Rich’s Repair Ramblings #6: Electrical 102, The Test Light

Rich’s Repair Ramblings #6: Electrical 102, The Test Light

Last time, we covered battery basics. Picking up from there, we will presume that your battery is charged, and the terminal connections are clean and tight. Santa has granted your biggest wish, a 12V test light! (If you got coal, you can pick one up for $15 or less.) Now you ask, how does it work, and how can you use it to diagnose an electrical problem on your old sled? Test lights are simple and effective, but first we need to understand electrical flow.

For an electrical device to work, electrical current must flow from the battery positive terminal, to the device or “load” (light bulb, dash gauge, motor, whatever), and back to the battery negative cable. The “hot” side of this path is from the positive terminal to the device; the “cold” side is from the device back to the negative terminal. Each device has a dedicated wire on the hot side; but the metal chassis and/or body of the car is used to conduct current (“juice”) on the cold side back to the battery. This is why there isn’t a separate wire for each and every electrical device running back to the negative battery terminal, which would double the size of the wiring harness. You only need to ground the load on the cold side to complete the circuit.

A switch in the circuit allows an intentional interruption, so that the device can be turned on or off. Any unintentional interruption in this flow from positive back to negative, such as a shortcut [“short circuit”] or a break in the path [“open”], will prevent the device from operating. Most circuits include fuses; the fuse acts as a fail-safe in case of a short, so that the fuse “blows” before the device can be harmed.

A test light lets you check for current at any point along the hot side of this path. It’s a go/no-go check: if the test light illuminates, you have current; if it does not, you don’t. For much electrical fault-tracing on our old cars, this is all you need. The test light has a sharp pointed probe on one end; a light bulb inside its clear case; and an alligator clip on a wire at the other end. With the clip attached to any ground point, the test light bulb will illuminate if the probe touches any positive or “hot” 12V source. Let’s see what the test light can do. (The following applies to 12V negative-ground systems only.)

Start at the battery to become familiar with the test light’s operation: attach the clip to the negative battery post; then touch the pointy end to the battery positive post; the test light should illuminate. If it does not: are you sure the battery is charged? Are the clip and the probe actually touching the posts? Are you sure the test light works? Try a different battery if necessary.

Test light clip on battery negative, probe on battery positive, test light lights

Once that test is done, move the alligator clip to a ground point other than the battery negative post. You may ask “how do I know what is ground?” This is a valid question, and it can be a matter of trial and error. In theory, any unpainted metal surface on the engine, body, or chassis should be ground. Try the engine block, an unpainted fender washer, or a bolt along the firewall. In each case, after attaching the clip, touch the probe to battery positive. If it lights up, you have found a good ground. Avoid anything that might be insulated: paint, rubber, and plastic will not conduct electricity well enough for our purposes. So avoid hose clamps, plastic shields, and any painted surface. (Guys with Corvettes and Avantis play by a different set of rules with their fiberglass bodies).

Test light clip on fender bolt, probe on battery positive, test light lights

Moving away from the battery, let’s say that a device on your car doesn’t work, and you want to check the fuse. A test light allows you to check the fuse without removing it. This also serves as a preliminary check of the circuit entering and leaving the fusebox. NOTE: you need to know if the ignition key must be “on” for the circuit to be live. I confess that I’ve tested circuits which I thought were dead only to realize that the ignition was off and needed to be on!

Exposed metal areas at top of fuse allow test light probe to touch

With the test light’s clip attached to a good known ground (re-check at the battery positive if you’ve moved the clip), touch the probe to either end of the fuse. (In the photo with the modern blade-type fuse, there are exposed metal points in the top which allow this.) The test light should light at both sides. If it lights on one side and not the other, there is a good chance that the fuse is bad. Try a new fuse. If the test light doesn’t light on either side, it is more likely that there’s an open circuit in the wiring to the fuse. Remove the fuse and touch the probe to the fuse box terminals one at a time. Power at one terminal means that you’re getting juice to that terminal. Lack of power at both terminals means that there’s a break in the circuit between battery positive and the fuse box.

Clip on fender bolt, probe on fuse, lit test light proves current is at fusebox

You may need your vehicle’s wiring diagram for the next step. Find a wire which feeds the circuit you’re testing. With the pointy end of the probe, pierce the insulation until the tip is touching copper. BE CAREFUL! That tip is very sharp, and I’ve stabbed myself more than once doing this. For practice, try a working circuit so you get a feel for how far to insert the sharp probe. If the test light lights, you have juice in the wire. If it doesn’t, you’re starting to narrow down the problem.

Probing red wire through insulation, lit test light proves there is power in wire

All photographs copyright © 2023 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.




Rich’s Repair Ramblings #5: Electrical 101, The Battery


 This article is the first in what will be a continuing series about our old car’s electrical systems. I’ve worked with automotive 12 volt (12V) electrics both as a professional and as a hobbyist for many years, and I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve also been bemused by my fellow technicians, many of whom put me to shame with their mechanical know-how, who plead ignorance or fear of their car’s electrics. It is my hope that these articles will encourage you to tackle some simple fault-tracing and repair on your own jalopies, and feel comfortable doing it.

Let’s start with the battery, the ‘heart’ of your vehicle’s electrical system. If your collectible is a U.S.-made car that pre-dates the 1950s, it most likely has a 6 volt (6V) electrical system. Domestic cars switched from 6V to 12V systems in the mid-1950s, and also almost universally changed to a negative ground system. Some foreign cars stayed with 6V and/or positive ground systems through the 1960s. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to stay with 12V negative ground systems here, but much of what is covered is applicable to any vehicular electrical system.

Flooded-cell battery. Note electrolyte caps and hold-down clamp.


There are two types of batteries commonly found in today’s cars: the ‘flooded cell’ (wet) battery, and the AGM (absorbed glass mat) battery. The flooded cell battery is the older technology, and it requires checking the water level (really the electrolyte level) and topping it up as necessary. Water is ‘consumed’ as the electrolyte is released as gas through vents during the charging process. If an owner allows the electrolyte level to drop too low, the battery might not hold a charge and could be ruined.

Modern wet batteries have evolved into ‘low maintenance’ or ‘no maintenance’ versions, which theoretically don’t need top-ups. Older flooded cell batteries have removable caps to add water; low- or no-maintenance batteries have caps which require a little more effort to access, if they have caps at all.

The AGM battery holds its electrolyte in glass mats, which minimizes consumption and makes it truly maintenance-free. AGM batteries are completely sealed (no caps) and leakproof, and therefore can be mounted in almost any position. They also tend to be longer-lasting, albeit a bit more expensive than wet batteries.

AGM battery in my Alfa is mounted sideways in trunk.

Whether flooded or AGM, a 12V battery consists of 6 cells; in a fully charged battery, each cell is 2.2V, so 2.2 x 6 = 13.2V. In reality, a static car battery will usually measure around 12.5V. The battery has a positive (marked +) post and negative (marked -) post protruding from the top of the case (GM used side-case-mounted battery terminals for years). A heavy battery cable, typically red for the positive side and black for the negative side, is attached to each post with a large clamp. A hold-down clamp keeps the battery in its place while driving.


The following recommended battery maintenance steps should be followed for ANY car, old or new. For our classics, which are driven much more infrequently, these checks are even more critical, and will help ensure that your collector car battery is always up to the task of starting the engine and letting you take your buggy out for a spin.

  • Check the electrolyte

If you have a flooded cell battery, remove the battery caps and check the water level at least twice a year. I recommend spring and fall; every three months is even better. The electrolyte level should reach the top of the ‘ring’ so that the level looks like an oval. USE DISTILLED, NOT TAP, WATER. Buy a jug of it at ShopRite for 89 cents and keep it in the garage. Don’t overfill the battery. If you accidentally overfill and cause a spill, wipe it up with paper towels (wear gloves to avoid acid burns; even the mild electrolyte solution can sting) and discard the towels.

If the battery frequently needs topping up, the case may be cracked. Check along the sides and bottom for signs of corrosion from spilled electrolyte; a cracked case cannot be repaired. If the same cell is always low and all the others are OK, that cell may have sulfated; you may need to replace the battery.

  • Clean the battery top

I began my career working on fuel-injected Volvos, which is where I learned that a dirty battery top (covered with dust, grease, oil, whatever) can cause current flow between the positive and negative posts. The resultant voltage loss is enough to disrupt the electronic fuel injection. Cleaning the battery top would sometimes fix a poorly-running car!

Since then, I’ve been fanatic about ensuring that my cars’ battery tops are clean. One tried-and-true method is with a solution of baking soda and water. If it’s not too dirty, any mild cleaner might do. I’ve used Windex, Brakleen, or Simple Green. You don’t need a lot; again, use paper towels, wear gloves, and throw the towels away. The goal is a clean, and dry, battery top.

Note the start of corrosion at base of terminal clamp
  • Tighten the battery hold-down

On a rally many years ago, I was driving my ’68 Mustang while following a friend who was in his Austin-Healey. He hustled it at speed around a corner, immediately after which, it stalled. Dead. No crank, no nothing. I pulled up behind him to assist. By this time, he had the hood open, and it was obvious to me that the battery wasn’t there. “Ron, where’s the battery?” I asked. He replied “in the trunk”. We both saw it as soon as the trunk lid was popped: during the tight right-hander, the unsecured battery flopped over, yanking the negative cable clear off its post at the same time.

You may or may not be rallying your car, but the battery is supposed to remain securely in place. All cars have some sort of battery hold-down. Check yours. If it’s missing, replace it. If it’s loose, tighten it (but not too tight, which could crack the case). By the way, bungee cords are a poor substitute; purchase a proper hold-down. Ron and I both thank you.

  • Clean and tighten the posts and cable terminals

This one is the most important maintenance tip, and it’s also a very neglected one. We will get into electrical flow in a future article, but suffice to state that for your car’s electrical system to deliver peak performance, all connections must be clean and tight.

Battery terminals build up corrosion for a number of reasons: engine compartment dirt, arcing from dissimilar metals, electrolyte seepage. Whatever the cause, this corrosion will interfere with consistent electrical flow out of the battery and to all the electrical devices in your car. It is imperative to clean and tighten these connections on a regular basis.

Simple battery maintenance tools and supplies: petroleum jelly, brushes, dielectric grease

Start by removing both battery terminals. ON A NEGATIVE GROUND SYSTEM, ALWAYS REMOVE THE NEGATIVE CABLE FIRST, AND REINSTALL IT LAST. This will prevent possible short circuits at a ‘live’ positive terminal. Clean the battery post and both inside and outside of the cable terminals with a stiff brush (you can pick up steel or brass-bristled brushes for about a buck apiece). Use a cleaning solvent as recommended above.

REINSTALL THE POSITIVE CABLE FIRST, THEN THE NEGATIVE CABLE. Clamp them tight, then smear petroleum jelly or dielectric grease on the terminal tops. The aftermarket offers plastic “battery terminal toppers” which snap on top of the terminals. If your engine compartment is particularly messy, consider these as extra protection. They provide the added benefit of helping to prevent accidental short-circuits.

Topping up the electrolyte, washing the battery top, and cleaning and tightening the terminals are all simple maintenance steps that any vehicle owner can accomplish. Even if you’ve never wrenched on your own car before, you can do this!





Rich’s Repair Ramblings #4: Starting a Barn Find


Barn finds are everywhere! They’re fascinating because they’re the fantasy of something that’s been untouched for many years, waiting to be rediscovered and brought back to life. Perhaps you saw a classified ad for a barn find; or there’s one in YOUR barn to reawaken from its slumber. Either way, starting the engine in a car which hasn’t run in decades helps verify its mechanical condition. If you get it started, you gain a better sense of how much restoration work is needed.

Here’s a list of items to bring when you arrive: a mat/creeper, flashlight, masking tape, marking pen, shop vacuum, container of fresh gasoline, empty fuel container, siphon device, carb cleaner, starting fluid, fully charged car battery, fire extinguisher, and rags. Tools should include wrenches and sockets to fit the crank pulley bolt, spark plugs, and battery terminals, plus ratchet wrenches, extensions, screwdrivers, pliers, and hammers.

Some of the essential items to bring to the barn

Before attempting to fire her up, eyeball the entire car front to rear, looking for two things: one, assurance that it hasn’t been partially disassembled while stored; and two, evidence that varmints haven’t taken their toll. There’s no point in a start attempt if the intake manifold is missing, or if critters have chewed the engine compartment wiring harness! If tires are flat or brakes are seized, worry about that later. This initial effort will focus ONLY on getting the long-dormant engine to run.

If everything looks intact, try to turn the engine over by hand. If you’re lucky, a snug fan belt might provide enough tension for you to manually move the crank. It’s more likely, though, that you’ll need a wrench on the front pulley. Find that size socket, and using your longest breaker bar, try to turn the engine. If it won’t budge, remove the spark plugs (label the plug wires for correct reassembly). Some recommend a squirt of oil in each cylinder. If it’s so stuck that it needs oil, it should sit and soak for several hours or overnight. But try it again. With the plugs out, you’re not fighting compression. You’re trying to confirm that the crankshaft, pistons and valves will move.

Don’t let the decrepit exterior dissuade you from trying to start it

Pop off the distributor cap to watch the points open and close. Clean and adjust them if necessary. Check the plugs you’ve removed and clean them. If you know this car’s engine well, you might have a correct spare set of plugs with you. In either case, install the cleaned or new plugs, and put the wires and cap back. While under the hood, check the air filter (a favorite place for squirrels to store nuts). At a minimum, shake it clean. If you have a shop vac, vacuum the air cleaner assembly. Pull the engine dipstick – is there oil in there? Don’t worry too much about its color, just make sure you have enough in the crankcase.

Turn your attention to the fuel. Old gasoline is the #1 reason why a dormant engine won’t start. Untreated gasoline has a shelf life of 6 months, so if older than that, drain it. A best case scenario is finding a tank with a drain plug. Place your empty container under it, and remove the plug. Be prepared for bad-smelling gel to drip out. Also be prepared for an environmentally safe way to dispose of it. If there’s no drain plug, you can try to siphon it out. If you’re able to drain the tank, add several gallons of fresh fuel to it. If you can’t get the old fuel out, consider a temporary way to connect your fresh fuel to a line feeding the fuel pump. It could be as simple as a fuel hose on the suction side of the pump inserted in your gas can. If the fuel filter looks grimy, consider bypassing it for now. Don’t even try starting an engine with old fuel.

If a battery is in place, we can be almost certain that it’s completely discharged, so you can’t jump it. Disconnect the terminals, clean them, and hook up the fresh battery you brought (you DID bring a 6V for this ’52 Ford, yes?). Get the polarity correct. Are there ignition keys? Good. We are close to making our attempt. A mechanically sound engine only needs air, fuel, and spark to start. If the air filter isn’t clogged, you’ll have air. You figured out a way to get fresh fuel to the pump. Spray some carb cleaner on the carb, then a little starting fluid. Turn the key to “on”. Do any electricals work? If horn or lights do, that can be verification that the wiring is OK. We’re ready. Turn the key to “start” (or push the starter button).

Engine compartment looks crusty but intact; worth a try to start it

It should crank (after all, you hand cranked it, and you have a fresh battery properly connected). If it won’t crank, you may have a wiring problem from the ignition switch to the starter, or a bad starter. If it cranks but makes no attempt to fire, have a helper pull one plug wire and hold it near ground – do you see a spark? If not, check your ignition connections (coil & distributor). If you have crank, and have spark, try a SMALL amount of gasoline into the carb. HAVE SOMEONE NEARBY WITH THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER. If it starts and stalls, there’s blockage somewhere in your fuel routing, so check that.

If you’ve got air, fuel, and spark all lined up, fingers crossed, it should start. Congratulations! Depending on the car’s overall condition, you may not want to idle the engine more than a few moments. Next, you’ll need to figure out how to drag it home. However, you successfully brought a ‘barn find’ engine back to life!


All photographs copyright © 2023 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

Rich’s Repair Ramblings #3: Organization

Rich’s Repair Ramblings #3:


You might have a portable plastic tool box, or you might have several large combination top & bottom toolboxes, yet, if your tools and supplies are not organized for quick and easy access, any repair job potentially becomes fraught.

Two stories illustrate my point: a while back, a friend asked me to his house to assist with some front-end work. I brought no tools with me. We determined that we needed an 11/16” deep socket, ½” drive. He said to me “oh, I have that, I’ve got every size”. When he opened his tool “box”, really a large plastic box, there were several dozen sockets rolling around at the bottom: SAE, metric, shallow and deep, in 3/8” and ½” drive sizes. It took about 10 minutes to find the socket we needed, and since I only was able to spare an hour for him, the delay greatly cut into my available time.

Sockets are on rails, arranged by size, type, and color-coded (blue for SAE, red for metric)

A short time later, another friend asked me to assist with servicing the transmission and rear axle fluid on his car. He drove his car to my place. With the car safely up on jack stands in my garage, I was on a pad under the car to determine what we needed. It was too much effort for me to keep sliding out and sliding back under to fetch tools, so as I lay under the car, I made my tool requests to him: “1/2” drive ratchet wrench, bottom box, top drawer, on the left” and “locking pliers, top box, third drawer, on the right”. I knew right where my tools were, and was able to describe the locations to him, making it possible for him to find them while I stayed under the car. Together, we worked very efficiently that afternoon.

Metric wrenches are in size order, and organized by type (combo, box, open, flare nut)

I might have some OCD attached to my need to be organized, but frankly, those who have seen my setup acknowledge that they would like to strive for it. It’s no different than any other organizational need, whether it is your computer files, your clothing, or your kitchen utensils: when you need something, you want to know where it is so that you can put your hands on it right away.

When working on my classic cars, more than once I’ve found myself at my workbench in a position where some component is partially disassembled, and I need a tool RIGHT NOW to continue the disassembly. The situation requires me to keep one hand on the part, so putting it on the bench while I scrounge is not an option. Knowing the tool’s location has repeatedly paid off in these kinds of service situations.

Supply cabinet shelving has paints and varnishes on one shelf, car care products on another

One of my pet peeves, when peering into friends’ toolboxes, is the intermixing of tools and supplies. I make a clear distinction between “tools”, which are permanent, and “consumables”, which require replenishment. Large toolboxes are expensive; I want their weight-bearing drawers to be holding ratchets and wrenches, not spark plugs and spray lube. (And there’s no shame in labeling the drawers; we can’t memorize everything!)

Plastic bins were sized to fit greatest number of them on each shelf

The accompanying photos attest to my layout: sockets are on rails with clips; wrenches are in size order, with SAE sizes in one drawer and metric in another; and consumables are on shelves in a supply cabinet. Supplies which can fit in plastic bins are labeled; lately, I’ve been buying these small multi-compartment organizers for literally a few bucks each. I’ve used them to organize items like fuses, bulbs, washers, and electrical terminals. Your big-box hardware stores have all these goodies for sale.

Multi-compartment box has dividers to make different sizes; this one hold bulbs and fuses

Many years ago, a boss who was a mentor said to me: “take the time to GET organized, then once you are, STAY organized. It will greatly reduce your stress”. Whether it’s on-the-job or with one of my classics in the garage, I’ve found those to be words to live by. As you wrench on your classic, you’ll find organization to be akin to a 3rd hand in the workshop.


All photographs copyright © 2023 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

Rich’s Repair Ramblings #2: Automotive-Specific Tools & Equipment



In the initial installment of this column, found in the Aug. 2019 Road Map, we listed the basic hand tools you should have for maintenance and repair work on your classic car. This month, we’ll add the automotive-specific tools and equipment you’ll need, plus our recommended shop supplies and consumables which should be in any automotive workshop. (Additional car-specific tools will be covered when we feature certain repairs, for example, brake tools for brake work.)

Lifting: Performing the most basic repairs, such as oil changes and front end work, requires lifting the car. So let’s make this point early: YOUR SAFETY, MEANING PREVENTION OF INJURY OR DEATH, DEPENDS ON SAFELY LIFTING A CAR. Never, ever, use the factory jack for anything but changing a tire in an emergency. And never, ever, get under a car supported by just a floor jack, or heavens, by milk crates or cinder blocks.

Get a good floor jack, and one or two pair of jack stands. The floor jack weight rating should equal or exceed the weight of the entire car (for example, use a 2-ton jack to lift a corner of a 4,000-lb. car). Make sure the jack stands are low enough to get under your car, and high enough to raise the car to your desired working height. Use the jack stands every time you raise and work on the car. I have a floor jack and three sets of jack stands (different heights for different cars), plus a set of drive-on ramps, convenient for oil changes since wheel removal isn’t necessary.


3.5 ton jack is overkill for my 2,000 lb Alfa. These jack stands have locking pins for added safety.

Oil Change: You can do an oil change without these, but a dedicated oil drain bucket (low profile, with at least a 6 qt. capacity), a selection of funnels, and an oil filter wrench that fits your car’s filter will make the job easier and neater.


Drain bucket with two different size funnels. Oil filter wrench takes 3/8” drive ratchet or extension.


Electrical Work: You don’t do electrical work? I’m hoping you will after future columns discuss how easy this can be. For wiring repair, start with a wiring cutting/stripping/crimping tool. Basic circuit checks can be made with a test light, but better still, consider investing in a digital multimeter (DMM). They have dropped in price; I bought mine for under $50. Also handy is a terminal release tool to disengage terminals from multi-plugs.

Back row: test light, DMM, crimping/stripping/cutting tool. Front left: terminal release tool.


Ignition: Our old jalopies use ignition points, condenser, cap, rotor, spark plugs, and plug wires. To do the job right, you need a dwell meter, timing light, and plug gapper. Spark plug sockets are worth it: internal foam protects the ceramic and grips the plug upon removal (there are two sizes, so check whether your plugs are 5/8” or 13/16”). Spark plug wire pliers are nice to have; they help remove stubborn wires.

Back: Timing light, dwell meter; Front: spark plug sockets, plug wire pliers, plug gapper.



It’s a major annoyance when I want to start a job on a weekend only to discover that I’m missing some “supply” that requires me to drive back and forth to the store, when it’s a $10 item I really should have on hand. Whether you’re just starting out, or looking to replenish, it’s a best practice to have a variety of supplies and consumables in your storage cabinet.

Chemicals: Here are the “essential seven” that I couldn’t work without:

  • Spray lube: WD-40 is most folks’ go-to lube, handy whenever you need to unstick something. Most of it evaporates, which is usually an advantage. If you need something heavier, white lithium grease in a spray or tube works well.
  • Rust-buster: Sooner or later, you’ll need help loosening a fitting that’s rusted tight. My dad used Liquid Wrench, and so do I, although lately I’ve been fond of B’laster spray. Your local store shelves have lots of choices.
  • Thread locker: Some automotive fittings rely on more than mechanical tightening; they need chemical help too. Thread locker liquid hardens and prevents fasteners from loosening due to vibration. Your vehicle service manual will tell you when it’s required.
  • Glue: Glue fixes objects which are NLA (no longer available), and on our old buggies, there could be many such things. Again, dad was using two-part epoxy back in the 1970s, and I’ve made repairs with it that are still holding 40 years later. Other automotive choices include rubber cement, contact cement, and weatherstrip adhesive.
  • Cleaner/degreaser: Dirty car parts need to be clean upon reassembly. If I don’t want water in the mix, a great all-around product is spray brake cleaner. Be aware that you’ll go through a can in about 5 minutes. If it’s OK to get the part wet, Simple Green works well. Your local hardware store has a variety of grease-cutters.
  • Gasket maker: Gasketing material in a tube is a life-saver when working on old cars. Many gaskets are NLA; even with a gasket, gasket makers can act as an additional sealant. We don’t want leaks! RTV (room temperature vulcanizing) dries semi-hard; I’m partial to the stuff that stays sticky and doesn’t get completely firm.
  • Petroleum jelly/dielectric grease: Great for battery terminals, I use this on electrical connections on my old Italian car to chase away those electrical gremlins. British car owners should buy it by the gallon.


Back: B’laster, brake cleaner, gasket maker, dielectric grease, WD-40; Front: Thread locker, two-part epoxy.


Electrical: A roll of black electrical tape, some 14-gauge black wire (the smaller the number, the thicker the wire), and crimp-on terminals will get you started with electrical repairs.

Electrical tape, black electric wire, and crimp-on terminal assortment


General Shop Supplies: A fire extinguisher, eye protection, and a first-aid kit can literally be lifesavers. Gloves, paper towels, rags, and hand cleaner all help keep the mess at bay.

Hand cleaner, fire extinguisher, and eye & hand protection are shop must-haves


All photographs copyright © 2023 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

Rich’s Repair Ramblings #1: Basic Hand Tools

We are starting a new series with this post, all entitled “Rich’s Repair Ramblings”. What is this about? Way back during the summer of 2019, I was approached by the editor of The Road Map, which is the newsletter for the NJ Region AACA. He asked me if I would author a monthly technical column to be published in our club newsletter. I agreed to take on the task, and I have been writing the articles ever since.

The Road Map is only distributed electronically and is available without charge and without a password requirement. You can find an archive of all The Road Maps back to 2015 at this link here. For multiple reasons, including my desire to give these articles a more permanent home with easier access, I have decided to reprint them here. For the most part, they combine automotive technical history with some basic DIY instructions; keep in mind my need to be somewhat general, as I am addressing owners of vehicles as disparate as Ford Model As, ’57 Chevy Bel Airs, and Hemi Cudas. I plan to add about one article a week; I hope you enjoy them, and let me know of any comments or questions.



Hello, and welcome to the initial installment of “Rich’s Repair Ramblings”. You may know me as the Region’s Properties Chairperson: the guy who stores and sets up our PA system, tents, and signage. I’ve also dabbled as our unofficial IT assistant, and in that role I’ve traveled to the homes of several members to help with PC and printing issues.

So what qualifies me to write a column about auto repair? What you may not know about me is that I’ve spent almost my entire professional career (41 years and counting) in the automotive business, mostly on the service and technical side. I started as a dealership technician, moved to Service Advisor, and then to Service Manager. After seven years of that, I jumped to the corporate side, spending 23 years employed by Volvo Cars North America, the official importer of those “boxy but safe” cars from Sweden. Since taking early retirement from Volvo, I’ve taught auto technology at a community college, and have spent the past 8 years working for the company that runs the website, where we sell aftermarket car parts and accessories.

While all that was going on, I was also fully immersed in the old car hobby. I’ve owned a 1957 Ford Skyliner, 1967 Dodge Dart GT convertible, 1972 MGB, and 1968 Ford Mustang California Special. My proudest achievement was completing a full restoration on a 1957 BMW Isetta. All of these collector cars had most of their maintenance and repair work done by yours truly, right in my own garage.

Between wrenching for a living and performing restorations as a hobby, I’ve collected quite an accumulation of tools. Let’s start our ramblings on that topic. Presuming that you either want to learn how to work on your own classic cars, or that you want to improve your skill level, you need tools. Most folks have a few screwdrivers, hammers, pliers, and maybe a drill with a bunch of drill bits, along with an adjustable wrench. That might help you fix a loose doorknob or stuck window inside your house, but you’ll need a little more if you want to perform your own fixes on that ’62 Corvette or ’72 Triumph.

Having said that: you do NOT need to own one of every tool you see in Home Depot (or in that Harbor Freight catalog). For basic automotive repair, let’s outline the minimum necessary tools, all of them common and readily available.

Screwdrivers: Most everyone has “flat” screwdrivers, for slotted screw heads. You will want a good assortment of thin and thick tips, and short and long shanks (shafts). Phillips-head (cross-head) fittings are much more common on cars. Phillips-head sizes are noted by number, from small to large: #1, #2, #3. The #2 is the most common, so have a variety of those, including a “stubby” (the first time you need the stubby you’ll thank me). For now, I would hold off on the other sizes.

Phillips screwdrivers top to bottom: #2 stubby, #1, #2, and #3

Wrenches and sockets: If your collector cars are American, you’ll need SAE (inch) sizes; most imported cars use metric-sizes. It’s a rookie mistake to own SAE tools and expect them to work on metric fittings, or vice-versa. Always use the correct size, or risk doing damage to the fitting. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Wrenches: Basic wrenches, whether SAE or metric, are either “box-end” (enclosed) or “open-end”. Box-end are stronger, but can only be used if the box end can slip over the fitting. Open-end are more versatile, but not as strong. My own preference is the combination wrench: box on one end, open on the other, both ends the same size.


My metric wrench collection, arranged (mostly) in size order
  • Sockets: Sockets are attached to a ratchet wrench (more about that shortly). Aside from the nut or bolt size, the square end that snaps onto a ratchet wrench is either ¼”, 3/8”, or ½”. For starting out, stick with the 3/8”. You can add the others later. Sockets are also described as either “6-point” or “12-point”, which refers to the number of edges (points) which fit around the nut or bolt. The 12-points allow you more finesse if making very small turns with a ratchet, but the higher strength of the 6-point sockets make them the preferred choice for automotive work. Finally, there’s “regular” depth and “deep” sockets. Deep sockets give you access to recessed fittings, and are good to have.
Top row: deep sockets, 6-point (L) and 12-point (R). Bottom row: regular sockets, 6-point (L) and 12-point (R)
  • Your starter set should consist of 6-point sockets, 3/8” drive, in both regular and deep sizes. The SAE range should be 3/8” to 1”; the metric range should be 8mm to 24mm.


  • Ratchet wrenches: The drive end is on a ratchet, which allows you to swing the handle in an arc as small as 25 or 30 degrees and rotate the socket. The ratchet also makes quick work of running a fastener on or off. A lever in the head allows you to reverse the ratchet direction between clockwise (tighten) and counter-clockwise (loosen). Get two or three handle lengths in 3/8” drive to match your sockets. The shorter handles are handy in tight quarters. The longer handles give you leverage for stuck fittings.
Ratchet wrenches and corresponding sockets, L to R: 1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″


  • Extension bars: these fit between the socket and ratchet to give you extra reach. Get several in various lengths; you’ll need them. Be sure the size matches your ratchet and sockets.


Pliers are necessary, but for starters, three or four will do. Besides the standard pair of pliers, get a pair of needle-nose, slip-joint (adjustable opening size), and locking pliers (known by the Vice-Grip brand name).

Pliers (L to R): regular, needle nose, diagonal cutters, locking, and slip-joint

Hammers should include ball-peen (rounded end) and plastic or rubber headed mallets, which deliver blows without marking or denting the surface.

If you’re building a tool collection from scratch, the above list covers over 80% of what you should have on hand for common tools. When shopping, you can look for “mechanic’s starter kits” but be wary of kits which contain tools you may never use. It might cost a bit more, but purchasing a la carte will guarantee that you get what’s on your list, and nothing more. My final comment about tools: quality tools are worth it. It’s a sad waste of money to buy a cheap tool that breaks the second time you use it. You don’t need to buy from Snap-On; Craftsman, Matco, NAPA are good and even some of the big-box brands are not bad. Avoid the “no-name” stuff that’s priced too good to be true, because it is.


All photographs copyright © 2023 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.