The modern car is an almost willfully confusing creation.
For a start, the engine bay is filled with things that seemed to have been translated from some distant Klingon dialect (“your tooth ring has issues, and it’s wreaking havoc on your float chamber and water jacket” is a sentence you could genuinely hear in a mechanic’s workshop).
And that’s not even including the parts that sound like your car is hurling 1980s-era insults at you (dipstick, anyone?).
It’s why – especially on hot days - it’s not uncommon to see cars volcanically expunging steam on the roadside while desperate-looking people stand staring hopefully under the bonnet and fiddling with leads and spark plugs.
In short, the workings of the modern car can be so intimidating, some drivers choose to ignore them completely. And that’s when things can go badly.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In fact, it’s far easier than you might think to keep your car running smoothly and safely.
While regular servicing is of course a no-brainer, there are several simple steps you can take to keep your car safely on the road, rather than parked to the side of it, as well complete the kinds of running repairs that might otherwise have you waiting for help.
So consider the below your confidence building how-to guide to keeping your car on the road and out of the workshop this summer.
It’s time to roll your sleeves up and get those hands dirty.
Feel the pressure
Ask yourself; when was the last time you checked your tyre pressures?
We’ll give you a minute to try and recall…
Don’t worry, this is an equally embarrassing question for most of us.
But you really should check the pressures at least once a month, or say every second time you fill up with fuel, because having them set to the manufacturer’s recommendations (you’ll find these on a placard in your car-door opening, in the owner’s manual, or even via Google) is more important than you might think.
If your vehicle is running with uneven pressures, or too little air in all four, you’re not allowing the tyres to maintain optimal grip with the road, and this means your car could react unpredictably or even dangerously in a sudden stop or evasive-action situation.
Think of it as trying to drive a trolley - with one wobbly wheel. Or more.
In a less dramatic and happier fashion it can also improve your fuel economy and lessen the wear of your tyres; saving you money in both cases.
With modern service-station air pumps checking and pumping your tyres is easy.
It’s as simple as unscrewing the valve cap on each tyre, attaching the pump nozzle firmly and then setting the required pressure and watching as it’s achieved.
And if you’ve got a spare tyre, don’t forget to check the pressure on that as well, because it’s going to be about as much use as a phone with no battery if it’s flat when something goes wrong.
Shifting that spare tyre
This is one of those tasks we’re simply not asked to do often these days, thanks to improvements in tyre technology and the advent, on some cars, of run-flat tyres, which use super-stiff sidewalls to allow you to drive to the nearest repair centre, even after you’ve had a puncture.
A few short decades ago, this kind of tech only existed in fairy tales and James Bond movies.
Yes, it’s easy to call for help, but Australia is a big place, and sometimes the nearest help can be some distance away.
If you can put up with having slightly dirty hands, there’s also something strangely yet undeniably enjoyable about doing such a seemingly significant task on your own.
It’s a bit like a 21st-century version of making fire.
Any car that comes with a spare tyre will provide a car jack, a tyre spanner and instructions, and the basic process is fairly simple.
Apply the jack to the indicated point of the car’s underbody (look for a diagram on the jack or in the manual), wind it up until most of the weight is off the tyre and then undo the wheel nuts.
Do not, at this stage, or any stage, lie under the car, because this is unwise.
Once the nuts are loose, jack the car up to the point where the tyre is no longer touching the ground, remove the wheel and replace it with the spare - you will need some muscles for the lifting, but not Schwarzenegger size, before tightening the nuts again.
It might be worth checking before a disaster happens whether you, and your spanner, are up to the job, because most modern mechanics use air guns to do up wheel nuts, it’s quicker and easier, and this can lead to them being very tight indeed.
You might need to use your foot on the spanner, and apply your body weight, in some cases.
A lot of people seem to find that swearing loudly helps as well.
Be aware that your car might be provided with only a space-saver spare, rather than a full-size one.
Do not be alarmed, but do be aware that they will make your car feel strange to drive, and you should not exceed 80km/h with one fitted. Ever.
The shopping trolley with a dodgy wheel analogy comes to mind again.
Other cars, with no spare tyres, provide puncture repair kits, which basically blow goo into the effected tyre to reinflate it enough to hopefully get you to help.
Time for a change
The days when you needed to change the oil on your car every 5000km, or at least pay someone in murky blue overalls to do so - and to check the level every time you filled up with fuel, are far behind us, with modern engines, and improved lubricants, pushing out intervals beyond the 20,000km mark.
The idea of the full-service station, where keen youngsters would check your oil and top you up in between worrying over getting a date to the formal, were put to bed forever by these technological advances.
But it is still worth checking whether your car is using a lot of oil, and it’s incredibly easy to do.
Think of it as giving your car’s engine a regular ECG, which is better than waiting for the cardiac event of having an Engine or Oil light come up on the dash (if that does happen, don’t ignore it; go immediately to your dealer).
The older your car, the more important it is.
It’s here where the dipstick makes its appearance.
It’s the tall, ring-pull like device, which looks a bit like a shepherd’s crook and sticks out of your engine.
It’s often quite brightly coloured in a way that suggests it’s for emergency use only, but that’s not the case.
It’s bright so you can find it, and use it.
To check the oil levels are correct you simply pull it out, give it a wipe on a bit of old rag or waste paper and then stick it in again, hold for a count of two, and then pull it out and look where the wet mark is on the stick.
Usually you’ll see an E for Empty (people often think the E stands for 'Enough'. It doesn’t…) and F for Full, and as long as you’re not near the Empty you’re good to go.
Properly inflated tyres are important, of course, but if those tyres are balding, or lacking the correct amount of tread, then they’ll still be a potential danger, particularly in wet weather.
Picture a bar of soap in a wet shower, only more perilous.
Those grooves you see on your tyres are designed to shift water away from your nice, sticky rubber surface when it rains, and if they can’t do it properly then you lose grip and start to aquaplane; basically sliding along the surface water on the road like an ice cube on a card.
Tyres with the appropriate amount of grip do a great job during wet weather, of course (although some are better than others, which is why you should never scrimp on this area), but once they start to go bald, they don’t do it as well.
Modern tyres come with wear-replacement indicators, which are self-explanatory to use once you find them on the rubber, but it’s easy enough to check the tread depth yourself.
A depth of 1.5mm is the absolute minimum legal requirement, and means you’re near replacement time, while companies like Dunlop recommend a more sensible 4mm of tread.
Keeping your cool/Keep your fluids up
Cars of old used to overheat and blow a gasket - a phrase that entered popular parlance because it was once so common in cars - but is now a rarity.
Today’s cars, of course, overheat about as often as the Antarctic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need fluids.
Coolant is your car’s friend.
It’s what sloshes around your radiator keeping your car from overheating, and in chillier climates, like those found in other countries, and Canberra, anti-freeze also allows you to survive cold-morning starts.
Again, with modern engine technology, you’re unlikely to run out of it regularly, unless there’s something seriously wrong, but it pays to check, at the same times as you’re checking your oil levels.
If your car is using too much of the Hulk-coloured fluid, check with your dealer, because it means your engine is overheating. Australia’s weather conditions can be problematic for this.
To check your coolant level, check the level through the side of the coolant bottle, where there is usually a mark for full and empty.
Again, coolant/anti-freeze is generally available at your local service station, which used to sell the stuff by the gallon.
Originally published on Fairfax Media on 14th November 2016.