Outdoors: Keep car care in mind during summer trips

07/27/2014 7:00 AM |
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The new bike path along River Road in Calverton.

When taking to the road this summer, be prepared for car trouble. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Midsummer is vacation time for a lot of us. Local beaches are starting to draw crowds, local restaurants are starting to fill up with “touristas” from points west, and angling is about to settle into the doldrums unless you’re one of those lucky enough to have friends who go offshore. So we travel, often with the trusty family camper, pickup, or sedan, machines we’ve probably taken for granted most of the year. 

Technology spoils us by producing the vehicles we use today. If you do a fair job of servicing, you simply assume that you can go outside on any given day, turn the key (or press a button) and head down the road. And on most occasions, when all you have to do is get to the mall or the rail station, this goes well. You keep up with oil changes, get the old bus into a garage now and again for a fluids check, tune-up, or tires, and watch the miles mount up on the odometer between annual inspections. Vehicles today often run well over 150,000 miles, sometimes 200,000 miles with original engines and transmissions, something that would have seemed inconceivable to your grandparents. No valve grinding, no piston ring replacements, no rebuilding of transmissions — indeed, a different world.

Nevertheless, Murphy’s Law always lurks out there for long trips, and it isn’t a bad idea to do a little more than packing the car and kicking the tires before you roll off on summer holiday. Recently, I had a discussion with a terrific mechanic who’s been servicing our old Volvo 740 wagon, built in 1990 and one of the last built in Sweden before the “Ford-Vo” era. Having had a routine timing belt replacement some 60,000 miles previous, I asked about the intervals between these major jobs and the mechanic opined that a 100,000-mile interval would be just fine. Three weeks later, 150 miles from home, and rolling along the interstate at 60 miles per hour, the car seemed to come completely out of gear, and I was lucky enough to roll onto the shoulder without any problem. The timing belt had snapped! Thanks to Volvo’s old “over-engineered” design, the old 2.3-liter engine was unharmed but it took three days and a couple of bus rides before I got the car back on the road.

Many years back, Janet’s father in Oregon gave us his 10-year-old 1976 Chevy pickup/camper to drive back east. We hadn’t gone 200 miles before the first tire blew out, and we wound up replacing three tires on the cross-country trip. Nothing beats the dread you feel when you have to “fix a flat” on an unfamiliar vehicle in the middle of nowhere. The tires seemed all right at first glance, but they had suffered years of weather and temperature variations.

So what should we check before a trip? Probably one best starts with simple things: fluids, battery water and tire pressure. If fluids are low persistently, be suspicious of radiator leaks or faulty hoses (for radiator losses) and failing brake lines (for loss of brake fluids). Power steering fluid losses are also common when lines begin to fail.

The last item won’t be as serious as the first two, naturally, because you can always steer without power like the truck drivers of 50 years ago. But the overheated engine that results from low radiator fluids mandates an immediate stop-and-repair (to avoid warping the engine block) and failing brakes can prove fatal! You needn’t become paranoid, but these problems sneak up on senior vehicles with advanced odometers.

Gas mileage can be a big deal when you take those long trips. When we travel with a Chevy Suburban FoD (full of dogs), roads, speeds, and tire pressures make a big difference. If we keep road speed such that we’re running 2,000 to 2,100 rpm (usually 52 to 60 miles per hour), using cruise control, and rolling on highly inflated tires (50 to 60 psi) we can get as high as 17.8 miles per gallon on a flat road with no strong headwinds. Changing those operating conditions slightly will drop the mileage quite a bit, down to just about 15 for highway driving. Saving up to 75 cents per gallon isn’t such a bad idea!

In the end, we like to set out on a trip with a vehicle we can rely on, but we’re dependent on regular servicing by a reliable garage in any case. It does help to drive stretches when you can just pay attention to the car itself, relying on your senses (eyes, ears, nose, and the seat of your pants) to notice anything unusual. You learn that inflated tires ride hard and that old Subarus develop tiny gasket leaks that smell when you start up, for example.

No need for paranoia here. Just know what you’re driving. Trust the mechanic, but verify that everything is in order!