MAKING CARE CARE ENJOYABLE
Car care is what you make it, and it can be enjoyable and fulfilling if you take the offensive. Simply do the work a little at a time, before trouble starts. If you take car care as a defensive maneuver (the old “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach), you’ll feel like you’re always behind.
The object of proper car care is to always be on top of the situation. In the long run, it’s easier and cheaper to replace a part before it breaks. Waiting until it breaks (in the middle of nowhere) leaves you either stranded’ or stuck with a costly towing bill. The cost of parts and repairs under emergency circumstances relates directly to how far you are from home and if you are stuck or not. Don’t expect to find a discount auto parts store that’s open all night in Deadend, Iowa, when a vital link of your car’s cooling system fails at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night. In other words, be sure to check radiator hoses and similar items before they fail, and replace them at the first sign of fatigue.
There are many different levels of car care. Not everyone is a master mechanic or the kind of dedicated car nut who spends every spare minute pampering his “baby.” Our objective is to provide a plan for easy maintenance, including the basic tasks that most people interested in cars should be capable of performing. Use these tips and guidelines as a foundation for your own car care plan. Only you know your mechanical limits; it’s important to know when to stop and turn a job over to a pro. Start with the easiest tasks and do more jobs as your skills improve.
The sequence of maintenance items presented here is an example of a program that we think makes good sense. The idea is to do things in an orderly manner, without backtracking. Try to think of each task as a single, short exercise. Complete one thing at a time without disabling your car. This way, you’ll accomplish many short-term goals, and you can quit any time you get tired. It’s mentally tiring when car care is one huge task. Making it easy inceases the likelihood of success.
You won’t need a stunt double to perform most of these tasks, but any time you work on a car, there are certain precautions to observe. Cars are heavy, flammable, and have sharp edges and many sources of heat. Also, a lot of potentially dangerious chemicals are associated with working on cars. Realize these dangers, and take steps to prevent accidents.
any time a car needs to be elevated, extreme care should be used. Sturdy jackstands are a must. A full-size hydraulic floor jack is the best way to lift a car. Don’t risk your personal safety with inferior equipment to save money.
A fire extinguisher should always be around when you’re working on cars. Be sure it’s fully charged and that you know how to used it. Protective eyeglasses or goggles are a good idea, and wear clothing that isn’t likely to get caught in moving parts. Read all directions on parts and automotive chemicals. Warning labels aren’t there for looks, they’re designed for safety.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
A few automotive hand tools are necessary for even the most basic tasks. The more complicated the job, the more tools you’ll probably need. Our advice is to buy quality products before buying quantity. Add more quality tools as you can afford them. Tool sets are often sold at substantial savings over the individual prices, so watch the sales and you should be able to get a good tool set at a reasonable price.
There are many specialty tools that make car care easier. If you seldom work on your own car, these probably won’t justify their investment, but if you do most of your car’s work, you’ll wonder how you got some jobs done without them. A good way to rationalize buying tools is that the money you save (over having the job done professionally) will pay for them after doing the job yourself a few times. Having the proper tools for the job makes car care easier and more enjoyable.
Some of the best mechanics in the world refuse to work on dirty, greasy cars. It’s much more enjoyable and easier to work on a clean engine and a car that has a clean undercarriage. It’s easier to see what you’re doing, and potential problem leaks are quickly spotted on a clean car. A thorough steam cleaning of the underside of your car helps remove corrosive road grime and salt from winter roads.
A steam cleaner is not a typical homeowner’s tool. You can always have your car professionally steam cleaned, but the do-it-yourself choices are a coin-operated car wash or renting a heavy-duty steam cleaner.
The car wash is the easier of the two choices, but most don’t have the heat and the power of a real steam cleaner. Still, if you have a good supply of quarters and several cans of aerosol degreaser, you can do an acceptable job. This is a good choice for a car that was previously steam cleaned and just needs a little touchup.
A steam cleaner is a sure way to mess up your driveway (you can use it to clean the driveway after you’re through with the car), but an excellent method for cleaning engine compartments, and chassis parts. Wear gloves, eye protection, and old clothes while steam cleaning. Also, use a spray degreaser, and remember that most of these proucts work best on a warm engine (check the directions). Cover both the carburetor and distributor with plastic bags, and try not to spray direct streams at electrical parts or the carburetor. Be careful around painted parts of the car; powerful steam cleaners can remove cheap paint jobs, and some use a caustic degreasing solution that damages finishes.
After steam cleaning, run the car for 15 minutes or more to dry the engine. You may need to use a silicone spray to dry the inside of the distributor cap, or you can blow it out with compressed air.
You’ll really appreciate the steam cleaning when you change the oil and oil filter. Oil is the lifeblood of your car, so check the level and change it often. A sign of a meticulous car owner is one who religously changes the oil and filter, usually at intervals sooner than factory recommendations.
Warm oil is easier to drain than cold, so run the engine for a couple of minutes or change it after you return from an errand. It can be changed with the car flat on the pavement, but it’s easier if it’s elevated on jackstands. Take care not to round the bolt corners of the drain plug; a box-end wrench is best for this task. Check the drain plug gasket. A cracked or missing one should be replaced to help prevent oil leaks on your garage floor.
Use an oil filter wrench to remove the filter, and remember that it contains oil, so don’t spill it. Be sure the old gasket comes off with the filter; if it stays on the block, it can cause a leak when the new filter and gasket are installed.
When installing the new filter, smear a light coat of fresh oil on the gasket to aid sealing. It’s a good idea to pour some oil in the filter, too. If the filter position is such that any oil in it will drip, you can install the new filter with only oil on the gasket. Hand pressure should be sufficient to tighten the new filter. Depending on the recommendations for your specific engine, 1/4-3/4 of a turn (after the gasket makes contact with the block) should be ample. Check for any leaks after the engine is filled with oil and started.
The part of any tune-up that usually shows the most dramatic results is changing the spark plugs. A car that doesn’t respond to a fresh set of plugs is a sick one, indeed.
Old-timers used to check spark plugs, clean them, and reuse them. New plugs are so reasonably priced (especially if you watch the sales) that unless you have more time than you kwow what to do with, it makes sense to use them.
You should always check the spark plug gap, although most plugs are very close to coreect, right out of the box. This is good to remember if you’re ever in an emergency situation without any gapping tools. a wire gapping tool is more accurate than a flat feeler gauge. Check your service manual or consult the chart at the auto parts store for the correct gap. The owner’s manual, service manual, or very often a sticker under the hood will tell you the recommended spark plug for your engine. It’s possible to change heat ranges to compensate for problems like excessive oil consumption, but this is only a temporay solution to a bigger problem. The science of heat-range changes is best left to serious racers. The average motorist should stick with the factory-recommended heat range.
A spark plug socket and an anglehead ratchet wrench are the best tools to use for removing and installing spark plugs. a regular deep socket, or even an open-end wrench will get the job done, but the chances of skinned knuckles is greater. When reinstalling the plugs, first put them in finger-tight. Tighten standard seat plugs 1/4-1/2 turn more. Tapered seat plugs should be tightened only 1/16 turn past finger-tight.
You can learn a lot about the condition of your engine by the way the old spark plugs look. Unfortunately, most of the bad things the plugs tell you require major repairs, but at least you’ll be aware of the problem. Most spark plug companies make plug-reading charts to help you diagnose any potential problems. Hopefully, your plugs will be evenly colored, either a light tan or gray, which is what normal used plugs should look like. IGNITION TUNE-UP
A tune-up can mean different things depending on the year of the car. Many on the newer cars need very little attention outside of spark plug changes. The older cars with traditional distributors require periodic points, rotor, and condensor replacement, plus resetting of the dwell and ignition timing. A new set of points makes a big difference over worn-out ones. If the points need replacing, install a new rotor and condensor at the same time. These aren’t always needed, but it’s easier and cheaper to replace everything at once. Inspect the distributor cap for signs of cracking or worn electrodes, and replace if necessar. Cars with electronic ignitions need and adjustment of the timing.
Dwell affects timing, so that must be checked after adjusting the dwell. Hook a timing light to the No. 1 spark plug wire and set the timing to factory specs. Disconnect the distributor vacuum hose and plug it while setting the ignition timing. reconnect the hose after the distributor has been secured. With the timing light hooked up, gradually rev the engine and watch the timing mark on the crank pulley. It should advance smoothly and evenly if the vacuum advance is working properly.
While performing the ignition tune-up, check the condition of related parts, such as the coil and spark plug wires. Spark plug wires require the most maintenance, especially if you have an engine that’s equipped with tubular exhaust headers. Improperly routed wires can get burned and cracked from the heat. The best way to check for faulty plug wires is with an ohmmeter. Another way is to look at the running engine at night with no light; sparks should be visible from damaged spark plug wires. Replace the whole set, even if only a couple of wires appear to be bad. The good ones are probably already on their way out.
Coils aren’t a high-failure item, but check the small wires that link the coil to the rest of the ignition system. Also see that the coil wire is well-seated on both ends, and that the distributor cap terminal isn’t corroded.
FUEL SYSTEM SERVICE
More modern cars have either sealed or very complicated carburetors, which puts their maintenance out of the do-it-yourself league. If your car is one of these, professional service is the only easy answer.
Even the most intricate carburetors still use air filters. a dirty air filter will choke your engine, but checking and replacing it on a regular basis is one of the easiest and most important car care steps. Not replacing a marginal air filter is a false economy move. What little you save by putting off the filter purchase is lost by poor fuel economy. Change the air filter at the factory-recommended intervals or sooner.
The fuel filter is another simple but very important part of the fuel system. The quality of gasoline isn’t what it used to be, so it pays to check and replace dirty fuel filters often. If your car doesn’t have an in-line fuel filter, install one of the universal ones available at auto parts stores.
On top of that, fuel injector cleaner is also among the most important components that need paying much attention. A dirty injector cleaner not only cost you tons of money for fuel, but also decrease your cars’ engine efficiency. I recommend this website for those who are looking for the best fuel injector cleaner for his/her engines.
Assuming you have a car that still has an adjustable carburetor, set the idle speed and fuel mixture to the factory specs. a tune-up gauge with a tachometer is necessary for this task, although some experienced old-time mechanics can get very close just by listening to an engine.
Be sure the engine is properly warmed up when you adjust the carburetor. Set the slow idle first, then watch the tachometer as you turn the fuel-mixture screw to the right. When the engine starts to run poorly, turn the screw to the left until the engine rpm levels off. Then reverse the screw 1/8 turn to the right.
The PCV (positive crankcase ventilation) should rattle if it’s okay. If it doesn’t, it’s clogged and needs to be replaced. When you are in doubt about the PCV valve, replace it; they don’t cost very much.
COOLING SYSTEM SERVICE
Water, or rather water and coolant/Antifreeze mix, is another of the many vital fluids necessary for your car to function properly. The coolant level should be checked frequently, and if it’s needed often, check for leaks or signs of overheating.
Any cooling system that’s periodically checked, flushed, and replenished with fresh coolant should cause you very little trouble. Coolant should be mixed 50/50 with water for best results. There are flush kits that are inserted in the heater hoses for do-it-yourself flushing, or you can always have the system professionally serviced.
Standard procedure is to change the coolant once a year. If you’re in doubt about the condition of the coolant, check it with a tester. Also, don’t forget to check the radiator hoses frequently for signs of cracking or bulges. A bulge means failure is imminent, so replace the hose immediately. Soft spots (when you squeeze the hoses) are another sign of a failing hose. When checking the hoses, make sure their clamps are tight; the adjustable screw-on models are the only ones to use. A squeaking water pump is on its way out, too, so replace it before it leaves you stranded on the side of the road or stuck in rush-hour traffic. Check fan belts and other drive belts for wear and proper tension at this time, too.
ADDITIONAL UNDERHOOD MAINTENANCE
While you’re taking care of engine-related maintenance chores, check the battery and add distilled water if its electrolyte level is low. Many newer batteries are translucent enough to see when the fluid level is low. Otherwise, remove the battery caps for inspection. Even the new “maintenance free” batteries can require additional distilled water to bring the electrolyte level up to where it should be.
Clean the battery terminals periodically; there are special wire brushes made for this purpose. Also, clean the ends of the battery cables, and put a little white grease on the terminals to help prevent corrosion. Wear eye protection and use extra care when working around batteries.
Checking the brake fluid level is another imporant underhood item. Do it when the car is parked on level ground, and always use premium-quality brake fluid.
This is also a good time to check the automatic transmission fluid level. Top off the power steering fluid if necessary, and make sure the windshield washer is full of a cleaner/water mix appropriate for the current temperature range.
When all the underhood maintenance is finished to your satisfaction, it’s time to turn your attention to the chassis and related components.
UNDER THE CAR
Support one end of the car at a time on heavy-duty jackstands in preparation for the undercar maintenance. At the front of the car, you can lubricate the chassis. A good time to do this is when the car is elevated for changing the oil and filter. A factory shop manual is needed to locate all the grease fittings.
While you’re under the car, look for any worn suspension or exhaust parts. Not only is a steam cleaned chassis more pleasant to work on, a leaking or worn part is easier to spot when the undercarriage is clean.
Another task to tackle while the front of the vehicle is elevated is checking the front brakes and doing any replacement work. Check for worn-out linings or disc brake pads, and look for signs of leaking wheel cylinders. If the fornt wheel bearings need to be greased or repacked, now is a perfect time to do it.
At the rear of the car, inspect the brake condition and look for leaking wheel cylinders. Adjust the parking brake if it isn’t tight enough. Make sure the rear axle is parallel to the ground and check the differential fluid level; it should be right at the opening of the inspection plug, or no more than 1/2-inch below. Add the proper weight gear oil if necessary. While the rear of the car is elevated, check the universal joints for excessive wear and inspect the exhaust system and muffler for holes. This is also a good time to see if the shock absorbers show signs of leaking, and if so, to replace them. If you’ve steam cleaned the car as suggested, you should also be able to spot potential problems such as leaking or worn-out fuel lines and fittings. A thorough visual inspection of your car’s chassis is a good way to stay on top of things.
Your car’s tires are as important as any single item on the vehicle. Tire care falls under chassis maintenance and cosmetic care. While the car is elevated for undercar work, take time to inspect the tires. Look for uneven wear patterns which could signal alignment or shock absorber problems. While the tires are suspended, it’s a good time to remove rocks from the tread and look for any cuts or problems, such as tread separartion. Spotting this early can help avoid tire failure while driving.
Rotate the tires at six-month intervals. Rotation patterns depend on whether or not you include the spare tire.
Remember to check tire-inflation pressures often. Improperly inflated tires are a major source of premature tire wear and can add other unnecessary expenses, such as poor gas mileage. Be sure the spare tire is ready.
COSMETIC CAR CARE
When you’re satisfied with the mechanical well-being of your car, turn your attention to cosmetics. A clean, well-waxed car doesn’t necessarily run better, but you’ll feel better about it. It also helps maintain its resale value, which is no small matter with the current high prices of cars. An exceptionally well-maintained car can be worth a few thousand dollar more than a similar one is neglected condition. That fact should be incentive enough for even the most reluctant car care practitioner.
WASHING YOUR CAR
A car that’s cleaned often will be easier to take care of. It’s simpler to wash off a little dirt on a regular basis than struggle with weeks of cake-on grime. A good wax job makes washing less painful, but the car must be clean before you apply the wax.
The idea behind a good wash job is to remove as much dirt as possible without damaging the finish. Dirt is abrasive, so try to flood off as much as you can rather than grind it into the finish. Always start at the top of the car and work your way down.
It’s best to wash your car in the shade or on an overcast day. Direct sunlight promotes water spotting, and very hot sun can actually burn little dull spots in the paint. Water that’s left standing tends to produce water spots, so dry the car with soft, absorbent towels immediately after washing. Coin-operated car washes are fine, and they’re usually covered for protection from the sun.
After the car has been thoroughly hosed down, apply the suds. Use a detergent that’s specifically formulated for car washing or a very mild dishwashing soap.
Either use a carwash mitt or a soft towel to wash the car, but be sure it’s something soft to avoid scratching the finish. It’s a good idea to use a separate mitt or wheel brush when you do the wheels and tires. You don’t want to transfer the grit from them to thez painted parts of the car.
Use several soft towels for the actual washing, and different towels to wipe off the majority of the water and do the final drying. Many people like to use a chamois, but they work best on well-waxed cars. Pull the chamois across the car so that it drags the water with it, and keep it clean; don’t use it on dirty parts of the car.
WHEEL AND TIRE CARE
Clean the wheels and tires after washing the rest of the car. There are special brushes for this job: Big brushes are for overall cleaning; smaller, stiffer ones are usually for whitewalls and raised white-letter tires; and long, narrow brushes are for wire wheels. A good source for cleaning brushes in your local grocery store, and household brushes are great for car cleaning chores.
Dirty whitewalls and raised-letter tires look terrible on an otherwise great-looking car. Fortunately, there are plenty of chemical products, both liquid and foam, that do an excellent job of cleaning the white parts of tires. A steel wool pad and household soap also works on whitewalls. For tire that have nasty curb scuffs, there are white-tire markers for touchup work.
After the tires are cleaned and dried, treat them to a vinyl and rubber protectant. Most of these products are sprayed on, then you use a cloth to wipe off the excess. Besides making your tires look good, these extend their life by protecting against ozone, oxygen, and ultra-violet rays which can crack and check sidewalls.
Wheel care varies, depending on the type of wheel. Stock, painted wheels are the easiest to care for: just wash them and apply some wax. Chrome, aluminum, and other alloy wheels require more attention. Luckily, there are many fine chemical wheel-care products that make caring for custom wheels easy. The best way to keep custome wheels in top shape is to take care of them from day one. Those that are cleaned often from the start require very little work, while wheels left to the elements often present a monumental cleaning chore. There are plenty of fine polishes to clean even the scruffies wheels, but no magical chemical will do the job alone; you have to use a lot of elbow grease. Some of the new custom wheels are clear-coated aluminum, which means soap and water will usually clean them just fine.
Wire wheels are some of the nicest-looking and most difficult to clean. The best and easiest approach is to remove them from the car so you can clean all sides of the spokes. There are also spray protectants available that will help keep wire and other custom wheels cleaner between washings.
Waxing is a religion for some enthusiasts, and a pain for everyone else. All waxes works, but you do have to use them. If you don’t like endless hours of rubbing on the finest, hardest paste wax you can find, stick with the liquid waxes; they’re a snap to apply. The easier products may not give the same show results on the multi-step ones, but for the average car the prime goal is protection, not earning points at a concours event.
Some modern waxes are designed to be applied in either sunlight or shade, but for the best results, do your waxing in the shade on a cool car. Apply the wax to an applicator or pad of soft cloth, not directly on the car or it may leave marks. Turn the cloth often and use another applicator if the first one gets too caked with residue. Let the wax dry until the residue comes off easily, then use a separate clean turksit towel (or terrycloth) to buff the wax to its final shine.
A car that’s waxed often will be easier to wash. Dirt should almost flush off a well-waxed car. More frequent waxing will help avoid the rubbing out that’s necessary when paint is badly oxidized.
Clean the chrome trim items and bumpers along with the rest of the vehicles, and protect them with a wax or polish. If the chrome items are well-maintained from the time the car is new upkeep in minimal. If you keep the chrome shiny, you can use low-abrasive products.
Any rusty chrome requires cleaners and polishes with a higher abrasive content. Cleaning rusty chrome is more work, and the rust eventually comes back, so preventive maintenance really pays off in this area.
VINYL TOP CARE
Vinyl tops aren’t as popular as they once were, but there are still a lot of perfectly nice cars running around with shabby vinyl tops. It’s important to use products that are made specifically for vinyl tops when cleaning and protecting them. Don’t use regular car wax on vinyl tops, because it can leave a white residue in the grain of the vinyl.
Dirt is the enemy of vinyl tops. It gets down in the tiny crevices of the grain. Use a vinyl cleaner and a small scrub brush, such as a fingernail brush, to lift the dirt. Rinse thoroughly, then apply a vinyl and rubber protectant. For faded black vinyl tops, there are colored products that make vinyl look like new.
Clean windows are an aid to safer driving, so wash exterior surfaces at the same time as the rest of the car. If the glass still looks filmy, use a glass cleaner product. Old newspaper works well to polish the glass.
There are chemical products you can apply to outside glass to help make rain run off. These afford “smoother going” for the windshield wipers. There are also anti-fog sprays for the inside windows.
Use extra care not to break any of the tiny wires when working on glass with defroster elements. Convertible tops with plexiglass windows require special plexiglass cleaners, and use a lot of care to keep these windows from becoming cloudy.
CLEANING THE INTERIOR
Dirt is the big culprit when it comes to interior wear. Getting in and out, plus all the motion of riding in and operating a car combine to grind dirt into the seats and carpeting. Frequent cleaning is the best way to keep your interior in top shape.
Clear plastic seat covers used to be popular in the Fifties, but it doesn’t make sense to sit on uncomfortable plastic just so the next buyer will get a really mint interior. Modern sheepskin covers make sense because they protect the upholstery and are more comfortable than the stock covers.
Weekly vacuuming is the key to a sharp interior. The best vacuums are the heavy-duty ones available at coin-operated car washes. If you have a shop model, use it instead of the household unit. You need sucking power to remove dirt, leaves, and tree needles from automotive carpeting. Remember to get into all the crevices between the seat cushions. Keep a wiskbroom in the glovebox to sweep out carpet debris between weekly vacuuming. SEAT CARE
Besides frequent vacuuming, seats should be treated with a vinyl or leather product, depending on the type of upholstery. Fabric interiors, such as velour, are not as easy to take care of, but there are products on the market for cleaning cloth seats.
Both aerosol and professional dyes for changing the color of vinyl seats or renewing faded ones are on the market. There are also repair kits to take care of small holes or cuts in the material.
Clean dirty vinyl seats with vinyl cleaners and a scrub brush, or mild soap and water. If the seats need a serious cleaning, consider removing them from the car. This keeps the excess moisture off the carpet. After the seats are cleaned, dry them off with towels and/or compressed air, then add a vinyl protectant.
Frequent vacuuming and good floormats are the best way to keep the carpet in top shape. The area of greatest wear is under the accelerator, so it helps to have carpeting with a built-in heel pad.
Touch up badly faded carpets with spray-on fabric dyes. Apply the dye to a thoroughly cleaned carpet, and mask any areas you don’t want colored. Use a rag to brush the carpet after the dye has been applied. This will help distribute the dye and remove any excess that might get on clothes.
Patch small holes in the carpet by using a “plug” from an unseen area, such as underneath a seat. Cut out the damaged area or directly around the hole. Make the plug about 1/8-inch larger than the hole, then glue it in place and let it dry. After the glue dries, rake the nap of the rug with your hand or a key. This helps join the filaments of the two carpet sections.
DOOR PANELS AND DASHBOARDS
Dorr panels are usually vinyl and/or plastic, so cleaning is easy. A scrub brush and vinyl cleaner, or soap and water does the job. Since the doors obviously open, you can use a lot of water and not worry about it getting on the carpet.
Interior panels in back seat areas are a little more difficult to reach. These are usually secured by only a few screws and clips, so you can remove them from the car for a thorough cleaning. The plastic panels with the simulated-vinyl grain tend to trap dust in the crevices, so a lot of scrubbing and rinsing is necessary to get them clean. After cleaning, add a vinyl protectant.
Dashboards are highly dust prone, and their added exposure to the sun tends to bake in the dust. This baked-in dust can be difficult to get out, so a dashboard kept clean from the start is a real plus. To help prevent sun-cracking, keep vinyl-padded dashboards lubricated with vinyl protectant; replacement of a cracked dashboard pad can be a major undertaking.
Clean and wax the painted surfaces of a dashboard like any other painted surface. You can also wax the chrome trim, although dashboard chrome is often chromed plastic, so be careful with abrasives. Remove all ashtrays and soak in soapy water for a good cleanup. Instrument faces are often plastic, so take care when cleaning. Since the plastic is prone to scratching, use a special plastic or plexiglass cleaner/polish.
When applying vinyl protectant to the dashboard areas, apply it first to a soft cloth, then to the dashboard. Spraying the protectant tends to get it on the windshield, and that leaves a film.