The Best Places to Wrench on Your Car if You Don’t Have a Garage

Getting down to business with a DIY expert.

Are you stuck at home? Are you sad and bored and in need of something to do? As someone who is only a few chin hairs and house-on-chicken-feet away from being a Russian witch in a dark forest, working from home and rarely seeing people isn’t that much of a lifestyle change for me. However, I can see how those of you who previously went to track days and Sunday morning car shows might be wondering how to have a car life without your fellow enthusiasts.

Just go for a drive, they say. That’s fine if you’re lucky enough to own a brand-new Porsche 911, which I can assure you makes a most excellent mobile quarantine facility. But most of us aren’t that lucky, and if you’re among the tens of millions of folks whose livelihoods have been impacted by this crisis, the budget for automotive entertainment is likely nil. So what can you do while you’re stuck in the same place for weeks on end?

Wrench. Start a car project, finish a project car, or project your anxieties onto your car. There’s no better time than right now.

The author, doing the damn thing., Elana Scherr

You might be wondering what makes me qualified to talk about automotive repair or cars in general. Fair! First of all, I am absolutely not qualified to do anything, but I am loud and enthusiastic, and that pretty much counts as the same these days. I do live the lifestyle of which I speak, with about a dozen vehicular projects scattered around my house, more than half of which are drivable, so I’m not a total goober. I mean, I am, but I’m a goober with a wrench. I worked as a staff editor for Hot Rod Magazine for four years, and with the Roadkill crew for two, so breaking down and working on the side of the road is old hat to me.

These days, I have a garage and air tools and am basically living the life of a queen, but it wasn’t so long ago that I was pulling a driveshaft in a BART train station and hoping the security guard wouldn’t notice the expanding pool of transmission fluid. If you already have a project and you just need some encouragement to get back on it, consider this that pep talk. Get to wrenching! If you haven’t ever dug into your car but you kinda want to, keep reading. We’ll figure this out together.

So Where Will You Work?

Let’s start with the worst case. You don’t have a garage, you don’t have a driveway and maybe you don’t even have a parking spot in front of your building. Ugh. You, my friend, must be the most organized and clever of all DIY mechanics. You must be a toolbox ninja, because you don’t have the freedom to stop your job once you’ve started. You need to diagnose your problem and have all your parts and tools at hand before you tear anything apart. 

Now, for a list of places you could get to work. Technically, that could be anywhere. Park it right in the middle of the highway, what do I care? But we’re aiming for places where you won’t immediately be visited by a police officer telling you to leave right as you get the intake manifold off. Bear in mind that many cities have ordinances against working on a car in public. It’s best to assume you shouldn’t be doing it, and proceed with caution.

 Here’s my top five list from worst to best places to repair your own car:

  • On the curb on a public street. The pro to this one is that you can do basic things like oil changes or, as I did many years ago on a ’73 Plymouth, a starter replacement without a jack by driving up on the curb. Is this safe? Ish. Legal? Generally, no, so this option is best saved for emergencies, or quick jobs where you have all the parts and are 99% sure you know where they go. A subhead to this category would be alleys, cul-de-sacs, and private roads. The less traffic that goes by, the less chance of someone deciding you shouldn’t be there. And please don’t make me say this more than once: use a jack stand under a lifted car.
  • Parking lots and parking garages! Especially now, while many things are closed, you could work behind a mall or office building with minimal disruption. Scope it out first. You don’t want to get halfway through and have to move. Auto parts stores are another place to work if you’re doing something quick like battery or belts. Officially, work in parts store lots is discouraged, but I’ve never been to Auto Zone when there wasn’t at least one person in the lot with the hood up. The biggest pro of working near a parts store is, duh, easy access to parts, and a place to dispose of fluids. If you’re going the parking lot route, be considerate about where you set-up and how much space you’re using. The less you’re in the way, the more likely you are to be able to finish without interruption. My last parking lot fix was in Sacramento, an ignition failure on a 1969 Dodge Charger…on the way to my brother’s wedding. We made it in time!
Elana Scherr
  • In the woods. Pro: unlikely that anyone will report your activities. Also Pro: Trees available for helpful hoisting. Cons: Harder to keep parts clean. No electricity unless you bring a generator. Possible you’ll be eaten by wolves or a witch in a chicken-foot house. Seriously though, if you do work in the woods or a field or any natural area, be extra careful about jacking up your car on soft ground. Plywood comes in handy here, as do tarps. Heck, tarps always come in handy. If you’re working over dirt, you still need to be responsible regarding fluid spills. Think of the sweet baby wolves. Do you want them to get antifreeze poisoning? No, you do not. As a desert dweller, my own off-road fixes have been more about knocking sand out of clogged filters than mechanicking around in the forest, so I borrowed this photo from my friend Brian Lohnes to illustrate handy tree-hoisting. He says they stole this engine out of an abandoned truck. So why did you take a photo of the crime, Brian??
  • Rented garage, DIY shared space, or sketchy storage unit. If you have the option to rent a space that allows work, that’s fantastic. Shared spaces sometimes have tools and lifts as well, and that’s magical, but they aren’t cheap, and they are less common than you’d think. Most storage spaces specifically disallow automotive work, but if you find the kind that lets murderers store bodies in it, they probably won’t care what you’re doing in yours. Bonus, you can borrow a tarp! Murderers always have tarps.
  • Friend’s house. This is the best option, assuming you have friends. No judgement if you don’t. Maybe someday. If you do have a friend who will let you work in their driveway, don’t mess it up by being thoughtless. The only thing worse than your own junk taken apart in the driveway is someone else’s, and people can get fed up pretty quickly with all the swearing and crying and bleeding. Go in prepared, bring your own tools and cleaning supplies, and try to get it done in a day or two. These days, I’m lucky enough to have a garage and driveway of my own, so we’re the place where people gather to pull engines out of their overheated pickups and change the oil in their Mustangs. But in the past I’ve done bodywork in a garage in San Francisco, and in driveways all over America. Thank you now and always, to those willing to share, and perhaps more importantly, their patient spouses.

I’ve talked to people who’ve worked in 24-hour DIY car wash stalls, in old barns, in vacant lots, and on the side of the highway. Oh wait, I was that last one. If you break down, you gotta get moving anyway and anywhere that you can, but lying on the pavement a few feet from freeway traffic, or having to get your non-running car out of impound aren’t activities I recommend, so do your best to find a safe spot before you lift the hood.

Still doing it., Elana Scherr

Okay, hop to it, my new pals! That wrench won’t turn itself. There’s officially no excuse.

Elana Scherr has wrenched on a broken down vehicle in 30 of the 50 states, and five different countries. She writes about cars for everyone from Hot Rod to Car and Driver, and lives in what could rightfully be described as “a small junkyard.” Don’t tell the city.

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