Car maintenance tips for learner drivers

Sabrina Bucknole

For many people, learning to drive is a major milestone because it gives you a life-long skill and a liberating sense of independence. It is, however, a journey – and with any journey there are plenty of things to learn along the way. From theory tests and hazard perception tests to buying and insuring your first car, some parts seem simple while others feel more of a challenge.

Whether you’re just starting to learn to drive, or you’re almost ready to take your driving test, learning what’s under the bonnet and knowing how to keep your car in tip top shape is definitely important. It’s also an area that many people find daunting.

So, to help learner drivers become familiar with their own cars, here are some essential car maintenance tips you need to know.

The engine

Possibly the most important and most complex place to start is at the heart of the car – the engine. Learning how it functions and knowing what to look out for if your engine has any mechanical issues is very useful.

To put your car into motion, the engine converts fuel into power and energy – this is called ‘internal combustion’. Internal combustion refers to the act of small, controlled explosions created by the spark plugs, which generate enough power to move your car.

Modern cars will usually alert you if there is a mechanical issue with the engine by illuminating a certain light or set of lights on the dashboard. If you have a car of your own, you should familiarise yourself with your car’s handbook to help you identify which light you should look out for if an engine issue were to arise.

As a learner driver and first-time car buyer, you may not have the flashiest of cars with all the bells and whistles. Instead, you’re likely to have an older, more affordable car which may not have the technology to warn you if there’s an engine problem. This is why it’s also important to know the telltale signs of engine failure so that you’re able to recognise if something’s wrong without having to rely on your dashboard lights.

Some telltale signs of an engine problem include knocking or tapping sounds coming from the engine itself, a loss of engine power, smoke coming from the exhaust, oil patches underneath the vehicle, and the engine running roughly or inconsistently. If your car ever experiences these symptoms, it’s best to take it to the garage for diagnosis asap!

Brake fluid

Brake fluid is a very important component of you car’s overall health because it plays a key role in keeping your brakes operational. The brake fluid reservoir can be found under the bonnet. Depending on what type of car you have, the specific location of the brake fluid reservoir can vary. It is usually positioned on the driver’s side of the vehicle, against the back of the engine compartment or near the base of the windshield. Your car’s handbook will tell you its exact location, so it’s best to double check just to be on the safe side.

While it’s important to check your brake fluid is at the right level, it can be risky if you try to do it yourself. If dirt gets into the cylinder when you open the reservoir, this could could result in brake failure and if the cylinder is left open for too long and the fluid is exposed to moist air for more than 15 minutes, the brake fluid will be ruined. To avoid any costly mishaps, you should take your car to the garage so they can change the brake fluid for you.

Engine oil

Checking your car’s engine oil levels is much easier than checking the brake fluid level, yet just as important. Engine oil keeps the integral parts of the engine well lubricated to reduce the friction caused by the engine’s moving parts, and to keep it running smoothly. Without engine oil, the friction would increase and ultimately damage the engine, resulting in a very costly payout for repairs, a brand new engine or even a new car.

To avoid these devastating results, you should check your engine oil levels regularly to ensure you’re never running too low. First, make sure the engine is cold (or has been off for at least ten minutes), then locate the dipstick, take it out and give it a good wipe to make sure it’s clean before popping it back into the pipe. Pull the dipstick out again and inspect the film of oil on the end of the dipstick to make sure the oil level is not below the lower line. The oil should just reach the the upper line, or be slightly below it.

While you’re inspecting the level of oil, you should also look at the overall oil condition. Healthy engine oil will look fairly clear like golden honey, while dark brown to black oil means that the engine oil or oil filter need to be replaced.

If your engine is oil is running low, you can top it up by removing the screw-off cap which should display an engine symbol, and use a funnel to carefully add a small amount of engine oil. Keep doing this and check the oil levels with the dipstick until it is between the markers.

Coolant

Engines tend to get very hot when driving, which is why you need to ensure your car has enough coolant to literally cool down the engine. Without coolant, the temperature of the engine would continue to rise until the engine would overheat and break, which could lead to your car being written off.

First, make sure the engine is cold and then unscrew the cap to the coolant reservoir. Most coolant reservoirs display minimum and maximum level marks, so check that the coolant level is in between these two marks before pouring more coolant in. If your coolant level is either below or near the minimum mark, top it up using a 50/50 mixture of water and antifreeze. Once the reservoir is full, screw the cap back on and wipe up any spills.

Check these levels regularly, especially in the warmer months and before long journeys.

Windscreen washer

Having a clean and clear screen is vital for visibility purposes which is why you need to keep an eye on your windscreen washer levels. The cap to the windscreen washer reservoir is usually blue and can be located on the passenger side of the car. Simply remove the cap, and top it up to the maximum mark.

Hopefully these walkthroughs will give you a better idea of how to maintain your car and keep it running smoothly. This is not to say you have to do all of the maintenance yourself; if you aren’t very confident, always seek help from a professional or someone who has more experience with cars.