A little yellow warning light appeared on the dash of my minitruck restoration project over the summer. As a good motorist, I took it to a local mechanic who advised me that it was nothing to worry about, that he had had a similar problem with a minitruck he once owned, and he drove it for three years with the warning light on until the bulb behind the light fused. Great advice, I found, if you want your engine to blow a couple of weeks later (as I found to my great cost, too). My advice: Don't ignore that warning light. A little warning light also should go off in your head if you detect strange smells emanating from your car, or hesitancy on acceleration, or the car pulling in one direction. All are symptomatic of a growing problem and should be investigated. Quickly, you'll find that a little routine maintenance can keep you safe and free of more expensive repairs. Most require little more time than it takes to refill the windshield wiper fluid (and don't forget to do that regularly, either). Here are some top tips to help keep the average motorist safe and, hopefully, trouble free.
Don't stray too far from the mantra of changing your engine oil every 3,000-5,000 miles. Change nearer the 3,000 mark if you pull weighty loads or drive in town or on frequently jammed freeways. The oil level should be checked every couple of weeks, or monthly at least. When the engine is warm to the touch, check your oil by lifting the hood and finding the dipstick, which will likely be labeled "oil". Pull it out and wipe the bottom of it on a rag, then dip it back into its slot. Pull it out again and inspect the fluid level at the bottom of the stick. It should be at a level between the marker lines, nearer the "full" line is preferable. If the oil looks dirty or black, take it to your mechanic to be changed, or do it yourself if you're handy. If the oil is clear but at a lowish level, top it off with more engine oil -- ask your dealership which brand it recommends -- though be aware that a very low oil level may indicate a leak.
You can detect problems in your transmission if you are experiencing problems shifting gears. A quick check of the transmission fluid level -- similar to an oil check -- could detect if your fluid level is low, which could in turn indicate a leak. When checking the transmission fluid, make sure your car is running and in "Park." You may also wish to put some chocks behind the back wheels.
The trick for transmission fluid is that it should have a slight pinkish tint: Once you've dipped, wiped, dipped and re-examined the fluid level, sniff it to check that it doesn't smell burnt and check that it's not brackish-brown. If it's low, refill with a lubricant recommended for your car, using a funnel to avoid spillage. Spots of the pink fluid on your street or garage floor usually indicate a leak, which can prove troublesome as the transmission is a closed system. Your mechanic should be able to pinpoint the problem for you. Safety-wise, make sure you clean up any spilled lubricant immediately -- that sweet, pink liquid proves mighty tasty for household cats and dogs -- as, in my experience, vet bills can easily match a mechanic's.
Coolant is the mixture of antifreeze and water used to dissipate heat and maintain temperature throughout an engine by utilizing the radiator. On older cars, check fluid levels by unscrewing the radiator cap, but never when your vehicle is hot. Wait for it to cool down first and also make sure your car is parked on a level surface. Newer cars will have a sump or reservoir usually placed to the engine's right. If your coolant is at a satisfactory level as marked on the reservoir, and is clear rather than cloudy or brown, you're good to go. Change your coolant and flush your radiator every two years or so, and make sure your radiator is free of corrosion.
Tires, Spare Tire and Jack
Overinflation and underinflation of tires carry their own perils in terms of safety, tire wear and fuel efficiency. Check your tire pressure every couple of weeks with a handheld pressure tester you can buy at your local automotive mart, or take your vehicle to the "Air" pump at your service station. Check your owner's manual for the recommended tire pressure and fill accordingly. If you're unsure how to do this, take somebody with you who knows how to do it, and you should be able to do it yourself from then on. Remember to inflate your spare tire, too (temporary spare tires usually have a 50- to 100-mile life expectancy).
A penny is often the simplest way to check tire tread: Stick a penny into a groove with old Abe's head pointing down. If the tread is lower than Lincoln's quiff, your tire level is unsafe. Check all four tires as the tread level may be uneven, which also indicates you have to rotate your tires more frequently. You can do this yourself with a jack and a strong back, or your mechanic should be able to do this for $20 or so. They'll also be able to check the car's alignment and rebalance your wheels accordingly, which the home mechanic may find tricky.
Batteries last about three and a half years in general, though extreme weather can also affect lifespan. Keep your battery and its connecting cables free of corrosion by scrubbing them with a stiff wire brush and a mixture of baking soda and water (always making sure you catch the run-off in a tray or suchlike). Make sure the battery is disconnected before beginning. If you're understandably squeamish about fussing with chemicals and a power source, a qualified professional can always do this for you. Cracks in the battery shell or suspicious bulges usually indicate you'll need a new battery. Replace it before you get stranded in an area you'd rather not be.
Your car will tell you when your brakes need work through inimitable but never endearing whines, screeches, grinding and pulling, or a softness when you press the stopping pedal. A red light on your dash will probably be lit also. You may need to check your brake fluid level, which you can do by checking the master cylinder and comparing the fluid level with the level indicated, and refilling accordingly with fluid recommended for your vehicle. You can also check the condition of your brake hoses; worn hoses will exacerbate other problems. Others -- in fact, almost all -- will admit defeat and take the car to their mechanic. Early action usually avoids the need for a full brake system overhaul, which is expensive, and minimizes safety issues.
So you didn't do any of the above and you're stranded -- hah! I'm just kidding: Even the most cautious motorists get let down by their steed. Here's what your emergency safety kit should contain: Jumper cables, Engine oil, De-icer fluid , Flashlight , Emergency flares, Distress flag, First aid kit, Pocket knife, Water and snacks, Blankets , Gloves, scarf, hat, Cell phone , Ice scraper, Shovel, Tow chain or rope and a Jack.