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Car care tips: how to avoid costly mechanic bills

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Modern cars are becoming more and more reliable. But there are those who’ll argue, at length, that the classics were just as reliable, and able to be fixed with a broken twig and a pair of socks.

Indeed, I once watched my old man rig up a makeshift throttle cable with some nylon rope and the belt from his pants when his XB Falcon Panel Van failed.

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While looking after your car can be costly, there is one good reason to pay it some mind – if you don’t look after your car, your car can’t look after you. Here are some these simple checks to keep your vehicle running smoothly.

Tyres

Get into a habit of checking your tyres once a week

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In less time than it takes to read this sentence you can whip around your car and check out all four tyres with a visual inspection. But, if you’ve got the time it pays to have a closer look.

Your tyres are your connection with the road and at any one time there’s generally a palm-sized contact patch (meaning the amount of tyre that touches the road).

Worn tyres, therefore, provide less grip increasing your chance of having an accident, especially in wet and slippery conditions.

Get into a habit of checking your tyres once a week – you want to keep an eye out for uneven wear, it could mean your wheels are out of alignment.

And while you’re giving them all a quick once-over it would be a great idea to check the tyre pressures, so, go and buy a tyre pressure gauge today (Google them).

Lights

It’s a cinch to make sure all of your car’s lights are working

Like checking your tyres, it’s a cinch to make sure all of your car’s lights are working, both inside and out. Ask someone to help with this, especially when you’re checking the tail-lights. If you’ve got a broken head-light or tail-light lens get it fixed straight away, not only is it dangerous to leave it broken, but it’s also a criminal offence.

On the topic of lights, if you think yours aren’t quite bright enough, don’t start trawling forums and fit higher wattage bulbs – you’ll void your warranty and in extreme cases risk melting the surrounds due to the higher heat.

Keeping your car clean

The reason you should wash your car regularly is two-fold

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Keeping the inside of your car clean and tidy (try and vacuum the interior and give all surfaces a wipe over weekly) will help keep it in good condition, and that’ll go well for you when it comes to selling the car, either privately or to a dealer.

Most people will use the condition of your car’s interior as an indicator of how well the car’s been looked after. And don’t just think one big clean right before selling the thing will do the trick. It won’t. One gentle reminder … if you do use a commercial dash cleaner (which will probably have something slippery like silicon in the concoction) be very careful not to get it on the gear lever, steering wheel or pedals. Sure, they’ll look nice and shiny, but they’ll also be incredibly slippery and potentially dangerous.

Now to the outside. There are plenty of hand-car wash cafes around so taking your car out for a regular bath needn’t be as wet as it used to be. For me, washing the family car is actually a chore I enjoy, but enough about me. The reason you should wash your car regularly is two-fold. Washing not only gets rid of stuff like road grime, bird droppings and tree sap (which can really play havoc with your paint if left), but it also helps provide a sacrificial layer, or a barrier between your paint and the weather. This is particularly so if you also apply a wax, which you should.

Oh, and make sure you’ve got two sponges, one for cleaning the bodywork and one for the wheels, and maybe even a second bucket too, because you don’t want bits of brake dust getting into the water you’re washing your car with.

Check the paint and windscreen

You want to keep a close eye on any chips out of the paint

There’s no better time to give the exterior of your car a good look over than when you’re washing it. You want to keep a close eye on any chips out of the paint, because they can lead to rust if left unattended. Similarly, you want to have a good look at the windscreen and check for chips or cracks.

No matter how minor the damage might look now, it only takes a heavy frost or even a hard jolt while driving, or even another rock to crack your windscreen completely. And, if you’ve got one, don’t forget to check your sunroof, because they can and sometimes do shatter.

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Don’t forget to check your windscreen wipers, too, and don’t wait for them to get streaky and scratchy. Check the rubber; replacing them is easy.

Read the owner’s manual

I’m not suggesting you need to sit it beside the bed and read a chapter each night

Everything mentioned so far is super-simple to incorporate as a part of your everyday, or once a week routine. One thing you also shouldn’t neglect to do is leaf through your car’s owner’s manual.

I’m not suggesting you need to sit it beside the bed and read a chapter each night before going to sleep – that would be insane. But you should have a good look through it to see things like, what type of oil the manufacturer recommends, and when it should be changed. Although this will most likely be included as part of your service schedule – it’s not hard to change your car’s oil yourself. The manual will also advise on air filters and any drive or timing belts, which is particularly important if you’ve purchased a used car.

Fluids

See, your engine’s oil is, ahem, like a window to its soul

Even if you never change the oil in your car (leaving that to the mechanic), or the power steering fluid and coolant (surely you’ll top up the windscreen washer fluid), it pays to know how to check the levels.

Most engines have brightly coloured screw tops, or lids indicating what they hope the likes of you and me will keep a regular check on. Most of the time it’s possible to see the fluid level inside the reservoir, but where you can’t check the dipstick; most will have a notch indicating optimum level.

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If your fluid level is below that then top it up (after reading the owner’s manual to make sure you use the right stuff). It’s also a good idea to check your oil, not just for level but also for the ‘look’ of the stuff.

See, your engine’s oil is, ahem, like a window to its soul. It should be nice and clean and shiny; if it looks murky or gluggy then take your car straight to your local mechanic and get them to check it.

Disposables

If you treat it right it’s an investment that’ll pay you back with years of trouble-free motoring

I’ve already mentioned windscreen wipers, they’re a pretty simple job to change. The same goes for the cabin air filter (check your owner’s manual for location and lifecycle); most auto shops will carry spares and swapping them is usually as simple as pulling one out, slipping the other one in and closing the lid.

The same goes for the engine air filter; it’s pretty easy to change but just how easy will depend on the type of car you own. Again, check your owner’s manual for details on how regularly the thing should be replaced. Spark plugs are also easy to replace or, at least, check.

Depending on the type of spark plug your car runs they will generally last in excess of 100,000km (iridium plugs). Even if you don’t check them, it still pays to know where they are.

The last of the disposables, but certainly not the least of them, is the timing belt/chain. Have a look through your owner’s manual (told you it was important) and check when it’s due to be changed. Even if you don’t do it yourself, know where it is, and when it needs to be changed … a broken timing belt/chain will result in an incredibly expensive repair bill. Your mechanic will smile; you won’t.

This list is designed to help you see your car as less of an appliance getting you from A to B, and actually get involved in the running of it. A car is an investment, and if you treat it right it’s an investment that’ll pay you back with years of trouble-free motoring. And don’t skip a scheduled service, and don’t be afraid to book your car in for a non-scheduled service if you think something’s wrong.

This article first appeared in Practical Motoring

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