/ 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”.

Sirgeoffrey says:
11 June 2011

Then make these checks part of the driving test?

Mike H-E says:
11 June 2011

“She had never opened the bonnet in two years” and “anyone who cannot make simple checks shoyuld not be driving”.
I never flew an aircraft without the preliminary “walk-round”. Getting into a car for a journey, during which your life will depend on the vehicle working, DEMANDS that we invest a couple of minutes each week to “check the basics”.
Have a tissue in the car (or grab one at the filling station);
Check the oil occasionally;
Have a Coke bottle full of 50:50 screen-wash, in case your screen wash reservoir runs low;
You need to “see and be seen”; so clear your windows and make sure that your lights are working.
This is Basic Driver Education/Commonsense 101.
Also, two minutes walking around your car in the morning will ensure that you are actually AWAKE before you take two toms of lethal machinery out onto the road.


Jon Bradbury says:
9 June 2011

The vast majority of modern cars in essence differ little from the old cars we seem to have memories of tinkering with. The have the same suspension, drivetrain, some of the engines deep within are pretty similar too. They’re just covered in plastic and have a lot more sensors. Actually in some ways easier you can do a spark plug service and the engine will tune itself up, whereas 30 years ago you needed to adjust points, buy a strobe to adjust timing, set your spark gaps with a feeler gauge…

Used to do some home servicing but soon realise the savings are offset by needing another tool, ball joint breakers, an odd spanner you haven’t got, and of course the ball ache of some jobs that whilst possible, really aren’t funny unless you’ve got a lift costing a few grand too. Coupled with thieves breaking into the garage and wiping out the tool set every few years I now just take mine to an independent I’m sure some would take a look and drive on by to the ‘safety’ of a swankier or known (won’t even start on kwik fit here) but prices they charge me to be honest not worth getting hands mucky, and can earn the hourly rate back doing what I specialise in and feel comfortable doing (fixing computers).

pickle says:
9 June 2011

I think Chris has said it all….
I you are able and have the knowledge to do it – you should carry out servicing yourself and make sure it is done properly. BUT few of us have the necessary gear to check the electronics so this is something to leave to the experts. The other maintenance is pretty much as before.
Day to day servicing – checking oil, water, brake fluid and tyre pressure is something anyone can and should do.

Michael Gross says:
10 June 2011

I used to do minor servicing on my cars but not now, its too complex. Howabout a minor MOT at a small cost each year and the main MOT bienially

If the Government are so committed to saving the motorist some expense then why not reduce the MOT test fee by 50% and maintain a yearly check – all bases covered!

They could of course reduce the amount we pay in road tax on “all vehicles”, (don’t forget how useful the 4x4s were over the winter – do they deserve to be paying more?).

With diesel topping £1.40 a litre, if they reduced the amount of duty and VAT on the fuel we fill our cars with that would show even more genuine commitment wouldn’t it!

To top it off, instead of channelling the revenue from the motorist into the benefits culture, why not use it for what it was originally intended and repair and maintain the roads we have to drive on that are causing damage to our vehicles, (aka pot holes), which would in turn reduce the cost to us even more.

They aren’t going to do anything anywhere near this. Its all a con. Smoke and mirrors, spin – call it what you will. The motorist is an easy target, a cash cow that will never dry up. We will always be milked to the maximum and it doesn’t matter which political persuasion is in charge at No. 10, (and No. 11 for that matter!).

Alan says:
10 June 2011

With many newer vehicles only needing a service every two years, I think it would be a mistake to have the MOT every two years as well. Since many garages offer a service and MOT together for a discounted price, it means that cars could be on the road for two years without a competant person checking it. In that time, brake pads could be down to the metal or ball joints in the suspension or steering could develop excessive play etc etc. If deterioation is gradual, you may not even notice it.
I agree with the other commenters who say that the main elements of car maintenance have not changed that much; wipers, lights, steering, suspension, brakes are much the same, so these can still be maintained by the owner if he (or she) is capable. Unless, that is, you get a problem with ABS, ESP, traction control etc. Then you probably will need help.

Kevin Ash says:
10 June 2011

The opening sentence in this feature is baffling for two reasons: MoTs and servicing are two different things, and why anyway would biennial MoTs mean more home servicing rather than using a garage? Cars should be serviced annually anyway, wherever it’s done.

General servicing on modern cars if anything is easier on the whole, although there are always exceptions, and it’s certainly needed a lot less often, with intervals at 20,000 miles and thereabouts. It’s fault finding that can be difficult as so often it demands specialist diagnostic equipment.

Colin says:
10 June 2011

I work at a garage and we get a lot of old cars in for MOTs with leaky and corroded brake pipes, imagine if they were left for another year?

As mentioned already if every car was serviced annually by a qualified mechanic then MOTs would not be needed, a service would flag up anything unsafe (it has to by law). Also MOTs testers can only check things they can see, new cars come with everything covered up so they look nice and neat. Have a look under your bonnet at your nice plastic engine cover. The underside of some cars are the same.

Its the people who dont get their cars serviced that cause the problems.

Also do you really want to service a machine that you travel in daily at over 60mph yourself? I service my mountain bike and there are some bits on that I’m worried about (anyone know how to service front suspension forks and hydralic disc brakes?)

I’ll admit most of the basics are quite straightforward but if your wheel falls off because you dont want to spend £60 on a torque wrench then your up the creek. I’m all for DIY but cars kill people.

And I agree with previous comments, surely the government can reduce the cost of motoring by reducing the duty on fuel instead of comprimising safety. What are they thinking?

The best way to save money on your car is to befriend a kind hearted mechanic that will service your car for a case of beer!

Flynn says:
30 May 2015

I have registered on this website just to reply to your comment. You work at a garage so you are a mechanic and you are scaremongering the ignorant with your quip of “Do you want to service a machine you travel at over 60mph yourself?” What is that supposed to mean?

Which would you rather, an enthusiast who services their machine themselves and knows about the specific model he owns or someone who never so much as tops up the screen wash?

I am shocked. How do you think most mechanics learned? Not by “studying” the subject but getting stuck in, making mistakes and correcting them, using common sense and judgement.

[Hi Flynn, thanks very much for adding your first comment, however, we have had to edit it due to breaking our commenting guidelines. Please do not make your comments personal and talk about the issue at hand. Thanks, mods]

John says:
10 June 2011

My 2007 Vauxhall Corsa failed both MOTs. 1st broken front coil spring, 2nd with gas emissions test. Both failures I was not aware of, therefore I am in favour of annual MOTs.

Emissions? well ok you might be excused for not noticing that, although you might have wondered why you were using more fuel than you should.
But a broken spring? how could you drive around without noticing that?
This is a prime example of waiting for an MOT to flag up a maitenence problem that could very quickly turn into a safety issue. Wrong, wrong, very wrong.

Chris: A spring broken near the end might not affect the handling or even be apparent on inspection. A faulty catalytic converter will result in an MOT fail without affecting fuel economy.

But I do agree that it is wrong to wait for an MOT test if there is a problem. Cars need to be in a safe condition throughout the year.

Agree with Wavechange – my two rear springs were both broken very near the ends – there was no noticeable difference in driving. or handling – The suspension height of the car was unaffected – and frankly though I do check my car before I use it – I do not peer underneath the car as to do so would require me to lay on the floor.

Mr Iain says:
10 June 2011

As Chris has so comprehensively pointed out, MOTs and maintenance are two entirely separate matters, and it is illogical to draw the connection stated in the article. It appears that the author of the article is under the allusion that an MOT test incorporates some maintenance activities – which it most certainly does not. Indeed, it is not allowed for an MOT tester to make any adjustments to the vehicle during a test; the test is – as Chris points out – literally a snapshot of the condition of the vehicle at that most of time, against established criteria. Additionally, the scope of an MOT does not include non-safety related items that might still be neglected by an owner – for example, lube oil levels, or timing belt tension – even though these might be critical to the longevity of the car. Conversely, servicing should include both the attention to mechanical condition (not just limited to safety aspects of the car), as well as general inspections in order to draw attention to safety matters requiring attention.
There is a danger that people reading this article may draw the very wrong conclusion that an MOT is a good substitute for a proper service, and I do hope that Which? will take the opportunity to clarify this very important point.

Mr Iain says:
10 June 2011

For the sake of good order, the text on line 6 should read “…… literally a snapshot of the condition of the vehicle at that moment of time”.

The main article by Rob Hull is stupid and nieve. The reasons have been well covered by Chris and Iain. There is not connection between the MOT and the proper routine servicing of cars. The suggestion that a bi-annual MOT would result in cars being serviced less often is absurd. The two have no relationship to each other.

I could service my Nissan Bluebird and my Toyota.
But my current Citroen C4 Picasso is virtually untouchable – everything is so bloody hard to access and theres not even a Haynes manual or paint touch up for it.

Harold Newland says:
11 June 2011

I would agree that MOT’s are required only every two years. Modern cars are made of better materials, body work is guaranteed for many years and manufacturing tolerances in engine production etc is of a very high standard.
From a safety point of view if Dave Evans is concerned with safety he should look at the standard of driving. It would keep road users up to scratch if all drivers were retested say every two/three years. There has been a suggestion that drivers over 70 should go through this procedure but my experience has been that there are very many poor drivers in all age categories.
If the government wish to reduce the financial burden on motorists then they should abolish the road fund licence and put the equivalent on the fuel tax.
This would mean that those people who avoid this payment would be taken out of the equation of lost revenue and those who use the highway network more would pay more.
In addition many thousands of civil servants could be better employed in dealing with our black economy.
There would be less burden on the police and the courts with still further savings to the taxpayer.
Further, from a safety aspect our highway networks have been allowed to deteriorate to unacceptable levels and if we the public could devise a system where good highway maintenance could be a vote catcher then safety standards would greatly improve.

Ex-app says:
12 June 2011

It has been my opinion for many years that Road Tax should be abandoned in favour of an increase in fuel tax. However there is a valid argument that vehicle safety would be compromised. This problem could be overcome by the need for insurance companies to see either a valid MOT or certificate of servicing and issue a document (similar in size to the current Road Tax) which must be displayed in the windscreen. This would ensure that not only is the vehicle insured but also safe to use. Ideally, all garages carrying out vehicle maintainance/servicing would be regulated and have suitable qualifications. Clearly this sort of legislation would be an enormously costly – both financially and logistically – procedure to introduce. Also, it doesn’t allow for those people who are competent to maintain their own vehicle. My solution for that is to keep the MOT to act as an overseeing “authority” for work carried out by organisations not shown to be fully qualified. In essence independant garages and self service individuals would be required to produce an independant MOT whilst dealerships and larger organisations would probably move to self certification. I would see the MOT as a fairly temporary situation allowing the Independants to catch up to self certification. A similar procedure is already in use in the domestic electrical industry.
On a different tack, why is the Government moving away from public transport in favour of more car journeys. Are we so intent on driving ourselves no matter the cost that a significantly improved and cheaper public transport system couldn’t be introduced? Europe seems to do it on a larger scale why not us?

Phil says:
12 June 2011

Currently very few accidents are caused by vehicle defects so the system clearly works. Increasing the MOT period to two years would not only lead to more defective vehicles but them being on the road for longer especially as many motorists try to save money in the face of rising fuel and insurance costs. I’m sure we all know somebody who’s driven around with a serious defect for months until the MOT was due. Prosecutions for defective tyres for example are currently at an all time high and there’s no telling how many offenders never get caught.

As far as servicing is concerned very few of the jobs typically done by home mechanics: oil, filter and coolant changes, brake pads, exhaust; even cam belt changes, are any more complicated on a new car than they were on one made in the 1990s or 1980s. True you may need to invest in a set of splined sockets and drivers but these are readily available.

Kev says:
12 June 2011

I’m not sure that I agree with much of this. I have recently traded in a 2004 Rover 75 CDTi auto that I bought new. I carried out all the servicing on this vehicle without the slightest difficulty. Changing oil and filters and brake pads, and drive belts, replacing brake fluid, etc. etc. is no more difficult today than it has ever been. I did put the car into a garage when the alternator failed – but only because it was so damned difficult to get at the thing (the garage told me to take it somewhere else if it failed again!!). My new car (Golf Mk Vl) has come with 3 years free servicing which I will obviously take advantage of – but after that I will be back to carrying out my own servicing. It’s the only way to guarantee that all the work is done properly!

Don’t trust the garage doing the ‘free’ servicing (which you paid for when you bought the car). Mark the parts that are to be inspected or replaced and you will find out whether or not the work is done properly. I was so unimpressed by one ‘free’ service that I switched to another dealer which did a good job except for charging me for screenwash fluid, which I had topped up before taking the car in. Pathetic but not something to worry about.

Kev says:
12 June 2011

I wont be taking it to the garage I bought the car from. I initially bought a 9 month old demonstrator with just 4,500 miles on the clock. It was only after I had got it home that I discovered that the entire offside of the car, and the bonnet, had been resprayed (the car had apparently been ‘keyed’ while being used by one of the salesmen). After a long fight with the dealership, and the threat of legal action, they astonishingly replaced it with a brand new car at no extra cost to me. The demonstrator was an SE – and the new replacement was a ‘Match’ – considerably up-specced. I came out on top in the end – but I no longer have any faith in the dealership.

Hamburger says:
12 June 2011

In Germany, cars have their equivalent of the MOT every 2 years and have done so for many years.
Do they have more accidents or breakdowns as a result?

Phil says:
13 June 2011

They do have a higher number and rate of road deaths, 5.1 per 100,000 compared to 3.8 per 100,000 here.

Phil, he said “accidents or breakdowns”, what has road deaths go to do with it?

Phil says:
13 June 2011

Deaths on the road are generally caused by accidents.

and so of course, you only mentioned it because presumably ALL accidents AND breakdowns end up in death?

Interesting viewpoint 😉

Phil says:
13 June 2011

Well road deaths aren’t caused by anything else, apart from the odd heart attack perhaps, so the number of road deaths ought to be a reliable guide to the number of accidents.

A DfT report has estimated that increasing the MoT period to two years would lead to an extra 37 deaths and 402 serious injuries. On average 40% of vehicles presented for MoT fail at the first attempt which gives you a clue to how many unroadworthy vehicles there are out there and consequently how many lack insurance.

But why quantify it with deaths and injuries? and more importantly, why take the DfT’s stats at face value?

They are ESTIMATES, pure and simple, no-one knows and no-one will ever know. There is always a propensity to blame someone of something other than the drivers themselves or even to fudge the figures to prove whatever they want to prove

Here are some other reasons for COLLISIONS (not accidents)

1- Poor driving
2- driver on phone
3- kids in the car screaming
4- driver not looking and pulling out on you
5- driver breaking suddenly for speed camera
6- Lorry driver unable to see you in his mirrors

etc etc etc

So again, what has road deaths got to do with Germany’s 2 year MOT?

Have you ever been a part of ADAC? I certainly have and can say on good authority that they provide a much more comprehensive testing facility than ANY garage could even think to provide over here. The only way we could prolong our MOTs to 2 years was if we were to introduce a national vehicle testing agency, like ADAC.

And even then, if we did, there is no guarantee that this would decrease road deaths, oh the dilemma!!!! 🙂

Phil says:
14 June 2011

“Here are some other reasons for COLLISIONS (not accidents)

1- Poor driving
2- driver on phone
3- kids in the car screaming
4- driver not looking and pulling out on you
5- driver breaking suddenly for speed camera
6- Lorry driver unable to see you in his mirrors”

All of which are irrelevant to this conversation.

The question was asked do they have more accidents in Germany and the only evidence I could find is that they have more deaths and a higher death rate which suggests that yes, they do have more accidents (collisions). Sorry if the link wasn’t that obvious.

If you have any other data that contradicts the DfT report please share it.