Yes, that is a Dutch LeBaron in the lead image. I have no idea what a LeBaron is doing in the Netherlands. Maybe it’s Jon Voight’s car, but I digress. There are some things you can only fix when they go wrong. Then, there are other things you can fix before they go wrong and/or end up costing you a lot more money. Cue LifeHacker's article. As many of you may know, changing your oil is not sufficient preventive maintenance. Discussed in the order of most- to least-impactful are the following preventive maintenance items:
Changing timing belts on an interference-type engine
If you don't replace your timing belt, your car's life may be cut short. First, determine whether you have a timing belt or a timing chain. If you have a timing belt, determine whether your engine is an interference-type or a non-interference-type design. If it's an interference-type engine with a timing belt, you need to change the belt before it fails. When the timing belt breaks on an interference-type engine the pistons will crash into the valves and absolutely destroy the engine. For most cars, this is a life-ender. The term "planned obsolescence" springs to mind.
Changing a timing belt is something you can do yourself, but it's a little complicated since it involves engine timing - which eludes me. If you choose to have the belt replaced at a shop, the repair can run around $500. It's a small price to pay to avoid a total loss on your vehicle.
If you have a non-interference-type engine, and the timing belt breaks, you will just be stranded where you are; the pistons will not crash into the valves. Timing chains, on the other hand, are very sturdy, are designed to never be replaced, and are intended to last the entire life of the vehicle.
Changing automatic transmission fluid (ATF) and/or gear lube
An automatic transmission is a complicated piece of machinery. Automatic transmission fluid (ATF) keeps that piece of machinery well-lubricated and clean. The ATF and the filter should be changed on a regular basis - every 30,000 miles seems to be a safe interval for most cars. The filter will accumulate all sorts of nasty bits, and there is usually also a magnet that collects metal filings which should be removed from the system. Automatic transmission rebuilds are hideously expensive, and are a life-ender for most vehicles that reach the age where such a repair might be necessary. I had to junk my first car after six months of ownership because of the necessity of an automatic transmission rebuild.
Manual transmissions use a special sort of gear lube (per the manufacturer's specifications) to keep all the internal components "happy." This fluid should also be changed on a regular basis, and metal filings should be removed from any magnets. All cars (including those with automatic transmissions) make use of differentials to transfer rotational energy from the driveshaft to the half-shafts which ultimately turn the wheels. These differentials also use gear lube which must be changed, and metal filings should, once again, be removed from any magnets.
Cooling system: Coolant level and hose pressure
Coolant shouldn't just "evaporate." A car's cooling system is sealed off, which means that a drop in the coolant level indicates a leak. To prevent catastrophic overheating, keep an eye on a problematic coolant level until you can determine the cause of the problem. A common source of failure would be the hoses, and the pressure in these hoses can be checked by simply squeezing them while the engine is running; a hose that can easily be pinched shut indicates a leak. Simply replace the hoses and go from there.
Brakes: master cylinder fluid level and pads
Just like your cooling system, your brake system is also sealed. There should be no drops in the brake master cylinder fluid level. The brake master cylinder reservoir is that important-looking cylinder in your engine bay, just ahead of the steering wheel. A drop can indicate one (or both) of two issues: (1) a leak in the brake lines, or (2) worn-down pads. As rfneimad points-out: "brake fluid goes low primarily because the pads wear low and therefore there is more room for the fluid to expand." Replace the pads before you add any brake fluid to the system, and see if that remedies the situation. Aside from checking the master cylinder fluid level, brake pads and rotors also should be routinely inspected. When pads wear away, you will start to destroy the surface of your rotors, which will also need a replacement. If you change your pads regularly your rotors should last for a long time.
Tires: pressure, rotations, and alignment
Don't believe for a second that because your car's tires are filled with nitrogen, they will hold a constant pressure; the Earth's atmosphere is primarily composed of nitrogen, so regular "air" offers a relatively similar level of inflation constancy. Additionally, a TPMS (tire-pressure monitoring system) only tells you when a tire is low; it does not ensure that a tire is properly inflated. Over- or under-inflation of tires will result in uneven wear that seriously limits the life of your tires. Check your tire pressure on a bi-weekly basis, but don't compare it with the rated PSI of your tires. The "rated" pressure is not specific to your automobile or your driving needs. Check out a support forum specific to your vehicle to get recommendations for the tire pressure you ought to use, but not at the expense of a ride quality with which you are comfortable.
Regular rotations (front-to-back is sufficient for unidirectional tires) will also serve to extend the life of your tires. Rotations are something you can do yourself with four jack stands and 15 minutes. You should also have a four-wheel alignment performed every 15,000 miles or so. This is to ensure that your suspension angles conform to the manufacturer's specifications. If you are an enthusiast, you might want a more aggressive alignment that comes at the expense of reduced tire life, but that's a decision you'll need to make. Alignments are fairly cheap and incredibly difficult to do yourself. My local shop charges $69.99 for the service, if that gives you an idea of a reasonable price.
Oil: Level and leaks
Oil leaks are not normal. Oil should remain in a sealed system, and any leak means that oil can exit the system, collect contaminants, and return to the oil sump. You don't want these contaminants flowing through the channels used to cool your engine. Adding oil might be a quick fix to ensure your engine continues to run, but you need to get the vehicle to a shop to diagnose the problem. Alternatively, you can diagnose the problem yourself. A gasket, which is a rubber liner that rests between components of your engine, is the common culprit. Valve cover gaskets aren't terribly expensive to replace ($200 to $300), but cylinder head gaskets can be much more labor-intensive ($1,000 to $1,600). Head gasket failure normally does not occur until later in an engine's life, and you'll need to make the decision as to whether you would like to invest in such a repair or junk the car. The complexity of the engine drives the cost to have the head gasket replaced. If you elect to replace the head gasket yourself, be prepared to take apart a good portion of the engine and set aside an entire week (if you're new to this sort of thing).
Midwesterners: listen up. Corrosion will limit your car's life more than almost anything else. How willing would you be to put thousands of dollars into a rust bucket? During the winter, salt will accumulate on the under-carriage of your car. It's important to wash off this salt on a regular basis to limit the onset of corrosion. Use only hot water, which will quickly evaporate, because salt dissolved in water is what causes corrosion.
Aside from the minimum washes during the winter, everyone should wash their cars on a regular basis to remove a lot of the contaminants and harsh chemicals with which paint will come into contact. Apply a good synthetic sealant (not just any kind of "wax") to aid your vehicle's clear-coat in protecting the underlying paint layers.
Sam Payne owns a first-generation Miata. His newspaper editor of a father told him not to go into journalism, and so Sam writes these articles as a way to avoid studying for his CPA exams.
Addendum: Turbo-Na-Miata and GIrchyGIrchy shared that the manufacturer's recommended tire pressure is often provided on a label affixed to a door jamb; vr6geek reminds us that a timing chain may not last the entire life of a vehicle; TheCrudMan recommends having alignment performed at a specialist's shop for the exacting among us; IFTNFS provides a very thorough explanation of what can go wrong with a modern cooling system; and Bighead38 (among others) offers additional insight on the wide variation in prices charged for changing a timing belt. Please browse the comments below for the specific contributions.
Special thanks to Arch Duke Maxyenko, 6cyl, trynthink, JGrabowMSt, and rfneimad
Image credits: Ruben de Rijcke (released under Creative Commons), Maz2331 (released under GFDL), Susan Cornell (released under 17 U.S.C. § 105), and BMiz (released under Creative Commons)