It’s one of the top motorist nightmares: on your way to work in rush-hour traffic, on your way home after a long work week or heading out on a well-deserved holiday, your car breaks down. Is there a way to spot gremlins hiding under the bonnet before disaster strikes?
“Mechanical breakdowns can cause anything from a minor inconvenience to a major catastrophe”, says Ricardo Coetzee, Head of Auto & General Insurance. “All too often however, these breakdowns could easily have been avoided had the warning signs been spotted and addressed soon enough.”
According to the Automobile Association of South Africa, there are 7 leading causes of mechanical breakdowns on SA’s roads: A flat or faulty battery, alternator faults, starter motor faults, clutch faults, spark plug problems, electrical faults and transmission problems.
“To prevent a breakdown, motorists should acquire a better basic knowledge of what each of these components do, what the warning signs are when they are about to fail and take the necessary steps to remedy the situation,” advises Coetzee.
- The battery’s main function is to power the core systems that get a vehicle’s engine started, like the starter motor, fuel pump and spark plugs, as well as to power all electrical functions when the car’s engine isn’t running.
Warning signs: Powdery deposits the battery and cables. Loose cables. Low water levels (in batteries that aren’t labelled maintenance-free). Dim dashboard lights before the car is started. Engine turning slowly when the ignition is turned.
Tips: Check the battery at least once a month for warning signs. Have it inspected and tested by a professional. Remember that it’s normal for batteries to need replacement about every 3 years, so be sure to have a record of when your battery was installed.
2. The alternator generates and relays electricity to the battery and other electrical components once the vehicle is running.
Warning signs: Battery warning light. Dim lights when the vehicle’s engine is running. A relatively new battery that loses charge even when the vehicle is driven often. Unusual noises emanating from around the alternator and the belt connected to it.
Tips: Have the alternator checked by a professional if you notice any of these symptoms. The alternator could need to be replaced, but it could also need something as minor as a service of the alternator’s brushes. Also be sure to have the belts connected to the alternator and other engine components checked regularly.
3. The starter motor is powered by the battery and is responsible for turning the engine to a speed where it can start and run on its own.
Warning signs: Vehicle’s engine doesn’t turn even with a full battery. Intermittent starting problems. Clicking noise coming from the starter. Starter keeps running after the engine has started.
Tips: If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s best to get the vehicle to a professional right away. The cause could be something as minor as a starter relay, or as major as an engine on the brink of seizing.
4. The clutch connects and disconnects the rotational power of the engine to the wheels.
Warning signs: Difficult or noisy gear changes. Vehicle moving forward with clutch still pressed fully, or almost fully, in. A soft, unresponsive clutch. A burning smell.
Tips: Apply good clutch control. Avoid riding the clutch, i.e. keeping in partially pressed while driving. Stop as soon as possible when you experience any of these problems, as a worn clutch, or a damaged or broken clutch cable, can cause major damage to your vehicle’s transmission system. Have the problem checked by a professional.
5. Spark plugs are responsible for the ignition of fuel in petrol engines.
Warning signs: Trouble starting. Rough idling. Engine misfire. Lack of power. High fuel consumption.
Tips: Ensure that spark plugs are changed at the recommended service interval settings, that spark plugs are adequately fastened and that high-tension leads (cables from the distributor) are in a good condition and properly fastened.
6. A vehicle’s electrical system forms an interconnected network that powers anything from the windscreen wipers and electric windows to the fuel pump and safety systems.
Warning signs: include a failure of any one, or combination of, the following critical systems: lights, the instrument panel, wipers, airbag / ABS / EBD / ESC systems.
Tips: Have routine checks performed on the vehicle by an auto electrician or service centre to make sure that there are no errors indicated on the onboard computer. Especially in older cars, check at least once a month that all electrical components are in working condition.
7. The transmission regulates the power from the engine to the drive wheels through the use of gears.
Warning signs: Struggling to engage certain gears or keep the vehicle in a certain gear. Vehicle doesn’t move when in gear and clutch is released. Vehicle hesitates when clutch is released, but then “jumps” forward or backwards. Vehicle shuddering when in gear. Fluid leaking from the gearbox. Excessive heat and/or noise emanating from around the gearbox, even when in neutral.
Tips: Make sure that you change gears smoothly and select the right gear for the speed at which you are travelling. If you experience any of the warning signs, don’t try to “drive through it” – arrange for your vehicle to be inspected and towed if necessary.
“The key, as always, is good maintenance according to the manufacturer’s standards”, Coetzee concludes. “This, combined with prompt reaction to the warning signs and ensuring that you have Mechanical Breakdown insurance cover and roadside assistance in place if things go awry could make the difference between a carefree journey and a major disaster.”