The Land Rover began making an unfamiliar noise on start-up, a mixture of groan and whine. I put it down to belts slipping after it had been standing, and resolved to check them – some time.
When the noise appeared during any low-speed manoeuvring, I concluded it was the power-steering belt and determined to have a look – some time. It got worse. Eventually, I lifted the bonnet and, before feeling the belts, checked the power-steering fluid. The reservoir was empty. I filled it, the whining groans disappeared, and I’m waiting to see whether my delay in diagnosis has damaged the pump.
I’m ashamed of myself. For one thing, I should have overcome ingrained inertia and looked for a cause immediately; for another, I know that slipping belts squeal or shriek rather than groan. Also, I should have become aware of fluid loss through regular liftings of the bonnet rather than the once-in-a-blue-moon affair it has become. And for that I blame the motor industry.
All right, only in part. The problem is, modern cars are so much more reliable and need so much less in terms of regular inspections that the weekly once-over by conscientious owners is a thing of the past. Although maintenance schedules will advise, say, regular oil, tyre and coolant checks, few of us bother, because most of the time there’s no need.
When did you last have a car with grease nipples or a battery that needed distilled water top-ups? Many cars seem not to need oil between services; and hose and radiator leaks are far less common than in the days when you often saw steam pouring out of bonnets.
Some manufacturers positively discourage self-inspection – my Volvo has no engine-oil dipstick. You can fiddle with the computer and be told electronically that the level is OK but, unlike with the dipstick, you have to wait until it isn’t, to find that it isn’t. Even my old Rover P4 (last made in 1964) had a button, converting the fuel gauge into an oil gauge, so you could see whether it was fully OK or only just OK. And it had a dipstick, too, of course. (Admittedly, at the rate those P4s were designed to get through oil – about a pint every 200 miles – you needed both.)
I don’t know where the Land Rover’s power-steering fluid went. There were no telltale drips beneath the car. I had a Discovery with the same TD5 engine that used to lose a little through the pump; also without trace. Small, monthly top-ups were cheaper and easier than a new pump; so that, I hope, will now become routine. I also found that brake and clutch levels were down. How many drivers check those regularly – or even know where to find them?
As for tyres, how often do you get down on your hands and knees to check for the legal minimum of 1.6mm of tread depth across three-quarters of the tyre width? After brakes and steering, tyres are probably the most safety-critical feature. You can buy a simple gauge for measuring the tread or, even more simply, use a 20p coin. The border on the Queen side is about 3mm; so, if it’s below that, you should think about replacement. Simpler still, some makes of tyre have regularly spaced, raised lumps of rubber in the grooves, which you can feel with your finger. If they’re level with the top of the groove, replace now. Don’t wait for the screeching and squealing.