A little auto TLC goes a long way

by Kelly Taylor  . Nov 23 2018
Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press filesMechanic Bill Gardiner can’t overstate the importance of regular oil and fluid changes to keep your vehicle reliably on the road.

Kelly Taylor / Winnipeg Free Press files

Mechanic Bill Gardiner can’t overstate the importance of regular oil and fluid changes to keep your vehicle reliably on the road.

This is a tale of neglect, resurrection and pure, blind luck.

My friend, Bill Gardiner, has neighbours who once owned a 1990s-era Toyota Corolla and they treated it terribly.

“If it didn’t stop it from driving, it didn’t get fixed,” he said. Didn’t matter what the problem was. If the car drove, it drove and that was the end of it.

So one day, perhaps feeling sorry for the old clunker, Gardiner approached them as the car had been sitting for some time, having been abandoned by the last of a few siblings to which it had been handed down. They were planning to tow it to the scrapyard for the scrap value, about $200.

Instead, he paid the $200 and took it home. Gardiner owns his own shop, so repairs would only cost him his time and the wholesale cost of parts. He says given the car was a Toyota, it wasn’t surprising the car still ran, but what was surprising was why.

It had probably never had an oil change, and the oil filter was probably original. By all rights, the motor should have seized long ago. What it did have, however, was a leak, right at the oil-pressure sensor.

Effectively, the leak meant the car received its oil changes unintentionally, a litre or so at a time.

“Every few weeks, it would get a litre here and a litre there,” Gardiner said. “I told them that leaky oil-pressure sensor probably saved that car’s life.”

If the name Bill Gardiner sounds familiar, it should. He’s the resident wrench on Motoring TV, now filming Motoring 2019, on TSN. He’s also the frontman for Kal Tire’s annual car-maintenance campaign, and he comes through Winnipeg on a yearly basis.

Today, Gardiner has scaled back his shop. He’s moved it out of Mississauga, Ont., into southern Ontario’s cottage country and generally deals only with a select group of customers. Customers who trust him enough to not need estimates, confident he’ll just do the right thing.

But just a few years ago, his Interscope Automotive was a going concern, with five bays, a handful of mechanics and a steady stream of customers.

About three times a year, he estimates, he’d have a customer’s car towed to the shop with a seized motor. The cause was invariably the same: “You need to change the oil?”

Vehicles need not be disposable, Gardiner said. With the right maintenance, even you could be like Irv Gordon, who had driven the same Volvo P1800s he bought in June 1966 for 52 years, and which had, as of May 2018, just passed 3.2 million miles.

Perhaps prophetically, once he reached three million miles, Gordon suggested hitting four million miles was possible, but that he might give out before the car did. Gordon, 77, died earlier this month. His car didn’t.

What kept his car going was a slavish devotion to the service schedule in the Volvo’s owner’s manual and a dedication to keeping it clean. Eating in the car was verboten, and any salt or dirt was quickly washed off. Gordon lived on New York’s Long Island, so the salt was largely in the air rather than on the roads, but was still a concern.

Gardiner said maintenance is cheaper over the long haul, particularly with today’s technology. It’s not uncommon for motors to need replacement rather than repair, depending on the problem.

“In the old days, we used to be able to do a lot of work in some really dirty environments,” he said. “We’d tear down engines, bore out cylinders, replace valves and not worry about dirt.”

With today’s engines, those days are gone. Modern technology has created systems inside engines with extremely tight tolerances, requiring new, lightweight oils (0W16— yes, zeroW16, anyone?). The fact you can eat off the floors of most car plants these days virtually rules out field repairs of catastrophic failures.

Fluids — oil, transmission fluid, coolant — are the lifeblood of cars. And while service intervals have increased as those fluids have got better, they’re still critical to the life of a car.

If you don’t change the oil, it accumulates crud that can block passages designed to deliver oil to critical components. A clogged oil filter similarly prevents the free movement of oil. Depending on how blocked those passages are, there may be no coming back.

As well, a buildup of chemicals can turn what should be a protective liquid blanket into a parts-destroying caustic mess.

Don’t rely on the oil-pressure indicator, either. Gardiner said oil pressures can build to high enough levels to satisfy the sensor with as little as one litre in the engine.

Meanwhile, that lack of lube is killing the car. A typical four-cylinder engine needs about five litres, while larger engines can take up to 10 or more.

The typical failure is the camshaft. Gardiner said because it’s at the top of the motor, it suffers the most from a lack of oil. The camshaft will eventually seize. If the motor has a timing belt, that seizure breaks the belt, and if that happens, and it’s a zero-clearance motor, the piston heads will crash into the valves.

Timing chains aren’t likely to break, but a seized camshaft is still enough to turn your engine bay into a repository of scrap metal.

Keeping your car in top-running shape has environmental benefits, too. Not only will it run more efficiently, keeping it on the road longer means less work for scrapyards.

While it’s true most car parts are recycled, there’s a reason “recycling” is the last of the three Rs — because “reduce” and “reuse” are more beneficial.

kelly.taylor@freepress.mb.ca