If you're of a certain age or older, a part of growing up meant becoming at least somewhat familiar with performing basic maintenance on your car. It wasn't enough to be able to change a flat or replace the wiper blades. Almost all high school students (at least the males) had to take an auto shop class, which would teach you the basics of maintaining a car and how to perform common roadside repairs.
Many high schools eliminated auto shop classes from their curriculum long ago, and the complicated technology that controls just about every system in today's cars can be intimidating to the average car owner. We don't even change the oil ourselves anymore -- a simple task many people used to do in their garage, before drive-through oil changes became popular in the early 1980s. Cars last much longer now and suffer far fewer breakdowns, resulting in a more hands-off attitude toward preventive maintenance for many car owners.
However, preventive maintenance is actually more important than ever, warned David Rogers, chief operating officer of Keller Bros. Auto in Littleton, Colo., and founder of mondaymorningmechanic.com.
"Today's cars are very different in the fact that their tolerances are much less than our previous cars for a lack of maintenance. Conversely, if you do the maintenance, today's cars will last quite a bit longer that we're used to a car lasting," Rogers said.
One thing that hasn't changed is the importance of checking the tires regularly. Check the air pressure at least once a month -- a decal on the inside of the driver's side door will list the proper pressure. Forget using the tire gauge found on many air hoses at gas stations -- many give inaccurate readings after being dropped or run over.
Rogers recommended getting a dial tire gauge, one that has a speedometer-like meter. They're the most accurate and usually sell for less than $10 -- and unlike the new, fancy gauges with digital readouts, they don't run on batteries that tend to die off at the worst possible time. Also, check the tire pressure before driving, while the tires are cold.
Checking tire treads is even easier. Take a penny and hold it at its base, and insert it into the tread upside down, with Lincoln's head leading the way. If any part of his head disappears into the tread, it is still deep enough. If you can see any part above his head, it's time to replace the tire. This should be done monthly.
While you're at it, take care of your windshield wiper blades by cleaning them with a cotton ball and rubbing alcohol, which will remove the oil and grease that ruins the rubber. It only takes a few minutes and will make the blades last for years.
When the time comes to find a mechanic, Rogers recommended finding an ASE-certified technician that has been approved by AAA and the Better Business Bureau, and will let you into the garage to inspect fluid samples taken during a scheduled maintenance. He dismissed the idea that insurance policies prohibit customers from going into service areas.
"Get to know your fluids. Understand what they should look like," he said. "You need to find a shop that will let you in the back and pull those fluid samples in front of you and show you what they are."
After they pull the fluids, a simple chart makes it easy to see if any need changing. Fluid levels should be checked monthly, and can be done by anyone who can pop the hood, according to Mike Calkins, manager of AAA Approved Auto Repair.
"Check your engine oil level with the dipstick. Today the engine coolant, the brake fluid [and] the power steering fluid typically have translucent plastic reservoirs with markings right on them. You just see if it's low or high," Calkins said.
Air filters are still easily accessible with nothing more than a screwdriver. Lightly knocking it on a hard surface can dislodge larger pieces of debris. Holding it up to a light will let you know if it needs to be replaced.
"Fifty percent or more restricted, then it's time for a new air filter," Calkins said.