Feature Story

HOW TO KEEP YOUR CAR IN SHAPE

by Bob Hagin

September 20, 1996

In some states, keeping a car running efficiently and smoothly is becoming more of a matter of necessity than a luxury. In metropolitan areas where pollution levels are high, a smog check may need to be passed before a vehicle can be re-registered.

A reader recently asked what can be done to keep a vehicle in condition and avoid the trauma of an official turn-down. These are the steps to follow to keep you machine running lean, clean and legal:

READ THE OWNER'S MANUAL - I know that it's as dull as a bowl of sugarless oat meal, but fortify yourself with some strong coffee, and go over it page by page. Be sure to pay special attention to the maintenance schedule and recommended services.

FIND A RELIABLE SHOP - If you haven't found a shop to call your own, go on a search immediately. All dealership shops aren't bad and all independents aren't good. You can read the Yellow Pages, follow the advertisements in the papers, and watch the TV commercials, but the best way to find a reliable shop is to ask other motorists who you know for recommendations. Check out those recommended shops as you would when searching for a doctor. Don't wait for an automotive emergency to occur before you begin your search.

WITH THE ENGINE COLD, CHECK UNDER THE HOOD ONCE A MONTH - A weekly check would be better but that's a real chore with some minivans. Once you've looked it over for traces of oil or coolant leakage and things that are out of place, check the engine oil and coolant levels. Then start the engine, warm it up and check the automatic transmission fluid.

CHANGE OIL AND FILTER EVERY 3000 MILES - I know that your owner's manuals may say to change these much less frequently, but motor oil is cheap and a new oil filter costs about as much as a mediocre lunch. If you can do it yourself, that's great. If you have to hire someone to do it, that's OK too - but don't neglect it. My opinion is that all oils are pretty much the same and if you read the API (American Petroleum Institute) ratings on the can and match them to the recommendations in your owner's manual, you won't go wrong. It's best to stay with major brand names or original equipment oil filters, however.

CHANGE AIR FILTER EVERY 10,000 MILES - If you don't change the filter on your home heater and a/c unit, the house doesn't breath. The same is true of your car. Not only does the air filter make sure that your engine runs at the proper air/fuel ratio but it is a major factor in keeping the pollution coming out of the tailpipe at acceptable limits. They're cheap and easy to install.

PUT FUEL SYSTEM CLEANER IN GAS TANK EVERY THREE MONTHS - The puff that fuel additive makers put out is sometimes in the category of fantasy literature but their products do the job of absorbing the water that gets into the fuel tank and flushing out the carbon buildup that forms in carburetor passages or on the tips of fuel injectors. Don't expect them to perform miracles, however.

HAVE A TECHNICIAN SERVICE VEHICLE ON SCHEDULE - If your owner's manual is like ours, it will list different schedules for light and heavy-duty use. Go with the rough service duty series. Around-town, short-hop driving is very hard on an engine since it doesn't get a chance to really warm up. Your mechanic will carefully check each item listed, adjust what needs to be adjusted and repair what's broken.

DON'T REMOVE ANY POLLUTION CONTROL DEVICES - A very "chancy" procedure since it may be integral to the best operation of the engine. It may be illegal, too. If your state requires a periodic inspection, the DMV may deny re-registration, and require the missing parts to be reinstalled and reinspected. If you can't find them, this could leave you with a car-shaped planter box for your front yard.

IT SOMETHING SOUNDS OR ACTS "WRONG," HAVE IT CHECKED - Engines don't cure themselves - their problems only get worse. If your engine chugs, shudders, rocks or smells bad, have your preselected mechanic check it out, tell you what's wrong and fix it. Prolonging the agony will only cost more money in the long run.

HAVE A NON-OFFICIAL CHECK DONE BEFORE INSPECTION - If your state requires your car to be driven to an official pollution control inspection station before you can register or transfer a vehicle, have a non-official check made first. Your mechanic can look it over for broken or malfunctioning devices, check the ignition system on an oscilloscope and place an infra-red analyzer probe in the tailpipe. If it doesn't pass, it's much better to know and have it repaired before officials get into the act.

Vehicles requiring pollution control inspections all have predetermined levels of emissions they can emit, but if your car is old, modified or in bad shape and exceeds these limits, you have a problem. One state is threatening to not only deny re-registration but to confiscate the vehicle and bail it for scrap metal. But don't laugh, it's done in other countries. Big Brother and state control was the theme of the futuristic novel "1984" and that was 12 years ago.

I hope we're not just overdue.

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