Any mention of car maintenance probably has you thinking of a bloke in overalls, up to his elbows in grease, with a fag in his mouth. But keeping your car in good condition isn’t just about taking it to a garage and spending money – you can keep on top of the basics yourself. Just by spending a few minutes every week taking a look at key areas of your car, you could dramatically reduce the chances of being involved in a crash, while you could also save a stack of cash.
What are the basics of car maintenance?
Keeping on top of things can prevent them developing into something more serious; allow a whine or rattle to grow into a full-scale breakage and you could end up having to fork out some serious bread.
If you’re put off making basic checks because you’ve seen the huge tool chests in your local garage, don’t assume you need to have the same sort of kit just to keep on top of the basics.
Without any tools at all you can make sure your car is basically in fine fettle. All these key areas to check are ones that need a visual inspection, and a few minutes having a quick squint regularly could save you money – or even your life.
Duff batteries are a real pain in winter; the engine’s oil is cold so the starter motor has a much harder job of getting everything going. Poor battery connections can make the difference between getting started and having to wait for the AA.
Bodywork and paint
Any damage to your car’s paint or bodywork will only get worse if left, ultimately leading to big repair bills. The paint does a lot more than give your car a pretty colour; it also protects the metal from the elements. Once this skin gets damaged, corrosion creeps in and leads to major rot – so get damage repaired immediately.
Here’s something you shouldn’t be topping up; if you are, there’s a leak and that’s bad news because your brakes could fail altogether. There’s probably a warning light on the dash for a low fluid level, but check the reservoir weekly so you’re alerted before it reaches a critical point.
Your car’s cooling system is sealed, so it should never need topping up. If it does, there’s probably a leak somewhere or even worse, the gasket between the top and bottom halves of the engine has failed (the head gasket). This can be costly to fix, but don’t just keep topping up the coolant or you could end up wrecking the engine. If you do have to top up the coolant, don’t just add neat water; if there isn’t enough anti-freeze in the system, the engine could be wrecked if it’s left outside in a hard frost overnight.
Listen for any blowing from the exhaust, signifying that it could be about to fall apart. Once it does that, not only will things get seriously noisy, but there’s a good chance the police will pull you over for causing a nuisance. Before it gets to the point where it’s blowing, take a quick look at the main pipe that runs the length of the underside of the car, looking for corrosion that could lead to holes.
Your lights aren’t just for you to see at night; they’re also for you to be seen. If they’re not clean, not only will output be reduced, but other drivers may not see you. Also check the lenses aren’t damaged; cracks can develop into holes, leading to bigger problems.
Drive without enough oil in your engine and there’s a good chance it’ll have a seizure – and so will you when you have to get it fixed. If the engine is using a lot of oil, check for leaks (puddles under the car) or blue smoke from the exhaust which means the engine is worn out.
Power steering fluid
Your car may not have power steering, but if it does, you’l notice it when the assistance disappears if the fluid drains from the system! Apart from looking for signs of fluid underneath the car, check the power steering reservoir; if the level is getting low, there’s probably a leak somewhere – and that’ll need investigating.
If your tyres aren’t correctly inflated, it can upset the car’s handling as well as leading to increased fuel consumption. Punctures are also more likely and as if all this isn’t enough, drive with the wrong amount of air in your tyres and they’ll wear out prematurely.
You have to have at least 1.6mm of tread across three-quarters of the width of your tyres and all the way round – but you should aim to have at least 2mm across the whole width. Once the wear limit approaches, you could end up slithering all over the place once the roads get wet, so check the rubber hasn’t worn down to the wear indicators built into the tread pattern.
Washers and wipers
If you haven’t changed your wiper blades for yonks, they’re overdue for renewal; they should be replaced every couple of years because of the rubber disintegrating. The old ones should just snap out and the new ones snap in; let the rubber fall apart and you could end up scraping your windscreen with the wiper arm, which may result in a new screen being needed. Also, don’t forget to keep your washer fluid bottle topped up; there’s often loads of spray around and you could end up draining the bottle in double-quick time if you sit in fast-moving traffic a lot.
The windscreen is now a part of the MOT, so if there are any cracks or chips in it, you could end up having to get it replaced in a hurry the next time the car is tested. If you act in time, a chip can often be repaired so a fresh screen isn’t needed; leave things and it’s just a question of time before it becomes a major job. If you do need a new screen, you should be able to claim on your car’s insurance to have the work done, without it affecting your no-claims bonus.