How to make your car last longer

There are many things you can do to make your car or truck last a long time and keep it looking good. Some people trade their vehicles in after a few years but if you want to hang on to your vehicle a long time here are some things you can do to make it last and keep it looking good. My last car (1976 Chevelle Malibu) was 30 years old and still running when I replaced it.

Owner’s manual – I’m probably the only person in the world who’s read his car owner’s manual (actually, I’ve read it twice but you needn’t be that obsessive). At the very least, you need to familiarize yourself with the car’s maintenance schedule & requirements because every car and manufacturer is different. A properly maintained vehicle is safer AND lasts longer.

Engine air filter – engines ‘breathe’ a lot of air. Air filters remove dirt and dust that could damage the engine and reduce its life. Of course, you’re going to change air filters as often as recommended by the owner’s manual and more often if you’re driving in dusty conditions (hello, Prairies!) because this helps extend engine life.

However, you can improve the air filter’s cleaning ability AND improve mileage AND increase horsepower with a permanent, washable air filter. You can go a step further with a ‘cold air induction kit’. A well-known manufacturer is K & N. The downside is these air filters cost more upfront ($50 to $75 and the kits are several hundred dollars) but the filters last a lifetime and thus save you money by not having to buy disposable paper filters. The other drawback is you have to wash, dry and re-oil them. Increased air flow is the only modification you can do to a vehicle that improves both mileage and horsepower. Every other modification is a trade-off between mileage and horsepower. Usually, when one goes up the other goes down.
Keep the engine clean – I know this sounds weird but bear with me. A clean engine cools better. It also makes it easier to detect leaks and problems before they become major. As well, nobody likes to work on a dirty engine; neither you nor the mechanic. If you want superior service (often above and beyond the call of duty) from the mechanic who’s working on your engine, then once a year go to a car wash that uses high pressure spray wands, lift the hood and “shampoo” your engine. Many have a “tire & engine” setting. Use this setting to ‘pre-clean’ your engine, compartment, battery and radiator. Be careful to avoid getting it on your exterior paint. Then let it sit and soak while you wash the rest of your car with the regular “soap” setting, Then wash your engine with the same “soap” setting. Finally, rinse your car and engine with the “Rinse” setting. I’ve done this with dozens of cars for more than 40 years and never had a problem.

However – be careful spraying water on electrical components or air intakes. Do NOT spray into the baffles of the alternator and on older cars with clip-on distributors, avoid spraying the distributor cap. If necessary, cover with plastic.

Drying – you won’t have to dry it as it’ll dry itself when you run it but have a look if there are any recesses that can collect water. Use a terry towel to soak these up.
Engine oil – use the grade of oil recommended by the manufacturer (usually 5W-30). In case you didn’t know, the ‘W’ stands for winter and the number is its viscosity; the larger the number, the thicker it is. Oil thickens in cold weather and thins in hot weather so that’s why you want a ‘multi-grade’ to counter this effect i.e. it’s thinner (5) in cold weather and thicker (30) in hot weather. In other words, the oil does the opposite if what the temperature wants it to do.

I drive up north in winter so I use regular oil most of the year and synthetic oil in the 4 coldest months of the winter. Synthetic is formulated for excellent flow characteristics in cold weather and is more resistant to viscosity breakdown. However, it is more expensive which is why I use it only in winter.

Changing oil at recommended intervals extends the life of your engine. Some conditions require more frequent oil changes. For instance a lot of stop-and-go city traffic gets the oil dirtier than highway driving. Driving in dusty or extreme cold conditions or carrying heavy loads also deteriorates oil faster and requires more frequent oil changes. Always change the oil filter when changing engine oil even though some people believe you can change the filter every second oil change.

When you check the engine oil level, always check it TWICE. The first time you remove the dipstick it will have oil all over it and it might be difficult to get a proper reading. Clean it with a rag or paper towel, re-insert it and then check it again. With an improper reading you may be running with low oil and reducing the life of your engine.
Engine start-up – it take at least 20 seconds for engine oil to reach proper operating pressure and to flow through all the oil galleys. If you start to drive within 20 seconds of start-up, you’re grinding metal on bare metal. 90% of engine wear & tear occurs within the first 20 seconds and you make it even worse by putting a load on the engine during that time. SOLUTION: wait 20 seconds (no more than 30) after starting the engine before putting your vehicle into gear. Automatic transmissions suffer the same problem with minimal oil circulation when in ‘Park’ but need only about 5 seconds for proper lubrication in ‘Neutral’. SOLUTION: while waiting 20 seconds for engine oil, put the transmission in ‘Neutral’. By the time the engine is ready, so is the transmission. This does not apply to manual shift (standard) transmissions.

I’ve long been leery of remote starters. Many people use the remote start to let the engine run so it warms up. Modern engines with tight tolerances, especially those with aluminum blocks are best warmed up by driving them (go easy until they’re warmed up). You’re reducing the life of your engine by idling it cold for long periods
Shifting Forward to Reverse – When you shift from forward to reverse (or vice versa) it takes a second or two for the transmission to fully engage. That’s the slight ‘surge’ you feel when engine power rocks the car a bit. Once you feel that, it’s ok to drive. Always wait a moment for that ‘surge’ to tell you the gears are engaged. If you drive before then, you shock-load the drive train which shortens its life.
Washing exterior – I have an expensive custom paint job (Sherwin Williams Special FX multi-color ‘Maple’) so, to avoid scratching the paint and ‘spider’ swirls, the only thing that touches my paint is water and a chamois. I never go to a drive-thru car wash. I only go to a car wash with do-it-yourself, high-pressure spray wands. Drive-thru car washes that use brushes or carpet strips scour your paint with your car’s own dirt as well as the dirt they’ve accumulated from the cars ahead of you. “Touchless” drive-thru’s still leave a thin film of scum on the paint which reduces shine. A chamois removes this dirt film without scratching but make sure you always use a light touch.

Natural (leather) chamois have been replaced with thick microfiber towels that do a better job than leather, are easier to launder and don’t need to be rung out as often. In fact, you could probably do an entire school bus before having to wring it out. I have three (towels, not school buses) and, since I launder mine after every use I always have at least one ready to go.

Wash bird poop off your car as soon as you notice it. There are corrosive compounds in bird poop that, if left to bake in the sun, can do permanent paint damage.
Washing underneath – washing the top side of a car makes it look good but the most important part of washing a car is underneath and inside the wheel wells. This is especially important in areas that use salt in winter. I still wash the underside and the wells occasionally in summer because when the weather is dry, dust accumulates in crevasses and holds moisture and after driving in the rain, the underside of a vehicle accumulates trace amounts of salt and road grime which also contributes to rust. If you have the underside of your vehicle undercoated, do NOT wash it with soap. Instead, use rinse water because soapy water deteriorates the oil-based undercoating.
Undercoating – undercoating underneath and inside the wheel wells helps to prevent rust. As an added benefit, it also makes your vehicle run quieter by reducing road noise. Undercoating should be inspected annually and touched up when necessary because grit and sand spray will scour it off.
Gas – don’t fill up if you see a tanker refueling tanks at the gas station because refueling the tanks stirs up sediment that could overwhelm both the pump’s and your car’s gas filter leading to clogged fuel injectors and costly repairs. Modern fuel injectors operate on very fine tolerances and it doesn’t take much contamination to destroy them. Go to another gas station or come back another day.

Also, in winter don’t let your tank go below half. Water from condensation being heavier than gas will settle to the bottom of your tank where it will be picked by the fuel system if you run your tank low. In winter use about half a cup of gas-line antifreeze (Methyl Hydrate) with every second fill-up. Avoid buying the tiny bottles – too expensive. Buy it by the gallon from a hardware store and transfer some to a small bottle. A gallon will last many years.
Fuel filter – it’s wise to change your fuel filter more often than the owner’s manual recommends. Have it done when you get your vehicle serviced. It doesn’t cost much so it’s cheap insurance. A clogged filter causes poor engine performance and mileage.
Car polish – there are a gazillion brands of car polish on the market; each one claiming to be the best. I’ve tried many of them but I keep going back to the one recommended by the guy who did my custom paint job. It’s a liquid polish called Nu-Finish in a bright orange bottle. I like it because it’s easy, cheap and looks good. Apply with a damp sponge (most auto or hardware stores sell terry cloth wax applicator pads) let it dry then wipe the residue off with a dry terry towel. There are many other brands almost as good as Nu-Finish. For best results do two applications a month apart. I tend to overdo it and polish mine in spring so it looks good all summer then again in fall to protect the paint during harsh winter driving conditions. Yes, I drive a custom paint job in winter (Gasp!) With eleven coats of paint plus three factory coats, surface rust is not going to become a problem.

Another reason for regular polishing is it buys you time to remove corrosive stuff like bird poop or tree sap before it can do permanent paint damage.

Do NOT use car wash wax or polish. It’s the cheapest grade there is and it yellows with age.
Rust-proofing – there are a gazillion brands of rust-proofing on the market. However, there are two basic types: liquid and dripless. Avoid dripless because they are a one-time application and, being wax-based they harden with age, crack and allow moisture penetration. Moisture between the wax rust-proofing and the car body is a guarantee for rust which defeats the purpose of rust-proofing. Also, they require a highly skilled technician to do a proper application. My brother, who was in the auto-body business for almost 20 years, saw many horror stories that involved dripless rust-proofing. There is as much danger in applying too much as not enough because too much can plug drain holes and result in moisture accumulation which leads to premature rust.

Liquid rust-proofing is oil-based and oil has the magical property of “migration”. Take a 10 CM bolt and stand it up in 2 CM of oil and in a couple days the entire bolt will be covered in oil. Oil will seep into and protect areas that are otherwise inaccessible to dripless. The only downside is that liquid must be applied annually and excess liquid will drip from your vehicle for a couple days so be careful where you park it until it stops dripping.
Rubber dressing – there are a gazillion … ok, you know the words to this song … anyway, rubber dressing AKA tire dressing is not just to make tires look good and protect them from the sun’s harsh UV rays; it can also be used for rubber molding and vinyl. For instance, after a few years you may notice the inside of your windshield getting scummy and requiring more cleaning. That’s because your dashboard is deteriorating and collecting on your windshield. Apply rubber dressing to your vinyl dashboard. It not only extends its life but makes it look good. Some dressing is shiny, some is not (it just ‘blackens’). I prefer the non-shiny stuff. Shiny wheels look phony whereas blackened wheels look new. Also, a shiny dashboard may reflect glare onto the windshield which becomes a safety issue.

AVOID silicone based rubber dressing (Armor-All). Not only are silicone compounds slippery, they require gloves (so it’s not healthy) and in the long run it disintegrates vinyl. Also, if you ever have to get your vehicle re-painted after an accident, the painter will hate you and charge you more for the extra work in removing silicone residue and it may result in a poor paint job. Paint does not adhere to silicone.

AVOID oil based compounds like WD-40 as rubber dressing because the oil will corrode rubber. WD-40 is great for many other things, though.
Lubricate pins & hinges – I use a small needle-nose, squeeze-bottle from a gun cleaning kit filled with 3-in-1 oil to lubricate door hinges, hood and trunk hinges and other moving parts. It only takes a tiny drop (remember oil migrates) so don’t overdo it otherwise excess oil attracts and holds dirt. Do NOT use on plastic or rubber.
Sun damage – sunlight deteriorates and fades car interiors. If you can’t park in a garage or under a tree (watch for bird poop and tree sap) then use a sunshade for the windshield. This not only preserves the interior but keeps it cooler.
Rock & stone damage – in addition to having a rock guard on the front of my hood, I also had urethane anti-chip film (3M) applied to the front of the outside mirrors as well as to the headlights and fog lights to prevent chips from flying rocks and abrasive, flying winter sand. It wasn’t cheap but in the long run it’ll keep the car looking good. I had considered doing the hood but $1,200 seemed excessive.
Heavy key chain? – if you have a ton of stuff hanging on your key chain, you can prematurely wear out the tumblers inside the ignition which could lead to premature ignition switch failure. Solution: get a detachable key chain and unattach the heavy stuff before putting the key in the ignition.

I was in a demolition derby once with a decent chance of winning (we had painted the car to look like an ambulance in the hopes that people get out of the way of ambulances). After a couple of hits, the key bounced out of the ignition and fell through a drain-hole in the floor boards. That was the end of that.
Parking – No, I’m not talking about what you do with your girlfriend; I’m talking about parking in parking lots. Is it windy? Which way is it blowing? Are there loose shopping carts lurking nearby? Be careful where you park. I’ve seen ballistic shopping carts leave huge dings in vehicles. Is the parking lot sloped? If it is, avoid parking downhill because that’s where runaway carts go. If you want to avoid door dings from other vehicles, park at the far, emptier side of parking lots. Besides, you need the exercise.

You do NOT want to park beside a large car when the wind is blowing from behind. When the old geezer gets into his old boat, the wind rips the big door from his hand and slams it into your paint job.
Mileage change? – if you notice your mileage is getting worse for no apparent reason i.e. heavier loads, climbing more hills etc., mention it to your mechanic. There could be long term problems if left unattended.
Upholstery – nothing deteriorates upholstery and carpeting faster than ground in dirt. Vacuum regularly. Cordless models can do in a pinch but are too under-powered to be used on a regular basis. Place a heavy plastic sheet and an absorbent towel under baby seats to protect upholstery.
Leather seats – the care and feeding of leather seats depends where your vehicle is made. If it’s made in North America, leather has a thin vinyl coating and should be cleaned and treated like vinyl. If it’s European, it is “open” leather and should be treated like leather. Use an appropriate cleaner and follow up with protectant to resist future soiling and make the next cleaning easier.
Air condition year around – run your air conditioner for a few minutes at least once a month, even in winter. This will prevent moving parts from seizing and prevent seals from hardening,
Tire pressure – Not only is proper tire pressure a safety issue, it will make your tires last longer AND give you better fuel mileage. Check your tire pressure weekly (yes, once a week) because not only will you save money on gas, it could save your life by providing better braking and maneuverability. Consider having tire air replaced with Nitrogen. Nitrogen molecules are larger than other air molecules so they’re less likely to seep through the rubber. Plus, Nitrogen does not expand when hot or contract when cold as much as ordinary air so tire pressure remains more constant. If you use Nitrogen then ask the installer to give you an extra two pounds in each tire as that will reduce rolling resistance even more and give you better mileage without compromising safety.
Wet tire air – if you are NOT using Nitrogen in your tires and you need to top up the air, make sure that it is dry. Use your thumbnail or pressure gauge or key (spare the ignition key) to release air from the air pump. If it’s coming out wet, notify the operator to drain his tanks and get your air elsewhere. Moisture inside your wheels can rust and deteriorate the rims.
Lube lug nuts – I have two sets of wheels, summer and winter so my lug nuts are spun twice a year. However if you run the same wheels all the time, consider lubricating your lug nuts with an anti-seize compound to prevent them from seizing.
Hubcaps – my summer tires are on mags but my winter tires are on steel rims. When I ordered the rims I had an extra coat of black paint applied. Then I added several clear coats. Old rims with one thin coat of paint rust over time and look ugly. The extra paint should keep them looking good longer.

Also, the hubcaps on the steel rims are spoked and flimsy. Having had a few cracked, I know how to remove (using leather gloves) and install them without breaking them. When I take the car in for tire work, I remove the flimsy hubcaps myself rather than risk having a grunt unfamiliar with them break any more. Also, to prevent the plastic tabs from scratching the rims’ paint I cover the tabs with either electrical tape or duct tape.
Stuck in mud or snow? – go easy rocking your vehicle back and forth by shifting from forward to reverse. You’re putting a lot of strain on your drivetrain if you overdo it. It might be cheaper to get a tow than a costly repair job.
Monthly Check – get into the habit of checking your car monthly to identify issues before they become major problems. Below is a checklist from Natural Resources Canada.

Most maintenance should be left to the professionals. However, once a month you should perform the following checks to help identify and head off problems that can cost you fuel and money down the road:

– Measure tire pressure and look for signs of uneven wear or embedded objects that can cause air leaks. In winter, measure tire pressure whenever there is a sharp change in temperature.

– Check around the car and under the engine for fluid leaks. You can often identify the type of fluid that is leaking by its colour. Oil is black, coolant is a bright greenish yellow, automatic transmission fluid is pink, and power steering and brake fluids are clear, with a slight brown tinge. All of these fluids are oily to the touch.

– Check fluid levels, including engine oil, engine coolant level, transmission fluid and power steering fluid, according to the instructions in the owner’s manual.

– Check under the hood for cracked or split spark plug wires, cracked radiator hoses or loose clamps and corrosion around the battery terminals.

– Check for problems with the brakes. On a straight, flat and traffic-free stretch of road, rest your hands lightly on the steering wheel and apply the brakes gradually. If the vehicle swerves to one side, one of the brake linings may be worn more than the other, or the brakes may need adjustment.

– Use a similar test to check for problems with wheel alignment. On a straight, flat and traffic-free stretch of road, rest your hands lightly on the steering wheel and drive at an even speed. If the vehicle pulls to one side, the wheels may be misaligned.
Click on these to download more tips.
11 Safety, Maintenance and Warranty Myths
Interactive Car Care Guide
Winter Survival Guide
If anyone has any hints or tips to add, please leave a comment.

Happy driving!

August 13, 2011

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About gerold

I have a bit of financial experience having invested in stocks in the 1960s & 70s, commodities in the 80s & commercial real estate in the 90s (I sold in 2005.) I'm back in stocks. I am appalled at our rapidly deteriorating global condition so I've written articles for family, friends & colleagues since 2007; warning them and doing my best to explain what's happening, what we can expect in the future and what you can do to prepare and mitigate the worst of the economic, social, political and nuclear fallout. As a public service in 2010 I decided to create a blog accessible to a larger number of people because I believe that knowledge not shared is wasted.
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11 Responses to How to make your car last longer

  1. Thank you for going over some tips to make sure a car lasts a long time. I’m glad that you mentioned that a lot of maintenance things should be done by professionals, but that it’s still good to check some things yourself. As far as I know, it seems like it could be beneficial to have a reminder in your phone to check the car monthly. Could be a great way to see potential problems before they become an issue.

    • gerold says:

      Excellent idea about phone reminders, Taylor. Especially for busy people and oldsters for whom time flies faster than they realize.

      – Gerold

  2. Pingback: URL

  3. Melody Brown says:

    I like that you included engine startup. I didn’t even know that you should wait 20 seconds before driving. I will remember to do this in the future so I can make my car last longer.

  4. Gregg says:

    I ppay a quick visit everyyday a feww sites annd inforation sites tto
    red posts, however thiis webpage offeers quality based posts.

  5. Good one. Regular maintenance is very important if you want your car to run properly and stay like new. The time and effort you put for scheduled maintenance can save big money in the long run.

  6. S. Stiphanos says:

    For the record, the car I used this on is a silver 2006 Honda Accord Coupe (V6AT, if anyone cares). I admit I’ve somewhat neglected the paint since I first bought the car (6 months earlier, used), but have manned-up to the task now, as a California summer beating would KILL my paint.

    After reading a ton of reviews, on a ton of products, it came down to purchasing a silicone based product like Nu Finish, or a Teflon based product like 5 Star Shine, as waxing my car every few weeks won’t fit on my agenda. Since 5 Star Shine is more expensive than I’d like, and there isn’t a wide user base to consult on the product, I chose silicone.

    FYI, silicone sealants work differently than waxes. The benefits: they generally last much longer (3x to 5x), and generally protect the paint better. The caveats: They don’t shine as well as some waxes can, and may cause problems if the paint needs reapplication and the shop doesn’t prepare the surface properly, as the silicone will travel to the bottom the paint over time.

    Now before you apply this product, you should prepare the paint as best as possible. Wash the car with a car-wash soap (I caution you against using dish-washing liquid). Be sure to remove ALL stuck residue. Clay the car, if necessary, and be sure to remove any lubricant (gently wash again) before continuing. Now apply this product with a soft, new, cotton applicator of your choice onto your car (you may want to work in sections). You should make an effort to not let any get onto anything else but the paint, as some people apparently have had a problem cleaning it, though I didn’t. You’ll let the product dry to a haze (only a few minutes), then gently buff off. It’s that simple!

    This whole process took me about one and a half hours as my car was VERY dirty. The product stinks of a paint-type product, but was very easy to apply and hand-buff off. Immediately after your hard work, the shine looks decent, much better than without a polish, but you’ll have to wait AT LEAST a few hours later until the shine gets much deeper and more reflective (it will).

    Now, as I said, the shine isn’t nearly as deep or reflective as I’ve seen on some cars (I’ll assume waxed to death), but Nu Finish get a solid B+ as I couldn’t stop staring at my car under a street light that night. The car’s finish was very smooth also. Functionality-wise, it’s obvious that there’s a protective coating on top of the paint, and that’s very important to me.

    The directions said that it can be applied onto chrome, so I redid the whole process on my alloys (hey, metal’s metal). They definitely shined more, and brake dust seems to have trouble sticking to them! BTW, I still have a half-bottle left, afterwards! I declare success.

    I really hope this review was helpful, and I’ll post an update on this product’s endurance in good time. P.S. Please remember to help support your local car stores; They might be a little more expensive than Walmart, but pumping a few dollars into your community businesses goes a LONG way.

    • gerold says:

      Great information! Thanks for posting. And, I agree – supporting locally owned stores albeit a bit more expensive than the big box stores not only supports the community, they provide way better service and will steer you in the right direction.

  7. Pingback: How to make your car last longer | Gerold's Blog | College Park Metro Auto

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