CAR CLINIC | Just bought a used car? Then follow these pre-owned basics

23 November 2022 - 10:04 By Gerrit Burger
subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now
Preventive maintenance will save you a great deal in the long run.
Preventive maintenance will save you a great deal in the long run.
Image: welcomia / 123rf

So you have taken possession of that used car you dreamed about. Whether it came from a dealer or a private seller, it is now yours for better or worse. You paid a lot of money for it, and you are hoping it will give you good service for many years to come. Here are a few things you can (and should) do without delay to increase your chances of a long and happy partnership.  

The very first thing I would recommend is to study the owner's manual. Many queries which technical assistance sites receive from car owners have answers contained in the owner's manual. With a used car, the booklet might no longer be in the glove compartment, but it is often possible to download it as a document on the internet.

Sections in the manual which merit careful scrutiny include: 

  • Any safety-related information. An example would be the warning not to park the car over long grass when the catalytic converter is hot after a trip, because the temperatures reached in a catalytic converter are high enough to start a grass fire. You don't want to have your car go up in flames and the insurance company afterwards reminding you of the manufacturer's warning.  
  • Information on what to do when the remote unlocking feature for the doors malfunctions. Sometimes there is a secret way to still open a door, and this may rescue you in a desperate situation.
  • Specifications for engine and transmission oil are vitally important, and so are tyre size and recommended pressures. At least you should know where to find this information when you need it. The same goes for the exact meanings of the warning lights that may appear on the dashboard. We all hope we will never see a warning light popping up while we are driving along, but Murphy's Law has not been repealed. When the brake sign lights up, for instance, we want to know where to look to see if it is low brake fluid (requiring immediate investigation) or a glitch in the ABS (which is probably not a code red emergency).

Having familiarised yourself with the owner's manual, the next thing to look at would be the engine fluids and filters. Bear in mind that good oil is expensive these days, as are new filters. The average owner, when planning to offload his car on the second hand market shortly, will be chary of spending any money on the vehicle, except for absolute necessities. That is human nature. So examine the engine oil on the dipstick carefully. Dark brown or black oil, or a lower than acceptable oil level, coupled with a grime-covered oil filter, indicate an oil and filter change as soon as possible. Stick to the manufacturer's recommendation on oil, and buy a reputable brand of air and oil filter. Cheap oil or filters is false economy, no matter how highly some “expert” might recommend it.

An engine's fluid levels should be checked frequently during the first couple of weeks of ownership, to establish a pattern of loss or consumption. Fluid loss means a leak exists somewhere, which should be investigated forthwith. Gear oil presents its own challenges. There seems to be a trend to eliminate oil changes on manual transmissions, and this is exactly the sort of trend that a short-term owner will embrace enthusiastically. From an engineering point of view, I regard it as negligence, pure and simple. Buyers of used cars with traditional manual gearboxes should accept that the gear oil has never been changed (at most checked, and then only under duress). Ask a workshop to drain the gearbox and refill with the oil specified in the owner's manual, preferably supplied by you.

On cars with semi-automatic, manumatic, dual-clutch, Constantly Variable, or torque converter automatic transmissions, the gear oil regime is vastly more complex, demanding and expensive. (That's why I would be extremely wary when buying such a vehicle second hand.) When you do acquire a car with one of these transmissions, I recommend that you get a reputable gearbox specialist to service it asap.

Fuel filters on modern cars are much longer-lasting (and expensive) than the basic little inline filters of the past, but ultimately they also clog up. Examine the one on your newly-purchased vehicle to gauge the age of the dust and road grime on it.  

The next thing to examine is the condition of the radiator coolant, another item on which easy-come, easy-go, owners like to economise. The coolant should show the colour of the right concentration of antifreeze, without murkiness or a surface layer of oiliness, and especially without the slightest trace of rust. Low level could indicate a leak or simply neglect . . . and you don't know which is worse.   

The last thing I would attend to urgently  is the condition of the cambelt on cars with belt-driven camshafts. You absolutely don't want that belt to snap or jump a tooth. Unless you have verifiable, watertight proof of when it was last replaced, have it replaced at once if it is past the stipulated mileage interval.

subscribe Just R20 for the first month. Support independent journalism by subscribing to our digital news package.
Subscribe now