/ 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?


To me this is just the manufacturers protecting their business at their dealerships.

It’s all in the name of safety, Renault, being one of the “safest” cars on the road is one of the main culprits for having to take the whole front end off a car to change a lightbulb.

They would probably say “well, what do you want, a safe car or an easy to change bulb?”

New cars are all a big con anyway, see the depreciation if you don’t agree 🙂


After I bought a Golf 4 diesel, nine years ago, I wrote to VW complaining about the difficulty of changing headlight bulbs, but did not get a useful answer from the UK office. I asked for my complaint to be forwarded to Head Office, but never received a reply.

In some countries it is essential to carry a spare set of bulbs, but that’s not much use unless the driver can replace them easily. VW is not the only company at fault but it should be illegal to sell cars where it is difficult to change a bulb.

I was not impressed by the main dealer’s servicing in the first two or three years. Since then, I have done everything myself except changing the timing belt (this proved to be a difficult job even for the garage) and replacing the electric window control gear on two windows. Fortunately I have not had to deal with any electronic control problems. I still use a Haynes manual, but advice on websites is becoming increasingly useful. I will soon hand over servicing to a garage I trust, but that has more to do with my age than the difficulty of doing jobs.


I think the article is a bit at cross purposes.
The MOT has is and always has been an annual safety check, of course more recently this has come to also include a check on exhaust emmissions.
Whereas maintenence is about keeping a car properly serviced, so it will run correctly plus of course the repair or replacement of components as they wear out or fail.

The MOT is a “safety snapshot” on the day of the test. It is not an inspection and report on the maintained condition of the car.
If the car passes the MOT braking test today on brake pads worn very thin you’ll get your MOT certificate, the brakes worked, but the brakes could fail a week later.
If a headlight bulb fails the day after an MOT pass no one in their right mind waits until next year to get it replaced.
I’m an ex automotive manufacturing engineer and I’ve always had mixed feelings about the MOT test. 50% of me thinks it’s a useful, but by no means failsafe, safety check for the idiots out there who would try to drive around in potential death traps. But 50% of me thinks that it’s a joke because of the reliance people place in a one day per year 25 minute snapshot safety check.

There are those who are horrified by the prospect of the two year MOT but really modern cars are better designed and so much more consistent in manufacture that this is really not a great safety issue, so long as the two year test looks a little more closely at the maintained condition of the obviously important things like brakes, steering, suspension and general vehicle integrety (strutural rust etc.)

As for cars being more difficult to maintain nowadays?
Well the basics are still the basics, oil changes, coolant, brake fluid, brake pads and shoes etc are much as they’ve always been. But I would agree with modern electronic engine management systems etc. if the thing just won’t go figuring out why can be very difficult without some special diognostic kit.
But without sophisticated engine management systems reliability, economy and emmissions would be nothing like as good as they are on modern cars.
However a car that just won’t start is not a road safety risk is it?
So the MOT link must be somewhat tenuous.

Two year MOT’s won’t make cars any less safe than they are now, or perhaps I should say any more unsafe in the hands of some.
Good maintenence, and road worthiness is the responsibility of every car owner all the time, not just at MOT time. If you’re not mechanically minded you’ll just have to get the garage involved if you even suspect anything is not quite right, because you are responsible for the road worthiness of your car. And do not think a current MOT automatically means you have a safe car, in a modern well maintained car you probably will be as safe as is practically possible, but there is no absolute guarrentee. How can there be?


I think it depends on the MOT garage – My one always gives a list of items “about to go”

But I would hate a biannual MOT simply because most people already do not do regular maintenance however much it may be “desirable” or responsible to do so. So They will not do any maintenance for two years instead – couple this to the over one million uninsured drivers.who don’t get MOTs now. I foresee a rise in crashes – just as there was a rise in crashes when Oxford disconnected their Speed Cameras – so they had to reconnect them.

A car that has stalled and won’t start IS a road safety risk in most areas. It is only not a risk if it won’t start where it is was parked.

Sirgeoffrey says:
11 June 2011

Good comments. My MOT on a motorhome and a car give me details on things to do. Is every car going to be every 2 years, or say 300000 miles, which is sensible, but maybe cars over 10 or 12 years old should still be every year.

John M says:
19 June 2011

I agree with Chris re maintenance on modern cars. I have a 10-year old Lexus, and used to take it to the main agent. Having purchased the workshop manual on ebay I have found that I can do many jobs myself – brake pads, minor electrical problems (which are often bad connections or mechanical problems with sensors / operating levers). Normal servicing goes to a small independent garage I trust, although I have recently discovered I can rent a 4-post garage lift near me in West London (Pit Start Self Service Garage, if you are interested) so I can change the oil etc. But I actually like somebody else having a good look around once a year, whether that be the MOT or via servicing.
However – I daren’t modify the electrics, and if I get warning lights that don’t respond to the fault finding guides in the manual I either go to the dealer (ouch!) or to the car electronics experts in the back streets that the dealers really use if they have a complex problem.


The reliability of modern cars is probably the main reason that many drivers do not check tyres, oil, coolant, etc. I recently had a work colleague complaining that the windscreen washers had failed. She had not opened the bonnet of her car since purchasing it over two years ago.

I have seen hire vehicles sent out in a very poor state, though my limited experience suggests that maintenance standards are improving. Nevertheless, it is a good idea for the driver to spend a few minutes checking the state of the vehicle before setting off.

Anyone who cannot make simple checks should not be driving, in my opinion.

Mr Iain says:
10 June 2011

You draw attention to a valid and often-over-looked point, Wavechange. Irrespective of whether or not a car has an MOT, or has been recently services, the driver has ultimate legal responsibility for ensuring that any vehicle in his care is fully roadworthy – whether owned, borrowed or hired. While, sadly, I pre-date the introduction of the theory test, I understand that this addresses the subject of daily checks; fluids, tyres, lights, wipers etc, and so indeed “anyone who cannot make simple checks should not be driving”.