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How to sense car troubles: by keeping your ears open and using your sense of smell you can avoid those unpleasant surprises of a stalled car on the highway.

Car trouble can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time. And although the days of simple, easily-repaired vehicles are long and forever gone, a little common-sense knowledge can go a long way toward lessening your chances of being stuck alongside the highway.

More often than not, your vehicle will give you plenty of warning signals when trouble is brewing. The trick is to recognize those signals and get the proper help as quickly as possible--before a little problem turns into a major breakdown.

Usually, the warnings come in the language of peculiar sounds, smells, and visual clues. But don't panic. You don't have to know exactly what's wrong. If you simply know what's normal, then you'll know when you see, hear, or smell something different. Then it's a small step to describe those sounds and smells to the expert.

A good place to begin is with the fluids. Under normal conditions they don't leak, so if there's a puddle left behind underneath your vehicle, investigate the source. If you are unsure whether the leak came from your vehicle or another, place a clean jpiece of poster board or cardboard underneath the car overnight. It it is your vehicle that is losing fluid, there are several possibilites of its origin.

Engine oil is light brown when it's clean and black when it's not. A drop on your finger will feel slippery and smell like sewing machine oil. Transmission oil is red and feels thicker than engine oil. When either is burned, which indicates real trouble, it produces a nasty, acrid odor which will cause your nasal passages to recoil in horror. Transmission fluid is the more offensive of the two, but both are among the worst smells you can imagine--somewhere in between a burning toxic waste dump and an overcrowded feed lot. You don't ever want to smell burned oil, but if you do, go immediately to your mechanic.

Radiator coolant is green with the consistency of slimy water. It is usually accompanied initially by a hissing noise (if the leak is caused by a hole in a hose) and/or a cloud of steam (if the hose has burst). The smell is that of wet, steamy, rusty metal. If the noise is a manor hissing, you can probably continue on to the first service opportunity, but keep a close watch for any signs of overheating. If the engine overheats, or if the hose has burst, shut down the engine to prevent further damage. Be aware, however, that water from condensation with the air conditioner is normal; it is generally clear water.

Squeals come in two major varieties and two minor ones, and although they should develop slowly enough to give you failure warning, all should be investigated as soon as possible.

A grinding squeal from under the hood when you turn the steering wheel as far as it will go in either direction means your power steering pump is low on fluid. This is not an emergency, but have a mechanic top it up as soon as possible to avoid possible damage. The task can't take more than a minute.

If you hear a medium high pitched squeal from under the hood which changes pitch as the engine speed increases, you probably have a worn belt. The squeal, which sounds like rubber slijpping against metal, may be loudest when you first start the car, then diminish somewhat as the engine warms. You need not stop immediately, but have the belts replaced at your first opportunity. Otherwise, they are liable to break.

Belts can also break suddenly without any warning squeals. If that happens, it will sound like a rubber hose beating violently against the inside of the hood until the belt falls away completely. Unless you can identify without a doubt that the broken belt powers only the air-conditioner, do not continue driving. If you do, the warning lights on the dashboard will light up like a Christmas tree, indicating overheating which could cause significant engine damage.

The second major class of squeals comes from the area of the wheels. These will develop over a longer period of time than those from the engine compartment, normally giving weeks or even months of warning from their initial onset. Be careful not to become so used to them that you ignore them altogether.

The two varieties of wheel squeals are easy to distinguish. If the squeal occurs when the car is moving, it is most likely the wheel bearings. If the squeal occurs when you apply the brakes, you probably have a brake problem. Wheel bearing squeals indicate that normal service is necessary, so have them checked at the next routine service interval.

Brake squeals may or may not indicate a big problem, but describe the sound to your mechanic as soon as possible. If you've neglected replacing the brake padding material, you will sooner or later hear a metal-to-metal scraping. That sound calls for immediate attention, because the metal-to-metal scraping sound means the brake pads are completely worn out.

While your car will have mechanical failures which won't servce notice before striking, most problems will give you plenty of warning. If you are aware of your vehicle's normal sounds, then it can tell you what is wrong through abnormal sounds, smells, and visual clues. Simply paying attention can drastically reduce your chances of being stranded by the side of the road, which is worth all the avoidance you can muster.

And remember, buckle up!
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:St. James, Lyn
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1991
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