How to be one careful lady owner

Scared of looking under the bonnet of your four-wheeled friend? Debra Jane Appleby dispels the mystery of the motor and offers some basic tips to keep your car out of the garage and on the road.

Don’t be a dipstick, pop that bonnet and get involved

It is one of the appliances we take for granted; it’s also one of the most expensive purchases we ever make. It’s one of the few things it’s cool to be a nerd about and cliché would have us believe it’s a no-go area for the ladies.

No, not Dungeons and Dragons. It is, of course, the car.

We’re told how it’s terribly complex and “not to worry, love” by mechanics, while they’re working out how much extra they can tag on the bill.

As easy as 1, 2, 3

There are a few basic, universal things worth learning about your trusty workhorse, whether brand new or held together with rust and hope, and it is as easy to remember as cleanse, tone and moisturise.

Just like those three vital fluids you may use to prolong the life of your dermis; oil, fuel and water are vital to your car’s lack of mechanical wrinkles. Regular checks, replacements and careful care of all of them take minutes to do but save a lot of hassle in the long term.

If your car makes a noise it hasn’t made before then there’s probably something wrong.

Fuel, seems obvious. Not going anywhere without that! Topping up before your gauge dips below a quarter tank keeps the fuel circulating cleanly and stops the sludge that collects in the bottom of the fuel tank from being forced into the fuel filter, damaging injectors and clogging up the exhaust system.

Water; specifically water + anti-freeze or ‘coolant’ is also vital. Overheating will kill an engine.
For the cost of a little pre-mixed anti-freeze you can pick up in the supermarket – along with a loaf and a pint of milk – and the bother of a monthly peek under the bonnet at the ‘MAX’ line on your coolant reservoir, disaster can be avoided.

Last but most important is oil. The most neglected of simple chores, checking the dipstick and topping up, along with replacing the oil and filter regularly, is the number one way to add 100,000 miles to the life of an engine. Keep the oil to the max level and have it changed twice a year. Or do it yourself. It’s one of the easiest bits of DIY on a car. Without it the engine will wear and then seize and it’s game over.

We will pause now for all the lube jokes I typed in and then deleted.

A journey of a thousand miles starts with the instruction book

“But how can I learn all this?” you cry. The first stop for all of this is the owner’s manual. If you don’t have one for your car you can download it from the manufacturer’s website or grab the Haynes workshop book.

This next bit may sound patronising but it isn’t. First things first. find out how to open the bonnet. I know, sounds insulting, but a great many people just don’t bother to find out how. Open that bonnet and use the diagram in the manual to familiarise yourself with where everything is. The top up for the water, the dipstick for the oil, etc. Those are good to start with.

The manual will give you all the info you need to check your oil and water and top up if needs be. While you’re in there, keep the washer bottle topped up as well.

If you’re feeling particularly daring, give your tyres a check too. Poorly inflated tyres are not only dangerous but cause you to use more fuel. Strange but true.

Check your lights. A blown brake/tail/headlight will fail an MOT causing a retest fee and a labour charge that could cost you as much as £60, not to mention the attention of PC Plod. For a tenner and five minutes it’s easily resolved so have a spare bulb kit in the glove compartment.

For the bigger things in life

If you get the taste for it – or have an old banger that you can really get down and dirty with – there are always courses at local Further Education colleges in car basics and more, like this example in London. I myself started with Deanna Sclar’s Auto Repair for Dummies, and the internet, as always, is a great resource.

Finally, don’t leave rattle and bangs too long before popping your pride and joy down to Dodgy Dave’s Back Street Motors. If your car makes a noise it hasn’t made before then there’s probably something wrong.

Don’t do what my partner does and cure the rattle in her car by simply turning up the radio. There’s only so much Bon Jovi can make better.


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Written by Debra-Jane Appelby

Loud, Yorkshire, opinionated, techno-geek, trans-woman comedian with a fondness for excessive culinary pleasures and too little exercise.