There's really only a very few basic things that are required to be thought of as some manner of "man": Really, it's just genitals of some sort (testes, ovipositor, whatever) and the ability to change a car's tire. Hell, most people don't even care about the genitals thing. It's all changing tires. You should know how to do that.
A flat tire really is the most basic, fundamental problem you can have with a car, or even a pneumatic-tired oxcart. It's the one problem that can afflict a modern car that an ancient Phoenician could accurately diagnose. And while it's by no means complicated, it's also not a total cakewalk, either, and determined application of stupidity could turn tire-changing into an opportunity for some pretty serious injury, or even death. So let's break down exactly how to get it done.
This may seem strange, but are you sure you've got a flat? I'm guessing, if you're reading this on your phone by the side of the road in the rain, you're thinking, "Yeah, asshole, I'm pretty fucking sure." But let's just be clear for everyone else.
There are a number of ways to know if you have a puncture or rupture or slow leak or whatever. If you saw that you ran over something sharp and heard a loud pop or now hear a rushing of escaping air, that's easy. But often these can be more subtle. If you find steering effort has increased dramatically, a low or flat front tire is a likely culprit, and the car will pull to the side the low tire is on.
You may also hear a rhythmic slapping or flapping sound as the out-of-round tire rotates as well, and you'll notice a loss of speed and car control. Along with the rhythmic sound, which will vary according to your speed (coast in neutral a bit to be sure the sound isn't from the engine or transmission), you'll likely feel some rhythmic bumping as well.
Alright, you've got a flat. Mazel Tov. The first thing to realize is that your car's handling has been compromised, so you should start to slow down in a controlled, careful way. You'll want to get off the road as soon as possible, since driving on a flat tire can cause further damage if the tire, deprived of its cushioning air, starts to come apart and causes your metal wheel to make contact with the tarmac. This is bad.
That said, we want to find the right place to pull over and stop. A tiny, narrow shoulder on a busy highway is not a great place to stop and do anything other than be custardized by a truck, so if you need to carefully drive a little bit to get off a major highway and access a safer, more open area, do it. Once you realize you have a flat, you should turn on your hazard lights so everyone around you can see your vehicle is compromised, and start looking for where you want to pull over.
You don't need to be that picky. Look for somewhere with enough room for you to safely work around the car, and somewhere relatively flat.
This step right here is really important, safety-wise. Let's just take a moment and think about what we're about to do. Your car is normally supported at four points. We're going to be upsetting this normal balance and temporarily using a (most likely) flimsy little piece-of-crap jack that came with your car to take over the role of your disabled wheel. This will put the car out of its normal stability and balance, and should it start to roll or move—and, remember, it's on wheels, so rolling and moving is the thing's goddamn raison d'être—you're deeply and painfully boned.
With that in mind, let's do all we can to be sure this car stays put when we get it up on the jack, so it won't roll, knock over the jack, and fall on you, crushing your pelvis under 3,200 pounds of shitbox that you never take to the car wash.
That means setting the parking brake, nice and hard. That means, if it's an automatic, put it in PARK. If it's a manual, it's a little tricker. You can put it in NEUTRAL if you trust your parking brake, or you can put it in first, but only if you're damn sure to take the keys out and there's no way that the car can be started by accident. If you have any doubt, pick neutral. EDIT: Enough people have convinced me that, putting it in 1st is a better idea. Just take those keys out first.
I'd also suggest chocking the remaining other wheels with rocks or whatever else you can scavenge to prevent any chance of rolling.
Also, you may want to take this moment to reassure any other passengers that everything's under control, and deliver a few confident smiles and reassuring shoulder-grabs. Maybe a knowing nod or two. Unless the weather or other outside situations (traffic proximity, etc.) are genuinely awful, I'd say it's best to get other passengers out of the car. It's less weight to jack, and less potential inside motion that could cause the car to fall off the jack.
Hopefully, you actually have all this stuff in your trunk. Most cars have these things in a well under the trunk floor/carpet. At very minimum, you'll need:
• A jack, with all its working parts
• A tire iron/wrench/way to loosen and tighten nuts
• A spare tire (a small, temporary "donut" spare is fine, whatever you've got)
I should mention here that it's very possible, if you're in a newish car, that you don't have a spare tire at all. For a lot of reasons—weight savings, tires getting better, space utilization, and so on—cars with no spare tires are becoming more common. If it turns out you have no spare, you may have a tire inflation kit, which you might as well try to use. Hopefully, it'll work. If not, you're boned. Call or sign up for AAA.
This also brings up a good point: You should know if your car has a spare or not. Just go take a look under all that crap in your trunk and stop wondering! Also, if you have fancy locking wheels, I sure as hell hope you have the key to that lock.
There are a number of types of jack out there, but I think the two most common are the scissors type and the vertical crank/pump type. The scissors jack will likely require another cranked rod to operate it—there will be a socket at one end for the crank, which will raise/lower the jack when turned. The vertical-type jacks either use a pumping motion from an inserted rod or have a window-style hand crank.
If you're going to damage your car, this is the point where that's most likely to happen. The wheels and suspension of your car are designed to bear the car's weight; not many other parts of the car can do that.
That's why you can't just stick the jack anywhere under the car and start cranking. Most places on the lower edge of your car are made of thin sheet metal or even plastic, and jacking up from those locations will cause significant body damage to the car.
To avoid this, cars have jacking points. These are areas of the car designed to handle the car's full weight. Some cars have an actual socket that part of the jack slides into (sometimes these sockets may be covered by a cap or plug), but most cars have one or two points under the car (per side) that are specified jacking points.
These should be shown in your car's owner's manual, if you have it. If not, look under the side of the car. Usually, the jack points will be just behind the front wheel or just in front of the back, and it may be indicated with a notch or a small flat panel that 'fits' the lifting surface of the jack.
Generally, these points will be on sturdy crossmember or frame rails. If you can't find any specific place, locate the strongest, beefiest part with a flat lower surface near the flat tire, and push and feel to make sure there's minimal give or flexing.
Get the jack, and place it nice and flat on level ground. Make sure there's no loose dirt or gravel under the bottom of the jack, and be sure the surface is strong enough to support the jack and car.
Then, slowly start raising the jack until its upper surface meets your jack-point location. Keep cranking to start taking some of the car's weight, but be slow and careful, and watch for any denting or flex in the car's body. If you see any at all, stop, back the jack down, and start looking for another, better jacking point.
Get everything ready to go, but let's leave weight on the car, not the jack, while we get those bolts off the wheel.
Let's work on getting the bolts off. Among your tools should be some sort of tire iron that fits the lugs on the wheel. If you see no lugs, you have some sort of hubcap on the wheel, and you need to pry that off first. These are pretty uncommon on modern cars, but who knows? Often, one of the ends of the tire iron is tapered to act as a pry bar for this purpose.
The wheel will likely have four or five nuts (or bolts — I've seen hubs that work both ways), with some small cars having as few as three, and some big SUVs and trucks having seven or more. The nuts are removed in the usual lefty-loosie/righty-tighty way (counterclockwise to loosen, clockwise to tighten) that has been passed on since Moses put together his first Ikea bookshelf.
The trick here is that chances are, those nuts/bolts were installed with powerful air-compressor tools at some service station, and you need to remove them with just your skinny little meat-crafted arms. At this point, we just want to get each nut started—just past that tightness threshold to loosen the nut from the bolt. To do so, you may find yourself needing to stand or jump on the tire iron — just be very careful not to upset the car on the jack.
If a metal tube of the right size is handy, it can also be slid over the wrench handle to act like a breaker bar to give much better leverage. Be patient, but careful—you'll have to put a lot of force into these nuts, but once you get them to budge, they should twist out pretty readily. For now, just get them all started.
Once all bolts have been started, jack the car up so the wheel is off the ground—not too high, just enough so the wheel is just off the ground—and unscrew the bolts the rest of the way. Remove them and stick them somewhere safe where you won't forget 'em. Then, lift the wheel off the hub and set it flat under the car, out of the way of where the new tire will go.
I do this to act as a buffer just in case the jack slips or rolls: Ideally, the car will land on the tire, and not your hand or foot.
Remember where you stuck the spare? Go get it.
Take the spare and lift it into position onto the hub. If it's a temporary donut spare, this should be easy, since it's so dinky. Turn the wheel so the holes in the hub align with the holes in the wheel, and hold the wheel in place. Get your wheel bolts and screw in the topmost bolt, finger-tight, so the wheel is positioned properly on the hub.
Then, insert and finger-tighten the bolt opposite the first one, then do the same for the remaining two or three. When all bolts are in, lower the jack so the wheel is just touching the ground again. With the wheel held in place by the car and the ground, use the tire iron to get those bolts nice and tight, working from one side to the bolt opposite it, and so on.
Getting them tight may mean jumping on the tire iron a couple times, so, like before, be deliberate and careful. You don't want any of these bolts coming off while you drive, and you don't have the benefit of power tools, so take your time and do this step well.
Once you feel confident that all the bolts are in nice and tight, go ahead and lower the jack all the way so the car is resting back on its wheels again. Keep lowering the jack until it's back in its storage position, and then take it, the tire iron, and any other tools, and stick them back in the nooks where you found them.
Take the damaged tire and throw it in the trunk or hatch or wherever you got the spare from. The tire may be repairable, and if not, you'll want to dispose of it properly, or just take it and cut it up into sandals, or maybe make that sex swing you've been talking about so much.
Get everyone back in the car, and accept all your thank-yous, congratulations, hugs, high-fives, and humid, lingering looks of raw lust. Then, take off driving again, but start out slow and carefully, listening for any signs of falling bolts, wobbling, or anything else unusual.
Gradually ramp back up to speed, remembering that most temp donut spares are really only rated at 50-55 MPH max. Why push it? Just get that real tire fixed or replaced as soon as possible.
See? It's not so hard! You've successfully performed a roadside wheel transplant, and you didn't get crushed by 3,500 pounds of anything at all. Mighty fine work, there, and really enjoy your soon-to-be-forgotten status as a really, really minor sort of hero.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below. Art by the author.