I hate electricity. Yes, I understand it’s as important to the running of an automobile as the gasoline running through the fuel lines, but nothing this side of an automatic transmission rebuild fills me with more existential dread that working on wiring. Case in point: I fought with a faulty brake light on a 1965 Vespa scooter FOR 15 YEARS before I finally caved in and had somebody fix it.
So it is with great trepidation that I wandered into Rob Siegel’s new book from Bentley Publishers, The Hack Mechanic Guide to European Electrical Systems, which just hit the bookshelves today. The “Hack Mechanic” in the title references Siegel’s terrific earlier work, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic: How Fixing Broken BMWs Helped Make Me Whole.
I have spent many, many hours looking at wiring diagrams, and trying to diagnose electrical issues. The only vehicle I was successful with was — ironically — a 1970 Land Rover Series IIa, which was only simple to diagnose because there was like one wire in it.
All of those manuals, diagrams and user guides I pored over featured the style of writing you’d normally need to read the installation instructions on a garbage disposal to experience. Dry. Dull. Designed to induce sleep.
A book like this walks a fine line. You can easily dumb it down to the point where you’re insulting your reader with cartoon pictures of electrons, or just as easily overestimate the reader’s intelligence and attention span and write it like your core audience once built the Space Shuttle.
This one is billed as a guide to European automotive electrical systems, and it’s true that it does provide a lot of specific data on the idiosyncrasies of Volkswagen, Audi, BMW and any other Euro manufacturer that favors Bosch electrics. But that’s not to say that if you own an Austin-Healey that you won’t get a lot of it.
It’s also not just for people who have cars of a certain vintage. A ton of the information collected in the book covers how to diagnose and understand things like all the sensors that make a modern car go and stop.
The Hack Mechanic Guide to European Automotive Electrical Systems splits the difference. It’s an actual “book” with “chapters” featuring “engaging writing” that doesn’t make you want to stick your head in an oven. Each chapter covers a specific topic, but it’s broken up with tons of illustrations, and sidebars designed to either offer deeper information, to provide a warning, or to deliver an analogy that can help you sort through your problem.
It’s complex enough to cover modern electrical issues (see Chapter 31: Testing Wheel Speed Sensors), but also never assumes that you’ve done any electrical work — or more accurately any electrical work correctly. Early chapters cover the basics of safety and automotive electricity, and most appreciated, how a multimeter actually works.
There’s real science in here, as the warning in the beginning of Chapter 3 indicates:
“[N]o one cares about Ohm’s Law. No one wakes up excited to apply it…But here’s the thing: You can’t safely troubleshoot an electrical problem or modify an existing electrical circuit without at least some level of understanding what’s going on. So think of this as your broccoli…You have to eat one piece in order to have a shot at the pie.”
“Trust me. Eat the damned broccoli. We’ll have pie at the end. It’ll be really good.”
The book is packed with information, but it’s also completely infused with Rob Siegel’s sense of humor and writing style. The book is actually credited to “Rob Siegel and the Bentley Publishers Technical Team,” so the entire staff must have stood around in a conference room arguing about how to explain parasitic drain without boring the pants off the audience. That Technical Team is the best in the business at producing indispensable manuals for European cars. I had a full set of Bentley manuals for my wife’s BMW 525iT, and it saved my bacon on a regular basis.
Siegel breaks each chapter into meaningful sub-chapters, and within each sub-chapter, there are nuggets of entertaining detail. The “Tales from the Hack Mechanic” sidebars are great, detailing Siegel’s often maddening frustrations with an issue described in the more technical section on the same page.
Even the orange highlighted warning sidebars are fun to read. Dig right into Chapter 14, page 5, and read the Caution sidebar on disconnecting the battery while the car is running. “Grizzled old men and impatient young ones used to conduct this brute force test to see if the alternator was working. Do not ever, under any circumstances, do this!”
Guilty as charged, Siegel. Guilty as charged. With this book in hand, maybe I can finally figure out why the dash lights don’t work on my Blazer.
The Hack Mechanic Guide to European Electrical Systems is an essential addition to your automotive library, especially if you favor the kind of books that are stained with greasy fingerprints after an all-night argument with your car.
The Hack Mechanic Guide to European Electrical Systems
by Rob Siegel and the Bentley Publishers Technical Team
Publication Date: June 27, 2016
Softcover, 8 1/2 in. x 11 in.
420 pages, over 400 photos, illustrations and diagrams