Begin vacation at service bay


This is one of the last columns written by Sylvia Porter before her death Wednesday.

More of you pressed to economize, will be taking to the road for this summer's vacations. Of all U.S. vacation travel, 84 percent -- a record level -- will be in automobiles and recreational vehicles, says the American Automobile Association.

If you want to avoid surprises and unexpected costs, check before you start out. The responsibility to keep your car in shape is yours. Proper planning and a little forethought, advises the AAA, can increase the odds you'll go cruising merrily along instead of sitting stalled at the roadside. Whether you are on vacation, you can add years to your car's life with regular maintenance.

"Getting where you're going and getting home safely won't be half the fun if you have to be towed for an expensive repair that could have been avoided," says Robert Miller, president of the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association. The association is a national trade organization of automotive parts, equipment and chemical manufacturers that tracks motorist trends.

At what point is your car most vulnerable to problems and in need of repair checkups? Miller thinks that after three years it's "watch out" time. Regular checkups should be done systematically and according to the manufacturer's manual.

"If you think you are smarter than the folks who built the car and wrote the book, you're in for an unpleasant surprise," he said.

Cars are more complicated mechanisms today and no longer can a wrench and screwdriver solve problems and put you back on the road. Sophisticated engines burn finer fuel. Computers on board monitor everything from mileage to gas consumption. It has become all but impossible for an untrained do-it-yourselfer to make his own repairs.

And, with fewer service stations providing service on the highways, the hoods of cars are seldom opened by mechanics with an interest in what goes on under them. You're better off having maintenance done at the service center you regularly use at home.

"Letting maintenance take a back seat adds up to dollars and doesn't make sense," Miller said. "It has become a way of life with millions of drivers that often contributes to accidents or higher repair bills."

Here are pointers for vacationers from the equipment and automobile associations:

* Before you leave home, check your tires, spare included. Underinflated ones mean less mileage per gallon. Overinflated ones can cause blowouts.

* Check your windshield wipers, belts and hoses. Worn wipers add to poor visibility when visibility is critically important. Be sure there is enough wiper fluid under the hood to clean off dust from the road.

* Check your air conditioning. It will work overtime when you are on vacation. Be aware that the air conditioning unit in a subcompact places a severe burden on the motor that can cause stalling when climbing hills.

* Check your headlights. If any of them are burning too brightly their tour of duty is just about over.

* Have a qualified technician put the car on a lift and check the brakes.

* Check all fluid levels, including oil, coolant, windshield washer fluid and battery water. Oil and coolant levels and tire pressure should be checked throughout the trip. An oil marked "API-SG" with an SAE rating of 10W-30 works well in most cars during the summer.

* It's a good idea to keep an emergency tool kit in your car. The kit should include jumper cables, basic hand tools, flares or reflective warning triangles, a first-aid kit and flashlight with fresh batteries. Consider a citizen's band radio or cellular phone.

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