Tip 1: If you ain't broke, don't fix it
If you're lucky enough to have a new car, remember that it's covered by a three-year warranty. If you suspect something isn't right, take it into a dealer and ask them to check it out; they'll almost certainly fix it for free. This cover applies to the car, not just the original buyer, so you can make use of it even if you haven't had the car from new. And make a note of when the three years are up; the cost of extending the warranty is usually reasonable, and the peace of mind is invaluable.
Shop around for quotes on breakdown cover and carefully compare the level of cover you're getting - it's always a price worth paying. Getting your car recovered can be horrifically expensive otherwise, and the patrolman can often fix it for free. Remember that most policies cover you and not just your car, so keep the emergency number on your phone and not just in your glovebox. If you're a passenger when a friend's car breaks down, you can still use your policy.
Tip 2: Prevention is better than cure
Getting your car serviced regularly is the best way to avoid problems; modern cars need little attention between trips to the professionals. Not keeping your car's service history up to date can ruin its value, so find the service book, see how often it needs done and don't forget when the next one's due.
Tip 3: Getting your hands dirty
There are only three things you need to bother with under the bonnet, and they're all fluids.
- Windscreen wash: the only one likely to need topped up between services. Buy some from the garage, mix with water according to the instructions on the bottle, then use your cars handbook to find where to pour it in. Top up regularly and maybe keep some in the boot too, as being unable to clean your screen on a dirty road is an utter nightmare.
- Oil: this is checked with the dipstick. If you can't find it, consult the handbook, (although some cars check the oil for you and so don't have a dipstick). With the engine warm, let the car stand with the engine off for five minutes on a level surface. Pull the dipstick out, wipe it with a clean cloth, stick it back it and remove again. Now look at the oil at the bottom; it should be between the high and low levels on the stick, clean and the colour of dark honey. If it's black, sludgy, has bits in or a white froth, you might have a problem and should go to a garage. If it's low you can top it up yourself; again, follow the instructions in the handbook to find the filler cap and get the right grade of oil.
- Coolant: this is easier to check. Most cars have a see-through reservoir under the bonnet with high and low markings, and a quick look is all that's required. Look out for puffs of white smoke from the exhaust that might mean you are burning it up.
Tip 4: Feel the pressure
Worn tyres are dangerous, and under-inflated tyres cost a fortune in extra fuel. The correct pressures are on a label usually found inside the petrol filler cap or in the area where the front door closes. Top up at least once a month, and remember to check the spare too. Get a tyre pressure gauge from somewhere like Halfords as garage air lines are notoriously inaccurate. Pick up a tyre tread depth gauge at the same time; they're only a couple of quid but you can check when your tyres are due for replacement. The legal limit is 1.6mm of tread, but consider changing them when they drop to around 2mm. While you're down there, check for any odd lumps, which indicate tyre damage and a possible blow-out on the way, and for any uneven wear on the tread, which could indicate problems with your wheel balance, steering or suspension.
Tip 5: Pit-stops without the pain
Changing a tyre is invariably a cold, wet, miserable experience. If you opt to do it yourself rather than calling the AA, four key items will make it almost tolerable. Old gloves will keep your hands warm and clean. An old sheet will keep everything else clean when you're sat on a filthy roadside, and can be used to wrap the dirty flat tyre in the boot. An old anorak will keep you dry if it's raining and you won't mind getting it dirty, and a fully-charged, powerful torch is essential. Double-check you have your locking wheel nut key, which you'll need to remove the special, odd-shaped security bolts fitted to some car tyres. Practising in the comfort of your own driveway makes it far easier; you'll also learn where the jacking points are on the underside of your car, which are near impossible to find in the dark.