Older Cars: Keeping Your Car Healthy at 10 Years Old and Beyond

Your car gets your kids to school and practice. It gets you to work, the gym and the grocery store. And at the end of a long day, it gets you home.

We Americans rely heavily on our cars. The U.S. Census Bureau states that in 2011, more than 6.5 million workers drove themselves an hour or more each way to and from work. Add to that social outings and shopping trips, and you’re looking at millions of people who are in their cars for more than 10 hours a week. That’s more than an entire workday—every week.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, we Americans are also really good at keeping our vehicles in working condition. And no, we’re not just talking about classic cars like a 1957 Chevy Nomad or a 1959 Metropolitan convertible. We’re also talking about more common rides like a 1998 Subaru Legacy or a 1995 Ford F-150—or any other vehicle that doesn’t qualify as “new.” Interestingly, research and consulting firm Polk found that in 2013, the average age of cars on the roads was 11.4 years, up from an average 10 years old before the recession. A possible reason for this change is simple: People are still recovering financially, and some are wary of investing in new cars when they’re not sure what the future holds.

Fortunately, in the country that brought us Ford and General Motors, there’s plenty of knowledge on how to keep vehicles in tip-top shape. In short, it requires maintenance, maintenance and more maintenance. What follows is a list of some important things to keep in mind.

  • Oil and oil filter changes. Kelley Blue Book states that regularly checking and changing the oil is the single most important thing that will help your engine last. Neglecting oil checks and changes will cause an engine to rapidly deteriorate. Also, many oil change services include oil filter changes, but just in case, it’s a good idea to check to make sure your oil filter is regularly changed, in addition to the oil. It’s a good idea to keep track of what date and at what mileage you had your last oil change, so you can determine when your car is due again. Some garages or mechanics supply stickers to remind you, or you can also sign up for email notifications.
  • Change out differential oil and transmission fluid. You won’t need to do this as frequently, so check your owner’s manual or ask your mechanic what’s the best interval schedule for your vehicle.
  • Coolant. You will need to periodically flush out the cooling system and add new coolant (check your manual for suggested intervals).
  • Pay attention to the wheel bearings. Wheel bearings are the components of your car’s wheels that help reduce friction and allow the wheels to spin freely. When you get your vehicle serviced, it’s a good idea to have your wheels inspected to determine if the bearings need service. According to Tech-Cor Research, this typically includes flushing the bearings and then “repacking” them, which means adding grease to the openings between the bearings and the housing that contains them. The grease reduces friction, helping to avoid overheating that might lead to a bearing failure, which may cause issues such as your vehicle pulling to one side or a wobbly wheel.
  • Brake fluid. Regularly replace the brake fluid. This avoids buildup of moisture and subsequently, rust and corrosion in the brake system.
  • Wax and wash. Protect the exterior of your car by waxing it regularly to maintain the paint job. (Some experts suggest waxing your car once every three months or so.) Keep your car clean by regularly washing it yourself or at a car wash.
  • Avoid sun. Nothing fades car interiors like extended periods of time in the sun. Avoid this by parking your vehicle in the shade and using a special UV protectant to keep plastic, leather or vinyl from drying out and cracking.
  • Prepare. If you live in an area with cold winters, you’ll be familiar with the rock salt corrosion on the underside of cars. Help head off any damage by rinsing your vehicle thoroughly to remove the salt before you wash it.

There’s no science to keeping older cars healthy: just attention and maintenance. Keep the above points in mind and remember: if you hear anything rattling, whining or scraping that shouldn’t, get your vehicle to a garage as soon as possible. That way, you can count on your wheels to get you home safely for many years to come.

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