Upgrades and Upkeep for Older Cars
Perhaps you’ve inherited an old family vehicle. Or, you’re about to hand down an older car to a young driver. Maybe you want a lower-priced vehicle to save some money. If so, you’re not alone. I drive an older four-door with nearly 200,000 miles on the odometer, and it’s been through two teen drivers. But with a little work and preventive maintenance, it’s reliable and safe.
I also love that it’s paid for. Trust me, the lack of car payments adds a shocking amount of beauty to a vehicle. Forget 20-inch rims and a killer sound system. Focus on safety and reliability. Stash the cash that would go to car payments. In short order, you’ll be able to afford a much nicer vehicle.
If you’re buying a used car, set aside enough money to make this new-to-you vehicle safe and reliable. If you’ve budgeted $8,000 for a purchase, for example, restrict your search to vehicles well under $7,000. If you spend the entire $8,000 up front, you won’t have money in reserve in case you run into car trouble. If you’re handing off a vehicle to a young family member, remember that you want them to be safe. Your gift comes with huge strings if the brakes are worn out, the tires bald and the transmission is shot.
Now, to the makeover. Unless the previous owner was especially conscientious or kind, you’ll probably have to replace the tires, renew the brakes and make other repairs. Consider these tips for “making over” an older car.
Check the Tires
You won’t even need to get your hands dirty to check the condition of the tires. Insert a quarter, Washington’s head down, into the most-shallow groove of the most-worn tire. If you can see the top of George’s wig, even modestly deep water can cause hydroplaning. A brand-new car tire begins life with at least 10/32 of an inch of tread (pickup and sport-utility vehicle tires have even deeper treads). If a tire can’t pass the quarter test, it has less than 4/32 of an inch of tread and, thus, is prone to hydroplaning — so it’s time to start tire shopping. If it’s at 2/32 of an inch, consider buying new tires as soon as possible.
Also, check the tires’ sidewall for an alphanumeric code that starts with “DOT.” The last four digits indicate the tire’s birth week: 2510 means the tire was built in the 25th week of 2010. Tires can die even if they haven’t gone far or done much. Regardless of tread depth, a tire that’s been on a car or sitting in the sun for six years has probably aged significantly. New tires on an old car are a safer combination than a newer car on bald tires.
Inspect the Brakes
Brake inspection is more difficult, but the task is far from impossible for a do-it-yourselfer. If you can open the hood, you can check the brake fluid reservoir. (The owner’s manual will show the location.) It’s bad if the fluid is dark, and terrible if the reservoir is below the “minimum” line. If the brake fluid is low or looks like it has gone bad, get the car into a mechanic as soon as possible.
Next, if you can change a tire, you can inspect the thickness of the brake pads. Remove a wheel, lower the car onto a jack stand (and NOT a cinder block or other unsafe substitute), and look at brake pad thickness and the condition of the rotors. Be thorough and inspect all four brakes. Drum brakes, found on the rear of many vehicles, are more difficult to inspect, but it’s a job well within the capability of most DIYers.
Advanced DIYers can also bleed the brakes. There are many videos on the web that explain how to do this, but contact a professional if you’re not comfortable tackling this one yourself. If the fluid is black and contains bits of rubber or rust, the vehicle needs a professional brake job as soon as possible.
Look for Leaks
It’s also a good idea to make sure your car isn’t leaking any fluids. To check for leaks, slide a slab of cardboard underneath your car and let it sit overnight. Except for water that drips from the air conditioner, the cardboard should be dry.
Any fluid that smells and feels like petroleum indicates there is a problem with the car that needs to be addressed.
Fluid that smells like pancake syrup (coolant) indicates a problem with the cooling system: This could range from a loose hose clamp to the rattling of a water pump that’s about to go kaput.
Coolant can come in various colors, including green, yellow, orange, red or even blue — and it’s important to make sure you replace your coolant with the proper type, as using the wrong kind can damage your car. Other fluids may indicate other issues. Mark where the cardboard sat, and the problem can be diagnosed by a mechanic.
Check the Engine Oil
Engine oil is another indicator of a car’s health. Look at the oil on the dipstick: Dark black is a bad sign. Also, check the underside of the oil filler cap: If it’s covered with baked-on crud, the previous owner rarely changed the oil. Those who can change oil should do so, or take it to a professional. If the oil comes out dark and lumpy, it’s possible to rescue this unfortunate situation with a series of 500-mile oil changes, but check with your mechanic for recommendations.
Change the Transmission Fluid
In the same manner, check the fluid on the automatic transmission dipstick. If it looks dark, it’s bad. Checking and renewing transmission fluid is best left to pros. Tell the technician that this is a new-to-you vehicle and you want a report on the condition of the fluid.
Test the Battery
A new car battery will not only make sure the vehicle starts in cold weather but will also help the starter and alternator last longer. So, it may be a good idea to check out the car’s battery and consider replacing it. Check that the cables and terminals fit tightly and that there are no signs of corrosion, says Consumer Reports. If the connections are dirty or have signs of corrosion, disconnect the battery and use a wire brush to clean them.
Call a Mechanic
If the previous few paragraphs were intimidating, take the vehicle to a professional mechanic for a thorough inspection. Even if you’re a pretty good DIY mechanic, have a professional inspect the steering gear, suspension and alignment. Worn or misaligned suspension will quickly wear out those new tires, and a suspension failure can be bad news.
Replace the Headlight Covers
The plastic that many vehicle manufacturers use often clouds over time. Sunlight and age can make headlight covers foggy, and the light shining through can be hazy. For my old beast, some lens polishing treatments did little to brighten the headlights, and they were soon back to opaque. Consider replacing the entire lens assemblies. New headlight assemblies will make the car look younger than it really is. More importantly, they’ll also help with visibility.
Check the Seat Belts
Auto racing organizations limit how long seat belts can be used on race cars. In highway vehicles, sun can deteriorate the belts and food can gum up the latching mechanism. I replaced the driver’s belts because they were frayed, and the latch didn’t immediately snap into place. You may want to consider having the seat belts replaced, especially if they are not working well.
Now that your older car is safe and healthy, you may want to make a few cosmetic upgrades if you have a few dollars left over. I found a new set of brand-correct wheel covers online for less than $100, including shipping, while generic covers can be had for $30 a set. They’re not as cool as $2,000 new wheels, but they still cut years from the car’s apparent age. Also, a serious detailing — which can include everything from shampooing the interior to hand waxing the exterior — is about $200 and will allow you to pretend you have a new ride — but without the monthly payments.
Whether you’re buying a used car or want to keep your older vehicle for a few more years, some preventive maintenance and a few upgrades can help keep it running well and looking good. With a few updates and upgrades, you can have a safe and reliable vehicle.
Originally posted on January 2, 2014.