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  • When to Take it to the Shop

    When to Take it to the Shop

    Automobiles are such complex contraptions that there are literally thousands of things that can go wrong with them―far too many to cover here. Some are minor, or are things you can fix yourself, such as replacing a fuse or changing a tire. Some problems, however, require a trip to an auto shop before a small problem becomes a very big one.

    Obviously, if your car doesn't start, you need to take it in; and at the other end of the spectrum, it needs routine maintenance. But in the middle, there are signs it needs attention, even if it's otherwise running OK. Some mechanical issues have a way of escalating if left untreated. If any of the sampling of symptoms below apply to you, consider calling your mechanic.

    Common Symptoms


    • Vibrations: If you notice a vibration in your steering wheel, it could be a sign that your wheel alignment is off or a tire is having a problem. A bulge in a tire is an immediate safety hazard that needs to be addressed before you drive the car again, while a realignment can be a simple procedure at a tire shop that will make your tires last longer and your car track straight.
    • Grinding: If your car grinds when you shift gears, it could be a sign of transmission problems. This can wear down the teeth on your gears if you ignore it, eventually requiring an expensive transmission repair. Address grinding noises sooner rather than later.
    • Clanks: Investigate clicks or clanks that occur when you turn your steering wheel. On front wheel drive cars, this could signal a problem with the universal joint on the wheel axle. Left untreated, this could result in a broken axle; best to have a mechanic make sure it's nothing serious and take preventive measures if needed.
    • Squeals: Squeals are sometimes minor annoyances rather than signs of horrible things to come. Squeaky brakes can mean there's dirt on your brake pads, and some car models are notorious for chronically squeaky brakes. Belts that squeal can start wearing out, though. It never hurts to have your belts checked during routine service.

    Fluid Leaks

    Your garage floor can tell you something about the health of your car. Many of us get concerned at the sight of drops of liquid on the ground where we are parked. But there's a difference between a drop or two and a puddle. Also, is the liquid water? Were you running your AC? Then it's merely condensation, and it's nothing to worry about.

    But if the fluid is black, like oil, or the color of any other precious fluids you add to your car, you could have a leak. Many cars leak a little oil for various reasons, and this might be normal. But a significant oil or coolant leak is very bad, because either could spell doom for your engine if you lose it all while you're driving.

    You also don't want to lose hydraulic fluid, since this is what drives your brakes, power steering, and maybe your clutch (depending on your car's systems). So if you find puddles under your car and they're not water condensation from your air conditioner, get thee to a shop!


    If you smell gasoline, check that you put your gas cap back on after your last fill-up. Gasoline is highly flammable. Any vehicle which emanates a raw gasoline odor should be considered unsafe to operate until the cause of the odor is diagnosed and corrected. Extreme discretion should be used as to whether the vehicle should be driven rather than towed to a repair facility.

    Some windshield wiper fluid has a solvent smell that can creep into the car momentarily, but that will dissipate. If you're riding your brakes, don't be surprised to get a whiff of that "burning brake" smell. These are familiar smells to experienced motorists and shouldn't raise any alarms.

    But if you smell other burning or solvent smells while you're driving, pull over immediately. It could be a melted hose, a shorted electrical system, a fuel line leak, or worse. If you can't figure out what's wrong, have the car towed to a shop―you don't want it to burst into flames roadside.

    Gauges and Electrical

    If you're lucky, an electrical feature that is no longer working can be fixed by replacing the fuse. You can do this yourself, very easily. When replacing fuses, check the owner's manual to verify the correct amperage. Never replace a fuse with a higher amperage rating than what's specified in the owners manual. If that doesn't solve it, get a mechanic to take a look.

    This is especially true if the problem is with your gauges. They are your early-warning system, and if they aren't working then you could be overheating, running without oil, running out of gas, or running with a faulty emissions system without knowing it. Any of these can cause engine damage, and you don't want it to go that far. If your gauges are broken, the car needs to go to a shop.

    If your dashboard lights are working and alert you to a drop in oil pressure, an overheated engine, a faulty alternator, or a brake problem, do not drive the car any farther.


    You don't necessarily require a trained mechanic to replace a burned-out headlight or signal lamp; you might be able to do this yourself. But whether you take care of it or have your mechanic swap in the new light, don't wait―you could get ticketed otherwise.

    More Advice

    The complexities of the modern auto and the things that can go wrong are limitless. If you are ever in doubt about whether an issue with your car is serious, it is always smart to stop by your mechanic for a professional evaluation. This shouldn't cost much (and will often be free for minor things), and it's better than ruining your car, becoming stranded by a breakdown, or suffering an accident.