CAR CLINIC | Why the home mechanic can still work on a modern vehicle

Sensors and microprocessors fitted to modern engines are exceptionally reliable hence there is no need to worry about these components during normal, routine maintenance.
Sensors and microprocessors fitted to modern engines are exceptionally reliable hence there is no need to worry about these components during normal, routine maintenance.
Image: Supplied

The daunting complexity of modern cars, and the increasing alienation of the man-in-the-street from the DIY culture, have given rise to the impression that today’s cars don’t lend themselves to home maintenance. I contend this is a false impression.

Certainly it is true that electronics play an ever increasing role in new cars, and the whole field of electronics and engine computers is an enigma for anybody who was trained 30 years ago. In fact, from what I hear, it would seem older people are not the only ones who are out of their depth in the world of sensors and microprocessors.

Luckily for the average car owner, sensors and microprocessors are exceptionally reliable, generally speaking. Hence there is no need to worry about these components during normal, routine maintenance. Routine maintenance involves things like engine oil changes, oil filter and air filter replacements, a check on brake linings and the vital fluid levels (brake fluid, engine coolant, automatic transmission fluid, power steering fluid), a scrutiny of accessory drive belts for signs of cracking or fraying, and an inspection of the tyres for damage, uneven wear or insufficient tread depth.

All these tasks are well within the scope of the average home mechanic. Yes, you will need a few basic pieces of equipment, like a good oil drain tank, spanners, a lead light and an oil filter wrench. (Incidentally, spanners can sometimes be found in pawn shops at a fraction of the price charged by tool shops).

Your garage will gain “clutter”, which is unwelcome in certain quarters. But you will save the household a tidy sum of money by doing the minor services yourself. As a bonus, you will get to know your car better, and you have a free hand in deciding which materials are used.

The classic engine tune-up  has become an anachronism on modern cars. Tasks like tappet adjustment, checking and adjusting ignition timing, carburettor adjustment and fettling the choke have either been eliminated, or are now taken care of by the engine computer. In a certain sense the engine computer is continuously tuning the engine while you drive.

What is left are the low-level maintenance tasks described above, and at the other end of the scale, the high-level repairs/replacements on the electronic management system for which specialised equipment and a skilled operator are needed. Such interventions are only called for when a problem in the running of the vehicle becomes evident, or, as in the case of timing belt replacement, when specified intervals have elapsed.

One of the objectives of routine maintenance is to postpone the need for specialist attention for as long as possible. For instance, it is well-known that a leading cause of electronic problems in cars is moisture penetration into connectors or assemblies. By doing the basic maintenance yourself, you can ensure a water hose (let alone a high-pressure washer) is never brought near your car’s engine.

Moreover, regular inspection of the engine and its ancillaries will reveal hardened, missing or split rubber boots whose job it was to keep moisture and dirt out of connectors.

While we are entering a year during which many of us can expect to face financial stricture, it is an opportune time to get into the habit of doing DIY maintenance on the family chariot. I promise that while you scrub your fingernails after a day of toil and tribulation, you will have the pleasure of reflecting on a job well done. And you will have  money left to treat the family to pizza.


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