Cars are generally built to last. They are not disposable technology, and they are constructed out of some of the most solid and resilient materials we know. They are driven by engines often more powerful than any organism to reside on our planet. They can be an efficient way to move people and things, and without considerations for maintenance, safety or life they can become dangerous killing machines in their own right. Cars are designed to put people in control, but time and mileage along with general wear and tear will break down some of the strengths and systems of any automotive vehicle. Understanding the basics of automotive maintenance can help you prevent costly repairs and eventual disaster.

Cars vary greatly in size, performance and price, but still share a lot of universal similarities. That said, much of the common ground between cars is increasingly breaking down into two categories; between having power being derived from either electric or internal combustion. Hybrids between the two exist, but usually vehicles are powered primarily by battery-stored electricity or combustible fuel. This is worth mentioning as generating and harnessing power from either of these methods differs and it can effect some of the considerations in maintaining automotive vehicles. Once you get beyond where the power comes from, most cars are very similar and regular, scheduled maintenance will ensure that they last. A little bit of prevention will go a long way.

First off, have some respect for the vehicle. If people are supposed to have respect for the food they eat, they should have respect for the metals, fluids and any other materials that were extracted from the planet, processed, refined and meticulously planned and assembled in order to grant you a means of (often personal) transportation. Much like with the basics of architecture; an automotive vehicle is made to be durable and serve a purpose; any pleasurable aesthetic features are secondary to its function, however don’t let that logic blur the line whether you it’s ok to scratch your paint off or something. That paint serves a functional purpose. Almost everything in and on the car does, and any disruption of any utility can cause a chain reaction that will eventually break down parts of any vehicle, one by one. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and while vehicles are not chains, they are in similar fashion only as strong as their weakest system.

Think of people. We have skin, a circulatory system, a structure of bones, a heart and lungs to power ourselves and a brain to control the whole thing. If we get cracks in our skin or bones, things might start to leak out, we may start to slow down, and we might start getting dirt or other contaminants where they shouldn’t be. If our brain or heart breaks down, we stop dead in our tracks. Cars are just like us but with their own systems:

  • Wheels and Tires – what the vehicle rolls on and the only place that it makes contact with the ground.
  • Engine – whether it burns fuel or sucks battery, the engine is what converts energy into real mechanical power; torque and force.
  • Fuel – the blood. Combustible liquid or electric volt, or maybe even water for steam, something is going to change form and get harnessed somewhere along the way.
  • Electrical – we add a lot of features and mechanisms into vehicles. From lights to indicators and entertainment; nearly everything excluding actual propulsion is powered by residual electricity.
  • Body – anything and everything that holds the car together and cases it all in.

While these systems usually operate or function in their own special independent way, they are all part of the same structure and they all have to work together.

Due to the complex nature of these systems and their construction, cars are built industrially in factories and are not something that are easy to make on your own. You can buy several pre-fabricated components, but building from scratch will require machined parts.

Industrially-built vehicles share all of the common-car systems we identify, but they vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and model to model. The very best thing you can do before trying to maintain or fix anything on (or in) your vehicle, is to read the manual. Operating manual, owner’s manual, technical manual; whatever the manufacturer called it, read it. Every manufacturer builds engines a certain way, gives you access to spark plugs or other parts in different fashions, and may have very different maintenance procedures due to various factors from material used to vehicle weight or even where it is being operated environmentally.

The manual is like your bible when it comes to knowing your car and its systems. It will contain everything you need to know about where everything is and how to access it or even fix (or replace) it if malfunctioning.

The Wheels

Wheels should be even and balanced. Due to the way a car turns and loads put different pressure on different tires, tires and wheels should be rotated often. A good rule of thumb is every 8,000 km (5,000 miles). Check your tire pressure often and make sure you have enough of it. Your manual should state an idea air pressure for the type of tire you car should be using. Low tire pressure can lead to terrible fuel economy and performance, as well as cause long-term damage or even destroy the tire outright. Tire tread can be measured by its depth, and if your tires are getting smoothed over from use and the tread depth is shallow; you can expect them to fail very soon.

Brakes are what help the wheels stop by grabbing them tightly. Usually, a brake pad grabs a brake disc. Either of these parts can wear down, and most cars will let you know when this is happening. If you take your tire off, you will see the brake pad and its thickness. When this is worn down to a point where it it takes excessive power and distance just to brake, these should be replaced. Be sure to clean off dust and residue regularly; the heat produced by braking will actually bake this dirt onto your pads and discs, further degrading their efficiency.

The Engine

Electric vehicles are usually powered by independent motors right at the wheel. These are usually self-contained and do not require additional fluids or lubricants. Enjoy the future.

For everyone else, the internal combustion engine only has a few things you should really keep an eye on; belts and fluids.

Your main fluids (as far as the engine is concerned) are coolant and oil. Oil lubricates metal parts that are shifting back and forth, generating insane amounts of heat. Coolant helps keep them cool. Your trusty manual will tell you where to find gauges and reservoirs for these and instruct you how to check their levels. Do not let these levels get low. Without coolant, the engine’s temperature will spiral out of control and as we know, when temperature rises, matter expands. If the precise metal components of your engine start to expand while operating, be ready for something to break. Without oil, the friction between metal parts will increase dramatically, giving you more heat than your coolant will be able to deal with anyway.

In the internal combustion engine, fuel is burned (or exploded) to push parts that push other parts. This is where all the metal on metal comes from. However the actual combustion generally only drives a single, spinning column (the drive shaft, which powers the wheels), and from here many other systems are fed kinetic energy via rubber belt or metal chain. Think of a bicycle. Your legs power a gear that is pushing a chain/belt. This chain turns a gear fixed to a wheel, in turn powering that wheel. If you had other wheels to power or systems to run, you could attach more belts or chains to the power source at your feet. Cars are no different, and their chains and belts need to be considered as well.

These belts often work in tandem at the front of the engine (for easy access), and power everything from your alternator (battery charger) to your power steering, fluid pumps and air conditioning. Timing belts help keep things in sequence, while serpentine belts will weave in and out of several pulleys to power several systems at once. These belts wear down and need to be replaced if you don’t want these systems to break down. If they go out of synced timing, they can damage each other (for example, the A/C compressor may need to be cranked at a certain speed, but if the belt is running too fast or too slow, it will effect the performance of your A/C).

As always, refer to your manual for guidelines on when to replace belts on your particular vehicle. Different engines will wear common belts down at different rates.

The Fuel

Fuel is pretty simple. Your engine will require a specific fuel (or voltage or electricity). Use the fuel specified in your manual. Keep it clean. Keep the fuel system sealed off from contaminants, air or water. If you know your fuel has water in it or it is contaminated with something you don’t want floating into your engine, chemical stabilizers are available to eliminate impurities.

Electrical

If you have an electric vehicle, electricity powers everything. If you are using an internal combustion vehicle, electricity will power almost everything. Most manuals contain a wiring diagram to show you where all the electrical wires are within the particular vehicle, as manufacturers go about this differently from one to the next. Wires can erode or get severed, which will cause some of the electrical devices on a vehicle to fail. If you need to get down and dirty with wires, check out our introduction to working with wire. For the most part, all electricity is usually stored in and acquired from batteries. Learn about the basics of batteries here, but otherwise refer to your manual about what kind of battery is required and how it is physically connected to your automotive systems.

If you have to do work or perform maintenance on your electrical system, disconnect the battery first.

Remember that batteries use positive and negative electrodes to transfer electricity. When the battery is connected to the systems in your car, disconnect the negative terminal first before disconnecting the positive one. Remember the positive is pushing power to your car, while negative would be drawing back to the battery. You don’t want to accidentally shock (or short) every system in your car by pulling unchecked electricity back into the battery. If only the negative terminal of the batter is connected to the vehicle and something activates the positive electrode, the negative will surge, sucking power from anything it is connected to, which can blow fuses and destroy components.

For this same reason, when connecting a battery, connect the positive terminal first and then negative. It’s ok to feed power back into the system, then give it somewhere to go (back to the negative terminal, completing the circuit). If you connect the negative first, it will already be pulling on the electrical system so that when you attach the positive terminal, electricity will blast through everything to get back to the battery. It’s all about keeping that good circuit.

Keep an eye on your battery terminals, replace light bulbs and make sure wires are not rubbing against anything or getting damaged by corrosion.

The Body

This is often the prettiest part of the vehicle, but don’t let colorful paint fool you. Make sure any scratches or dents are sealed up or fixed. Compromising the integrity of any surface can let something in that you didn’t want, like water and rust. Rust can be extremely hard (or impossible) to get rid of once it takes hold on metal, and simple dents may appear harmless but could in fact be pinching a wire that might eventually break apart or start to transfer electricity into another surface.

Dirt, oil, corrosive material in the air and even sunlight will deteriorate a vehicle’s body over time. It will be your job to make sure that you don’t lose your car’s skin to the elements or circumstance. Cover it, shelter it, and prevent things from smashing into it. If you keep the body of your vehicle intact, the whole thing will stay together longer than you should.