It's hard to imagine owning a car without having at least a few tools. Even if you aren't handy in the garage and have never changed a car's oil, you probably have at least a few automotive-related items on your garage shelf. The odds are if you never work on cars, you probably have one of those brand-new, never used, and impossibly complete tool sets. A gift from a well-meaning, albeit misguided, spouse or relative, perhaps, or you might have even bought it yourself. If you've never picked up a wrench, then you might think it's safer to have at least one of every tool ever invented, so if you ever do get to roll up your sleeves in anger, you'll be ready.
Those of us who really do work on our cars know which tools we need and have our favorites. A vast number of automotive repairs can be accomplished with a surprisingly small array. At the same time, it pays to have a few oddballs. There is no better way to impress your car-guy pals than pulling out a left-handed inverse lip seal installer for a 1952 Singer 1500 Roadster. Unless, of course, it's a 1953 model parked in your garage.
If I had a hammer...
Before cars became rolling computers, every owner had a few important tools. These included a pair of cheap and fraying jumper cables, a twisted oil filter wrench, a couple of chipped flat-blade and rounded Philips screwdrivers, a hammer or two, a dull chisel, two or three pairs of pliers, and an adjustable wrench. Usually, this rusty and grimy collection lived in an equally grimy wooden box on the back shelf, next to three bags of fertilizer and the lawn darts. The thing was, with cars as simple as they were, there wasn't much that couldn't be fixed with this unlikely assortment. You had all you needed to change the oil, replace a water pump, repair a broken headlight or fix your kid's bicycle. Add a timing light, a spark plug wrench and maybe a feeler gauge and you were ready to tune up almost anything from an Austin Healey to a Volkswagen Beetle.
Socket and see
As the world became more complex, so did our cars. Electronic ignition, fuel injection and engine management systems all but eliminated the need for a tune up and ensured that any diagnostic and repair work would be possible only to trained mechanics with the proper electronic equipment. Under the new aerodynamic sloping hoods, everything got so crowded and jammed together that all the fun of working on cars was lost. Tools had to become much more specialized to work in this restricted environment and there was hardly any space left to swing a ball-peen hammer. Even the traditional oil change-long a staple of the do-it-yourself mechanic-was replaced by the convenience of quick-change lube shops.
Although we seem to be a dying breed, there are a still a few of us who work on our cars. Some do it out of economic necessity, as the cost for automotive service can be more than $100 per hour. Others as an integral part of automotive enthusiasm. While it's a pressure to work on a car you'll be commuting in the next day, it can be relaxing and Zen-like to rebuild a worn out part or install a high performance piece in your latest project. In either case, our tools are as important to us as a set of paintbrushes to an artist. And we have the same fond attachment to these inanimate objects.
The turn of the screw
Whether your tools are battle-scarred, mismatched and worn (like mine), or laid out, display-like, pristine in storage holders, the hardest thing of all is lending them out. It's difficult to stand back and say nothing when your teenage son leaves a stack of greasy wrenches on top of your best ratchet after he has finished a project. Or to be civil when your neighbor returns your torque wrench with the barrel tightened as far as it will go. If you want to hear horror stories, ask a group of home mechanics to describe their despair at finding their spouses opening a can of paint or chipping a floor tile using a combination of their favorite flat-blade screwdriver and best body-working hammer.
Apes and monkey wrenches
In the end, they're just tools. It's been said that the difference between humans and lesser species is our ability to make and use tools. I'm pretty sure anthropologists weren't thinking of an adjustable timing light or a set of metric sockets, but the distinction still holds. If you want to be more than just a car owner, to become one with your ride and discover its inner beauty and strength, you've got to have the right tools.