The Self-Healing Car

It may start out as a squeak or a clunk, but it only happens sometimes.  Maybe the brake pedal isn’t quite as firm as it once was.  When it rains it seems to be more sensitive to puddles, as the steering wheel is pulled as you cross, but its fine otherwise.

I don’t know how many times have I had a car come in and a visual inspection reveals worn brakes, tie rod ends, ball joints, suspension bushings, tires whose treads show abnormal wear, or brake fluid the color of old coffee, etc.

When you talk to the owners you get the impression that they expect their cars to heal themselves.  They often tell me about the symptoms that they experienced, but felt that they might go away on their own.

My advice would be to listen to your car.  If it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.  Feel how it is behaving and recognize when something isn’t as it should be.  Be in tune and it will probably make you a better driver, too.

Unless your car has different sized tires on the front and rear you should rotate them about every five thousand miles.  That means moving the fronts to the rear and the rears to the front.  That promotes much more even wear in the tires and gives you an opportunity to check out a few other things.  Things like your brake pads (if, like most of us, have disc brakes) and rotors.  Visually inspect them to see how much pad material is left and what condition the rotors’ surface is in.  If a brake caliper is malfunctioning one pad may be wearing faster than the other. Has the brake pedal felt like it was bouncing when you used it to stop the car?  That could mean that the rotors are warped or have brake pad contaminants on the surface.  While the car is safely on a lift have the ball joints and tie rod ends at least visually inspected for leaking or cracked and split rubber boots.  Check the underside of the car for missing bolts, exhaust hangers and leaks of any kind.

Every time you get new tires have the car aligned.  The technician will know right away if bushings or ball joints are worn or if tie rod threads are rusted and the jam nuts are frozen.  Replacing these items are not cheap, but they will cost you dearly in tire wear as well as your personal safety.  Not having your car’s alignment checked when you purchase new tires is like throwing away money.

If you have just purchased a new set of tires, had them mounted and balanced, you probably have shelled out $600 or much more.  Spending another $100 on an alignment may seem like just too much more to spend, but failing to do so will mean unnecessary wear on those new tires as well as missed opportunity to discover critical suspension component wear that could really ruin your day.  Alignments deserve a blog entry all of their own.

Change and flush your brake fluid once a year.  You change your oil at least every 5000 miles so what is the big deal of changing your brake fluid.  Doing so will not only insure that your brake pedal fells nice and firm, but it will also prolong the life of many of the components that make up your brake system.

It doesn’t matter if your car is expensive or a bargain – it needs so get periodic maintenance.  There is a schedule in your owner’s manual that should be consulted.  It will show you what needs to be checked and changed depending upon how many miles your car travels. 

It would be nice if our cars were self-healing, but they are not.  They begin to wear and deteriorate the moment we drive them off the lot.  Listen to your car and feel your car – it probably has something important to tell you.

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7 Responses to The Self-Healing Car

  1. Noel says:

    One of the best reasons to do at least some of your own work is that it gives you the opportunity to look underneath the car and see how it’s doing. When I change my oil I look for oil and coolant leaks, any undercar damage, loose bolts and fittings, check the lower coolant hoses, look for cracks in the CV joint boots, check for broken exhaust hangers, etc. Same thing when rotating tires or doing the summer to winter tire swap those of us in the frozen North have to do. I found a broken spring this way once, and a couple torn CV boots. And eyeball those tires when you pull them off: look for uneven wear to identify problems before they get bigger.

    Jim mentions changing brake fluid, but another fluid to change is your coolant. Maybe I’m just cynical, but I don’t believe for a minute that coolant can go 100K miles like some claim. A gallon or two of coolant is a lot cheaper than a new engine or having to R&R the headgasket. Changing coolant is especially important as cars age or if they are turbocharged or supercharged as those tend to run hotter and put more stress on the coolant.

    Take care of your car and it will take car of you, and be more fun to drive.

    Also find out about things you wouldn’t necessarily think about, like the pulleys for your serpentine belt. This varies by make, but find out if there is a recommended interval for replacing these. On Saabs for instance, the tensioner pulleys last a long time but the idler pulleys but should be replaced with the belt. They’re only $40 and it sure beats having one seize up.

    Also, keep your engine compartment clean. It doesn’t have to be immaculate or look like new, but it’s easier to spot leaks on a clean engine and it’s a lot nicer to work in a clean engine bay.

  2. Jim's Sister says:

    And for those of us who take our cars regularly (I swear!) to our trusty garage mechanic, do we need to specially request that he look at the brakes, tie rod ends, ball joints, suspension bushings, tires, and brake fluid? I had hoped that this was done automatically and all I needed to worry about was finding the money to pay for the service.

  3. jimsgarage says:

    The best answer is “it depends”. It does not hurt to ask your mechanic or automotive technician to be sure to check a few key items when their assignment is something specific such as rotating tires. A shop that is busy will often focus on the tasks at hand rather than taking 15 more minutes to look over things outside of the task. It is not being inept, just the fact that they have a lot on their plate.

    Unfortunately things like changing out brake fluid are not seen as common maintenance like changing oil is. As Noel mentioned, the same goes for antifreeze. Often a shop will change out your brake pads when the old ones are worn and never touch the brake fluid unless you specifically request a change out and flush. This is especially true with dealerships and shops that pay their technicians on commission.

    By that I mean that they are paid a rate assigned to a particular task. A brake job where pads are replaced my have a time assigned such as .8 hours for both front. If the tech takes .5 hours they have made an extra .3 of pay. If it takes them 1.0 hours then they only get paid the .8 hours. The motivation here is that the tech will not take any extra time to look at brake hoses or check the wheel bearing play because they will not get paid for it.

    Its not that techs wouldn’t like to spend the time doing a thorough job, they just cannot afford to. They can’t put in 55 hours of work and only get paid for 35.

    Also many shops try to take into account the financial situation of their customers. They will limit how extensive their repairs are if they know that a customer cannot afford Jay Leno style car maintenance.

  4. Noel says:

    Jim’s point about “flat-rate” shops is important to understand. Except when a car is on warranty, dealerships where techs are normally on flat rate are about the worst place to go for anything you don’t specifically ask about. I find you have to be VERY specific about what you want done. And even then they don’t always do what you ask. Some will look a car over, and let you know about other things it may need but many do not. In my experience, they also are quick to point out the high profit margin jobs (like brakes) versus those with lower margins.

    I use an indy shop who specializes in the make of car I drive. He knows our cars, has a sense of our budgets and always looks a car over when it’s in for anything. Because he’s an expert on one make, he knows what to look for. Even better, he tells us when something needs immediate attention or if it’s just something we need to know about but don’t need to think about for a few months. It’s just the way he does business. The few minutes the inspection takes is just wrapped into his hourly rate, or maybe he hits me with a quarter hour of time. I don’t know or care because he’s never steered me wrong in 13 years.

    Like Jim sugests, he knows our budgets. He will recommend (and may even have) a used part when it will do the job as well as a new part. He knows I do a lot of my own work, so he will tell me when it’s something I should do to save some money. Dealers won’t do this. OTOH, on our car that is still under warranty, I’ve told a dealer to do something –change the serp belt at 60K miles as required– and they said it didn’t need it, figuring I’d appreciate the lower repair bill. Well, yeah, but it’s part of the 60K maintenance for a reason. Not having time to do it myself, I went to my indy, who thought it was crazy for them not to do it, given that the pulleys are a known failure point on the Saab engine and need to be changed at 60K. I also saved about $100.

  5. markitude says:

    I’m always intrigued by the few “worst case” scenarios that I’ve worked on for other people. It’s one thing to neglect your brakes until they start to squeal, but when a person has worn through the pads and most of the backing plate, I have to wonder and what point would they have thought something was amiss?

    One mini-van I worked on provided the answer. The owner sought service when the pedal went to the floor and there were no more brakes. Why? The left front brake pads were worn away completely – no more pad, no more backing plate, and the caliper piston had been pressing against the rotor face until it cut through the face and encountered the vent vanes inside it. At this point, those vanes pulled the piston out of the caliper and all the fluid went away – time for service.

  6. Tim says:

    But Mark – they were saved from having to spend the money on a simple pad change for at least a few weeks, if not months. You can’t put a price tag on th–, er…nevermind.

  7. Noel says:

    My local Saab-Pontiac-Chevy store has a display in the service area of seriously dead parts. And the most memorable one is a brake rotor that is worn exactly as Markitude describes. How someone wouldn’t have some inkling that things were less than optimal before that happened I have no idea. The noise must have been incredible!.

    The question is, did the owner bring the car in saying they “thought something was wrong with the brakes” or was it in for something else and the tech noticed it? Would like to have heard the conversation between the service advisor and the car owner.

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