How to extend your wrenching years

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

Story by Terry Thomas

It’s cold, it’s late, and it’s 1970. I have been pressed into service to help my father reattach the driver’s door to the family’s Ford Maverick.

The car had been in an accident that left the door misaligned, and one dark winter Sunday afternoon my father had decided to realign it. He, an MIT-trained/retired Navy commander/cold warrior, determined that the best way to align the door was to remove the whole darn thing completely from its hinges. 

If you’ve ever done this yourself, you know what a bad idea it is. So, responding to my mother’s tearful pleas to “Help your father–he’s out there swearing!” I bundled up and found the door lying paint-side down in the snow next to the car, together with three of its four attaching bolts, the fourth having sheared off flush in the door hinge. 

My father, red and panting, was sitting on the driveway, trying to stop his hands from shaking as he fired a Chesterfield. 

We got the door bolted back onto the car at dusk, secured by only three bolts after Dad snapped an easy-off in the broken one, my 90 pounds struggling to hold up a door half my weight with frozen hands while my father cursed. My mother came out periodically to plead with him to be careful, which led to more cursing. 

He drove the car to work the next day, securing the door with a coat hanger. When he traded the car for a new 1971 Pinto, the door still didn’t fit. 

Thus began a long series of paternally induced battlefield repairs that forged me into a seasoned wrench by the time I got my first job working at a gas station. Though I went to college and became a desk guy, I continued to work on cars, eventually restoring them, building them and racing them, always wishing for more time. 

Fast-forward a bunch of years to today, and though I’m mentally surprised to discover that I’m now certifiably old, various parts of my personal chassis have no illusions and are voicing their opinions at increasing volume. They are also serially going on strike after years of abuse, presenting the long-overdue bill for using hands as hammers, kneeling on concrete for hours and lying in the snow installing Fiat transmissions.

We’ve all been there: This painting by Mom recalls the author helping Dad out in the driveway. Painting Credit: Courtesy Terry Thomas

My knees retired to Florida over a decade ago, and I now sport bionic ones that will not tolerate kneeling, even for a second. Rising from a seated position on the garage floor requires rolling over onto my belly and then executing a quick pushup that gives me enough momentum to get a foot on the floor. Simone Biles I am not.

My hands are so shot full of arthritis and bone spurs from various violent episodes that they can’t be trusted to maintain a reliable grip–I’ve dropped so many wine glasses I’ve had to stop drinking. And my rotator cuff has been repaired–sort of–but won’t tolerate heavy lifting and really hates the push-up-from-the-floor routine. 

And yet I still work on cars, because I like to work on cars. In fact, now that I have more free time, I’ve built a decent-sized garage for my modest fleet. I plan to keep on doing as much mechanical stuff as I can–and choose to–for as long as I want to. It would be a bit too “Gift of the Magi” were I to give the hobby up now that I finally have the time and resources to commit to it. 

The first thing to do is realistically determine how much car-related stuff you’ll be doing and figure out your budget. More into detailing and cleanup? A maintainer doing oil changes and tune-ups? Or are you likely to pull an engine or drop a transmission? 

Your conclusion will steer you toward the stuff you need to buy. It gets expensive being old, but if you’re like me, you want to spend your last dime on your last day. Sorry, kids.

With the goal of longevity in mind, I started thinking about ways to modify my long-established work habits with ones a bit more likely to preserve my aching body. I offer them up for your consideration here.


Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

Easy Cleaning

Even if you’re just into show and shine, there are lots of tools that make it easier and less strenuous to wash a car. Modern spray cleaners don’t require dragging out the hose and bucket–and can be used in the garage, too. A mitt or microfiber on a long handle makes it easier to clean the lower reaches of the car. When I wash a car outdoors with water, I use an air dryer to reduce bending over. 

Work Comfortably

In the garage, there are a lot of things you can do to help preserve the decrepit hulk you now inhabit. First, make sure it’s warm enough in winter to not aggravate your arthritic joints. I run a wall-mounted 5000 BTU space heater in the winter to get the garage up to a comfortable high 50s/low 60s. 

Cooling is also a big deal as you age. Time to put a/c in the garage? It’s frighteningly easy to get dehydrated quickly, and the consequences can be severe. I make it a habit to stop regularly for water, regardless of the temperature but even more importantly when it’s hot. 

Can You See?

Seeing stuff is another big item that gets harder with age. My garage is lit with a battery of high-intensity lights, together with skylights, but I also wear a lightweight, headband-style rechargeable LED light–less than $20–for most jobs. It’s really bright, and I wonder why I spent so many years squinting in the dark at things. (Buy two, and charge one while you wear one, because they only last about 3 hours.)

 I also have a large, lighted magnifying glass mounted on a stand on my bench next to the car for close inspections, part numbers, and those teeny tiny etchings on sockets or stamped on fastener heads. I also have several sets of goggles with bifocal readers that I use a lot (also less than $20).

Light is your friend. Today’s headband-style, LED-powered lamps put the light exactly where you need it. Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

Use Leverage

Using hand tools that provide more leverage is a good way to relieve some stress and strain on your mangled mitts. I have a set of long-handled box end gear wrenches that allow me to reach deeper into an engine compartment while bending over less, and my regular ratchet handles are extended-length. 

Electric tools add a whole ’nother level of ease. I use my 18v 3/8-inch impact gun all the time, along with its matching ratchet and rechargeable screwdriver. If they offered a battery-powered back scratcher, I’d have that, too. Battery-powered tools have pretty much replaced air tools in my garage as they are quieter, easier to use and, importantly, don’t require a lot of strenuous hose wrangling.

Use a Safety Net

Anyone who works on old cars has found stray fasteners dropped by ghost mechanics of the past. A dropped manifold nut can be gone forever–unless you’ve stuffed a rag underneath to capture any escapees. When my grip became less reliable, I simply started using towels and rags to stop fasteners from falling out of my grasp. 

Build Benches

I used to spend hours working on parts that were sitting on the ground, which generally involved a lot of kneeling and squatting punctuated by the occasional crawl across the driveway to fetch a rolled-away socket. No more. 

I now have high benches along the walls of my garage, and I try to get everything up to a comfortable working level. If I have to get down low, I use a short roller chair, and I also use rolling carts both as worktables and as tool carts. 

I try to avoid working on anything that’s sitting on the ground: Waist-high is good, nearly chest-high is better. I also use floor mats designed for relieving stress on joints anywhere I’ll be standing for any length of time.

Banish Grease and Grime

Another thing I’ve discovered that saves a lot of stress and strain is dry-ice blasting the undersides and engine compartments of my cars. Nearly every time I’ve hurt myself, it has been because of a nasty, greasy and stuck fastener of some sort. Dry-ice blasting won’t do much about the stuck part, but using it to remove decades of crud lowers the risk of slipping a wrench off of something and smashing a hand into something else. 

And I want to spend my time in the garage working on the car, not cleaning stuff. Approaching each job with the thoughtful goal of reducing bodily wear and tear taking precedence over simply getting the job done will prolong the number of years I can keep at it.

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jguillaume None
4/12/23 2:02 p.m.

Good article. I'm older, not old yet, and I'm setting my shop up with the future in mind. I reverently purchased an AMGO, single post moveable lift and love it. Still have to get on the floor to position it but so much better than jack stands etc. Plus I can so easily move it to different locations in the shop and somewhat store it out of the way when not in use. I use tall stabilizer stands from Harbir Freight and car is rock solid once lifted.

Dwight New Reader
4/13/23 7:29 a.m.


I have struggled for decades... First at age  40, when I had a back injury, working at a dealership. Took 2 years to actually get  back to work. Worked as a tech and in sales, Had my own small shop. But other issues came roaring in. Shoulders, [both repaired sorta] Then Rhuematoid arthritus, both hips replaced. Heart issues etc. However, I still soldier on, doing what I can, with my youngests son's help. Got a 'Quick Jack' coupla years ago and really like it.. My shop, is my garage, yet set up purdy good. I would like to add a stall, but with the prices of  construction materials so high...   I am still working, being productive and useful, in my own  business. supporting  shops and tech's. And the occasional Autox. I have two classics; '59 Austin Healey Sprite & '79 MGB LE [Sebring] I intend to compete in this years. [maybe] "Never Give Up' -Winston Churchill -

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
4/13/23 8:17 a.m.

As someone who is approaching 30, I'm definitely taking notes from this story and all the comments we've received so far.

I know I can't stop myself from aging, but there's things I can do to make the process a little more comfortable and easier on my body.

Mustang50 Reader
4/20/23 12:13 p.m.

Great article and very timely.  I'll be 75 this June and I find myself paying for the work on my Mustang that I used to do myself.  With arthritis in both hands it is difficult for me to hold the steering wheel or tools.  My autocross days are probably over.  Not looking for sympathy and I have good memories of participating in local events.   

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/24/23 12:49 p.m.

Packing my garage full of LED fixtures–nothing expensive–was a game changer. 

ALFASOLO62 New Reader
5/12/23 9:42 p.m.

Working on a car may not be good for old bodies, but i'm still doing it at 84; changing the water pump & front crankshaft seal on my '91 Alfa Spider, and changing the transmission on my '76 autocross Spider. Tynelol helps, and I've found it's best to just work an hour or two a day.

George Schweikle

pdqneon New Reader
6/24/23 3:45 p.m.

It's tough to get old. I have held on to my 1970 Challenger R/T 440-6 since high school. Plans were to work on it in retirement. Guess what, medical stuff happens and now I no longer have the ability to fulfill that dream. New plan is to sell it, and spend some of the cash on the garage to make it a better work place. Maybe a new furnace/AC combo. Probably should insulate it. Maybe even turn one of the stalls into a relaxation hangout for that occasional nap. I do miss the recliner I had in the garage. It's amazing that on an 80 degree day, after working on a car for awhile, how sitting in that recliner could take a 5 minute break into a 2 hour nap.

kaybat New Reader
6/24/23 5:17 p.m.

In my 60's now. I just go slower, and I now "have a guy" for the serious stuff. I do exercise, so will continue fighting the good fight.

ancientdan New Reader
6/25/23 5:38 a.m.

two months from my 80th.  I will not go gentle into that good night!  My wife and I drove our 15th classic, a 1994 Jaguar XJS convertible, with a factory 5 speed, down to Luray Caverns in Virginia yesterday.  In additon to the caves they have a small but extraordinary car museum with everything from carriages to Locomobiles, to a Hispano-Suiza.  

Anyway, I agree with all the measures the author has taken.  I have a two post lift in a purpose built high bay that has changed my life. Other smaller life changers include a big professional air compressor that will run anything (air scalers really take rust off even if the noise is noisesom).  The recently acquired TIG welder takes some learning time, but does a great job.  Also have MIG and Stick welders, grinders, buffers, drill press, vices, every had tool known to man.  

Lights, lights, lights!!  Just can't have too many of them.  LEDs are wonderful otherwise my garage would have the heat signature of the sun!

Battery powered and corded impact tools are absolutely necessary for me to tighten things nowadays.  Old Arthur Itis is not the best friend one could have in old age.  However, friends are essential.  Our local old car group (both cars and people) meet every Saturday morning for breakfast.  The guys sit at one table and talk about things that can be fixed, like cars.  The ladies sit at another and talk about things that cant be fixed, like adult children and grandchildren! These friends are always willing to offer a helping hand when needed, which is more and more often as the years go by.   Our 9 BMWs, 3 MGs, 2 Jaguars and other assorted vehicles will be addressed in our wills.  We ain't giving up a damn thing until the last minute!  Dan and Mary


David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
6/26/23 9:56 a.m.

Another tip for working in the shop: drink water. Like, a lot of it. 

Steevo New Reader
8/25/23 12:22 p.m.

Great information, I'm looking at retirement and hoping to finally have time for some wrenching projects.  I'm building a shop Now and looking at lifts. 

aircooled MegaDork
8/28/23 7:17 p.m.

The other thing that will making working on cars much easier when you are old is if you have all you fingers and eyes, and if your back is not blown out by trying to pick up stuff that is way too.

darkbuddha HalfDork
9/17/23 12:07 p.m.

When I originally read this article (back in April), I was like "yeah, that all makes good sense..."  Today, when I re-read it, it was just after I'd come home from being at the gym (early on Sunday morning), and I was immediately struck by the omission of regular physical exercise.  I'm now on the back side of this gig, and I've got bunches more stuff I wanna do and not nearly as many years left to make it happen. I need to be at this as long as possible, and exercising is as an essential element of being able to continue to wrench into one's later years. I'm not talking about body building, or training for triathalon, or even losing weight or looking fit, but rather maintaining mobility and range of motion and durability and stamina, and sure, a bit of strength. That's the stuff that really REALLY matters as we age. Lose those things and you lose the ability to do any wrenching much at all, even with the best lighting, the right tools, or good safety gear.

bosswrench New Reader
9/17/23 1:54 p.m.

I agree with David W- you need lots of drinks in 'sunny' Nevada. So I have a little apartment-sized refrigerator with 6 bottles of cold water and 2 beers for those needed breaks. Decades ago, the refr's content was the same but beer predominated then. And I have a single coffee cup-heater that turns on when a cup lands on it and turns itself off when things are hot enough. Handy when you forget you put a cupp'a on it 2 hrs ago. As for tools, I also find myself buying oversized ones for the extra leverage, to compensate for the strength Father Time took away. So far, so good.

wasedtum New Reader
10/6/23 6:03 a.m.

Great article and very timely.  I'll be 75 this June and I find myself paying for the work on my Mustang that I used to do myself. 

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