SAFETY CHECKS

The Oldie - - PURSUITS - ALAN JUDD

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.

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