So You Got Your First Car, Now What?

Auto shop teacher, Mr. Utsey, and senior, Malachi Donaghy, pose in the car yard at Santa Rosa High School. This is Donaghy’s third year in auto shop and he says that although “it’s a little weird this year because we [the students] don’t get to do anything with our hands,” it’s still a “great environment.” Utsey’s auto shop classes provide an opportunity to gain practical knowledge that is useful far beyond the classroom.

Article & Photo By: Molly Murphey

I took my car in for an oil change for the first time in December. After an hour without sight of the mechanic, I began to worry. Sure enough, when he appeared, he told me that there was a nail in my rear right tire and it was irreparable. 

When Les Schwab patched my definitely repairable and still-covered-by-warranty tire for free, it was a huge relief. Still, I was disturbed by my ignorance. How long had I been driving around with a deflated tire?

I took this concern to Mr. Utsey, the auto shop teacher at Santa Rosa High School. He assuaged my fears and even shared some of his best car maintenance tips— ones that will definitely save you money and might even save your life.

First, follow the general guidance for oil changes—  every 3,000-5,000 miles or 3-6months— and be aware that in-town miles, those driven in short increments, dirty the oil faster. If after 6 months you’ve only racked up 2,000 miles, it’s still time to get a change.

Second, monitor your car’s fluid levels. Pop the hood and check the brake fluid, which is in the master cylinder, mounted to the fire wall on the drivers side and usually under a black plastic cap and the coolant, in the radiator (but never open a hot radiator.) If either look brown, get them flushed with your next oil change. This is “one of the few add-ons the oil change places try to get you to buy into which is not a bad idea.”

Third, monitor tire pressure and tread. Utsey guessed that I had probably picked up the nail recently and that since my car, a 2003 Prius, wasn’t too old, the tire pressure monitor would have let me know soon enough. He also shared a useful trick— if you stick a penny upside down in the tread “and you can see the top of Lincoln’s head,” your tires need to be replaced.

Fourth, don’t skip the wax. Utsey says, “washing and waxing your car is important because the wax provides a layer of protection between your paint and the outside world.”

Fifth, don’t buy cheap gas. Utsey says that “the places that sell cheap gas get it from whoever provides it the most cheaply and that means you are building up varnish and crud in your fuel system.” In his experience, Chevron’s additive, Techron, is the only one “that does what it says it does,” that is, “cuts through the varnish and keeps the fuel system clean.” His disclaimer: “I do not own stock in Chevron. I should, but I do not”

Other things to keep track of are the levels of your power steering and transmission fluid, the mileage on your serpentine and timing belts along with the age of your battery.

If you’re in the market for a new car, Utsey has some advice for you, too. “Don’t buy a ten year old European car, get a Honda or a Toyota” because “a ten year old Honda or Toyota will still be on the road in another ten years.” 

Utsey adds, “if you pop the hood [of the car you want to buy] and everything has obviously just been cleaned and sprayed down with Armor All, they’re hiding something.” He advises students to look underneath the car and on the bottom of the hood. “If you see oil and grime, that’ll tell you that something is leaking.”

Mr. Utsey’s first car? A 1955 Ford Crown Victoria. It had its problems, namely electric work done with masking tape that would crack off in the Texas summer heat. “I occasionally had some unexpected wire fires,” Utsey told me casually. Much of his advice comes from firsthand experience.

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