Everything I know about cars I learned in high school from my 1990 Jeep Cherokee

Not a great pic of the car, but you can see that I wore red pants before they were cool

Not a great pic of the car, but you can see that I wore red pants before they were cool

I got my first car, it was 2003. Is that right? Yikes! The photo to the right is the only one I could find of myself with it, taken around 2004. I know, you can barely see the car, and instead see Awkward High School Farah. More yikes.

Honesty, I haven’t driven much since I moved to a city with public transit in 2005. My goal is to go as long as I can without having a car. Sure, sometimes it’s a struggle, but if I can do without, the better it is for my wallet and the environment.

However, there are still so many things I am glad I learned about my first car, or cars in general, from that first piece of junk. The Junkmobile, as it was sometimes called. Or The Black Hole, because sometimes items would get lost in there and not return for years. I lost a rock in there around 1993 (I collected rocks when I was a kid, don’t judge), and found it around 2005.

The car itself was not so great on gas, though I remember putting five dollars of gas in it at the lone gas station in our little town. Five dollars! I hope you weren’t eating or drinking when you read that, because you may have choked or squirted coffee out of your nose. Ha! Five dollars. Who does that, anymore? Sigh.

It was a Jeep Cherokee Laredo, navy blue, dated around 1990. It used to be my mom’s car, which meant it was also used to cart horse grain and hay from our house to the farm (I am painting a quaint picture of our town here, aren’t I?), which then turned into my sister and I carting instruments around New Hampshire. The horse smell never really left the car, though, and pieces of hay could be found in it until it was donated for parts years later.

One problem with this vehicle was the alarm system. For a while we thought someone was trying to break into our car repeatedly at night. But who would walk into five acres of land, up a dirt road, in the freezing cold, pitch black, to rob a car full of hay? Exactly.

Turns out, the cold, along with raccoons and coyotes, could set off the alarm system. Fun!

Tip of the iceberg, my friends. The fun was just beginning!

Oil, power steering, transmission, brake fluid…these are all things I quickly became aware of. Thanks to my mom’s friend, Steve, who liked to fix everything himself, my sister and I soon learned to do the same. Starting with some pretty basic stuff…stuff I soon learned that many of peers were unaware of.


There will be burning…if you ignore this. I can’t tell you how many of my friends have come to me, saying ‘my car started to smell like burning, and then I found out I have to add oil to it’.

Check your oil. It sounds so simple, and it kind of is. Wait for your engine to cool off, maybe ten minutes, and take out the oil dipstick. Where it is depends on the type of car and engine you have, but it should be labeled well. You’ll see labels on the dipstick itself, letting you know if you should add oil. Stick it in the pipe–it should bend naturally with the curve of the pipe. Pull it out. Voila! Oil on the dipstick will tell you, based on the marks and labels, whether you should add oil. Do NOT add oil in that same pipe. There should be a screw cap top near the engine for that.

Power Steering

One frosty morning, as I was driving a Jeep full of high schoolers to our first class of the day, I steered onto the main road and had trouble, well, turning. Is it the ice? Is the steering wheel locked? No. The power steering was leaking! This turned out to be a constant problem in this car, but once identified was easily managed. Either way, this is an important fluid to check on.

Power steering fluid is labeled in a reservoir near the power steering belt, or one end of it. All power steering reservoirs I’ve encountered are clear, so I can easily see the level of the fluid, but this may depend on the car.

Guess what? Just like the oil, there is a dipstick to check the fluid level. Aha! This one is different though, in that it has a ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ label, which you should check appropriately with the temperature of your engine. Some cars have a ‘min’ or ‘max’, and some require the engine to run briefly beforehand.

Before you check the fluid, wipe the dipstick clean. Then you may reinsert into the reservoir and see how far it is covered with the power steering fluid.

You also should note the color of the fluid. Clear, pinkish, light brown? Should be fine. Brown or black? Not so good. You can always check it on a white paper towel to be sure of the color.

If you need to fill the fluid, you can do so from the reservoir.

(Automatic) Transmission Fluid

If you bust your transmission, be prepared to pay a good chunk for it.

The last time we didn’t have time to do an oil change ourselves on my sister’s car, we went to a chain type place, where they do it fast, drive-thru style. He tried to convince us that our transmission oil needed to be changed, but I knew that it didn’t. I hate to say it, but people will assume you know nothing about your car, and that is why even the simplest things like this are important.

Locate the dipstick for your transmission. You’ll want your engine to be running and warm, so also be sure you’re not wearing a scarf, your hair is out of your face, etc.

If you pull the dipstick out, you should be able to check the fluid on your finger. Be sure it is clear or light pink. If not, you will need to change it. If the fluid does not reach the ‘full’ point on the dipstick, fill it up with a funnel into the dipstick tube. Do not overfill.

Note: For all of these, be sure no dirt or lint gets into these fluids.

Brake fluid

If you do not have sufficient brake fluid in the reservoir, you will notice that your car is not exactly a pro at stopping on time. Danger, danger! Therefore, this is a pretty simple and vital fluid to check.

You should be able to easily locate a clear reservoir labeled for brake fluid. I believe older vehicles do not have the clear reservoir, so it will not be just as obvious.

Clean the top of the cylinder. You want to be 100% sure that no dirt or grime will get into this guy. You can ruin your brakes that way. Got it? Good!

Open the top of the reservoir once you are ready. Don’t leave it uncovered for too long. Brake fluid is sensitive to moisture.

From here you should be able to see where the fluid is. If it is not close to the cap, add more into the reservoir, but do not overfill. Leave about an inch from the cap.

Once again, if the fluid is dark, you’re in for another ride. Or, in the literal sense, you are not in for another ride for a while. It will need to be changed.

Knowing what is where in your car

My good ol’ Jeep used to rattle a lot. Going over 55 MPH on the highway caused the car to shake like we were the Millenium Falcon traveling through an asteroid field. One day, though, the asteroid field got a little more intense. I pulled over.

Many guys, I’m sure well meaning, stopped to ask me if I needed help, or needed a ride. However helpful they meant to be, I still was not about to get a ride with a stranger. Telling them that I was pretty sure that it was the U Joint sent most people away. Turns out it was the U Joint!

Once again, this all sounds so simple and I know that, to anyone familiar with cars, this is all trivial. I have just been flabbergasted at how many guys and gals I know end up ruining their car for lack of this knowledge. Or are, frankly, ripped off when something needs to be fixed. When one of my friends took me with him to get his tires rotated and balanced, I really realized how little some drivers know about the huge piece of metal they are shooting down the road in. I’m so glad I started out knowing the simple stuff, which eventually led to me working with Steve to replace brake pads, oil, transmission fluid, and more. It takes more time to do it yourself, but it is cheaper and you will learn a lot about your car.

What about you? Did anything ever fail in your car due to a simple oversight, such as filling the oil or brake fluid? Do you enjoy working on the car yourself?

I have to say, I am happy to be car free, but I enjoyed opening the hood in the summer, listening to some Rush, and checking all of the guts of the car. That Junkmobile took us through a lot. And, you know, it kind of saved my dad from getting injured one winter when black ice sent him into the strawberry field. Strawberry fields forever!