10 Maintenance Musts

keep your clunker chugging with this car-care advice

Barbara Arnold

I’m the last person you’d want to text in the middle of the night to help when your car has broken down. Mechanical, I’m not. Know, though, that your car might not have broken down had you taken the energy, money, and time to maintain it properly.  

That much I’ve learned from the wise-cracking Italian guys on NPR’s Car Talk and Chippewa Valley car owners who responded to an inquiry about this very topic. In between were the car guys in my life: my dad, older brothers, old boyfriends, and certified car mechanics and technicians.

1. Regular Oil Changes

Oil is really, really important. Remember the tin man in The Wizard of Oz with his empty oil can? Ever have achy joints or dry skin? Lubrication, people. I rest my case.  

2. Read the Manual

So how often do you change the oil? The answer lies in this manual. You know, the one you’ve never opened. It’s collecting dust in your glove compartment. Most come with a maintenance schedule based on the number of miles driven, which lets you know what you need to have done to your car by when. Oil changes: every 5,000, or 10,000 miles, depending on the car. 

3. Tires, Lights, Fluids. Oh My!

Walk around your car daily. Look at the tires. If one looks low, it needs air. Turn on the lights. If one’s out, replace the bulb. Assuming you park your car in the same spot every night, check to see if there are any spots of fluid on the pavement. Your car may have a leak. 

4. Windshield Wiper Blades

Can’t see when you’re driving? Not good. Plus, you’re a hazard. Replace the blades every six months to a year, or when they’re squeaking, skipping, or smearing.

5. Battery

Car batteries don’t last forever. Most of us discover this at the most inopportune times. So have your battery checked on a regular basis, and get a new one before you’re stranded.

6. Brakes

These are essential to being able to stop. If they squeak, whine, or grind, it’s time to take your car to a professional … immediately!

7. The Penny Test

Insert a penny into your tire’s tread groove with President Lincoln’s head upside down and facing you. If all of Lincoln’s head is visible, you need to look at replacing your tires.

8. The AAA Card

Changing a flat tire is a rite of passage. Not! Once I passed my driver’s test, I was given the AAA card, or membership in the American Automobile Association. For annual dues, you simply call a toll-free number and hang out eating snacks from your car emergency kit until the tow truck arrives.

9. The Car Emergency Kit

Keep kit in your trunk or back seat in wintertime if your trunk freezes shut. The essentials: Bottled water, nonperishable snacks, gum, candy, nuts. Other emergency items: blanket, candles, matches, flashlight and extra batteries. Flashers for emergencies.  A First Aid kit. Jumper cables. Duct tape. Scissors. Two straps of rope. Swiss Army Knife. A miniature tool kit. In winter, I add a snow shovel, kitty litter, ice scrapers, and cardboard scraps. Last but not least, make sure you’re carrying a charged mobile phone.

10. Know an Auto Mechanic

Trust is everything in a relationship. That’s especially true with auto care professionals. Take your car to the same place regularly for maintenance. They’ll get to know your car and its quirks, and you and yours, too.

And, finally, a special thanks to the folks who advised: “Don’t forget to change out your blinker fluid” and “Remember to switch out the air in your tires when the seasons change.”

Cold Weather. My cousin Steve who lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, can fill you in. There, they actually have outlets on stanchions everywhere to charge your battery while you’re parked, and it’s oh ... 40 below zero, pitch black, at 9am. 

A snow shovel made me some friends when I lived in the Washington, D.C., area. We had close to 40 inches of snow in one day. I made a huge kettle of homemade soup, and got to know my neighbors quite well – between sharing soup and shoveling out – with our only shovel– my shovel.

Likewise, after a huge ice storm in Austin, Texas, I found my neighbors, two college girls from the University of Texas at Austin, with an extension cord and hair dryer, trying to melt thick ice off their windshield.  I taught them how to turn up the heat in their car so the ice would melt without the extra effort.

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