Car Advice

Motoring DIY: Keep your car running in top condition

Here’s how to keep your car running in top condition and avoid unnecessary breakdowns… without getting your hands very dirty.

THERE’S ALMOST NO way you can predict when your car will break down or suffer a flat tyre, but there are a few simple things you can do to keep your running in tip-top condition.

See, and Be Seen Make sure you regularly check your headlights, indicators and tail-lights and don’t rely on your car’s onboard computer to notify you when a bulb has blown. By keeping an eye on your lights, you’ll notice if the lens has cracked or discoloured and will be able to rectify it. And while you’re taking a look at your lights, give your wipers a check, if they’re becoming streaky then they need to be replaced.

Check your tyres Keeping your tyres in top condition can help with improving fuel consumption and performance. Make sure you regularly check your tyres for uneven wear or even cuts in the sidewall, and ensure the tyres are always at the correct pressure. And don’t forget to give your spare tyre a once over.

Know how to change a wheel Most people wouldn’t know which end of a jack to use, or which way to loosen wheel nuts (tip: left is loose, right is tight). Changing a wheel can be dangerous, especially if you’ve broken down on the side of the road… The main thing is to make sure your spare and wheel changing tools are in good condition. One thing my old man taught me is, once you’ve jacked up the car – and you should never, ever put any part of your body under a vehicle that’s been jacked up, unless you’ve got and have correctly fitted axle stands – is to place the spare wheel under the raised part of the car so that if the jack collapses your car won’t crash to the ground and risk injuring you. You should practice changing your wheel on a nice flat surface with the assistance of someone who has done it before.

Keep your car serviced There are a lot of people out there who own older cars and perform regular maintenance like changing the oil themselves, and that’s great. But most of us, particularly with new or near-new cars, should ensure it’s regularly serviced by a qualified mechanic, not only will having had your car regularly serviced by an authorised mechanic help when it comes to sell your car, but it will also give you some recourse should something go wrong with the car. Regular servicing will mean potential problems are jumped on before they become major and cause you to break down.

Check you fluids Don’t just rely on your regular servicing schedule to keep your vehicle’s fluids topped up. You should make it a habit to regularly pop your car’s bonnet and take a look underneath at the windscreen washer fluid, brake fluid, power steering and engine oil, etc. Most of these are in clear-ish plastic bottles with bright lids with low and full levels clearly marked.

Battery Matters You used to be able to check your fluid levels in car batteries and top them up with demineralised water to keep them healthy. The main thing with car batteries is not to stress them unnecessarily; it’s why most stop/start systems will shutdown and then restart almost immediately on a hot day with the air-con running. So, remember to turn off all interior lights and exterior lights, if your car doesn’t have an auto-off lights function. And if you regularly only drive a short distance to work each day, or your car is left parked up for long periods of time, consider going for a long drive once a week or so to keep it healthy.

Fuel Keeping your car topped up with fuel, or simply ensuring you’ve got enough fuel in the tank to make your journey, especially if there’s a long gap between filling stations on your route, is vital. My old man used to, and still does, fill up whenever the fuel gauge in his car shows half a tank of fuel. Me, I can get 1000km out of a tank in my car and so I know how to judge longer distance drives, you should get to know how your driving, and where you’re driving to impacts your vehicle’s fuel consumption. Keep an empty fuel can in your car in case of emergencies on longer drives.

Your dashboard Recently the headlight bulb in my car blew and it was inbetween my usual check of the lights, so, if it hadn’t been for the warning light on my dashboard it would have been another week before I’d checked the lights. This would have compromised my ability to drive safely at night or during rain or fog, and could have left me open to a defect notice from the police. Generally you car will flash a warning light on the dashboard before a catastrophic failure; learn what the various lights mean and act on them immediately.

Breakdown If your car does happen to break down or you suffer a flat tyre, immediately activate your hazard warning lights, indicated by a red triangle button on your dashboard, and move safely to the edge of the road, pulling as far off the road as possible and then raise the bonnet. If you can’t make it off the road then stay where you are with your hazard warning lights on and call for roadside assistance if you have it. Many motorways have their own emergency breakdown vehicles and these will generally be dispatched to a breakdown. Even if you’ve managed to make it right off the road, it’s still a good idea to exit your vehicle from the passenger’s side. If you’ve suffered a flat tyre and if it’s not safe to change the wheel where you are, call for roadside assistance… or if you’ve managed to get off the highway, you could call a mobile mechanic.

  • Dan R

    I live in the USA, we haven’t had batteries that you added water to since the early ’70’s. I remember my Dad showing me when I was little. Do you have different batteries in Australia? I always check belts and hoses too.

    • Hi Dan, thanks for the comment. We’ve got the same batteries here, that’s why I said ‘used to’… I was remembering the good old days. Belts and hoses is a good one, I’ll add that to the list. Cheers, Isaac (editor).

      • Fred

        I have the best tip ,stay home

  • John Johny

    I can’t believe regular scheduled maintenance does not cover the air con.
    My 2010 RAV4’s air con seemed to be loosing it edge over the past summer.
    Worried, I checked through the maintainence log to find the air con is not listed anywhere.
    I took it to a private mechanic to have a service performed and now it blows nice cold air.

  • Hilldene

    I have an enquiry about filling the petrol fuel tank. I would not always fill the tank when it is half full. I have been told that petrol can go off and deteriorate when it is more than four weeks old. I will fill the tank depending on the mileage I am driving to make sure that most of the old petrol is used. High mileage means you can fill up any time.

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober was born in the shadow of Mount Panorama in Bathurst and, so, it was inevitable he’d fall into work as a motoring writer. He began his motoring career in 2000 reviewing commercial vehicles, before becoming editor of Caravan & Motorhome magazine. He then moved to MOTOR Magazine before going freelance and contributing to Overlander 4WD, 4×4 Australia, TopGear Australia, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, The Australian, CARSguide, and many more.