Checkup on car now is better than fixing it later

Providing proper maintenance for your car is as important an energy saver as caulking cracks around the house. Indeed, motorists have found that an automobile, properly taken care of, will get far better gasoline mileage and need fewer repairs. And what motorist doesn't want to save money these days?

The fact is, with the increase in no-service, gas-and-go stations, fewer and fewer car owners spend the required few minutes a month to check their cars for potential problems. Such negligence can be very costly in the long run -- as too many motorists are finding out these days.

A car owner's biggest maintenance problems are dead batteries and flat tires, according to the American Automobile Association.

Both can be lessened, or avoided altogether, by routine checkups.

The AAA finds that a large number of motorists who do experience a failing battery also fail to notice dim lights, hard-to-start engines, and even a warning light on the dashboard.

A surprising two-thirds of the callers with flat tires, according to the Automobile Club of Virginia, either had no spare tire or, if the spare was in the car, it was flat also.

Starting your own maintenance program takes little technical skill.

By checking the following items once a month, or every 1,000 miles, you should be able to not only reduce the number of costly breakdowns on the road but improve your car's performance as well:

* Remove the radiator cap and check the water level. If the water is rusty, the radiator should be drained so that new coolant (water and/or antifreeze) can be added.

* Replace the fanbelt if it is cracked, frayed, or has a glazed and shiny look. If the belt has more than half an inch "give" to it when pressed midway between the alternator and the fan, it might need to be adjusted or replaced altogether.

* The battery should be visually checked for the proper water level. Use a wire brush to remove any deposits that form around the cable terminals. Check all the wires for fraying. Invest in a bulb battery tester (about $1.50 or $2).

* Check the oil to make sure it is at the proper level. A dark color and gooey texture indicates that the oil needs changing.

* See that all the other fluids are at their proper levels, according to the owner's manual. Know where the transmission, brake, power steering, and windshield-washer fluids are located.

* Replace worn windshield wiper blades and be sure that the defrosting unit is functioning properly.

* Look for any exterior cracking of wiring insulation. Replace any hard, inflexible, or corroding wires.

* Check the tires for signs of abnormal wear and inflate them to the recommended pressure. Do not forget the spare in the trunk.

* With the aid of a friend, try all the lights. Clean the lenses if they are dirty.

The Consumer Information Center in Pueblo, Colo., has a number of free booklets that give hints on the upkeep of a car. Two of them are: "Gasoline: More Miles Per Gallon," No. 513H, explains how an engine works and gives maintenance tips and ways to improve performance and lower costs. "How to Save Gasoline . . . and Money," No. 514H, tells how to improve the gas mileage through proper car upkeep.

The Shell Answer Series provides a number of free booklets on a variety of car subjects. If you want to get a copy of any of the booklets, including "The Early Warning Book," No. 1 in the series, drop a card to: Shell Answer Books, PO Box 61609, Houston, Texas 77208.

The Consumer Information Center also publishes a number of booklets for a small charge. Three good ones are: "The Backyard Mechanic, Vol. I" (No. 101H, $ 1.25) and "The Backyard Mechanic, Vol. II" (No. 102H, $1.60). Both booklets are illustrated with step-by-step instructions on how to inspect your car for needed repairs as well as how to perform the repairs yourself.

"The Self-Service Gas Up and Go" (No. 104H, 75 cents) explains how to check the oil, water, and other fluids, as well as make simple preventative checks on your car.

The Government booklets are available from the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo. 81009. Enclose the order number and proper payment to insure delivery. There is a minimum charge of $1.

While the above booklets should give enough information to keep most home mechanics content, those who want a more detailed book should look into "Auto Repairs for Dummies" by Deanna Sclar. (McGraw-Hill, $7.95). It is an excellent , detailed, and well-illustrated book for mechanics of any level.

Assuring yourself of a trouble-free car is easy and quick, in most cases. There is often no reason to be caught on the side of the road waiting for a repair truck.

You might make sure the car doesn't run out of gas, too.

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