Car maintenance - essential care
Some people love their cars — they polish them, feed them and tuck them up for the night. Others just want them to run from A to B or from home to the coffee shop.
Whatever your attitude, you HAVE to look after them. If you don't do the
basics your car could have a spasm, seize its head or break a rod and cost you a lot in emergency surgery!
The following are the basic maintenance tasks that are essential to keep your car purring. Other tasks you can leave for your friendly serviceman to deal with during your scheduled servicing (see ‘Basic maintenance schedule’, below).
Don’t let your car spasm. Engine oil is essential to keep all moving parts
moving. It is easy to check the levels at the service station while you fill up with fuel, or at home before you start out. Below are some tips for checking your oil.
Your car must be parked on a level surface.
Open the bonnet using the catch located inside your car (usually in the
footwell beside the driver’s seat or under the dashboard).
Under the bonnet, locate the ‘dipstick’, often a coloured rod or one with a finger loop on its end.
If your car has a manual gearbox the dipstick will probably be located
towards the front or side of the engine. It is usually in a tube going into the bottom of the engine.
If your car has an automatic gearshift, hopefully the dipstick is marked
TRANS or ATF for automatic transmission fluid. The transmission dipstick is towards the rear of the engine compartment or round to the side and the dipstick tube goes around and behind the engine.
Pull out the dipstick and clean the end with a tissue or old cloth.
If you’ve been driving, the engine will be hot (mind your nail polish) and
the oil will be spread around the engine parts, so wait a minute or two for the oil to sink into the oil pan.
Reinsert the dipstick and make sure it is fully seated in the tube.
Withdraw it and check the oil level against the markings on the end of the dipstick. The level must be maintained between ADD and FULL. Some dipsticks have two or three notches on the side. The bottom one is ADD and the top one is FULL.
The difference between these two marks usually represents about one litre of oil. So work out how much you need and either ask for a top-up at the service station or find the oil cap, remove it and pour the oil in yourself.
The oil cap is located on the main part of the engine. CAUTION: your car
manual will tell you what sort of oil you need. Pour some in slowly, allowing it to flow down into the engine pan. If you’re not exactly sure how much is needed, recheck the levels. DO NOT overfill. Your car will be under pressure and won’t like you for it.
Keep your car cool in the summer and warm in the winter by checking that you
have the right levels of the right coolants in your radiator.
You could ask your service people to fill your radiator with the correct fluids when they service your car. Most cars generally don’t use up much coolant
on a day-to-day basis, but you should check that the levels are correct to prove
to yourself that nothing is wrong with the cooling system.
Engine coolant is a mixture of approximately half water and half ethylene
glycol antifreeze. The antifreeze not only stops the engine coolant freezing but
also helps prevent boiling in very hot weather and helps maintain stable engine
temperatures. It also helps prevent rust and corrosion in the radiator, engine
Most cars make checking easy. They have a small plastic coolant overflow
container, many of which have markers on the side to indicate levels. You can
find this at the front of the engine. It is attached to the radiator (a long,
narrow and deep metal container across the front of the engine compartment with its own screw cap). There’ll be two marks on the overflow container. One
indicates the correct level when the engine is hot. The other indicates the
correct level when it is cold.
If the level is slightly low you could top it up with a little water, BUT take care (see warning below). However if you find that the water level is continually low, get your service people to check it out. If your car doesn’t have an overflow container, you can check that the radiator is full by opening the radiator cap.
WARNING: DO NOT open the cap of the pressurised overflow tank or the radiator when the engine is hot or even warm.
Pressure from the heat of the coolant could cause boiling coolant to burst out all over you and your car. ALSO ethylene glycol is a toxic material (known to cause birth defects), so open the cool cap with care.
The pressure in your car’s tyres can affect fuel efficiency and stopping distances.
So, be safe and check, at least every six weeks, that your tyres are running at the pressure recommended in your owner manual or by your tyre retailer.
Always check your pressure when the tyres are cold. Tyres heat up as you drive and this will cause a higher pressure reading. For this reason it is a good idea to outlay a little money to have your own pressure gauge for regular checks. Pump up your tyres at the closest service station.
Press the tyre gauge hard onto the valve and note the reading. The sound of
escaping air means you haven't inserted the gauge properly: it's either pressed
on askew or you're pressing too lightly. Fill to the recommended pressure. If you over fill, you can release air by pushing on the tiny metal stem in the centre of the valve with a fingernail, the nozzle of the gauge or the end of a pen or pencil.
Cold tyre pressures
This chart is a basic guide to tyre pressures. Use this table temporarily, when you’re unable to access your driver’s manual or tyre retailer, but don’t rely on it. Tyre pressures should relate specifically to the weight of the vehicle, the weight of loading and the tyre type. Consult your manual or tyre retailer. See text below to determine if your car is front-, rear-, or four-wheel drive.
Radial tyres Bias tyres
(not commonly used)
kPa psi kPa psi
Front-wheel drive vehicles Front 220 32 180 26
Rear 220 32 165 24
Rear-wheel or four-wheel drive
vehicles Front 235 34 180 26
Rear 235 34 180 26
Rear engine vehicles Front 220 32 125 18
Rear 235 34 205 30
Increase all-round tyre pressure by about 5 psi if you’re towing a loaded trailer or caravan or embarking on a long trip and driving at sustained high speed. You might find that the air pump at the service station uses a different pressure unit from the units recommended in your owner’s manual. Use the following table if necessary.
Tyre pressure conversion
psi bar KPa Kg/cm2
1 0.07 6.89 0.07
10 0.69 68.90 0.70
15 1.03 103.35 1.05
20 1.38 137.80 1.41
21 1.45 144.69 1.48
22 1.52 151.58 1.55
23 1.59 158.47 1.62
24 1.65 165.36 1.69
25 1.72 172.25 1.76
26 1.79 179.14 1.83
27 1.86 186.03 1.90
28 1.93 192.92 1.97
29 2.00 199.81 2.04
30 2.07 206.70 2.11
31 2.14 213.59 2.18
32 2.21 220.48 2.25
33 2.28 227.37 2.32
34 2.34 234.26 2.39
35 2.41 241.15 2.46
36 2.48 248.04 2.53
Click here for How to get the best life-span for your tyres. Click here for How to change a punctured tyre.
Windscreen washer fluid
This is usually in the biggest plastic tank in the engine compartment. You can open the lid at any time as the contents are fairly innocuous. Fill the tank with plain water, but a
special windscreen washing mix from your service station will give you easier and more effective cleaning. Do not use household detergent in the water as this will damage your car’s paintwork.
Check your wiper blades for cracks and splits in the rubber. Not only will worn ones not clean properly and cause vision hazards, a blade without rubber can cause bad scratches in the glass of your windscreen. Lift the blade away from the glass to check the rubber edge. You can often get new ones fitted free at your local service station, but they’re not hard to attach. Just follow the instructions.
Headlights and tail lights
Don’t assume that your headlights and tail lights are working. Take time at least once a month to check them and, particularly, that your indicator lights are functioning correctly. These are either your helping hands on the road or a tragic loss if they’re not working.
Keep an eye on your dashboard gauges and warning lights
Don’t assume that your headlights and tail lights are working. Take time at
least once a month to check them and, particularly, that your indicator lights
are functioning correctly. These are either your helping hands on the road or a
tragic loss if they’re not working.
RED light, NOT ALRIGHT
See to it now.
Yellow light, orange light
See to it in the morning
The ALT, GEN or CHARGE light
If this red light comes on while driving it indicates that the alternator (generator) isn’t charging the battery or possibly that the fan belt has come off. Stop immediately. Check under the bonnet to see if a large belt is flapping or loose near the radiator. If so, phone a service technician. Do not attempt to drive because the fan belt also drives the water pump which cools the system. Without the cooling system, you could do serious damage to your motor.
If, however, the fan belt is still intact and your battery is fully charged, it can operate the electrical system for an hour or more, depending on the electrical loads such as the engine, the headlights and other electrical devices. The electrical reserve of the battery is only temporary so it would be a good idea to get to a service technician for advice.
Temperature warning light, temperature gauge
This red lamp will light when the engine coolant temperature exceeds the highest safe operating limit. If the light stays on or the temperature gauge moves into the HOT or red zone, pull off the road, stop the engine, open the bonnet and let the engine cool. You need to check the water level in the radiator, but:
CAUTION: Remember to let your engine cool down before you attempt to open any cap associated with the radiator (see ‘Coolant levels’, above).
If you smell or see steam, something is probably wrong with the cooling system — a ruptured hose, radiator or engine core plug. If you have this kind of major
leak do not continue driving.
Oil pressure warning light
This is usually a red light in the shape of a dripping oil can, or, sometimes, with just the word OIL. If it lights continuously for even a few seconds, pull off the road and stop the engine immediately. Check the oil level using the dipstick. If the level is very low, and you know you have added oil recently, you may have an oil leak. Add oil until the level reads between the ADD and FULL marks on the dipstick (see ‘Oil levels’, above) and restart the engine to drive to a service technician. If you do drive and the oil-pressure light stays on for more than two or three seconds, stop immediately and call a tow truck.
Brake warning light
The red BRAKE light (often with a P or ! symbol in a circle), gives warning of several conditions. It’ll light if the handbrake is on with the ignition on, simply reminding you to let the brake off before driving.
Most importantly, it warns of a failure and loss of pressure in the brake hydraulic system. In some vehicles it also warns of low fluid level in the brake master cylinder.
If the BRAKE light comes on at any time when the ignition is on and the handbrake is fully released, have the brake system checked by your service people.
Engine malfunction light
The malfunction indicator light (MIL) could be labelled CHECK ENGINE, SERVICE ENGINE SOON or simply ENGINE, and it indicates a problem in the engine control system. This is usually an orange or yellow light, which indicates that you can drive your car safely but the problem could have an effect on fuel efficiency, performance or emissions. You need to consult your owner manual for an explanation of the MIL operation — what causes it to light and how you can operate your car safely. If the light comes on, it’s a good idea to take your car to a service technician as soon as possible.
ABS warning light
Vehicles with anti-lock brake systems have a yellow or orange warning light on the control panel that warns of ABS problems. An indication of ABS problems may not affect normal braking, but it should be checked professionally as soon as possible.
Oil change indicator
In some cars, an onboard computer tracking engine running time, vehicle mileage and other operating conditions calculates when an engine oil change is required and lights the indicator lamp accordingly. Your owner manual will explain what the indicator light looks like. If your car doesn’t have an indicator light you’ll need to make oil changes according to a maintenance schedule.
Basic maintenance schedule
Don’t you hate it when you take your car for repairs and you know nothing about its inner workings, have no idea if the charges are reasonable or whether the job has been done well? If you keep your car serviced regularly with a trusted technician you should minimise ownership, or tow-truck, worries.
But how do you even know if the service requirements at your local repair workshop are reasonable? The following is a very general guide, compiled from several automobile association recommendations. However, because this table is based on a standard car, your best source of maintenance information is your owner manual, as modern cars often have very specific needs.
Maintenance Mileage or time
Inspect tyre pressure and lights At least monthly
Oil and oil filter change and chassis lubrication 10,000 km or 12 months
Under-bonnet belt and hose inspection 10,000 km or 12 months
Brake inspection 10,000 km or 12 months
Tyre rotation and wheel balancing 10,000 km
Replace air filter Clean it every 10,000 km and
replace it when no longer able to
Replace fuel filter 40,000 km
Automatic transmission service 40,000 km
Wheel alignment check If your tyres are wearing unevenly
or the steering wheel shudders or
steering pulls to one side
Cooling system flush and refill antifreeze Every two years Some later
models, every five years
Belt and hose replacement (done at the same time as
the checks below.) 100,000 km (most models)
Engine timing belt replacement 100,000 km (most models)
Air conditioning performance check When airflow into car isn’t getting
as cold as normal
All lights, indicator lamps, wipers, glazing, chassis, Checked each time you go for a
seatbelts, doors and hinges, head restraints, air bags, warrant of fitness
mirrors, speedometer, wheels and tyres, steering,
suspension, underbody cables and brake controls,
fuel lines, exhaust system and braking performance
Most of all, listen to your car, be sensitive to its moods, watch its warning signs and get help when you need it.
For Tyre maintenance click here
For Punctures - how to change a car wheel click here
For Push-starting a car click here
For Jump-starting a car click here
For Towing and reversing a trailer click here
For Tie-downs for roof racks and trailers click here
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