On Haynes manuals, DIY ethos, and right-to-repair

We're in danger of losing something really great here

7w ago
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If you've ever bought a used car from me, chances are it came with a bonus: a well-thumbed Haynes repair manual in the trunk.

It used to be part of the ritual of getting a new car: the first free weekend, I would wash it, change the oil, and buy a Haynes manual for it. It was as much a part of the transfer of ownership as taking the title to the DMV and calling the insurance agent. If I couldn't find a Haynes book for it, I'd go for Chilton, but they were never as good. At the other end of ownership, when it came time to sell the car, the Haynes book would stay with it, ready to help guide the next owner on their journey. That's just The Way It Was Done.

It's a ritual that died during the brief time when I was buying new (or newer) cars, because I didn't need to. When you have a warranty, and most of the odometer digits haven't gone around yet, you don't have to know how to replace the starter, or get the ball joints apart, or trace a wiring diagram back to find a short. It's not until a car matures that you really need to bust out the repair books.

But when you need them, you need them. In recent years, I've tried substituting internet searches for Haynes books, but it just isn't the same. Internet car forums can be a source of some wonderful tips and tricks, and are a great way of finding out whether the trouble you're having is common or characteristic to the model, or something new and exciting. But they can just as often be full of wrong or conflicting information, dead links, missing photos, and just plain stupid advice. Searching owner's forums can only get you so far. Sooner or later, you need to consult a repair manual.

Haynes manuals are a badge of honor among gearheads. Non-car-people won't understand it, but having that book on a shelf in your garage means you're serious; you know that car inside and out, and if there was something you don't know, it just means that you haven't broken anything in that chapter yet. It marks you as not only an owner of a car, but also a power-user and caretaker of it. It shows that you take pride, not only in the purchase of a machine, but the long-term care and maintenance of it. A Haynes book shows a level of commtiment to a car that no payment book ever could. Anybody can write a check and make a payment every month. Replacing a radiator or a U-joint or a head gasket makes a car "yours" in a different way. You and the machine have a deeper understanding, a bond formed in grease and dirt and metal shavings and sometimes even blood, because no relationship can be all give and no take.

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The announcement that no new Haynes paper manuals will be published is a blow to anyone who has ever turned a wrench on their car. It is a shot across the bow of an entire class of automotive enthusiasts: the do-it-yourselfer. And it's not the first one. The creeping intrusion of computers into cars has had a chilling effect on the DIY repair world, and new assaults appear almost every day. Proprietary code scanners that give more information than a normal OBD-II scanner can, control modules that go into "limp mode" when you try to modify something, and subscription-based online repair manuals aall make it that much harder to keep a car going without taking it to an "authorized" repair shop. There have always been "specialty" tools, but you could usually find (or make) something that would do the trick. You can't do that with software. Some of our bulwarks, like Magnusson-Moss, are holding for now, but if the automotive industry is heading the same way that farm equipment has (and it is), the days of the shade-tree mechanic may be numbered.

And they shouldn't be. Cars are democratic; it doesn't matter what you drive as much as that you drive. The availability of parts and informaiton to service a car yourself is literally what makes it possible to own inexpensive cars; if every repair had to be done by an authorized mechanic, countless more old cars would end up scrapped, because their owners couldn't afford the repair bills. And this includes all four of the cars in my household.

Not only are cars democratic; they can't not be. Machinery, by its very nature, is open-source. You can always take it apart and figure out how it works. There are no firewalls (other than literal ones) in the mechanical world. Nothing prevents you from gaining the knowledge of how to fix an engine or a gearbox or a suspension system: disassemble it, reassemble it, and then you know. It's literally right there on the back of every Haynes manual: "All manuals based on a complete teardown and rebuild." To write the book, they "hack" the car. It's reverse-engineering for a higher purpose.

If the mechanical aspects of the car are so easily understood, why should the software not be? The only reason is simple greed on the part of automakers: they don't want to tell you how to fix it; they want to sell you a new one. It's capitalism in action, I suppose, but it's also just plain shitty. Making car systems standardized and open-source can only be good for everyone but car salesmen; it allows not only DIYers, but also independent repair shops, complete access and knowledge of the car's electronic systems, exactly like they already have to the mechanical systems. It takes away the monopoly of dealer repair as the only option, and as far too many consumers have discovered over the years, dealer repair departments aren't nearly as good as they want you to think. Free and open access to data from the car's systems is capitalism at work as well; it encourages competiton and makes the whole market better, even for those who go around the market and fix it themselves.

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As for the online subscription-based manuals that will replace paper ones: I think it's a stupid idea. No one wants to have to come back in the house with greasy hands and load up something on the computer just to find out where that mysterious eighth bolt on the water pump housing is hiding. And it's death to a laptop of a phone to try to look it up in the garage that way.

Plus, you can't scribble notes in the margins. You can't jot down, "Remove the power steering belt first to make it easier," or "Use the yellow screwdriver because the blue one is too fat to fit in here," or whatever extra information isn't in the manual. And there is always something that isn't in the manual.

Not only that, but I take offense to the entire idea of subscription-based access to information online anyway. I own the car (at least, untilt hey figure out how to change that as well), so why can't I own the book? Monthly charges to use software instead of buying itin a box every couple of years? Why? Can't I just buy it, install it, use it, and not deal with the company who sold it anymore? I don't do streaming music services either, for the same reason: sure, the record or CD takes up room on a shelf, but it's mine, and they can't take it back or switch it off.

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I don't know; maybe I'm just turning into a curmudgeon in my middle age. But owning a thing, taking pride in it, and taking care of it still means something to me, and I want all the access to all the information I need to take care of it, in a form that makes it easy to use. I guess in some ways this makes me a "bad consumer," but that's actually OK with me. I don't want to consume. I want to repair, restore, care for, steward, cherish. I want to own.

And I need to remember to order a Haynes book for my old truck. There are some things I haven't figured out how to take apart.

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Comments (33)

  • I grew up in a time and place where Haynes/Chilton manuals were in local libraries.

    Automotive right-to-repair is just one aspect of a larger set of problems, and it's a relative newcomer. I've been watching it for over 20 years now. At this point I mostly just facepalm, roll my eyes, and/or refer people to the EFF (speaking of which - donations to EFF are being matched this week).

      1 month ago
  • It's worth mentioning that Haynes Online Manuals allow you to print off the section that you need for a job and then you can write notes in the margin of that, should you so wish! The existing back catalogue of Haynes Manuals will still be printed and published, too: that is not stopping.

      1 month ago
    • Yeah, I know the old ones will still be available. And I'm thankful for that, especially since I can't see myself ever willingly owning a car newer than about 2010. And I have printed out all sorts of online info for my MGB... and stuck the pages...

      Read more
        1 month ago
    • Thanks for that

        1 month ago
  • I still have all my Haynes manuals. They tell a nice story of my automotive life I guess. The one for my first car, my Honda Accord has grease stains on every page, the spine is worn from being laid open on the drive way. By contrast, the last one I got for My Nissan Rogue is practically brand new, only been opened a couple times mostly to see how some panel comes off. I doubt I'll even get one for my newest car 2020 Hyundai Elantra GT N-line since I am leasing it. The winter salt just ruins anything that's an all season car. My Dodge ram was 12 years old when I bought it, and was like new. When I moved to NY everyone commented on how do I keep my truck in such good shape. (answer live in a state that does not dump tons of salt all over the road) After just a couple winters any attempt at working on it had me furious that every bolt was seized with rust, and so corroded it falls apart when you try to loosen it. What used to be a 2hr job, turns into 2 days, way more pain meds than can possibly be good, and wondering do I spend a small fortune fixing the rust while here and make the job 3 times bigger, or be thankful the part is mostly still there and try and wrap up the work before the weekend is over. Any old cars I get in the future will likely be summer time only cars. All season cars will be strictly leased, so as the rust starts to set in , in a couple years I can unload it on someone masochist and avoid that head ache.... ahhh where was I going with this.. ohhh yeah still have all the manuals. I love looking at all the cars I've owned, and a few I seriously considered buying so I got the manual, but never found a car to go with it.

      1 month ago
    • I kinda wish I had kept mine, but I've had 32 cars (current ones are numbers 29, 31, and 32) so it would be an entire shelf.

      And I know all about road salt, having grown up in Illinois and lived in Minnesota for a decade. Rust claimed two cars...

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        1 month ago
  • Can I just say how utterly useless my Haynes manual is? I keep it in my recovery and spares box in the land cruiser because it's certainly better than nothing and a digital file isn't as robust as a paper book. Compared to the factory service manual it's lacking in a LOT of important detail and missing in important things like torque specs. It would be an okay guide for trail repairs, but I never use mine.

    On the topic of right to repair, it's certainly gotten difficult because manufacturers have made their products inherently difficult or impossible to repair without their direct involvement anymore. Far too integrated electronically where far too people have the necessary skills or tools.

    That being said, its no excuse for locking people out.

      1 month ago
    • They're uneven in quality, that's for sure. And they're not a replacement for a good factory service manual. But as a quick reference for 80% of the stuff you're likely to need to know to keep a car on the road, they're worth having. Especially...

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        1 month ago
  • They'll make it so that you have a "license to operate your car" due to proprietary software if John Deere gets their way. Toyota offers a multi-volume paper Factory Service Manual set for my 2011 Sienna for over $1000 (I think). I'm planning to do their online subscription for a day or so and try to download every PDF.

    yeah, you and me both are or are becoming grumpy old men. We have to adapt. We can print out the PDFs to take into the garage and write notes on those copies. Transfer the notes to the electronic PDFs if needed. Have a specific garage computer or laptop that gets trashed and gross. All kinds of adaptations.

    I do agree with you. It's pro-corporate and anti-consumer capitalism. I like the feel of objects, manuals, books, newspapers. But oh well.

      1 month ago
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