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On the road again - More Economical Motoring

The working parts of the engine and transmission are all out of sight, but there are few checks you can still make from the outside. The oil filler cap will be somewhere on top of the engine, usually near the front. Unscrew this and take a look at the underside. A milky foam deposit often indicates that water is getting into the oil and will need serious money to fix. Withdraw the engine dipstick. The oil should be up to the maximum mark and be clean - black is bad. Automatic transmissions also have a dipstick. Oil on this is usually red and very fine. Wipe a finger across the end of the stick and look at it - dark discolouration means the transmission hasn't been serviced in a while and traces of metal filings is a sign of wear. If the car has power steering, there will be a filler cap on top of the box. Unscrew this and you will find a short plastic dipstick attached. The oil is usually the same as the auto transmission lubricant. It should be clean and up to the appropriate mark, depending whether the engine is hot or cold.

See How it Starts and Idles
When you've done this, switch on all of the lights and start the car. It should turn over and start without hesitation, neither should the lights dim appreciably - either or both of these could mean more expense very soon. Now, switch off the lights and let the engine run for a bit - you can go through some other checks as it is idling. Listen to it ticking over - the sound should be relatively smooth. Any coughing or hiccups are an indication that something needs attention. Don't be fooled into believing that it just needs a new set of plugs! Whistling from the engine area could be an air leak, or a belt in need of replacement, maybe the water-pump is on its way out. High-speed metallic grating, even if only faint, may point to trouble of a more serious nature. Before you switch off, get down low to have a look at the exhaust. It runs underneath from front to back and shouldn't be so loose that it rattles. After a few seconds, if you can smell fumes, there's a leak somewhere which is not only obnoxious, but also deadly, especially if it makes its way inside the car. Exhaust gases are expelled via the tail-pipe, either at the rear of the vehicle, or to the side. Once the engine is warm, there should be little or no visible steam or smoke. If there is, there's trouble brewing - black is usually burnt fuel, whereas blue means it's burning oil. Not good, either of them! Now switch off and see whether any leaks have appeared. If not, so far so good.

The Braking System
The operation of the brakes will show up when you road-test the vehicle. Before you do, however, it is a good idea to see if there are any likely problems. Sit in the driver's seat and press your foot down on the brake pedal. There should be some play before you feel resistance, but not so much that the pedal almost touches the floor. Keep up the pressure for a few seconds. Your foot should remain in the same position - if it sinks gradually, there could be air in the system and it needs fixing. Try the handbrake - like the foot-brake, there will be some resistance and you should be able to engage and disengage it easily. Now it's time to grub around on the floor again. Run your fingers up the metal arm attached to the brake pedal (you can do the same with the clutch pedal if the car's a manual) to see if there is any trace of fluid where it disappears into the bodywork. If there is, this will most likely be from the master cylinder which is leaking. You'll find the reservoir under the hood attached to the firewall closest to the driver. It is usually translucent so that levels can be checked visually. If the fluid is down, again look for traces of leaking where the cylinder is attached to the body. Brake and clutch fluids aren’t subject to evaporation, so if levels are below the marks, there are more than likely leaks somewhere in the system. Brake fluid is an excellent paint-stripper so there will be evidence of leakage, even if the engine has been cleaned. It's also a good idea to take off the cap and view the state of the fluid which, needless to say, should be clean. Get down on hands and knees and look at the back of each wheel. Fluid leaks from the wheel cylinders should be obvious, usually as dark staining in the accumulated dust. Like the engine, if the wheels look as if they've just been cleaned, you should be wondering why.

The Electrics
This is the computer age and cars have their fair share of electronic devices which you can do nothing but trust and hope for the best. The basic electrics, however, haven't changed much. Driving lights, brake lights, indicators, horn, etc can easily be checked with the help of a friend. If you don't have one with you, get the seller to operate the lights while you make sure they are all working properly. Inspect the battery which you will usually find under the hood - it should be properly secured. Some have covers which are relatively easy to remove. If it isn't the sealed type, protect your hand with a rag (acid burns!) and remove the filler caps. You should only be able to see liquid, not the plates it covers. Have a look at the terminals to see that the clamps are on tight and are not corroded.

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