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Ten unusual car hacks

Carlton Boyce / 07 January 2020

Even car expert Carlton, who knows his way around most vehicles, still picked up a number of useful tips and ideas from the Haynes Car Hacks Manual.

Playing cards in a car wheel to keep the tyres clean when painting the alloys

Buying a Haynes Workshop Manual to keep in the boot of my new (old) car used to be as much a part of buying a second-hand car as scouring Autotrader on the morning it came out, stopping at a petrol station to buy the A-Z of whatever city I was currently trying to navigate myself around - and having to find a working phone box to call the seller to say I was lost…

And, if you are anything like me you’ll have kept all your old workshop manuals as mementos, which means you’ve probably still got a shelf of oil-stained workshop manuals in the garage too.

But as the inner workings of cars became increasingly complex, the need for a workshop manual diminished. Sure, you can buy an OBD reader for peanuts these days and have a crack at interrogating your car’s ECU when it throws up a fault code but the days of stripping down an engine to decoke it are long gone. (Thank goodness; you might rue the day we moved from repairing components to just replacing them but there’s no doubt that cars are considerably more reliable now than they were back then…)

This shift left Haynes with a hole in its publishing repertoire, a gap it filled brilliantly with a huge range of manuals on stuff you are never likely to own - like Formula One cars and fighter planes - but to fill the void for folk who like grease under their fingernails it started to produce guides on other stuff you can make and fettle, like how to build your own electric guitar.

For the car enthusiast one of its most interesting books in its catalogue is Car Hacks. Currently on offer on its website for the bargain price of £9.74 (usual price £12.99) Haynes was kind enough to send me a copy to review and, to be honest, I opened it more out of duty than any sense of excitement. But, not for the first time in my life, I was wrong because it’s a terrific read, even for a cynical old hack like me.

Split into seven sections (Interior, Exterior, Garage, Travel, Storage, Cleaning, and Modernising) there are 126 hacks in total – and not a single one is there just to fill a page. Even I, a man who has devoted far more of his fifty years on this planet to buying, fixing, modifying and generally mucking about with old cars than is reasonable, picked up a number of useful tips and ideas.

Rather than write what would be a gushing review on how well it has been written, and how useful and innovative some of the hacks are, I’m going to list ten of the ones that impressed me the most...

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Haynes' ten unusual car hacks

• Use your toothpaste to make headlights minty fresh: modern plastic headlights have a tendency to go yellow and opaque after a while, and while you can buy special kits to restore them – and they do work very well – you can save yourself £20 by using good old-fashioned toothpaste as an abrasive.

Toothpaste can even be used instead of T-Cut for minor scuffs and scratches on your car’s paintwork, too.

• Use a pair of tights as emergency wiper blades: you’ll have heard the (largely apocryphal; if you’ve ever done it then I’d love to hear from you) tip about using a pair of tights or a stocking as an emergency fan belt but did you know that you can also use them as an emergency wiper blade?

Just pull one over the damaged wiper rubber, wind it round a few times and Bob’s your uncle. It’s not a long-term fix but it might get you out of a jam.

• Hypermiling and gamification: hypermiling aficionados will no doubt object to the trivialisation of what is an obsession for many of them but turning fuel economy into a game is addictive and can save you a fortune.

While Car Hacks does have a few good tips on hypermiling, the best one of all is to treat it as a game; all you do is to try to drive slightly more economically today than you did yesterday using your car’s onboard fuel consumption readout as a guide. It’s brilliantly simple - and very effective.

• Using a tennis ball to help you park: simply hang a tennis ball from the roof of your garage to help you park with precision. The idea is to place it so that it just touches your car’s windscreen or rear screen when the car is perfectly positioned.

Car Hacks shows it touching the windscreen but I think it is safer to reverse into your garage, so I’d place it at a point where it touches the rear screen.

• DIY curry hooks: just stick a high-strength plastic coat hook onto the side of your car’s centre console for your very own ‘curry hook’. Of course, its use extends beyond keeping your takeaway safe as it can be used for things like handbags and coiled phone charging leads too.

For heavier luggage and shopping, a carabiner clipped onto a front seat headrest support will hold even the heftiest bag and stop it flying on the floor if you have to brake sharply.

• Adding a USB plug: while almost all modern cars will have a USB charging point, classic cars definitely won’t. However, adding your own is easy and cheap; just be sure to follow the directions when wiring it in and always disconnect the battery first whenever you are working on your car’s electrical system.

Or, simply buy a universal charger that plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter. The best ones will have a USB C charging point too and it’s worth seeking one out because it’ll charge your phone quicker than the standard USB socket will if your phone supports it. 

Adding standard cigarette lighter-style power points is just as easy, and will allow you to plug things like a 12-volt cooler box in the boot.

• Keep your door mirrors frost-free: pop a plastic bag over each door mirror to keep them frost-free in the winter. Wonderfully simple, this hack is as cheap as chips and a scrunched up plastic bag will take up next to no space in your glovebox.

• Clothes peg air freshener: not the most aesthetically pleasing hack in the book but clipping a wooden clothes peg onto an air vent and dripping some essential oils onto it is a cheap and easy way to make your car smell better. I’m not a huge fan of the traditional air fresheners, largely because I don’t want my car to smell like a Toyota Prius minicab with half-a-million miles on the clock, but adding some bergamot essential oil is a very different matter.

If you don’t like the look of a clothes peg on your air vent then you could even pop a herbal tea bag in your car and let its more subtle fragrance suffuse the car instead.

• Masking wheels with playing cards: while respraying your car’s alloy or steel wheels isn’t an everyday job, classic car owners will appreciate that masking the wheel and tyre is a painstaking and time-consuming job. Sure, you can buy special kits to mask them off, or even pay your local garage to remove the tyres which obviates the need for masking, but using playing cards to mask the rubber is a stroke of genius that would have saved me hours of work over the years.

Simply press them in between the tyre and wheel rim, slowly working your way round the rim, overlapping each one slightly to get complete coverage.

• Cup(cake) holders: cupholders are a great idea, and while they’re useful for holding stuff other than drinks that’s what they get used for more than anything else. They do tend to collect gunk in the bottom over time, and cleaning them out can be a bit of a faff.

The hack is to pop a paper or silicon cupcake case in there. It’ll make cleaning them a breeze and can also help stop rattles too.

I hope you’ve got a flavour of just how useful Car Hacks is and remember that there are over a hundred more that I haven’t covered.

You can buy it at all good bookshops and car accessory shops - or for a discount at the Saga Bookshop!

Car Hacks by Haynes

Hacks from Saga readers

'I use an old hockey puck to jack up my car to save the chassis from surface damage.' Nathan, via Facebook

'A few spare bulbs in the boot can save on costly fines and possible penalty points.' Margaret, via Facebook

'Clean chrome using tin foil and water - that's all you need. Dip the foil in water and rub. I did the whole of my 1974 Stag chrome this way and it comes up a treat.' Eleanor, via Facebook

'To shut a noisy gearbox up, use old tights and old engine oil, works for about 1000 miles'. Juliet, via Facebook

'Toothpaste can be used instead of T-Cut for minor scuffs and scratches on your car’s paintwork, too.' Susan, via Facebook

'Always keep a safety pin in the car - great for sorting the windscreen washer jets.' Robert, via Facebook

'Superconcentrated antiseptic cleaner Zoflora in the washer container (you don't need much). When you use the cleaner, a lovely fragrant smell enters the car through the vents.' Paul, via Facebook

'I keep a dehumidifier pot in my centre console to stop windows steaming up.' Joanna, via Facebook

'I save those little silica gel sachets you get in leather goods and dot them about the interior. They cut down on condensation and misting after a few days.' Mark, via Facebook

Do you have a tip you'd like to share? Email us on - we'd love to hear it!

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.