*Warning: This post address technical stuff. If you cannot get through this without flicking your tab to Facebook, please do not try this at home and take your car to the nearest mechanic.
If a bicycle cost you $25,000 how would you treat it? We bet it would be somewhat similar to rolled gold. Hell, you probably wouldn’t even take it outside!
So why don’t we give our cars the same attention? It all comes down to one little fact: cars can be intimidating. Even revheads who have knowledge of mechanics and modifications can be left scratching their heads – and reaching for their wallets – when problems appear. Throw in the computer systems that now act as the central-nervous-system of modern cars, and you’re left with a whole lot of expletives.
But while the major services, safety checks and repairs are best left to the mechanics, there are some simple things you can do to keep your vehicle in good condition and reduce those expensive bills that always seem to pop up at the worst possible time. And by simple, we mean easy peasy
1. THE BIBLE
When in doubt, read the instructions. Not to name names but boys, we’re looking at you – we get it, your pride is on the line but trust us, you’ll be left ten-times more red-faced when you’ve made a big blunder and left to foot the cleanup bill. Make sure you always have your owner’s manual on you – when it comes to your car, it’s your first port of call.
If your car is missing its manual you can always ask your local dealer if it can be acquired or better yet, download it for free in PDF form from reputable websites.
2. PROPER FOOTWEAR
One of the most important car components is often the most neglected – don’t skimp on tyres. Using worn or cheap tyres is like running in clogs; noisy, strenuous, and you may end up breaking something.
Good tyres may be expensive, but they are the only thing between you and the road. The surface of the tyre that grips the tarmac, known as the ‘contact patch’, is only about as big as your hand, so you want all the back-up you can get – buy well and look after them.
As air escapes over time, be sure to set a recurring alarm on your phone to check your tyres every couple of months as a minimum. Under or over-inflated tyres can reduce your contact patch by up to 30 per cent, and riding around on flappy bags of air will affect your fuel economy and reduce the life of the tyre.
Did you know that pressures should be checked when the tyres are cold? That means that drive to the servo isn’t necessarily the best option. Buy yourself a decent tyre gauge to keep in the glove box for consistent readings at home. Your car’s optimum tyre pressures can be found on a placard on your car, typically in the door jamb, the inside the fuel cap, or under the bonnet.
If your pressures don’t match up, then you can head to the service station. Try to find one with a digital filling station for accuracy. And don’t forget to also check the air in your spare.
3. STRAIGHT AND NARROW
A minimum of 1.5mm of tread all the way across the tyre is required to be road legal (and safe). It’s hard to check this across the whole surface of your tyre though, particularly the inside shoulder.
Here’s a handy trick to check the tread you can’t see: take a coin and sink it into the tread on the outside shoulder of the tyre. Mark the depth of the tread on the coin with your thumbnail. Now, without moving your thumbnail, reach in to the inside shoulder of the tyre and sink the coin into a corresponding tread groove.
If the measurements are not even you may need to ask about a wheel alignment at your next service. And if there’s no tread to sink the coin into, or it’s not even remotely close to that 1.5mm minimum, get yourself to your nearest tyre centre ASAP.
4. FLUID MOTION
Like humans, cars need fluids to keep them running. Typically, your main fluids – oil, brake and coolant – will all be checked at your scheduled service. However, if you’re a bit naughty and stretch your intervals, going on a long trip, or you’ve got the bonnet popped to add washer fluid to your car at the servo, make a visual check.
No, you don’t need mechanical knowledge. Brake and radiator reservoirs are the only clear-ish plastic containers under the bonnet, and they have a line indicating the optimal fluid level. Easy.
Oil is a bit trickier, but checking it is like using a big thermometer. Locate the dipstick (first-timers should consult the manual), which is a long rod with a coloured ring handle at the end that reaches all the way into the bottom of your engine block. Grab some paper towels or a rag and pull the dipstick out slowly (be careful not to flick it onto your clothes), then wipe its length clean with the cloth. Feed it back into the holder, pushing it all the way in. Now pull it back out again, hold onto it with the cloth at the halfway point and check the end of the dipstick. There are grooves to clearly label low, optimal and high levels of oil. Simple!
If you need more oil, check your owner’s manual for the weight, or viscosity, oil your car requires or, if you don’t know what any of that means, simply ask the guys at your local mechanic or car-parts store.
Handy hint: The oil should be a relatively clear consistency when you’ve wiped the dipstick. If it’s black, gluggy oil, don’t bother topping it up. Get it to your mechanic or service centre pronto to have it replaced.
5. FULLY CHARGED
If your car is as slow to start as you are in the mornings, it could be your battery – but don’t rush to replace it just yet. Lead-acid car batteries are electrochemical; they produce electricity through a chemical reaction. The panels in the battery need to be immersed in fluid, and depleted levels can pose a problem.
You can check these levels by unscrewing the caps on top of the battery and making sure the water level inside is just touching the ends of the caps. If you need to top it up, use only demineralised water, and remove the two power cables (black first) before you do so, taking care not to overfill the battery and spill acidy water everywhere.
Same goes for connections that have crudded up with white corrosive powder – disconnect the cables and give them a good clean.
If you aren’t comfortable doing any of these tasks yourself, find an old-school service station – service being the operative word here – and ask for assistance. The big auto stores will often help their customers after purchase for things like this as well.
Never be afraid to ask for advice, and if in doubt, go to your mechanic. Spending a little time here and a bit of cash there could save you a fortune down the road.
Tyre tread: The rubber part that connects with the road – over time, this decreases.
Tyre shoulder: The shoulder is the area on the edge of the tread, between the tread and the sidewall (those smooth bits that connect with the alloy).