Some people love to get their hands dirty. The allure of a grubby, smelly engine bay is just too much for them to ignore and they spend as much time as they can fiddling with parts of their vehicle that just don’t need fiddling with. Others are at the opposite end of the scale. Phobic of grime, they’d rather take the car to the garage than top up their screen wash themselves. And instead of taking an interest in how their car works, they’d rather leave it to a mechanic or even worse, just leave it until it breaks down!
Hopefully you’re somewhere between these two. Undertaking basic maintenance on a car is simpler than it ever has been and doesn’t require any specialist knowledge. You save yourself money, both by averting potentially expensive mechanical failure and by doing yourself what you would otherwise have paid a mechanic to do.
This is a very concise list of basic car maintenance duties. Do these simple tasks regularly and you should have a much cheaper, safer and more satisfying motoring experience.
You’re working on a complex and potentially dangerous machine. Remember that there are two sides to the safety coin when it comes to car maintenance – you need to ensure that you are safe while you carry out the work, as well as making sure that the car will be safe once you have finished.
Always turn the engine off (and take the keys out of the ignition or ensure any electronic keys are away from the car) before doing any work under the bonnet. Don’t work on the car when or soon after it has been running, as the components will be hot. The water in the car’s radiator will stay hot for an hour after the car has been switched off – take precautions if you need to open the radiator or coolant reservoir during this time.
Never put any part of your body under a car when it has been jacked up or raised off the ground.
Your car should have a set of documents in the glovebox when you first buy it. The manual provides guidance on the basic maintenance and service intervals that should be performed on the vehicle, as well as outlining where the important areas of the engine bay are. In modern cars, the parts of the engine bay you need to know about – we’ll come onto those later – are a distinctive colour (usually yellow) for easy identification.
If your son/daughter is unlikely to be popping back frequently and driving the car, it may be worth talking to your insurer about reducing cover to Third Party Fire & Theft only, which might save a little money each month. Check first with your insurer as they may charge an admin fee for changing cover level. Of course, if they’re likely to be back regularly, that may not be an option.
To keep the car in the best condition possible, if you have access to one, keep the vehicle in a garage. This will prevent it from weathering outside. You will also want to jack the wheels up, put the car on stands and leave the handbrake off. By keeping the tyres off the ground it will help to keep them from cracking and going flat.
Also ensure that there is enough anti-freeze in the car, along with preventing the engine itself from freezing, which can be very costly. Using antifreeze in your car helps to prevent rust and corrosion from building up in the cooling system.
Finally, it’s advisable that you start up the engine weekly. This should help to prevent the battery from going flat. It's also worth getting the fans and air conditioning blowing when you do this, to get the air circulating and to stop any damp from building up.
These are the main things that your car needs to stay working. They’re listed in approximate order of importance, but none should be neglected. All these items can be checked easily at home.
This clear, runny fluid enables the engine to run smoothly. Your oil should be changed regularly and checked even more so – you’ll notice when you check it that the glistening brown oil you poured in has become a mucky gloop after a few months in your engine.
To check your oil, you need some kitchen towel or newspaper. Find the dipstick in your engine bay. It will probably take the form of a looped piece of yellow plastic on a metal pipe leading to the bottom of the engine itself. Its location will be clearly marked in your owner’s manual.
Once you’ve found the dipstick, pull it firmly. It will dislodge to reveal a long, thin band of metal covered in horrible black goo. Wipe this down with your kitchen towel (or better, use clean fingers and wipe those on the kitchen towel). You should find some notches towards the end of the dipstick.
Once it’s free of oil, return the dipstick to its pipe. Push hard so that it reaches the bottom of the pipe, and then gently remove it. The end of the dipstick should be oily and the level of the oil should have reached the middle of the two notches. For more information on oil levels, consult your owner’s manual.
All of this must be done whilst the car is turned off and parked on level ground.
If your car is running low on oil, you’ll need a funnel to pour fresh oil in to the top of the engine (again, yellow and referred to in the manual) carefully and slowly. It’s dangerous to overfill it, so if the oil level appears above the top line on the dipstick, get a garage to remove the excess.
Most modern cars have liquid-cooled engines. People will refer to it as coolant – this refers to the mixture of antifreeze, lubricant and corrosion inhibitors added to the water for use in cars. This liquid circulates around the engine, flows to the radiator to cool down, and then gets taken back to the engine again.
Don’t open the radiator cap or any other part of the water system when the engine has been recently running. The water is under pressure and can spurt out, which is dangerous when it’s hot.
If it runs low, your car’s engine can reach potentially dangerous temperatures. You should check levels whenever you check oil levels, and add antifreeze on the approach to winter.
Your brakes work on a hydraulic basis. Locate your brake fluid reservoir using the manual and check it using the same principles as the oil dipstick (or according to the instructions in the manual). If you need to top up the brake fluid, do so with a fresh bottle and throw any spare stuff away – it doesn’t keep.
Brake fluid is as important as it sounds. Without it you risk poor braking performance or, if it runs dry, a near-total loss of braking. Your handbrake will work on a separate system.
Tyres are some of the most overlooked parts of a modern car, which is peculiar considering they are the only component in constant use. Checking your tyres ought to take place regularly and should consist of two steps – ensuring the tread is sufficient, and making sure the pressure is correct. To check the tread you will actually need a special (and cheap) tool called a tread depth gauge. The legal minimum tread depth in the UK (and the rest of Europe) is 1.6mm around the whole tyre in a band covering ¾ of the width.
If any part of your tyre is approaching this minimum, have your car booked in for new ones. Tyres at this level of wear are vastly worse under heavy braking than fresh ones, and campaigners have been lobbying for an increase in the minimum to 3mm.
While inspecting the tread depth you should also check for other evidence of damage. Visible tears in the tyre wall are extremely dangerous and mean you should get a new tyre fitted, while any exposed wire is also a big risk. The penalty for dangerous tyres is a fine and three points on your licence – per tyre. If both your front tyres are faulty then you could get six points in one go.
A note on tyre wear – if one tyre is wearing much faster than the other, your tracking could be out. Tracking is the system which keeps both front wheels pointing in the same direction, and getting it fixed is a cheap and quick process at a garage.
Checking tyre pressure will require a tool, too – either a mechanical pressure gauge or an electric one. Many electric tyre pumps will have a built-in pressure meter, making them a worthy investment as it makes the process of monitoring and pumping up your tyres so much easier.
You will need to find out what your tyre pressure should be. In addition to an entry in the manual, there should be a sticker with your car’s optimum tyre pressures on the inside ledge of the driver’s door or inside the petrol filler cap. The front and rear wheels will have different figures.
Pressure in car tyres is measured in bar and psi (pounds per square inch). 1bar is roughly 14.5psi so there should be no confusion, but make sure your digital pressure meter is on the right setting!
Remove the dust cap on the filler valve, as you would on a bicycle. Keep this tiny but important plastic bit safe! Firmly attach the pressure meter and wait for the reading. If the reading is below the figure in the manual or on the door ledge, pump the tyres up.
A note on tyre pressure – under-filled tyres can not only be dangerous but will make your car less efficient than properly inflated ones.
The ability to squirt your windscreen with soapy water while on the move is a significant safety feature. Treat it as such by making sure you always have enough screen wash in the reservoir.
Without effective windscreen wipers, your car becomes unsafe in rainy weather. The UK has enough rainy weather for windscreen wipers to be considered an integral feature of the car.
Cleaning the outside of your car is an extremely important part of its maintenance. You help prevent corrosion while maintaining the paint’s protective finish – vital for keeping your car healthy.
Your number plates should always be visible (not concealed by mud and soot) and it is extremely important to keep all windows free of dirt. Your rear windscreen is likely to be most affected by grubby spray, so try to wash it fairly regularly.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to car maintenance.