A big part of auto restoration is deciding which parts to restore and which parts to replace. If you have a very original numbers-matching vehicle, it makes sense to redo as many of the original parts as possible. If you're restoring a car that's been modified or rebuilt with different parts, then reproduction parts are a good way to go. However, there are some parts that aren't being reproduced and are very difficult to find—at least in better condition than the parts you already have. A good example is your air conditioning housing or "suitcase" as it's commonly called. Many are made out of fiberglass and are frequently broken during the engine changing process. As soon as there's a hole in the A/C suitcase, exhaust fumes and other engine-compartment odors can be circulated through the heating/air conditioning system, making the vehicle unbearable to drive.

For most early vehicles, finding a replacement means scouring the salvage yards for the correct car, then removing the suitcase (not a fun job). Fixing the A/C suitcase you have may be easier than you think. Prior to injection molded thermoplastic, fiberglass was considered the "wonder" material by carmakers. Light, strong, and a good thermal insulator, fiberglass is also the enthusiast's best friend because of its ease of repair. All you need are some fiberglass mat and resin, plus a grinder and dust mask, and you're ready to make your A/C suitcase as good as new. A word of caution however, if you're working on a 100-point restoration, we recommend you find a suitable replacement. Repairing an A/C suitcase will restore the integrity of the part; however, the textured gray appearance will be altered in the process.

We are restoring a late-'60's GM A-body convertible into a nice, everyday driver, so we decided to repair the suitcase ourselves. Besides, the damaged area is actually behind the cylinder head, so the repair won't be visible. The first step is to grind a border around the hole approximately 1-inch wide and feather it down to the edge of the hole. Fiberglass resin, when it cures, forms a waxy film on the surface. You need to grind that away for the fiberglass repair to bond to the old fiberglass. Beveling or tapering this area allows you to build up several layers of fiberglass mat without making the repair stick up too high.

After the area around the hole is prepared, cut several layers of mat, matching the size and shape of the ground out area, then decreasing in size to that of the hole. We used three layers of fairly heavy mat to repair our two holes. With normal masking tape, we made a backup for the new fiberglass mat. Use several layers of tape and apply it tightly to the suitcase. Next, mix up a batch of resin and hardener and thoroughly soak the mat with resin, then lay it over the hole. Quickly soak the two successive layers of mat and put them in place before the resin begins to harden. Wearing gloves, we used our fingers to squeegee out the excess resin and air bubbles, and smooth the contour of the patch. Not only did we have holes to patch in our suitcase, but we had some fairly long cracks in the fiberglass as well. With a die grinder, we made a V-shaped cut in the cracks before we mixed the resin, so the patch adheres better. After applying the fiberglass mat over the larger holes, we poured the excess resin into these cracks.

After the fiberglass patches had cured (it took about an hour), we began shaping the repaired areas with 36-grit sandpaper, then 80 grit sandpaper. You can add more fiberglass mat and resin to the low areas and repeat the process or use plastic body filler. We got the surface fairly close with the fiberglass, then switched to body filler for the finishing touch. After the body filler, a couple of coats of primer (sanded with 180 sandpaper) got rid of the deep sanding marks. We selected a charcoal gray enamel to replicate the A/C suitcase original color. It took us about five hours to make this repair, but the finished result was worth the effort.

It's such a simple thing: flip on the windshield wiper switch and you assume the wipers will do their job. Press the button for the washer fluid and it sprays out, dissolving dust and bug anatomy, so the wipers can whisk it all away. Vision is restored, safety improved. You probably take this deceptively simple system for granted, but what do you do when it doesn't function properly? Here are some preventative steps to keep it working smoothly.

System Basics
First, the basics of the wiper system: The power behind the windshield wipers is generated by a small electric motor with a linkage that converts the motor output to the action of the wipers. There's also an electronic circuit that maintains power to the wipers while the blades act essentially like squeegees, dragging across the windshield and clearing the water. The motor is engineered to operate at a variety of speeds from high to intermittent.

Blade Replacement
As the blade ages, nicks or cracks can form. When these defects pick up road grime, the tight seal between blade and windshield erodes causing streaks. Wiping the blade clean can give you a few extra rainstorms of visibility, but now is the best time to replace the blades. The most economical fix-it is to simply replace the wiper refill (figure on doing this at least once a year). If that doesn't stop the streaking, try replacing the wiper blade assembly. Clean, quiet wiper action is as dependent on solid pressure as well as the condition of the rubber.

Aftermarket upgrades for a stock wiper include a blade that features a change-your-blade warning system with a yellow strip along the blade visible to the driver. Or you can opt for high-performance blades with a triple edge or a sporty-looking spoiler designed to increase downward force against the windshield at high speeds (and look cool, too). Before you head out to the auto parts store, check the length of the blade, especially if you drive something a little exotic.

To replace the blade, lift the wiper arm to a position perpendicular to the windshield (not all systems have this much travel, however). Remove the old blade, preferably without mangling the fasteners on the assembly. The owner's manual may provide some useful tips to help this job go more easily, since it's sometimes harder than it looks. The new blade will usually snap into a hook or fastener at the end of the wiper arm.

Some rear window wipers include the washer spray-nozzle as part of the assembly. To deal with this complication, lift the cover, remove the nut that holds the wiper arm, detach the washer-fluid tube and remove the wiper arm assembly. Once the blade has been replaced, follow these steps in reverse.

With any luck, replacing the wiper blade will be the extent of the system's maintenance. If there's more required, here are a few common problems and the most likely cause and fix:

1. The wipers stop in a vertical position when shut off or in the park mode when switched to intermittent: Sorry, but the wiper motor probably needs replacing.

2. The wipers kick in when the turn signal switch is activated: It's likely a switch problem, and both the turn signal and wiper switches need replacing.

3. The wiper motor overheats and stops working: Check the motor ground connections. If the ground is not tight, the motor can draw extra amps and run hot.

Washer System
Now, let's move on to the windshield washer system. Anybody who's ever had it clog or fail realizes what a vital piece of equipment it is. That's especially true in snowy climates where a lot of road salt accumulates, or in areas where bugs and road grime build up on the windshield.

The washer system includes a washer-fluid reservoir, pump, fluid lines and spray nozzles mounted near the wipers or on the wiper arms. While you can use water mixed with a bit of household window cleaner in your reservoir if in a pinch, automotive wiper fluid is worth the cost because it contains mild antifreeze to keep it from, well, freezing. These fluids also contain wetting agents to keep mineral deposits from building up in the hoses and nozzles, as well as methanol and isopropyl alcohol with cleaning and degreasing properties.

If you're simply low on washer fluid, the only potential complication in refilling the washer fluid is that in older vehicles the reservoir may look a lot like the radiator overflow reservoir. Both are usually translucent white plastic containers containing fluid, readily visible once you pop the hood. Auto manufacturers solved this problem by specifically labeling both reservoir caps. There is no need to empty the container of the existing fluid. Simply maintain a respectable level of fluid in the system. Some reservoirs have a "Full" line on the side of the reservoir. If there is no such line, fill the reservoir to the top, replace the cap and you're good to go.

Fluid Pump
If the washer system stops emitting fluid and your reservoir is full and not leaking, the problem could be the pump. The fluid pump is usually located next to or beneath the reservoir. The best way to identify a pump problem is to activate the system and listen for the pump hum. No hum, chances are the pump needs replacing.

If the pump is humming but you're still not getting fluid out of the nozzles, check for kinks in the hoses or debris on the sprayer nozzle. The low-tech tool of choice to clear the nozzles is a safety pin. If that doesn't clear the lines, you may need to disconnect the ends and force air or water through them. Just be careful where you're pointing the hoses.

Keep up with these simple maintenance items for both the wipers and washer. That way you'll see clearly for miles.

Everyone who uses their pickup bed realizes the value of protecting the box against dings. For years, the only solutions were drop-in plastic bedliners or cut-your-own rubberized mats. The main drawback to plastic liners is that they trap moisture, which encourages rust. Mat-style liners protect the floor, but don't do much for the sides.

Commercial Use
Spray-in polyurethane liners revolutionized bed protection. Developed for the South African mining industry, these liners appeared in the U.S. in the mid-'80s. Bed abrasion- and rust-resistance were suddenly realities. However, the cost of these professionally applied coatings was prohibitive for many average truck owners.

The next evolution in bed protection is do-it-yourself polyurethane liners. On the market now for over five years, these systems allow the truck owner to apply the protective coating at home. The savings are substantial when compared to commercially applied polyurethane liners.

Herculiner is one of the best-known brands of DIY bed protection. The Herculiner chemical consists of polyurethane with rubber granules that form a skid-resistant, rust-inhibiting coating. The product comes in kit form and can either be painted on or sprayed with a gun. The polyurethane chemical is formulated to resist chipping, flaking, peeling, UV rays, gasoline and other solvents. Because Herculiner sticks to itself, any nicks and dings can be repaired later.

The basic kit includes application tools and a gallon of polyurethane material, enough to cover a 6-foot bed or a 55-60 square-foot flat area at a thickness of 1/16-1/32 of an inch. Available colors are black, white, red and gray.

Other Uses
Although spray-on bedliners are primarily marketed for pickup beds, they also stick to other painted or primed metals, concrete, wood, rubber, most plastics and fiberglass. Surface preparation varies depending on the material, but this polyurethane coating can protect everything from trailers to boat decks to walkways.

Bed Prep
Spray-on bedliners bond to clean, thoroughly dried surfaces. Preparation is the most critical and time-consuming part of the job. After blowing or hosing out debris, the bed should be washed with trisodium phosphate (TSP). When dry, the area needs to be scuffed with the kit's abrasive pad, then blown out. Next, wipe down the bed with xylene, acetone or MEK. Finally, mask off the bed's perimeter.

Most spray-on bedliners emit nasty fumes, so they need to be applied in a well-ventilated area at a temperature somewhere between 32 degrees and 95 degrees F. The coating can either be applied with a brush and roller or shot with a spray gun. The polyurethane chemical can be thinned as much as 10 percent with xylene, which is available at commercial house-paint suppliers.

First, stir the chemical with an electrical drill and mixer attachment to suspend the rubber particles; re-stir periodically to keep the rubber from settling. Begin applying the product with a brush, dabbing the material into seams and other tight areas—similar to cutting in corners when wall painting. The entire bed can be brushed using a one-way motion, but this will yield a smoother texture than a stipple roller. Either way, a light first coat is applied. Throughout, watch for clumps, runs and pools, none of which provide the proper results.

When the first coat is touch-dry (1-4 hours or even more depending on temperature and humidity), apply a second coat within 24 hours of the first (or else the bed will need to be clean and re-scuffed). Then remove the masking tape immediately. Touch up any missed spots once the second coat is dry. Then discard the unused portion because it begins to cure as soon as the can is opened. The bed can withstand light use in 6-12 hours and is fully cured in 2-4 days.

Do-it-yourself bedliners can be cleaned with household cleaners and a hard-bristled brush. Once rinsed, the bed should be dried. Protectants will maintain a glossy finish.

Just as Lex Luthor was Superman's archrival, rust is the main thorn-in-the-side to anyone who owns an older vehicle. As Neil Young reminded us, once rust starts, it never sleeps.

Fortunately, better-living-through-chemistry applies to vehicle restoration. Just as antidepressants have "given millions of people their lives back," a variety of sprays, pastes, and other potions can help stop rust in its tracks. The right product for the job normally depends on where the rust is located. Severity is also a consideration.

Barry Scheck's "garbage in, garbage out" philosophy can be applied to metal rehabilitation—the finished product is only as good as the surface underneath. Cleanliness is as close as some of us will ever come to godliness, and vehicle metals can never be too sanitary during a restoration.

Depending on the seriousness and location of the rust, different cleaning methods can be used. For starters, the quarter car wash or gas-powered pressure washer will help get mud and dirt off of frames. Steam cleaning can be even more effective because the hot water helps cut through grease and other cesspools of contamination. However, steam cleaners also blast through wiring and other delicate parts, so some skill is required.

"Dry cleaning" methods include media blasting, wire-brushing, and scraping. We're limiting ourselves to on-vehicle rust here, otherwise sand- or bead-blasting in a blasting cabinet is the hot rust-removal ticket for any parts that'll fit. Alternately, Eastwood offers a Blast Out of a Bucket kit, which includes a compressor-powered blasting gun, a hood and gloves. This method removes rust to bare metal, but sand will find its way into all adjacent areas, so bearings and other moving parts should be taped off. Also, sand particulates can lodge in the lungs and cause silicosis, so a respirator must be worn.

For the average do-it-yourselfer, good ol' elbow grease is the time-proven way to remove rust flakes. Low-tech methods include a standard wire brush, a scraper or a sanding block with coarse-grit paper. Higher up the evolutionary ladder are drill-mounted wheels, brushes and discs. Eastwood offers a variety of these; its 5-inch Cleaning Wheel is a good all-around rust-chaser. The underlying goal is to knock off as many rust flakes and bubbles as possible so that oxygen pockets won't remain under the topcoat.

A variety of rust inhibitors are available in auto parts stores and through mail-order catalogs. Not all of these products are compatible with primers and topcoats, so reading directions is critical. Even easier is to pick one line of products for all pre-paint work.

Working backwards, the final finish determines the metal-prep procedure. Popular finishes include powdercoating, electropainting, rubberized undercoating and painting. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but the focus here is on on-vehicle rust repair, so painting is the best all-around do-it-yourself solution.

First, rust must be chemically inhibited. Eastwood Metal Wash is one method. It cleans and leaves a rust-resistant coating for situations where prep and priming won't happen on the same day.

For surface rust, particularly in hard-to-reach places, Eastwood offers OxiSolv. This product dissolves iron oxide, replacing it with zinc phosphate. Following a secondary cleaning with Eastwood's PRE Painting Prep cleaner, the area can then be primed before being top-coated.

For frame de-rusting and revival, Eastwood offers pre-packaged Chassis Resto Kits. These kits contain varying quantities of Corroless Rust Stabilizing Coating and Chassis Black paint. Corroless is a one-step rust-stopper and primer. Formulated for offshore oil rigs, Corroless repels surface moisture, stabilizes existing rust with magnetite, then seals out further oxidation with interlocking glass leaves. Since Corroless is UV-resistant, it doesn't need to be top-coated, although it does adhere to most non-lacquer automotive paints.

For a durable, easy-to-apply finish, Eastwood offers Chassis Black paint. The product is available in two sheens: glossy (about 85% gloss) or OEM-look (60-70% gloss). Chassis Black has an epoxy base to help fend off chips and corrosion, it withstands temperatures up to 300 degrees F and is UV-resistant. Chassis Black adheres to bare metal or Corroless but not to self-etching primers.

The products and tips shown here are for visible rust. Eastwood offers a variety of other solutions for specific areas and scenarios, such as Heavy-Duty Anti-Rust for inside door panels, Cold Galvanizing Compound for the backside of surfaces that will later be welded, and Rubberized Undercoating for wheel wells.

Rust is undeniably Public Enemy No. 1 for older cars. With a little effort and the proper products, though, it is actually possible to fool Mother Nature.

Pint-for-pint, the one or two quarts of power steering fluid required by your passenger car are probably some of the least appreciated fluids under the hood. Considering what it does, and how much a motorist depends on it, we're talking about the lifeblood of your steering system. Yet keeping it clean and doing its job doesn't require all that much effort.

The function of this fluid is basic: transmitting hydraulic pressure to make steering easy—but achieving a seamless system operation over a wide variety of conditions is not. The fluid must perform consistently in any situation, from sub-zero to triple-digit temperatures, and both ambient and under-hood temperatures. It also must function when the engine is at idle or full-throttle, and under high pressure, all the while providing adequate lubrication to pump and control valve assemblies, maintaining integrity of rubber components in the system, and promoting noise-free system operation. And your fluid has to do all of these things over an extensive period of time!

Transfer Tool
Of course, these demands take their toll on the fluid and break it down, which can lead to inconsistent performance and expensive component failure. Although vehicle manufacturers haven't generally specified in the past when to actually change the fluid, some are doing this now, or they have designed a fluid that they feel will last "the life of the vehicle." Of course, your opinion on a vehicle's lifespan may differ from that of the manufacturer. That said, we'll share a couple of relatively simple and mess-free methods for maintaining the fluid for a much longer period.

If your vehicle's manufacturer recommends a fluid change interval, definitely follow that. Do-it-yourselfers will need to consult a service manual for the procedure on their particular vehicle. If there is no recommended change interval, however, here's a good rule of thumb to follow: Change it as often as you would your engine coolant. Power steering fluid of the "long-life" variety should be changed every five years or 100,000 miles. For conventional fluid, the interval is every three years or 50,000 miles. Most likely, the fluid will appear normal at this point—either amber (on most vehicles) or pink/red in color. This is good, as no serious problems are indicated.

Filler Cap
As with other vehicle fluids, changing before visible deterioration occurs is ideal. The fluid should be checked at every routine service interval, but if at any time before the interval recommended here, it appears significantly darker than new fluid, it should be changed at that time. Use the following easy procedure for evacuation and filling.

Simply withdraw only the fluid that's readily accessible in its small reservoir, and replace that portion with fresh fluid. You'll be doing this several times over a week or so until the fluid color looks normal. To use this technique, you first have to acquire the proper tool. It's sold as a "fluid removal/transfer tool" or battery filler, and resembles a turkey baster (but that's made of different materials, so don't use one of those from your kitchen). You'll also need to purchase the proper type and amount of fluid as indicated in your manual. Older vehicles use automatic transmission fluid, but later-model vehicles use some form of mineral-based fluid with a "universal" type fluid sufficing as a replacement. Other vehicles, such as Honda and Mercedes-Benz, require a very specific type of fluid.

Next, locate the reservoir and remove the filler cap/dipstick. Withdraw what fluid you can with your newfound "fluid removal tool," being careful not to slop, spritz, or squirt the fluid carelessly on the engine. If you do, immediately and thoroughly clean the spill up with a shop towel. Dispose of the used fluid responsibly, as you would do with used motor oil. Now, fill the reservoir up to the recommended mark on the dipstick ("cold" or "hot") and then start the engine. Cycle the steering from left to right a couple of times, and do a final check and correction of the level.

Final Check
If the fluid is only somewhat darker than new—but not dark brown—you can perform this procedure on consecutive weekends (or a little more often, if you can't stand the suspense!) until you get the desired "good as new" fluid appearance. If the fluid is dark brown or black that indicates a serious system contamination (likely due to breakdown of internal rubber parts or hoses) and more extensive repairs are called for. In this case, solvent flushing is not recommended, as it won't stop the internal breakdown described, and will likely make it worse.

Just as with fluid maintenance for your cooling system and transmission, it's not necessary to change all of the power steering system's fluid to keep it in good condition—as long as it's being done before visible deterioration occurs.

Currently, the mainstream media is obsessed with tire safety. Tragic deaths, lawsuits, recalls and new legislation have put tires at the forefront of the motoring public's minds.

Tire-related risks can be greatly reduced through education. Routine maintenance—specifically wear inspection and proper inflation—is the most important aspect of getting the most out of your tires.

Tire Wear
Every motorist should learn to read tire wear. Tire manufacturers recommend conducting monthly visual inspections of all four tires for cuts, bulges and other irregularities. Tread wear is relatively easy to judge. These days, many tires have wear-indicator bars molded into the tread. As soon as the solid bar becomes visible, the tire should be replaced. For tires that don't have indicators, a penny can be used to gauge tread wear. Stick Lincoln's head into the tread. If the top of his head is visible, the tread is worn out. Special tread-depth tools that serve this same function are available at many auto parts stores.

Uneven tread wear provides clues about other problems. Uneven wear side-to-side and either sawtoothed or feathered shoulders indicate that the car's alignment should be checked. Cupping can indicate that the tires are out of balance or that chassis parts are worn out. Shoulders that wear faster than the centers are signs of underinflation; worn centers with good shoulders signify overinflation.

Correct Pressure
As most of us are now aware, incorrect tire pressure is a serious safety issue. Additionally, improper psi affects the vehicle's handling and fuel economy.

Tire pressure should be checked monthly, before any extended road trip and during extreme temperature fluctuations. Always take a pressure reading while the tires are cold—driving as little as one mile can produce an inaccurate reading. Normal tire deflation is approximately 1 psi per month; cast-aluminum wheels are more porous than steel wheels and allow even faster leak-down. And don't forget to check the spare.

Under-inflation is a serious problem. In fact, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) estimates that under-inflated tires contribute to 26,000 accidents annually. In addition to accelerating shoulder wear, under-inflation generates more friction, which reduces fuel economy and can generate enough heat to potentially cause a blowout. Proper inflation is also necessary for antilock brakes (ABS) to function properly. One industry source estimates that 1/4 of the vehicles on the road at any given time have under-inflated tires.

What's the correct pressure for your tires? Not the number stamped on the sidewall. Close reading will reveal the word MAXIMUM next to the psi number. If the vehicle were loaded to its Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), then the maximum psi might be plausible. However, the vehicle manufacturer recommends a specific pressure. This information is normally in the owner's manual or on a sticker on the driver's side door or inside the glovebox door. Always refer to this recommendation first.

Tire pressure should also be adjusted to conditions. When the vehicle is loaded down with gear, most tire manufacturers recommend adding up to 4 psi over the vehicle manufacturer's recommended pressure. However, never exceed the vehicle's maximum load rating or the sidewall's maximum-psi rating. Distribute weight as evenly as possible by sliding loads forward instead of leaving them at the rear.

Regular tire rotation promotes even treadwear. The vehicle's owner manual usually recommends the proper interval. Otherwise, every 5,000 miles is the rule of thumb for passenger cars, approximately 4,000 miles for 4x4s, and even every 3,000 miles for aggressive, oversized mud tires. New tires' first rotation is the most critical.

Rotation pattern varies depending on whether the vehicle is front-wheel drive and has a fullsize spare (refer to the owner's manual). Regardless, inflation pressure should be checked and adjusted as necessary at rotation time. Having the tires rebalanced can't hurt either. Clamp-on wheel weights sometimes fall off, and tire imbalance transmits vibration to the suspension and even the steering wheel.

Over time, rubber degrades, even if the tires aren't being used. Tread and sidewall rubber can crack, and the carcass can deform. Consult a competent tire shop about whether tires that show signs of age are safe.

To maximize tire life on RVs, boat trailers and other often-stored vehicles, jack the weight off the tires to keep them from flat-spotting. Also, cover the tires to protect them from sunlight and airborne contaminants. Spare tires are particularly susceptible to age degradation because they don't get inspected as often as the other four.

Tire Repair
Run-flat tires are starting to appear for more-expensive cars. However, standard tires aren't designed to run without air, and irreparable damage can result from any attempt to do so.

Many tread punctures and gashes less than 1/4-inch large can be repaired, either with external plugs or internal patches. It's illegal to repair a tire's sidewall, and patching tires with less than 1/16-inch of tread depth isn't recommended. A qualified tire professional can assess whether a punctured tire is repairable. Regardless, keeping the spare in good condition and properly inflated is the best remedy for a flat.

Monitoring Systems
As a result of the Firestone/Explorer situation, a new law requires automakers to install tire-pressure monitors on all vehicles within the next three years. (The aftermarket has offered these systems for a few years now.)

Typically, tire monitors have a wheel-mounted sensor and a driver-visible display that shows each tire's pressure and sometimes its temperature. Most existing systems mount the monitor on the dash or visor; in-development setups will include the display on a special rearview mirror.

Shelf Life
Tires' sidewalls have molded-in codes that pertain to their performance and date of manufacture. Uniform Tire Quality Grading System (UTQG) is a DOT program that rates treadwear on a numeric scale (a 400-rated tread theoretically lasts four times longer than a 100), traction (AA, A, B & C in descending order of tractability) and ability to dissipate heat (A, B or C, A being superior, B average and C passable). UTQG ratings are stamped into the sidewall on passenger-car tires.

Sidewalls also have a DOT code that corresponds to their date of manufacture. Because tires harden and crack with age, buying the freshest tires possible makes sense.

Blowout Survival
Unfortunately, knee-jerk driver reactions to a tire blowout make a bad situation worse. Following a blowout, most people instinctively stomp on the brakes—the worst possible technique. This abruptly transfers the vehicle's weight forward, making it nose-dive in addition to pulling toward the blown-out side.

Instead of braking, ease off the gas. Don't panic: The rapidly deflating tire will slow down your car or truck. Then try to steer as straight as possible, avoiding quick maneuvers that can send the vehicle into a rollover. Allow the vehicle to coast to a stop, gingerly steering to a safe stopping place. Remember, driving on a flat tire may damage a wheel, but this is preferable to full-vehicle or bodily damage. Finally, turn on the emergency flashers and exit the vehicle cautiously.

When it comes to tire safety, Bridgestone/Firestone boils it all down to three words: inflate, rotate, evaluate

With various oil change franchises from coast-to-coast offering oil-and-filter jobs for cut-rate prices, it's getting tougher to rationalize changing your vehicle's oil yourself as a way to save money. So, if you get dirty and grimy, you don't necessarily save any money, and when you're through you have to find someplace to get rid of the old oil, why bother?

Maybe for some quiet therapy. Maybe you enjoy working on the car. Maybe you just want the certainty of knowing exactly what kind of oil and filter were used. Whatever the reason, here are some tips that might help you with your next oil change.

Slick Info
The first consideration is the oil-change interval. The owner's manual for one late-model vehicle lists an oil-change interval of 7,500 miles, or 12 months, whichever comes first. It also indicates to change the filter every 15,000 miles or 12 months, whichever comes first.

However, many people think the oil should be changed more often. To maintain the vehicle's warranty, you need to maintain the manufacturer's recommended oil change interval. But different kinds of driving may require more frequent changes. For example, for that very same car, the owner's manual instructs an oil-and-filter change interval of 3,750 miles or six months if it's being operated under severe conditions, which are defined as:

Severe Driving
1. Driving less than five miles per trip, or less than 10 miles per trip in freezing weather.

2. Driving in temperatures over 90 degrees F.

3. Extensive idling or long periods of stop-and-go driving.

4. Towing a trailer, using a car-top carrier, or driving in the mountains.

5. Driving on muddy, dusty or de-iced roads

Notice what's first: Short trips, particularly in cold weather. Engineers will tell you that that's just about the harshest duty cycle for engine lubrication. Consider this: In the morning, start it up and go five miles to work, then shut if off. Four hours later, for lunch, start it up, go two miles to a restaurant, then shut if off. About one hour later, start it up, go two miles back to work, then shut if off. Another four or five hours later, start it up, go five miles to home, then shut it off. It's been driven 14 miles, never once given a chance to get fully warmed up, and had four cold starts. The oil has never been able to get rid of the moisture that forms from condensation or the residues of combustion processes that would be burnt off with heat, everything turns to a thick sludge, and if you don't give it more frequent oil changes you're in for expensive trouble. That sludge can eventually clog the oil pump screen, lubrication gets shut off, and a connecting rod ends up going through the side of the engine block. Buying a new engine gets kind of expensive.

Warmed Over
On the other hand, a guy who starts up the car, hits the freeway and doesn't stop for 200 miles has done a lot less harm. His engine has had only one cold start and plenty of time to get everything fully warmed up and working properly.

What about those expensive oils that are claimed by their manufacturers to deliver much longer change intervals, such as 25,000 miles? Maybe they'll deliver, but remember this: If you don't change oil at the manufacturer's recommended interval, and you have a problem, you may have a lot of trouble getting satisfaction on the warranty. If you drive in normal conditions, there is little to recommend paying extra for that high-priced oil, since you have to change it at the regular interval anyway.

However, if you live where it's really cold in the winter, we're talking Alaska or such, there is some evidence that synthetic oil may provide more protection for those brutal January morning start-ups.

And if you have an older car—say one of those old classics or musclecars—you may want to consider twice before using synthetic oil. Some of the seal and gasket materials used on older cars are not compatible with synthetic oils, and you may end up with a bunch of leaks all over the garage floor.

It goes without saying that you should consult your vehicle's owner's manual for the correct viscosity and grade of oil, and purchase oil from a reputable, known manufacturer. Don't scrimp on the filter, either. It is, after all, your car.

Where can you get rid of the old oil? Usually, the auto parts store that sold you the new stuff will take the old stuff off your hands.

A couple more things: Don't forget to properly tighten the drain plug, and check for leaks before you take off on the summer vacation. And when you're through, don't go in the house and track any oil on the carpet.

In times past, one of the easiest maintenance items on a vehicle was checking and changing the spark plugs. That was before engine compartments became shrouded in emission's tubing and computerized sensors. If you're lucky enough to have an automobile where the plugs are relatively easy to reach, take advantage of it. That's because they offer telltale indications of what's going on in the combustion chamber and the internal health of your engine.

Before you begin ratcheting out your plugs in search of suspicious symptoms, a few words of caution: First, be sure to check ALL of the plugs. There could be a serious problem brewing in just one cylinder that you wouldn't want to overlook. Second, if your plugs indicate a problem that's related to the plug's heat range or the plug is simply worn out, you can fix these problems with a new, and correct, set of plugs. If the diagnosis is more serious, though, and your plugs are oil-foiled because of a worn piston ring, new plugs won't make the worn ring go away. Get the vehicle to your mechanic for the overhaul, then replace the plugs.

The following is a comprehensive list of conditions which you may find when you pull spark plugs:

Normal: When the engine is running the way it should, normal-reading plugs will look pretty much the same way they did when they were new and first screwed into the engine block.

Normal, but with red coating: The red coating is a result of the additives in lower-quality unleaded fuel and will be visible on the plug's ceramic insulation. The red coating is not an indication of any engine problems.

Fuel Fouled: Fuel-fouled plugs may have a shiny coating on the tip and side electrode and indicate a too-rich fuel mixture, ignition problems or a plug heat range that's set too low. First, check to make sure your spark plugs have a heat range that is compatible with your engine (especially if you've made performance modifications). This information is available in your vehicle's owner's manual. To resolve the too-rich fuel mixture, have the fuel injection (or carburetor) adjusted to correct the air/fuel mix.

Detonation Damage: This plug condition indicates that your engine timing is off and you probably need a tune-up. Another possibility is that the gasoline you're using does not have a high enough octane rating. Again, check the owner's manual to verify the manufacturer's recommendation on octane level.

Worn Plug: This is an easy fix: replace the plug. This one has been used far beyond its service life. Most plug manufacturers indicate the recommended service life on the packaging.

Carbon Fouled: If your plug tip and side electrode are blackened, they have been running with too much fuel (or possibly too cool from a stuck-open thermostat). Other sources of the problem may include bad wiring, leaking injectors, or in some cases the vehicle has been driven at too slow a speed for extended periods of time. The combustion process is not being allowed to have its natural burning-off, or cleaning, effect.

Pre-Ignition: The plug will reveal that the side electrode has been burned away from running too hot. The plug is firing too soon or not enough fuel is present in the air/fuel mixture—there isn't enough fuel in the combustion chamber for a sound combustion event. Check your fuel injection and timing. Take quick action, because a plug in this condition is just short of falling completely apart.

Oil Ash Fouled: Engine oil is getting to your plugs, from worn piston rings or valve guides/seals. Get to your mechanic, now.

Mechanical Damage: A mechanically damaged plug will look as if it's been beaten to death by its piston, an indication that it extended too far down into the combustion chamber.

The two most common spark plug problems are hot fouling and cold fouling. The "too hot" category includes the pre-ignition and detonation damage. Some performance improvements may be the cause for this type of plug damage. If your vehicle has performance upgrades such as a high-output coil, ignition, exhaust or cams, these can alter the engine's recommended plug heat range and you should consider using a spark plug with a heat range lower than the manufacturer's recommendations.

A few of the symptoms indicated by your spark plugs have simple fixes, while others require the hands and expertise of a qualified mechanic. Either way, the main advantage to checking out your spark plugs is for a quick diagnostic tool that gives you a fairly good idea of how well your engine is performing.

Even if your car's interior isn't showing signs of age, one of the most cost-effective and dramatic enhancements you can make is to paint the dash. We don't mean just slopping on a few coats of paint with a brush or trying to mask off the stereo and A/C vents and get silly with a spray can. The process is fairly involved and may require a pro, depending on your tools and level of experience. Here's an overview of what's required, using a Lexus IS 300 as an example.

Color and Prep
Note that the color used on the interior is the same as the exterior, which keeps the theme of the car consistent. A complementary color could be used as well, but be careful that it doesn't clash. One of the most common mistakes is a mismatched or odd color combination. Paint jobs that peel and flake also ruin the effect. The key to success here is good prep work. It's tedious, but it's the most important aspect of painting. The actual paint spraying goes pretty quickly by comparison.

When working on the parts outside of the car (don't even think about doing this without first removing them from the interior), start with a thorough cleaning with lacquer thinner to remove any and all dirt, oils, and vinyl dressings. The surface then needs to be roughed up a bit with a scouring pad and some paint-prep gel, so the primer adheres properly. A special plastic primer is required as well that has more flexing agents than conventional primer. This gives the coating a bit of "give" for covering pliable material.

Paint and Check
After the paint has been applied and dried, go back over it carefully to inspect for any minor specks in the surface. Since the dash pieces are always within close view, you'll want a flawless surface. Remove any small particles with fine sandpaper and then buff the surface smooth with a polishing wheel and compound.

If this dash painting job sounds a bit more challenging or time consuming than you had in mind, the good news is that it's not as expensive as you might expect. Figure on less than a thousand dollars for a high-quality interior paint job, which is a pretty cost-effective treatment considering the big difference it will make.

Transmissions have a tough job. They must help keep the engine in its powerband (usable rpm range) and transmit that power to the drive wheels over a huge speed range. Pulling power must be available when towing a trailer from a dead stop, yet the engine rpm must be at a comfortably low speed for efficient high-speed cruising.

In an accompanying story, we covered the ins and outs of the age-old standard/manual transmission. The focus here is on "juice" transmissions, automatics that use hydraulics to change gears. Let's shift into the discussion, shall we?

All vehicles need some type of clutch and transmission. The clutch disconnects the engine's output shaft from the transmission (and, in turn, the drive wheels) so the vehicle can idle at a stop. Then, the clutch gradually re-engages the engine to the transmission to smoothly allow the vehicle to accelerate away from a stop. The transmission must provide a wide enough range of gear ratios to accommodate the vehicle's typical operating speed range.

A transmission has to convert the engine's power output into useful torque that can be fed to the wheels at varying speeds. A choice of gear ratios between the engine and the drive wheels allows this to happen. In First gear, the transmission allows the engine to rev freely even though the vehicle is traveling slowly. This provides the maximum torque multiplication for accelerating away from a stop or pulling a heavy load at low speed. Low gear gives you maximum pulling power but very little speed.

In higher gears, the transmission puts the engine rpm at a comfortable and fuel-efficient level, even though the road speed is very high. The compromise here is relatively little pulling power: The slow-turning engine may not have the power to maintain the speed you want without downshifting to a lower gear. Between these high and low ratios, a transmission needs to have enough gear choices to deal with all the likely driving situations the vehicle will encounter. In modern cars with automatic transmissions, that means at least three gears, but as many as five are becoming common (BMW even has a 6-speed automatic).

Auto Pilot
Automatic transmissions have been with us since 1939. Today, they are the predominant choice among American drivers. Far more sophisticated than their predecessors, today's automatic transmissions have electronic adaptive shift logic and can even mimic the feel and driver involvement of a manual transmission.

In place of a manual clutch, automatic transmissions have a torque converter positioned between the engine and transmission. A type of fluid coupling, inside the torque converter's oil-filled housing is an impeller that is connected to the end of the engine's crankshaft. The fluid pressure generated by the impeller in turn drives a turbine that is connected to the transmission's input shaft.

The design of the torque converter determines how fast the engine can rev before the vehicle begins to move. The faster the engine revs, the less slip the torque converter allows. For greater fuel efficiency, most torque converters automatically lock the impeller and turbine together during top-gear cruising to eliminate slip.

Instead of gearsets driving each other on parallel shafts, typical automatic transmissions use planetary gears to create a variety of ratios. A planetary gearset is comprised of a large outer ring gear with teeth cut into its inner face. Centered inside the ring gear is a much smaller "sun" gear, which is connected to the transmission's input shaft.

Between the sun and ring gears are a set of "planet" gears that are oriented by a carrier. Planetary gearsets are neat little devices because by clamping the ring gear, the planet gear carrier, the planet gears or the sun gear together in various combinations, you can get several ratios on the output side—even Reverse. By adding planetary gearsets to the transmission, still more ratios can be added.

A combination of electronics and hydraulics orchestrate shifting to suit the conditions. Depending on the throttle position, the speed with which the throttle pedal is moved, vehicle speed and other factors, the shift mapping is varied to suit the conditions. Based on an indication of a closed throttle and steady or increasing speed, some vehicles can sense they're on a downhill and will automatically downshift from top gear to develop engine braking.

Various types of semi-manual modes also serve to give modern automatic transmissions a bit of the driver involvement of a traditional manual gearbox. But don't fool yourself: Today's automatic transmissions are so smart that shifting them manually doesn't net any performance advantage. So relax.

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