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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

November 21, 1997

Many years ago, my brother Don had a '42 Mercury that was on its last legs, and while he was gone for a day, without telling him, I adjusted its brakes since they had to be "pumped" to get them to work. When he next drove the car, he nearly put himself through the windshield. I told him that all I did was adjust the brakes and his response was that he hadn't noticed that the pedal was almost to the floorboards.

My brother isn't the only driver unaware of what's happening with his or her vehicle. I had a customer once who didn't know her engine had a serious noise until the engine blew up. Another didn't know that the rear window had fallen out of his Volvo until he tried to go through a car wash. So to keep from looking silly during your next car wash, these are some of the ongoing awareness "checks" that you can do to head off little problems before they become big ones:

POOR FUEL MILEAGE - Most people don't seem too concerned about fuel mileage anymore. I guess that most of us have pushed the fuel shortages of the '70s out of our minds since they are still painful memories. But getting less than normal fuel mileage from your car can be an indicator that something is wrong. Modern electronic engine control systems can compensate for some minor mechanical ills, but if the fuel injectors on your car are becoming carbon-fouled, the system won't cure itself. Engine vacuum leaks are also a malady that requires a technician's attention to repair. Fill your fuel tank yourself and then go a specific number of miles - two hundred is a nice round figure. Fill your fuel tank again and divide the number of miles you've traveled by the exact number of gallons of fuel you've used. Most of us checked our mileage this way when we first bought our current "driver" and if you were clever enough to keep those numbers, check them against what your car or truck is getting now. If it's down by 10 percent, it's time to do a routine service check or hire someone to do it for you.

BRAKE ACTION - If your brakes make a even a slight grinding noise, get to a brake mechanic immediately or a relatively inexpensive brake pad job could turn into a very expensive brake rotor replacement. Apply the brake pedal gently and if your car pulls even slightly to one side or the other or makes any noise, something is wrong. With a loose-handed (loose but not completely off the steering wheel) application of the brakes at a speed of 25 mph or less, the car should track straight ahead. If it doesn't, the vehicle should be checked. If a hard application of the brakes at 50 to 65 mph produces chatter at the steering wheel or brake pedal, it could be caused by a number of malfunctions, none of which will cure themselves.

ROAD PULL - That same loose-handed technique you used to do your brake test can be used to do a casual check of your car's suspension alignment. If the suspension in your vehicle is "right," it should track straight ahead on a road that has a slight crown built into it for rain water runoff. If the crown is excessive, the vehicle will pull a bit towards the curb but it should never pull towards oncoming traffic. The cause of road pull could be as simple as incorrect tire inflation or as major as a bent frame or suspension piece, but it will have the immediate effect of wearing out your tires prematurely.

EXHAUST LEAK - As I was getting into my van at a convenience store last night, a young guy parked next to me was driving a typical "beater." It had rust-out at the body seams, the trunk didn't close right, and it has a serious exhaust leak. Even a small exhaust leak is dangerous since carbon monoxide (one of the gasses given off by an engine - especially a malfunctioning one) is insidious in that it's odorless and deadly. Usually mufflers rust out slowly, small exhaust manifold cracks gradually open up or exhaust pipe gaskets develop small leaks and many owners don't even notice. The driver is insulated inside the car and with the driver-side window up, he or she can't hear the noise. It can best be heard from inside the car when driving past a highway divider or a high curb with the window down. I hope that young "beater" driver didn't have far to go since the night was cold, he had his windows closed and exhaust gas would be pulled into his partially- opened trunk.

LIGHTS - If one headlight goes out, an unaware driver might not notice - until the other one fails (in which case the road ahead goes dark) or it catches the attention of a cop. You can do a nighttime behind-the-wheel headlight aim evaluation on your vehicle by checking the reflection of your headlights in the trunk of the car that's ahead of you at a stop signal. You can check the tail and stop lights that way too but it's a little tougher to do since you have to use your rear view mirror and the front of the car behind you when it stops behind you at a stop signal. If a turn signal bulb is out, the indicator lamp on your dashboard will flash much faster than normal because there's less load on the flasher. To check side or running lights takes more than awareness. You have to actually get out of the car and look at them.

It doesn't take much to initiate an ongoing auto evaluation of your own. Sometimes all it takes is to turn off your radio, look at your instrument panel and switch on your brain.