Everyone knows someone like this. It might be a mate, a sister, a parent, even a boyfriend or girlfriend. A little while back, a friend of mine contacted me, concerned that her car was using chewing through the fuel a bit. That was, of course, a not-so-subtle hint that, being the only ‘car person’ she knew, I might be able to diagnose the problem without her having to actually pay a mechanic. No worries, bring it around and I’ll have a look.
If the saying “first impressions count for everything” has any truth to it, this car and I were off to a bad start. I could already hear the tyres thrumming away from the other end of my street, a sure sign that the tyre pressures were desperately low and that the wheels were probably also out of balance and/or alignment. As it bounced into the driveway (and I do mean bounced – the shock absorbers were totally shagged), the true horror began to unfold. It was a fairly tired early model Holden Astra, donated to this young lady by her parents as her first car. The registration documents said it was white, but it was more like a two-tone beige over grey. I don’t ever remember an Astra having gunmetal grey alloy wheels like the rear ones on this car, let alone the pitch black ones on the front. Having done a smidge over 100,000kms I asked if the timing belt had been done, only to be met with a blank look. For anyone who knows the Astra/Barina/Vectra 4 cylinder engines, I’m amazed the engine had made it this far without lunching itself.
Everywhere I looked, it got worse. The oil was like treacle, from what little I could see on the dipstick, the radiator overflow bottle was empty, and given how much fluid it took to top it back up, I suspect there wasn’t a whole lot left in the radiator itself. The exhaust was leaking at the manifold and there was a hole in the rear muffler, making it sound like a very loud squashed fart. The clutch was noisy and the gearshift felt like waving a wooden spoon around in a bowl of cake mix. As I moved to the inside of the car, I realised that this girl’s car was probably an extension of her bedroom. It reeked of cigarettes, not surprising given the ashtray was full – apparently her friends smoke in the car, she doesn’t although she’s a smoker. Uh huh. Clothes were strewn everywhere, as were boxes of assorted useless items she’d never got around to removing. In the boot, there were two extra wheels (courtesy of her boyfriend, who’s into drifting) and a battery!
So I told her to leave the car with me and come back in a few days. Having cleaned the flotsam and jetsam from the interior, I was able to form a rather neat pile in the middle of my front lawn, the kind that you could stand on if you wanted to look into the neighbour’s back yard. It took all my effort not to get out some kerosene and a match. At a rough guess, she was carrying the equivalent of two extra passengers in her car wherever she went, just in the weight of junk. I’ve happily driven 700+hp cars before, but this is one of the few I was actually too scared to drive. I arranged for a towie to collect it and take it to a mechanic. They drained and flushed every fluid-holding reservoir in the car (I won’t tell you what they had to do to clean out the sump, it sounds too far-fetched to be believable), changed the timing belt, put on four new tyres, four new shocks, replaced the lower control arms, replaced a couple of broken switches, and both brake light bulbs (thank goodness for the eye-level brake light or she would’ve had nothing at all). One poor bloke spent the best part of three days working on it.
From the workshop, it was a neat 50m or so to the self-serve car wash, so I drove it across to give it a bath. This was only a sympathy wash, because I didn’t have the heart to hand it to my detailer without making it look semi-respectable. Even still, he gave me one of those ‘What-are-you-doing-to-me?” glances when he returned it. Even at mates’ rates, there’s no getting around the hours of prep needed to scrub off years of dirt, road grime, acid rain and baked-on brake dust.
As you can imagine, the total bill was astronomical, but the poor girl’s resignation to the figures she read on the invoices suggested that maybe she’d been nagged by her parents about the state of her car for many years. As for her fuel economy, she saw a reduction of between twenty-five and thirty per cent after everything was done; a remarkable feat for a small car, but also a sign of how bad things were when we started on it.
Now I know hers is an extreme case, but the reality is that modern cars are so damned reliable that, when it comes to regular maintenance, we’ve all become a bit slack. As a kid, I had it drummed into me that I needed to check the oil, radiator and tyre pressures at least once every fortnight, and just before I went on any long trips. I’ll be honest and say I’m not as diligent as I used to be (it’s far easier when you only own one car!), but I do still check all my cars, and they get booked in for servicing as soon as they are due. So if your idea of a service is putting petrol in the tank and putting the key in the ignition, stop reading this, get off your bum, get outside, open the bonnet, rip out the tyre pressure gauge and make sure your car is in tip-top condition. Oh get rid of any crap floating around that doesn’t need to be there – not only will it improve your fuel consumption, it does wonders for your car’s power/weight ratio!
First published in ‘High Performance Imports’ magazine, March 2011.