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Automobile Longevity Tips
A Guide to Helping Your Car Last a Long Time

By Bryan Kelly

A good friend, who owns a properly maintained, ’93 Mazda MPV minivan with 70,000 miles, asked a question the other day: “Is there anything I can do in the way of preventative maintenance, beyond its normal servicing, to make my car last?” Hence the reason for this article.

Here are some tips in response to that question, based on my years of experience as a professional mechanic. The sections represent habitually problematic areas, such as the engine, cooling system, brakes, transmission, and tires. This does not replace your car’s normal maintenance schedule, but can be used as a loose guide to help you decide if your car needs further maintenance or repair. These tips will apply to almost any car on the road, old and new. Preventative maintenance, common sense, and high-quality parts are ways to keep your vehicle on the road longer and in a safe condition.

Change your oil, repeat ad nauseum. Do it every 3,000 miles and use quality oil and filters. If you have any leaks, fix them. To your engine, an oil leak is like a getting a cut and letting the blood flow out. The oil is the engine’s blood, so any loss is critical. They don’t call them “dipsticks” for nothing, so learn how to read yours.

Change the coolant at the first 1500- mile check and every two to three years thereafter. It’s also a good idea to replace the thermostat and its seal at the same time using factory parts. When thermostats fail, it always seems to be at an inappropriate time, usually when you’re dressed up for a date.

Another sneaky place for a problem to occur is in the radiator. It takes place gradually, over a long period of time (two to three years), and is easy to miss. It’s the slow build-up of deposits on the inside of the radiator’s cooling tubes, kind of like the plaque build up on your teeth. Unfortunately, this build up is on the inside of the radiator where it can’t be seen, which means the radiator will have to be taken out, disassembled, and the tubes cleaned to remove the deposits. This is called a rod and core job.

Other components to check are the cooling fans, water pump, and hoses; make sure they are in good operating condition.

Other than normal maintenance and repair, the brake fluid should be changed every year. Why? It absorbs moisture. Over time it can cause rust, oxidation, and sludge to build up. A common practice is to use a turkey baster and suck the brake fluid directly out of the master cylinder’s reservoir, then replace what’s removed with new fluid. However, the best way, is to bleed the entire system. After opening all four bleed screws, use the master cylinder to pump all the old fluid out. Replace with fresh brake fluid and bleed the system of air. If you can’t do this yourself, a garage might charge you extra for this second method, but it’s worth it in the long run.

Change the transmission lubricating oil at the first 1500 mile check, and a least every 50,000 miles thereafter. Doing it sooner won’t hurt a thing. Don’t run it low (meaning don’t let it leak). A common area for a leak is at the tail housing seal where the driveshaft plugs in. Another place is the fill and drain plugs and occasionally at the joints where the transmission housings are bolted together, though this is rare.

If your automatic transmission pan has a drain plug, changing the fluid every 20,000 to 30,000 miles is a good idea. Most of them don’t have a drain plug, so it needs to have an automatic transmission service done. This consists of pulling the pan, cleaning or replacing the screen (if it has one), and renewing the fluid that was drained. This should be done every 50,000 miles if not before. Your owner’s manual will always be your guide. Learn to check the fluid level, and be able to add some if it’s necessary. Automatics are normally checked with the engine running, either in “park” or “neutral.”

Keep the air in them; this is important and often overlooked. If your car pulls to one side or another, it easily could be from something as simple as low air pressure in one tire. Checking tire pressure regularly is a good habit. And tire rotation maintains even wear, prolonging tire life. If abnormal wear patterns are seen, it’s a good indication that your car has an alignment problem or worn out parts. Now’s the time to have the front-end components checked for wear. If your tires wear evenly and your car does not pull one way or the other, your alignment is probably okay.

I’ve spent a lot of my professional career working on Japanese cars and have found their original equipment parts to be high in quality and extremely durable. This may or may not be true for your make and model, but the highest quality parts you can afford go a long way toward ensuring you get a good repair. Give your car a personality and treat it with the respect it deserves. It will be a faithful companion, and regular maintenance will ensure it stays healthy and has a long life.