scoop on cars: What you should know, really
MIKE SAUR, CONTRIBUTOR
Perhaps the biggest mistake a friend can make is to
ask me a question about any automotive topic. Seriously, once asked, I
will not shut up. So, in the spirit of the "common good," I've decided
to get the car bug out of my system and to provide anyone fortunate enough
to pick up this week's Orient with the general basics on cars.
Back in my senior year of high school, I replaced my '86
Escort (a horror story if ever there was one) with a shiny '76 Mustang.
Let me say this: if ever you want a crash course in basic car repair,
buy a vehicle older than you are. When stuff gets old, it just breaks-weird
stuff, stuff you'd never even think of. Here are some things I've learned
through the years:
Whatcha Got in There?: On occasion, I've been surprised
when I've asked a few friends of mine what type of engines their cars
have-few have any idea. This is useful knowledge, folks. The first thing
an auto parts store clerk asks you is what the year, model, and engine
type of your car are.
Also, I can't help but think that a devious mechanic
might instinctively think "sucker" when he meets somebody that can't answer
this question. Basically, check your owner's manual. If you can't figure
it out, look under the hood.
What is that big thing with all of the hoses coming out of
it? That is your engine, folks. What type is it? Basically, engines are
categorized by their number of cylinders: usually four, six, or eight,
unless you're lucky enough to own a Viper.
To count cylinders easily, look for spark plugs. These
are identified by the big fat wires that attach to them. There's one plug
per cylinder, so this is sort of a gimme. If they are all in a single
row, this is a "straight" engine, i.e. a "straight six" or a "straight
If your engine has a single row of four cylinders but
those cylinders run sideways, from left to right, rather than front to
back, this is a "transverse mounted four." This seems trivial, but a lot
of compact cars have these, maybe even yours. What is a "V-6" or a "V-8?"
In this set up, the cylinders are in two parallel rows slanted toward
one another; hence, you either have two rows of four, or two rows of three.
Uncle Buck Syndrome: When you start up your car,
do you ever worry that anybody standing to the rear of your vehicle might
get carbon monoxide poisoning? If your car is kicking out too much exhaust,
any number of things might be wrong. First, make sure that you are not,
in fact, driving a steam locomotive.
No? Well, if there is a blue haze that puffs out of
your tailpipe when you start your car, this is burning oil. This is common
when a car reaches its golden era: nothing to worry about really, it's
just that, while the car sits, oil seeps into where it shouldn't, and
when starting, it burns the oil off. Your engine is aging, and rings and
gaskets aren't what they used to be.
If your car puffs blue smoke all the time, get to a
mechanic and prepare either for a new car or for some expensive maintenance;
cars run on gasoline, not 10-W30. If your car is smoking too much, and
the smoke isn't blue, and you have a lot of black soot in your tailpipe,
see a mechanic. Chances are your fuel mixture is off (the triangle of
combustion: air, fuel, and heat).
Too much gas is running "rich," too much air is running
"lean." On my old, carborated car, I can tinker with this. As your car
is probably fuel-injected, don't touch anything. Who knows, maybe you'll
save some gas money?
What's That Noise?: Again, if you aren't sure,
see a mechanic. Still, some basics.
Screeching every time you start the car and punch on
the gas means you have a loose belt. This is very easy to fix. Basically,
tighten the belt.
Most cars have flywheels (what the belts attach to)
that are on little pivots and slots. You can loosen a couple screws, pry
the flywheel as far out as you can so that the belt is tight, and tighten
the screws again.
To determine if a belt is loose, I have personally
developed a very scientific analysis known as the "wiggle test"-try it
if you dare. If that doesn't work, get a new belt-they're cheap.
If the car makes a groaning/grumbling/creaking noise
when it comes to a stop, check your brake pads and rotors! Most likely,
you'll want to see a professional (if you could do it yourself, you wouldn't
be reading this anyway). Brakes are very important if you like being able
to stop your car.
If, when you turn your wheel over hard, especially
when going slow, there's this rasping or rubbing noise, it could mean
several things. Maybe your wheel is rubbing something. Maybe it's your
power steering fluid. Maybe your power steering pump is on its last leg.
First, check the fluid and fill 'er up if she's low.
If you still have a problem, see a mechanic.
If there's a "tick-a-tick-a-tick-a" noise whenever
your engine is on, particularly when you punch the gas, most likely, your
lifters are clicking. Check your oil! This noise is a bad sign. If you
add oil and it's still clicking away, see a mechanic.
This is a good time to mention that one should never
wait until the red oil warning light comes on to check one's oil. If the
light is burned out, or if there's a problem with the sensor, you could
drive for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles with your engine parts grating
and chewing against each other?this could kill your car!
I hope that someday this will save somebody here some
trouble. Maybe it will get you to a friend's wedding, maybe it will make
sure that your car doesn't die in a blizzard-who knows? Still, even if
this article doesn't change your life, don't you feel handy? I thought
a junior, bought "Pure 70s" just to make his car feel young again.