Ever since I was age 14 in 1959, I have loved cars. My dad used to let me drive the family 1952 Ford station wagon (a Woody) up and down our driveway just to practice with the clutch and gas. My grandfather had a 1940 Chevrolet pickup with the starter button on the floor that I got to drive on back roads (with him) until I got my license the day I turned 16. Dad used to change his own oil and spark plugs on the old Plymouth and Chevy we had before the Ford. So I was interested and paying attention to cars even in those early years.
My first car, a 1953 VW that I bought in 1962 for $300, barely ran; it had 130,000 miles on it and was worn out. I parked it in the back yard and rebuilt it slowly over the course of a year, one component at a time, and finally took the engine (in a box) to a mechanic to have it rebuilt. It was great, and I thought it was a sports car, so I drove it to death in less than a year (broken crankshaft on Pacheco Pass).
As you can see, I had an interest and some kind of aptitude for messing around with cars, and although I didn’t really know much, I did know that I wanted my cars maintained so that they would run well and be mechanically sound and safe to drive. I put seat belts in all of my cars – I remember drilling holes in the VW floor for the bolts. I installed and made my daughters use the primitive car seats and seat belts that I installed in the van/camper conversion (another VW) that we bought in 1970. The “bus,” as we called it, had an air-cooled engine that required a valve adjustment every 1500 miles, and I learned to do that myself after a bad experience with the dealer. I also learned to change plugs and points and work on the brakes.
Over the years I gained a lot of experience with cars. We had a 1963 Plymouth Valiant (great car), 1960 & 1969 Dodge Dart, 1978 Volvo, 1982 Nissan Stanza, 1986 Dodge Colt Vista and now a 1991 Toyota Previa (another great car) and 1991 Jeep Cherokee 4 WD.
The Previa has 250k miles and still runs great. I change the oil every 3,000 miles and put platinum plugs in it. Same for the Jeep: with 168k I have occasionally had to work on small items that wear out, and I have a reliable local mechanic that I use for the messy stuff.
My advice to you about your car is this:
Choose your car with some serious thought to how it will age and what it will take to maintain it. I check Consumer Reports new and used car information. For the Toyota Previa and the Jeep, I interviewed mechanics before I bought them in order to know what they thought of the vehicle models and what their experience of working on them was.
Make maintaining your vehicle’s critical systems for reliability and safety a priority:
- Oil and lube: Get the oil and oil filter changed; be sure you are replacing with the correct type of oil for your vehicle. Have moving parts lubed.
- Lights: Check headlights, brake lights, and backup, signal, emergency and interior lights. Have a friend walk around the vehicle to confirm each is working.
- Battery: A corroded or loose connection to the battery can leave you stranded. Check battery terminals for corrosion and tightness. Keep the correct-sized wrench in your vehicle in case you need to tighten the terminals while on the road. Learn how to clean battery posts and terminals; a wire battery post brush can be bought at an auto parts store. Badly corroded terminals may need to be replaced.
- Brakes: if your brake pedal or parking brake is mushy, low to the floor or is making funny noises, have someone knowledgeable check your brake system immediately. If your brakes are making noise, have them checked.
- Tires: There are a lot of high quality tires to choose from. Check Consumer Reports for results of their road tests for tires. Quality tires are expensive, but are worth the extra cost for the safety of your family. Be aware of the condition of your tires; buy a tire gauge and a tread depth gauge, and use them regularly. Be sure you carry a good spare tire and jack in your vehicle.
- Exhaust: The exhaust system is a very important part of your vehicle, if it is loud, rattling, or if you smell exhaust fumes in the car, get it checked and repaired immediately.
- Seat belts: Our seat belts saved my daughter and I once; I am a believer. Be sure they are all working and that you understand your vehicle’s air bag warnings.
- Under the hood: Open the hood on your car periodically. In addition to checking battery terminals (#4 above) also check the belts. Are they cracked or worn? Have them replaced. Look at the hoses. Are they bulging or old-looking? Get them replaced. Check the air filter; replace it if dirt and debris are impeding airflow. Check the radiator’s overflow tank level, if it’s low, add the correct type of radiator fluid for you vehicle.
- Windshield: Check windshield wiper blades, especially before upcoming rain/snow seasons. Replace if they are worn, damaged, or not functioning properly. Make sure the windshield’s cleaning system is working properly.
- Warning systems: Pay attention to your vehicle’s warning lights, audible alarms or gauges that might indicate trouble; take them seriously.
A. Budget for periodic car maintenance. Look at your owner’s manual/maintenance schedule booklet. Don’t put maintenance off because you don’t want to spend the money – it only gets more expensive and more risky.
B. Learn to do some vehicle maintenance and repairs yourself. (Check your vehicle’s warranty for any restrictions.) Your local auto supply store is a resource and may be able to offer advice. Friends and neighbors might be knowledgeable. Take a class at your community college. Look for related books at libraries and bookstores; auto supply stores may carry manuals for your make and model. Check online for auto repair resources.
C. Drive your car gently – don’t race the engine and don’t warm it up (just drive slowly for the first mile or two). Drive so you don’t have to over-use your brakes: anticipate stops you know about, what cars ahead will do, and when lights will change. Downshift on hills (up or down) and use overdrive appropriately.
D. Be aware of how much insurance you have, and give some thought to how much collision coverage you really need for an older vehicle.