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Basic car maintenance tips

Carlton Boyce / 18 January 2016 ( 08 March 2018 )

Keep your car healthy with our basic maintenance tips.

Pouring coolant into a car engine.
Only check the coolant when your engine is stone cold

If you’ve followed my advice on how to build a toolkit for the car, you’ll now be itching to put it to good use. Well, here we go!

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Basic servicing

Servicing a car is a complex, lengthy job that needs heavy lifting equipment to enable you to remove the wheels and to check the suspension and the brakes. You probably don’t have that sort of stuff lying around, but that’s OK because we aren’t going to delve that deeply.

No, what we are going to do is to carry out the sort of jobs that you should be doing every week or month, the sort of jobs that make your car safer and more reliable.

You’ll need the basic toolkit we discussed earlier, plus some engine oil and windscreen washer fluid.

What is your car trying to tell you? Guide to the simple signs that your car needs some attention.

The tyres

Here you’re looking for any cuts or bulges in the sidewall. If you find any, you should contact a garage to ask their advice and please don’t drive the car until they’ve given it the all-clear.

You should also check each tyre’s pressure using a tyre pressure gauge. You car’s handbook will tell you what it should be, but in an emergency 30psi (pounds per square inch) will do until you can get them inflated to the manufacturer’s recommended pressure.

While you are down there why not take a look at the tyre tread? The legal minimum is 1.6mm in a continuous band across three-quarters of the width of the tyre and if they don’t meet this requirement you face a fine of up to £2,500 plus three penalty points on your driving licence – for each tyre.

Fortunately, this is something that can be checked with the edge of a 20p: if the outer rim is obscured by the tyre tread, then you are legal. 

However, I would recommend changing your tyres when the tread depth reaches 3mm as the grip in wet weather falls off rapidly below this. 

Frequency: weekly

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Engine oil

We’ve covered engine oil in more depth in a recent feature, but the basics couldn’t be easier.

The chances are that your dipstick and oil filler cap are yellow, making them easy to find. If it isn’t obvious, then your car’s handbook will show you where they are.

To check your oil:

  • Turn your engine off and let it stand for five minutes or more to let the oil drain into the bottom of the engine. Be careful if the engine has been running as everything under the bonnet – including the oil – will be scalding hot. This is why I check my oil first thing in the morning when the car is cold.

  • Pull out the dipstick. Wipe it on a lint-free cloth or piece of kitchen roll.

  • Push the dipstick back in and make sure it is fully seated. Withdraw and look at where the oil level is.

  • There are two marks on your dipstick and the gap between the two is one litre. This helps you gauge whether you need to add a whole one-litre bottle, or just a small part of it.

  • If you need more oil then undo the oil filler cap. Top up the oil carefully, making sure not to spill any on the engine.

  • Give it a minute or so to drain to the bottom of the engine. Wipe the dipstick and re-check the oil level.

  • Repeat until your oil is level with the ‘full’ mark on your dipstick.

  • Replace the dipstick and oil filler cap.

Frequency: weekly

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Belt up

While you are under the bonnet you can check your drive belts. 

These are rubber belts (a bit like the old fan belt we all know and love) and all you are doing is having a quick peek at them to make sure they aren’t frayed and torn.

Press down on them too; they shouldn’t deflect by more than an inch or so. If they do, ask your garage to have a look as they can stretch a little over time.

Frequency: weekly

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Your battery

Most modern batteries are sealed, meaning you don’t have to top them up. This just leaves the battery terminals, which are the two metal clamps that have a thick lead coming out of each of them. 

All you need to do is to service them is to try and wiggle them; if they move, just tighten them up with the appropriate spanner until they are solid. This makes a good electrical connection, something you can help maintain by smearing the same terminal with good old-fashioned Vaseline to stop them corroding.

Frequency: monthly

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The next job is very simple but might need two of you as you are going to check your car’s lights. (Why not make a virtue out of a necessity and team up with another novice and service both cars at the same time? Nothing will give you the same boost of confidence as having a friend with you for moral and technical support!)  

Simply try each light to make sure it is working; if it isn’t, then you’ll need to change the bulb.

Your car’s handbook will show you how and Halfords will be able to identify which one you need. They’ll also fit it for you for a small charge if you don’t feel confident doing it yourself.

By the way, if you suddenly notice that the indicator warning light on the dashboard is going much faster this is a sure sign that one of the indicator bulbs has blown.

Frequency: weekly

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Wipers and windscreen

Checking your wipers couldn’t be easier, either. Simply lift each wiper arm up carefully and check that the wiping edge of the rubber strip isn’t cut, nicked, or torn. 

If it is, you’ll need to buy new ones and replace them. Again, your car’s main dealer will be able to help, as will Halfords. Replacing them is simple, if a bit fiddly.

Finally, check that your car’s windscreen washer fluid reservoir is full. If it isn’t, top it up with windscreen washer fluid, which you can buy pre-mixed or concentrated. 

The latter is cheaper but does need to be mixed with water before you can use it. I use a 10% solution in summer and a 50% solution in winter. Please don’t use plain water, as it will freeze in winter leaving you with dangerously poor vision.

Frequency: weekly

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Brake and clutch fluid

Checking your brake and clutch fluid (if applicable: not all cars use clutch fluid) is a simple job that could help prevent a serious accident. Your car’s handbook will tell you where to look and where the ‘full’ mark is.

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If the fluid level has dropped a small way – no more than 2-3mm - then it’s fine to top it up with the right fluid (your handbook will tell you which fluid you need and any petrol station or branch of Halfords will stock it) as it has dropped because it’s taking up the slack as your car’s brake pads wear. 

If the level has dropped by more than that then you probably have a leak and you shouldn’t drive the car until you have had it professionally repaired.

Frequency: weekly

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Engine coolant

Your car’s coolant system does an amazing job of keeping your engine cool under pretty much any circumstances or weather conditions. But, just like you and me, it functions best with a little bit of TLC, which is what you’re about to give it.

The first stage is to have a good look round for any leaks; look for thick black rubber hoses coming from the radiator and check that no fluid is seeping out of the ends. 

Now give ‘em a squeeze; they should feel firm and robust. If they feel weak and flaccid then ask your garage to have a look because they might be on the point of failure.

The final job is to check the car’s coolant level. This should only be done when the engine is stone cold as hot coolant is under pressure and taking the cap off will release a torrent of boiling fluid, which would ruin your day.

So, when the engine is cold, remove the cap on the coolant tank and look at the fluid within. It should be blue or pink and free of oil. If it isn’t up to the mark, top it up with a pre-mixed antifreeze solution (you know where to get this from by now, don’t you?) until it reaches the top mark. If you have to do this a lot, then ask your garage to look for a leak.

Frequency: weekly

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I’ve saved the easiest job for last. Your car’s air-conditioning system is lubricated with oil in the refrigerant, so if you don’t run it occasionally (and hardly anyone uses their air-con in the winter) the rubber seals will start to dry out. When they dry out they shrink and leak, leading to an expensive bill.

The pre-emptive maintenance couldn’t be easier: simply run your air-conditioning for a few minutes once a week. This will circulate enough oil to keep things nicely lubricated.

Oh, and you might notice a leak under your car after you’ve been using the air-conditioning. This is just plain water and isn’t a sign of impending automotive doom!

Frequency: weekly

That’s all there is to it. With practise you’ll be able to do the whole lot in about 20 minutes to half-an-hour.

Now go and sit down and enjoy a nice cup of tea; you’ve earned it!

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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.