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Steve Bren has been fascinated with cars since he was 9 years old.
And he’s still fascinated with them. His family owns six vehicles, ranging from daily drivers to work vehicles, as well as a few vintage vehicles he maintains for car shows and cruising. He even recently built a climate-controlled garage behind his house in Mitchell to perform year-round basic maintenance on his fleet.
In fact, he spent part of his July 4 holiday weekend doing some tire work.
“I took a tire off the rim and remounted it by hand,” Bren told the Mitchell Republic during a recent interview, referring to his wife’s red Jeep that she uses to run her mail route. “I used to be a tire guy, so I have a little background on that. It’s also dripping antifreeze, so I’ll pop the hood and get under there.”
Owning or having access to a vehicle is almost a must in South Dakota, where long distances often separate home, work, school and shopping. And making sure that vehicle is in good running order can take time, knowledge and often, money.
In tough economic times, it can be difficult to keep up with repair costs. In a survey by the American Automobile Association, it was determined that 64 million American drivers, or 1 out of 3, would be unable to pay for unexpected car costs without going into debt. Common repairs can often run between $500 and $600 and sometimes higher. The AAA recommends drivers put $50 aside per month to help offset unexpected repair costs.
With six vehicles in the fold, Bren knows the value of doing your own repair and maintenance work. And while he has a long history of doing such work -- he serves as vice president of the local Outkasts Car Club and is one of the founders of the 301Rodz group in Mitchell -- he knows it can be daunting to take the steps and learn.
But opportunities abound to broaden your knowledge, he said.
“(I learned) by hanging out with other guys who were into it and watching what they do,” said Bren, 46. “There’s still stuff I don’t know how to do. I’m learning as I go.”
These days, resources like YouTube are incredibly useful, especially to those who may not run in a circle of car enthusiasts. Cars and automotive repairs in general are a popular genre of video, and Bren said one can find almost anything they need with a well-worded search of the site.
“Knowledge is the best tool you’ll ever have. If you want to watch YouTube on how to change your air filter, just type in exactly what you have. It doesn’t matter what you have, from a 1970 Chevelle to a 2020 Charger, there’s a video out there that someone has done that shows you how to do it,” Bren said.
One of the most common reasons to take a car to a professional for service is changing the oil. Bren said this is one of the easier tasks to learn, even for a beginner. In addition to any research being done online, he noted that the driver’s manual for the vehicle in question can often offer a clear picture on how to perform such a task straight from the manufacturer.
Learn what tools you will need, have a good, safe place to do the work and have the patience to take your time and absorb what you’re learning, he said.
“With changing your oil, the biggest thing is making sure you have the right wrench, a good flat surface and a (container) to dispose of the oil,” Bren said.
“There are things on the newer vehicles you’ll want to take to an experienced, certified mechanic. You want to make sure it’s safe."
— Steve Bren, local car enthusiast
He does this himself, draining the old oil from his vehicles in a tub and then recycling that used oil at automotive garages in Mitchell who take the oil and use it to power garage heaters in the winter. Changing other fluids should similarly be within reach with a little research, Bren said.
There will be some jobs that should be taken to a certified technician, even for someone experienced in self-repair. Modern vehicles have a large number of electronic components, and fixing problems can sometimes be a very technical affair. Online videos will often mention this to viewers, and Bren said if you’re not comfortable doing the repairs yourself, it’s proper to have a professional look at it for safety’s sake.
“There are things on the newer vehicles you’ll want to take to an experienced, certified mechanic. You want to make sure it’s safe,” Bren said. “If you can’t make a prime rib, don’t try it.”
Keeping up the appearance of your vehicle can also be important. Not only does a good wash improve the looks of the vehicle, it can increase the lifespan of the paint and body. That helps maintain the value of the car itself and helps its resale value in the event the driver ever wants to part with the vehicle.
Bren said he specifically designed his garage with a space out back with room for washing his vehicles. There are many high-quality automatic and manual car wash options available, but using what you have at home can be just as effective and can save a few dollars. A pressure washer, for example, is helpful, but it’s not necessary to get the basic job done.
“I built this garage so that I could wash cars out back. I just bought a pressure washer last week,” Bren said. “But you can use a good bucket, a garden hose with a spray nozzle on it and a scrub brush or wash mitt.”
For those who drive taller vehicles like SUVs, he recommended a wand extension that attaches to the hose and allows you to wash the roof and other hard-to-reach areas.
Bren said using a soap specifically designed for use with cars can help make sure any wax on the finish isn’t dissolved. He said these products aren’t necessarily that much more expensive than common dishwashing soap, but they last a long time, especially for those who may not be washing their vehicle regularly for car shows like some enthusiasts might.
And for cars that are garaged regularly, washing may be overkill. Bren keeps a spray bottle of Meguire’s Quik Detailer handy and will do a quick wipe-down instead of breaking out the buckets and hose. It’s a fast option that keeps the vehicle looking nice without the mess.
Not sure if that car wash soap is right for your vehicle? Read the label. There’s a good chance it will tell you what the product is best used for.
“Every car wash soap out there is different,” Bren said.
Wax is the classic complement to washing a car. The wax seals and protects the coat, and the types of wax that require traditional application and then buffing it out -- such as Turtle Wax -- are still the best for protecting the paint of your car.
“Nothing compares to laying down a coat of wax and buffing it off,” Bren said.
Research and practice are the best methods of learning how to do simple repair work on your vehicles, he said, but you can also seek out experienced enthusiasts to help guide you. Bren recommended those with an interest stop by a gathering of the Outkasts Car Club or 301Rodz to find other people who love talking about cars and how to take care of them.
Interested people will have their chance coming up July 17, when 301Rodz hosts its 5th Annual Hot Rods & Hot Dogs at Hitchcock Park, where all makes and models of car and truck are welcome to take part in the 7 p.m. cruise. A freewill donation will benefit The Angel Tree. Later this year, the 17th Annual Outkasts Car Show will take place September 25. The cruise and hotrod show will hold registration at Coborn’s front lot beginning at 9 a.m. with more events taking place on Main Street.
The events are a great place to get out for an evening, enjoy some classic and modern cars and mingle with people who are more than willing to talk about how to keep your car looking and running it’s best.
“If you don’t know, don’t be afraid to ask someone who does know. Questions help you out, and it’s better than looking like an idiot,” Bren said. “That’s what we’re down there for. It’s getting together, talking about cars and keeping that knowledge rolling.”