Your car is running fine, right? Mileage is what it’s always been, there’s no funny noise from underneath, no inscrutable icons lit up on your dashboard. So I can skip routine car maintenance right? It’s easy to get blasé about keeping up with routine car maintenance when all seems well. Modern cars are far more reliable than your parents or grandparents were.
Here’s a seemingly unbelievable data point: right after World War II, a passenger car required an oil change every 1,000-1,500 miles, which included lubricating a dozen or so places on the suspension with a grease gun. New spark plugs and ignition points (whatever those are) were needed every 10,000-15,000 miles. Contrast that with a new car that only requires an oil change every 10,000 miles or longer, spark plugs every 100,000, and never needs ignition points because it doesn’t have any.
There’s a danger to these increased service intervals. Sure, the vehicles have been engineered from the ground up to run unattended. The lubricants and things like coolant have been improved dramatically. But eventually, the oil will turn to Jell-O, the coolant will turn to acid and eat your radiator, and assorted mechanical things will break. Everything breaks: the only variable is when. Your vehicle needs routine car maintenance to stay reliable. Neglecting the service intervals specified in the owner’s manual is not only asking for a ride home in the cab of a wrecker, it leaves you vulnerable for expensive repairs, often far more expensive than a regimen of maintenance.
Here are some examples of what can happen if you don’t adhere to these routine car maintenance services:
If You Postpone Oil and filter Changes Too long
Engine oil actually doesn’t wear out. It does get contaminated with atmospheric dirt that sneaks past the air cleaner, wear particles from friction inside the engine, water from condensation, and partially-burned fuel and acids from the trace sulfur in gasoline. Eventually this turns your rich, golden oil into a witches’ brew that sludges up, blocks the flow of lubrication inside the engine and generally fails to lubricate.
You’ll risk: an engine that wears out prematurely, burns oil and performs poorly.
If You Never Book a Brake-Fluid Flush
Brake fluid is an alcohol-based hydraulic fluid that transmits the force from your brake pedal to the brakes themselves. It slowly absorbs moisture from the air, which promotes corrosion inside the steel brake lines. In addition, watered-down brake fluid has a lowered boiling point, making you boil the brake fluid at the bottom of a long downhill grade or after a panic stop.
You’ll risk: corrosion inside the brake system can promote leaks, as well as damage your very expensive ABS controller.
A secondary issue: if your brake calipers’ bleed screws haven’t been “exercised” by bleeding the brakes for many years, they may break off when the system needs to be serviced.
If You Neglect Cooling System Flushes
Coolant carries heat from your engine to the radiator. It’s a 50-50 mix of a chemical called ethylene glycol and water, dosed with an additive package to keep it from corroding the metals inside your cooling system. The additive package is supposed to last five years, and it generally does. When it’s exhausted, bad things happen inside, as corrosion eats away at the thin metal of the radiator tubes from inside, and sludge plugs them up. Unless you sell your car before it gets five years old, you should have the coolant drained and refilled as part of your routine car maintenance.
You’ll risk: old, tired coolant that will corrode your radiator or plug it with sludge, causing overheating and expensive engine damage.
If You’re Late on Brake Pad Replacement
Brake pads are the friction material that makes your car slow down when you press on the brake pedal. They wear out; how fast depends on your driving cycle and driving style. Urban driving, especially if you drive Type-A, will wear out your brakes incrementally faster than cruising along the highway. When the brake pads wear through, what contacts your brake rotors is the steel backing plate. That not only sounds terrible, it will damage the brake discs right away. Your mechanic can easily inspect your brake pads, and advise you how many more miles to expect before they’re worn out.
You’ll risk: Worn out pads that work poorly to stop your car. Letting them wear completely out will require you to re-machine, or even replace your brake discs.
If You Neglect Your Timing-Belt
Many modern cars use a fabric-reinforced toothed rubber belt to drive the camshaft, instead of more traditional cam drives based on chains or gears. The advantages are reduced weight, less noise and lower cost. Especially lower cost. These belts are extremely reliable, up to a point. Somewhere between 60,000 and 120,000 miles (depending on your car manufacturer’s recommendation), you’ll need to have the timing belt replaced with a new one. That will set you back at least several hundred dollars; ouch. Don’t neglect this – while some vehicles with a broken belt will simply stop running, some engines will allow the valves to crash into the pistons, ruining the engine instantly. No, simply inspecting the timing belt will not let you know how long it might last.
You’ll risk: a timing belt that fails instantly and without warning, at the very least earning you a tow to the repair shop. If your vehicle has an “interference” engine, a belt failure will likely require engine replacement.
If You Ignore Front-end Work: Tie-Rod Ends and Ball Joints
Your front suspension is pivoted on a series of articulated joints called ball joints, while the steering mechanism uses a smaller version of these same devices called tie rod ends. They allow the wheels to pivot left and right and left while moving up and down. Modern tie rods and ball joints are lubricated for life—which simply means they have no grease fittings on them to allow fresh grease to be pumped in regularly. They should last 80-100,000 miles, unless you live on a bumpy road or drive regularly on potholed city streets. (Of course, most city streets are heavily potholed lately, right?)
When your rod ends and/or ball joints develop wear, it becomes impossible to keep the wheels in alignment, because the suspension is free to wander from one side of the worn-out parts to the other. This means a certain vagueness in the steering early on, progressing to bad handling as wear increases ever more rapidly. Eventually, you’ll have a hard time staying in your lane, especially around corners. A second drawback is premature tire wear, as the tires aren’t kept pointing straight down the road, making them scuff off rubber constantly. Seriously neglected front ends can fail altogether, leaving you with one wheel pointed straight ahead, and the other pointed towards the middle of next Tuesday when something actually breaks.
You’ll risk: dangerously degraded handling and dramatically shortened tire life.
Looking for a quality mechanic for routine car maintenance? Use Openbay to compare quotes and book service from quality local shops in your area. Car repair for the modern world is here.
– Mike Allen- is a guest writer for the Openbay blog. He’s an ASE-certified mechanic, longtime former editor of Popular Mechanics, and world-record-holding race-car driver. For more on Mike, check out his bio here, and find him on his own site, Saturday Mechanic.