Good car care doesn't require greasy fingernails, bloody knuckles or oily footprints on the new carpet. With the following car care tips, you can help keep your vehicle healthy and your hands clean. Also, it'll be good for the environment because you'll keep your car running longer, it won't drip hazardous pollutants and you'll postpone the need to use energy to build a new vehicle. These tips won't replace regular maintenance, but if you follow them, you may not need the help of a professional quite as often. You also may find that you don't have to pay quite as much when you do.
1. Take regular road trips.
People love short commutes, but cars hate them. At least occasionally, engine oil needs to get hot enough to boil off moisture that condenses inside the engine. Otherwise the oil, moisture and combustion by-products blend into what you'll find at the La Brea Tar Pits. The oil pump will not be able to move this thick goo, and serious — perhaps terminal — damage will result. Short-distance commuters: At least every week or two, drive for about 15 minutes after the coolant is up to its operating temperature. You don't have to go fast, just long. And follow the "severe usage" oil change schedule in your owner's manual.
2. Once you stop, don't move.
When you come home to stay, park your car where it's going to remain overnight. Otherwise you're blending oil and condensed moisture like a short-distance commuter.
3. Awaken slowly, but not too slowly.
For its initial start of the day (or first in many hours) give your car a few seconds to wake up. A long, stationary warm-up is unnecessary for the car and harmful to the environment; just make sure engine oil and transmission fluid have reached everywhere they need to go. You'll give your car all the time it needs to accomplish this if you leisurely follow a responsible routine after you start the car — buckle your seatbelt, recheck your mirror adjustment, double-check your seat placement and look over your shoulder and through all three mirrors for unexpected obstacles. In sub-zero temperatures, the additional task of removing snow and ice from windows gives your car more than enough time to warm up.
4. Stretching exercises.
After you start driving, allow your vehicle a handful of minutes to do the automotive equivalent of stretching exercises: Keep both engine speed (rpm) and road speed low, and avoid hard acceleration. This will ensure that lubricants in places you've never thought of can spread out. If you live within seconds of a highway that requires maximum acceleration in order to accomplish a safe merge, consider an alternate route. What a great rationalization for a trip through the coffee place drive-through!
5. Keep the revs down.
This is mainly aimed at those with manual transmissions. It also applies to drivers who like to fiddle automatics that let you pretend you have a manual. Unless you're trying to go fast, keep the engine speed (rpm) as low as is practical. If the car will accelerate in that gear, don't downshift. High-rpm running — whether you're in 2nd or 4th gear — wears out engines faster than just about anything this side of running out of oil. Except for extremely unusual situations (say, descending Independence Pass into Aspen with a loaded trailer), don't use the transmission to slow down. Racers downshift so that they're in the gear needed to accelerate out of the next corner.
6. Use your nose.
Your olfactory sense may be the best way to discover a problem before it becomes expensive. Almost every smell means a problem is brewing. Here are some examples: A sweet odor likely is antifreeze, which means a radiator hose is about to burst, the water pump is failing or, if noticed inside the car, there's trouble with the heater core. A whiff reminiscent of fish oil may be brake fluid. This can come either from the brake system itself or, if you have a manual transmission, the clutch-actuating system. And you should never smell gasoline anywhere except at a gas station. If you notice such odors, report them to your mechanic quickly.
7. Inspect your parking place.
Check where you park your car. The only fluid you should find under your car is clear water that sometimes drips from the air-conditioner. Everything else not only indicates a problem, but is also an environmental pollutant. Here are some things to look for: Light red or pink fluid is probably automatic transmission fluid. Greenish fluid is coolant, which is an attractive poison to animals and children. An occasional drop of oil from an older car is unavoidable, but if the amount suddenly increases it's a warning of a quickly building problem. Milky fluid is especially bad because it means coolant is mixing with either engine oil or transmission fluid. If you just had your oil changed, a bit of clean oil may mean the oil filter or oil-pan plug was under- or, more likely, overtightened; return to the mechanic immediately. If you're unsure what your car is leaking, park over a clean piece of cardboard and take it to your mechanic. The diagnosis will be easier if you mark wheel positions on the cardboard.
Just like unusual smells or dripping fluids, new sounds and vibrations are never a good thing. The problem is describing them to your mechanic in a manner that will allow him to accurately diagnose it, while not making a fool of yourself. It helps if you can express it in words rather than poorly parroting the sound. Grinding, growling, whining, thumping, screeching and squealing are all good; use a thesaurus for more. Next, determine when it makes the sound — "only between 55 and 65 mph," "only in tight turns," "only when I hit a speed bump" — and if there is an accompanying vibration. Is there something you can do — other than cranking up the sound system — to make it stop? If you're having trouble getting an accurate assessment, find an empty parking lot, roll down the windows and try a variety of turns and speeds.
9. Change is good.
Engine oil is far from the only automotive fluid that needs regular replacement. Consult your owner's manual for frequency, but here's a partial list of fluids and lubricants that need to be changed sooner or later: coolant, transmission fluid (and be sure to change the filter!), differential oil (for rear-drive cars), brake fluid, transfer case oil (for 4WDs) and power-steering fluid. If you've just purchased a used car, it's a good idea to change all these and ask the mechanic to inspect the fluid for problems.
10. Rubber dies.
Ask those who restore vintage cars: Sooner or later, you'll have to replace every rubber component in a vehicle. And the miles you drive matter little when it comes to how long rubber lasts. Some automakers recommend replacing tires every five or six years regardless of tread depth. (Install new tire valves every time you mount a new tire.) Windshield wipers are good for six months, while suspension bushings and engine mounts may last a dozen years or more. Between those extremes, here are some other rubber parts that will need replacement: radiator hoses, fan and accessory belts, heater core hoses, constant velocity joint boots, steering rack boots, spark plug wires, brake line hoses, the connector between fuel filler neck and the tank, and emissions control hoses. Keep your car long enough and you'll have to replace the rubber gasket between the door and frame. If any rubber component feels brittle or has hairline cracks, it needs changing. And closely follow the manufacturer's recommendation for replacing engine timing belts.
Mac Demere is a writer, vehicle tester and race driver who has competed in the NASCAR Southwest Tour and Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.