/ Motoring

Modern mechanics put car maintenance out of reach

Man doing car maintenance

If MOTs become biennial, surely we’ll have to look after our own vehicles? Yet, modern cars are so complicated that maintenance is often out of our reach. Are we stuck between a rock and a hard place?

I’ve been thinking more and more about car maintenance over the past few weeks, especially since the suggestion that the MOT test schedule could be changed to two years, instead of being annual.

A biennial MOT would mean there’d be a greater demand on us to look after our cars in the interim between checks. But that isn’t a realistic expectation with the modern car of today.

The government’s idea to change the MOT schedule is centralised around reducing the financial burden for motorists. Those in favour may claim modern cars of the current era are comparatively much more reliable than they were 20 years ago.

However, in a previous Conversation, Dave Evans argued that changing this timetable could cause more accidents. Ultimately, there will be a higher number of non-roadworthy cars in the UK, resulting in an increase in the number of accidents and potential deaths on our roads.

Older cars easier to fathom

This might not have been the case if this change to the MOT test schedule was proposed 20 years ago, before new cars were riddled with electronic management systems.

In the early nineties, it was still feasible for an individual to carry out simple car maintenance procedures on their own cars. Engines were almost completely mechanical with very minimal electronic support and equipment like electric windows and heated seats were only available as perks. And, when it came to intelligent safety and entertainment systems, flying cars in The Jetsons was as good as it got.

That meant if something minor went wrong with your car, you had a fairly good chance of rectifying it yourself with a trusted tool kit and a dog-eared Haynes manual.

Home servicing isn’t a money-saver

Now I’d be surprised if anyone even buys Haynes manuals anymore, because modern cars have become so advanced that many owners are genuinely unable to carry out any home servicing at all.

I discovered this only a few weeks ago when one of the cars in the family fleet needed a headlight bulb replacing. What would have been a simple procedure in the past turned into a swear-fuelled puzzle that even our local car mechanic couldn’t solve.

So surely the government can’t be expecting us to be maintaining our cars in the 24-month periods between MOT tests if simple maintenance tasks are beyond the majority of us? In fairness, most people can’t even tell if their tyres are illegal or not now that we’ve become so reliant on car dealers and mechanics.

But if you ask me, we’re not to blame. Carmakers have made the mechanics of the vehicles we buy today so complicated and reliant on electrics that it’s positioned car maintenance out of reach of the everyday car driver.

So if the two-year MOT schedule is approved, should manufacturers make cars simpler for us, or will that put unbearable limitations on car safety?

Sceptical says:
13 June 2011

The government is trying to save the motorist money? Really? I don’t need to list the evidence to the contrary, so I am mystified as to what the real reason is behind this proposal. Who in their right mind could doubt that more of the 31 million cars now on the road in the UK will become dangerously unroadworthy if the MOT interval is changed from one year to two years. If you don’t believe this is logical, why not extend the interval to ten years (the original threshold) or do away with it altogether? New cars might be a bit less likely to develop a safety problem, but they are exempt for two years anyway to reflect this. Servicing is a different issue, is not mandatory, and has no regulatory quality oversight. I bet quite a few million of those 31 million cars are not serviced annually, and even if they are, are all the safety checks performed that are carried out in an MOT? What about the rolling-road brake check? Extending the MOT interval to two years is not going to encourage those who skimp on servicing now to become more vigilant – quite the opposite. There is a link between road tax and the MOT that forces us, including those less diligent, to get it done in order to be able to renew the road tax. I would strengthen this link – we should only be able to tax our cars for the validity period of the MOT – and the insurance while we’re about it. In fact, why not make the MOT centres the road tax collectors as well, and issue the disc on the windscreen that would be evidence that the vehicle has a current MOT and insurance. Right now it is possible to get road tax for a year on the basis of an MOT, and insurance, that only has a day to run, so effectively it would be practical, if not legal, to go for nearly two years between MOTs already.
I am sure I am in a small minority, but I still do the most basic maintenance myself (engine and transmission oil, filters, coolant, screenwasher brake fluid and pads), and don’t find it any harder to do than it ever has been. Because of my mileage, I do this more than once a year. Electronic management systems don’t need servicing – they don’t wear out but fail randomly. Anyway, the most common electrical failures involve fuses and connections. Re-making connectors and a bit of moisture repellent spray often fixes a problem, and fuses are easy to check and replace. I check fuel consumption trends for any loss of efficiency, but have never detected a shift since electronics came in, unlike the old days. I do agree that minor repairs such as bulb changing have become more challenging on some cars and this should be the subject of legislation for the sake of safety. It should also be a practical proposition for drivers to be able to change a wheel, and if it needs a torque wrench, one should be provided with the vehicle along with the wheel nut wrench and jack.
Finally, on a subject touched on by an earlier writer and a much repeated misconception, there is no 4×4 element to the road tax – it is based on CO2 emissions only. And if the government really wants to save the motorist money and benefit the environment, why not do away with the road tax and put the whole amount on fuel duty instead? The Hummer owner who drives only a thousand miles a year puts out far less CO2 than the Fiesta owner who drives 30,000 miles. Also, many drivers would be tempted to own an additional, small, more efficient car for short trips, such as to work, as well as the larger one for the annual family holiday, perhaps pulling a caravan, while now they have to have one car that will do everything – the large one. The cost and the tax raised could be proportional to the CO2 actually emitted rather than to an unsubstantiated relationship as now, and the car industry would benefit as well.

‘Home servicing isn’t a money-saver’ is one of the points made in the article.

Sorry but I don’t think this is true. Much of the cost of professional servicing is labour and overheads. Charges for parts and materials are similar to what you would pay yourself.

If you are familiar with the vehicle you are driving then you are more likely to spot problems, and fix them or get the job done professionally. Cars need to be in a safe condition at all times and not just when the MOT test is due.

Agreed. Home servicing is not only a money saver, but often the only way to make sure the jobs are done correctly. Report after report has shown tha servicing done by “professionas*l in all sorts of garages, be they main franchised dealers or independents, have been found to be severely wanting.
Self-servicing, provided it is done by individuals who know what they are doing, is, in my opinion, the best way. I do not allow my new cars, of which I have had 10 over the last 30 years, to be serviced by the dealers even though they have been under the manufacturer’s guarantees.
I currently have 2 cars over 12 years old, none of them ever seeing the inside of a dealer’s workshop.
The gentleman who carries out the annual MOT comments that they are in better condition than if they had been service by professionals. (I should add that I am a mechanical engineer.)

Can I bring mine round to you please Bert?! 🙂

I could never make a living out of it. I take too long! And now I am getting too old.

Phil says:
14 June 2011

Interesting reading:-


Note that the DfT made specific comparison with the German system.

John says:
3 July 2011

The headlight bulb failed on my wife’s 2007 Micra. She couldn’t change it. Nor could I. The very helpful Nissan dealer chap on reception also failed. He called a mechanic, who took 15 mins. to change it!!

And your point is?

Routine replacement components should be user-serviceable. How would you feel if you had to call an electrician at some disgusting hourly or “piece rate” fee to change home light bulbs?

Replacing a faulty car headlight bulb is far more pressing and important then a home light bulb, and simple roadside replacement of simple spares should be regulated:

A good idea. I agree completely, and I am not a supporter of excessive regulation.

Can we have a Which? campaign on this? Everyone pitch in- see if we can get enough support.
The proposition:

All vehicles and their legally-required driving lights (i.e. headlights, tail lights and indicators) should be designed, supplied and installed in such a way that they can be simply repaired at the roadside by a single person with the skills of an average member of the general public in night-time conditions utilising only the original toolkit supplied with the vehicle. A legally-compliant “get you home” emergency lighting solution would be an acceptable alternative where repair or replacement of the original equipment at the roadside is shown to be infeasible.

(I;ve just kicked off an e-petition – they can take up to a week to appear if they pass muster.)

Just having bought a 2008 Galaxy I was horrified that Haynes don’t do a manual.

Is this the death of DIY?


Last week I paid £331.20 for the timing belt on my car to be replaced. At one time this was a straightforward job, a little harder on a diesel engine but still within the capability of anyone who can usefully wield a spanner.

Speaking to the trusted mechanic who did the job it’s largely because modern engines are shoehorned into such a confined space. With some cars it’s a more difficult and time consuming job than with my car. Of course the risk of not doing the job is that if the belt breaks the pistons and valves could meet each other travelling in the opposite direction. 🙁