Carol Smith had never opened the hood of her 1996 Toyota Camry, and A. J. Wilder was sure she couldn't loosen the bolts to change a tire.
But yesterday, after a four-hour introduction to car engines, a few broken nails and a little dirt, the two women and several others could identify the brake master cylinder and the distributor cap, and could talk about the inner workings of an ignition starter.
The women are among hundreds who have attended car-care workshops in and around Baltimore that are designed to teach women about under-the-hood components, basic maintenance and car-care safety.
Women in the course said they wanted to avoid being cheated when they take their cars for repairs and maintenance. They also want to be able to help themselves when they have to change a flat tire or solve other problems.
"I was stuck the other night over in west Annapolis, and I felt very helpless," Smith said. She still doesn't know what was wrong with her car. "When I saw this advertised in the paper, I thought it would be a good idea to come."
Michael Bacher, owner of Annapolis Car Care, sponsored yesterday's workshop at the Eastport Annapolis Neck library. Bacher said he wanted to teach his customers to be smarter consumers.
"It's clear to me that women want to know more about their vehicles," Bacher said. "Women are particularly vulnerable in the automotive marketplace because they just don't know. We spend a good deal of time marketing to women. This is a way of giving back."
There are several auto shops in the Baltimore area that have offered workshops in the past for their female customers. But usually they are one-time events.
Merchant's Tire and Auto has classes at least once a year at each of their area locations, according to manager Boots Grap, who has been with the company 15 years. During the class, a female instructor points out the dipsticks and reservoirs under the hood of a car, gives a shop tour and usually puts a car on a lift to point out the brakes and exhaust system.
Some shops, such as Speedy Brake and Muffler in Glen Burnie, " handle the do-it-yourself approach a little differently -- they offer customers a video that gives a few safety tips for travel and instructions on how to change a flat tire.
But yesterday's workshop in Annapolis was more hands-on. It began with a brief introduction and a talk about maintenance, but the students were soon taken outside to the parking lot for a few moments of owner-to-car bonding. They opened the doors, lifted the hood, and searched for their car's manufacture date, spark plugs, brake disks, distributor cap and engine size.
Some, like Wilder, donned latex gloves and kept a supply of napkins and a rag nearby as she looked for the transmission dip stick.
Kathy Strackbein didn't mind getting a little messy.
"I'm going to go home smarter than my husband," she said, her blackened fingers clutching the work sheet as her eyes scanned under the hood to see if there were more parts she could pick out. "My mother thinks I'm brilliant because I can pump my own gas."
Smith felt cheated after she saw her car's condition.
"Look, all these fluids are low," she said, adding that she'd recently gotten a 30,000-mile checkup on her 1995 Toyota Camry wagon. "[Bacher] just checked the transmission fluid, and it's corroded. He said it needs to be changed. I would think if I've just gotten it serviced they would've checked this and changed it."
The second half of the workshop included a talk about the oil pressure indicator and the coolant temperature gauge -- two dashboard fixtures that can indicate big trouble -- and questions.
"How can I tell if I need new tires?" one woman wanted to know. "Why do I feel rattling when I step on the brake?" another asked.
"What about squealing brakes?"
"What's that grinding in my transmission when I shift gears?"
Bacher answered with stick-figure-like drawings on an overhead projector and borrowed car parts. For the last portion of the workshop, the students went back outside in the drizzle and changed a tire.
Bebe Murry of Annapolis struggled with the lug nuts and a dummy tire with her 12-year-old son, Alexander. At times, the boy seemed more knowledgeable.
"Which do you think, is that the inside?" she asked Alexander. She broke a nail during her efforts and quipped that a manicure ought to be given as the door prize at the end of the workshop.
"This is about the ugliest thing anybody has told me to do," Strackbein said. "You know, this is work."
As tough as it was, many of the women walked away feeling smarter.
"I feel more confident going into car shops just knowing the basics," said Mary Beth Malone of Annapolis.
"I did it," Wilder said, looking like a true mechanic with a dirt smudge on her chin. "It's a good feeling that I did it because I didn't think I could."
Even Smith, who didn't change her tire because of a back injury, learned a valuable lesson.
"This convinces me -- I'm going to pick up some AAA membership," she said.
Pub Date: 5/10/98