There are just some things that every man (and ideally every woman too) should be able to do to their car.
Besides the personal satisfaction, the more you know about cars, the less they will cost you in the long run.
For example, you’re less likely to get swindled into a dodgy deal at the sales yard. You’re less likely to be taken for a load by a mechanic. Even a good honest mechanic might over service your car. If you know more about what it needs you’ll have more confidence to say no to things you don’t need/want. You’re more likely to mishandle your vehicle if you don’t understand the basics of correct braking, steering, tyre pressure, fluid levels etc.
Ignorance costs money.
Unfortunately even the most reliable vehicles will breakdown occasionally. There is always something that can go wrong.
Without (or even with) roadside assistance you could be up for a few hundred bucks in towing and repairs, and potentially hours of lost time when it happens to you.
Very often this is a result of something trivial. There are numerous causes of a breakdown that are quickly and easily repaired on a dime, but without them, you car is useless. You could be running late for an engagement, or simply on your way to a date with the couch and a cold beer and find yourself thinking ‘man, if I only had a couple spare parts and some tools, I’d be back on the road in five minutes’.
With just some basic know how and little bit of forethought, many common breakdowns are repairable in less time than it takes to get a tow truck out there.
With that in mind I’ve compiled a list of easy to fix car parts that commonly cause breakdowns. The key with this list is that these items are:
- small (don’t take up too much boot space)
- easy to fix (on most cars)
Keep a stock pile of these in your boot with a small collection of emergency tools and you may just thank yourself for it next time you’re stuck on the highway halfway home on a Friday afternoon.
1. Spare tyre
OK so a spare tyre is neither cheap, nor small (relatively speaking). But it is pretty easy to fix and, more importantly, it’s illegal not to have one ready to go in your car at all times. Also, your car has a space especially for it, and for the (minimum) tools necessary to change it.
What will save you time and money is if you can change it yourself without having to wait for a Prince Charming, or roadside assistance. Changing a tyre takes as little as ten minutes if you’ve done it enough times.
The important thing with your spare tyre is to check regularly that it is in working order. If you have a good tyre shop they will check/rotate/replace it every time they check your other tyres anyway. However it’s good if you can do this yourself too. It will give you more confidence in your vehicle and its safety on the road.
2. Radiator hoses
… Stinkin radiator hoses man.
These things can be such a pain in the rear. As they age they deteriorate and can pop at any time without warning, or one could just be a dud, and then you’re done. You have to stop pretty much right there on the spot, otherwise your motor will overheat and could catch on fire, or seize up. More than a couple of minutes with no water and you’ll be looking at more than just a new radiator hose. It’s a good thing really that when they go, it’s almost unmistakable. Your car will start emanating steam all around your bonnet, and if you’re keeping an eye out (which you definitely should) you’ll see your temperature gauge begin to climb steadily.
Radiator hoses also get hot, really hot. Your cooling system radiates the heat out of your motor through the water, via the radiator. But it only keeps it at running temperature, which is still hot enough to burn you. However, if you’re stuck on the side of the road, no one will fix it for you. It will be a tow truck job. A mechanic will mark up the price of the hose and then you have labour costs on top of that. Radiator hoses are cheap, and generally pretty small.
If you can fix it yourself on the side of the road, depending on its location, it can be as easy as loosening the clamps, pulling off the old one, and putting on the new. Then you fill your water back up and you’re good to go.
OK fine, sometimes they can be real pain when they’re at the back of the motor somewhere down low, behind other really hot things. But they’re still doable, especially when you have no choice.
Just remember to stay safe.
Speaking of radiators. Radiators store your coolant. Many cars, especially after they get a bit older and parts start getting replaced, can spring hairline leaks in the cooling system. Repair manuals will tell you that you need to be checking your coolant and motor oil levels regularly (probably every time you get fuel). This is especially true if your car is more than ten years old.
Keeping a fresh stock of coolant, or even just a bottle of water in your car will ensure that you don’t run out and overheat somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. You can end up stranded if not for the sake of a quick refill.
4. Ignition coil
Fair enough, the ignition coils do not break very often. They can also be very different from one car to the next. Most cars made before the year 2000 will have a coil that runs to the distributor. It amplifies the amount of voltage which is distributed to your spark plugs which ignites the fuel (hence ignition coil).
Your car can run 10-20 years without the coil breaking down, but once it does… it wont work.
However, they are generally all quite small, rarely larger than a coffee mug, and usually pretty cheap to get a replacement. If you have one ready to go these are also very easy to replace.
The most important thing you need to do is disconnect the battery before you touch it!
It can also be handy to keep a set of ignition leads in your car, however these are not fatal. If one goes you’ll make it home, but your car might run a bit sick.
5. Motor oil
Even more than your coolant, your oil will eventually need to be topped up. You need to replace your oil on average every 10,000 km. But if your car is a bit older, then you may need to top it up periodically in between oil changes.
The coolant runs inside a fully sealed, high pressure system. Your oil however, lubricates moving parts. Moving parts eventually wear. This means that given enough time your oil will eventually begin to leak out of some places. It’s inevitable. Seals wear down, piston rings wear and then oil will seep into your cylinders and burn up.
If you car only has hairline leaks, then you’ll probably be fine to just top it up from home when it needs it, but if you spring a larger leak at some point, then having a bottle in your car may be the difference between getting home safely, or your motor seizing up and you needing a new car. You regularly replace the oil in your car anyway, so having a bottle at home is not really going to cost you much extra.
As fan belts age, they can break, or come loose. It’s very unlikely that a belt will spontaneously snap somewhere on the road, especially if you replace them as they age, but they can. If it’s your alternator belt, then your car will eventually conk out. If it’s your fan belt then your car could overheat and you could blow a radiator hose. The same is true of your water pump belt. Depending on your car, one or more of these devices may be run by the same belt, so if it snaps, then you’ll have all sorts of problems.
The main thing with belts is they are relatively easy to fix, they’re cheap and take up basically no space in your car. They can sit under one of the front seats, or in the boot, or even your glove box if it’s not full of tissues and CD’s (because we all still have ten yr old CD’s in the glove box).
So there you have it. Nothing on this list will cost you over $100 (AU) except maybe the tyres.
Everything on this list can be replaced on the side of the road in almost less time than it takes for a tow truck to arrive. For the majority of vehicles, especially older vehicles, these parts are all fairly easily accessible from under the hood and don’t require you to remove much else to reach them.
Everything on this list (besides the tyre) will fit in your boot and take up almost no space, including the tools you need to do the job.
Speaking of tools. For any of these parts, you will be able to get away with this small list of items:
- a philips head and a flat head screwdriver
- a small (1/8 drive) socket set
- a small set of spanners (from about 10-14 mm)
- wheel spanner and jack (should have these with your spare tyre anyway)
Ideally it would be good to also have a 1/4 inch drive socket set, because it’s just heaps tougher. In an emergency however, you can get by with the smaller set.
So if you haven’t done so yet, get into your nearest automotive spare parts chain and pick up these items to stash in your car.
When you head to the store make sure you have this information about your car with you:
- Gearbox – Auto/Manual
- Engine size
- Chassis number
This is all the information you should need to pick up any of these parts. Better yet, call ahead and make sure they have the parts in stock, otherwise order them in.
Another tip is to compare prices, because they can be very different. You can buy a lot of parts online these days, but in my experience this is best left as a last option. Despite postage being something that’s been around for centuries, it’s really inspiring how often couriers still manage to stuff it up.
A bird in the hand.
These parts could be the difference between minutes, or hours, of time passing, and the difference between $50 or $300 out of your pocket.
Besides this it feels straight up awesome when you manhandle a breakdown yourself and you’re back on the road in a few minutes, instead of waiting for a tow truck like a noob.