Cars have gotten good, maybe too good, over the past few decades. Skills that were essential even twenty years ago have all but been forgotten. Who needs to check tire pressure when you have sensors to do this for you? Who wants to learn to drive a manual when there are so many good sequential automatics to choose from, some that even shift faster than a trained racer? Who needs to worry about oversteer when you’ve got yaw control on your new car?
The correct answer to all of these questions is, “you do”. Why? Because you just never know what life will throw at you. Let’s say you’re on your first business trip to Europe, and you go to collect your rental car. Chances are good that it’ll be a manual transmission, so do you really want to demonstrate your driving fail to your new colleagues?
How about this: you come out of a store, and missus right (or mister right, depending on your sex and orientation) with no ring on her hand needs a tire changed. Or has a dead battery. Are you really going to walk away, telling her to “call AAA, they’ll hook you up”?
Here are ten skills, in order of difficulty, that every driver should have. Some are maintenance related, others are driving related. Some you’ll use all the time, others you’ll use once in a lifetime. The common theme? All are really good skills to learn.
Check Your Tire Pressure
Sure, the video tells you how, but here’s what I suggest. First, buy a real tire gauge, the dial type with a bleed valve and rubber armor. It’ll cost you ten or twenty bucks, but you’ll have a solid, accurate gauge for the rest of your life. Pencil type gauges and digital gauges are crap and aren’t always accurate. Ditto with gauges on gas station air pumps.
Always check your tire pressure cold and inflate to the pressure recommended in your owners manual (or on your door sticker). Inflation pressure will vary with vehicle load, so be sure to pay attention to this. Even if you have tire pressure sensors on your car (and you do if it was built after 2006), check your tires at least once per month.
Check Your Oil, Coolant, and Transmission Fluids
Always check your owner’s manual to make sure you know where the oil dipstick, transmission dipstick (automatic transmissions only) and coolant reservoir are located. Do not, under any circumstances, mix up your oil and transmission dipsticks or your coolant and windshield washer reservoirs. Bad, bad things will happen if you do.
To check the oil, make sure the car is warmed up. Turn the car off and wait a minute or so for the warm oil to drain back down into the oil pan. Open the hood and find the oil dipstick. Remove it, wiping the oil off with a clean rag. Reinsert the dipstick, pull it out and hold it in a horizontal position. You’re looking for the oil level to be between L (low) and F (full). If the oil level is below L (very, very bad), add oil until the level reads F. If the level is halfway between L and F, or closer to F then I wouldn’t recommend adding additional oil. If it’s below half, add a few ounces of oil at a time, then recheck it on the dipstick. Low oil is very, very bad, but overfilling your oil can be equally bad.
On new cars, you shouldn’t have to worry much about coolant. If you’re under the hood checking hte oil, just take a look at the coolant reservoir. If it’s between the “Min” and the “Full” markings, you’re good to go. If it’s not, you could have a problem. Add distilled water to the coolant tank (never the radiator) until the level is above “Min”. Cars don’t consume coolant, so get it to the shop to be checked out.
Transmission dipsticks can be located in some funky places, and generally they’re at the back of the engine. The transmission dipstick can be really long, so keep this in mind when you’re pulling it out (remember, it’s always a party until someone loses an eye). First, read your owners manual. Most manufacturers want the transmission fluid checked while the vehicle is running and in “Park”; make sure this is the case for yours. You already know where the transmission dipstick is located, because you RTFM’d earlier; find it, remove it, wipe it clean and reinsert it. Remove it again, and check the level of fluid. Below L and H? You’re good to go.
Change a Headlight Bulb (non HID headlights)
Halogen headlights generally last a long, long time, so you won’t be doing this often. First, make sure you have the correct wattage replacement bulb. Next, open the hood and find the back of the bad headlight. Take off the rubber boot, disconnect the electrical connection (generally by squeezing the sides or top and pulling the connector off) and remove the existing bulb and mount (generally by turing counter clockwise until the mount comes loose). Pull out the old bulb and discard. Keep the new bulb in its plastic sleeve (to avoid getting fingerprints on it, which will shorten bulb life) and press it into the mount. Reinstall the mount, reattach the electrical connector, put the rubber boot back in place and you’re done.
Change a Tire
It never ceases to amaze me how few drivers actually know how to change a tire. It’s a basic skill, and one you can practice at home in about 15 minutes. First, RTFM; know where your jack, lug wrench and spare tire are located. Next, make sure your car is in “Park” with the handbrake firmly engaged. If you drive a manual, put the transmission in first or reverse, then make sure your handbrake is fully engaged. Put something underneath the wheel diagonally away from the one you’re changing to block it; a rock or piece of wood will do fine. Take the tools out of your car and remove the wheel cover (if you’ve got one) on the wheel to be changed. With the car on the ground. use the lug wrench to break the lug nuts free. Stand on the lug wrench to provide the maximum force if you can’t get them off by hand. Loosen each lug bolt just a little bit (one turn), then insert the jack under the car at the spot recommended by your manufacturer. Turn the jack screw clockwise to raise the car, and do this until the tire to be changed is about an inch off the pavement. Now remove all lug nuts, pull the flat tire and wheel off the car and put on the spare. Replace the lug nuts and tighten by hand as much as you can. Lower the car by turning the jack screw counter clockwise (anti clockwise, if you’re in the UK) until the jack comes free. Now, tighten the lug bolts with the wrench, making them as tight as you can get them by hand. Put the tools away, throw the flat tire into the trunk and drive away with some self satisfaction.
Jump Start a Car With a Dead Battery
Sooner or later, you’re going to have a dead battery. Sure, you can carry around one of those portable jump starters, but who’s got room in their car of one? Not me. It’s better to learn the good, old fashioned skill of jump-starting a car.
Make sure the dead battery isn’t frozen, cracked or visibly damaged before you attempt this. Battery explosions aren’t cool, especially if you’re anywhere near one.
Since you already have a car with a dead battery, you’ll need one with a good battery. Pull the two as close together as possible, battery to battery. Be aware that not all cars have the battery under the hood, so make sure you know where both batteries are located. Next, get out the jumper cables. Make sure that both cars are turned off and in park, with the handbrakes on. Connect the red jumper clip to the positive terminal of the dead battery. Connect the other red jumper clip to the positive terminal of the good battery. Next, connect the black jumper clip to the negative terminal of the good battery; finally, connect the other black jumper clip to a ground on the vehicle with the dead battery. This can be nearly any exposed metal on the engine.
I’m old school, so I like to start the good vehicle before I try to start the one with the dead battery. Once the good car is running, try to start the one with the dead battery. Nine times out of ten the car will start right up. If it doesn’t start in the first thirty seconds, it’s probably not going to – time to call a tow truck.
Stop a Vehicle With a Stuck Throttle
We’ve already covered this one, so I’ll recap the steps quickly. First, don’t panic. Next, push the brake pedal as hard as you can to the floor and hold it. Now, move the gear shift into Neutral, which will be one up (or up and over) from Drive. On a
manual transmission car, Neutral will be above 2, 4, and 6 and below 1, 3, and 5. Don’t worry about the motor, since the rev limiter will keep it from grenading. Steer to the right shoulder and turn off the motor when you’ve come to a stop. You’re not going to fix it, so call for a tow truck on this one.
Control Understeer and Oversteer
This is too broad to cover in detail here, so we’ll actually do an entire column on it in the future.
Understeer, or “push” is when the car’s front wheels are turned but the vehicle is continuing in a straight line. Generally speaking, this is caused by asking the front wheels to do too much at the same time with the amount of traction available. Want to counter it? Do less of what you’re doing. In a front wheel drive car, this can be accelerating, turning, braking or some combination of all three. Understeer requires room to correct, so make sure you practice recovery in a vacant parking lot with no obstacles. Nothing sucks more than explaining to your buddies how you pretzeled a wheel in an empty parking lot.
Oversteer, or “loose” in racing terms is when the back end of the car comes loose. This is usually caused by exceeding the limits of the rear tires’ traction, weight transfer, road surface changes or generous application of the throttle in a rear wheel drive car. To catch oversteer, gently lift off the throttle just a bit and turn in the direction of the skid. If the car breaks left, turn left; if the car breaks right, turn right.
Handle a Tire Blowout at Speed
Been there, done that – I once had a rear tire on a rented Mustang explode at around 80 mph. While the experience wasn’t pleasant, it really wasn’t a big deal, either.
First, don’t panic. Your initial reaction will be to lift off the gas and hit the brakes, but this is the absolute worst thing you can do. Gently begin to lift off the throttle, while trying to maintain lane presence. At this point, every correction you make in steering should be gentle as well. Let the car coast down in speed, and begin to gently apply partial brakes. Once the car is below 30 mph, begin to steer to the shoulder and brake to a stop.
Execute a Handbrake Turn
Why would you ever need to learn how to do a handbrake turn? Because you just never know when you’ll need to change direction suddenly. A handbrake turn once saved my bacon when a car pulled out in front of me. I wasn’t going to stop in time, but I was able to get the rear of my car rotated quick enough to avoid center punching the other driver. Was it pretty? No. Did it work? Yes.
First, handbrake turns are dangerous, so practice them at your own risk. A car with a low center of gravity is best; under no circumstances would I attempt one in an SUV. Also, keep you speed below 45 mph; above that, and you’ve got a much better chance of finding out how strong your roof really is.
Make sure you’ve got plenty of room around you and start slow (say, 30 mph). Drive in a straight line until you reach the spot where you want to turn. Grasp across the steering wheel, since you’re going to rotate it about 180 degrees. Begin to turn, then quickly pull up on the hand brake with sufficient force to lock the rear wheels. Continue to turn in, but release the brake and begin to apply throttle gently. If you did it correctly and carried the right amount of speed into the turn, your car should have rotated about 180 degrees. Cool, huh?
Drive a Manual Transmission
Start with a very patient friend or relative who drives a car with a manual transmission. Bribe them, beg them, blackmail them to teach you, because there’s no way you’re going to learn even the basics by reading about it or watching a video.
The process is simple. Clutch in, select first gear, gently release clutch until it begins to grab and apply throttle. Clutch in, foot off throttle, select second gear release clutch, accelerate. Repeat until you’ve worked through all the gears, about a thousand times. Now you’re ready to drive a stick shift on level surfaces. Hills are a whole other story.