So you love your car, even though you’re short on the funds you need to keep it running. Or you hate your car, and you don’t have the cash to spend on a newer (or less broken one) right now. That’s OK, these things happen. Everyone that’s ever owned a car that was pre-owned many times over, or got for free from grandma, or something that’s just plain on its last legs knows that an aging ride is going to have its quirks. Some of those quirks don’t affect how it rides, or you learn to ignore them, or they magically fix themselves. That’s great, but many of your older car’s quirks could spell big trouble.
Most new cars are more robust than ever before — and so are bumper-to-bumper warranties. The days of regular timing and valve adjustments, oil changes that need to happen at 3,000 miles on the dot, and catastrophic rust within the first few years are all but over. But for all of us driving used or older cars, maintenance is never far from our minds.
So if you’ve noticed that your car has picked up an interesting new trait lately and are wondering whether it’s serious or not, check it against this list. If it’s any one of these 10 thing things, it might not have much time left.
1. Idiot lights galore
Why are they called idiot lights? Because they’re supposed to tell you something is wrong even if you aren’t exactly mechanically inclined. A check engine light means you should make an appointment with your mechanic, or if you’re a shade-tree mechanic yourself, plug your car into an OBD-II diagnostics meter right away. The more lights you have on, the more your car is crying out for help. And if the check engine light or oil pressure light start flashing, turn your car off immediately and have it towed to your mechanic as soon as possible. Because the next step is engine failure, and if you ignored all the signs, you’ll really feel like an idiot.
2. An unquenchable thirst for oil
Oil is used to lubricate your engine. It isn’t supposed to escape into your driveway or out your tailpipe. If your car has a single leak that’s getting worse, fix it before it’s too late. If it’s coming out your tailpipe, either in drops or heated into a plume of smoke, it could mean that your engine’s internals are on their last legs. If it’s a new problem, visit your mechanic. But if you haven’t changed your oil since 2012 and are already covering the neighborhood in a smokescreen, it could already be too late.
3. Well, any unquenchable thirst, really
Like the human body, your car maintenance needs a number of precious fluids to stay alive. It’s important to check and top off your car’s fluids regularly: Oil, coolant, brake, power steering, transmission fluid, and even wiper fluid. But if you’re checking every month and notice that something is bone dry every time, that means something is ready to grenade. It’s no longer a matter of if, it’s when.
4. Strange and exotic smokes
Speaking of smoking, if your car is channeling its inner Marlboro Man, it always spells serious trouble.
Blueish smoke coming out your tailpipe means you’re burning oil. This could mean your piston rings, valve guides and seals, or pistons themselves could be shot. This could go on to kill your important (and pricey) oxygen sensor and catalytic converter.
Heavy white smoke (not to be confused with the wispy steam that comes out of your tailpipe in winter) means you’re burning engine coolant, and that means either your head gasket is done for, or worse, your cylinder head is cracked. White smoke could also mean transmission fluid is burning, so if you’re in a smokescreen and finding it hard to shift, it could be that too.
Black smoke could be a lot of things, including fire. If your car catches on fire every time you drive it, it is both incredibly robust and extremely dangerous, and we’d recommend getting a new ride as soon as possible. But if fire isn’t your problem, it probably means your engine is running too rich. With the amount of computers dedicated to making your engine run in a newer car, this could be any number of digital or mechanical problems. In a situation like this, it’s best to get your car to the mechanic before your engine finally gives up.
5. Poor timing
Pistons and cylinders? Sure, everyone’s heard of those. Spark plugs and fuel injectors? Probably. But a timing belt? Unfortunately, it isn’t as well known, even though it’s just as important. Your timing belt synchronizes your engine so that the valves open and close when they’re supposed to. They’re rubber in some cars, metal chains in others, but they’re important no matter what they’re made of.
Many cars have interference engines, which means that improper timing will cause the valves and pistons to collide, which makes a loud and horrible noise, stops your car dead in its tracks, and means you’ll likely need a new engine. Most timing belts are to be changed every 50,000 miles or so (timing chains require far less replacement, if any). If you’re depending on a car with 180K on the clock and it’s running on its original timing belt, you’re rolling the dice every time you fire it up. And if you don’t know the last time your car had its timing belt changed, you should probably do it ASAP.
6. Knock knock and car tow
Here’s the thing about your car’s engine: It’s a giant lump of metal that’s built to withstand and contain thousands of explosions every single day. Things like motor mounts, harmonic balancers, ingenious engineering tricks, and even good old insulation do wonders in covering this up, but give it enough time, and these things get tired out, and the inner workings of our powerplants become all too obvious. An improperly lubricated engine (again with those pesky fluids) gives your car’s rods, camshaft, or bearings their chance to make a break for it. When they do, they usually blow a hole right in the side of your engine, and just like that, you’ve suddenly got an expensive new boat anchor on your hands. If your engine’s a-knockin’, there’s something seriously wrong.
7. Terminal rot
In most parts of the country, rust is a scourge. Rocker panels, fenders, hoods, and trunks can all be fixed, but once you’re dealing with the tin worm in vital places like the frame, shock towers, fuel and brake lines, or suspension mounting points (in cold climates, it’s usually a combination of all of these), your car is as good as dead. If a nasty pothole is enough to kill your car, you don’t even want to think about what an accident with another vehicle could look like.
8. Creak, creak, bang!
If you’re in a forward gear and pointing the steering wheel straight, your car is supposed to drive in a straight line, and its suspension is supposed to absorb any road imperfections without too much trouble. But if you need to see-saw the wheel to keep straight, your car is bouncing like it’s on hydraulics, and your wheels creak, crack, and thump every time you turn, it means your front suspension is shot. Your shocks, tie rods, steering rack, and ball joints all take an enormous amount of punishment, and require a little preventative maintenance. If you ignore it, everything can eventually wear out. And once that happens, it’s usually too much trouble than it’s worth to fix.
9. Tired transmission
So your automatic transmission is starting to slip, but it kind of goes if you let it roll then stomp the gas just right. As soon as you start losing gears, your automatic is likely toast, and flogging it for a few extra miles is only delaying the inevitable. If you have the funds, it’s time to buy a new transmission. If you don’t, then it’s time to put your car to bed.
10. Gremlins galore
Let’s say you’re the patient type, and after not starting, cutting out, and leaving you stranded again and again, you still hold out hope that your car can be saved. Your mechanic says it’s electrical, so you’ve replaced the battery, alternator, and starter; it’s still not working, and your mechanic has run out of ideas. Unless you want to spend hundreds of dollars on a new wiring harness, rip your dashboard (and in some cases windshield) to get to the old one, then spend hours unplugging the old one and plugging in the new one (or paying someone thousands of dollars to do this), then it’s probably time to give up the ghost. Lord knows your car already has.