For those who gaze upon the maze of hoses, wires, ducts and metal beneath the hood and then fall into a numbing trance, Deanna Sclar has a message:
We're not dealing with rocket science. Wake up, read, and don't be afraid to do it yourself. The dollars you save will be your own.
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native who now calls Santa Barbara, Calif., home, Ms. Sclar wrote the first edition of "Auto Repairs for Dummies" in 1976. Originally more than 500 pages, the book has been condensed into a 107-page glove compartment guide that has just had its third printing, published by Ten Speed Press of Berkeley, Calif.
Ms. Sclar knows how to reach dummies because she used to be one.
Until a job with a publishing company transferred her in 1973 from New York to Los Angeles at age 25, she had never driven a car.
Then she bought a 1968 Mustang. But as she embarked on her daily 30-mile commute, she was haunted by visions of a breakdown.
"I was so ignorant that any time there was the slightest glitch I feared the car would blow up," she said.
So she enrolled in a basic auto maintenance class at a local high school and began replacing hoses and changing spark plugs. Pretty soon it seemed as simple as taking out the garbage.
More important, her fear of being stranded on some smog-choked highway shoulder disappeared.
"What I was doing was so easy and I was saving so much money that I decided to quit the publishing job I worked 15 years to get," she said.
She rented a $65-a-month room in Beverly Hills and started writing.
The book is so basic that some parts border on the embarrassing. One chapter is targeted at folks who dread pumping their own gas.
For those committed to overcoming their ignorance, however, Ms. Sclar has plenty of substantive tips designed to prevent small problems from becoming paralyzing headaches.
By understanding how tires wear down, one can quickly take the proper remedy. For example, if both edges of the tire are worn, it needs more air. If the center treads are balding first, chances are the tire is overinflated. When one side is losing tread faster than the other a wheel realignment is needed.
Ms. Sclar has an under-the-hood checklist to complete before setting out on long trips:
* Radiator fluid: If what's in there looks like rust, flush it and refill it. Also, check hoses on top and below the radiator for cracks and bulges.
* Fan belt: If it's cracked or frayed, replace it. Always carry a spare fan belt.
* Hoses: Squeeze every hose you can see and check for cracks.
* Oil check: Most dipsticks have two clear marks, one for full and the other showing when you need to add oil.
* Air filter: If it's too dirty to see through, replace it.
* Brake fluid: This will challenge beginners. But the master cylinder, which holds brake fluid, will be found on the driver's side near the fire wall.
The guide also has straightforward instructions on transmission fluid, power steering and windshield-wiper fluid checks.
The goal is not to put the quickie oil-change, muffler and transmission franchises out of business. Even Ms. Sclar admits she relies on specialists for every third or fourth oil change.
But don't be afraid to show your knowledge when you pull into the service bay.
"Asking the right question, for example, whether the brakes need relining or merely adjusting, will put them on the alert that they are not dealing with a dummy," she said.