CAR CLINIC | How to maintain your car when money is tight

18 January 2023 - 09:54
By Gerrit Burger
Changing the engine oil and oil filter is probably the most popular point of entry into the world of automotive DIY.
Image: nongasimo / 123rf Changing the engine oil and oil filter is probably the most popular point of entry into the world of automotive DIY.

The average South African motorist is going through tough times financially. We are all aware of it, especially in this endless month of Januworry. How can we save money on the upkeep of the faithful family chariot without neglecting it?

The only way is by doing as much as possible of the maintenance ourselves. Modern cars generally require less maintenance than those of 40 or 50 years ago.

But low maintenance doesn't mean no maintenance; there are still regular servicing and inspections to be done and many of these the owner can do himself or herself with basic equipment and tools.

It must be stated that while a vehicle is under a factory warranty, only the dealer is allowed to do work on it. Manufacturers are  strict about this, and to a certain extent one can understand why.   

Electronic components, pervasive on late-model cars, can very easily be damaged if a half-baked repairman decides to tamper with them. That is true for the life of the car. But for other, lower-level maintenance tasks not involving electronics, the restriction falls away once the factory warranty expires.  

So let us assume your vehicle is out of warranty, and you want to save money by doing the easy maintenance jobs yourself. What can you do without fear of getting in over your head?

Here are a few things:

Changing the engine oil and oil filter is probably the most popular point of entry into the world of automotive DIY. It is a straightforward job: locate the engine sump, undo the drain plug, usually situated at the rear of the sump, let the oil drain into a suitable container which can be taken to an oil disposal drop-off point.

If the filter is of the cartridge type, you will unscrew that next, having made provision to catch the slight oil spillage when you remove the filter. Fit a new filter, replace the sump plug (endowed with a new washer), refill the sump with the stipulated quantity of new oil of the preferred viscosity and quality as per the owner's handbook.

It really is as easy as it sounds. A few tips from an old hand might not be amiss, though:

  • The best time to drain the oil is when the engine is hot, like immediately after a trip. Oil flows more easily then. (It also scalds your hands more easily, beware)    
  • The filter can be a beast to remove, especially when access is restricted, or muscle man tightened it last time. Various tools are available. If all else fails, a screwdriver can be punched through the old filter to unscrew it.                       
  • A new washer on the sump plug will prevent a leak. Get the first new one from the agents, keep it as a sample to buy subsequent washers from a spares outlet. They differ from car to car.   
  • Tighten the new oil filter by hand only after lightly oiling the exposed face of the rubber seal. Tighten the filter about 240° after the seal contacts the flange on the engine. (Just about achievable by the average person) 
  • At the conclusion of the job, start the engine, watch the oil pressure warning light go out and let the engine idle for a minute or so. Switch off and check for leaks at the sump plug and filter seal.                                            

Another thing the DIY owner can do is replace the air filter element on the engine and perhaps, after gaining a little experience, the fuel filter and the cabin filter. The fuel filter sometimes has flimsy plastic clips which fasten it to the fuel line. Clean them well with something like Q20 and never use force when squeezing them. If one of them breaks, a simple job turns into an infuriating hassle.

The third area where DIY can make a difference to the upkeep of a vehicle is in the wide field of inspection. Regularly check all the fluid levels on the engine: oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid, coolant and, if possible, transmission fluid. Check the tyre pressures, headlights and indicators.

Inspect all the rubber boots on electrical connections in the engine compartment and the dust covers on the CV joints. Replace cracked, torn or hardened rubber boots without delay. They serve a vital function by keeping out moisture and dirt.

In this way you can eliminate most of the post-warranty “minor services”, only visiting the workshop for clearly defined jobs which are beyond the scope of the home mechanic. “Major services”, comprising things such as cambelt and serpentine belt replacement, should best be left to a reputable workshop.

The final area where DIY can make an appreciable difference is in the preservation of rubber and vinyl components.  For example door and windscreen rubbers, interior vinyl surfaces, exterior trim, tyre sidewalls. Our harsh African sun is cruel to these components and often they are the first things to give away the age of a vehicle.

Their life and lustre can be greatly improved by treating them twice a year with a preservative and protectant. I have found Autoglym's “Rubber and Vinyl Care” an excellent product in this department.

Support independent journalism by subscribing to the Sunday Times. Just R20 for the first month.