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Au­to­mo­tive en­thu­si­asts stand out from the rest when it comes to de­vot­ing pas­sion, time, and money to cars. Ef­forts can range from a sim­ple car wash to in­vest­ing in an up­graded sus­pen­sion or mak­ing more power un­der the hood. How­ever, some of the mis­guided or mis­in­formed en­thu­si­asts find them­selves

un­wit­tingly guilty of cut­ting crit­i­cal main­te­nance cor­ners that can af­fect per­for­mance. Some of these are more ba­sic while oth­ers are far more crit­i­cal. The good news is these can be ad­dressed or in­spected by the DIY en­thu­si­ast, leav­ing no good ex­cuse for ne­glected main­te­nance items. Let’s look at the first six-pack of items of which ev­ery­one should be con­sci­en­tious. Why not get max­i­mum re­turn from your ride?


Clean En­gine Bays, Driv­e­trains

COST: < $50

BEN­E­FIT: Iden­tify leaks and other is­sues, pre­vent costly or cat­a­strophic re­pairs Keep­ing your en­gine bay and un­der­car­riage clean isn’t just for show points. Do­ing so makes it eas­ier for you to iden­tify leaks or other is­sues be­fore they be­come big prob­lems. A leak­ing valve cover, worn camshaft seals, and tired gas­kets are just a few of the is­sues you might un­cover when you see fluid where you shouldn’t. The same goes for the un­der­car­riage. Oil and other flu­ids can­not defy grav­ity. There­fore, if you see pud­dles of fluid un­der your car, check­ing from be­low is not a bad place to start. Keep­ing ev­ery­thing clean makes pin­point­ing the prob­lem much eas­ier.


Proper In­stal­la­tion

COST: Noth­ing

BEN­E­FIT: Pre­vent un­nec­es­sary re­pairs or parts re­place­ment Parts clear­ance is such a no-brainer and costs you noth­ing but a few min­utes of your time, yet many cut this cor­ner and po­ten­tially cost them­selves more in the long run. Dou­ble-check to make sure each com­po­nent you come in con­tact with (both old and new) does not en­counter in­ter­fer­ence with an­other part—fixed or mov­ing. Take time to ad­just the po­si­tion of your hard­ware or re­move ex­tra ma­te­rial for proper clear­ance. Do­ing so can save you hun­dreds if not thou­sands in re­place­ment parts or re­pair bills. For ex­am­ple, a poorly routed oil feed line that un­in­ten­tion­ally en­coun­ters a pul­ley could re­sult in loss of oil pres­sure and a po­ten­tially dam­aged en­gine. En­sur­ing good clear­ance is also a safety is­sue, as a poorly in­stalled brake line that in­ter­feres with the sus­pen­sion could wear or rup­ture, re­sult­ing in lost hy­draulic pres­sure to your brakes, a col­li­sion, or worse.


In­spect Your Tires

COST: Noth­ing, un­less you need an align­ment BEN­E­FIT: Iden­tify ir­reg­u­lar wear, align­ment, and in­fla­tion, and im­prove han­dling and tire life

Your tires are truly the only thing be­tween your car and the road, so tak­ing care of them is para­mount. Ne­glected tires won’t hes­i­tate to tell you ex­actly what is go­ing on with the car… if you’re pay­ing at­ten­tion to what they’re telling you. If the in­ner shoul­ders of the tread are wear­ing faster than the outer, or vice versa, there could be an align­ment is­sue with cam­ber and/or toe set­tings. (Stanced car own­ers, ex­pect this con­di­tion to be nor­mal.) If there is cup­ping (the tread is not wear­ing evenly or shows scal­lop­ing of the tread) then there could be an is­sue with the dampers, sus­pen­sion bush­ings, or even some­thing sim­ple like the tires are out of bal­ance or not ro­tated of­ten enough. If the mid­dle of the tread is worn more than the shoul­ders, the likely cause is un­der­in­fla­tion. In ad­di­tion to keep­ing up with reg­u­lar ro­ta­tions and pe­ri­odic in­spec­tion of the sus­pen­sion (to en­sure the tires are wear­ing evenly), don’t make the mis­take of down­grad­ing tire qual­ity. Tires pro­vide me­chan­i­cal grip to your car. Sure, cheaper tires might of­fer longer tread wear due to a harder tread com­pound, but they of­ten ex­change longevity for per­for­mance, weight, safety, ef­fi­ciency, and com­fort. Thus, down­grad­ing tire qual­ity will typ­i­cally re­sult in poorer ride qual­ity and han­dling, longer brak­ing dis­tances, and worse mileage.


Check Your Brakes

COST: Noth­ing, un­less you need to re­place your pads, ro­tors, or calipers

BEN­E­FIT: Iden­tify ir­reg­u­lar wear, pre­vent dam­age to ro­tors, im­prove brak­ing per­for­mance

Your brakes serve an ob­vi­ous and cru­cial role for both safety and per­for­mance. In the case of a street car, op­ti­mal brak­ing could be the dif­fer­ence be­tween avoid­ing a col­li­sion and caus­ing dam­age and in­jury. On a race­track, a proper brake setup can mean im­proved lap times. Un­for­tu­nately, most street car own­ers fail to proac­tively in­spect their brakes with reg­u­lar­ity. In­stead, they re­act once the brake in­di­ca­tor light on their gauge clus­ter, the squeal­ing sound of a pad wear in­di­ca­tor or, in the worst-case sce­nario, the grind­ing sound of the pad back­ing against the brake ro­tor oc­curs.


Reg­u­lar in­spec­tion of the pads and ro­tors will also let you know if the brake sys­tem is func­tion­ing prop­erly or not. In the case of a slid­ing caliper, if the outer pads are wear­ing more quickly than the in­ner pads or the pads show signs of tapered wear, it could be an in­di­ca­tion of seized guide pins and/or slides. If the in­ner pads are wear­ing more quickly, it could in­di­cate the pis­ton or pis­tons are not re­tract­ing due to cor­ro­sion, a worn seal, or pis­ton dam­age. This could in turn cause the pad to drag against the ro­tor, re­sult­ing in ex­ces­sive and ac­cel­er­ated wear, and re­duced ef­fi­ciency.


Use Coolant With Deion­ized or Dis­tilled Wa­ter

COST: < $40

BEN­E­FIT: Avoid costly dam­age or re­pairs to cool­ing sys­tem and en­gine

Main­tain­ing your en­gine’s op­er­at­ing tem­per­a­ture re­quires a proper coolant mix­ture in a 50/50 ra­tio with deion­ized or dis­tilled wa­ter. The coolant (typ­i­cally eth­yl­ene gly­col based) en­hances the heat trans­fer prop­er­ties and tem­per­a­ture range of wa­ter to give your en­gine a wider op­er­at­ing range. Coolant also con­tains ad­di­tives that help lu­bri­cate the wa­ter pump and of­fer a de­gree of cor­ro­sion re­sis­tance to the cool­ing sys­tem. So, why is it im­por­tant to mix coolant with deion­ized or dis­tilled wa­ter? Deion­ized wa­ter has been treated to re­move the min­eral ions that nat­u­rally oc­cur in tap wa­ter. While these min­er­als are ben­e­fi­cial to hu­mans, they will chem­i­cally re­act within your en­gine by way of elec­trol­y­sis, caus­ing cor­ro­sion on ev­ery­thing from the coolant pas­sages to your ra­di­a­tor and heater cores. Leaks and/or over­heat­ing will even­tu­ally fol­low, leav­ing you with an ex­pen­sive re­pair bill.

Ide­ally, stay away from your gar­den hose and only use deion­ized wa­ter. Dis­tilled wa­ter is an ac­cept­able al­ter­na­tive, even though it still con­tains some min­eral ions. In an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion, tap wa­ter works fine if you need to top off your coolant when you’re nowhere near a gas sta­tion, Wal­mart, Tar­get, or Au­to­zone. Just be sure to flush your cool­ing sys­tem and re­fill with the proper 50/50 mix­ture of coolant and wa­ter as soon as you can. You can also use deion­ized or dis­tilled wa­ter in con­junc­tion with cor­ro­sion-in­hibitor ad­di­tives as an al­ter­na­tive. This is a pop­u­lar op­tion for the track en­thu­si­ast, since a 50/50 coolant mix­ture is of­ten pro­hib­ited at race­tracks (it’s slip­pery and takes a long time to clean up).


Don’t Over­fill/un­der­fill En­gine Oil COST: Noth­ing (if done cor­rectly); fail­ure could cost you an en­tire en­gine

BEN­E­FIT: Ev­ery­thing runs right and lasts for hun­dreds of thou­sands of miles

When it comes to the flu­ids that keep your car run­ning strong, more isn’t al­ways bet­ter. Au­tomak­ers spec­ify ex­actly how much oil you should fill the en­gine with for proper op­er­a­tion. Ob­vi­ously, un­der­fill­ing will leave you with too lit­tle fluid for proper lu­bri­ca­tion. On the other hand, too much fluid will leave you with dif­fer­ent and po­ten­tially ex­pen­sive con­se­quences. Some en­gines are par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive to the oil level in the crank­case.

If the oil level is too low, air can be drawn into the oil gal­leys and leave your bear­ings un­lu­bri­cated for a brief mo­ment, re­sult­ing in metal-on-metal con­tact, spun bear­ings, and an ex­pen­sive en­gine re­pair bill. In­ter­est­ingly, over­fill­ing your en­gine can yield sim­i­lar re­sults, since over­fill­ing the crank­case could raise the oil level to a point where it en­coun­ters the crank­shaft. If this oc­curs, the oil can be­come aer­ated by the crank­shaft, cre­at­ing air bub­bles that get pumped into the oil gal­leys. Fol­low the man­u­fac­turer’s rec­om­men­da­tions, use the en­gine dip­stick to check the oil level, and re­mem­ber, just enough fluid is just right.


These six main­te­nance items ad­dress com­mon and pre­ventable mis­con­cep­tions and mis­takes that have cost en­thu­si­asts many thou­sands of dol­lars. Take the time to main­tain your ride, and it will give you back years of re­li­able ser­vice. These im­por­tant fun­da­men­tals of main­te­nance will en­sure your ve­hi­cle doesn’t end up cost­ing you more than it should to main­tain, while pro­vid­ing you with en­joy­ment for many years and thou­sands of miles to come.

Next month, we’ll ad­dress the sec­ond half of The Dirty Dozen, ex­plor­ing six more cat­e­gories that shouldn’t be ne­glected or over­looked.

Slowly leak­ing flu­ids make a hor­ri­ble mess and in­di­cate some­thing is not right. Lo­cat­ing leaks is much eas­ier when the en­gine and driv­e­line are kept clean.

Reg­u­lar in­spec­tion of your tires will en­sure you get the most out of them. Longer ser­vice life, even wear, im­proved mileage, a com­fort­able ride, op­ti­mal han­dling, and shorter brak­ing dis­tances are but a few of the ben­e­fits of qual­ity rub­ber that is well main­tained.

While metal-on­fiber­glass (or ure­thane) fit­ment is­sues (as is the case with pip­ing and bumpers) may not be the worst-case sce­nario, metal-on-metal con­tact will make short work of your ex­pen­sive alu­minum or steel in­ter­cooler and pip­ing.

Look­ing through the wheel spokes, the outer pad (left) looked like it had ad­e­quate ma­te­rial to last a while longer. After tak­ing the wheel off to clearly in­spect both pads, the tapered in­ner pad re­vealed the caliper pis­tons were not re­tract­ing.

Tap wa­ter is OK for tem­po­rary use. How­ever, long-term tap wa­ter use re­sulted in cor­ro­sion and dam­age to this plas­tic wa­ter neck. This is the re­sult of more than a decade of us­ing tap wa­ter in­stead of coolant. Alu­minum en­gines and ra­di­a­tors will also suc­cumb to cor­ro­sion, while iron blocks suf­fer the worst.

Go­ing well past the in­di­ca­tor, this pad was worn to the back­ing with no fric­tion ma­te­rial left. This left the ro­tor dam­aged and in need of re­place­ment. Don’t let this hap­pen.

The con­se­quence of air get­ting drawn into the oil pump and gal­leys is metal-on-metal con­tact, as can be seen here on this cam jour­nal.

This owner clearly ig­nored the min­eral buildup and cor­ro­sion from us­ing tap wa­ter and in­stances of over­heat­ing.

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