What to do when your vehicle fails you

By Dan | Mar 22nd, 2020 - 8:42pm

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The easiest way to begin most adventures will be to jump in your car and get on the open road, but how can you make sure your car doesn't let you down? Unfortunately for me, being an enthusiast of classic (read: old) cars, I am all too familiar with the potential pitfalls, and I am going to cover all of the things you should be actively doing to prevent problems, and then what you should do when the worst should happen...

This may be a bit of a long read, so if you want a one-line version: take a little time to prepare yourself and your car, make sure you understand how to control your vehicle and always remain calm, even in the most stressful of breakdown events or accidents.

Preventative Maintenance

There is a reason why your car has a scheduled service interval, and it isn't just so the manufacturer can nickel-and-dime you post-sale. Keeping up to date with your services can really prevent a whole heap of problems from rearing their ugly head, but it doesn't have to cost the Earth either. Beyond the usual service items, you also need to keep on top of your consumables such as tires and brake pads - allowing these to fall below acceptable standards is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. You should also consider your belts (and, if you have them, your chains - but these are handled on a much longer interval, usually 150k miles plus), change them at the recommended intervals and give them a visual inspection from time to time, you can also run your fingers along the underside to make sure the grooves/teeth feel strong and none are missing.



However, I do have some good news - most of what falls under the umbrella of serviceable parts are usually simple to do. For even the most inexperienced mechanic, a good portion of your own maintenance could be done on your driveway in an hour-or-two following a step-by-step guide, that you can probably find on a car's owners forum. If you don't fancy tackling the job yourself, ideally you have a trusted mechanic or someone who can point you in the direction of one, who won't cost you dealer prices to get the job done. The best part about any good independent mechanic is if you want to make sure they use OEM parts or high-quality oil, just buy them beforehand and all you'll need pay is the labour. It can be difficult if you don't have a mechanic you're familiar with, but if you're trying to find a good one the best you can do is keep going to the same one with easier jobs and try to build a rapport with them; for me, I knew my mechanic was the right one the first time he recommended against a job because he believed it simply wasn't worth doing. A simple test you can do on most mechanics is as follows:

  1. Replace your intake and cabin air filters yourself
  2. Go to the mechanic, request just an oil change

If they're the type of mechanic who will try to talk you into an air filter change just to bump up the price, they usually won't even check if it has already been done, and you'll know they're trying to fleece you. Furthermore, get digging into the owner's forums and get advice on what a problem should require to fix, so you can know if they're trying to rip you off by over-inflating the problem. If you've got a brake binding your mechanic's first step should be to replace/recondition a calliper in question, so if he starts talking about replacing the master cylinder right away, he's probably trying to con you (but again, defer to the owner's club to know exactly where problems lie on your particular vehicle, it could be your car has a common flaw you need to know about).

If you do decide to tackle the jobs yourself it does have the added bonus of being able to check for future issues - got the wheels off to do the brakes pads? While you're there you can inspect everything else for problems. Do the discs have any deep scores into the surface? Do the brake lines look squashed, bulging or are straight-up leaking? If you have CV joints, is the CV gaiter split or leaking? If you have Universal Joints, are they showing signs of excessive rust? Do all of the suspension components look healthy and rust-free? Some of this requires know-how, but the basics are simple: is it rusty, is it broken or is it leaking? Then it needs fixing!

You might think spotting problems on your vehicle requires a mechanic's knowledge, but it will be apparent to pretty much anyone if something is about to go wrong. The truth about the vast majority of problems on a vehicle is that you've probably had warning signs running up to the eventual failure. There are techniques we can employ to identify potential issues without getting under the hood, but before you do, are you sure your vehicle is fit for purpose?



Finding the right vehicle

Front spotlights to make for better vision on dark roads

Before you even set off it is worth assessing whether or not you have the right vehicle for the job, and if there is anything you can do to improve its capabilities. One of the things that caused me to switch over to 4x4s from hatchbacks/saloons was they kept bottoming out on mountainous terrain; my decision was less about the 4-wheel drive, I simply ended up needing more ground clearance. People who do a lot of miles may lament the loss of fuel economy and as such may not want to make the jump to a 4-wheel drive vehicle that will typically have poorer aerodynamics and a bigger, thirstier engine, a decision you will need to weigh up for yourself. Regardless of what you end up going with, there are still things you can do to improve the transport you have. Having spent plenty of time down country lanes in the depths of the night, adding front-spotlights or a lightbar makes the world of difference in terms of visibility and is worth doing if you find yourself travelling in pitch-black conditions more often than you'd like. Make sure your tires are fit for the conditions you are in, and if you need to all-terrain tires are an option that will help to keep you out of the mud while still working well on the roads. Finally, while maybe not essential, fitting an improved horn can really help to shift any livestock that has wandered into the road...

NVH

NVH, or "Noise, Vibration, Harshness", is a term used in automotive engineering (or any engineering that deals with moving parts) for how they identify and diagnose failures on vehicles. It is a simple principle that anyone can apply and something you can use to identify problems easily and early.



The name means exactly what you think it means, NVH is the three characteristics of potential problems with moving parts - cars are generally designed to be smooth and quiet, so any deviation from this is likely to be something wrong. Hopefully, you've owned your vehicle for a little while so you know how it should sound and feel to drive and all you need to do is identify any deviation from that to your car.

To check your car I recommend periodically turning off any music and muting any passengers and just listen to the car. Ideally, you will want to perform this check in several scenarios, both with the windows up and down:

  • Under different, constant speeds
  • While accelerating
  • While braking
  • Through corners

By testing through multiple scenarios you can identify problems across your engine, drivetrain, tires, brakes and suspension components quickly. This is probably starting to sound quite involved but you can honestly perform an entire check in less than 5 minutes as long as the roads you're on allow for it. I usually do it when I'm about to get on the motorway; the roads on approach will range between 20-50 MPH with plenty of corners, braking and accelerating, with the final join to the motorway being an acceleration to 70mph then maintaining that speed for a little while.

The easiest way to perform this test is to try to listen for different things individually, as you're probably aware if there is a massive *BANG* every time you turn right...maybe focus on getting that fixed first - but I am here to help you focus on some of the more subtle NVH issues that can arise. I am going to split between each element of the car and give you suggestions of things to listen for, I cannot tell you how to fix them, but what you will go away with is a list of notes to take either to the owner's forums or to your mechanic. I will also be using terms to describe noises that may confuse you, but my advice is that if you don't know what I am trying to say then you are almost certainly not experiencing that problem.



Engine

A bit of preventative maintenance

We want to test the engine at both constant speeds and under acceleration and listen for any unusual normal knocks and taps. You might think a slight change in engine noise is nothing out of the ordinary, but a tap could be indicative of bad/low oil so don't ignore any changes to the engine sound. You may have an unnoticed oil leak, or your engine may burn a little oil without you realising, so if you hear noise check your levels as soon as possible, top it off if needed then get to diagnosing.

Under acceleration, does the car feel hesitant, does it ever splutter or cough? How well the engine is pulling you forwards is just as important as the sound and don't put it off just because of fear or the end bill, fixing this sooner can often avoid knock-on costs and it might be something as simple as a plug needs replacing.



Checking for vibrations can seem counter-intuitive considering the whole engine shakes constantly, but what you're really checking for is an increased vibration from the cabin/through the steering wheel or just generally through the trim panels. If your car suddenly feels more shaky than normal, especially under acceleration, it could be something like a motor mount going bad.

The engine note is another one that is hard to judge, especially if you enjoy the sound of an engine and have a louder exhaust on your car. But there are still things here you can listen for - your exhaust note might be loud but does it sound like it is coming from behind you or more underneath you? If the location of the sound moves you may want to check for a hole in the exhaust. Do you get any pops in the exhaust note? Does the engine sound less smooth, almost like the note dips periodically? It might be a misfire.

Your engine should always feel smooth, accelerate consistently and maintain speeds easily. Any deviance from this should be taken into consideration as a potential future issue, more often than not a noise caught early can be fixed cheaply, so do not allow it to go on for any longer than absolutely necessary.



Brakes

Brakes are easy to notice issues with because they should be noise-free, smooth and consistent. The only time brakes should have any excuse for being noisy is because either:
a) They're brand new and still bedding in, or
b) You use racing pads that squeal when cold.

The car should brake in a straight line and there shouldn't be any vibrations - if you notice anything out of the ordinary get it checked right away because braking is one of the things you really do not want to have fail on you. The pedal feel is very important with brakes too, do you have a lot of travel in the pedal? Does it feel spongy? You either need your pads replacing or the lines need bleeding, and this really shouldn't be ignored as air in the lines can cause uneven braking or even brake failure.

Excessive vibrations or clunks felt while braking should also be investigated, likely caused by bad pads or discs.



If your brakes are really in a bad way then smell might be the biggest hint of a problem, with your pads giving off an incredibly acrid smell which burns the throat and nostrils - it is very difficult to miss.

Take your brakes seriously, do not ignore anything out of the ordinary and keep on top of your maintenance schedule - brakes are the one component of your car I would never cheap out on, and aside from swapping pads/discs if you have an issue with your brakes, I would just pay a mechanic to do the job for you. Some things are just not worth risking as a beginner mechanic and if you want to learn how to work on brakes do it on a weekend car that only does short journeys, or even better under the supervision of someone who knows them well.

Steering

Steering is a little like brakes, it should always be consistent and should never really make a noise. You may get a little light scuffing sound as you turn that is probably caused by the plastic of your steering wheel, but anything more than that should be taken seriously. Knocks and clunks especially can signify an issue with the steering column, while whines or squeals will probably be coming out of your power steering pump or belt. One thing that is worth noting is you may hear a very slight whine when at full-lock, this is pretty normal and I have never owned a car where this didn't happen - feel free to take it to a mechanic for a second opinion but I wouldn't be surprised if they just tell you not to worry about it.



Because your steering is a direct connection to the front-end of your vehicle, vibrations are to be expected but should never be excessive. If you can feel any harshness or vibrations from your steering wheel, it is possible you're feeling something that has transferred through from the engine, suspension, tires or even just the road's surface, making diagnosis difficult.

Your steering will be easiest to test on a smooth car-park, listening and feeling while you move slowly and while going from full-lock to full-lock in both directions - this test should help eliminate suspension and road-surface from the equation, and really let you focus in on the steering alone.

Drivetrain

I have grouped drivetrain into one because it can be the most difficult to diagnose accurately. With a front-wheel-drive vehicle, all you have to worry about is a gearbox and a couple of driveshafts, but in a four-wheel-drive vehicle you suddenly have transfer cases, differentials, prop shafts, drive shafts and it can get very complicated. Generally, the drivetrain is what I like to describe as 'other NVH', which means if I cannot figure out where a noise is coming from it is likely to be coming from somewhere in these parts.



The only part that can be easy to spot a problem with is the gearbox because you have a direct link to it. All gears should change smoothly and easy, with each synchromesh not fighting you or grinding as it slots into gear. You will always get some vibrations from the gearbox, especially from the gear-lever that you can often see shaking when in neutral; one thing you can try is gently resting your hand on the gear-lever under acceleration and feeling for any egregious bangs or clunks. Generally, you should not be able to hear your gearbox, so listen for the typical whines, crunches or clicks. My final point is to not panic too much when hearing strange noises from your gearbox, especially on older vehicles, as some fresh fluid and maybe a new clutch might be all it needs to get it running smoothly again. The idea of a gearbox rebuild is a scary thought but hopefully, it will be a quick and cheaper fix.

Suspension

Your suspension is pretty far removed from you, but as all vertical movement between you and the road must pass through the suspension it is actually one of the easier parts of the car to diagnose. Suspension should be silent and generally smooth/linear unless you have a harsh or progressive suspension set-up. In terms of feel and harshness, this is another area where knowing how your car should feel, and monitoring for any changes, is important. Very few cars suspension feels the same and any modifications can change that feel dramatically.

As a general rule, how your suspension recovers from dips and pot-holes is a good indicator of how healthy it is. Does your car ride the bump well, and level out nicely on the other side? Great! But if it doesn't, what does it do? Does the car wallow from side-to-side like a ship after the bump? Does it hit the bump full force, almost like your suspension doesn't exist? Being able to describe the behaviour of the suspension will be critical in identifying which component has failed.



Tires/Wheels

A visual inspection of tires is often more valuable than the NVH test, but there are certainly some things we can watch out for, especially for the wheels. Check your tire pressure often, especially when the temperature changes, and visually inspect your tread often - the UK minimum is currently 1.6mm and that must be even across the wheel...

Almost nothing left

When out driving, the first thing I want you to do is to make a mental note of the road-surface. If you experience any noises or vibrations, wait for the road-surface to change and check again - there is a stretch of road near me that makes my car feel like it needs a wheel balanced and makes me paranoid every time I drive it, but 100 yards up the road everything goes back to normal again.

If you ever hear an increase in road noise, you may need to check your pressures and if not it may be time for new tires. Vibrations up through the steering wheel at specific speeds usually means you need a wheel balance. There isn't a whole lot you can identify from your tires while moving, but as with anything else just make a note of any change in feel or sound and get it checked out. I would take any potential issue with tires seriously, and if you think there may be an issue pull over as soon as it is safe to do so you can do a visual inspection.



What about when it all goes wrong?

Just because you've done all of your maintenance, monitored your car and fixed anything as soon as it starts to go wrong, it doesn't mean you will always be free from issues. While you will get warning signs for the vast majority of issues with your car, some things just cannot be predicted or are easily overlooked. Having a plan for failure can make it so much easier to deal with, and while it can be hard to keep calm in the moment it is essential to try. I am going to try to run through certain failures and how you can handle them as best as possible.

Prepending for disaster

Firstly, you should have a small kit of stuff to keep you safe in the event of a breakdown. I'm not going to tell you to carry road-cones and flairs and everything else that usually gets suggested because I know most of you will not do it. What I do recommend, is having a warm high-vis coat - I carry one that has zip-off sleeves so it is still useable in warmer weather and will just help keep you safe and noticeable at the roadside. Secondly, having a means of recovery is worthwhile - paying for cover from one of the big recovery agencies is great but it can get extortionately pricey; if you have a reliable vehicle that rarely brakes down it may be worth keeping that money in your savings and paying for a one-off recovery when disaster does strike. This is something you will have to weigh up yourself, to some the peace of mind of a recovery service is worth the excess price, but I know I have personally put hundreds of pounds into a service I have never used once - that money may have been better off saved and just using a local recovery company if I ever need it.

What to do when it goes wrong...

So in the run-up to a breakdown or failure, hopefully, there will be some warning that disaster is imminent. Utilise whatever time you get to move as far out of harm's way as possible. If you're on a multi-lane road move over to the slower lane and ideally onto the shoulder or somewhere safe to stop. Depending on how much time you get you may want to hold off using your hazard lights so you can still use your indicators, but this assumes you're still able to maintain speed with the other vehicles and have full control. If you are unable to move over from the fast lane easily, at least reduce speed to allow for more braking distance and apply your hazards so the people around you know something bad is about to happen. These are all judgement calls you will need to make in the moment, but the more you can do, safely, the better the breakdown will be.



Now that covers what happens when you have a slowly unfolding disaster, but what about something a little more dramatic? In the event of things like a tire blowout, sudden loss of power or brakes it can be very concerning but the first thing you need to do is remain calm. Let us break down these as you can probably apply the tips to any major catastrophe in a vehicle...

Tyre Blowouts

Blowouts are often dramatic events that you may not get that much control over, all you can really do is grip the wheel firmly, correct course and allow the vehicle to lose its speed naturally. Don't be tempted to apply the brakes harshly or take any evasive manoeuvrers, focus on getting down to a safe speed first and then make your way to a safe stopping point, if at all possible. Anything you do should be smooth and progressive while being cautious not to over-correct. Turn on your hazard lights if they are easy to reach but your primary focus on keeping the car pointing straight, if you have a passenger ask them to hit any difficult to reach hazard light buttons.

Loss of power

Loss of power is probably the easiest to handle as long as you are aware of the drawbacks. The primary problem is that while you can still steer it is likely to have become very heavy, as your power steering may not be working any more; in fact, anything power assisted is suddenly going to be difficult to use and you should take the necessary precautions, such as increasing braking distance as much as possible.

One crucial decision to make is whether or not to attempt to restart the engine. The procedure is simple, knock into neutral and turn the key or drop to a lower gear and attempt a bump-start if something happens to be wrong with the starter motor. The difficult decision comes from the potential to cause further damage - in some instances, such as the loss of a timing belt, attempting to restart the vehicle will increase the eventual mechanics bill exponentially or even completely total an engine. I would only risk attempting to restart if the situation desperately requires it, and even then I would be prepared for the fact it may not even work...

In an ideal world, you will be able to get over to a stopping point safely - just remember without the engine running your brakes may not be as effective as before and may require more force than you're used to.

Loss of braking

Possibly the scariest thing that can happen on this list, there is nothing worse than going to push that pedal find it is either as solid as a rock or slides straight down to the floor. Because I am sure we all maintain more than enough braking distance, we will have plenty of time to deal with this so again, it is a matter of staying calm; of course, if you are the type of person who thinks braking distance is more of a suggestion than a rule then nothing will save you in this scenario. In the event of a brake failure, remember that you still have your gears and you still have a handbrake.

Progressively move down through your gearbox, fully engaging the clutch each time so as to brake the car with the engine - this will slow your vehicle down a lot faster than you might expect. You can also use your handbrake as a backup, pulling on it gently to just add a little bit of extra stopping force to the car. Pulling on the handbrake aggressively is ill-advised as it is likely to lock-up the rear wheels, but if needs must then you do have that option. While this is going on, if you can keep your foot on the brake pedal it is recommended; while the brake pedal may be useless from a braking standpoint, pushing it will trigger your brake lights to activate giving some warning to drivers behind you.



Don't let this be you

The key ingredient to surviving a bad breakdown...

It doesn't matter which of the above you go through, there is one constant that will mean the difference between gently rolling to a stop and ending up in a nasty accident: your driving. User error accounts for such a massive portion of all collisions on the road and it can be avoided so easily! You can increase the odds of you walking away unscathed by a massive degree with three simple driving adjustments:

  • Reduce your speed
  • Maintain proper braking distance
  • Remain focused at all times

It is horrifying to me the way in which some people take driving for granted as if we are not all hurtling around in multi-ton slabs of metal capable of killing each other in an instant. So no, being late does not justify your aggressive acceleration and ignorance of the speed limit. No, someone camping in the overtaking lane does not justify riding their bumper (and it is very unlikely to get them to move anyway). No, the message you just received on your phone is not worth taking your focus off of the road for.

So please, for the sake of yourself and everyone around you, take the time to accept the three truths in response to the above. You have no justification for speeding, the difference it will make to your journeys time relative to the consequences is so laughably not worth it. A 30-mile journey will take just over 25 minutes at 70mph, it will take 18 minutes at 100mph. So even in a perfect world of no traffic lights and no traffic, you're saving a whopping 7 minutes! The punishment for driving at 100mph if you're caught? It varies depending on where you are, but it is entirely possible you will end up with a driving suspension and even a visit to the magistrate's court. And if you have an accident? There are plenty of articles breaking down the science, the odds of survival, but I think a nice visual demonstration from Mythbusters will sell the point well:

On the side of the road

So now you're on the hard shoulder, in a lay-by or wedged nose-first into a hedgerow - what's next? First and most importantly, abide by the rules of the road you're on - this is especially true for motorways. Usually, motorways will require you to vacate the vehicle, climb over the barrier and depending on the stretch of road either await recovery or make your way to the orange SOS phone-box; you will need to pay attention to signs as you drive to know what you should do for the area you're in. Thanks to the advent of smart motorways, you may not even have a hard-shoulder to breakdown on and while there are intermittent lay-bys you cannot always reach them; if you find yourself stranded in a section of smart motorway leave the vehicle as soon as it is safe to do so and get over the barriers.



Obviously, whenever possible you should have your hazard lights on even if you do not believe you are an obstruction to traffic, but in the event of poor visibility you should consider putting fog lights on too. If you happen to have packed one, a 'triangle' can be great for that extra bit of visibility, ideally, you want it to be a little distance away from your vehicle to increase its effectiveness but only do this if it is safe to do so - otherwise, just drop it at the rear of the vehicle and get to safety.

So now you're out of the vehicle, you have marked it as best you can and you need to get home. Even the motorway recovery vehicles may only take you as far as a service station or to a nearby garage if one is closer, so you may still need the means to go onwards. In an ideal world, you will have breakdown cover, but it is ludicrously expensive for something you will hopefully never use, so I can emphasise with the people that don't. Furthermore, if you're like me and prefer to drive older vehicles a lot of recovery companies will turn you away. So now you need to do one of a few things, of course, if you can fix the car on the side of the road then great! But unfortunately that is seldom the case. You can arrange a tow with a friend - flat towing can be damaging to some cars so be careful of this, it should only be used for a short distance if possible. Ideally, being moved by a professional company is the ideal route but it can get expensive; if you can find a local garage and ask who they use as it may be a little cheaper. You should also check (hopefully before you're actually stranded) if you have recovery either via your car insurance or even through a rewards debit account/credit card. If all else fails, you can join the major providers (The AA, RAC, Green Flag etc) on the side of the road - it comes at a hefty premium on top of their already painful pricing, but at least you will get home.

It may be tempting to abandon your vehicle, albeit temporary, until you can arrange transportation for cheaper. While it may be possible to knock the price down in more social hours, be aware that the longer you leave it the higher likelihood you'll be the victim of vandalism or theft; the money you managed to save by waiting may be cannibalised by the cost of a new window or paint repair. You will also need to be aware of any parking infractions you may incur by leaving your vehicle where it is, sometimes enforcement officers may overlook an improperly parked vehicle if you leave a massive "BROKEN DOWN" sign in the window. However, there are no guarantees in this and if the car remains there too long you can expect the enforcement officer's goodwill to run out eventually. Even places like service stations often have limitations on their parking allowances, and while you can let the service station manager know the car is broken down the local ticket wardens are often operated via a third party company. These are judgement calls you will need to make, depending on where you happen to breakdown.



Final Thoughts

The primary thing I want you to take away from this is: Don't panic. Having a little preparedness, knowing how to handle your vehicle and having a plan for getting home/to a mechanic doesn't take too much work but can give you massive peace of mind when out driving. Take a moment to reflect on your driving style, do you drive too fast? dangerously? distracted? A tiny change to how you handle your vehicle could save your life, and others. Taking a little time now to make sure your vehicle, and you, are prepared for any eventuality can make the end result a much smoother process for all involved. Hopefully, you don't spend too much time off of the road and will be back adventuring before you know it.

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