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How to Keep an Old Car Running

With a little TLC, your vehicle can go the distance

spinner image Dad showing son how to check car oil
Dad showing son how to check car oil
Angelo Merendino/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a strong argument for buying a new or newish car, sporting a suite of automatic safety features that weren’t available in older models.

But there’s also something to be said for an older car. Perhaps you’re delighted by the lower insurance premiums that usually apply to vehicles with more mileage and, in places where it’s imposed, a lower personal property tax. Or maybe you simply like the old buggy — you know its quirks, and you trust it. Or maybe there’s a different reason.

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“It’s got sentimental value. I love my car because it used to be my brother’s,” Kristin Wong says on, explaining why she plans to drive her 2008 Toyota Corolla “into the ground.”

Whatever the reason, you’ll want to make your auto last. And that means keeping it fresh, dependable and desirable. “The big thing is routine maintenance,” says Heath Knox, master technician at Kenny Ross Chevrolet dealership in Zelienople, Pa., north of Pittsburgh.

“Make sure all the fluids are checked and changed,” advises Paul Danner, an automotive instructor at Rosedale Technical College in Pittsburgh.

Irv Gordon, a retired teacher from Long Island, N.Y., has driven a record 3 million–plus miles in his 1966 Volvo P1800S, mainly by following the book. “I figure that the guys who wrote the owner’s manual, the guys who wrote the service manual, they’re the guys who made the recommendations as to how long the parts were designed to last, and I just try to follow their recommendations,” he told Hemmings Motor News.

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Here’s a to-do list for keeping the buggy going, based on the advice of pros with hands-on expertise. The list might seem daunting, but you don’t have to perform all the tasks at once, nor do most of them need to be done very often.

Drive it. You can hear and feel if things are right. A good run up the highway every week or two burns off harmful moisture that has condensed in the oil and the exhaust system. Short drives won’t do the trick. Hitting the road also keeps your tires from getting flat spots and your battery from dying of neglect. Let a trusted friend drive, too, while you ride along. Someone else will hear and feel things you’ve grown used to and take for granted. Another advantange of being the passenger is that you sometimes can hear noises or detect problems that you don’t notice when you’re behind the wheel.

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Wash it. If your car starts to look like a clunker, you’ll treat it like one. Washing your baby with a microfiber mitt and drying it with a microfiber towel are easiest on the paint; what’s more, you’ll feel and see body panels that need repair. If you run it through a commercial wash, pick one that uses humans, not brushes, to do the job, advises Michael Stoops, senior global product and training specialist at Meguiar’s, which makes premium car-care products.

Check it. Just before you head off for those weekly or biweekly drives, check the oil level in the engine using the under-hood oil dipstick. Do it when the car’s been sitting a couple of hours or more and is level. “Nothing will destroy an engine faster than neglecting oil-level checks or fresh-oil changes,” auto consultant and car-shopping site Kelley Blue Book states. Automatic transmission fluid also needs regular checking, though less often, via a separate dipstick. “Transmission fluid gets overlooked,” says Danner. The owner’s manual will tell you how, and how often, to check yours; it differs among vehicles.

Change it. How often? Consult the owner’s manual. “You never go wrong going by what the manufacturer says,” according to Danner. If you want to switch to regular engine oil from pricey synthetic, that’s fine, he says, as long as the automaker doesn’t require synthetic. Just remember, you’ll have to change it more often than you would synthetic. But switching to synthetic in a car that’s had a diet of regular oil for years could result in oil leaks and oil consumption, cautions Jeff Kaplon, also an auto instructor at Rosedale Tech.

Keep it cool. On most cars, you can check if your antifreeze is low by looking at the overflow tank (a small semitransparent receptacle under the hood, usually near the radiator). But you can’t tell anything else; the color of the coolant isn’t an indicator of its condition. “Antifreeze we have today will go quite a while, but it still becomes acidic over time if you don’t drain it and flush it,” Kaplon says.

Don’t ignore timing. “The timing belt is something most people don’t think about until it breaks,” Kaplon warns. That will halt, and possibly ruin, the engine. The owner’s manual will specify intervals for servicing the belt or chain (every 60,000 to 90,000 miles, for example).

Tend the tires. Check tire pressure regularly. The correct pressure is listed on a decal inside the driver’s door. The pressure listed on the tire is a maximum, not a recommendation. Rotate the tires regularly for even wear and longer life. If replacements are needed, get tires that were made recently, since at about five years, the rubber can begin to degrade. The date is found in the long number stamped on the sidewall. If the last four digits are, say, 1215, the tire was made in December 2015.

Fix it. Now, not later. “Make sure that something doesn’t deteriorate and you have a major expense,” says master technician Knox. “We have some customers with vehicles that have more than 200,000 or 250,000 miles. If something’s broken, they fix it right away.” Amen to that, says Dan Kuendel, a longtime Mercedes-Benz master technician in Northern Virginia who switched careers this year to work at a consulting company.  “I’ve seen one-owner, 10-year-old cars that don’t seem to ever need much. When they do need repairs, the customers don’t hesitate.”

Stash cash. Older cars will whack you with big repair bills now and then. Set aside money in the interim, so you’re not tempted to dump the rig and buy a new one. The average price of a new vehicle is more than $34,000 — enough to pay for many repairs to your old set of wheels.

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