Girl Power Gains Horsepower

I may be the perfect candidate for a car care class for women. I don't know a brake pad from a valve stem, and I dread pretending to understand the service technician, who could be speaking Martian for all I know. I've been so busy taking care of my career and my household that I never found time to learn even the basics of auto maintenance.

So I was more than a little apprehensive on my way to "Look Who's Under the Hood!" — a car care class with Karen Valenti at the auto repair facility she owns and operates in North Hollywood, California. But when I spotted the hot pink detailing on her garage, I knew I'd come to the right place. She offers a class once a month to teach women basic auto maintenance techniques and help them get to know their cars better.

"It's become a quest for me," she told the class. "I like to keep cars alive." I talked to Valenti and two other car care class instructors, Kim Fox of Corvallis, Montana, and Julia Johnson of San Mateo County, California, in order to find answers to the tough questions only women are bold enough to ask.

Was It Over Your Head?
Car care class won't qualify you for a NASCAR pit crew, but you will get a clearer picture of what goes on under your car's hood and fenders. Kim Fox planned and presented several car care classes with a female service technician at Fox Repair in Corvallis because, "We wanted to take the mystery out of car repair." She explained, "These classes raise the bar of women's understanding of how a car works so they can ask good questions and get meaningful answers. There's a mile of difference between expecting service technicians to magically tell you what's wrong with your car and working with them on specific automotive repairs."

Julia Johnson, an ASE-certified (National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence) automotive technician and instructor at Skyline College in San Bruno, California, has conducted seminars on car care basics for three years. Her students range in age from 16 to 71 and many of them are intimidated by automotive repair jargon. "I emphasize a friendly environment, and the fact that the class is for women makes them much more comfortable," she said. Her classes last from three to five hours and attract from five to 20 students. Women usually ask questions about their own cars and can ask for repeat explanations without embarrassment.

Valenti provided tip sheets outlining her class, which made it easy to follow her hands-on demonstrations and jot down notes. The contrast between the fluorescent green of new radiator coolant and the murky ooze that emanated from a corroded radiator made the importance of regular auto maintenance immediately obvious. "I've never had anyone leave the class unhappy. When they find out the basics are so easy to understand, they're ready to take the next step and learn more," Valenti said.

The basics covered in such classes may include:

  • how the engine, transmission and brakes work (in simple terms)
  • how to check the various fluids
  • how to conduct a safety inspection
  • how to check tire pressure, inflate tires and/or change a tire
  • how to find and develop a relationship with a good service technician
  • how to avoid getting scammed at the mechanic's shop

Once you've covered the basics and want to move on, there are plenty of options. Books on car repair for women are readily available, and maintenance schedules are available in your owner's manual or via Edmunds' Maintenance Calculator. The Car Care Council offers dozens of articles about auto maintenance, and Edmunds features entire sections on car maintenance tips and how-to articles to show you how it's done.

Did You Feel Foolish?
Yes, I admit I was the last to figure out how to get my hood to stay open, and the state of my radiator hoses didn't win any prizes, either. But I wasn't alone. The beauty of Valenti's class is that she uses the students' own cars to demonstrate. So everyone learned from my less-than-perfect hoses, while we picked up other tips from someone else's worn tires. Practicing on our own car makes it easier to perform the maintenance once you're away from class.

All the instructors I talked to described the supportive, even playful, atmosphere in their classes. Kim Fox said, "At first no one knows what to expect. Then someone asks a dumb question, and everyone else feels more comfortable about raising their hands. The mood changes into a laughing good time."

"My students have told me, 'I feel empowered!'" Julia Johnson said. "Knowing the basics of how a car works in non-technical language makes them feel like they can make better decisions regarding their cars."

Kim Fox noticed how her students gained confidence and some helpful perspective on dealing with service technicians during her classes. "A real 'a ha' moment happened when the class was looking at worn spark plug wires. We pointed out that faulty parts like that would be a sure sign that a used car they might be considering was not well maintained." At another class, she remembers that "some women felt they'd been ripped off in the past, but after they gained knowledge about the importance of some repairs and the work involved in doing them, they felt better."

Was It Worth Your Time?
Taking a car care class can help you save money, improve driving safety and even help the environment. The women in Karen Valenti's class enjoyed getting ballpark estimates of various repairs as well as insider tips about problems that plague drivers in the Southern California climate, like tire dry rot and faulty air-conditioning.

Kim Fox gives her students a reality check on safety by challenging them to change their tires. "One woman took over 45 minutes," she said. "Here in Montana, where cell phone [reception] can be spotty and the winter weather is treacherous, that could be a life-or-death situation."

"I teach my students how something as simple as an oil change or a visual inspection can prevent very costly repairs and how regular maintenance improves your fuel economy and lowers emissions," Julia Johnson said. "They also appreciate tips on how to find a good repair shop and where to go for help if the shop doesn't perform."

Where Can I Sign Up?
Adult learning classes or extension services at local colleges and parks departments are the most likely places to find car care classes, though there's no guarantee they'll have one geared toward women. Generally they are pretty inexpensive; the one I attended cost $46.50, including the textbook.

Your local auto club may hold classes, and your chamber of commerce may also be able to refer you to one. Dealerships and auto parts stores also sometimes schedule one-day events, like Firestone's Car Care Academies.

If all else fails, call up your favorite auto service technician and suggest holding a car care class. "That's how I got started," Karen Valenti recalls. "I put on my first class as a favor to one of my customers, and I've been teaching now for 20 years."