If you've been keeping up with rules 10-4 in part 1 and part 2 of this series, here's the final 3 rules.
Rule #3 Watch for leaks
Fluids of all kinds are supposed to stay inside your vehicle. When they end up on the floor of your garage, it means something is leaking (that’s bad). Get leaks fixed ASAP. Run out of coolant? Engine overheats, catastrophic engine failure. Run out of oil? Engine seizes or worse, starts launching bits of flaming metal out the bottom of your car – i.e. catastrophic engine failure. Run out of brake fluid? You slam on the brakes, brake pedal goes to the floor, car doesn’t stop, you plow into the school bus full of nuns in front of you. Catastrophic engine failure? You betcha! Lawsuits and wage garnishments too!
An easy way of identifying your leaks is to place a large sheet of white butcher paper underneath your car. Dark brown stains indicate an oil leak. Green for coolant, yellowish or red for hydraulic fluid leaks. The ONLY thing your car should be leaking is pure water from the condensation formed while using your air conditioner.
Rule #2 Learn to diagnose your own problems
It’s always a crapshoot when something goes wrong. Competent (and honest) mechanics are hard to find. It’s best to be knowledgeable to some degree so that you can make an informed decision should your car decide to toss it’s cookies. Most importantly, do not panic. When you are in that state of mind its very easy to tow your car to the first half assed wrench you find and throw yourself (and your credit card) at his mercy.
Service manuals are always a good start. They contain some helpful diagnosis procedures so you at least have an idea what’s wrong. Factory service manuals are comprehensive and will provide detailed instructions on everything from changing the oil to overhauling the engine. Aftermarket manuals are a bit less overkill but may not cover the more subtle areas that you need information on.
Another good idea is a good OBD-2 diagnostic cable. These are pretty cheap and will allow most cars to be hooked up to a laptop via serial port to read check engine error codes and monitor other vitals. A lot of times your car will give you hints when something is wrong. The strongest hint is the dreaded check engine light. Having one of these cables will save an expensive diagnostic fee at your local dealership (usually costing $75 or more). The cable (and the software that ocomes with it) will also provide indepth analytical opportunities by logging parameters such as RPM, timing/spark advance, coolant temperature, etc.
This is by far THE most important rule. There is strength in numbers. The first thing I do before I buy a car is I find one or more online communities of people that own the same car. When I had my 300zx, I hooked up with Twinturbo.net. When I had my civic, I joined Hondatech.
Unless you have some terribly unpopular obscure snooze machine, chances are you will find people like yourself. Within these communities you will find a huge knowledgebase of information for common issues pertaining to your car.
Once you get involved, you'll find people willing to answer your questions. You'll find the eggheads that can help you troubleshoot your problems. You'll get ideas from watching other people modify and enhance their cars. You'll get thrills from sharing your own progress. It all amounts to the same thing - increased interest and pride of ownership, which will encourage you to follow rules 2-10.
Maintaining your car is a hobby, not a full time job. When you buy a car, you're investing into a platform, not just merely finding something to get around with (unless you're into that sort of thing). Follow these ten rules and you'll save a LOT of heartache and money.
In case you've missed the rest of this series:
10 Rules for Preventing Automotive Performance Loss Part I
10 Rules for Preventing Automotive Performance Loss Part II
Some online communities