ancillary topics like gaskets, air conditioning and safety. Overall, a good starting point for new, or even experienced, drivers.

Building Your Skills – Advanced Reading

For those wanting to advance to the next level, Today’s Technician offers a series of manuals used in trade schools to prepare for the Auto Service Excellence (ASE) certification exam. Many of these manuals are in-depth, clocking in at 1,000+ pages.

They offer guides on topics such as:

  • Repair and rebuilding engines
  • Heating and air conditioning
  • Electronic systems
  • Suspension and steering
  • Basic service.

Clearly, these are for drivers that have an affinity for the topic and even budding hobbyists.


Having your car maintained and repaired today is easier than ever before. Specialty shops exist for everything from brakes to oil changes to cracked windshields.

However, there are times when professional help may not be available. Knowing how cars work can save time and money as well as keep you safe.

Plus, fixing cars for beginners just a cool skill to have. Take some time and learn the basics. You’ll be glad you did.

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