Cars – the Absolute Basics

If you’re a newly single middle-aged woman like me, who used to have a man who did all the car-related jobs, this is for you.

This is not for you if you’re perfectly happy to ‘get out and get under’, know which end of a dip-stick is which, and can tune an engine using just your sense of smell. But I still love you, you know that.

Here are some very very basic things that you need to know. After nearly forty years of thinking I really ought to learn how to do this stuff, I’ve really had to learn how to do this stuff.

Washing the car. Due to Husbanding my Resources, I’ve decided to wash my car myself.

Start with a bucket of water, and just slosh it on with a sponge – this gets the worst off and softens the rest. If the dirt is really bad, and if you have one, you might want to use a pressure washer. Don’t rub and scrub, you don’t want to grind bits of grit into the paintwork.

Then give your sponge a good rinse, change the water and add a bit of car shampoo. Don’t use washing up liquid – it’s too harsh and will strip the protective layer from your paint. Start from the roof and work your way down – roof; windows and windscreen; doors, bonnet and boot; then that really cruddy bit right at the bottom. I’m sure it has a name. Finally the wheels. When you put the sponge back in the bucket, just dip it under the surface – if you put it right down into the water you’ll start picking up the grime and grit that’s sunk to the bottom.

Change the water again. This time you’re rinsing, so you can slosh it on again.

Dry it off using a microfibre cloth (they’re better than the traditional chamois), so that it doesn’t go streaky. Just like cleaning windows, it’s best not to do it in direct sunlight.

Some people wash their cars every week. If you’ve forgotten what colour yours is, then you’ve left it too long. You can also polish your car if you have time on your hands.

Air. Your tyres need to be at the correct pressure so that they can do their job properly. My car has a cryptic symbol that appears on the dash. It means ‘one of your tyres could do with a teensy bit more air in it but we’re not going to tell you which one. No, no, we’re going to make you check all four, just for fun. Even though the technology exists for us to tell you which one.’ Or you might just notice that one of your tyres looks a bit saggy. Or you might sensibly check them regularly so that you can sort it out before it causes any problems.

Garage forecourts have air pumps, and for the princely sum of 50p you can buy enough air time to pump all of your tyres up.

But first you need to know what the tyre pressure should be – that is, how much air should be in them. This might be on a sticker inside the driver’s door – but it’ll also be in the handbook. Or you can google it. If you’re not sure, ask someone who knows what they’re talking about – it’s important to get it right. It may well be different for the front and back tyres. If you can find the pressure in BAR, perfect – that’s how it’ll be measured at the air pump at the garage. If you can only find the PSI measurement, you can change the default display at the air pump to PSI.

Each tyre has a sticky-out valve with a cap on it. Take all four caps off – do this before you pay for the air, so you’re not paying for time you’re not using. Put them somewhere safe. Then put your 50p in the slot (the clock starts counting down immediately) , key in the pressure you need, pull the air hose out, and select your first tyre. Shove the end of the air line onto the valve. It will automatically measure the tyre pressure and top it up as required. It beeps to let you know it’s done. Remove the nozzle and replace the cap. You might hear a small amount of air escape when you do this – it’s not enough to worry about. Move on to the next tyre. Don’t forget to change the setting between the front and rear tyres if you need to.

The 50p gives you three minutes, which should be enough to do all four tyres – but if time runs out don’t beat yourself up. Just stick another 50p in and carry on.

It’s a grubby job, what with the caps being filthy and probably having to kneel down. Don’t do it wearing anything that matters. You might want to wear vinyl gloves.

Under the bonnet. Check your handbook to see how to open the bonnet. Don’t do it immediately after a journey – wait about 10 minutes to allow the engine to cool. And don’t do it if it’s really windy.

Usually there’s some sort of lever at the passenger side (nope, no idea why it’s on the passenger side) – they can be quite stiff, so don’t be afraid to put some effort in to pulling it. The bonnet will pop up, but you won’t be able to open it completely. Then comes the fun bit – you have to put your finger tips into the gap between the bonnet and the car and feel for the bonnet catch. It’s normally at the front but can be slightly to the left or slightly to the right. I find it easier with gloves on.

Once you’ve found the catch and released it you can open the bonnet – but you now need to know how to keep it open. You really don’t want it to come crashing back down. Some stay up by hydraulics, some have a strut that you move to prop the bonnet open. Check your handbook if it’s not obvious.

To close the bonnet, lower it and then let it drop the last six inches or so. If it doesn’t close fully, give the front of the bonnet a sharp press down – don’t press the middle of the bonnet, you’ll put dints into the metal.

Topping up the washer bottle. The lid has a symbol that looks like a windscreen with water spraying onto it. Flip it open and fill it with water. In summer, that really is all you need to do. In winter, you need to use screen wash, to prevent the water from freezing either in the tubes or as soon as it hits the screen. You can buy concentrated screen wash that needs to be diluted, or you can buy it ready to use – easier, but more expensive. It makes sense to carry some screen wash in the boot, particularly in the winter when you’ll be using more.

Checking the oil. The car needs to be somewhere flat to do this accurately. Arm yourself with a cloth of some sort – to be truly authentic, it should be an oily rag… Pull the dip stick out completely, wipe it on the cloth, and put it back in again. Then pull it out again, and have a look at where the oil comes up to – there will be a maximum and a minimum level, and it should be between the two. If it’s too low, take it to a garage and ask them to top the oil up. If you see an oil patch under where your car has been parked, take it to a garage. The car, not the oil patch.

Modern cars aren’t designed to be fiddled with. So if something goes wrong and you don’t know how to fix it, call in the experts.

This is obviously only scratching the surface. What other car maintenance/car care do you think we should be doing?

If you’ve enjoyed this, or if you’ve learnt anything at all from it, let me know!!

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Joan Mudd says:

    I think that you have pretty much got it nailed there. I can introduce you to the “2 bucket method” of car washing if you like. It gets you 10 extra points on the anorak scale. Tee, hee! Also the really horrible bits at the bottom are called the sills or cills. The spelling is a matter of debate. Having this bit of knowledge also gets you 10 points.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I only have one bucket… But always happy to get points!! xx


  2. anglosvizzera says:

    Excellent advice!

    Two points to add – don’t check the tyre pressures when they’re warm as the reading will be too high, so you can do it at home before driving anywhere using a pressure gauge (looks like a metal ‘pen’ and can be kept in the glove box). If you have a foot pump (we keep one in the boot) you can add some air, but if it’s anything like ours, the reading on the pump isn’t what it’s meant to be, so need to check again at intervals (between pumping) with the gauge.

    Otherwise drive to the nearest garage so that the air in the tyres doesn’t warm up too much and proceed as “58andcounting” describes.

    Also, to clarify, only check the oil when ‘cold’, so either before starting the engine or after the car’s been standing without the engine running (as “58” says, 10 minutes at least), as the oil will take a while to drain back into the sump (another ‘useful’ word!) and you really don’t want to overfill it. If you do need to add oil, make sure it’s the correct sort (should be in handbook) as the wrong kind of oil may have consequences. Best to go to a garage of course, but if your car is a bit elderly it is something you might need to do yourself as older engines may not leak but do use up oil if you do a lot of miles.

    Another thing that may be useful to know is where the ‘key’ for the locking wheel nut is. Most cars have one nut on the wheel that has a special nut that needs a special ‘key’ to get it off, so people can’t steal the wheels easily. (Happened to me once, years ago before we had these special nuts…) Usually if you take your car to be serviced they’ll ask you to provide this special item so they can check your brakes and replace tyres etc. May be in the glove box or in with the spare wheel or ‘inflation kit’ in the boot. It looks like a socket with a funny shape one one end.

    I’m speaking as someone who has just offered to sell her youngest daughter’s car – she’s at uni and has acquired another one that was offered to her at a fantastic price by one of the tutors that was leaving the country. She was told to pay for it once she’d sold the old one, but she didn’t take into account that she was going to be spending time to-ing and fro-ing between London and Exeter and wouldn’t be around much. So I cleaned it all up, filled some large scratches around the bumper and repainted the area (looked good!), put new wiper blades on and managed to get hold of a lot of the service history that was missing, thanks to some old receipts passed on to my daughter and the co-operation of various garages.

    Sold it today for a decent price to a lovely young woman so fingers crossed it serves her well!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Anglo – think I might need to do a follow-up called ‘Not quite the absolute basics!’

    Liked by 1 person

  4. AILEEN GASSON says:

    As we are already in August how about learning how to put anti-freeze into the car, and topping up the radiator in general. My drive is on a slope so in very cold weather the light comes on to tell me that I need to top up the anti-freeze even though I know it is ok as I schedule it in.
    Regarding opening the bonnet – I have very small hands and short fingers and sometimes struggle with the bonnet catch so I have been known to use a wooden spoon.
    My ex-husband was a mechanic but towards the end of our marriage he decided it was time I did these things for myself instead of relying on him all the time, so I suggested he should probably learn how to do his own ironing. “How hard can it be?”, he said smugly. So I went off to do the shopping, fill the car with petrol and check the tyres, and came back to find he had managed to iron 1 shirt. “It’s harder than it looks”, he said pleadingly. “Never mind”, said I. “After 23 years (the length of our marriage) you’ll get used to it”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, autumn will be here before we know it!! Topping up the anti-freeze is a good shout. And love the wooden spoon idea!


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