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Maintenance Tips for Old Cars: Avoid Costly Expenses

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Your old car can last many rewarding years when you take care of it properly.

Your old car can last many rewarding years when you take care of it properly.

There are many benefits to maintaining your old car. Treating it well with proper maintenance will lead to rewarding long-term ownership, saving you the expense of buying a new vehicle sooner than necessary.

I’ll tell you how I kept my 20-year-old car running as good as new and how it's good enough to last me another 100,000 miles.

Keep Up With Manufacturer's Maintenance Recommendations

Your car's user manual includes a schedule for maintaining certain things. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations. That helps prolong the use of your vehicle.

Here is a list of possible maintenance items:

  • Change oil and oil filter routinely.
  • Keep all fluids appropriately filled. That may be included with oil changes.
  • Replace spark plugs.
  • Replace coolant.
  • Check brake fluid.
  • Rotate tires as recommended by the tire manufacturer.
  • Check the tire pressure of all tires once a month and before long trips.
  • Don't forget the spare tire or donut; check its pressure too.
  • Other maintenance as needed per recommended schedule.

I have well over 100,000 miles already on my car. In the next section, I'll explain what I recently had done to be sure I'd get another 100,000 miles out of it.

Change Engine Timing-Belt After 100,000 Miles

The timing belt or chain connects the crankshaft to the camshaft. It controls the timing of the valves in an internal combustion engine.

There are two types of engines:

  1. Interference Engine:

    I have a car with an interference engine. If my timing belt should break while driving, the engine will be damaged and will need to be replaced. That's costly!

  2. Non-Interference Engine:

    Vehicles that don’t have an interference engine will not suffer much damage when the timing belt breaks. It will just stop running. The car will still need to be towed, but the repair would require only the replacement of the belt, not a whole new engine.

Check out your owner’s manual to see which type of engine you have. If you have an interference engine and have reached 100,000 miles, you should get the timing belt replaced before it breaks. If you don't have an interference engine, you still should plan to get the belt changed.

At least you can feel secure that you're not going to have problems with your engine dying on you suddenly due to a timing belt break and needing to be towed at some inconvenient time.

I decided it was time to get it done, and I brought my car to my local auto shop to avoid taking chances of blowing my engine.

How to Save on Labor

You can save future expenditures on labor by having several things done at the same time the timing belt is changed. I asked the mechanic to do all the following in one session:

  • Change all the belts
  • Change the water pump
  • Flush the cooling system

That will save money in the long run. Since the mechanic has to remove all the belts anyway to get to the timing belt, there is no extra labor charge for putting on new belts. One of them may be nearly ready to break someday, and they are not expensive if done along with the rest of the job.

If I needed the belt that powers the AC compressor later on, then I'd pay the costly labor again. Therefore, I may as well have all new belts now.

The same logic goes for the water pump. It would be costly to change the water pump if it ever should break down. However, while the belts are being replaced anyway, the cost of labor is already included.

Finally, it's only logical to have the cooling system flushed since they have to drain it to change the pump. There's no extra charge to do it along with the water pump replacement.

Things You Can Do Yourself

  • Change wipers when they are worn.
  • Vacuum the interior and clean leather and vinyl with a proper cleanser.
  • Maintain proper tire inflation (keep a handle gauge in your glove box).
  • Don't forget to check the pressure in the spare tire (donut).
  • Check all lights (inside and out) to be sure none are burnt out.

Use a Tankful of High-Octane Gas Once a Year

Once a year, fill up a full tank with high-octane gas. That will clean out gunk from pistons and the catalytic converter. These are two of the costliest things to repair and replace. Keeping them free of buildup helps keep the car running clean and more efficiently.

Why does this work? After all, high-octane does not burn hotter. It works because higher octane types of gasoline usually have more additives and better detergents that may help clean out buildup.

I have personal proof. My check engine light came on many years ago. My mechanic said it was my catalytic converter and it would cost $650 to replace. Today that cost could be $1,000.

I picked up a low-cost diagnostic scanner to read the check-engine diagnostic codes in the car's computer. I saw that he was telling me the truth. It was code P0420 referring to the catalytic converter. However, instead of having it replaced, I filled up with a tank of high-octane gas.

The check engine light never came back on, and it's already been seven years since then with no problems. Of course, the catalytic converter may indeed be damaged. If it is, you need a new one.

If the problem is a dirty catalytic converter, this method has worked for many people I know. Driving with one tank of high-octane gas has already helped me and several of my friends avoid needing to replace the catalytic converter.

Understanding the Catalytic Converter OBD Code P0420

Some cars have two catalytic converters, one on each side of the engine, known as bank 1 and bank 2. These function better because they heat up faster due to being close to the engine. The catalytic converter can only efficiently function after it heats up to a certain level.

There are two oxygen sensors for each catalytic converter, one before and one after. Two sensors are needed to compare if the proper air/fuel ratio is not achieved.

The sensor before (upstream of) the catalytic converter detects the air/fuel ratio in the exhaust, and the one after (downstream) detects the efficiency of the catalytic converter. Some vehicles have two converters, so you'd have four sensors in that case.

The power-train control module (PCM) compares the readings taken before and after each catalytic converter to determine if it's functioning efficiently.

When the efficiency is not within normal standards, that will result in a P0420 code (or P0430 for bank 2). Many other things can cause these errors, such as:

  1. Faulty wiring to the oxygen sensors can cause incorrect signals.
  2. A bad or erratic sensor could be giving false voltage readings.
  3. If too much unburned fuel gets into the catalytic converter, it could cause overheating beyond normal operating conditions.
  4. You might even have water in your gasoline.

It would help to rule these things out before spending money on an expensive catalytic converter replacement.

Water in the gasoline is an easy thing to determine. If you were always buying your gas from the same station, try switching brands before spending money on a new catalytic converter. The error code might clear after a while on its own.

Better yet, drive with a tank full of high-octane gas. That might clear things up since some high-octane fuels contain more detergents. That worked for me. I had gotten ten more years out of my car without having to buy a new catalytic converter after the first time the check engine light indicated that there was a problem.

Replace the Cabin Air Filter for More Comfort

Not many people know that the passenger cabin of many cars has an air filter. That gets dirty after several years and should be replaced.

You can find replacement cabin air filters that are even better than the standard ones installed in new cars. Some car manufacturers provide paper filters as a standard, but I suggest getting carbon filters when you replace them. I bought mine made by FRAM.

Replacing the cabin filter is a little tedious, but it's a job you can do yourself. With some cars, there are many screws and snaps to remove to get to the filter.

I did a Google search to find a YouTube video showing how to change the cabin filter in my car. You can find a "do-it-yourself" video for just about any make vehicle. Just do a Google search for "YouTube changing cabin air filter" and include your make of car.

Pick up the correct replacement filter for your particular car at any local auto parts store. You can also find the right one for your vehicle on Amazon. Then follow the YouTube video instructions that you found with your search.

My Personal Experience Changing the Cabin Filter

It took me an hour. I had to go back and view the video a second time while I was doing it.

Besides the screws, my car had many snaps that hold the dash in place, but every vehicle is different. I had to pull hard after removing the screws to get the dash dislodged from the snaps.

When I put it all back together, I forgot to replace a brace that goes across under the dash. I had to undo it all again to put the brace back in. Therefore, I suggest that you pay close attention to the video that deals with your car. Watch it a few times before you start.

In my case, the filters were not that dirty. I guess that's because I always have it set to "recycle" my cabin air. I prefer to do that rather than blowing in air from outside, which sucks in the fumes from other vehicles.

After I changed the cabin filter, I discovered I could leave the internal air recycle off since getting fresh air from the outside is better now with a new filter. I no longer smell the street fumes because the new filters I put in are carbon filters, definitely much better than the old paper filters that came with the car.

By the way, I had to replace two filters. Some cars only have one, so check your car's user manual before you buy new ones.

I noticed nothing prevents you from putting the filters in backward, so I paid close attention to the arrows showing the airflow direction. Don't make that mistake.

Repair Scratches Before They Rust for Long-Lasting Beauty

Body scratches tend to appear almost by magic. People brush up against your car in parking lots. People open doors next to you and hit your vehicle.

Even the weather has a lot to do with it. Hail, road gravel, you name it. There are rough elements in the air that put blemishes on your car's surface.

I found that over time, these blemishes and scratches grow more prominent and even rust. It's crucial to stop this from happening. One way is to use nail polish, but this shows up when viewed at an angle.

I found that Quixx makes a great scratch remover kit that includes the right grade of sandpaper and the right paint for your make and model of car. It works well and keeps the outside looking clean and fresh. You can find it at your local vehicle parts store or on Amazon.

Treat Your Car Well for Added Years of Use

Few people realize that the quick starts and hard braking put tremendous stress on the car, especially the suspension and drivetrain. Taking it easy on the gas and the brake will add many additional years of satisfaction with your car’s performance.

The Takeaway: Proper Car Care Is Rewarding

Instead of buying a new car, you can properly take care of your old vehicle and have it last many rewarding years. Keep the money in the bank or make a meaningful investment that will grow while you enjoy many more years of value from your present car.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Glenn Stok