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How to look after your car when you’re not using it | Top Gear

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How to look after your car when you’re not using it

Now that you’re not driving to work, your car needs a bit of TLC. Here’s what to do

Craig Jamieson
  1. Much like a camera pointing the wrong way at an adult film shoot, COVID-19 was something we just didn’t see coming. But now that we can add ‘worldwide pandemic’ to the global horror show that has been the past five years, let’s talk about the practical things that you can do while you’re at home to make sure that your car doesn’t disintegrate as quickly as the social order outside your door.

    Yes, drivers of the world, cars really can live up to the ‘use it or lose it’ maxim – exceedingly complex machinery relies on regular use, movement and/or lubrication to ensure that it doesn’t seize, corrode or perish. And because we don’t know how long this particular miasma will last – estimates tend to range between six and 18 months – our tips will be of the long-range-survival variety, which seems fitting enough at the moment.

    So, explain that it’s not your car, it’s you, that it’s just a break, not a break-up, and that you promise not to drive any other cars while you’re apart. And then give your car one last bit of love and attention before the long months ahead.

  2. Get indoors

    The best thing you can do for your car’s longevity is get it out of the elements. Rain, dust, smog (although it must be said that there’s less of that at the moment), bird dirt and sunshine will conspire to ruin your pride and joy. So if you have a garage, now would be a good time to use your house-bound time to clean it up and get your car settled inside. If you don’t have a garage or shed big enough to house your motor, then car ports, awnings, fixed shade cloths, creatively arranged parasols or appropriated mainsails will offer some protection, if not the same as a sheltered enclosure.

    If you can swing it, there are professional car-storage companies who’ll take care of your wheels until it’s time to get on the road again. Please, please, use your time at home to research bona fide car storage companies with peerless reputations and stellar reviews. These people will have your car, and your keys.

    If your car is destined to be an outside pet – and we have to say that this is not the desired option here – buy a car cover online from a local-ish store (i.e not Amazon) and get it sent to your house. That way, you’re supporting the workers, couriers and mailmen of your community. You’ll also receive a fetching car cover. There are specific covers for each kind of car, but also more generalised covers in varying sizes. You may have to make do with the latter depending on availability. It won’t be as good as a garage, and you’ll have to regularly check for moisture, rust, scratches from dust being dragged across the paint as the wind blows the cover around, vermin, forgotten newspaper subscriptions and errant barn owls.

    The other side of that coin is going all out and buying a car bubble – a hermetically sealed plastic bag for your car that keeps moisture, dust and pests at bay. If you baulk at the price of a bubble, don’t get a cheapy plastic car cover instead – it doesn’t work the same way. Get a cover that’s breathable – assuming your car is in a garage. If you do have a garage and a breathable car cover (or indeed a bubble), let the windows down just a smidge to let air circulate through the car.

  3. Clean outside

    Normally, we’d recommend a full wash before putting your car away for storage. All the nasty particles and chemicals that sit on the paint, the underbody and various very important components are, in an ideal scenario, not still attached to your car when it goes into storage. But, as this pandemic has wrongfooted roughly everyone, we’d wager that one of the last things you thought to do was give your car a thorough wash. We certainly didn’t. And don’t quote us, but we’re pretty sure that heading to a car wash won’t fall under the ‘essential travel’ designation.

    So, do what you can to remove the worst of the muck. Use car detailing products or gentle home cleaners like glass cleaner or dish soap to clean things as best you can. If all you can find is bleach and oven cleaner, we’d very much recommend that you leave them exactly where they are. If all you have is water, use your judgement – if you try to rinse and then wipe dry a properly dirty car, all you’ll end up achieving is a series of tiny scratches in the paintwork caused by the dust and grime dragging across the top coat.

    If you’re fortunate enough to be able to properly clean and dry your car, capitalise on said luckiness by applying a coat of wax to protect your precious metal.

  4. Clean inside

    Inside is another story when it comes to car-based cleaning concoctions. If you have special ‘protecting’ wipes and creams, we’d urge caution against using them just before storage. There are a lot of chemicals in the cloths and lotions that are meant to be wiped off by bums on seats or hands on steering wheels, or let off gases in sunlight. You don’t want these chemicals to sit on your car’s interior bits for months at a time. Think of it like a suit – you don’t dry-clean it before you put it away; you dry-clean it before you head to the wedding. Same rules apply to cars.

    So, what can you do? Well, wiping the dust and gunk off surfaces with a damp cloth and then drying with – wait for it – a dry cloth is probably the most you’ll need to do to keep your trim in good nick, if it’s out of the elements. You can lather it with all sorts of creams and salves when you pull it back out of storage, but, for now, keep things simple.

    Obviously, if there are any spills on the carpet or what have you, use a proper carpet cleaner to get them out, then air the car out in the garage or undercover. Or outside, if you’re okay to watch your car, and the weather, like a hawk for the first drop of rain. Because a wet interior is very, very bad.

    If you do have an all-natural leather conditioner, such as a lanolin-based cream, you can massage some into leather seats to keep them in good nick, but, as we said, don’t use any product that has things you can’t pronounce in it until you can reliably air the car out afterwards.

    Logic probably dictates that you should clean out any chip packets, mouldering sandwiches or mostly empty coffee cups. Apply the following intellectual razor: how much do I want to deal with what this will be like in a year’s time? But, unless we’re very much mistaken, there will be no cause to apply any physical razors.

    A note on disinfecting

    You’ve probably seen a lot of articles whizzing around the internet (is that what stories do? Fascinating) about disinfecting the most-used touch points on your car. And if you’re going to continue to use your car, absolutely do this – disinfect the steering wheel, handles, gearstick, handbrake, seatbelt buckles and anything else that comes into contact with human hands. Then, as a matter of priority when you get to work or home, wash your hands with soap and warm water, lathering for at least 20 seconds and ensuring that you’ve scrubbed every part of your hands. That’s just self-preservation at the least.

    But if your car’s going to go away in storage for 12 months, that’s about 11 months and three weeks longer than Coronaviruses can live on hard surfaces. Feel free to wipe these surfaces with a disinfectant, but don’t fret too much if you can’t.

  5. Electrical bits

    Your best bet is to buy a battery tender, also known as a battery maintainer or conditioner – these stay attached to the battery and the wall socket, using an onboard processor to maintain the battery’s charge and condition. The better ones come with special reconditioning modes, if you want to ensure your battery is in the best nick it can be first, then keep it on a smart charge. Alternatively, you can keep it maintained during your driving sabbatical and then recondition the battery before your first triumphant reemergence onto the road.

    Modern cars have a plethora of sensors and computers that need battery power, but do a good job of not drawing too much current. Trust us when we say it’s much less of a headache to leave a battery connected and charging than to disconnect it and then need security codes you don’t have, or to come back and find all your custom settings reset and have to go through all that malarkey again.

  6. Mechanical bits

    Garages and workshops can remain open at the moment, so now’s the perfect time to get your oil changed and have the status of your car’s other fluids checked. If you’re of the belt-and-suspenders disposition, you can replace the coolant as well, because, as the months get colder again at the end of the year, radiators and cooling systems can freeze solid without enough antifreeze in the coolant. But the chemicals in antifreeze – essentially very non-potable alcohols – are pretty stable and generally won’t need refreshing before you drive again, if the coolant is in good shape today. Don’t top off your radiator with tap water – it’s full of dissolved salts that will eat your radiator alive. If your level is low, replace the coolant with a 50-50 mix of new coolant concentrate and demineralised water. Or, if it’s premixed, just fill ’er up.

    Brake fluid is hygroscopic – i.e. absorbs water – which will cause brake lines and parts to rust, which will make for an exceptionally interesting, if brief, first drive once you’ve pulled it out of storage. So make sure it’s in good condition and water-free (this usually requires a mechanic) and have it replaced if it’s not up to code. An even better, if more expensive, option is to replace your current brake fluid with a silicon-based alternative, which isn’t hygroscopic, but factor in that you’ll have to flush the old stuff out first.

    It’s a tempting idea to spray bare metal bits with WD-40 or a similar water-displacing lubricant for obvious reasons, but you might struggle to find an appropriate surface – modern cars are pretty well protected these days. If you’re still keen, spray unpainted, untreated and exposed bits of metal, with the very obvious exception of your brake discs or pads – lubricated braking surfaces are one of life’s great no-nos. We have one area we’d suggest spraying: the tray that holds that battery – if it’s in the engine bay, that is. If it’s inside the cabin, it’s probably pretty safe. And the smell of WD-40 is known to attract wild Stigs, so exercise caution.

    A better idea is to put a sparing amount of lithium white grease on door latches and locks, boot and bonnet hinges and roughly any other bit you can think of that’s not road-facing, but needs to swing, latch or pivot. It’s a grease, so it won’t run, and it’s water-resistant, which will help avoid rusting and seizing.

  7. Pump up the jam

    Or, better yet, the tyres. They’ll lose air pressure over time, as all tyres do, so pump them up to the recommended pressure for a heavy load. That way, when you coax your car out into the world again, you’re not damaging your rims with underinflated tyres. You’ll also reduce the likelihood of flat-spotting tyres if they’re well-inflated.

    So, you might be tempted to just jack up the pressure, but we’d advise against it. Don’t ever inflate past the manufacturer’s maximum cold inflation pressure, which will be written on the sidewall of the tyre.

    Finally, if you have the time, money and inclination, you could buy a set of specialised mats that increase the tyre’s contact patch and spread the weight of the vehicle out over a larger area. If you don’t want to go that far, squares of carpet or some underlay can insulate the tyres against the cold concrete, which can help cause flat spots. Don’t use a yoga mat – how else are you going to get any exercise in the coming months?

    Or, if you’re really gung-ho, you could remove the wheels completely and store the car on jack stands. If you do choose this option, make sure to only place wheel stands in manufacturer-approved lift points. Otherwise, you’ll bend something important and much more expensive to replace than a tyre. Oh, and still inflate your tyres to road-going spec and store them on their side.

  8. A testing and taxing situation

    If you’re not going to drive, what’s the point in taxing and testing your car? Um, good question. Luckily, there is such a scheme for moments like these. The fact is that the Statutory Off Road Notification (SORN), which you can fill in online, is a perfect way to save yourself a decent bit of coin while you’re not using your car. You’re also eligible for a refund for the portion of your road tax you haven’t used and can even modify your car insurance to suit the fact that you’re storing, not driving it.

    Now, if you park on the street, you can’t get a SORN, due to not fulfilling the whole ‘off road’ part of the equation. You’ll have to keep your car taxed, tested and insured – the DVLA will clamp cars that are untaxed and parked on public roads. Good news on the testing front, however – all MOTs have been extended for six months.

    But if you can submit a SORN, what happens if you have an unforeseen need to travel by car? Well, at the moment, car rental companies are still considered vital, and we’ve gotten emails from at least one operator to explain that they’ve been rigorously disinfecting their cars to ensure that a Vauxhall won’t be a vector for the virus. Man, if only they still made the Vectra, that joke would have been so much better.

    Regardless, we’d still advise a quick once-over of the touchpoints and keys with disinfecting wipes when you pick the car up – there’s no need to scrub; the chemicals kill the bugs, not the scrubbing – and at any time you start to get the heebie-jeebies about its cleanliness. And, being the kind and civic-minded individual that you are, you’ll definitely wipe down the surfaces and keys again before you hand the car back, won’t you?

    When this annus horribilis has passed, make an appointment with your local garage for an MOT before you set off – if you get picked up for driving an untested car, you’ll be asked some very searching questions. And will likely have to do some searching yourself, to see if you’ve left a few thousand quid down the back of the sofa.

  9. Gimme fuel, gimme…

    Unlike coolant, petrol doesn’t really last all that well. That’s because it’s a refined product from crude oil, and had to undergo fractional distillation to exist; it doesn’t occur naturally in nature. And, because nature is nature, petrol will degrade over time – generally anywhere from three to six months.

    This is due to one of the very things we need from petrol – its volatility. Volatility means a lot of things in various contexts, and has been conflated in a lot of cases with ‘flammable’. But what it really means, at least in this context, is that it evaporates easily. Logic would suggest that this is an odd thing to desire in an expensive liquid, but think about how the fuel/air mixture in an engine works – aerating petrol in air. If the petrol stays together in drops, it’ll burn less effectively than if it turns to vapour. In fact, fuel injectors work to disperse fuel in infinitesimal droplets, to increase the surface area of the petrol and allow its natural volatility to work more quickly and evenly.

    But, if petrol is left in your tank for months, these volatile compounds in the petrol will… well, be volatile, and evaporate. What’s left in the tank reacts with the oxygen in the air around it and oxidises, forming gums and varnishes and things that are much worse in an engine than petrol. These will clog filters, injectors, and fuel lines, and generally ensure that you have a bad time. So, the petrol in your tank will go from trouble-free fuel to an almost-flammable, contaminated mess in the space of six months. And with this in mind, we’re going to recommend that… you fill up your tank as soon as possible. It may sound mad, but fuel pumps, gaskets and lines rely on having petrol in them. Left to go dry, they’ll seize, rot and perish. Plus, with more air in the tank, there’s more surface area for oxidisation and space for condensation to form. And you don’t want either of those things. The best bet, once you have a full fuel tank, is to pour in some fuel stabiliser, which protects the fuel against evaporation and oxidisation for up to two years, depending on the manufacturer.

    Diesel lasts a lot better, due to its comparatively low level of refinement. It’ll last for up to a year with no intervention, but it’s still best to fill up, because condensation can form inside half-empty fuel tanks. This applies to petrol as well, but there are much worse problems from oxidation. Keep your diesel car’s tank brimmed, and consider a diesel fuel stabiliser, which keeps water and oxidation to a minimum. Diesel will oxidise, albeit more slowly than petrol. But do you really want to tangle with a common-rail diesel system when you could avoid it by pouring a little stabiliser into a tank of fresh fuel and leaving it at that?

    In both cases, pour in the additive as soon as you fill up, and ideally drive a decent distance – enough to warm the car up – before parking in the garage. This ensures that good, stable fuel is in your lines, pump and filter.

    If you drive an electric car, take this opportunity to fully charge your car and leave it plugged in. Onboard systems can manage the charge level and ensure the battery remains in top condition – you won’t constantly be drawing charge. Smarter chargers can be set up to draw a tiny bit of charge late at night when the tariffs and usage are low, or set to draw down solar power from your home’s set-up on a sunny day.

  10. Prep thine garage

    If your garage is clean and dry, your car will fare better than in a dirty, damp space. So stock up on pest control and water-absorbing items and clean your garage within an inch of its life.

    If you have a few tubs of Hippo or DampRid spare, put them in the car – moisture is never, ever your friend when storing a car. Mildew is never your friend, regardless of the situation.

  11. Fiddly, easily forgotten bits

    If you leave your handbrake on for a long period of time, it can seize, so chock the wheels and release the handbrake. If you love something, set it free, et cetera. Leave an automatic car in Park and a manual car in gear. Gearboxes are sealed and – because you were a clever clog and had your car serviced – full of good-quality, long-lasting lubricants, so getting into gear isn’t going to be an issue. If you’re properly worried that you may have to tow the car in the future, you might be tempted to put the car in neutral and rely on the chocks. But we should warn that this makes your car as easy to steal as simply pushing it out onto the road and hooking it up to a tow truck.

    Another odd quirk of storing cars is that rubber seals can degrade and get sticky. Through entirely personal experience, we’ve found that a tiny spray of silicon lubricant, wiped along the door seals with a finger, can be enough to protect and lubricate the seals. Use a little more on the windscreen wipers.

    Cars are warm and inviting places – for both you and any critters you have living in your neighbourhood. Make sure all the doors are shut tight and consider plugging the exhaust with steel wool to keep out pests.

  12. To start or not to start?

    Depending on who you ask, you should either start your car every couple of weeks, every month or absolutely never.

    If you’re going to keep using your car, you’ve read an awful lot of words about how to not use it. We commend you and hope your terminal boredom is going well. Also, if you follow these tips (apart from the tyre pressure; just run manufacturer-recommended pressures) and keep your car taxed and tested, a once-a-month drive of more than half an hour is enough to keep things in fine fettle. Fill up with fuel on each occasion before you return home and add a tiny amount of fuel stabiliser – it’ll say how much to use per gallon on the bottle.

    But for a lot of us, car use is just going to go on hiatus for a while. So, do you start your car and let it idle in the garage or not? One argument says that this’ll just encourage poor lubrication and condensation; the other says that without it, all the oil in the galleries around the engine will seep back into the sump and the next time you start it will be metal on metal.

    Our take? Honestly, we’d probably crank it over every month – disconnect the battery tender, open up the garage for ventilation, crank it over and let it settle into an idle for 20 to 30 minutes. Once it’s up to temperature, slowly bring up the revs (in park or neutral, with your left foot on the brake) and let them fall again, but only do this a couple of times. While you’re in the car, check all that all the functions still… well, function, and pump the brakes a few times. If you’re up on jack-stands, you could even gently turn the steering wheel back and forth to make sure the steering system doesn’t stick or seize. And, if you’re on particularly stable axle stands, in a pinch, you could put the car in gear and let the transmission gently turn the driven wheels for a while, then dab at the brakes to slow them again. But remember that massive forces are still going through your car and, if you’re a berk and run up to huge speed in a gear or brake heavily, Newton’s laws still apply in your garage and you run the risk of toppling off your jack stands. You were warned.

  13. Getting it back out again

    It feels like a long way off, but time really does fly. And there will be a time when you can bring your hibernating car back out onto the road and remember why you loved / loathed / were completely ambivalent about it in the first place.

    It’s probably best to keep a list of all the preparatory things you did before storing your car, so you remember to do things like pull the steel wool out of your exhaust pipe, put the wheels back on and so on. We’d recommend, even though it hasn’t gone anywhere, changing the brake fluid, coolant and oil before your first drive and, if possible, draining the petrol tank and filling up with a fresh tank. Or, if that’s not viable, drive straight to your mechanic and do that first thing. Sure, it seems like overkill. And sure, if you follow these tips, everything should be fine. But are you willing to risk your pride and joy on that?

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