From time to time even people who never think about repairing a car themselves have questions about their vehicle. There are many sources for accurate information about a specific make or model. The list of best sources of information starts with the Owner's Manual.
All vehicles should have an Owner's Manual in the glove compartment. If it is missing, the best way to get one is by calling the automaker's customer-service number. Sometimes one can be ordered directly from them, but more often than not they will refer you to a company they have subcontracted to print and distribute the owner's manuals. Reprints of manuals can cost anywhere from $25 to $150 depending on the age of the car. The older the model or the rarer the vehicle, the more expensive the manual will be -- and it may be virtually impossible to find.
The Owner's Manual shows where the various systems are in the vehicle, how they are operated, gives information about dealing with emergency situations, gives a thorough listing of regular maintenance, a small amount of information about repairs (such as where the fuse box is) and lots of contact information. Generally this manual is also packaged with the car's warranty and information about roadside assistance and global positioning systems if the car has them.
Automotive book publishers like Haynes and Chilton's produce a wide range of books on auto mechanics from simple overviews to shop manuals for mechanics. Both companies publish a line of year, make and model specific manuals. Though some of the manuals cover multiple product years, these books are accurate listings of where all the car's parts are located and how to perform most repairs. These books are important to have when doing any do-it-yourself car repairs. They can also be helpful in understanding the repairs and components of the expense a mechanic is proposing.
Millions of copies of these books are sold each year. Therefore, it is fairly easy to find good used copies in second-hand bookstores, especially for older cars that had large production runs.
Haynes and Chilton's manuals can be ordered through most bookstores. Most automotive bookstores will have a large selection of manuals in stock for the most commonly purchased cars. They too can order any manual not currently on their shelves that is in print. Both Amazon.com and Borders Books carry these books and you can order them online.
The same two companies also produce a substantial selection of automotive "How-to" books. One of our favorites is Chilton's "Easy Car Care" (currently in its third edition). This book explains all the systems in a vehicle and clearly explains how to do some of the more common maintenance tasks and perform simple repairs.
From this book one can change the car's oil or transmission fluid and filters, clean the battery, pack the bearings, change the belts (assuming the car has belts that are easy to get to), change, rotate and balance the tires or swap out a fuse. Though more complex repairs are covered, they often require special tools -- like balancing the tires. And in that case, it is better to take the car to a professional for repairs.
It is a good idea to carry the Owner's Manual and a copy of a Haynes or Chilton's manual in your car in case of emergency. They can both tell where to place the jack and the procedure for changing a tire. The Haynes and Chilton's books can even tell you how to cool the car if it overheats. They are worthwhile investments.
If you are very interested in learning more about your car, I highly recommend taking a basic automotive technology class at your local community college or vocational technical institute. (These classes are fun and fascinating given that automotive technology has been among the fastest growing this century.) You'll learn a lot about your car and how to take care of it and most of these schools have one or more of the databases that mechanics use to get information on cars.
If you are stuck for information and don't have a book that answers those questions, try calling the auto shop department at the local community college and speak to the one of the instructors. Ask them if they will let you come down and look up the problem on their database -- they are specific to model year, unlike the books which can cover a few years and thus will give the engineering variations from model year to model.
Alternatively you can visit or call the local dealership for the make of car you own and speak to someone in the parts or service department. They may be willing to look the information up on their computer and print it out. Especially if you need to buy parts from them.