Maybe you can’t afford a car that “runs” or “starts” like some fancy millionaire. Maybe you just like the way a jalopy can take stains and scratches without raising your blood pressure. But the novelty wears off when your slab doesn’t start, so here are some easy items to pack as beater-car life support.
Now, there are of course varying degrees of “beater.” Something like a Toyota 4Runner with a few leaky tires and a thirst for batteries requires a lot less vigilance to keep alive than a Mitsubishi Starion with a Swiss-cheese frame and a clutch line made of duct tape.
Deep down in your heart, you probably know if your car’s a danger to yourself and others. If that’s the case, please do us all a favor and take it off the road, or just keep working on it until it’s truly roadworthy. But if your car’s road legal and just not all that reliable, here are my suggestions on stuff to keep onboard that might minimize your misery or chance of being stranded. If you’ve got another suggestion, let’s hear it in the comments!
Oil and other fluids
There are a whole lot of little gaskets between your engine’s various lubricating and hydraulic fluids and the outside world. The longer your car’s been neglected, the stronger that oil’s will to return to the Earth becomes. What I’m saying is stuff leaks, and some of that stuff is expensive to replace.
It’s not the most environmentally awesome thing to do, but if your car marks its territory with a tiny drop of oil it doesn’t mean it’s going to explode. I mean definitely take a close look at where the leak’s coming from, maybe you just didn’t torque the drain plug tight enough last time you did an oil change. But keeping a quart or so of oil onboard will be a nice backup if you notice a leak and low-level when you’re far from home.
Of course oil isn’t the only thing your car can ejaculate; there’s power steering fluid, transmission fluid, coolant...
If you really don’t know what you’re looking at, roll up to an auto parts store, bat your eyelashes and ask somebody what’s leaking. They’ll probably be happy to help and sell you the sauce to get you on your way. Keep in mind your car probably needs a specific type of each fluid and a specific “weight” of oil. Again, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, the parts store people and Google are your friends.
Seriously though; don’t go adding fluid ad-hoc to wherever, that’s a good way to make your car worse than it was when you started screwing around.
Spare tire and tire-changing tools
Pretty much every car sold in America for the last 40 years came with a spare tire, a jack, and an iron to swap wheels. Does your old-ass hooptie still have those things? Who knows. Go check.
Still there? Okay, now what’s the condition of that tire?
Even a brand new vehicle can blow a tire; rolling around without a spare is playing with fire. Educate yourself on how to do a change safely, and make sure your gear’s up to par.
If it turns out your car’s missing this stuff, check your local junkyard first to save some money.
“Jump box” and tire inflator
Forget jumper cables and forget relying on the kindness of fully-charged strangers? What is this, Norway?
In the hard knock, human-eat-hot-dog America, you have to be self-sufficient. Which is exactly what a “jumper box,” AKA “jumper pack,” AKA “juice box” can do for you.
It’s basically just a rechargeable battery with two cables coming out of it to hook on to your battery and jump-start your car. The better ones have little air-compressors to pump up tires that might have a slow leak. That comes in handy when, you know, you have a slow leak.
Don’t laugh! If your car catches fire while you’re stopped, chances are you’ll be able to exit and get clear before you get hurt. (The smell will tip you off). But if you can attack the burn quickly you just might save most of the car.
Heck, my buddy’s ‘81 Camaro used to catch fire all the time. We usually just beat it out with shirts but a compact extinguisher would have done the job a lot more effectively and, uh, safely.
But the time the fire department shows up, your car’s gonna look like pizza that sat in an oven for an hour. In a house that burned to the ground.
When stuff stops working on your car, one of the first things you should check is the fuse. They usually don’t blow for no reason, but sometimes they do simply succumb to age. Use Google or your owner’s manual to figure out where the fuse box is, and trace the little key to whatever system just went down.
For example; if your headlights went out at the same time, check for a fuse labeled “headlight.” It’s generally that straightforward. Now all you have to do is pluck the thing out (carefully) check what number it says on it, and replace it with a new fuse with the exact same number.
Try replacing it even if it looks fine. Sometimes they get hairline fractures you can’t see.
I know your phone has a flashlight on it, but having your hands free and being able to see in the dark will make your life much less miserable when you’re dicking around with roadside repairs in the middle of the night.
You can’t beat a good screwdriver. And quite a few easily accessible panels are held in place with screws or clips that you can pop with the flathead. A whole ratchet set may be a little advanced for the average beater-owner, but one of those multi-tipped screwdrivers really comes through in the clutch.
Pliers or Vise-Grip
Any kind of grabby-tool, really. These are good for manipulating metal parts that are juuust too tight to get purchase on with your fingers. Doubles as a terrible wrench when you need to twist, or something to pull clips and such with.
Don’t sweat spare bolts, a strong set of zip-ties is the only emergency hardware you need. These babies will hold a bumper, mirror, basically any two parts with holes in ‘em you can run the zippers through.
Well, except parts that get hot. Plastic’s only so durable, so I wouldn’t charge zip-ties with a task like holding an exhaust pipe. Get a coat hanger for that!
Automotive or gaffer’s tape
Duct tape is amateur hour. It’s hard to rip, leaves horrible residue, and doesn’t take to getting wet very well. You can buy something that’s actually called “automotive tape” at your local car parts store that, in my experience, holds body panels together quite a bit better.
I’m also fond of gaffer’s tape for quick-fixes on cars. A “gaffer” is basically an electrician on a movie or music set, and their tape is designed to be strong but also very easily removable and low-residue leaving when you peel it up. It’s usually flat black which looks kind of badass. The tape isn’t cheap but it’s a whole lot cheaper than replacing that cracked bumper.
Gloves are totally undervalued in the shadetree mechanic community. Sure, you like to get your hands dirty. But what if you’re en route to a first date? Dinner with grandma? If you have to fix something quick-like, sometimes you’re not gonna have convenient access to a sink and aggressive soap before you reach your destination.
I’m a fan of disposable latex gloves, though some cloth ones might look a little less creepy in your glove compartment. And hey, you actually get to use your glove compartment for its intended purpose!
Fancy Bonus: OBD scanner
Modern cars have what’s called an “On-Board Diagnostic” system. After 1996, all cars have the second iteration of it, to be specific. That means there’s a little trapezoidal plug that you can connect to a miniature display/computer and get instant readouts on your car’s health that are much more accurate than your factory gauges.
This helps you keep closer tabs on your engine’s temperature, electricity levels, and fuel efficiency. They also tell you what’s actually going on when you see a “Check Engine” light pop up on the dash. Some are more designed around this purpose, others are supposed to serve as live readouts while you’re rolling.
Obviously, you need to know how to interpret the data you’re seeing but if you’re a nerd like me it’s more fun to see what temperature your engine’s running rather than just “hot” or “cold” on a vague needle display.
With any luck, these tools will help keep your beater dreams alive! What other parts or tools do you swear by in your shitty car?
Top image via Trailer Park Boys on Netflix. Other images via Paul Sableman/Flickr, freephotos/Flickr, ScanGauge, B&H, Christine und Hagen Graf/Flickr, Steve Johnson/Flickr, Pierce Martin/Flickr, Razor512/Flickr, Henry Burrows/Flickr, Amazon, Don O’Brien/Flickr, Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr
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