Several years back, during a minivan comparison test, the editorial staff of Edmunds.com was given a harsh reminder of the import of tire changing skills; specifically, spare tire changing skills. While traveling through the normally placid Malibu Canyon, almost within sight of the Pacific Ocean, our Dodge Grand Caravan was pummeled by a basketball-sized rock that seemed hurled by God Himself. Striking the moving vehicle's front passenger wheel with pinpoint accuracy, the small boulder managed to fling the hubcap, bend the rim, and shred the tire's sidewall in a single impact. After deciding that a similar impact with a side window or lower body panel would have been truly destructive (and dangerous), we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that "only the wheel was damaged." All we had to do was get the spare tire on and we'd be back in the game, right?
As we soon learned, our "lucky" break wasn't so lucky at all. First, the assault had occurred during one of the worst storms in recent Southern California memory. This meant pouring rain, strong winds, and mud-soaked earth lining each side of the canyon road. Add to this the Grand Caravan's spare tire location (under the vehicle!) and you have the makings of Flat Tire Hell. Since there was no owner's manual in the Dodge, we weren't sure how to get the spare out from under the van. Finally, we realized that even if we got the tire out and the jack set up, the muddy ground on which the Grand Caravan was parked would never support the van's weight. After struggling with these issues (and getting completely soaked) for close to an hour, the decision was made: call a tow truck. It took less than a mile to find a paved shoulder where the jack would work properly and the tow truck driver showed us the procedure for removing the spare tire. Fifteen minutes later the spare was mounted and we were back inside the minivans, testing out the heater capacities and seeing if they could double as mobile clothes dryers.
There are several lessons in this story, but the most important one revolves around knowing your vehicle's spare tire system. If the first time you ever thought about your vehicle's spare tire location was a few minutes ago when you read this column's title, you could find yourself in Flat Tire Hell as well. Our possession of cell phones, a local tow truck company, and the fact that we were traveling in a group kept this minor annoyance (OK, major annoyance with the rain) from being a full-fledged disaster. This same vehicle, traveling alone in a remote location and out of cell phone range, would have been in serious trouble. As a result, this How To...will cover a few basic rules of flat tire preparation.
1. READ YOUR OWNER'S MANUAL: This requires actually having an owner's manual for your vehicle, something we did not have in the Grand Caravan. If you don't have one, try calling a dealership or the vehicle manufacturer to get a replacement. You can also try a Web search. Go through the spare tire section carefully to make sure you understand where the spare is and how to get it out (or off, or up, or whatever).
2. INSTALL THE SPARE TIRE: The time to discover that you can't change your spare tire is not in the middle of Death Valley while the buzzards are circling. Finding and solving spare tire problems is much easier in your own driveway or on the street in front of your house. Confirm that the jack works and that the entire spare tire kit (lug wrench, jack base, etc.) is with the vehicle. This is particularly crucial if you bought the vehicle used.
3. MAINTAIN THE SPARE TIRE: With it tucked inside a panel in the cargo area or bolted to the vehicle's undercarriage, spare tires aren't at the top of most drivers' maintenance list. However, it can be quite disheartening to spend time and energy changing a tire and then lower the vehicle only to discover 5 p.s.i. of air pressure in the spare. Check its condition and air pressure at least once every three months, or before any major road trip.
These are three simple guidelines that anyone who drives a car or truck can follow. You'd be amazed, or maybe you wouldn't, at how many motorists don't have the slightest clue about their spare tire's condition or how to install it. Additional tips include finding a flat (and non-muddy) surface on which to use the jack, and not loosening or completely tightening the lug nuts while the wheel is off the ground. Practice these procedures while doing your "trial" spare tire change in the driveway. This will help you remember them in the real world when the inevitable does happen.
With the expanding use of run-flat tires, some drivers can actually afford to ignore this aspect of road travel. The rest of us, however, still have to depend on spare tires (and our ability to install them), especially when God gets in a rock-throwing mood.