Niagara Gazette

January 2, 2014

TOM'S CORNER: How to kill a car

By Tom Torbjornsen
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — What does it take to kill a car? Many of you can come up with ways of your own, but let’s look at some of the most common forms of abuse that cause major vehicle failure.

Neglecting scheduled maintenance

More cars find their way to the junkyard by neglecting basic scheduled maintenance than any other cause. This list includes such things as neglecting oil changes and transmission services, driving too long on the same set of sparkplugs, ignoring check engine lights and charging system or temperature gauges that indicate trouble, turning a deaf ear to brake squeals, belt squeals, clanking, banging and clunking. 

Think about this: Airlines have aggressive maintenance checks on their planes based on how many hours they have been in the air. Ocean liners and submarines keep a full-time maintenance crew on hand at all times to attend to mechanical problems as they crop up. Race teams have a pit crew on hand during the race to ensure the vehicle continues to deliver peak performance safely throughout the event. 

What makes those of us who drive a car every day think we are immune to mechanical breakdown? And what makes us think that we can drive our vehicles indefinitely without regular maintenance? Our cars need maintenance checks to ensure that they run safely and efficiently. There are an untold number of accidents that occur as a result of mechanical problems that were caused by neglect of basic maintenance issues. And there are many more cases of massive and unnecessary repair costs for the same reason.

A lot of people think that if the car runs, why spend money on it? If there’s no obvious problem, wait until there is and then fix it. If you think like this, you are being pennywise and pound-foolish. In your lifetime you are spending far more money on cars than the guy who does what it takes to maintain a healthy car. Compare it to the physical health of your body. In the past, people used to go to a doctor only when they were sick. Today we know that preventative care has improved the quality of life as well as extended the length of life. And it costs less money! Insurance companies want to pay for yearly checkups because problems can be diagnosed early before they cost an arm and a leg to treat. Cars are no different. Follow the suggested maintenance schedule for your vehicle.

Overloading towing and hauling capacity

Have you ever followed a car towing a small boat trailer that’s loaded with a very large boat? Picture it. A large boat is hanging over a trailer on all sides and towering over the tow vehicle; the trailer’s tires are flattened, and the vehicle’s front end is pointing upward. It’s a mess looking for a place to explode, and this is not an uncommon sight. Talk about a safety issue. Not only are the people in the tow vehicle at high risk, but so are the motorists who share the same roadway space.

Vehicles come from the factory with a specific towing capacity. Some vehicles come made with a towing package that is designed for safe towing. Check your owner’s manual or call your manufacturer’s customer service department to find out the towing capacity of your particular vehicle.

What happens when you pull a trailer that’s too heavy for your vehicle? Engine damage from overheating, undue stress to the frame, damage to the suspension and braking systems, and transmission damage from overheating.

Overheating

Vehicles designed for heavy towing that have a towing package from the factory come with a high coolant capacity radiator and sometimes a heavier water pump. When hauling a heavy load on a trailer with a vehicle that is not designed to haul such a load, the engine heats up far beyond the ability of the radiator to cool it down. The result is overheating, blown head gaskets, and cracked or warped cylinder heads. This is not to say that you should never tow a trailer with your vehicle, just find out what the towing capacity is and do not exceed it. On vehicles that tow heavy loads regularly, it’s a good idea to add an auxiliary engine oil cooler to ensure the engine oil in the crankcase is thoroughly cooled, because intense heat causes the oil to break down and lose viscosity. 

Undue stress to the frame

Vehicles with high towing capacities generally have strong frames that allow for hanging the additional weight of a trailer in them. When hauling a trailer that is too heavy with a vehicle not designed to haul such weight, the frame buckles and damage to the structural integrity of the vehicle is incurred.

Suspension damage

The suspension is designed to handle the weight of the vehicle plus the specified maximum trailer-towing weight. That’s it. Overload the vehicle and suspension problems occur. Leaf and coil springs or torsion bars are overtaxed and either break or wear out prematurely. U-bolts and shackles that hold leaf-spring-packs together break, coil springs crack or snap in two, and torsion bars break free from their securing brackets in the vehicle’s frame.

Brake damage

Brakes are overtaxed when a vehicle that is loaded beyond capacity has to stop. Most small trailers do not have brakes of their own, so the brake system of the towing vehicle bears the burden of the entire load. The additional stress on the brakes causes the friction material to overheat and harden or crystallize, rendering it ineffective and unable to stop the vehicle. This condition causes “brake fade.” When you press down on the brake pedal, no friction material wear occurs because the crystallized friction material is too hard to wear away when it comes in contact with the rotors or drums. The brake shoes or pads just ineffectively slide against the rotor or drum surface like locomotive brakes (steel on steel) and make lots of noise, but there’s no stopping power. Overheating the braking system also increases the temperature of the brake fluid to the point where it cooks the rubber seals and the entire system is compromised.

Transmission overheating and damage

An excessive load causes the transmission to overheat, which causes the transmission fluid to reach temperatures that compromise the soft internal parts such as rubber seals and clutches. The heat hardens the rubber seals, causing loss of internal hydraulic pressure. In addition, the glue that secures the clutch friction material to the steel backings hardens and clutch strength is compromised. If you’re going to haul a trailer, install an auxiliary transmission oil cooler.

Well, this does it for our first installment of car killers, watch for part 2!

‘Til next time ... Keep Rollin.’

"America's Car Show" with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.