Jim’s Blog: Knowing When to Say No

How do you determine when a DIY car project is just too much to handle? That’s what I’ve been wrestling with this week.

About three years ago I sold my daily driver 2001 Camaro SS and bought a 2006 Charger SRT8. I’d just had a kid, and I needed something with four doors. The Charger was a 40k-mile driver in really good shape, and the previous owner had already installed a $1k Magnaflow stainless catback system that sounded great. Over the past three years I’ve done nothing to it other than oil changes and a set of brakes — all done myself — but it’s rolled past 60k miles now, which means it’s time for some more in-depth work. It needs a transmission service, a cooling system service and more.

None of that stuff scares me much, since I worked on a lot of modern cars back when I was wrenching for a living. But now I have a three-year-old girl running around in my garage, and it’s hard to make a huge car mess without her tracking it everywhere. And the Charger is not what you might call DIY friendly.

Why not? First off, it’s so low to the ground that my jack won’t slide under it. I have to drive it up onto a 2×4 before I can jack it up, and then I set it on jackstands or blocks of wood. Not a big deal for things like oil changes, but for a transmission service, where I’d have to really be able to maneuver around under it to control the mess, I’d need to get it up pretty high off the ground, and that would be about a ten-step two-jack process. I wish I had a lift.

To make matters worse, this Charger came from the days of Daimler Chrysler, which means a lot of its suspension and drivetrain parts are Mercedes units. That includes the transmission, known as an NAG1, and it’s designed to only be serviced by a dealership. They ensure that by not including a transmission dipstick in the car. The tube is there, sure, but there’s nothing in it except a plug warning you not to even try. Checking the fluid level requires a scanner that talks to the car’s transmission control module (or TCM) to read its temperature before you can get an accurate level reading. Run it too low or too full and you risk burning up the trans — an expensive and complex Mercedes trans. I don’t have a scanner that’ll talk to the TCM, so that’s strike two.

Some of the owners on the SRT8 forums have found ways around this — one guy even uses a meat thermometer that he customized and taped to a four-foot long plastic zip tie. But to me, that sounds like a gamble I probably shouldn’t take.

So, this morning, I finally went against my DIY sensibilities and took the car to a shop to have the 60k done. It was a tough call to make, since I’m the kind of guy who’d rather spend money on a tool than pay someone else to do a task. But I don’t feel like I sold out completely — the shop doing the work is full of ex-dealer techs who struck out on their own after their dealership closed in the wake of Chrysler’s financial troubles. So they’ve had the dealer training, have the dealer tools, but don’t charge dealer rates. Sounds like a win to me, even if I’m not turning any wrenches — I think for now, I’ll save my own time and tools for the old stuff.

Do you work on your own cars, or would you rather pay someone else to do it? How do you decide? Let me know in the comments below.