Using Your Senses… To Save Money on Car Problems

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You don’t have to be a mechanic – or even much of a DIY’er – to save money on car-related expenses. For instance:

* Use your ears –

You can avoid costly brake problems by listening to your brakes. If you hear anything, it’s time to do something. Brakes should be silent. When they’re not, it’s a good bet there’s a problem. It might just be a squeak caused by glazed (or misaligned) pads, or slightly rusty rotors – which can happen when a car is left to sit for a awhile. But it might also be that your pads are on the verge of wearing out – and about to gouge your expensive rotors into expensive junk. Don’t go by mileage since your last brake job. Brake pads can – and do – sometimes wear out sooner than you expect them to.

Bottom line, if you hear something, get it checked ASAP.

* Use your eyes –

To watch – and keep track of – the dials in front you, in the instrument cluster. Gauges – vs. idiot lights – are great. If you’re paying attention. Idiot lights – which most cars used to have – only illuminated when it was already too late to do much but pull over and call for a tow. For example, the little light that said “oil” typically came on only when you had next to no oil pressure. It might as well have said “you lose.” Same with the other idiot lights: “Temp” meant the engine was already overheating. “Batt” meant the alternator just croaked.

Gauges – which most late-model cars have – give you much more information. If you’re paying attention to them. You will be able to notice, for example, abnormal or rising engine temperature before the engine actually overheats. This might give you time to get off a busy highway – or get to a service station – as opposed to being stranded by the side of a busy highway and far from help. A low or erratic oil pressure reading – noticed in time – might just save you a $5,000 engine replacement.  A number of late-model cars (well, trucks mostly) are even blessed with a transmission temperature gauge. If you pay attention to it and see the fluid temperature rising and shut the vehicle down before the needle gets into the red zone, you will probably have saved yourself a $3,000 transmission job.

Bottom line: Get into the habit of regularly scanning your gauges – and becoming familiar with “normal” readings – so that you’ll immediately notice the abnormal ones before it’s too late to do much about it.

* Use your nose –

Certain smells can quickly clue you in to a possible problem that ought to be checked out – and possibly checked out right away. A rotten egg smell, for example, is telling you there’s a problem with the fuel or emissions control system. The catalytic converter is not working as it should – whether because it’s developed a fault or because there’s a fault upstream (with the fuel system) that’s causing some issue. It’s important to get it looked at soon – before the expensive catalytic converter is ruined. Many late-model cars have two (or more) cats. New ones can cost $400 or more – each.

Engine coolant also has a very distinctive smell – and if you smell it, it’s time to find out why you’re smelling it. You may have a leaky radiator – or (much worse) a leaking heater core. A musty or moldy smell inside the car indicates water inside the car.

These problems don’t get better with time, so the sooner you get it checked out, the better it will be for you, your car – and your wallet.

* Use your legs –

Once a week or so, it’s a good idea to do a walk-around of your vehicle. Look closely at each tire. Is there any sign of physical damage, such as a bulge on the sidewall or a tear? If there is, get that tire replaced – before it fails while the car is moving – with you in it. Take a close look at the windshield. Check Meijer Ad and Walgreens Ad. Small “stars” – the kind caused by rocks kicked up by a vehicle ahead of – can usually be fixed for a lot less than the cost of replacing the entire windshield – which you’ll have to do if the star becomes a crack. Are the headlights and tail/brake/signal lights all working? State inspection and other required stickers up to date? If not – and you catch it in time – you might just avoid a $100 ticket for “defective equipment” – because a cop noticed it first.

* Use your head –

If something feels (or looks or sounds) not-right, it probably isn’t right. With cars – just as with our bodies – early detection and prevention are the keys to avoiding bigger problems. And bigger expenses. If the steering wheel vibrates, if the brakes pulsate, if the exhaust note gets deeper – it’s your cue to investigate further, not just turn up the radio volume, ignore it – and hope it goes away.

Also, don’t necessarily assume that whatever the shop tells you is wrong or needs to be repaired is gospel – or even necessary. Trust your spider sense. If you’re at all suspicious, don’t authorize any work before you get a second opinion.

Throw it in the Woods?



  1. Whether a flesh-and-blood horse, an “iron horse”, or a “horseless carriage”, get to know your mount. That works for other things too.
    With state-of-the-art smartphones and cheap but useful tablets (I’m amazed at what my little $85 Coby Android 7″ tablet will do), there’s no excuse not to jot down info and take pictures.

  2. Amen about smelling antifreeze inside your car.

    To those unfamiliar, the heater core is typically the single most difficult thing to replace on a car. It’s as if the heater core is the first thing that goes down the assembly line, and the entire car is built around it.

    It is not really the first thing, but it sure is one of the first things to go in the car body. Generally, the entire instrument panel must be dessasembled before you can get at it.

    • It is surely one of the most hated jobs in the business. I’d sooner dine on the raw entrails of a constipated cat.


    • Cheat. I replaced one heater core in my life. ’86 mazda. I busted two plastic tabs for some part of the HVAC system that should have been open slotted and saved a ton of work. Just some clever fastener design and while still tough eliminated numerous steps.

  3. Most car and truck gauges are set up so that the needle is straight up in the “normal” range. Just a hint to those who don’t know where “normal” is.

  4. * Use your head –

    Permit me a moment of levity, Eric. Over the years I’ve probably left a few ounces of scalp on vehicles. The rear shock absorber bosses on VW Beetles were once the most notorious scalp collectors in the business. I’ve actually gourded them hard enough to leave a bit of scalp with a few hairs in it.

    • Tinsley,

      That brings back some memories – me too! There’s a ’73 Super Beetle out there, somewhere, with a piece of me still clinging to it…

      • So in a drag race of Beetles..I guess your old ’73 would be a little “ahead” of the others? (sorry for the groaner, but I couldn’t resist)

        • I have an abiding affection for puns. Some of my German acquaintances have shared German puns and I find them equally amusing.

          Example: Ganz schwierig means “completely difficult”.

          Schwanz gierig means “curious penis”.

          I’ve even originated a few. About sixty years ago I originated a tale about a fellow who asked his doctor how much he would charge to stitch a newly inflicted wound.

          The doctor replied, forty dollars.

          The wounded patient complained saying, That’s too damned much, Doc.

          Shrugging, the doctor said, Very well, suture self.

          At least forty years passed before someone else came up with it and it found its way into a publication.

  5. Nice!

    Global competitive trade has brought the price of rotors down to the point where replacing them is cheaper than having someone turn them…$40 to turn the rotors or $35 for new good quality rotors with new spec thickness.

    I feel sorry for people who are not mechanically inclined…they ALWAYS get ripped off by the car repair psycho-fucks. It is cheaper for them to lease a new car every 3 years than to own and service one. I worked with a woman that never had her car service since new because she hated even looking at the criminal maggots. She had 65k miles on the original oil! Shockingly, the car still ran…but with quite a clatter that she had finally noticed. I traded dinner for an oil change with her.

    • DD, methinks you’re painting with an extremely broad brush. The grease monkey image simply does not fit today’s experienced Mechtec.


      • All I’m saying is that as Amerika descends into a collectivist terror camp of counterfeit-money-racket/political gun-n-jail backed “Law” stagflation, the repair people tend to become MUCH more criminal – along with most people. Auto Stealerships can’t make money selling new cars because of Internet price competition so they are ripping people off using both used cars sales and repair service. These auto stealership mobsters are protected by political laws since they donate BIG to the terrorist’s election campaigns. Look how US Congress jumped to attention when the Auto Dealer Association told them to. Car Stealerships are an extension of the political class violence with almost as much clout as Labour Unions.

        • DD is right. The criminality has “trickled” down quite well. The stealership I bought my ride from managed to scrub the title despite the major car reports I got, Carfax and the other one the stealership was using Autocheck I think. After detailing the car it was obvious it had been in a wreck and had some body work done. The scammers probably ran it across state lines. I paid cash so at least I didn’t finance through those crooks that would be getting scammed twice.

      • Tinsley, the low priced Mechtec for diesel repairs here in the Houston area I’ve found is $90 per hour. Good news for gas engine owners though, he only charges $60 per hour. Knowing that owning a shop requires more than just an hourly wage is small consolation when having to pay $500 to get a busted oil line replaced on my diesel and knowing that a similar line would have cost $45 less on a gas engine simply due to the fuel I use. To be honest, he sorta looks like a grease monkey from the old days, of course having just fixed my truck which blew three gallons of oil out all over the engine compartment probably didn’t help. Powerstroke Specialist in Baytown for any who might be interested in knowing who. Seemed quite competent and quick.

        • Another Houston guy on here?

          Are libertarians migrating to Texas…or is it just the law of averages and Houston’s a big city?

          Still glad to see another Houston guy, Draxx!

          Speaking of migrating…I want to bring back those old bumperstickers from the 80’s. Back then, same as now, the economic recession brought many many job-seekers from the Communist North to relatively free Texas.

          Too many in fact.

          The bumper sticker said:

          “Welcome to Texas! Now GO HOME.”

          • Up here in the mountains of SW VA. there is something called Floydfest, once a year, that is bringing The Element too close for my comfort. Clovers of all persuasions. I dread that some of them will see this bucolic area as the next Aspen and move here. Sigh. Then it will be time to move…. again.

          • @Eric–

            RUN to Floydfest, Eric, and create as much of a “Deliverance” atmosphere as you can!

            Bring a banjo. Black out some front teeth. Pour some 75w-90 gear oil in your intake manifold so you arrive in a roiling cloud of oil smoke.

            Put in a big’ol chaw of ‘baccy and spit noisily–being sure to dribble some on your denim overalls.

            Ask around for some “Pie-knot” or “Merr-lot” wine. Use the “N” word liberally, and remark frequently how “faggotty” everything has gotten around here of late.

            You must drive them away Eric!

            Let Fredericksburg, Texas be a lesson to you. A beautiful, bucolic old German Texas town.

            Until Californians discovered it.

            Californians are like locusts. They’ve destroyed their state; they pop up their mandibles from the bare ground, look around, and hop to the next fertile spot…then proceed to eat it to the ground, too. They keep wondering why every place they occupy rots under them–never questioning if it might just be because they bring their idiotic socialism with them.

            They’ve ruined Oregon, they’re ruining Washington, and I hear they’re starting on Montana. There’s enough of us Texans to recognize the problem–but it’s too late for Fredericksburg, where the old folks are being chased off their land for the quintupled property taxes. Californians drove land prices through the roof.

    • I feel this. I am not a DIY guy, and I do not know a single auto mechanic. Who do I trust to work on my car and not only do a decent job but to do it for a reasonable cost?

      • Hi Trocki,

        The best way I know to find a good (honest, competent) shop is to ask around. People who’ve had good experiences will usually be happy to tell you – and people who’ve had bad experiences will usually be really happy to tell you about it. Also trust your senses – especially, your BS detector. If you get the feeling you’re being taken advantage of, you probably are being taken advantage of.

  6. This is great advice. One thing I must advocate that if you are ever stranded on a road and your antifreeze is out. One can actually, run the car until the gauge gets near hot then immediately shut off the engine. Stop and cool for a long time. Continue again when cool. It has saved me once having to walk a 10 mile jaunt because of a bad hose. Its slow as hell for sure having to wait everytime for the engine to cool down but it works long as you don’t get in even near that red mark on the top of the antifreeze heat gauges. Also if you aren’t leaking and the temperature of the antifreeze is overheating the thermostat often is the problem, but you can help overheating by turning on the heater inside the car. It sucks having to be in summertime with your heater on but if it helps you make it home it definitely is the thing to do.

    Want to say I’m going to have to take my Eric Peters auto keys away from myself on chat rooms. I’ve got to get the busi back into the business and I’ve enjoyed the conversing here a little too much. I’ll still read Eric Peters auto website articles though. I also have to say that I’m 95% along for the ride with you guys. I’m certainly wanting a smaller government. I think anarcho capitalism is more of an ideal than reality for me, one could say its like approaching an assymptote you get close but never there. I suppose I would be happy with a very very limited government as in 1776 style, though I realize that all small government get big without constant vigilance. Thats what your job and mine will be is to figure out how to combat the beast. Well thanks all for the welcoming comments and have enjoyed the wealth of information you all brought to these boards.

    Best Regards.
    Hot Rod

    • Enforce respect for Human Rights and the genuine Law of the Land and the American Ideal just might become a reality.

      WE hold these Truths…


    • The water pump depends on antifreeze for lubrication and cooling. If you have lost all your fluid and run the car, odds are good you will pump most of it out (or steam it out if you have a badly ruptured hose). This could cause damage to the water pump. Additionally, where your temp gauge is taking readings matters a whole hell of a lot as to whether or not you can do this. Most older cars have water temperature gauges, and your coolant temp is only really representative of the engine temp while fluid is circulating. When you have no water, your water temp sensor could end up dry and deceiving you into thinking the engine is cool enough to run safely.

    • A couple of months ago I had to use the heater trick. Mind you, I am in Houston, Texas. The return hose (from engine into radiator) developed a hole and was spewing coolant. Thankfully, I did not have to drive far where I could buy coolant and get home. The other recommendation is to open the hood to let the engine cool faster.

    • It’s been a pleasure conversing with you Hot Rod.

      I hope you see fit to come spar/share with us some more. Dog knows, it keeps me sane the more like-minded people I see on here.


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