/ Motoring

Why aren’t over 50s doing basic car maintenance?

Fewer over 50s are doing basic maintenance on their own cars than ever before, according to Saga’s survey. Instead the majority are paying mechanics to do simple jobs. So who or what’s to blame?

As someone not a million miles away from the big five-o, I’m hugely disappointed to hear that older people are giving up on doing their own basic car maintenance.

That’s the verdict of Saga’s analysis – its survey of 9,000 customers found that the number of over 50s doing car maintenance has dropped from 17% to 10% in the past five years. That’s 77% of older drivers getting garages to do minor work, such as replacing a battery or changing an oil filter.

So, I may be in a minority, but I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty repairing the constant niggles that plague my four-year-old Renault Modus. As a single parent with a young family, I found it virtually impossible to do work on my car without a garage or driveway to do it on. Instead, I had to do it on the roadside, which just isn’t safe.

However, when the car got a puncture last year, I enlisted the help of my 12-year-old son to help remove the wheel nuts and fit the spare tyre. It gave him a huge sense of achievement that he’d be able to do what – to him – had seemed like a daunting task.

And now that my children are older I’m doing lots more car DIY. In fact, a Haynes manual for the Renault is on my next birthday list.

Paying for simple car maintenance jobs

It seems very wrong – especially now that the driving test includes a section on car maintenance – to waste money paying a garage to do simple things like replace a bulb or battery. DIY also gives the car owner a sense of pride. Perhaps this would mean you’d be more likely to actually notice when a bulb blows or a tyre’s tread gets lower, resulting in safer, more roadworthy cars.

My colleague Rob Hull has argued that modern car design has put car maintenance out of reach for most people. And while I agree that many of the electrical units fitted to modern cars are too complex for a DIY-er to attempt, there are still lots of jobs we can and should be doing.

If we do take on basic car maintenance ourselves, then we’d have the right to demand car makers to make engine bays more accessible, instead of covering them in plastic jackets. And we would be able to rely less on car mechanics to fix many tiny problems, with car servicing being one of the most complained about things by Which? members. Surely doing it ourselves would give us less cause to complain!

Brian of East Sussex says:
19 August 2012

Re C class assuming it is not a metric nut or a philips type screw it is more likely to be like an ML with recessed torq fittings which unscrew conventionally (anticlockwise). They are likely to be easy to do, but perhaps recessed somewhat deep (maybe even with a plastic cap over the hole itself which you prise out). I use a mini socket set and short extension, with the appropriate head (they are numbered in 5’s say 10,15,20,25, 30, 35,40 and all are used on cars) but providing you can get enough leverage, you can get torq screwdrivers too and some with T heads instead of a conventional screwdriver handle (for leverage again). Torq is one of those fittings that sprung from nowhere, to catch me out, after I had gone through Whitworth, AF and Metric. I thought I had them all until they invented torq. When they bring back Whitworth, I am ready for them this time!

Colin says:
19 August 2012

Can’t see any screw positions. It’s a black plastic rectangle 27″x21″ that nearly fills the entire engine bay.

Brian of East Sussex says:
19 August 2012

Sorry Colin, I go it wrong, it’s torx fittings not torq (I confused it with torque). To get the general idea, Amazon has a range (but then so do Halfords etc)

Colin says:
19 August 2012

Brian mentions the possible side effects of reading motoring magazines. I think they are responsible for the decline in comfort of the modern car in favour of ‘performance’, which is boy racer in concept, as been made increasingly illegal and is dangerous in practice. For years, the likes of Autocar criticised pedal layouts that did not facilitate ‘heeling and toeing’ and I bet less than 1% of readers, including myself, knew what it was! Because of the likes of Clarkson, we have to travel feeling every bump in increasingly bumpy roads whereas the old French cars, with long travel suspension and deep soft seats to accomodate French cart tracks, afforded a luxurious, if swaying, progress. I would buy the old Renault or better still the Citroen DS given half a chance.They would be perfectly suited to modern urban motoring and ageing bottoms. As far as I know, no brand has a model that favours comfort over cornering and I think it would sell like hot cakes.

I wholly concur Colin. This is one of the things that makes driving such an ordeal nowadays. It’s not often that we get the chance to experience riding in a car with a longer wheelbase, a softer suspension and deeper seats but a recent funeral saw us ensconced in a ten-year old Roller. I wouldn’t actually say we thought we’d gone to heaven but you get the idea.

The latest edition of Auto Express mentions that one of the drawbacks to the new Toyota Sports car is that the pedals are too far apart for “heel and toeing”. I have cancelled my sunbcription because of this stupid comment, and other similar ones.
The new report on tyres tests features like braking, cornering, etc, but not on tyre life, which is importent not only in terms of miles, but also UV resistance. I have had to replace the last 2 sets of tyres solely due to UV cracking, with still over 4mm of tread depth remaing.
It is recommended that tyres be changed when they are around 6 years old, regardless of tread depth.

Brian of East Sussex says:
19 August 2012

Colin is right and modern motoring trends in the media have much to answer for. My son was very proud of his then new Mercedes CL500. I thought it was rubbish, with every ripple in the road felt through my backside. Karts with pram wheels I made as a kid were more comfortable. Mind you I could see well with its xenon lights. I find myself upgrading my cars to the latest “bright” ordinary bulb. Philips is the best contender here according to Auto Express.

Onto the C class. If it does not simply lift up and is a snug push on fitting,then I suggest joining one of the “Mercedes owners forums” (the term I used to search in Google). You will need to join, free of charge, to post a question and keen owners/specialists will offer advice. That is how I saved £700 on repairs on my wife’s ML and I found a great Mercedes specialist in Stowmarket that way, and happily drove a long way there to save a fortune because he knew what he was talking about when I posed a question

The BBC encouraged many of us to get started with computers in the early 80s, despite the fact that learning to program in Basic was not universally useful.

Now might be a good time to run a series of programmes on basic car maintenance. This might interest inquisitive teenagers as well as adults.

Brian of East Sussex says:
19 August 2012

The nearest to this was the satellite channel carrying “a car is born” starring Mark Evans. Later it covered an e-type, mgb and a land-rover and maybe others. Very practical and I watched many of them. Presumably programme commissioners regard it as limited interest. Even general DIY has to do quirky DIY, starring strange presenters or strange needy people who want tiger stripe ceilings or people who hand over their life savings to a dubious oik who then disappears and the programme comes and sorts them out (both the builder and the needy recipient of TV largesse).

The nearest to good programming is gardener’s world but gardens have a huge interest. Going back on Colin’s point, programming on cars is restricted to crashing cars into caravans, getting from a to b fast and lots of burnt rubber. I did not drive like this when I was young (come to think of it an HA Vauxhall Viva probably would have struggled)

Colin says:
19 August 2012

Wheeler Dealers is a firm favorite of mine on the Discovery Channel.Mike Brewer buys a classic car within a limited budget and star mechanic Ed China refurbs it to perfectionist standard. Mike then seeks to sell it at a profit.The programme is aimed squarely at the DIY enthusiast/restorer and covers every aspect of engineering work as well as upholstery and bodywork.Only the parts used are added to the purchase price to calculate the profit. I.e. DIY labour is excluded. It is beautifully presented and comprehensive in its instruction. I am a fan!

I am well into my retierment now. Just about to complete the head rebuild of a couple of Renault 16v cam belt opps’es. A bit more complicated than my old Morris Minor. But routine maintenance, whats that? I may give one of these cars a tri-annual oil change when I get it back on the road.

Oh, and yes, I am insured by SAGA.

Brian of East Sussex says:
20 September 2012

Gravity is great, but the problem is often removing the under engine shield to get to the plug. I once spent all day removing seized bolts to remove the cover to get to the plug to drain the oil. “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…..” Hence sucking it out of the dipstick hole avoids the problem.

You have to jack up the car to remove the shield, lower it to drain the oil, jack it up again to replace the plug and the shield. I suppose it is dead easy for garages with a hydraulic ramp.

Thanks, I have never had a car with an undershield fitted. Like the under wing panels they can be removed and never re-fitted.

I have been tempted not to refit the undershield. Even more annoying is the fact that they catch nuts and bolts that would otherwise fall on the ground and could be retrieved easily. 🙁

Oil changes (always a filter change too) are best left to a garage – no question, get them to do an engine flush as well for about £10 – they have to dispose of the oil and you can have a refreshing coffee while they do it. Exterior bulb changes are generally easier today than 20 years ago and are well within the capability of drivers, wiper changes, tyre checks etc all day to day maintenance tasks. Checking the timing? Probably not. Changing brake pads, maybe.

Choose what you can do and do it, all cars are slightly different, so are the drivers.

Exterior bulb changes are generally easier today than 20 years ago….

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

I am not sure that everyone would agree with this statement, Tony. In this short discussion, there is reference to removal of a bumper assembly and a wing.

Agreed Wavechange, that’s why I said generally. I have heard strange things about removing Skoda wings for bulb changes, that’s one reason I didn’t buy a VRS. I have a Volvo S40, pull 1 pin inside the bonnet and slide the whole headlight out, change the bulb and replace the unit in 5 minutes. Previously my Kia Sorento, undo two bolts inside the engine compartment, slide out the whole unit.

I do agree that there are big differences between cars. A bulb can fail at any time and common sense suggests that it should be easy to replace at the roadside without needing any tools.

I recently tried and failed to replace a headlight bulb on a friend’s Toyota. The garage charged £60.

Brian East Sussex says:
15 November 2012

My view is that bulbs have become disproportionately tedius to change. Still a cheap part to buy but even ignoring those where parts have to come off, modern computer generated designs leave little room. You need hands like “Edward Scissorhands”, plastic clips are much more fragile and there is the recurring tendency for a spring clip to fall away. You end up trying to refit a clip by feel alone. I have volunteered to change bulbs thinking it would be a 10 minutes job and have virtually hung upside down in my efforts to change them. Modern replaceable headlight bulbs (xenon substitutes) also have a shorter lifespan (guess the filaments burn brighter) so the job of replacing them is rather too frequent. None have beaten me, but what a faff! Many cars need whole light assemblies to be removed front and back and the plastic bits get fragile over time adding to breakage risk

“The ONLY way to change oil is to get a garage to do it with an engine flush at the same time. Takes them 30 minutes, costs about £30, and you don’t have any waste to deal with.”

This doesn’t make much sense. (if any) It is clearly not the ONLY way. It may be one, but it is not the best or cheapest.
Sucking oil out from the top via the dipstick leaves crud/sediments that would be removed if the oil is drained when hot from the drain plug hole. That is what this hole is for. Some modern dipstick holes are quite small-too small for a reasonably sized tube, and who is to say that this tube will be at the lowest point in the sump?
Flushing oils should be avoided. They are not good lubricants, and are difficult to remove completely, especially if they are sucked out in the manner suggested. This sucking method is American in origin, which should be enough for most to realise its value.
Also the cost of £30 for an oil change is a bit wide of the mark. Modern synthetic oils alone cost about £80 for only 4 litres. and labour charges can be over £100.hour. Not many garages (main dealers) will charge less than 1 hour for this job, which also should include a filter change.
I always do the job myself, but recently, being pushed for time, I asked a main Honda dealer to do this job, providing the oil myself. The initial invoice I got was for 1 hour labour charges. I pointed out that the Owners Manual had 18 minutes down for this job, not 60! I was told that they never charge less than 1 hour for anything, but I insisted, and they changed to bill to 18 minutes. They could hardly do otherwise.
My local garage accepts old oil, so there are no disposal problems there.
Doing the oil change oneself ensures that the correct oil goes in the engine, not some cheap non-synthetic mineral or semi-synthetic oil taken from some bulk supplier.

Colin says:
14 January 2013

Absolutely agree with your post, Bert.

Tony Brooks says:
14 January 2013

Well, for what its worth, I had my first car in 1970, I did the usual stuff myself as well, including tuning twin carbs etc, changing shock absorbers, brake shoes, exhausts etc.

For my MGTF I used an independent garage, not a main dealer to change the oil and remove the “crud and sediments” which would otherwise settle in the sump

They used trade products – Forte engine flush £12

– Motaquip oil and filter £30

– labour £20 (inc waste disposal)

The garage will not use owner supplied materials as they cannot issue a guarantee on parts, the engine runs sweetly, has clean oil on the dipstick after 12000 miles – due another flush and change I guess – and I’m more than happy with the quality and appropriateness of the materials.

If you have a car under warranty, then it’s very likely that changing your own oil will invalidate the warranty. Servicing – under warranty – must be carried out by a VAT-registered garage using OE spec/manufacturer’s parts.

The supply of engine oil to a main dealer for use in your own car will not invalidate the guarantee. Some main dealers do not use fully synthetic oil when they do an oil change. That is why, in one instance, I supplied the oil. It was also much cheaper than the the price the dealer would have charged for an the same oil. (as an example, I bought the oil for £30 when the dealer’s retail price is £80.)
I have always done the servicing myself, including for new cars under guarantee, (and I have done this for about 10 new cars in this country since the early ’60’s), but I would not recommend this practice for relative novices.
One can not compare experience with older cars with modern ones, particularly when it come to the selection of engine lubrication. Many newer engines require engine oil with a 0-20 grade, and have larger filters with the old fashioned replaceable paper elements; they are very thin by comparison with even recent synthetics. Some are even designed for a 2 year life between changes. The performance of modern engines per unit size is far higher than it was some years ago, with some approaching 100bhp/litre with normal aspiration, (ie. no turbo) and require a higher standard of maintenance if the performance is to be kept at or near this level. This matches the output of GP cars not that long ago. There are many reasons for this, but I feel outside the scope of this discussion.
The cheaper oils not only have less detergent properties, but they also cause considerably more carbon buid-up, particulary on things like valve heads. A friend recently had to have an expensive cylinder head decoke job on an Audi after only 60,000 miles, and the main dealer had carried out all the servicing since new.
It takes a bit more than 12,000 miles to damage an engine, even an older one, but the fall off in performance will be perhaps imperceptively slow, but sure.
For what it’s worth, I had my first car in 1949.

Thanks, Colin, for your concurance.
Some flushing “oils” are water based emulsions with detergent like properties. It needs even more flushing with good oil after it’s use to remove all traces of the flushing mediam. I would not let this stuff anywhere near a car engine where high contact surface pressures exist, even on ticking over. I used it in industrial aplications in the early ’60’s, but the development of synthetic oils has removed the need for this kind of flushing.

Colin says:
15 January 2013

Couple of queries, Bert.
By ‘designed for a 2 year life between changes’, do you mean ‘twice the usual mileage between changes’? Oil does not degrade sitting in the sump. Ater all, it has been underground for about 300 million years!
By GP do you mean GT?

You are quite right about oil not degrading in the sump, but the service intervals do not really cater for this. I have a 1998 Honda Prelude which now does less than 1000 miles/year, so the oil hasn’t been changed for about 3 years. The 2 year life oils are now specified for mainly German cars; Audi, VW, and now Ford. Perhaps Mercedes do this as well but I don’t concern myself with Mercs.
These 2 year life oils are very expensive relative to the other synthetics, and as some of the German rules re cars are not very smart, I avoid them. The 2 year life will also be associated with a maximum milage, whichever comes first I expect. But too little milage can be worse than either none at all or too much. Many short journeys are not long enough to heat up the oil to evaportate the water vapor produced by the combustion, and some of this ends up in the oil. A milky crud on the underside of the oil filler cap is a good indication of engines not having the occasional long run.
Back to the Germans. My Toyota Yaris has 2 different instructions for starting the engine; in Germany, it says thet the car should be moved off as soon as the engine starts. For other countries, it says the engine should be allowed to run for between 30 seconds and 5 minutes, depending on the outside air temporature to allow time for the engine oil to be sufficiently heated to be properly circulated before any load is put on the bearings, etc. I find this very sensible advice, written in the Owners Manual. The now popular “stop-start” feature is because of German rules; a rather stupid and counterproductive idea to reduce pollution.
I meant GP, not GT, and was referring to many years ago.
My 3 year old Yaris specified very thin and expensive oil, 0-20.

I forgot to mention that the oil that has been in the ground for 300 million years has no bearing on modern synthetics. The modern oils have little or no mineral oil in them. Many of them, the best, are 100% synthetic.

I have been working/repairing cars for over 65 years, and still do. Until today! I decide to carry out a service on a 2005 Nissan Micra, one of the tasks being the changing of the spark plugs.
However, I have discovered that to do this routine job entails removing the engine inlet manifold, and all the associated ducting, clips, plugs, cables, gaskets, etc, etc.
I discussed this with a local garage, whose advice was “don’t bother”. I would never buy a car with this feature. I have not met it before.

Colin says:
5 June 2013

Has anyone changed a cambelt or ever heard of one failing? Another nice, and huge, earner for the garages, with terrifying warnings of the consequences of not handing over multiple hundreds of pounds at 60,000miles or so. Cheaper for the manufacturer, no doubt but a nasty sting in the tail for owners. Bring back timing chains! When will some genuinely user-friendly outfit carry out an objective investigation into optimum rather than profit motivated maintenance. Wake up, Which?!! There are massive savings in prospect to the environment and specially the consumer.

Most, if not all, sensible manufacturers have, for some time now, reverted back to timing chains instead of belts. I have a 13 year old Yaris with a chain. It does not need changing at service intervals.

Tony Brooks says:
10 June 2013

I had a cambelt fail on a Volvo many years ago. It isn’t something that I want to experience again as it ruined the engine top end. The advantages of cam belts as opposed to timing chains is that they are quieter, less prone to mechanical wear and therefore hold timing better, drive the water pump as well which timing chains don’t tend to do, and are much cheaper to make.

I have just had a head gasket change on my MG and a new cambelt, cambelt tensioner and water pump were integral parts – £275 all inclusive of new oil as well.

Many years ago, I thought using the timing belt to drive the water pump was a very good idea, but an RAC engineer once told me that if the pump fails it can result in severe engine damage. Fortunately, I never experienced the problem.

Tony Brooks says:
10 June 2013

Interestingly, my water pump had failed – after 11 years, it was original equipment – and that led to a hot spot on the head which in turn led to the head gasket failing. The garage that I bought the MG from had replaced the head gasket before I picked the car up but had not replaced the water pump – probably the cause of the original failure of the gasket. With an MGTF, the coolant depends on the water pump to get the coolant up front to the radiator, without that….

It depends on the nature of the water pump failure, if it were to sieze then yes, serious stuff could happen.

Although I would be very happy if manufacturers were to return to using timing chains as Colin has suggested, Tony has pointed out the main advantages of timing belts.

I would like to suggest that manufacturers should make timing belts more accessible. That would minimise the cost of having the job done and make it possible for a reasonably competent DIY enthusiast. It is vital that it is easy to inspect the condition of a timing belt. Spotting signs of deterioration could help avoid major engine damage and a costly repair job.

Colin says:
10 June 2013

I am intrigued by the earlier posting by Wavechange in which he mentions brilliant DIY solution of cutting the existing cambelt down the middle, sliding half of it off, sliding the new one and cutting off the remaining original. Someone HAS to try this, though Wavechange admits to bottling out!

I would like to see a campaign to curb the costs slapped onto motorists by the trade for routine servicing. What, on top of the ever more stringent MOT, can they do? Just poke a tube down into the sump, suck out ( some of ) the old lube, pump in some unknown substitute and, meanwhile, screw on a replacement filter canister. 30 minutes would be generous and monkeys could be trained to do it, never mind £150 an hour brain surgeon rates! £150, inc. MOT, should be plenty for any major service.

It took me about ten seconds to find a website that mentioned the tip about timing belts, so I suspect that the technique is in common use. It is obviously essential to ensure that there is room to fit the new belt before attacking the old belt with a knife.