The poor economy has forced a lot of us to continue driving cars that, in human years, would be eligible for the senior discount at the waffle house. Keeping old cars and old folks alive and running at their best requires care not needed by young whippersnappers. Even if you've never changed your own oil-um, your car's-there are a lot of things you can do to keep Old Bomber alive.
I speak from personal experience. I have three geezers that are driven daily: A 2000 Toyota 4Runner with 160,000 miles on the odometer; a 135,000-mile 2003 Camry; and a 2000 Ford Ranger with 74,000 miles.
A modestly capable do-it-yourselfer can do much to care for an old car. Even if you've never worked on a car and don't plan to start, there are a lot of things you can do to prioritize and manage the old roller's care.
If your car is leaking anything other than water from the air conditioner, has bad smells or is making unusual noises, it has serious or about-to-be serious problems. Place a piece of clean cardboard under the vehicle and look for fluids. A green, syrupy smelling liquid means a leaking cooling system: This is likely either a failing water pump or about-burst cooling system hoses. Dark red oily fluid is probably from the transmission or power steering: Not good. A sweet-smelling, somewhat clear oily substance is probably brake fluid: A blazing danger sign. The smell of gasoline requires immediate and, likely, professional attention. Noises are also bad: Squealing can be anything from a failing belt to the air conditioner, power steering or other accessory. For front-drive cars, a thumping sound in parking-lot-tight corners probably means a failing constant velocity joint: Professional help is likely required.
If you can't stop, you shouldn't go. After the diagnosis, a good first step in checking the condition of your older car is to pull a wheel off and measure the brake pad (or, for the rear, brake shoe) thickness. Consult a repair manual for the technique, and use purpose-built jack stands. If the pad thickness is adequate, the next step is to flush the brake fluid by bleeding the brakes. With a repair manual and a friend, this a job a novice can do. If the brake fluid is coal-black and contains bits of rubber, a full brake job is needed. Check the rubber brake hoses at each wheel for signs of cracking.
Steering and Suspension.
Have a professional inspect the steering and suspension. Ask the shop to separate the items into three categories: critical, important, and can-wait. Things like worn ball joints or suspension bushings may not cause an immediate crash, but will make tires wear out quicker. It may be cost-effective to do these repairs. Replacing shock absorbers on cars without McPherson struts is fairly easy. If it has McStruts, let a pro do it.
In the rain, a BMW on bald tires has less grip than a 10-year-old Civic on new rubber. Tires are expensive but critical. Start looking for a tire sale before tread depth reaches 4/32nds inch. (Insert a quarter, George's head down into the most shallow groove. If you can see the top of his wig, that's about 4/32nds.)
Windshield, Wipers and Headlights.
See and be seen. Years of off-road driving, gravel-road motoring, and following sand-carrying open dump trucks have given the 4Runner a bad case of the automotive cataracts. It doesn't like to be driven at night. I've been kind of hoping for a rock hit, so the insurance will replace the windshield, but I may have to spring for the $200 or so for the cost of a new windshield. Replacing windshields is NOT a do-it-yourself project. For headlight lenses, the good news is that almost no mechanical skill is required to replace them, but the bad news is that they're very expensive. Both new non-Toyota lenses and junkyard lenses are about $500 for a pair. Windshield wipers should be replaced about every six months.
Drain the engine oil through the drain plug: Don't suck it through the dipstick tube as at some quickie lube shops. (Use those jack stands!) If it comes out deep black and thick, you may have a problem. Refill the oil, replace the filter and drive for about 30 minutes. Drain it again. If the oil comes out looking new, fill it with new oil, replace the filter and you're done. If the oil comes out just about as black as the first change, refill with a synthetic or semi-synthetic blend (which acts as a solvent), replace the oil filter, drive about 45 minutes and drain the oil. Refill and replace the filter. Repeat until the draining oil looks like honey. If it doesn't clear up in three changes, you (or a pro) should remove and clean what's certainly a sludge-filled oil pan. Then change the oil after about 500 miles. If the drained oil looks almost new, you're good to go to a 5,000-mile replacement routine. Remember: Replace the filter EVERY time you change the oil. (Synthetics and semi-synthetics mix fine with conventional oil.)
If there's no sign of leaking, have your automatic transmission fluid changed and flushed by a professional. Backyard mechanics can't clear out all the old fluid. Make sure the filter is replaced. Ask the shop to evaluate the fluid, as a doctor would evaluate a human's blood. Does it show evidence of overheating or wear? If so, budget for a professional repair.
In a 12-year-old car, everything made of rubber is either worn out or approaching that point. Start a steady program of replacing all rubber components. Begin with the hoses that carry coolant. In addition to hoses to and from the radiator, make sure you change those going to the heater core, which is a little radiator located inside the passenger compartment. Also plan on replacing all the fan and serpentine belts. Rubber fuel hoses also need replacing, but may require the services of a professional.
If your engine has a rubberized camshaft-timing belt, it probably needs replacing. On some engines, a broken timing belt may just leave you stuck by the side of the road. In other cars, the engine may be seriously damaged. Find out which kind you have before you decide to gamble on this belt. Water pumps last anywhere from between about 80,000 and 200,000 miles. Some pumps can be changed by an experienced do-it-yourselfer, but most can't. Look and smell for signs of leakage around the pump. If your car is running rough (or it's more than 10 years old), replace the spark plug wires is a relatively simple task. Change the engine coolant. Make sure you use either distilled water or the new pre-mixed coolants.
Keep an Eye on Gramps.
Most people fuss over a new car and ignore the maintenance on old ones. Grandpa needs far more care than that teenager. Make sure he gets it.