Even the most avid drivers have probably spent a fair amount of time off the roads these past few months, with mandatory lockdowns leaving us all with nowhere to go except the local supermarket.
While our project cars might have gotten plenty of love, our actual day-to-day cars may have been left idle – tucked away in the garage, driveway or side street waiting for their moment in the sun.
With coronavirus restrictions lifting across Australia, that moment has finally arrived – but before you hit the wide open roads, there are some things you should do to ensure your car is road-ready.
To create the consummate checklist, we reached out to a bunch of people who know their stuff when it comes to car care and asked them to outline their thoughts on must-do maintenance.
Below, your post-coronavirus car care checklist.
Get a battery health check
"The main issue you're likely to encounter from leaving your car sitting for a while would be battery health," says Matthew Guastella, junior manager at Ralph Guastella Motors.
"Those five-minute trips around the corner to the shops have probably done more damage than those three months where the car was just sitting there, because it’s not enough to put back in what you’ve taken out. If the battery is already a couple of years old it can get run down because five minute trips don't give the car time to warm up."
Lucas O’Brien, manager at Clickable Automotive, adds: "Modern vehicles electrical systems have a 'safe mode’ that will disable non-critical systems (like the stereo, heater, etc) if the battery is discharged to ensure the owner does not get stranded. Overall, vehicles will do some funky things if the battery is discharged or is in need of replacing so this is wise to be mindful of."
If in doubt, get a professional battery check, Mr Guastella says. "The best thing is the get a battery health check from your local mechanic because, although it might start that first time, batteries always struggle in colder weather and it could die further into your journey.
"If you can’t get to a mechanic, a portable jumper pack is a good idea. They’re probably around the $200 mark. Borrow one from a friend," Mr Guastella suggests.
Check your levels
At a minimum, check your radiator coolant/water levels and oil levels and make sure they're topped up or replaced.
"Ensure your oil level is between the minimum and maximum point on the dipstick and the same with your coolant levels," Mr Guastella says.
Additionally, if you know how to do it, check your brake fluid levels and top up your wiper fluid if it needs it.
"Most other fluids, such as gearbox oil and power-steering fluid don’t need checking outside of routine servicing, but it’s worth checking your brake fluid level while you have the bonnet open," the NRMA says.
"If the level is low, or falling quickly, it could indicate a potentially dangerous leak in the braking system that could lead to brake failure."
If that's the case, book in to see a mechanic. And if in doubt, don't DIY. According to Mr Guastella, the golden rule of at-home car maintenance is: "If you know how to do it, do it, if you’re not sure, don’t."
Or, if you're not sure, learn (but maybe with some supervision).
Look for leaks
"The longer term effects of vehicle storage can see seals dry up," explains Mr O’Brien, manager at Clickable Automotive.
"Oil leaks are a very common once a vehicle is driven again after a long break. The same is true for rubber bushings and other suspension components.
"I’d suggest monitoring signs of leaks or worn out rubber components once the vehicle is back on the road and perform these repairs early (if needed) to avoid bigger repairs."
Go for a warm-up run
Just like taking your tired body to the gym for the first time after exclusively snacking and only going for "long walks" as exercise, you'll need to ease your car back into driving.
"Things like the brakes and tyres will benefit from a drive that’s long enough to warm everything up to operating temperature," says RACV Senior Vehicle Engineer, Nicholas Platt.
Twenty minutes to half an hour should do the trick, says Mr Guastella, and can be particularly beneficial for cars with performance tyres.
"Take them for a drive and get the tyres warm – but normal driving, don’t do Peter Brock-style slalom testing. If it’s not feeling too bad, take it up to a higher speed."
Ideally, do this somewhere you can maintain consistent motion. "Stop-start traffic won’t do it. Consistent driving will," Mr Guastella says.
Check your headlights and brake lights
It may sound obvious, but checking your headlights are working can be often get forgotten in the excitement of setting off on the road.
"Now that restrictions have been lifted it’s a good idea to check all your lights are working before you head off on a road trip, simple safety things are best to be checked before every trip," says Ben Connolly of Chatswood Brake and Clutch.
Additionally, dull headlights can signal a battery issue.
Remove leaves and debris from your car
If you've parked your vehicle on the street, chances are that a solid collection of leaves, twigs and other oddities have accumulated on its windshield. But this kind of debris can prove damaging to your car's mechanics.
"Pull debris out from under the wipers, pop the bonnet and pull all the leaves out - pull as much muck out of there as you can - because it makes its way into the pollen filter or your heating and cooling system," Mr Guastella advises.
"If your heater or your cabin air filter manages to block up all the way with leaves and debris, you can sometimes hear strange noises in the cabin."
Plus, if your car has a sunroof, this kind of debris or rain residue can also block drainage systems, which can lead to dampness in the cabin.
"When rain or dust it gets caught in a corner it solidifies and it becomes a dry mud, it blocks a lot of drains in cars especially in the sunroof," Mr Guastella explains.
"With sunroof drains, the water will pool in the rails or make its way inside the A-pillar trims and into the footwell. People can often smell a musty smell or feel dampness on the carpet."
Check on your spare
Your spare wheel will be your saviour in the event of a flat tyre, so ensure it's ready to go before you hit the road.
"The ideal tyre pressures will be located in your vehicle handbook or be found inside the fuel filler flap as well as on the driver’s doorpost," Mr Golledge says.
"There is nothing worse than needing to use your spare tyre in an emergency and it not being up to the job, so also visually check your tyre for damage – cracks, cuts, impacts and punctures are all reasons you should be looking to replace your spare.
"Finally, don’t forget to look at the tread of your spare tyre. The rubber of a spare tyre may still degrade over time, putting you at risk of longer braking times in wet conditions."
Top up your tyre pressure and check your tread
"Safety starts with our tyres, so before we hit the road again, it’s important to check your tyres for any visual damage and ensure that the pressure is in line with your vehicle handbook," Mr Golledge says. You can top up your tyre pressure as required at your local petrol station.
As for tyre treat, "tyres should be changed immediately should they fall below the Australian legal tread depth limit of 1.6mm," Mr Golledge explains.
"A great trick for checking this yourself is the 20c coin trick. Place a 20c coin into the tread of your tyre and if it doesn’t reach the bill of the platypus, it means there’s less than 3mm of tread remaining."
It also doesn't hurt to have your tyres regularly rotated and aligned to extend their lifespan.
"To encourage your tyres to wear evenly, have them rotated and balanced every 5000km," Mr Golledge says.
"Tyres showing unevenly worn tread are unsafe and more likely to slip in wet conditions – not ideal as we head into winter. Make sure you book this service in with a professional ahead of your road trip if you’re overdue."
Survey your brake discs
"On cars that have been parked outside, surface rust can accumulate on the brake discs, so ease into braking," Mr Guastella advises.
"Most of it will come off with the first couple of brakes, but sometimes it doesn’t and you’ll need to see a mechanic to have your discs machined."
Listen for weird noises
"Pay attention to how your car sounds when it starts – if it sounds slow, like it's slurring or ticking, that's your battery giving you a warning," Mr Guastella explains.
Mr Connolly adds that "grinding or squealing noises" are also red flags that should be addressed immediately.
Additionally, strange sounds can also be a warning sign when it comes to your tyres.
"Sound, while you’re driving, is a key sign that your tyre needs to be replaced," says Mitchell Golledge, Managing Director at Continental Tyres.
"If your tyres are making a vibrating sound, it might be time to look at replacing them. Without doing so, your tyres will reduce their ability to brake during wet conditions, and impact your car’s driving comfort and handling behaviour."
Watch how your car performs
"Abnormal performance, like your car pulling to one side when driving, can be a red flag once you're out on the road," Mr Connolly says.
Vibrations in the cabin can also be a sign of tyre flat-spotting as a result of tyres sitting on the spot for too long.
"A temporary flat spot may cause a vibration, which will typically disappear after a few kilometres. If it doesn’t disappear and you suspect that your tyre has a semi-permanent flat spot, make sure you take your car to be inspected by a professional," Mr Golledge advises.
Take warning lights seriously
This should always be the case, but particularly after your car has been off the road for a while.
"If any warning light comes on while you’re driving you should pull over, when safe to do so, and contact your mechanic or phone a roadside assistance service, such as RACV Emergency Roadside Assistance," Mr Platt says.
"Failure to do so could cause major or even irreparable damage to your vehicle. For the price of a phone call you could save yourself thousands of dollars in repair bills.”
Do a deep clean
"The key to good interior detail is to carefully deep clean each surface to remove the contaminants, and not to merely seal in the dirt with an interior dressing," Mr O'Brien says.
"With fabrics like carpets, again the dirt and dust should be properly removed. It sounds simple but this alone can make interior items look new and remove odours people often mask with air-fresheners.
"Disinfecting interior surfaces is definitely smart during this time. It’s important to be mindful, however, that a lot of disinfectant wipes have alcohol and other strong chemicals that can damage or discolour sensitive interior materials like leather, touchscreens and other commonly found materials in the car.
"Even using hand sanitisers as you get back in the car can cause damage to leather steering wheels so I would suggest waiting until the hand-sanitiser is completely dry on your hands before touching anything in the vehicle and doing a test area first - underneath the steering wheel, behind the seat, etc. Somewhere that if it does stain, it’s a lot less obvious to see."
Beware of bird poo
"Bird poo on cars can eat through the clear coat of paint and there’s nothing you can do - you have to re-paint that whole panel," Mr Guastella warns.
"If the vehicle was not cleaned prior to storage, contaminants like bird droppings on the paint can cause discolouration or etching. After a good hand-wash with a two-bucket method, this might be a good time to look at products like detailing clay to help remove any bonded contaminants before using a paint sealant (like synthetic wax) to protect the paint and help bring back the shine," Mr O'Brien says.
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