By Brady Sloane
Photography by Jennifer Nichols
I’m nearing the 20-year mark on being a car owner, but it wasn’t until quite recently that I decided to take the time to understand what is going on under the hood. It turns out many drivers don’t know a significant amount about the machinery they drive. While not all of us need to be expert car buffs, understanding the verbiage of auto mechanics and what to look for when something isn’t right can go a long way.
To help me out, Jimmy Campbell, president and owner of Proctor Automotive, invited to me come by his shop and get my hands dirty. He and one of his technicians, Dwayne Chaney, even let me help remove a tire from a vehicle.
Proctor Automotive has been around since 1947 and Campbell himself has been there since 1978. His father was in the service station business and growing up around it helped him to become the self-proclaimed “car nut” he is today.
He has seen many changes in the world of auto mechanics including the inclusion of computers in cars starting in the early 80’s. Campbell explained that while older cars are simpler in many ways, they don’t have the zip or mileage of newer cars.
Campbell added that we now call mechanics technicians due to the increased technology they work with.
“Technicians are basically computer repairman who don’t mind getting their hands dirty,” Campbell said.
In fact, most repair shops have piles of laptops with programs matched up to various cars for diagnostic purposes.
First and foremost, Campbell states the most important thing to know is how to check the oil in your car. “If you check the oil every time you fill up with gasoline and do that over the period of 3,000 miles, you will know whether it is using or burning oil, if it is dirty, or if there is a small leak.”
From there, we had a great discussion (ahem, lesson) on what is imperative to know about one’s car, when it’s time to take it to the shop and what to keep handy in your car at all times.
Understand your warning lights: “Red means STOP. Turn the car off right now,” Campbell says. If it is an amber-colored light, have it checked, but it is not necessarily an emergency. There are more than 100 different reasons a light can come on. These symbols will be defined in your car manual.
Read the owner’s manual: You know, the thing that takes up space in the glove compartment? Read it. It contains all sorts of information about the specific car. Campbell adds, “The owners manual tells you what services are needed and when. Read it, and you won’t get the wool pulled over your eyes by anyone.” If your manual is lost, order a new one online.
Keep your service records: Having your service records and checking them before services will help you have an understanding of what’s going on with your car and can prevent overspending on unnecessary services.
Engine oil: “Oil is the cheapest thing you can do, and it’s the lifeblood of the vehicle,” Campbell said.
Air filter: Have the air filter checked every time the oil is changed, although they do not typically require changing as often as the oil. A clean air filter can reduce emissions and prolong engine life.
Brake fluid: Look for floating oil in it; there should not be oil. Brake fluid is a hydraulic fluid that actually causes the brakes to expand and stop the vehicle. As the pads wear down they require more fluid to stop the car. Some brake pads will get 80,000 miles of use, others 20,000. Campbell explained that it all depends on driving habits; aggressive drivers will be trading their pads more often.
Transmission fluid: Many models will have a dipstick you can use to check the transmission fluid. Oil sticks should always be yellow and transmission sticks should be red (or be labeled accordingly).
Cooling system: A technician will check if the coolant is low and to see if it is cloudy. Nifty Tip: remove the lid of the coolant holder, and shine a flashlight down it. The translucent container will show you the level.
Battery: Campbell advises that if your car does not start in a few minutes, quit trying to start it. Repeated attempts can wear out the starter among other issues.
Jump starting a Car: Prepare for mind blowing information: late model computer vehicles should NOT be jumped with jumper cables unless the car you are jumping from is not running. Why? “There is a voltage spike and it can burn the computers in your car or hurt the alternator,” Campbell said. What to do? Buy your own jump starter to keep in your car. These compact devices cost anywhere from 60-200 dollars and can be charged in a lighter or wall outlet.
“It’s absolutely amazing. It will start a car or even a diesel pickup,” Campbell says.
Chaney added that it will even charge your phone battery and is a great device to have for multiple purposes. Get it to protect your car’s computer as well as avoid having to wait for help to arrive when you find yourself with a dead battery.
Tires: Changing a tire is a good skill to have, but some new cars are making it increasingly difficult to do so. Some spare tires are hard to reach. Other cars now come with a pump and sealer instead of a spare. Learn what you have.
If you are uncomfortable with the thought of yourself or a relative changing a tire on the side of the highway, be sure to have a good roadside assistance program (this is different than insurance).
Strange noises: If the car is making strange noises, get an opinion as soon as possible, as it can become a serious problem. Many places don’t charge for this.
Leaks: Under the car is where leaks may arise. Look for anything that is wet that could indicate a leak. Campbell does add an exception: the muffler. It will build condensation and drip a bit to prevent rust.
The best thing to know about car maintenance is to be proactive, learn and read what you can, and take your car in for regularly scheduled maintenance.
Keep in Your Car Checklist
- owner’s manual
- service records
- jump starter
- gallon of water (in case of overheating)
- off-road assistance number
- a blanket and a first aid kit just in case