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Basic Maintenance - Assuming the Worst

Used-car prepping for daily abuse

Aaron Bonk
Sep 7, 2017

You just bought that used hooptie Craigslist's been trying to slang for months. It managed a straight line on that test-drive and dad gave it the official thumbs-up following that tire-kick, but the truth is you don't know diddly about that $3000 lump you just drove home in.

  |   Don't let a clean engine bay fool you. There's no way of knowing when exactly that water pump and timing belt, for example, have been changed-if ever. You performing all of that routine maintenance on that used car you know little about will never be a bad idea.

Which is exactly why you ought to assume the worst. Pretend that oil hasn't been changed since September. Of 2004. Act like that timing belt's never seen daylight and that the transmission fluid's the same stuff that the guy on the assembly line squirted in. Assume the worst and you won't have to go wondering whether or not that water pump'll fall apart tomorrow or two years from now. Cover the following areas and the chances of you encountering all sorts of expensive problems just got a whole lot better.

  |   It'll vary a bit from car to car, but most of the time you'll need a spread like this to get 100,000 miles worth of maintenance out of the way.

THE OBVIOUS STUFF

  |   Assume your Craigslist find hasn't had an oil change for 10 years and that the previous owner had never heard of the word "viscosity."
  |   The oil filter's condition can clue you in on the car's history, too. Baked-on filters that require anything more than your hands to remove can be a sign of neglect.

Engine oil: What that engine oil looks like can reveal a whole lot of history. Do the obvious and swap it out with a fresh filter and an oil change. Clean oil of the right viscosity is the only thing keeping stuff like crankshafts and connecting rods from grinding up against one another in ways you can't afford. Filthy oil that's a quart shy of what your engine says it should be is a sure sign you oughta be skeptical of just about everything else.

  |   The condition of the air filter can also point to the car's history. When one of the most simplest maintenance items has been neglected, it's hard to imagine any of the more difficult ones haven't been.

Air filters: Like engine oil, a cruddy air filter can be a sign of neglect; nobody's going around flushing out things like transmission fluid when they haven't even swapped out a $7 air filter.

THE WET STUFF

  |   Most of the time, draining what fluid's floating at the bottom of the transmission and then refilling it with the same amount is good enough. But when you've got no idea whether or not the right sort of fluid is in there to begin with, it's got to be flushed out entirely. You'll need something like OEM Tools' Manual Fluid Evacuator to do this, where most of the fluid can be pumped out into its self-contained reservoir.
  |   OEM Tools' evacuator comes with enough hose to reach into most transmissions, differential housings, transfer cases, or engine blocks to help get rid of excess fluid that can't be drained on its own.
  |   OEM Tools' evacuator also comes with a slim tube that can be inserted into the engine's oil dipstick housing for pumping engine oil out. If you wanted to, you could pump everything out from up top without having to undo the drain plug.
  |   OEM Tools' evacuator also features special leak-free connectors that are used to adapt its various hoses to one another and feature integrated hooks that help keep everything in place while pumping.

Transmission fluid: Chances are, your car's service manual says that all that transmission of yours needs is a quick drain and a refill. Your service manual doesn't realize that the bonehead who owned that Accord before you never once did anything like that, which means you draining out three quarts of ATF will still leave you with six quarts worth of muck. Here, flushing that whole mess out is your only choice. Most would opt for visiting their local dealership and throwing down some hard-earned dollars on this process. You'll see below that, with the help of OEM tools, you can do it yourself, in your driveway, and save some money in the long run.

  |   Use a graduated container like this when draining something like a rear differential. The container's marks will let you know whether or not there was too little or too much fluid inside. Containers like these are especially helpful for newer cars with semi-sealed transmissions that don't have dipsticks; just add in the same amount that you removed.
  |   Things like engine and transmission dipsticks and oil and radiator caps are some of the first things you should be looking at to reveal the quality of the fluids and, in turn, a little bit about the car's history.

Differential fluid: If you've got a serviceable differential, like you'd have with anything RWD or AWD, then you'll want to drain whatever fluids inside. Most differentials don't need to be flushed; they don't have the same sort of inner workings that an automatic transmission does, for example, which means almost all of its fluid can be drained out just by removing that plug.

Coolant: You think opening up that radiator valve and draining what's inside into a bucket is good enough and you're wrong. Most of that cruddy old coolant will be found in the engine block and should be drained from there, too. Look for the engine's drain valve or block-off plug which you'll find someplace on the block's lower half.

Power steering fluid: Flushing the power steering system isn't always necessary. Most of the time, draining and refilling the reservoir a couple of times will cycle in enough new fluid.

  |   In most cases, you'll want to replace whatever aluminum or rubber washers your engine, transmission, or differential housing's plugs have got.

THINGS THAT GO SNAP AND POP

  |   Replacing the timing belt on interference-type engines like most Hondas will never be a bad idea. Once that thing snaps, there's no stopping those valves and pistons from bouncing up against one another.

Timing belt: At best, a slipped or broken timing belt will make that engine of yours barely run. At worst, it'll squash all of its valves and pistons together in one big tidy pile. You pulling off that plastic cover, looking at that timing belt, and knowing whether or not it needs to be replaced isn't gonna happen. Timing belts rarely show signs of obvious wear, which means replacing it now might save you from that bottom-end build-up you weren't planning on.

  |   Accessory belts like those for the A/C and alternator (left) can often be diagnosed by the presence of small cracks, but timing belt (center) failures typically go unannounced. Sometimes fraying or deterioration can be seen, but the chances of you pulling off those plastic covers and/or valve cover(s) to inspect them at just the right time are slim. And if you're timing belt uses any type of automatic tensioner (right), do yourself a favor and replace it at the same time.
  |   Serpentine and accessory belts can be a lot easier to diagnose but they're also cheap. Not replacing them when you're removing them anyways to swap that timing belt won't make sense.

Accessory belts: Things like serpentine belts and alternator belts, for example, won't cause the same sort of catastrophic damage as a snapped timing belt might, but not swapping in new ones is just as dumb of a decision. A flung alternator belt can still leave you stranded, and a serpentine belt that drives the water pump can leave you with a blown head gasket.

  |   A lot of times, the first of the cooling hoses to fail are the radiator's upper and lower hoses. Swapping in new ones with the appropriate clamps when flushing the old coolant out will always be a good idea.
  |   Radiator caps seldom fail, but they can be the cause of peculiar overheating issues. It's the cap's job to maintain pressure within the cooling system; once its internal spring wears or stops working, overheating can occur.

Cooling hoses and caps: A failed radiator hose is a wet and obvious mess. A radiator hose on the brink of failure, not so much. Replacing the upper and lower radiator hoses for new ones will never be a bad idea.

THE UNKNOWNS

  |   There's really no way of knowing whether or not the water pump and thermostat ought to be replaced this side of the pump leaking or the engine overheating. Replacing them before any of that happens is the ultimate in preventive maintenance.

Water pump and thermostat: You replacing that timing belt and not taking care of that water pump at the same time won't be your brightest move. Even if your engine's got a timing chain or its water pump isn't driven off the timing belt, it still ought to be replaced. You've got no way of knowing it's lifespan, which means starting from square one with a new pump will be your best move. Same goes for the thermostat; with the coolant already drained, there are few smarter ways for you to spend $15.

  |   The right spark plugs that've been properly gapped can make all the difference. Apply anti-seize compound to the threads before screwing them in place to make getting them out next time easier.

Spark plugs: Not swapping in a new set of plugs can hurt everything from gas mileage to performance. Not swapping them out ever can make them nearly impossible to remove and can even damage the threads they're screwed into.

Valve clearance: Not every engine's valves can be adjusted, but if they can, it'll do you well to check their clearances. Valves without enough clearance can lead to poor performance and can damage the valves themselves. Valves with too much clearance can hurt performance, too, and will make a whole lot of noise.

Sources

OEM Tools
800-457-0600
By Aaron Bonk
383 Articles

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