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All Photos By: Joel Patel

As most of you know, I bought a 1992 Mazda Miata sometime last year as my daily driver. After a few months of ownership, there’s not a lot I can complain about. I think I’m going to save my pros and cons of the vehicle for a six-month review article that will be up soon. But for now, I wanted to proclaim my awesome ability to mend problems on my Miata.

When I bought the Miata for $2,000, I wasn’t expecting to get into a brand new convertible. The car had around 145K miles and they probably weren’t easy ones either. With this in mind, I was expecting to have to get my hands a little dirty, but the Miata has surprised me with its reliability.

After the winter, I started to notice some dark spots emerging from beneath the Miata. At first, I wasn’t that worried since it was an older vehicle and because the spots weren’t oil. As the weather started to get warmer, the large puddles under my Miata started to occur more frequently. One day, after the car came deathly close to overheating when I was teaching my girlfriend how to drive a stick, I realized that my Miata was leaking coolant at a regular rate.

For those that are not familiar with the amazing Miata, the tiny convertible’s water pump needs to be replaced every 60,000 miles or every time you start to find a puddle underneath the vehicle. To get to the water pump, you have to remove the timing belt, radiator, pulleys, the accessory belts and more. In other words, it’s a pretty big job for a novice enthusiast, but one that is part of the vehicle’s routine maintenance schedule.


Here are some things that I did to ensure that the repair went smoothly:

  • Researched the repair on the Internet/YouTube
  • Bought a service manual
  • Purchased necessary parts ahead of time
  • Acquired specific tools for the job
  • Had another hand and sometimes other hands
  • Put every bolt in a bag and organized every part that came off the vehicle in order
  • Took hundreds of pictures
  • Took my time

These eight bullet points may seem obvious and redundant, but these are the things I did to get through a service that would’ve cost me $695 in labor according to Repairpal.com. All in all, the service cost me $200 in parts and two weekends of my time. Yes, saving $700 did cost me a lot of my time, but I would say that it was well worth it.

So if you want to save money, learn about your vehicle and have some time on your hands, then following the aforementioned steps will have your vehicle running like new in no time. Here’s a more in-depth look into the eight steps to surviving your first major service.

Research The Repair

Depending on what type of vehicle you have, the Internet and YouTube are great sources to get inside tips on repairing your vehicle. Not to mention, you can also find complete videos or walkthroughs of the exact service that you are about to undertake. For instance, I found a lot of articles, videos and dedicated websites for changing parts on my Miata. I found around five good websites and videos for changing my Miata’s water pump. And I studied those until I felt like I could do it in my sleep. Before opening your car’s hood, scour the Internet to see if someone else has done the repair and study what they’ve done. Trust me, it’ll help.


Get A Service Manual

Before the Internet and YouTube came into place, mechanics worked on vehicles by purely guessing. Then, when they figured out that they sucked, mechanics started to use service manuals. I don’t know why anyone would attempt to work on a vehicle without a service manual. Even if you don’t work on your own vehicles, get a service manual to see if your beloved mechanic is ripping you off when you go in for a service. If you plan on keeping your vehicle for a while, then I’d recommend spending $20 on getting a service manual.

Visit Your Local Parts Store To Get The Proper Parts

I cannot stress the importance of getting the right parts for your vehicle. You can find parts on Amazon and eBay, but if you don’t know the difference between brake pads and spark plugs, then you should definitely get some assistance in getting parts. Advance Auto Parts doesn’t have the most knowledgeable crew, but they do a decent job of helping you get the right parts. You might be able to find it cheaper online, but if you’re confused about getting the right parts, make sure you talk to a real human being.

Get Specialty Tools For Your Vehicle 

This may not be possible for the job you’re about to take on or your vehicle, but purchasing specialty tools will save you a lot of time and hassle. For instance, I found a dedicated website for my Miata that specialized in making parts for changing the vehicle’s timing belt. They weren’t cheap, but they were beautifully made and I don’t think I could’ve done the job without them.


Two Hands Are Better Than One

Working on cars is extremely difficult. You’ll get frustrated, tired, hungry, exhausted and angry when you work on your car. Having an extra pair of hands is a necessity when completing a large service. You may not be able to reach certain parts or see how all of the parts are interconnected. But your buddy might and that is a huge help. Also getting another set of eyes will help you get the job done easier and faster. Seriously, get a friend, a family member or the neighborhood mechanic to help you out. I had my father and my girlfriend help me out and they were instrumental.

Organize, Prioritize And Set Aside 

Keep all of your parts in order. Whenever I took a part off of my Miata, I put it in chronological order on the ground. If I could, I would put the parts in the same fashion that I took them off the vehicle. So if you can, keep all of the parts in some kind of order so you don’t have to go looking around for parts at the end. The more you organize throughout the repair, the easier it is to put everything back together at the end.

Invest In A Lot Of Ziploc Bags And Sharpies

Bolts. They single handedly hold your car together. My Miata may be a tiny car, but I must’ve taken off 50 bolts just to get to the water pump. To ensure that I didn’t lose any bolts, I put bolts from the same part in one bag and labeled them accordingly. In the middle of the repair, I must’ve had at least six bags of bolts, but I knew exactly where they went and where to find them.


Use Your Smartphone For Some Good

Before removing parts off of your vehicle, take photos of how everything is laid out. Every time you remove a part, take a photo. That way you know how everything’s laid out when you need to put it back together. I didn’t think this would work, but I’m extremely happy that I did it.

Don’t Rush

In my case, a simple water pump and timing belt replacement should not have taken four days. However, since I, and my helpers, were in a rush to finish the job, we ended up being one tooth off when it came to the vehicle’s timing. There’s no way to check your timing besides putting everything back (finishing the replacement) and then turning the vehicle on. Case in point, take your time and make sure that everything’s in place before starting the reassembly. It’s a learning purpose, but it’s also something that can result in your vehicle not running well, so take your time.

In The End

You can save hundreds, even thousands of dollars by working on your own car. But it’s not for the faint of heart. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty, have a lot of time to spend and learn to look past mistakes. I learned more about my car by working on it and it was an experience that I’m thankful happened. Every time I drive the Miata, I feel even more connected with the vehicle and have a sense of pride knowing that I worked on it, which is something that you can’t put a price on.