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A Guide to Basic Car Maintenance

Our cars are very important to us, and like anything we value, we need to take care of them. Looking after your car properly will keep it running as smoothly as possible, and putting a little time into it could save you a lot of money further down the line. As well as potentially helping you avoid expensive repair costs, maintaining your car can strengthen its reliability and performance. It can also protect its resale value, as a car that’s been shown plenty of love is worth more than one that’s been neglected. So, what can you do to maintain your car? 

Read the manual

It might sound obvious, but lots of us forget about our manuals. Yet they contain all the information you need as to how to properly maintain your car, and when to perform certain maintenance tasks. It also shows you what all the various warning lights mean, and these indicators can help you recognise any issues that arise. From check-engine lights to brake, coolant and oil warnings, you can figure out what you’re able to deal with yourself and when you need professional help. 

Top up your fluids

There are many fluids your car needs, and it’s important to check these regularly and top them up as required. This should be done for you when you take your car in for service, but keeping an eye on them yourself will help your car run smoother for longer. The six main fluids you need to check are: 

Engine oil

The components in your car’s engine spin round thousands of times every minute, and engine oil keeps them all properly lubricated. This makes it one of the most important fluids in your car. Most cars have a dipstick with indicators on it that tell you where the oil level should be. All you have to do is wipe the stick clean with a cloth or paper towel, dip it back in and take it out again. If the oil level’s below where it should be on the indicator, remove the oil cap that’s usually next to the dipstick, and top it up using the right grade of oil - your manual will tell you what this is. 

Coolant

Also known as antifreeze, coolant is very important as it prevents your engine from overheating. The fluid works by absorbing the heat your engine produces, and dissipating it through the radiator. If the level gets too low, your engine can overheat and become seriously damaged. It’s really easy to check the level visually, as the coolant’s reservoir will have an indicator showing you the minimum and maximum levels. If you need to top it up, it’s vital that you allow your engine to completely cool first, as hot, pressurised coolant can spurt out and burn you. Check your manual for which coolant to use, and mix it 50/50 with water when topping up. 

Brake fluid

Modern cars have hydraulic brakes, with fluid connecting them to your pedal. If there isn’t enough fluid, you might be able to feel that your brakes are a little spongy, but you can also check the reservoir under your bonnet for the level. There’ll probably be an indicator on the reservoir, but if not the fluid should come to within about half an inch of the cap. When you’re taking care of your brake fluid, make sure nothing else gets into the reservoir, as even a tiny bit of dirt can affect the performance of your brakes. 

Power steering fluid

Some modern cars have electric power steering, but lots of cars use a hydraulic system. To check the level of fluid, there’ll either be a marking on the reservoir, or a dipstick you can use in the same way as when you check your oil. If it needs topping up, find out which fluid your car requires in your manual, as using the wrong one will damage your steering. If you find that you keep on having to fill up your power steering fluid, there might be a leak that you need to address. 

Clutch fluid

If you drive an automatic, you don’t need to worry about clutch fluid. But if you have a manual, there should be a clutch fluid reservoir somewhere near the one for your brake fluid. It might be the case that your brake fluid’s suitable to use as clutch fluid too, but either way, all you have to do is remove the cap and top up the level so it sits between the markers on the reservoir. 

Windscreen washer fluid

Running out of screen wash might not hurt your car in a mechanical sense, but doing so could compromise your safety behind the wheel. Being able to see clearly through your windscreen is obviously vital, but checking the level of your screen wash isn’t quite so obvious. Typically, the only way to know you’ve run out is when nothing comes out of the nozzles, as you can only see the reservoir’s cap. You can buy ready-mixed or concentrated screen wash, which you simply pour in until the bottle runs out or the level reaches the cap. If you have concentrated wash, read the bottle to see how much to mix with water at different times of year, as you’ll need more concentrate in winter to prevent freezing. 

Look after your windscreen

Speaking of windscreens, they’re a crucial part of your car’s structure and safety, as well as your view out to the road, and they need maintaining in a number of ways. Firstly, whether a huge lorry comes hurtling past in the other direction, or you have to drive along a road that’s been repaired, chips can be unavoidable. While inconvenient, it’s best to deal with them as quickly as possible, so they don’t turn into cracks. It can actually be illegal to drive with large cracks, and they’re more expensive to repair than small chips. 

Secondly, it’s not a good idea to pour boiling water onto a frozen windscreen in the winter. This could cause the glass to crack, worsen any chips or cracks you already have, or even explode. Plan to get up a little earlier before work and warm up your car’s engine before using de-icer and screen wash to get rid of any snow or ice. 

Your windscreen wipers can go through a lot during the course of a year, whether it’s icy winters, autumnal sap or incessant springtime rain. Replacing them will get rid of any smearing and squeaking, keeping your windscreen clean and preserving your sanity. You should also clean the inside of your windscreen, using a clean cloth and a proper glass cleaner. 

Clean your car

That leads us nicely on to the overall issue of cleaning your car. This is a big part of basic car maintenance, and it’s easy to spot the difference between a car that’s been regularly cleaned and one that hasn’t. The inside and outside of your car are equally important, and can help to prolong the lifespan of your car. 

Exterior

Whether blasting it with a hosepipe or using a bucket and sponge, rinsing off any dirt and mud is the first step in tackling the outside of your car. Then, use a bucket with car wash and a grit guard to wipe down the glass and body, preferably with a woolen mitt which absorbs dirt better and protects your paint. Take on your tyres with a specialised wheel cleaner, and give your alloys a good scrub with a wire brush. After rinsing off the soap, use a chamois or microfibre cloth to dry your car, before finishing off with a wax and polish. To bring back your car’s showroom shine, try a detailing system with a clay block and spray, which will get rid of any stubborn contaminants and make your paint feel as smooth as glass. 

Interior

Moving on to the inside of your car, it’s a good idea to open your boot and doors to help any dust and dirt escape while you’re giving it a spruce. Take out your floor mats and shake them off before giving them a hoover, and a going over with carpet cleaner if required. Handheld vacuums are brilliant for getting rid of any dirt on your seats and floor, while you can also use upholstery cleaner or stain remover on your seats. Dashboard sprays and polishes are best for restoring your interior to former glories, although you could use a wet wipe if you’re stuck. If you’ve got a leather steering wheel, handbrake and gear stick, specialist leather cleaners are advisable for keeping everything soft and supple.

What else can I check? 

Tyres

Your tyres can last a long time depending on your driving style, but it’s still worth checking your tread depth between services to ensure you stay on the right side of the law. The minimum depth in the UK is 1.6mm, and you can get a fine of up to £2,500 and three points on your license per illegal tyre. If all four tyres are illegal, that’s a £10,000 fine, 12 points and a driving ban, so it’s well worth staying on top of. While checking your tread depth, you can also look out for other damage to your tyres, such as rips in the tyre wall and whether you’ve picked up any nails. When it comes to tyre pressure, you can do this at home or at a petrol station, and most cars show you the required pressures on the inside of the driver’s door. 

Lights

It’s much quicker to get another person to help you when checking that all your lights and indicators work. You can do it on your own though, using something like a garage door or windows behind you to see if your brakes lights are working. It’s quite easy to change lights or fuses yourself, and your car manual will show you how to do so, as well as which bulbs to use.