I’ve just finished a car maintenance course at WiCAT, a Sheffield project teaching women construction and technical skills that they might not ordinarily have access to. It’s a fabulous project, and I can’t believe I’ve never been on one of their courses before.
I have an ambivalent relationship with car ownership, but since (for the time being at least) I do own one, I thought it would be good to know a thing or two about it. And I read this article about being self-sufficient in the city, which suggests you ask yourself where you’re dependent on services, and where you might be able to learn more skills yourself.
And so I found myself in the company of eight other women and a (female) tutor, about to strip down an engine (whatever that means).
Well, it turns out that ‘stripping down the engine’ just means taking it apart, one bolt at a time. I can do that, easy peasy. Fortunately we didn’t have to practice this on our own cars, but on scrap engines mounted on stands.
As we went along, the tutor pointed out the different bits and how they worked. For example I know you’re supposed to keep your oil clean and change it regularly, but seeing the tiny little holes it has to squirt through, and what will happen if there’s gunk in it, really brought home the importance of that.
Over lunch we talked about our experiences of cars, breakdowns and garages, and how we sometimes turn up the radio to drown out an unusual or annoying noise. I personally have a sticker over a flashing light on the dashboard (I have asked the garage, honestly, and they insist the fault is with the light, not the thing it’s connected to).
After lunch we parked our own cars in a circle and set about trying to label the bits we should be tending to regularly (coolant tank, oil) and the parts we had identified earlier in class (alternator, air filter).
This week we started by jacking up our cars and taking a wheel off. I had to change mine for the spare, as it was rather worn on one side (apparently it needs tracking – I assumed that kind of thing would have been done at the service five weeks ago). After a lot of jumping, the rather rusty nuts came loose eventually, and I changed my tyre without much drama.
The problem came when I tried to put the new spare back under the car…
Our car has a rather mad system where the spare is kept underneath the back of the car in a little cage. You turn a bolt inside the car to release the cage, which then drops down to release the wheel.
Which would be fine – if the bolt thread wasn’t SO rusty that, once undone (with great force and lots of swearing) we couldn’t do it back up again. None of us, not even the tutor. An embarrassing amount of time was spent heaving and groaning, before we eventually admitted defeat, threw the spare in the back of the car in disgrace, and tied the cage up with cable ties.
Aside from that small episode, everything went swimmingly. We went back inside and rebuilt our engines, being very grateful that we’d labelled all the parts well last week.
I’m not going to be doing all my own car repairs now, but I’m far less mystified by what goes on under the bonnet. And I’ll feel a bit more knowledgeable next time I go to the garage. We have a Haynes manual for the car, and I’ve always ignored the list of weekly and monthly maintenance jobs, but now I know what things are I’ll do them – you never know, it might even prolong the life of the car.
(I did notice that my car, which, having done nearly 165,000 miles, was the most well-used of those on the course, seemed rather more rusty and falling apart than the others…)
Tackling something I previously found baffling has inspired me to look around and see what else I could do. I’d asked someone for a quote for fixing and painting our outside windows, but tomorrow I’m going to see if I can do it myself. I imagine I’ll curse and swear a lot and get covered in rotten wood and paint, but by the end of the day I’ll be very proud of myself.
Was it worth going on a women-only course? It’s hard to say. The tutor was supportive, non-judgemental, patient and generous with her time and knowledge (especially with my uncooperative car) but that’s not to say a male tutor wouldn’t have been the same. The students were all eager to learn, and nobody seemed compelled to demonstrate how much they already knew.
I did like that we had barrier cream, decent handwash and a nice moisturising lotion for afterwards, though. Being capable doesn’t mean you have to stop being glamourous.
In fact, I think being both together is pretty damn cool.