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How To Get Your Car Ready For Summer

by Bob Hagin

February 26, 2001

Now that I've nearly closed my tool box for good, I don't spend much time in the shop anymore. I go in to my son's repair business for a couple of hours every day, do a little light engine machine work (mostly on my own vintage stuff) in the back room, then go back to the "office" to write and edit the auto features that we send to newspapers.

But I'm still interested in what's happening on the shop floor and when a technician has a vehicle up in the air or has an engine partially dismantled, I like to check it out.

While modern maintenance service schedules call for longer and longer intervals between inspections, I'm not convinced that it's a wise thing for the average owner. Here are some of the things you ought to do seasonally to be on the safe side, The advent of spring is a good time to do them:

CLEAN THE UNDERSIDE OF YOUR VEHICLE - Why clean the underside of your eight-year-old car? Who is going to see it? If you live in the rust belt, you know that the stuff put on roads to melt the ice can eat holes in body panels. But it can eat up other parts of the car as well. A station wagon recently came in for a multi-point check with a note that it had the smell of raw gasoline coming from under the car. Once on the rack the tech found that road salt was not only corroded the body panels, but had eaten holes in two places in the under-chassis section of the fuel line and was working on the thicker brake lines as well. Although the car was only nine years old, the cost of just making it legally safe wasn't cost- effective and the shop passed on the job. Seven under-chassis cleanings in seven years would have kept it alive.

CHANGE AIR FILTER ELEMENT - The paper-like element in your air cleaner is the passageway for air getting into your engine. The air mixes with the atomized fuel in your engine and is burned to create the power to run your car. If the filter element gets dirty, it restricts the amount of air that gets delivered. This causes the power to go down and gasoline consumption to go up. They're not terribly expensive, so changing it once a year is good economy. It's woven tightly enough to filter out cigar smoke, so it wouldn't be too hard to clog it up when it's used in dusty places.

CHANGE OIL AND FILTER - Some manufacturers claim that their engines can go great distances without an oil change. An SUV with 80,000 miles (and past warranty) came into the shop recently that hadn't had it's oil and filter changed for a while and it finally ran out of oil. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. So the engine had to come out, the crankshaft had to be machined and new connecting rod and main bearings had to be installed. Luckily, it didn't destroy anything else. If you want to know how much that job would cost in your area, ask your mechanic but sit down before he or she tells you. New oil and a filter change are very, very cheap by comparison.

CHANGE COOLANT - The water/antifreeze mixture in your cooling system can be checked for condition but most aren't. Some auto makers claim their stuff is good for 100,000 miles, but they don't say that factory techs will come out and replace your cylinder heads, radiator or water pump if it doesn't. Until they do, change it every other spring.

CHANGE TRANSMISSION FLUID - This is a fluid that some auto makers say never needs to be changed, but automatic transmission shops are always busy. Another relatively low mileage car had it's ATF replaced in the shop and it came out thick, black and smelly. In some cases, it gets so thick, shifting is delayed until the stuff thins out as it heats up. ATF should be changed every third spring at least. The same is true of the differentials, as we've had to do a couple of differential bearing jobs recently and they weren't cheap.

ROTATE TIRES - One of the cars that was up on the rack for an oil change had the outside edges of its front tires worn way. It could have been that the driver always drove in a "spirited" manner (like my sons many years ago) or it could have been that he bumped curbs a lot. Either way, the front and rear tires would have worn evenly if they had been rotated as per the owner's manual or earlier and probably wouldn't have needed early replacement.

CLEAN BATTERY TERMINALS - Under those plastic covers on your battery terminals, there is often a gooey green glop that is the consistency of grease. It can build up to the point where it insulates the battery cables from the battery terminals and then your vehicle won't start on a cold morning. If you want to check for yourself, raise your hood, peel back the plastic caps and see what you find. But wear rubber gloves when you do it. The stuff can eat your clothes. Removing the battery and cleaning up the mess is spring cleaning in its most obnoxious form.

Some say that it's too expensive to have their vehicles inspected and serviced regularly. But by spending now, it saves money later.