Lockdown 3 is easing across the UK and we can now travel more freely within and between most nations to meet up outdoors with family and friends in a group of up to six, or larger groups from up to two households.
With the 'stay local' message having been enforced for the first quarter of 2021, many of our cars have been covering far fewer miles than normal. If you're clinically vulnerable you may even have decided to take your vehicle off the road altogether and get your groceries delivered. But with more than half of the UK's adult population having received at least one vaccination dose, many of us are getting ready to venture farther afield – even (whisper it) take a holiday.
It's always sensible to do a few basic checks before you embark on any longer trip in the car, but now, after weeks of minimal mileage, is vital. So what should you be looking at?
1 Check your car’s tyre pressures and for wear
Your car’s tyres tend to lose air over time, regardless of whether the wheels are turning or not. Tyre pressure gauges are cheap to buy online. Alternatively, use the inflator at your petrol station, but bear in mind that these machines tend to cost money to use, can be inaccurate and you're exposing yourself to the Coronavirus. We recommended a gauge you can keep in the glovebox. Wondering what tyre pressures your car needs? Check your car's manual or look for a sticker on the inside of the filler cap or on the inside of the A-pillar.
At the same time, check your tyres' tread depth and general condition. Remember, you need to keep your car in a roadworthy condition, and a tyre tread depth of 1.6mm is as low as you can go before you risk a fine from the police. We recommend changing your tyres when the tread gets down to 3mm.
2 Look after your car’s brake discs and pads
While you're focusing on the tyres, have a look at the brake discs. Your car will have them on the front axle and possibly on the rear, too. Brake discs rust because they're made of iron, but this surface rust is skimmed off by the action of the pads as they are pressed against the surface when you brake. However, when the car's been sitting idle, even for a couple of days, rust can build up. The weather during the first few weeks of lockdown has been fairly kind in most parts of the country, but if we get more rainy days you'll notice rust building up faster.
You shouldn't let this accumulate. Try to use the car for a trip to the supermarket – hopefully a journey of at least a couple of miles, and try to brake heavily now and again to get rid of the rust. You'll 'feel' it through the brake pedal as soon as you move the car – and you may hear a grinding sound – but it'll disappear when you've braked a few times.
Of course, your brakes will stay rust-free for longer if you have a garage or car port – as long as the car is dry before you put it away.
One more thing to bear in mind with brakes – and the rear brakes in particular – is that the pads can stick to the discs. So if your driveway is level, and there's no risk of the car rolling away, put it into gear but leave the handbrake off when you park. It's also vital that you chock the wheels, no matter how level the ground appears to be.
3 Check your car’s battery health
If anything went wrong with your car during the third lockdown, it was likely to involve the battery. Modern cars use a variety of energy-hungry computers and sensors that continue to operate when the engine is turned off, and it's inevitable that your car's battery was put under strain, especially during colder weather.
Simply starting the car and leaving it idling on the driveway (with you sitting in the driver's seat, of course) is one way of keeping the battery charged, but that won't add much juice; you need to take it out for a good run if the alternator is to replenish the battery sufficiently. So why not invest in a trickle charger? They don't cost much and are easily connected. Within a few hours your battery will be back to normal and you can put the charger away.
Even better is a battery conditioner, which takes things to a new level, sensing when and how much charge is required. They're designed to be hooked up to cars in storage, no matter how long that lasts. Yes, conditioners cost more money than trickle chargers, but they’ll extend your battery's life.
Flat car battery? A pair of jump leads will get you up and running in no time. However, car batteries don't like going flat and hate being recharged multiple times. If you find yours is going flat repeatedly, and nothing on the car seems to be draining it, it's time to replace it. Shop around – it's very easy to spend well over £100 on a new battery, and even in excess of £200. Just make sure it's suitable for your car – many car spares websites let you filter suitable parts by inputting your registration number.
4 Wash your car
Less driving might have meant there isn't as much brake dust on the wheels but bird poo and other debris never stops falling out of the sky, so give your car a good wash – it's also a good form of exercise!
Once clean, and with a good layer of wax on, you can probably get away without washing it again for a few weeks, but always wipe off bird lime with a damp cloth as soon as you spot it – it's acidic and can mark paintwork permanently if left too long.
5 Check your car’s fluids
Finally, don't forget to have a look under the bonnet. Make sure the vehicle is on level ground and that the engine is cold before checking the coolant level, the brake and clutch fluid, the windscreen washer fluid level, the power steering fluid (if applicable – some cars have electric power steering which doesn't need fluid) and the engine oil level via the dipstick.