Jun 4, 2009

Go greased lightning!

Or, perhaps not quite greased lightning. I somehow can't see John Travolta and his greasy crew getting very excited about our new people-mover. But I'm pretty excited. And off the top of my head, that song from Grease was the only car-pride anthem I could think of.

We are now the owners of a 1999 Toyota Estima Emina. Yep. We decided that a station wagon just wasn't going to be big enough for our growing family. (Well, not when relatives come to stay or we want to take a friend somewhere). As an aside, try saying "Toyota Emina" 5 times fast. Do you hear it? Worlds worst marketing decision.

But this post is not just about showing a photo of our new vehicle to our out of town relatives. It is also a book-review in praise of Auto Repair for Dummies, by Deanna Sclar.


Not that our car needed repairing at all - it survived the trip back from the Lakes District (where we bought it from) very well.

No, what I like about this book is that it starts with you as an absolute beginner (it explains, with diagrams, the difference between a standard and Philip's screwdriver, for instance), and walks you step by step through the whole shebang of car maintenance and repair.

I bought this book about 10 years ago when I got sick of suspecting I was being ripped off by my mechanic but having absolutely no idea whether I was or not. Being completely and utterly ignorant of the workings of my car meant that I couldn't tell the difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, or between a necessary repair and a waste of money.

With the help of this book I became quite proficient at the (very very) basic level of DIY car maintenance. Although I never got around to doing an actual oil change, I did replace the fuel and air filters and just generally took better care of my machine - making sure the tyres were properly inflated, being able to replace windscreen wipers, that sort of thing.

Once our first child came along and we replaced my old faithful hatchback with a sensible stationwagon I stopped doing the car repairs. For one thing, I was heavily pregnant at the time and just couldn't face getting down on my hands and knees in the garage. For another, the newer car had more stuff under the bonnet to get my head around - and everything just looked different. And once the baby was born I simply didn't have a couple of hours at a stretch to potter under the hood of the 'new' car to work out where everything was. So it just became easier to just rely on the mechanic again. We knew we had a good one, so that was alright.

When Merl drove our new beastie home, however, I was itching to get under the hood. You see, we bought this car via TradeMe (New Zealand's version of ebay), and didn't get it mechanically inspected or anything first (though we did get a VIR to check it was free from finance claims etc etc). I know. I know. Madness. But it was a very very good buy and even if it needs a couple of serious things done to it, we'll still be paying less than we would if we'd bought it through a dealer.

To set my mind at rest, I turned once again to my trusty Auto Repair for Dummies and performed the Monthly Under-the Hood Check. To see what I could see. Basically, all was more or less well, but there were a few things that I noted. Despite the car having been 'serviced' 2 weeks ago, the air filter was utterly filthy - so I can conclude that the 'service' was probably just an oil and filter change, and she's probably due a proper tune up. The hoses and wiring all looked in good nick, but the battery housing is quite corroded and the battery looks like it might even be leaking a little (despite it being new last year). So I think their mechanic was crap. The tyres were also horribly under-inflated - instead of being at 2.3kg per cm3 (approx 230kPa) - as specified on the little door decal, it looks like they were at 23 psi - not at all the same thing!

The one thing that completely stumped me was the search for the dipstick! I have no idea. I looked and looked and looked, and couldn't even see where I might add the oil itself, let alone find the dipstick. So if you know where to find such a thing on this model vehicle, I would be very grateful for the information!

By the end of yesterday, I'd inflated the tyres to their correct pressure, replaced the air filter and worked out how to use the CD changer (very important). I feel quite chuffed with myself. I'm sure it's driving better already, but she's still making the occasional funny noise. I'm now thinking that we might take it in for one of those 'pre-purchase inspections' just so we know what we're looking at. And then book her in for a full service and tune up, because I am, of course, heavily pregnant once more and am not going to do it myself.

One last word in praise of the Monthly Under the Hood Check-up. These things are really easy to do, and the very action of looking and seeing how your car is doing means you are far more likely to take her to a mechanic when something starts to go wrong, rather than waiting until it is very expensive and inconvenient.
  • Check the air filter
  • Poke all the belts to see if they're frayed or loose
  • Inspect the battery for corrosion/leaking
  • Check the levels of all the fluids - coolant, brake fluid, transmission fluid, windscreen washer fluid etc - in new cars these mostly have see-through reservoirs that you can just look at and see if its between 'max' and 'min' level
  • Squeeze the hoses to make sure they're neither spongy and bulgy nor brittle
  • Check the oil
  • Inspect the wiring to see if anything is loose
  • Check the windscreen wipers
  • Check the tyre pressure
  • ta daa!
Deanna Sclar of course gives detailed instructions on how to do each of these things (including how to open the bonnet of the car...), and although the first time I did it on my first car it took me a good hour, once I knew how to do everything it only took 15 minutes. Not a bad time investment when you consider that "taking care of these things can prevent 70% of the problems that can cause highway breakdowns".

All good.
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