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Maybe it’s the car you’ve had since you were 16, and you can’t bear to get rid of it. Or maybe it’s the only car you could afford, and you just need it to get you from point A to point B. No matter the scenario, there are a few simple repairs that only require a little money, a couple of tools, and maybe a few YouTube videos to get your clunker up and running like a champion.

Let’s address some common noises you’ll hear in a car that has seen well over 100,000 and how you can fix them without breaking the bank:

Knocks and Pings

I was trying to go out of town on a long-awaited trip. I got a quarter mile away from my place when a teenage kid pulled out in front of me, and I totaled the clunker that I was driving. Insurance doesn’t compensate much for a clunker, so what did I get as a replacement? A clunker in worse condition than the one I had just left at a junkyard.

As soon as the thermometer started to dip down to 40 and under, the engine that had been running like a champ in the summer started to show some signs of age.

The quick fix? Follow these steps:

  1. 1. Make sure that you are changing your oil regularly. If you are taking a long trip, consider getting an oil treatment to increase the viscosity of your oil so that your engine doesn’t burn through too much of it on long stretches of road. (Oil treatment = $2.50 – $18.00. You can get some for $40.00, but you probably don’t need something quite so luxurious.)
  2. 2. Step into the gas station and pick up a bottle of fuel injector cleaner each time you fill up for about two to three tanks. (Fuel injector cleaner = $2.99 – $5.99)
  3. 3. After you treat your fuel injector cleaner, go for some of the octane booster or fuel treatment that sits right next to the fuel injector cleaner. (Octane booster = $3.50 – $11.99)

Will the knocks and pings go away entirely? That depends on how far gone your engine is and how cold the winter gets. The knocking and pinging is annoying but ultimately isn’t harming your vehicle.

Rapid Ticking When You Turn the Keys

When my wife called me with this problem shortly after we were married, my first thought was that the battery was giving power to the starter, and the starter just couldn’t make it happen. Actually, it’s the opposite that’s true—the starter wasn’t getting quite enough juice from the battery. You’d much rather have to replace a battery than a starter, too.

Go through this checklist before you stop by an AutoZone to pick up a new battery:

  1. 1. How old is your battery? If you have had your battery for 4 – 5 years, then you’re ripe for a new battery.
  2. 2. If your battery is only a year or two old, check your warranty. You may be eligible for a free battery.
  3. 3. Look at cold cranking amps (CCA).

My wife was driving a twelve-year-old GMC with 4-wheel drive, so we needed a battery with a little more “umph.” We also lived in a place that gets quite cold in the winter, so between the two, I would have liked to get a battery with 750 CCA. O’Reilly’s (an auto parts store) only had a 700 CCA battery, and it worked perfectly fine.

If you have a smaller vehicle (Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Chevy Aveo, etc.), then 700 CCAs is above and beyond what you need, even if you do live in a particularly cold state.

Depending on the size of your vehicle and the battery you need, you can expect to pay $80 – $110 for a new battery.

Squealing in the Engine After Starting – Serpentine/AC Belt

You have a belt problem. Sometimes it’s the serpentine belt (also known as the A/C belt), and sometimes it’s the timing belt. Let’s start with the serpentine belt.

The serpentine belt runs several auxiliary functions and therefore has a lot of pulleys to wrap around (hence “serpentine”). This belt powers your power steering pump, water pump, A/C compressor, air pump, and others. If you suddenly lose power to all of these functions but your engine is still running, then you need to replace the belt—quickly. You don’t want to drive around at all if your power steering, air pump, and water pump are out. That’s a great way to run into a lot of other, expensive problems.

However, the serpentine belt gives you fair warning before it goes. If you pop the hood and see a belt that has shed several ribs (in other words, it looks really frayed), then you need to get a new serpentine belt on it ASAP.

A serpentine belt costs anywhere from $15 – $40. Someone somewhere will probably try to sell you one for $70—that could just be the kind of belt your vehicle needs, or it could be a snaky sales guy. Do a little research on your vehicle before you pick up one of those. You’ll also likely need a tensioner, which will run a bit more pricey—anywhere between $60 and $140.

In order to do the repair yourself, I highly recommend watching this YouTube video as it explains with visuals what I could only describe with words.

Squealing in the Engine After Starting – Timing Belt

Now let’s tackle the problem of the timing belt (which is more likely to be the squealer, anyway). Timing belts are meant to be replaced, and your owner’s manual will give you mileage or time at which your timing belt needs to be replaced (generally every 50,000 – 75,000 miles). It’s one of those things that we all forget about, but when you hear the squealing, take a look as soon as you can—timing belt failure
can cause catastrophic damage to your engine.

Here’s a great YouTube video for replacing your timing belt—again, you’ll get much more out of the video than you would out of a written explanation. As for the tools, this one is quite complicated if you don’t have a good repertoire in your garage (or in a relative’s garage). Here’s a site that will give you a full list of the tools and parts you’ll need.

Basic Tune-Up

The first things I learned to do on a car were to change the oil, change the air filter, and change the spark plugs. If you have an old clunker, you can usually put $20 down that the spark plugs and air filter have not been changed in a very, very long time.

If you’re running a four-banger (umm, that means an engine with only four pistons), then changing the spark plugs is going to be quite simple. You may have heard of a spark plug gapper—those used to be necessary, but the vast majority of plugs come pre-gapped now. Just don’t drop your plugs on the ground, and you’ll have nothing to worry about. I recommend you get the platinum or iridium plugs for $7 a piece—but you can go cheaper, if you’d like. You’ll also need a box wrench set.

If you have a six-cylinder or an eight-cylinder, you can get the same plugs and use the same tools, but they may be harder to get to—I always hated changing the spark plugs on my 2000 GMC Jimmy, but my 1994 Ford Explorer wasn’t too bad.

The air filter (cost = $10 – $15) is one of the easiest parts to replace on a car. Ever. Use your owner’s manual to locate yours.

Conclusion

With those repairs, you can get just about any vehicle up and running with more horsepower, fewer noises, and better life with less money than you probably ever thought possible. Fixing your car doesn’t have to be expensive if you keep up with general maintenance.