How to navigate your way through a mechanic’s workshop when you know nothing about cars

If you don’t know a fan belt from an alternator, a mechanic’s workshop can be an intimidating place. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to empower yourself with information – and the confidence will follow.

Because most consumers understand very little about the inner workings of their cars, they often feel at a disadvantage when discussing motor problems with mechanics. And that’s fine – after all, few of us would be able to take on the family doctor when it comes to matters of health. 

That said, it doesn’t take much to acquire the knowledge that will make visits to the mechanic less daunting. The first tip, offered by Dewald Ranft, Chairman of the Motor Industry Workshop Association (MIWA), a proud Association of the Retail Motor Industry Organisation (RMI), is to make sure that you describe your concerns around the car in great detail. That doesn’t necessarily mean researching car bodies until you are able to name every part, and even offer the mechanic advice (after all, you wouldn’t tell a surgeon how to do his job, and your mechanic is every bit as knowledgeable and an expert in his field); but it does mean being able to describe any noises, rattles and shudders, and let your mechanic know where they are. If necessary, take him with for a test drive so that he is able to experience these for himself. This is far more effective than telling him “to do what needs to be done”. Don’t make suggestions about what needs to be fixed – after all, you may send the mechanic in the completely wrong direction.

Pay attention to what your mechanic tells you. Motor repairs don’t come cheap, so it’s worth your while to take enough of an interest in the car to make sure you don’t repeat any bad driving habits that may put parts at risk in the future. By the same token, if there’s something you want to know, don’t hesitate to ask questions. As experts in their field, mechanics are happy to share their knowledge, and nothing pleases a motor enthusiast more than someone who wants to learn more about their favourite topic. You also have the right to question anything the mechanic has recommended. Again, since car repairs are costly, if you don’t understand why a certain repair is necessary, finding out more will give you peace of mind. A final point on this score: you’ll probably understand more if your mechanic physically shows you the parts he is talking about, rather than simply describing them, so ask if you can have a tour of what’s underneath the car’s bonnet while he’s chatting. Asking for information as you go along also protects you from receiving a shock when you get the bill. 

Of course, the more you trust your mechanic, the more comfortable you’ll feel talking about a technically complex subject. It’s therefore worthwhile shopping around until you find a workshop that you can envisage returning to year after year. Ranft says that it’s also important to make sure that workshop is a MIWA member. “This is your reassurance that the workshop and its mechanics meet our stringent criteria, and that they can be trusted not only to be technically proficient, but also to provide excellent service,” he concludes.