Ah, the British summer, one of life’s great mysteries – will you get strawberries and cream, dining al fresco and sunny days or mud, umbrellas and shivering under a blanket at the beach? Whatever the weather, the advent of summer means you’re likely to travel further than usual. Extra journeys, particularly long drives to a holiday destination, mean that it’s more important than ever to make sure your car is running smoothly.
We asked several of our Which? Trusted Traders garages what we should all be looking out for. There are basic checks which everyone should do before taking a long journey.
Check your oil: set your car on a flat surface and if you’ve been driving, let it rest for about five minutes before checking the oil levels, as they will rise when the engine has been running. When you pop the bonnet, you’ll be able to identify the dipstick for checking the oil level by its oil-can shaped symbol. It can be a good idea to keep a small amount of oil in the car, particularly if you are travelling abroad, so you can top up before a return journey.
- Check your water level: under the bonnet there is what’s called an expansion tank or header tank. It’s often on the right hand side, although cars vary. It will have a minimum and maximum level marked on it. Water should be just below the maximum – it’s a good idea to carry a bottle of water with you to top up if necessary.
- Check your coolant level: you should be able to see the coolant quite easily – its container will have a wave symbol on it and the liquid will be pink, blue or red. If it needs topping up, you can buy extra coolant at any garage – just make sure you put the same colour in as what you’ve already got.
- Check your tyre pressure: If you’re travelling with a full load – cases, kids and the dog in the back - you need to make sure your tyres are fully inflated to compensate for the extra weight. If you’ve got a spare tyre ensure that is pumped up too. This is particularly important if you are travelling in very hot weather, when tarmac gets soft and flabby tyres will affect your steering. Your manual will tell you the right tyre pressure for your make or model of car, if in doubt ask at your garage.
- Check your tyre treads: make sure the tread goes all the way across and it’s a minimum of 1.6mm depth – this is about the same as the outer band of a 20p coin. You can try the 20p test to see if your tyres are road legal – place a 20p coin into the main tread grooves of your tyre. Check at least three locations around each tyre. If you can see the outer band of the coin, get your tyres checked by a qualified tyre professional.
- Check your engine fan: You can check your cooling fan is kicking in by running your engine for a few minutes every morning to see if it starts working - alternatively your garage will be able to check this for you.
- Check your air-conditioning: an air-conditioning service will not necessarily form part of a general service – though you can ask your garage to carry out a specific check for you. You can also do a general check yourself. When you press the air-con button, you should be able to hear the pump engage. If you can’t hear the pump, it probably means you are low on gas. If you hear the pump and then it cuts out, you will need to take it to a garage for analysis.
- Check your brakes: this isn’t one you can do yourself but you don’t want to go on a long journey when your brake pads are nearly worn out. If you have not had a service for six months or more, it is worth bringing your annual service forward a month or so in order to check all is well before any long journeys.
- Check your lights: check all the lights; stop-lights, side-lights, head-lights, main beam and indicators. If you are travelling abroad it can be a legal requirement to carry a set of spare bulbs for each light. This is a good idea even if you are staying in the UK.
- Travelling abroad: if you are taking the car to continental Europe, you will need to ensure there is a GB icon on your number plate. If not, you will need a separate sticker. You will need further stickers to alter the direction of your headlights, and a breakdown kit which includes a red warning triangle and high-visibility jackets for all occupants of the vehicle. Some countries also require you to carry a first-aid kit and in France you’ll need a breathalyser test too.
If you need reliable advice on how your car is running or want to book in for a service, Which? Trusted Traders has garages and mechanics in your area now.
Thanks to our Trusted traders, Daniel Miller of Pressbay Motors, Martyn Wardle of City Auto Repairs and Robin Petharde of Rudheath MOT Centre for contributing to this article.