Coronavirus: Getting your car back on the road post-lockdown

 

Want to get your car back on the road but not sure what you need to check before turning the key? Whether you're a car maintenance novice or an expert garage tinkerer, here's all our advice for making sure your vehicle is good-to-go when the coronavirus lockdown ends.

What do I need to check?

1Fluids

Oil

It's a good idea to check the level regularly, even more so if your car has been sat around for a few weeks or months. Most oil level readings are done cold, but it's worth double checking your manual. Make sure your car is parked on a flat surface when you check any fluid levels, too, doing so on a slope may result in an incorrect reading.

When you remove the dipstick, wipe it with a clean cloth and then dip it all the way back in. Pull it back out after a few seconds and see where the oil is in relation to the level marks. There should be a series of marks on the dipstick to show the correct oil level (often low, medium, and high). If the oil is low, you check the manual for the type of oil you should use to refill it. Only poor in a small amount at a time - the difference between low oil and high oil can sometimes only be half a litre. Overfill the oil and you'll be having to drain the excess out.

Windscreen wash

Checking the washer fluid is the easiest task. Most cars have opaque washer fluid tanks so you can see inside without removing the cap. If it needs topped up, mix suitable washer fluid and the right ratio of water (it'll explain this on the bottle) and top it up.

Coolant

Again, this is something you check when the car is cold. Do not open the coolant lid when the car is running or when the engine is hot.

Engine coolant is a mix of water and antifreeze, which helps to stop your engine overheating (it's not just essential for colder weather).

The coolant should be between the min and max marks on the side of the expansion tank. If the coolant needs topping up, wait until the engine is cold (unless you want to be scalded by hot, pressurised water).

Most modern cars have a sealed cooling system so they shouldn’t need topping up. If the engine coolant level has dropped, it could be a sign of a leak so take it to a garage when possible if this is the case.

If you're not sure which coolant you require (there are a few different types) check your owners' manual.

Brake fluid

Drive your vehicle for a short period, braking several times to properly fill the brake system. Then open the bonnet and locate the brake fluid reservoir. If you’re unsure where to find it, check your vehicle manual. Clean off the outside before you open the tank as any dirt in the fluid can be bad for the system.

If your brake fluid level is below the low marker, you should add fluid to top it up. Brake fluid can corrode paint, though, so make sure not to spill it. If you do, ensure that you wipe it off properly. 

2Battery

If the battery is flat, then you may need to jump-start the vehicle. Bear in mind that a colder engine takes more out of the battery to start, so if possible start your car during the warmer part of the day rather than first thing in the morning.

If your car is relatively new, check that jump-starting it will not affect the manufacturer's warranty

The owner's manual for your car will provide the instruction you need to jump-start your vehicle. Check the battery terminals for signs of corrosion and clean any residue away to allow a good clean connection with the terminals before you jump-start it (if this is necessary). 

Next, run the engine for 20 minutes after jump-starting it to prevent a breakdown from low battery later on. Ideally, you'll be able to do this on a clear, straight run out in the car. But if you can't, make sure you're sitting in the vehicle when you run it.

Leaving your engine on while parked on the road or in a public place could land you with a fine of £20. Rule 123 of the Highway Code states: "You must not leave a vehicle’s engine running unnecessarily while that vehicle is stationary on a public road." This rule is enforced by the Road Traffic Act 1988.

Finally, it's a good idea to find the date stamped on the battery. A battery that's more than five years old may be at risk of failure, especially if the car is only making short or infrequent trips.

3Tyres

Tyres should be inspected once a week - but this advice is extra important if your car has been sat around for weeks during the lockdown.

The first step is very simple: ensure that the tyres aren't standing in pools of water or other liquids like oils or fuel - which can severely damage the rubber compound. If you spot any contaminants on your tyres, then you should remove it using plenty of water and a mild detergent.

Check all four tyres for abnormal wear and damage like cuts, bulges or bits of debris that have punctured the tyre wall. 

Next, it's time to check tyre pressure - which needs to be done when the tyres are cold. Ensure the tyres are inflated to their correct operating pressure, which can be found in the car's handbook or on the pillar of the driver's side door.

If you need a tyre inflator, something like the Ring RTC200 tyre inflator should do the trick. Prices are in the region of £20 and we reviewed it here. The Ring RTC1000 is more expensive at £45 but offers a digital display and a few extra features.

Finally, make sure that the valve caps are fitted properly with no air escaping. Modern cars often have Tyre Pressure Management Systems (TPMS) to warn of any tyre pressure abnormality - which usually signals a puncture. But you can also buy aftermarket TPMS - like the Michelin Fit2Go (which we've reviewed).

If there is an issue, get the tyre(s) inspected by a qualified tyre technician when safely permitted to do so. Check out our Good Garage Guide for reputable garages.

4Brakes

Brakes are a little bit harder to check visually, which means you'll usually be notified that there's an issue once you start the engine and get a brake pad warning light (in modern cars) or there's a noticeable issue when you struggle to pull away smoothly.

Brake pads can stick to the disc and callipers can seize if the car has not moved for many weeks. If the brakes have locked up, try applying and releasing the handbrake a few times and then attempt to drive gently forward in first gear and then backwards in reverse to see if this loosens the rust. Be careful not to apply too much force as this may cause damage to the engine and/or clutch as well as the pads and discs.

When you drive the car for the first time in a prolonged period, it’s normal for some surface corrosion of the brake discs to have occurred. This means you might notice a grinding sound when you first apply the brakes. The sound should clear as the rust is worn away.

While braking, if the vehicle feels as if it pulls to one side or the other - that's another sign that there's a potential fault with the brakes. Uneven pad wear will cause this. Similarly, if the brake pedal vibrates when you push your foot down on it, the pads could be warped or damaged.

If the brakes don't budge when you try to drive the car, or you experience any of the mentioned issues, then you will probably need to contact a mobile mechanic to have it examined. Check out our Good Garage Guide for reputable garages.

5Fuel

The petrol in your vehicle should be fine for up to six months. If the car has been parked up for longer, then the fuel may start to deteriorate. This can be prevented with a fuel stabiliser (which will prevent the chemicals within the fuel from breaking down).

If the car has been parked up for less than six months, we'd recommend adding a few litres of premium fuel (Shell V-Power or BP ultimate) before you attempt a long journey. Premium fuel contains stabilisers and detergents that are designed to cope with this type of situation.

Diesel is generally good for at least 12 months in a sealed fuel tank before the chemical components begin to deteriorate.

6Electrics

There are plenty of electrics to check in your car if it's been sat stationary for a while, but some basic - yet important - ones are the exterior lights and windscreen wipers/washers.

Test your windscreen wipers are working and walk around the car to make sure the lights (headlights, indicators, hazards, dip and main beam, fog) are all in good working order, too - especially brake lights and the number plate lights. 

Obviously, if your car flashes up any warning lights, these need to be inspected straight away. Common warning lights include low battery charge, ABS, and oil pressure.  

You should see your battery charge warning light when you first turn your car on, but if it doesn’t go out a few seconds after the engine starts then there could be a problem with your car’s electrical system. Sometimes gently increasing the revs will clear this.

The ABS light will indicate a fault in the anti-lock braking system - this is unlikely to result in you losing your brakes entirely, but additional safety features may be switched off, so professional help should be sought to resolve this issue.

The oil light will illuminate when the oil pressure sensor detects low oil pressure or level. The vehicle's engine should be switched off immediately to avoid potentially severe engine damage and the oil level needs to be checked.

You can read more about what common warning lights could mean here.

If an engine warning light illuminates, the vehicle has detected a fault with the engine management system. This light can also cause the vehicle to go into 'limp home' mode (a precaution set by the car’s computer to avoid engine or transmission damage) and requires immediate professional attention.

Use our Good Garage Guide to find a trustworthy garage in your local area.

7Leaks

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but it's necessary to check for any leaks before you set off on a journey. If you do spot liquid puddling under your vehicle, grab a torch and see if you can spot where it's coming from. Here's what the fluid colours could mean:

Brown: A brown liquid that looks multicoloured in the light probably means it's fuel. Both petrol or diesel have very distinctive scents so you should be able to tell from smell alone.

If this is the case, avoid driving as it's highly flammable. The likeliest reason is a leak in the fuel system. Unless there's an obvious fuel hose hanging lose, this one is best left to the professionals to sort.

Red: This usually means you have a transmission fluid leak. It'll usually come from the middle or front of your vehicle. Avoid driving if you think there's a potential transmission fluid leak as your car may not run properly. Reasons range from minor issues to major problems. Therefore, the issue should be looked at as soon as possible.

Amber/brown/black: We'd venture a guess that this is engine oil. Although you should have this looked at by a mechanic, you can still drive (albeit don't go far if this is a major leak) - just make sure your oil tank is always filled to the correct level or you could cause serious engine damage.

Reddish brown: This colour leak near the power steering reservoir could be power steering fluid. Unlike motor oil or transmission fluid, this will have a burnt smell to it. Firstly, check the fluid levels to see how serious the leak has become and how low it's running. Although there’s nothing physically stopping you from driving with a power steering fluid leak, we wouldn't recommend it at all. Any sustained driving on low levels could quickly cause lasting damage so should be avoided.

Any colour: Coolant comes in a whole host of different colours so green, yellow, blue, red etc (even clear liquid) could be coolant. Although hard to visually identify, it has a distinctively sweet smell and a slimy texture. If your coolant’s leaking, your engine could be at risk from overheating so you need to make sure you get it seen to quickly in order to avoid any lasting damage.

Brownish: You’ll spot this fluid under the wheels and around the brakes. Leaking brake fluid is a significant problem because without it you won’t be able to safely control your car. So, if you spot a possible brake fluid leak, don’t try to drive your car. It's also highly corrosive so make sure you get it off your hands. You'll likely need the car towed to a nearby garage where they can take a look at it.

8First drive

Pre-flight checks completed? If you're happy with the results, then you're ready for your first drive. Here, you'll want to make sure you're careful.

After you move off, check your brakes as soon as it's safe to - you don't want to find out there's no pedal pressure just before you need to perform an emergency stop. If you're smart, you'll make sure you leave a bit of an extra gap behind the vehicle in front.

There's no radio on this ride, you're going to use your ears (and all your other senses) to make sure your motor is happy. You're listening for any grinding, grumbling, whining or knocking that wasn't there last time you drive it. This isn't easy on modern cars, thanks to all the insulation.

Pay attention to everything. Are there any flat spots when you accelerate? Does the car pull to one side under acceleration? Does it brake evenly? Are the gear changes smooth? Is the clutch sticking? What's the temperature needle doing?

Don't gun the engine until the oil's warm. And it takes the oil a lot longer to warm up than it does the coolant so do not go buy the engine temp. Once you're happy that the car is safe and when it's legal to do so, gently stretch the rev range. We don't mean going from 2000rpm to 8000rpm in first away from the lights - just add an extra 500rpm to the changes.

Your dad would probably call it mechanical sympathy... but then he did learn to drive in one of those new-fangled horseless carriages. While this isn't the most exciting way to enjoy your car after lockdown, being gentle will help it ease back into work. After all, you wouldn't expect to run a marathon after 12 weeks of watching Netflix on the sofa.

 

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