This article was originally published on Road & Track in 2009.
Well, I must admit I was somewhat taken aback, even though the letter was good-natured and humorous. It arrived yesterday from a reader named Michael Lavander of Westland, Michigan, chiding me for not changing my own oil on our new Bullitt Mustang.
Seems I mentioned in a recent column that I took the car into the dealer for its first oil change, and Mr. Lavander said he immediately stopped reading, because "The first rule of Car-Guy-dom is you change your own oil. The second rule of Car-Guy-dom is that you change your own oil."
At the end of the letter, he added, "Please tell me that the dealer gave you a free oil change coupon for the new car and you just felt lazy! I am unable to read past the first paragraph."
Well, Mr. Lavander can relax, slightly.
Yes, my new Mustang came with two years of coupons for free oil changes, so I was not about to turn down a deal like that.
But I must admit that I almost always take a new car in for a dealer oil change when it's still under warranty. I have an unnatural dread of a hypothetical scene in which the service manager says, "Hey, Ron, this guy changed his own oil and filter and now he says the car has a funny engine noise!"
Gales of laughter from the service bays.
If the oil filter falls off my new car or the drain plug falls out, I'd just as soon have a receipt showing that a highly trained professional did it.
Also, the nearest collection site for drain oil is 12 miles away and—what with all the used oil from old cars, motorcycles and lawn mowers—I hate to make that trip too often. And then there are all those empty oil cans, jackstands and oily footprints on the floor...
So, yes, there's genuine laziness here as well. When I was a full-time foreign car mechanic during the '70s, I changed the oil in hundreds of cars, and—during my first year of apprenticeship—did almost nothing else. I've viewed every form of drain plug from 6 inches away, and have had remarkably warm oil run down my arm and drip off my elbow in everything from Alfas to Volvos, so the novelty has more or less worn off. If our Ford dealer wants to change the oil in my Mustang for free, that's fine with me.
Strangely, the timing of Mr. Lavander's letter was faultless, as the mail arrived just as I was on my way into the house after changing the break-in oil in my newly restored 1964 Lotus Elan. As I read the letter, my hands still reeked of Goop hand cleaner, mixed with overtones of drain oil that seemed to be emanating from the wristwatch zone.
Also, I'd spent half the morning in auto parts stores, searching for an oil with the additive ZDDP, which is needed in older engines so they don't scuff their cam lobes and lifters. ZDDP—if my high school chemistry class memory serves—stands for "Zygomorphic Diaphanous Diathermatic Phosphate" or something. I got a D- in chemistry, so you may want to look this up.
I finally found some Valvoline 20W-50 Racing Oil claiming to contain the magical ZDDP, so I bought it and changed my oil.
And I always will, with the Elan. I wouldn't let a non-Lotus guy near the thing. An untutored, reasonably strong car mechanic could snap the steering wheel right off this delicate concoction, just pulling it into the shop. And then there are the weird, fragile jacking points... An F-150 pickup it ain't.
In any case, Mr. Lavander's letter got me thinking: Is changing your own oil really the first rule of Car-Guy-dom?
I had a neighbor in California who changed his own oil and greased his car religiously, but he couldn't tell a Zerk fitting from a brake bleeder. I once found him trying to inject grease into his right front brake caliper. Without success, luckily. I suspected cheapness more than car enthusiasm here.
But Mr. Lavander is mostly right—changing your own oil is certainly a durable symbol of hands-on involvement with cars. Still, I think it's just one of many.
What are the other signs of Car-Guy-dom?
Well, here are a few that just occurred to me, off the top of my head. And I use the term "Guy" here in its gender-inclusive form, as when you address a man and a woman and say, "Can you guys come over for dinner?" I believe this is now the formally correct form of address, even in diplomatic circles.
So here are a few other signs that you might be a car guy:
1. You pick up the morning paper and the headline reads, "Alien Death Ray Incinerates Millions." You set the front page aside for later reading and go straight to a Sears insert that says, "Presidents' Day Craftsman Tool Sale."
2. You've owned at least one brand of car that your local insurance agent has never heard of, and you have to spell it twice. Or three times, in the case of the Innocenti Mini Matic T1000.
3. There was no way on earth you would have missed the opening night of a Clint Eastwood movie called Gran Torino, regardless of content.
4. You have a whole drawer filled with cruddy, slightly rusty "take-off" hose clamps, which you will never use again. Unless you need to get an engine running at midnight when the auto parts stores are closed.
5. You have neighbors who wonder why you can never get a rebuilt engine running before midnight. And why the garage doors have to be open...
6. You spend Sunday watching three different types of racing on Speed Channel, and on Monday morning someone at your office says, "How about those Bears?" and you don't know whether they're talking about football or a fire in Yellowstone.
7. You own a "cherry picker" engine hoist that's all spattered with overspray from a defective nozzle on a can of chrome-aluminum spray paint that also hit your Cobra poster.
8. The left fingertips on the rubber glove in your bead-blasting cabinet are all worn away from holding small carb linkage parts. Your fingerprints don't look so good, either.
9. Jay Leno's garage seems like an island of enlightenment and perfect sanity in a world gone mad.
10. Opening a velvet-lined micrometer case creates exactly the same rush of endorphins in your brain as lifting the lid on a h-lined case containing a triple-pickup Les Paul Custom.
11. All your blue jeans have a worn left knee because you have a hole in the left knee of your coveralls.
12. Your air compressor is slightly larger than the refrigerator in your house.
13. The only time you use unprintably foul language is when you're alone in the workshop and things go really wrong. Which is about every five minutes.
14. In just one evening of looking at classifieds, you can entertain notions of buying a big-block Corvette, a short-wheelbase Land Rover, a suicide-door Continental or an MG TC, all in the same brain.
15. Your bench grinder pedestal is permanently bolted to the floor.
16. There is no day so bad that the sight of a buff-colored issue of Hemmings in your mailbox doesn't dissolve all worldly cares.
17. You are on a first-name basis with the only guy in the county who knows how to rebuild Dynaflow and Hydra-Matic automatic transmissions.
18. You own more than one floor jack.
19. The electrical parts drawer in your toolbox contains two high-performance Lucas Sport Coils that look brand new, but you honestly can't remember if they're new spares or if you took them off a race car that was misfiring. So you never use them and you never throw them out.
20. You're starting to think maybe a real car guy should have a coil tester...
21. You go to the hardware store to buy two 7/16 grade-8 locknuts and walk out with a box of 100, because "it's always good to stock up."
22. You own at least one Nomex racing suit that you've "outgrown" and one or more helmets with expired Snell stickers, preferably from another century.
23. When you go house-hunting with a realtor, you automatically reject any home without room to park a car trailer—or at least a place to hide one, if it's one of those upscale neighborhoods where zoning laws are concocted to keep out people exactly like you.
24. Half the money you earned in your 20s was given to a man in a Snap-On Tool truck.
25. You have a surprising number of friends whose children are named for legendary members of
26. You privately believe that a cheap or insubstantial toolbox reflects a kind of spiritual malaise in the owner.
27. You never completely bond with any dog that doesn't enjoy riding in a car and looking out the window.
28. You own several combination wrenches that have been heated to a cherry red with your oxy-acetylene torch and bent to perform special tasks, now forgotten.
29. You have a wall locker in your garage containing at least eight cans of motor oil, all of different brands and viscosities (synthetic, non-synthetic, straight 50 wt. racing, etc.), left over from past oil changes where you bought one extra can, "just in case."
30. You imagine that someday you might own an old beater of such low status that it won't bother you to mix brands and viscosities while doing an oil change. That day never comes.