How to Avoid Major Holiday Auto Repairs

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Santa under hood

Use your head; your eyes, ears, and nose at least, to help avoid catastrophic automobile failures during the Holiday Season. Never mind the presents, parties, and proclivity to get pneumonia if your ride lets you down, the expense and inconvenience of being without your vehicle while it undergoes a major auto repair are unacceptable. Here are some tips to help you look, listen, smell, and even feel warning signs from your car, truck, van, or SUV that could help you to detect a problem early and possibly avoid an expensive major automotive repair.



With all of the Holiday activity, it is easy to get tunnel vision. An individual weekly driver check list is a good idea. Your vehicle tires, at minimum, should be inspected each day; it is amazing how many drivers seldom even glance at the passenger side of their vehicle. An under inflated tire, left unchecked, can become dangerous at highway speeds and even separate — causing a “blowout.”

A blowout on the freeway, and the ensuing discarded steel belts and rubber, can result in significant body damage and may even lead to a dangerous motor vehicle collision. A tire pressure gauge is relatively inexpensive and available at any auto parts store. Buy one and keep it in the glove-box of your vehicle. If you believe that your tire looks like it is under inflated, then grab the gauge and check. Stamped on the sidewall of every tire is the correct inflation pressure. Keep your tires inflated to this psi and you will have good sledding this Holiday season.

Always look at your vehicle as you approach it for use. Be aware of any puddles or spots underneath; if you see any suspicious liquids under your vehicle, then check the fluid levels in your engine, transmission, and radiator. Spotting a leak early could prevent a major repair. If your engine oil or coolant levels drop to a dangerously low level it could result in a very costly engine rebuild or replacement. The same is true for your automatic transmission.

Typical weekly vehicle check list:

  • Visually inspect the under carriage for leaks or hanging components (be sure to include brake backing plates).
  • Visually inspect under the hood for the presence of fluids along with frayed belts and nicked, cracked, or distorted hoses.
  • Visually inspect tire tread for gouges and uneven wear, check tire sidewalls for cracks and gouges.
  • Check air pressure in tires.
  • Visually inspect the front wheels for excessive brake dust on either side. This could indicate accelerated brake pad wear and a potential brake malfunction.
  • Turn all exterior lights on and inspect them, replace bulbs as necessary. Don’t forget the brake lights and reverse lights.
  • Check all fluids and add the specified fluid as required.



What your ears tell you about the state of your vehicle can save you dollars. Listen closely to your engine, with each start-up. Strange noises can be a warning sign, telling you that something major is about to go wrong.

If your engine knocks or ticks upon start-up, it could be the result of low oil pressure leading to a noisy valvetrain, faulty rod or main bearing. If you hear a strange noise, do not operate or drive the vehicle. Shut the engine off and check the oil level. If it is low, then add oil according to manufacturer’s specifications and locate the source of the oil loss. Most vehicles will consume a quart of oil between oil changes. An oil loss of more than that should be attended to immediately.

A ticking or whining transmission can also be the result of a low fluid condition. If you ignore this noise and continue to drive the vehicle, major damage will occur. The whining noise could be the front pump in your automatic transmission. Allowed to continue in this low-fluid state, the transmission will overheat and internal components will fail; necessitating an extremely costly and time consuming, transmission rebuild. If you check and add fluid as soon as you hear the noise, then you may be able to find the source of the leak and fix it before the transmission “burns-up.”

Hissing and bubbling noises from under the hood of your vehicle can denote an engine overheating condition. Boiling coolant in the radiator reservoir or hissing noises from leaking high-pressure coolant must be addressed before operating your vehicle. Even one trip, with your engine overheating, can do major damage resulting in a costly repair. A blown cylinder head gasket, cracked cylinder head, or blown engine can result from a single incident of overheating. Addressing the coolant leak or overheating problem at the first sound of trouble can mean the difference in a minor, inexpensive repair and a major, very expensive repair.

Squealing brakes, a squeaking driveshaft, or even a “clacking” CV axle, if checked at the first sound of trouble can be repaired before a major driveline component is damaged.



Yes, smell; oil dripping on a hot exhaust component emits a very offensive odor, as does differential gear-lube when it contacts hot brake shoes and pads. Antifreeze leaking on a hot engine emits a sickly sweet odor, as a kind of warning. A leaking heater core can fill the passenger compartment with this antifreeze stench, making you aware of a coolant leak inside the dash. A sensitive nose is a powerful tool in automotive repair and maintenance, use yours to help you prevent a major automotive failure. Investigating the cause of these, or any other offensive odors as they pertain to your vehicle, can help you avoid a costly major repair by performing an inexpensive minor repair at the first smell of a problem.



Vehicle vibrations, pops, clunks, and jerks can start small and explode during the Holiday season. Pay close attention to these things when operating your vehicle. Worn components which suddenly begin to vibrate or make noise can offer you an opportunity to address a minor problem, before it becomes a major failure. If you have noticed a strange vibration, pop, clunk, jerk, etc., then take your vehicle in to your local repair facility before it is too late. Left unattended, the underlying cause of any of these symptoms can leave you stranded on the highway and considering an expensive tow bill or auto repair and the inconvenience that comes therewith.


So, use your senses — they will save you dollars, and have a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

S.M. Darby

S.M. Darby

I am a freelance author with over 25 years of experience as a professional, ASE certified automotive technician and shop owner, muscle car enthusiast, avid street racer, and classic car restoration specialist.