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If you haven't checked under the hood lately, fall is the time

By Charles E. DoleStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 1986

You're buzzing along Interstate 80 at night, or just poking your way through traffic at the end of a busy day. Suddenly the fan belt snaps, the engine overheat light blinks on, the air conditioner stops, and you wrestle with the steering wheel to get over to the side of the road. You're not going anywhere until the belt is replaced. If you had kept a cautious eye on the belt system beneath the hood, you might not be in such a fix.

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With the proliferation of fill-it-yourself gas stations, too many motorists ignore their cars, waiting for the vehicles to let them down before they look under the hood.

Preventive maintenance in the fall can save you an expensive and untimely repair later on. Harsh winter driving conditions will be less likely to cause a breakdown if you or your mechanic have performed the following checks:

Engine tuneup. ``A tuneup at least once a year will help assure the best fuel economy and performance, protection against pollution, starting difficulties, and expensive repair,'' says George Giek, managing director of automotive engineering at the American Automobile Association (AAA). A misfiring spark plug, for example, can reduce fuel economy by up to 2 miles a gallon.

Oil. Check the level often. Since the car's choke system operates for longer periods in the winter, the excess gas contaminates the engine oil more quickly. Thus, change the oil and oil filter more often during the cold months. A multi-viscosity oil is your best choice for most driving conditions.

Battery. Since battery efficiency decreases at lower temperatures, car-starting problems are only compounded in cold weather. If the battery is fairly new and the charge is low, have it recharged; otherwise, replace it.

Even if your car has a so-called ``maintenance free'' battery, it still should not be ignored. Only Chrysler and General Motors/AC Delco Freedom batteries are truly sealed, according to the AAA. Sears, Ford, and most Japanese models can be opened. In a sealed battery, the electrolyte solution can be checked through a small window or ``indicator eye.''

Scrub the terminals occasionally with a wire brush and check to see that the battery is firmly secured. If the battery requires water, make sure it's distilled, not tap water.

Tires. Check the owner's manual for proper inflation. At least once a month, or before any long trip, use a good-quality pressure gauge to make sure the tires conform. Check also for uneven wearing and thin spots. On front-wheel-drive cars, the front tires wear and age faster because of the up-front turning and pulling of the front-wheel design.

Proper inflation not only extends tire life, but also saves fuel. Underinflation results in excessive heat, which reduces tire life and can lead to premature failure. Too, underinflation can increase rolling resistance and thus lower miles per gallon.

Air filter. Check at least every two months and replace it when dirty.

Brakes. Have the brakes inspected to ensure proper pad thickness on shoes and disc-brake pads. Check the brake-fluid level once a month.

Cooling system. Fall is the time to empty and flush the cooling system of your car, replacing it with the proper mix of coolant/antifreeze and water, depending on the climate.