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Basic car maintenance for young drivers

Feb 1, 2021

Car maintenance can be daunting at first, but there are some simple tasks every driver should be able to do.

Looking after your car keeps you safe and can save you money on repairs – running a car is expensive enough without extra garage costs, as you have to cover essentials like buying a vehicle, car tax, young driver insurance and servicing. These basic maintenance tips will get you started.

Why does maintenance matter?

Running a car can be expensive – from finance payments to car tax, young driver insurance, MOTs and repairs – the list soon adds up. According to a survey from Select Car Leasing, younger drivers are much less clued-up on car maintenance than older drivers, and the knowledge shortfall could cost drivers up to £2,700 a year in fines and extra costs.

For example, the survey found that only 9% of drivers aged 65 and over did not know how to check their engine oil levels, compared to 27% of drivers aged 18-24. Across all age groups, 15% did not know how to do this. Failure to maintain oil levels could cost up to £1,000 in repair costs needed due to damage to the car engine.

Only one in 10 (11%) drivers aged over 65 would be unable to check their tyre tread depth, compared to almost half (44%) of younger drivers. Across all age groups, 25% did not know how to do this.

Driving with worn tyres means less grip on the road, resulting in a potential road accident. It could also result in a fine of £2,500 and three penalty points per worn tyre; if all four tyres are worn, this could even mean losing your licence and paying a £10,000 fine.

It’s a good idea to read through your young driver insurance policy carefully so you know what car costs are your responsibility and what is payable by your insurer. Your policy terms will include a requirement for you to keep your car in good repair. If you are involved in an accident as a result of not keeping your car in good condition, in a worst-case scenario your insurer could even refuse to pay out.

Looking after your car keeps you safe and can save you money on repairs.

The interior of a new small car in a clean condition
What should drivers know about car maintenance?

There are some basic checks and tasks that every car owner should be familiar with. These can help you to save money, avoid expensive repairs and may even help to avoid a road collision.

Getting a criminal conviction for a road offence is something nobody wants – as a young driver, it can even make insurance for young drivers impossible to find.

In caring for your car, the vehicle manual is an invaluable tool that is often overlooked. If you’re confused about what you see under the bonnet or uncertain about how to find the different engine components, how often to check them or what you are looking for, the answer is likely to be in the manual.

Common sense

Your common sense is one of the most valuable assets you have as a driver. If something tells you your car might have a problem, get it checked out without delay. If a warning light appears on your dashboard or you notice something different about your car, don’t just keep driving. You could be doing damage to your vehicle by ignoring a warning sign.

If you’re out on the road and something seems wrong with your car, it’s best to pull over and get it sorted. If it’s not something you can fix yourself, then get professional help.

Oil level

You might have been asked to do a show and tell of checking your dipstick to pass your driving test but how often do you do it now you’re a qualified driver? It’s important to have enough oil in the engine because a low level means the engine could seize up, which is expensive to fix.

Check the oil levels around once a fortnight, topping up the oil where necessary. Make sure it’s the right type for your car – that info will be in the manual again!

To check the level, ensure the car engine is cold and that it is parked on the flat. Remove the dipstick, wipe it clean then reinsert and check the level comes between the F and L marks on the dipstick. If the level is below the L, top up with engine oil a little at a time, checking with the dipstick until you reach the right level.

The engine oil should be completely changed every 10,000 miles or so, and it is advisable to change the oil filter at the same time.

Tyre tread

This is another one you may remember from your driving test. By law, tyres should have 1.6mm of tread to ensure they can grip the road properly. It is often recommended that tyres should be replaced when the tread is worn to 3mm, as below this stopping distances increase rapidly.

Driving with tyres below the legal limit is a criminal offence, not to mention increasing your risk of being in or causing a road collision. A criminal conviction for a driving offence will make your car insurance for young drivers cost substantially more, and some providers may even refuse to insure you.

To check your tyre tread, you have a few options. A tried-and-tested method is to insert a 20 pence piece into the tread. If the tyres have enough tread, you should not be able to see the band around the coin. Alternatively, many tyres have inbuilt tread indicators. If the main surface of the tyre is flush with the indicators, you need to replace the tyres. You can also buy tyre gauges.

Driving with tyres below the legal limit is a criminal offence, not to mention increasing your risk of being in or causing a road collision.

A person using a tool to check the depth of the tread on their car tyre
Tyre pressure

Your tyres need to be inflated to the right pressure. If the pressure is wrong, the tyres will not perform as intended, which could lead to garage costs or even a breakdown or collision.

The weight of your vehicle is carried by those tyres, and the pressure can affect handling, braking and steering. Underinflated car tyres will also hit you in the wallet by making your car less fuel efficient.

Over time, tyres naturally lose a little air. It’s advisable to check them regularly to see if they need an air top up. To do this, you need to buy a tyre pressure gauge (make sure the unit of measurement matches the units given in your car manual).

You simply remove your tyre dust cap, press the gauge into the valve and take a reading. If you need to add more air, use a simple foot pump and add a little at a time to avoid over-inflation. Most garages have facilities for inflating tyres on their forecourts.

Engine coolant

Engine coolant is a combination of water and anti-freeze which helps to draw away excess heat from your engine. Without enough coolant, the engine can overheat and cause serious damage.

To check the coolant, identify the reservoir and check the level is between the minimum and maximum marks. If the level is too low, simply top it up. You should never attempt to do this when the engine is hot – even taking the cap from the tank could cause you a scalding injury as the fluid will be pressurised and hot.

To check the coolant, identify the reservoir and check the level is between the minimum and maximum marks.

A car with its bonnet open showing the cars inner workings
Electrical checks

Your car has an electrical system which uses power from the battery to run everything from head and tail lights to indicators, the music system and the temperature controls. It will also help to run any telematics or black boxes you have installed for your young driver insurance.

The easiest way to check your lights is to ask a friend to help. Switch on the various lights, including seldom-used ones such as fog and snow lights, so you can be sure everything is working.

You can also carry out a visual check on the vehicle battery, checking for signs of corrosion around the terminals. If your car begins to grumble when you turn the ignition key, it’s a good idea to get a new battery as the old one could stop functioning at any time.

Shock absorbers

Shock absorbers help to give you a comfortable ride in the car, bouncing you over lumps and bumps in the road instead of letting the impact reach your body. Shock absorbers are easy to check – push down on the corners of the car. It should bounce back to its usual place within one or two bounces.

If it takes longer, then your shock absorbers may be worn out so you should have them checked and replaced if necessary.

Windscreen wipers

Wipers have rubber blades which sweep across the windscreen, clearing the surface. Over time, the rubber can split, crack or perish. As you rely on the windscreen wipers to be able to observe the road properly, wipers that do not work well or at all are a serious problem, and potentially a criminal offence.

Take a look at your wipers from time to time, especially if you notice they are not performing well. In winter, you may wish to put a blanket or sheet of plastic between the wiper blade and the windscreen to prevent the wipers from freezing to the screen.

If you need new wipers, these are easy to remove and replace, following the instructions on the product or in your car manual.

Take a look at your wipers from time to time, especially if you notice they are not performing well.

Screen wash

Car windscreens get covered in more than just raindrops. In winter, snow and grit may block your view while in warmer seasons bugs, pollen and bird droppings can be a problem. Screen wash helps to clean all this off so you can see the road and drive safely.

To check your screen wash, take a look under the bonnet for the screen wash reservoir. If need be, top it up. You can either use a concentrated screen wash that you combine with water, or a pre-mixed product.


A car with malfunctioning brakes is very dangerous, for you and for others around you. Unless you’re a mechanic, it’s not easy to carry out a visual check on the brakes but you can remain alert to changes that could signal something is wrong.

Common brake sounds and their causes include:

  • Squealing – the brake pads are wearing out
  • Rattling – one of the rotors could be worn out or warped
  • Intermittent sounds – if the sound only occurs sometimes, it could be due to brake fade causing overheating

Also watch out for leaking fluid on the road beneath the car, and brakes becoming spongy (you have to press further to stop) as these things can indicate a problem, too.

Cleaning your car

Keeping your car clean is not just about pride in how it looks – it serves a practical function, too. Over time, grease, grime and dirt can build up on the inside of the windscreen and windows, reducing your ability to see clearly.

Plus, the law requires your licence plate to be visible when driving. If your car is very dirty, the plate can be obscured. Dirt could also hide scratches or other damage to your vehicle.

Taking your car to a professional cleaner is the quickest way to get it done, but it’s not a hard job if you want to do it yourself. Simply rinse with water, shampoo with car shampoo and a cloth from the top down, then rinse again and dry with a cloth or chamois.

A basic clean of the car interior can be done with some cleaning wipes, a vacuum cleaner and some glass window cleaner. If you want to go a step further, you can investigate polish and wax, upholstery cleaning and clay barring.

Keeping your car clean is not just about pride in how it looks – it serves a practical function, too.

A person cleaning the dashboard of their car with a cloth

The FLOWERY mnemonic is a good checklist that helps you ensure your vehicle is in good condition. It can be really useful to take a few minutes to run through the list before setting off on a long journey.

FLOWERY stands for:

Fuel. Do you have enough fuel for your journey?

Lights. Are your lights working, including indicators and brake lights?

Oil. Is the oil topped up?

Water. Do you have enough engine coolant and windscreen washer fluid?

Electrics. Are there any problems with your horn, wipers or other electrical systems?

Rubber. Are your tyres in good condition and at the correct pressure? Are your windscreen wiper blades in good condition?

Yourself. Are you fit to drive? Are you tired or have you taken any prescription medicines, drugs or alcohol?

Drive smart to save money

Looking after your car is not just about keeping your vehicle topped up and serviced regularly. The way you drive also makes a difference to your vehicle health. For example, braking or accelerating forcefully without good reason, riding the clutch and bashing over potholes and speed bumps will all put strain on your car.

The average younger driver is less careful than an older driver, which is why insurance companies charge more for specialist young driver insurance premiums. However, there is a way for young drivers to avoid high premiums. Telematics insurance uses a black box gadget to monitor your driving, rewarding you with lower premiums when you show you are responsible behind the wheel.

Smartdriverclub helps you save money by using a Smartplug. The device can be used for theft tracking and crash assistance as well as cutting the cost of insurance. It’s an easy self-install device, so you won’t even have to wait around for an engineer to fit it.

You might find it helpful to have an extra incentive to drive carefully – there’s nothing like a cost saving to focus the mind! Get in touch with us today to see how much you could save on young driver insurance.