By MJ Plaster
“A car is the most expensive purchase most Americans make. More Americans buy cars than buy houses. They feel like their car is a member of the family,” said Johnny Whitaker, retired auto-industry insider and consultant. He shares his top 15 tips below.
- Read the owner’s manual – “I’ll bet you’ve never taken the owner’s manual out of your glove compartment,” asked Whitaker. “This is the No. 1 mistake car owners make. Everything you need to know is in that manual, and you can save a fortune on car maintenance if you’ll just read the manual and do [with a few exceptions below] what it says.”
When he set up Cadillac service departments at dealerships across the country, he saw mistakes everywhere that would have been avoided if car owners had read the manual.
What Everyone ‘Knows’ About Car Maintenance Might Be Wrong
Whitaker disagrees with some ‘conventional wisdom.’ He made no bones about saying that what he says might differ from conventional wisdom, but he’s not telling you anything that he doesn’t do with his own cars. For example:
- Oil Changes – Today’s manufacturers often suggest oil changes every 5,000 miles. Some new cars come with one or more years’ worth of free oil changes. “If you were a car manufacturer, would you want to eat the cost of oil, filters and labor every 3,000 or every 5,000 miles,” Whitaker asked. “I still change mine every 3,000 miles,” he added, “because the only change is that manufacturers are saving millions by raising the mileage.”
- Oil – “Never, under any circumstances, use 10W40 oil. It turns to a gel under heat.” He uses 10W50 year-round.
- Tuneups֪ – When I asked how often to get a tuneup, he said, “What’s THAT? What century are you living in?” Modern cars don’t require what used to be known as a tune up—tweaking the engine. Who knew!
- Tire rotation – “I always rotate tires back to front, not in the X formation. Once a tire starts to wear, you will not correct it no matter what you do. If you rotate in the X formation, you’re changing the direction the tire normally goes, and it could ‘sling a ply,’ which could cause more uneven wear. Tire places are in the business of selling tires, not rotating them.”
Common Car Maintenance Mistakes and Assumptions
- Car vibration – When a car vibrates, people assume it needs a front-end alignment. “It’s usually the wheels, tires and/or balance,” said Whitaker.
- Oil filters – People often try to save money by changing the oil without changing the filter. Whitaker’s standard reply: “Well, how about you just save your bath water, and bathe in that for a week?” He also cautioned against using generic filters because they can cause problems.
- Brakes –Most people think that when they hear a squeal as they apply the brakes, they need new brakes. That squeal indicates a glaze on the brake pads, and it does not mean you need new brakes. If you hear the squeal when you’re not touching the brake, and it goes away when you hit the brake, that’s the warning indicator that you need new brake pads.
- Brake pads – “Spend some money on brake pads. Don’t cut this corner. At a dealer, the standards are enforced, and the warranties are honored,” said Whitaker.
- Leaks – Did you know that leaks can be deadly? He said, “Think about it. What happens when oil hits a hot manifold? It can catch fire. Take care of leaks.”
- Air conditioning – If it sounds like your compressor has died, your air conditioner might just need some coolant and/or you might need some new hoses.
Tips for Saving Money on Car Maintenance
With labor costs running around $100 an hour, here are a few simple preventive steps:
- Air Conditioning – Run your air conditioner during the winter once a month for 20 minutes to lubricant through the system.
- Windshield washer fluid – It’ll cost you an hour of labor plus parts when the tank is full of fluid but it doesn’t spray on your windshield. Add 1 teaspoon of powdered laundry detergent to each tank of fluid.
- Gas – If your car requires premium, use it. Shell and Amoco have an engine-cleaning additive in their premium gas.
- Windshield wipers – When you think you need to change your windshield wipers, try this first: If the wipers are still soft, spray a little household ammonia on a paper towel and clean the wipers. Then clean your windshield with some ammonia to remove road grime.
Whitaker said, “Unlike home maintenance, you can’t use a calendar for car maintenance. Treat your car with care, but don’t go looking for trouble [like flushing fluids] unless there is a problem. When you try to fix a nonexistent problem, they will break something 90 percent of the time.”