Old cars, old tricks

Posted on Jun 30 2011

One of the quirks of the Commonwealth is that most people need a car to get around, but the economy is always so shaky that people who would think nothing of spending $50,000 on a car in the mainland often opt to drive an island-beater. Nursing old cars is a way of life. This is one realm where the CNMI is ahead of the mainland, since precarious times there mean that people are hanging onto their cars longer. In fact, the median age of U.S. cars on the road is approaching 10 years old!

So although big picture economic stuff is worth heeding, I’m often more interested in the practical, hands-on things that we face in everyday life. One of the biggest expenses most of us face is cars. Well, at least we can take an active approach to managing our cars; it’s a little slice of economics that gives us a say in things. With a lot of other stuff, we’re simply at the mercy of the economic universe.

Because of tough times, people I know who didn’t used to pay attention to their cars are now taking an active interest in keeping them healthy. Since I’m a pilot, hence a stickler for methodical checklists, I started drafting a checklist for making a “weekly check” for my cars. For many people this is utterly obvious, but if you’re trying to get a distant friend or relative up to speed on this stuff, a simple checklist can be of use. This is not an exhaustive list of everything a car needs, but, instead, hits the highlights of the easiest things to check regularly:

1). Check tires for inflation and condition.

2). Glance at the pavement under the car for signs of leaks.

3). Under the hood check (a) battery terminals for corrosion, (b) coolant reservoir for the level and color of the fluid, (c) engine oil level, (d) transmission oil level if it’s an automatic transmission, or clutch fluid level if it’s got a visible reservoir, (e) power steering fluid level, (f) brake fluid level, (g) the level of the windshield washing fluid, (h) the condition of the fan belts or serpentine belt, (i) the condition of anything that seems to be leaking, (j) the basic condition of hoses and ignition wires, and (k) the general condition of anything else, meaning, just a quick look around.

Incidentally, all the stuff under the hood can be covered with a “flow” pattern, such as proceeding left-to-right under the hood and checking things as one encounters them. It’s easy. And easier still now that many fluid levels are easily seen in sight fields in plastic reservoirs. On that note, I don’t gratuitously top off brake fluid, since it normally declines as the brakes wear.

One little bugaboo is automatic transmission fluid, which is commonly checked when the car is running. A running engine can ensnare long hair, neckties, or whatever, and it’s probably not a task you want to assign to just anyone in the household. So in some cases this task is better put on a monthly basis. I’ve got relatives who probably only get it checked once a year, namely, when I’m in town visiting.

Most old cars are going to have leaks or seepage. The secret is to get to know the leaks so they can be monitored.

The biggest joker I’ve seen is cooling systems. Modern engines are usually aluminum and they’ll cook pretty easily, so I won’t accept a leak in the cooling system. Fortunately, cars often throw off warning signs before they go thermodynamic on us. Green coolant will turn a funky brown when it’s time for attention. Hoses, if gently squeezed, will reveal internal cracks by a crusty feeling. Water pumps are designed to “weep” fluid before they conk out entirely.

The second biggest joker I’ve seen is brakes. People will often put off brake service to the point where the pads have worn down and are gouging the rotors, thus turning a $200 job into a nice, juicy, $1,000 ordeal.

Third joker: Timing belts. Cars that have them typically have replacement intervals of 60,000 miles or so. It’s critical maintenance.

Modern cars are so picky about the fluids they require that I spent an afternoon rounding up our various manuals and listing the various fluids they take. That’s how boring my life is. I keep the garage stocked accordingly. For example, one of our cars takes 0W-40 synthetic oil. Another takes 5W-20. And yet another takes 10W-30. Coolant specifications are, likewise, also entirely different for each of our cars. Go figure.

Saipan has some excellent auto parts stores, and it’s always a good idea to get on a first name basis with a good parts guy. And I’ve never been a price-shopper on this note; I’ve always preferred to have a good relationship with a place I trust, and I’ve never regretted that approach.

[I]Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at [URL=”http://tropicaled.com”]TropicalEd.com[/URL]. Ed is a pilot, economist, and writer. He holds a degree in economics from UCLA and is a former U.S. naval officer. His column runs every Friday. [/I]

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