Modern Car Knowledge

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If you haven’t been under the hood of a new-ish car lately – or (just as important) read one of their owner’s manuals – here are a few things to know that you might not yet know about, but probably should: Hot chick working on her car

* Don’t use anti-seize compound on spark plug threads –

Well, check first to make sure it’s ok to use anti-seize before you slather some on. Some plugs don’t need it.

And you could regret having used it.

Anti-seize is a thread lubricant sold in little packets (or larger tubs/tubes) at the auto parts store. Applied to the threads of a bolt or conventional spark plug prior to installation, it will help prevent the day-ruining sensation of that bolt or plug stripping the threads when you try to loosen/remove it down later on down the road. However, it may not be necessary to use anti-seize if the spark plug you’re about to install is plated (as many now are) and could cause other problems for you if you do – such as inadvertently under (or over) tightening the spark plug, even if you’re being smart and careful and using a torque wrench. The thread end of the plug could fail – and break off in the cylinder head. Which will definitely ruin your day.

See here for more detailed information.anti seize pic

* Diesel Don’t Do’s –

As the cost of gas has gone up, the popularity of diesel-powered cars has, too. There are more of them on the road (and available for sale at dealerships) in the U.S. than ever before. Unfortunately – in many areas – there aren’t that many diesel fuel fillin’ stations. And some of the stations where diesel fuel is sold haven’t updated their pumps, which have super sized nozzles that fit big truck side-saddle tanks just fine – but won’t fit into the female end of your diesel-powered car’s filler pipe, leading to a god-awful mess if you try anyhow. It is possible to trickle the fuel in – if it’s an emergency situation, your car is pretty much bone-dry and this is the only diesel fillin’ station in sight. Just be patient and go really slow – or it’ll overflow – and backwash all over the place.

PS: Be absolutely sure the diesel fuel you fill up with is ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel –  if your car’s engine requires that – and every diesel-powered passenger car currently for sale or sold within the past several does require it. Use of “off-road” diesel will give your car’s emissions system conniptions. Don’t be tempted because it’s cheaper to buy.

You’ll end up paying a lot more.

diesel nozzle pic

* A larger tire is probably the ticket –

If you own an older car with 15  or (Motor Gods help you) 14 inch wheels, you probably have found out that your choices are pretty limited when it comes to buying a set of new tires. Among new cars, 16s are about small as it gets – with 17 and even 18 inch wheels rapidly becoming the de facto standard – and 19s and 20s becoming commonplace.

What this means is that down the road, as fewer and fewer new cars come with “small” (by today’ standards) 16 inch wheels, the tire industry will likely offer fewer and fewer 16 inch tires to fit them. You might find yourself limited to one or two brands – and discover there’s not much in the way of specialty compound tires, such as speed-rated/high-performance tires. This is a frustrating fact of life for owners of ’60s and ’70s-era muscle cars, none of which came with larger-than-15-inch wheels from the factory. Today, it is almost impossible to find modern performance tires for these cars. Their owners are stuck with all-season radials – and even these are limited in terms of brands/styles. So, if you’re buying a new car – and plan to hold onto that new car – you might want to go with at least 17-inch-wheels . . . if you want to avoid scarcity issues with tires a decade or so from now.TA wheels pic

* Don’t touch that battery! 

Some new cars (BMWs, for one) require a trip to the dealer to swap out the battery. If you pull the old, tired one yourself and replace it on your own – the car’s computer may take affront. It might “spit a code” (the “service engine soon” light in the dash comes on – and stays on) or something even more inconvenient.

The car needs to be plugged into the dealership’s computer – the BMW computer – to avoid such troubles. Of course, the downside there is having to pay the dealer to do what used to be – and arguably ought to still be – a basic, DIY task. In any event, read your owner’s manual before disconnecting the battery – even if it’s a dead battery.

Same goes for headlights, too – in some new cars. Just FYI. Read the manual before you touch anything.

* That ticking sound . . . DI pic

Speaking of diesels, they’re no longer the only engines that “diesel.” Many new cars with gas-burning engines also make that formerly diesel-engine-only signature ticking/tapping sound at idle. It’s because of direct injection (DI) which is supplanting plain old fuel injection (FI) in order to improve the fuel efficiency of gas-burning engines. DI differs from FI in that the fuel is shot directly into the cylinders under extremely high pressure (30,000-plus psi vs. 30-40 or so psi with plain old FI). Keep that pressure in mind. Never mess with the fuel lines if your car has DI – unless you’re trained and equipped to do so. A fuel leak at 40 psi is bad news.

At 40,000 psi it is really bad news.

Throw it in the Woods?

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54 COMMENTS

  1. “I’ve been ranting for some time now that what this country needs – badly – is a 45 MPG, $8,000 car”

    Something along the lines of a 70’s up Fiesta, or VW diesel of similar vintage?

    And, having just replaced 13″ tires on an 80’s Subaru, I can attest that options are limited.

    • Hit Itor,

      Yes, exactly!

      Only updated with a simple, stand-alone throttle body fuel injection system, an overdrive transmission and modern build quality (especially body integrity).

      But we’re not allowed to have such cars…

      • Related to unavailable options: Look at new homes today. (At least here in NJ) Most new homes are larger and more expensive today than they were in the past.

        Part of it is that it is more profitable to sell larger more costly homes. It may not be what more people (that are looking for new homes) want, but it (smaller more appropriately priced homes) is not most beneficial to those that are selling new homes.

        Another part (as been mentioned elsewhere) is the amount of mandated requirements for new cars by gov’t. The mandates have a cost which is happily passed to the consumer.

  2. A tip from my mechanic: When my 8 year old minivan was last on the jacks, he went underneath and tightened the six major structural bolts that hold the front end together. He took his impact gun and got 1/4 to 1/2 of a turn on each bolt. Time taken: 2 minutes flat.

    The result: The minivan, which had already become shaky and prone to vibrations, now feels as tight as when it was new. It was by far the biggest thing anyone has ever done to any of my cars, in terms of what it did to improve the ride, for the smallest effort expended. Ask your mechanic to do the same, you’ll be impressed.

  3. Not on topic and for that I apologise, but I am curious as to Eric’s opinion of this little bug?

    http://www.eliomotors.com/

    Small as it is I am somewhat amazed if these folks have managed to produce a USA ‘car’ which follows all of the Rules (so claimed) for less than $7K.

  4. One of the problems with these larger tires is doing a flat tire change on the road. The weight of these 16″ and higher is quite large, esp. since I am only 5’2′ and 120 lbs. For small women now a tire change is out of the question. getting the tire off is only part of the problem. Now you have to lift the old assembly back into the trunk, and on a 16″ or larger that can be a real backbreaker. And the extra weight of the larger tires must have a big dent on fuel economy, and would wear out suspension components more rapidly. I haven’t seen either of these concerns brought up in any forums. Any comments, Eric? Something to explore for a future article.

    • T05, “And the extra weight of the larger tires must have a big dent on fuel economy, and would wear out suspension components more rapidly.”

      Interesting points. And as another poster has pointed out, the speedometer will be off. That is not so much a problem if one uses a GPS.

      As for getting the tire into the trunk, do not try to lift the whole tire all the way up. Place the tire against the rear bumper, squat down, grab the tire at 5 and 7 o’clock and, using only your leg muscles, lift the tire up until half its height is cresting the back of the trunk opening then push it forward.

    • One way around this situation is carry a tire plug kit and a 12 volt compressor in your car. I have done this for years and it can be a big help, to yourself, and others who may not have a spare tire in their car. Plugs, if done correctly, hold up very well. I have even used a plug in a motorcycle tire, which the bike magazines say is a big no-no, but when picking up a good sized nail in a new tire, I wasn’t about to trash an otherwise good tire. The plug held up until the tire wore out. And if for some reason you are not comfortable with the plug, you can at least get to a tire store and have the tire patched from the inside. Plugs are great.

    • I have converted the three cars I have that did not come with full size spares to have full size or near full size* spares and there has been no detrimental effect what so ever. The mpg difference for such a little bit of weight cannot be detected in real world driving. It’s all about the government test for CAFE.

      * My ’12 mustang came with flat fix goo and an air compressor. A full size wheel and tire would not fit inflated in the spare well and stuck up too high. I purchased a smaller wheel with a narrower tire that fit over the brembo calipers. It’s a real wheel and tire, of almost identical outside diameter to stock. Good enough to drive on for thousands of miles if I had to.

  5. Battery removal – would not plugging a 12v source into the cig lighter provide the power for the system so to change the battery?

    • Good one Salt. Yes – providing you switch the ignition to accessories, then the car has a 12V source while you change the battery.

  6. FYI: The ONLY difference between ultra low sulfur highway diesel and off road diesel is the red dye. I work in the fuel industry and for at least the last ten years this has been the case. There is no reason you cannot run off road diesel in any diesel vehicle but you will get a hefty slap on the hand if caught doing so.

  7. For the BMW error code related to battery replacement, or anything similar….

    You can get an OBD 2 dongle for 10 bucks off ebay/amazon from china (you want an ELM327, which is a generic type, there are some fine china made ones), and software to read it (“Torque” is popular for phones, “Scanmaster” is absolutely fantastic for laptops, I cannot recommend it enough). With the right laptop software, which ranges from free to 100 bucks, and one of those dongles, you can read ALL the data your car has, graphs of it, real time, and error codes translated into English (misfire on 2, gas cap loose, ect), reset codes, reprogram various functions, ect. If you don’t have a laptop, you can ebay one for 100 bucks easily, an EEEPC from asus is a good choice, as they are very tiny (8×6 inches or so), and thus portable.

    These tools are far too cheap for any home mechanic to dismiss today. You WILL save yourself the cost of them in all likelihood your first error code.

    Specifically, for the BMW application, you also need a special adapter for the ELM dongle, but it is also inexpensive and available from all the normal sources. All you would need to do after battery replacement is reset the error codes (it will throw one due to the computer noticing the wipe of its flash memory due to battery removal).

    You will become a wizard among all your buddies who have modern cars that throw the occasional code, and save yourself a ton of time troubleshooting the old way, which is mostly impossible on new cars.

  8. Actually off road diesel is ultra low sulfur now. Heavy equipment and farm machinery all have to use it. They also added the Deisel Exhaust Fluid system to them.

    I don’t know about the other manufacturers but Ford’s DI system runs only 200-400 psi. It’s the diesel system that are 30K psi+.

  9. Huge fan of your writing, especially when you explore the virtues of diesel. I’m now in love with (mostly pre 2007) diesels and can’t believe more people don’t take advantage of the potential. My work truck gets 24 mpg with horsepower/torque that might surprise you.
    Something to look into though, you warn of using red or “off-road” diesel in a highway vehicle. I know, at least here on the west coast, there is no difference between red or green diesel except the color of die they add.
    At the pump, red is road tax free, where green has all the taxes conveniently included so the slaves don’t have to worry about paying for roads. All our modern off-road heavy equipment requires ultra low sulfur diesel just like highway vehicles as they have equally fallen victim to the EPAs war on anything that breathes.
    The only reason they add die coloring is so they can “dip your tank” to see if your paying your taxes.

  10. Anti-seize or any thread lubricant. Reduce torque by 50%, slippery threads reduces friction and torque required for the same clamping pressure is reduced. There are torque tables for commonly used thread compounds.

  11. Each day I thank God for my 1972 Dodge Dart 225 6 cyl that I ordered new in Nashville in February of 1972. An economy model with bumper guards, rear defroster, and AM radio added. I bought it to keep. Never failed me. I am now almost 72; It is the only new car that I ever bought. I shall try to keep driving it as long as parts are available, I am able to drive, and the Washington communists are unable to order it off the road.
    You are a very intelligent and knowledgeable man, far beyond cars.

    • Awesome! My cousin still has the ’71 Mustang she bought new in ’71- the only car she’s ever owned. 6 cyl. and no beauty, but she sure got her money’s worth! Unlike the crap they make now, where once it’s out of warranty, it’s no longer viable as transportation, unless one enjoys forking over thousand$s a year to the stealership.

    • MONTEGUE, “1972 Dodge Dart 225 6 cyl”

      Very cool. May I ask the miles on it and what kind of maintenance it has had?

  12. Keep in mind that going to a larger tire size could require some adjustments to the gearing for your odometer/speedo cable … assuming you want your dashboard readings to be (close to) accurate

    Not sure how many times the fuzz will let you off with “Ahhhhhh, yeah, I just replaced my 14″ tires with 20″ tires and forgot about the speedo cable adjustments.” ? 😉

    • markp;

      That depends on the tyre’s profile. At 14″ you might have a “90” profile tyre, but at 17″ that converts to a lower profile 40 or 50.

      If you want taller gearing without having to mess with the gearbox or diff, use a higher profile tyre. But that’s when you have to watch your speedo. Fortunately, most speedo’s are already optimistic.

    • Be extra careful with aluminum heads – most cars (and pretty much all bikes) have them. It is very important to keep the threads clean and to use a torque wrench to tighten the spark plug to the appropriate value. Because it is very easy – especially for those without years of experience, who’ve developed “feel” – to overtighten a plug, which can have disastrous consequences. Ruin the threads, and you will almost certainly have to pull the head, a major job.

      • Eric – Let me point out that anti-seize compound on spark plug threads for use in an aluminum head is essential. Of course you need to reduce the torque value by at least 10% due to the lubricity of the anti-seize or you will still over torque. But in the event that you still manage to seize a spark plug (and I have) all is not lost and you may not have to pull the head at all. Heli-coil make a “Save-A-Thread” kit that comes with a special thread chasing stepped tap, thread repair inserts and a punch to set the insert. When I broke a plug off in an ’87 Toyota 3.0 head, I was able to recover it by driving out the old plug’s ceramic with a punch, cutting what was left of the plug into thirds with a ground down hacksaw blade and pulling the cut up pieces with a pair of hemostats. Yeah, it was a class A bitch and buggered the threads, but I got it without pulling the head. When I was all through, including re-threading the hole, I duct taped a piece of 3/8″ copper tubing to the nozzle of my shop vac and cleaned the affected cylinder thoroughly. After that I cranked the motor over (with the plug out) to blow any additional metal particles out that the shop vac didn’t get. I installed the Save-A-Thread insert, put the plug back in (with anti-seize) and drove that truck another 40K miles before I sold it. So if you’re really determined, I know for a fact that a broken off spark plug in an aluminum head is not a deal breaker.

    • Amen. They cost too much, they are too complicated, and they are more computer than car anyway, designed to be used up, discarded, and replaced with a new one. Who needs the hassle? Or the indenture?

      • x 3. My ’00 Civic is as new as I’m going to go. Going backwards here on out. Already added a ’79 F-150 to the mix. I’ll keep the ’00 around just so I can keep my “please massa can I drive” permission collector tags current on my older vehicle(s).

      • Hi Ernie,

        New cars have numerous virtues, but they are approaching (or have already passed) the event horizon of reasonableness for their purpose. Getting from A to B ought not to be as expensive nor as complex as it is becoming. Especially within the context of the economic situation. It’d be one thing if most people’s earning power tracked upward along with the cost to buy, own and drive a modern car.

        The “safety” thing in particular long ago surpassed reasonableness, risk-to-cost-wise. Most new cars come with six air bags. Many have eight or more. Now add multiple cameras and radar proximity sensors. Automated braking. Automatic steering, even.

        Ridiculous.

        I’ve been ranting for some time now that what this country needs – badly – is a 45 MPG, $8,000 car (which could have AC and a decent stereo) that the average working class person could realistically save up to buy outright or comfortably afford to pay off in three years.

        This would be doable… if the government stopped imposing costly-to-comply-with mandates and if the automakers hadn’t gotten into bed with the government regarding mandates, which they’ve discovered are profit boosters to be embraced rather than impediments to producing cars that people actually want and are willing – and able – to pay for.

        • Very good comments about what we need. Trouble is, the “We” who drive are not the “We” who rule us. In a society like ours has become, the money people rule the roost. Superficial safety, superfluous devices benefiting a miniscule few, and all sorts of technological money makers are legislated into our automobiles.

          The entire so-called “pollution problem” would not exist, without any need for strangling our engines and trying to make them run on fuels that are corrosive, if we only downsized our engines. I marvel in rush hour traffic jams at the cars that could run well over 100 mph, but are sitting still with their 400+ hp engines.

          It is all about money, nothing more.

          • Thanks, Jack!

            And, you’re absolutely right in re the absurdity of 400 hp (or even 300 hp) cars just piddling along in traffic.

            I esteem power/performance as much as any gearhead. I also accept anyone’s choice to buy a 300 or 400 hp vehicle, even if they don’t use its potential capability even a small fraction of the time.

            Doesn’t mean I’m not shaking my head at the stupidity of it.

            The victory of marketing over common sense.

            And, there’s also this:

            The typical new car is a disgusting fat body – overweight by hundreds of pounds. In order to comply with “safety” mandates.

            But that entails a bigger – thirstier – engine to haul all that beef around.

            Take any current economy car with a 40 MPG (highway) drivetrain. Put that same drivetrain into a car weighing 800 pounds less. Just like that, you’d probably be close to 50 MPG – with much better performance, too.

            Or, just use a smaller engine.

            And get even better mileage – with about the same performance as the larger engine in the heavier version of the same car.

            It’s not rocket science.

          • Eric;

            It’s just like web pages now compared with web pages in dialup era. Wep pages these days contain some 10 or 20x more crap (like Java) than the plain HTML they did in dialup days.

            Except cars contain MANDATED crap. There will never be an end until people vote and rally against it.

        • Amen to that. Unfortunately, besides the reduced profits from such a bare bones car, this will also have to be a car that needs to be driven rather than one that drives you, which is exactly against the mandates of the PTB.

          • Hi Escher,

            Such a car could be built and sold with a reasonable profit margin. Moreover, one ought to take into account the potential for much increased sales volume. There are millions of people who won’t buy a new car, either because they can’t afford to or because (like me) they can’t abide the cost. Or rather, they simply refuse to pay for bullshit like six air bags and back-up cameras and so on that they feel they don’t need.

            Tremendous cost savings on the manufacturing and retail side could be achieved simply by voiding all current “safety” mandates.

            Clovers will recoil in horror, but there is nothing horrible to me about the prospect of being able to buy an 1,800 pound car that also gets 50 MPG and costs less than than $10k, with AC and power windows and a decent stereo.

            Now, granted, if you wreck, your chances of being hurt will probably be higher than they would have been had you been driving the 2,800 lb. “safe” car with six air bags, etc.

            But keep in mind the if you wreck. It does not mean you will wreck. If you’re an attentive, skillful driver, you can reduce your odds of a major wreck considerably. Many people go their entire lives without ever being involved in a major wreck. In which case, all the “safety” stuff is irrelevant, a waste of money.

            But the issue here – the one Clover recoils from like Dracula does from garlic – is freedom to choice.

            Clover’s not content to buy as much “safety” as he feels he needs. He insists that you buy as much “safety” as he thinks you need.

        • This is what the progressive government wants – less people driving. Everything they do -vis-a-vis transportation – is intended to make driving your own car more expensive. They are ‘nudging’ us to light rail and mass transit.

          Ask yourself, why on earth would any rational person make these decisions regrading automobiles? And believe me, the people calling the shots are very smart and know what they are doing.

        • ERIC, I could not agree with you more. Why in the world cannot someone make a new “people’s car”?!

          My choice would be an original VW type bug with the engine in the rear but maybe diesel (better MPG). No bells and whistles except AC (this is an absolute must for me).

          Instead of it coming with a good stereo I would say let it come with the ability to easily install a stereo of one’s choice. More choices are always better.

          While I appreciate a great car I, like a lot of people I have talked to, just want dependability and value at a bearable price. We just want to reliably get from point A to point B.

          And BTW, very interesting article, I learned from it. Thanks. I was a pretty good shade tree mechanic back in the day before one needed a degree from MIT to fix a car.

          • Skunk;

            TATA motors in India are doing this with the Nano, but don’t expect it to be able to comply with US “caaaahhhhbn” (emissions) standards any time soon.

            I was gonna supply a link to an image, but my interwebs is slowed down as I went over my limit.. 😉

  13. Great timing on this article, I just had a set of 14 inch tires installed on my 2001 Corolla this morning and was quite surprised at the limited selection. ended up with Falkens which will hopefully last as long as the car does since the ones I replaced were the originals 🙂
    A good trick when replacing the battery is to clip lead a small 12volt battery, such as from a cordless drill, to the main cable while removing the old battery. Saves your radio presets,clock,etc. along with not resetting the computer.

    • Unfortunately, 14″ tires are getting hard to come by, particularly the larger 14 inchers used on many domestic vehicles from the 1960s and 1970s. Coker has a selection of course, but most are very expensive. Maybe not a big deal if you have a high-dollar collectible but it’s a problem when you’re just running an old driver. Tirerack.com currently shows only one tire in the modern equivalent of my original tire size available.

      What I did was convert to 15″ wheels, using junkyard rims from a Dodge Diplomat which fit AMC vehicles with no problem. There is still a much larger selection of 15″ tires available at good prices than the old 14″ standard. The original factory wheel covers won’t fit, of course, but this is a driver not a show car.

    • No doubt Mike. I also just had 14″ tires installed today on a ’00 Civic (200k) and the options are limited. I did some shopping around and research beforehand and was surprised at how limited the options are now even compared to a couple years ago.

      I splurged and went with Michelin Defenders. I don’t drive this car much anymore but plan on keeping it for quite awhile yet. I figure it’ll be the last set I will probably ever put on this car though (90k tires).

    • Mike in Boston;

      Beware the “Falken” brand. I bought a set (likely not the same tread pattern or compound as yours) some years ago and they were fine in the dry, but deadly in the wet – like black ice really.

      Maybe they were already some years old from the factory before they were fitted making the rubber hard. Dunno.

      Check the manufacture date on the side and be careful in the wet until you know their handling capabilities.

      • Thanks For the tip Rev, the date on these is recent and it’s a moderately aggressive tread pattern but I’ll find any empty stretch of road the next rainstorm and see how they do. Tough to find a smooth road around here anyway, so many GD potholes might as well be the Baja.

    • Hi Stephen,

      Yeah, but they’re not modern high-performance tires. No high speed rating; no soft compounds. Just all-seasons. Or repros of the original (and shit, by modern standards) Polygas GT, etc.

      • I’m currently pondering the idea of moving up to 16, or possibly, 17 inch wheels (so I don’t have to do it again in 10 years) on my 69 cutlass. I really don’t want to because I like the styling of the Oldsmobile SSIII wheels, but the idea of better tires and bigger brakes is pretty appealing.

        • L-FL;

          I dunno how it is in your area, but it’s difficult to get any rims in OZ that are 16 inch, but plenty for 17 and up.

  14. Re: supersized nozzles

    The VW diesels have (or at least did when I had one in 2001) fuel opening wide enough to accommodate truck-sized fuel pumps. One probably should check the manual to be sure.

    I was not aware about the anti-seize compound. good to know.

    If cars came equipped with iridium plugs is there any negative issue if they are replaced with non-iridium plugs?

    • Mith;

      Non-iridium plugs don’t last as long and are far less expensive. Just make sure the gap and heat range is the same and they can be used.

        • Mith;

          Heh.. That depends on the engine. A normal set of NGK or Bosch (I NEVER use Champion) plugs should last about 20,000k’s. Just check and gap them about every 5,000 – 10,000, regular service stuff.

          Sparking causes wear. Iridium or platinum plugs wear a lot less, up to 100,000k’s or so between gapping or replacement.

          The price difference is about 4 or 5x between standard and iridium, but the service life is about the same.

          Personally, I prefer to check the plugs more often as problems in the engine can be discovered earlier, which is why I use standard (cheaper) Bosch or NGK.

  15. This is for all you Subaru drivers: Subarus, like Porsches and old VWs, have horizontally opposed, aka pancake or oxer, engines, where the cylinders lie flat. They make a distinctive sound as opposed to inline or V engines. Do not attempt to futz with your engine, there is (usually) nothing wrong with it.

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