Preparing your car for travel in the age of COVID-19
Every fall, after that one last drive, my old Corvette goes into the garage for its long winter nap. I rarely intend for it to be the last drive, but the weather changes, battery dies, and it’s in for the count. A similar phenomenon happened during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Cars were parked much longer than planned. With restrictions easing, it’s time to reawaken our rides and prepare them for the new normal in summer vacations.
AAA predicts more of a desire to travel to U.S. destinations, mostly local and regional attractions, and a renewal of the great American road trip.
“Americans are taking that first step toward their next journey from the comfort of their home by researching vacation opportunities and talking with travel agents,” said Paula Twidale, senior vice president of AAA Travel. “We are seeing that Americans are showing a preference and inspiration to explore all that our country has to offer as soon as it is safe to travel.”
While we desire a summer vacation, our cars may still be dormant. It’s time to wake them up!
Owners of classic cars use trickle chargers and jack stands to keep their steeds in good trim, but getting those probably wasn’t top of mind when your vehicular life came to a halt. Beyond tires and batteries, any number of other components may not be at their best, so let’s do a walk-around of your vehicle. In a March 2018 story for Hagerty.com, Elena Scherr lays out the recommissioning activities.
— Critters: Check for signs of critters. Chipmunks and mice especially like living in immobile automobiles. The tray at the base of your windshield is especially enticing. Look inside to make sure no furry or feathered friends have taken up residence. While there, pop the hood. Check for mouse nests, spider webs or chipmunk nuts in the engine bay. Clean that stuff out.
— Quick Check: Check underneath for drips, leaks, and debris. Is there air in the tires? Check fluid levels for oil, coolant, brakes, transmission and windshield washer. Consult your owner’s manual to locate the reservoirs. Take a quick look at belts, hoses, and wiper blades too.
— Start Up: Assuming everything checks out, crank it over. If you’re lucky, the car will start. But, the battery may be dead. It’s best to use a proper charger, but you can jump it. Just don’t do it often because it can damage the battery. If working from home indefinitely, buy a trickle charger to maintain your battery.
Go for a quick drive around the block. Check turn signals and lights before leaving. Brakes and clutches can get sticky when sitting, but should smooth out quickly. Watch the thermostat to make sure the vehicle doesn’t overheat. Flat spots on the tires will vibrate like square wheels, but should lessen as tires warm.
What won’t go away without help are the layers of dirt, bird droppings and tree debris that’s likely landed on your auto. Automatic car washes are fine, but a home job is another opportunity to look for any damage that you may not have noticed. Before starting, buy a dedicated car wash detergent (no household soap), clean bucket, and two new sponges — one for the body, another for wheels. Get a chamois or clean towel to dry.
Start with a cool car. Spray the entire vehicle with water to remove loose dirt and keep it from grinding into your paint. Hand wash it one section at a time, rinsing after, never rubbing in circles to avoid swirls. Dried soap becomes difficult to remove. Rinse the sponge often to expunge grime that could damage paint. Hose one last time to get it fully cleansed. Dry with towel or chamois.
No matter the age we’re living in, the basics of driving don’t waver. Whether you drive a Model T or a Model S, your car should be checked by a professional garage before subjecting it to the stresses of summer travel.
“Have your car checked by an ASE-certified technician, Blue Seal shop, or at a dealership,” said Pam Oakes, owner of Pam’s Motor City in Fort Meyers, Fla. “We think we can do it ourselves, but the money is well-spent. You don’t want to find out half-way through your trip that your car has problems because you didn’t take precautions before-hand.”
Following a quick check during start-up, but it’s time to go deep. Here are some actions that Oakes, Consumer Reports, and AAA recommend:
— Tires: Inspect all five to make sure they are not worn and have proper inflation. Check the tires when cold and use pressures placed in the driver’s door jam. Place a quarter into the tire tread with Washington’s head facing you and down. If the area above his head is visible, replace tires.
— Fluids: Thoroughly check the coolant, oil, and transmission fluid levels. Read the owner’s manual for “normal” levels. Low coolant levels can cause overheating and leave you stranded. If the oil is excessively dirty, change it, but oil can be added if it is low. Check the owner’s manual for type.
— Brakes and batteries: Consumer Reports recommends that if you detect vibrations, grinding or pulling to one side when applying the brakes, take the car to a service center and have them checked. The normal life for a battery is 3-5 years. Almost any auto center can check its charging capability.
— Belts and hoses: Conduct a thorough inspection of belts and hoses for cracks, blisters, soft spots, and wear. Pay special attention to the big serpentine belt that runs through pulleys on the front of the engine and hoses going into the radiator. Either of those breaking will spell big trouble.
Not only is your car a convenient way to travel, it’s pretty difficult for anybody outside your travel partners to violate social distancing guidelines. Our cars have always been refuges from life’s trials and are even more so today. With a little preparation, you’ll enjoy a much-deserved vacation.
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