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Beater Makeovers: Upgrades and Upkeep for Older Cars

Perhaps you’ve inherited an old family vehicle. Or you’re about to hand down an older car to a young driver. Maybe financial troubles are forcing you into a lower-priced vehicle. If so, you are not alone. I drive a 2003 four-door with nearly 200,000 miles on the odometer, and it’s suffered at the hands of two teens. But with a little work and preventive maintenance, it’s reliable, safe, and, most important, paid for.

Trust me, the lack of car payments adds a shocking amount of beauty to a vehicle. Forget 20-inch rims and a killer sound system. Focus on safety and reliability. Stash the cash that would go to car payments. In short order, you’ll be able to afford a much nicer vehicle.

Here’s the first step: Set aside enough money to make this new-to-you vehicle safe and reliable. If you have budgeted $8,000 for a purchase, for example, restrict your search to vehicles well under $7,000. If you spend the entire eight grand on the used vehicle, you won’t have money in reserve in case you run into car trouble. If you’re handing off a vehicle to a young family member, your gift comes with huge strings if the brakes are worn out, the tires bald, and the transmission is shot.

Now, to the makeover. Unless the previous owner was especially conscientious or kind, you’ll probably have to replace the tires, renew the brakes, and make other repairs: This is the “new shoes and fitness program” portion of our makeover.

Tires

You needn’t even get your hands dirty to check the condition of the tires. Insert a quarter, Washington’s head down, into the most-shallow groove of the most-worn tire. If you can see the top of George’s wig, even modestly deep water will cause the tire to quite literally float on top like a surfboard. It’s called hydroplaning, and it can be downright heart-stopping. A brand-new car tire begins life with at least 10/32-inches of tread, much more for pickup and sports-utility vehicle tires. If a tire can’t pass the quarter test, it has less than 4/32 inches of tread and, thus, is prone to hydroplaning — so it’s time to start tire shopping. If it’s at 2/32 inches, you might want to buy new tires as soon as possible.

Also, check the tires’ sidewall for an alphanumeric code that starts with “DOT.” The last four digits indicate the tire’s birth week: 2510 means the tire was built in the 25th week of 2010. Tires can die even if they haven’t gone far or done much. Regardless of tread depth, a tire that’s been on a car — or sitting in the sun — for six years is a senior citizen. New tires on an old car are a safer combination than a newer car on bald tires. Buy quality tires; they’re worth the cost.

Brakes

Brake inspection is more difficult, but the task is far from impossible for a do-it-yourselfer. If you can open the hood, you can check the brake fluid reservoir. (The owner’s manual will show the location.) It’s bad if the fluid is dark, and terrible if the reservoir is below the “minimum” line.

Next, if you can change a tire, you can inspect the thickness of the brake pads. Remove a wheel, lower the car onto a jack stand (and NOT a cinder block or other unsafe substitute), and look at brake pad thickness and the condition of the rotors. Be thorough and inspect all four brakes. Drum brakes, found on the rear of many vehicles, are more difficult to inspect, but it’s a job well within the capability of most DIYers. (Did I mention, “Use a jackstand”?)

Advanced DIYers can also bleed the brakes: This is like taking a blood sample from a human. (There are many videos on the web that explain how to do this. Here’s one from Car and Driver Magazine.) If the fluid is black and contains bits of rubber or rust, the vehicle needs a professional brake job, NOW. Just as with tires, a quality brake job doesn’t cost significantly more than a mediocre one.

Leaks

It’s also a good idea to make sure your car isn’t leaking any fluids. To check for leaks, slide a slab of cardboard underneath your car and let it sit overnight. Except for water that drips from the air conditioner, the cardboard should be dry. Any fluid that smells and feels like petroleum indicates an ill patient. Fluid that smells like pancake syrup (coolant) indicates a problem with the cooling system: This could range from a loose hose clamp to the death rattle of the water pump. Coolant can come in various colors, including green, yellow, orange, red or even blue – and it’s important to make sure you replace your coolant with the proper type, as using the wrong kind can damage your car. Other fluids may indicate other issues. Mark where the cardboard sat and the problem can be diagnosed by a mechanic.

Engine Oil

Engine oil is another blood test for cars. Look at the oil on the dipstick: Dark black is a bad sign. Also, check the underside of the oil filler cap: If it’s covered with baked-on crud, the previous owner rarely changed the oil. Those who can change oil should do so, or take it to a professional. If the oil comes out dark and lumpy, it’s possible to rescue this bad situation with a series of 500-mile oil changes, but check with your mechanic for recommendations. In our makeover analogy, this is like cleaning plaque from the car’s arteries.

Transmission Fluid

In the same manner, check the fluid on the automatic transmission dipstick. Dark is bad. Renewing transmission fluid is best left to pros. Tell the technician that this is a new-to-you vehicle and you want a report on the condition of the fluid.

Battery

A new car battery will not only make sure the vehicle starts in cold weather but will also help the starter and alternator last longer. So, it may be a good idea to check out the car’s battery and consider replacing it.

If the previous few paragraphs were intimidating, take the vehicle to a professional mechanic for a thorough inspection. Even if you’re a pretty good shade-tree mechanic, have a professional inspect the steering gear, suspension, and alignment. Worn or misaligned suspension will quickly wear out those new tires, and a suspension failure can be bad news.

Once our makeover candidate is in good health, there are a few more important things you can do.

Replace the headlight covers. The plastic that many manufacturers use often clouds with age; sunlight and age give the lens the auto equivalent of cataracts. For my old beast, the well-advertised lens polishing treatments did little to brighten the headlights and they were soon back to opaque. My credit card complained, but I paid $600 to replace the entire lens assemblies. A side benefit: The new headlight assemblies are like a plastic surgery eye-job for a car, and will make it look younger than it really is.

Check the seat belts. Auto racing organizations limit how long seat belts can be used on race cars. In highway vehicles, sun can deteriorate the belts and fast food will gum up the latching mechanism. I replaced the driver’s belts because they were frayed and the latch didn’t immediately snap into place.

Now that your oldtimer is safe and healthy, if you have a few dollars left over, here are a couple of strictly cosmetic upgrades. I found a new set of brand-correct wheel covers on eBay for less than $100, including shipping, while generic covers can be had for $30 a set. They’re not as cool as $2,000 of new wheels, but they still cut years from the car’s apparent age. Finally, a serious detailing—which will include everything from shampooing the interior to hand waxing the exterior—is about $200 and will allow you to pretend you have a new ride — but without the monthly payments.

Recommended by the Editors:

Mac Demere
Mac Demere is a veteran automotive journalist and a recovering race car driver. He raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona and NASCAR Southwest Tour series, and co-drove to victory in five 24-hour races. In addition he was a certified test driver for a major tire maker. He currently is an instructor for an advanced teen driving school.

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