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Notes From the Road

How to Check Out a Used Car Like a Mechanic Will
By Wayne Scraba/

Check the Brake, Gas and Clutch Pedal Pads for Wear
More Wear Than the Mileage Indicates
The brake, gas and clutch pedal pads often supply a bunch of information about the car. Pedal pads wear with age. The parking brake pad will likely have the least amount of wear while the accelerator or brake pad will have the most. In almost all cases the pads will be worn on one side. Beware of fresh pedal pads on a car that shows (for example) 30,000 miles on the odometer. Does this mean the car actually has 130,000 miles? Examine it with care.
You can find out a lot about a vehicle with a close examination of the steering wheel and the column. Ask yourself a few questions: Is the steering wheel heavily worn or extremely shiny? Is the wheel badly cracked or chipped? What about the column; is it scratched heavily by keys? Is there a lot of play in the column, even with the steering interlock activated? The same applies to the signal lamp lever/knob, as well as the tilt knob/lever if so equipped.

Carefully examine the forward kick panels. If the car really is a low-miler, the kick panels should be mint. If the car has high miles then the panels will be well worn. Check the area carefully. Very few if any "detailers" will take the time to replace or rejuvenate kick panels.

Well-used cars will show serious wear on the instrument panel controls. Things like the raised letters on switchgear will be worn. Ditto with sound system and climate controls. Chrome plated plastic will show signs of heavy deterioration. The bumpers on the ashtray door and the glove box door might be worn or missing. What about the inner glove box? Is it worn?

Dash pads are often cracked in both northern and southern climates. Warped pads can occur on low mileage vehicles that have been left to bake in the sun, but if the panel is heavily damaged, perhaps the vehicle mileage is higher than it shows. The same applies to panel appliqués such as wood grain (which was often found in "deluxe" models). A low-mileage car will have relatively nice trim. Not so with a well-used example.

Seat condition is pretty obvious, but there are some areas you should check: Flip the seat forward and take a close look at both the rubber seat stop and the seat back catch. A high mileage vehicle will have worn rubber bump stops and worn catches. Additionally, this area of the car is never exposed to sunlight. Compare the color of the vinyl and/or cloth to the balance of the interior (in many cases, the back of the seat will be carpeted). You can easily see if the upholstery is faded.
Check the Engine Compartment for Leaks, Damage or Modifications
Engine, Fluids, Battery, Radiator
Before you dig into the engine compartment with a step-by-step evaluation, give it and the undercarriage a cursory examination. Look under the car and check for leaks, loose components, signs of previous damage and obvious modifications.
Check the engine oil level for cleanliness, signs of sludge and of course, the actual level of the oil. Remove the radiator cap with the engine cold and check if the coolant is up and relatively clean. Examine the brake fluid. Is it clean and at the proper level? Are there any leaks at the various lines and fittings? Although transmission fluid is best checked hot, pull the dipstick anyway. Even a cold automatic will exhibit the same telltale odor as a warm, but not-so-healthy transmission. Finally, check the power steering fluid. Most pumps will have a bit of grime on them, but is this one leaking?

Check out the battery along with the radiator. Is the battery the correct size? Is it properly fastened? Check the tray to determine the condition. In many examples, excess battery acid will destroy the tray. Check the radiator fins. Are they damaged? Is there evidence of repairs especially on the side tanks and the inlet-outlet ports? Have a look at both the ATF cooler lines and if so equipped, the external radiator cooler. Is it damaged or does it show signs of leakage? Are there any leaking hoses, cracks or non-original fittings?
Check the Carburetor, Fuel Injection, Mechanical Fuel Pump Lines
Fuel Lines, Filters, and Ignition
Are the carburetor/fuel injection/mechanical fuel pump lines tight and free of leaks? Are any of the lines damaged? A bent or leaking line can spell bad news, especially where a high-pressure fuel injection system is concerned. A close look at the carburetor or a throttle body injector will reveal the overall cleanliness. Check the air filter. It should be relatively clean if it has been serviced on a regular basis.
Is the ignition system clean? How about the various wiring harnesses within the engine compartment? Are the wires correctly routed and free of burns? Is there evidence of a recent tune-up (for example, fresh cap, new wires, etc.)? Check to be sure that the wire dividers are all intact. Are there any obvious loose electrical connections?
Take a Close Look at the Engine Accessories
Engine Accessories, Tires, and Wheels
Take the time to have a close look at the engine accessories. You'd be surprised at the cost of a new air conditioning pump or even a late model alternator. While a visual examination won't tell you how well the components work, it can tell you if someone has played with the parts. Be sure that all electrical plugs are properly installed, all vacuum lines connected and in the case of components such as the A/C pump, that the hoses don't leak.
While most pro auto appraisers will use a tire depth gauge to determine rubber remaining, you can almost always determine tire condition with a simple visual examination. Most modern tires have built-in tread-wear indicators (they run parallel to the tread pattern). When the tread is sufficiently worn, the indicator will begin to appear. Check out all of the tires, including the spare. Watch for cracks, exposed cords, bulges and signs of damage.

Check the wheels trim rings, hubcaps and if so equipped, full wheel covers. Are the surfaces pitted, peeling or rusted? Are the balance weights intact or does there appear to be too much weight on a given wheel? Watch carefully for curb damage, especially on expensive (and costly to repair) aluminum wheels.

Carefully looking at a car before you ever drive it can save you a lot of time and money. While it's definitely not a bad idea to have a professional mechanic check out a possible used car purchase ahead of your buy, now you're armed with the information you need to check out a used car like a mechanic will.

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