Basic car maintenance

As a driver, you’re responsible for the roadworthiness of your vehicle – that is, that it’s safe to be driven on the road.

In many modern cars, many of the mechanical parts are sealed and can only be checked by a qualified mechanic but there are some checks that you must do. Look at your vehicle’s handbook to see which checks you can make and how to do them.

Take care to check all around your car for anything that could make it less safe on the road. It does not take long and it’s usually easier to fix a problem when you spot it early.

If you find any problems while you’re doing maintenance, make sure you get them fixed as soon as possible. Leaving a problem is likely to make it more expensive to fix and could cause an incident.

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Checking the engine oil

Engine oil keeps the engine lubricated so it can work efficiently. Check the oil level regularly, especially before a long journey, to make sure the oil is at the recommended level.

Your vehicle handbook will tell you how to check the oil level and how to top it up if necessary. It should also tell you what type of oil to use. Using the wrong type of oil can increase fuel consumption, damage the engine and could affect the vehicle warranty. Do not overfill your engine oil as this can damage the engine and cause extra emissions.

Checking the engine coolant

The engine coolant is a mixture of antifreeze and water that stops the engine from overheating. You should check the coolant level frequently, and especially before a long journey. Look at your vehicle handbook to find out how to check the engine coolant and how to top it up if necessary.


Tyres are vital to your car’s safety: damaged or incorrectly inflated tyres could blow out or lose grip on the road surface and cause an incident.

Make sure that your tyres are correctly fitted and check they’re inflated to the correct pressure regularly. Use a tyre pressure gauge when the tyres are cold to make sure the pressures match those given in the vehicle handbook.

The tread on your tyres must measure at least 1.6 mm across the central three-quarters of the tyre, going all the way around the tyre.

Check your tyres for damage that could make them unsafe, such as bulges, cuts, stones. If you’re caught using faulty or worn tyres, you could be charged with fines of up to £2,500, driving disqualification or points on your licence for each faulty tyre.

Uneven or excessive tyre wear can mean that there’s a fault with the tyres, brakes, steering, suspension, wheel alignment or wheel balance. Get your car checked by a mechanic as soon as possible so that any faults can be put right.

You can use tyres that are specially adapted for different weather conditions.

  • Winter tyres are better than summer tyres for braking and grip when the temperature is under 7°C. You’d need to change the tyres when temperatures rise above this.
  • All-season tyres are between a winter tyre and a summer tyre: they’re designed to work well in low temperatures and in the summer.

Checking the windscreen and windows

Keep the windscreen and the windows in your vehicle clean and clear. Windscreens often get damaged by stone chips. A damaged area bigger than 10 mm across in the area of the windscreen immediately in front of the driver will fail an MOT test because this could block your view. This would need to be repaired or the windscreen replaced. On the rest of the windscreen, damage up to 40 mm across can be repaired. If damage cannot be repaired, the windscreen must be replaced.

Other equipment

  • Battery: make sure the terminals are secure, clean and greased. Most modern batteries are maintenance free and sealed for life. However, if the battery has a filler cap, you’ll need to check the fluid level to make sure that the plates in each cell are covered. Top up the battery with distilled water if necessary, but be careful not to overfill it.
  • Lights: make sure the front and rear lights, brake lights, indicators and hazard lights work. You should do this each time you use the vehicle. Use reflections in windows and garage doors to help you see whether the lights are working, or ask someone to help you.
  • Windscreen washers and wipers: check the washers are working correctly and make sure there’s enough liquid in the washer reservoir. This is especially important in wet, muddy conditions. Check the wipers too – replace the wiper blades if they’re damaged or worn.
  • Horn: check the horn is working properly but be careful not to do it when it might frighten or annoy other people.

Keep your car’s lights, indicators, reflectors and number plates clean at all times. Dirt on the lights and reflectors will stop them working effectively.

Checking the controls

Get your vehicle checked by a qualified mechanic as soon as possible if

  • you feel or hear knocking or rattling from the steering or suspension
  • there is a lot of ‘play’ in the steering wheel (that is, you can move the steering wheel from side to side without the wheels moving from side to side)
  • the steering begins to feel heavy (it needs a lot of effort to turn the wheel)
  • the brakes feel spongy or slack.

Check your brakes, including your parking brake, are working whenever you set out on a journey.

Disposing of oil, batteries and tyres

If you service your own vehicle, make sure you dispose of old engine oil, batteries and tyres by taking them to a local authority site or a garage. Do not put these items in the household waste or pour oil down the drain because they can damage the environment.

Disposing of these items incorrectly is illegal: you could be fined or given a prison sentence. By taking them to a local authority site, they can be disposed of safely or recycled.

Checks before you start a journey

Before you start any journey, there are some things you should check to make sure your car is fit for the trip – especially if it’s a long one.


  • the tyre pressures: you might need to increase them if your journey is going to involve a lot of motorway driving or driving at the national speed limit
  • all the lights are clean and working
  • you have enough fuel for your journey or, if you’ll need to refuel, plan where you’ll do this to make sure you do not run out.

Make sure you know what sort of fuel your car uses. Be very careful not to put the wrong type of fuel in your car: using the wrong fuel will cause serious damage to the engine.

While you’re driving, keep an eye on how much fuel you have left. Some cars have a warning light that shows when fuel is getting low; others may have a gauge that tells you how many miles you’ll be able to drive on the remaining fuel (called a range indicator). Do not rely on this too closely: the distance you can drive will depend on how you’re driving and in what traffic conditions. Only use the range indicator to give you an idea of how far you’ll be able to drive, and refuel in good time.

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