Mechanical Awareness

I guess one of the biggest things I’ve seen since we’ve been travelling is people not having awareness of basic mechanical knowledge, not that we are all mechanically minded, but quite a lot of things can be easily prevented or fixed by knowing some basics about your vehicle.

There are a lot of places that you can learn about your vehicle even if you are not mechanically minded, for example internet forums, 4WD magazines and Facebook groups that are vehicle specific.

If you don’t know the exact make and model of your vehicle, it’s a great idea to take a photo of your registration certificate and compliance plate and keep it handy. Just knowing these things helps you buy the correct fuel filters, air filters, belts and oil for your car. It is absolutely crucial that you give the sales assistant the exact details of your vehicle.

The next thing is learning how to do some basics as this can really help you out on the side of the road when you have no phone reception or anyone to help you.


From what I have seen and read, most people these days are stopped on the side of the road by dirty fuel and blocked fuel filters in their modern diesels. Depending on the make and model of your car, will depend on how easy it is to change a fuel filter.

Some vehicles have the fuel filter in spots that are difficult to access, while others can be easily accessed in the engine bay. It pays to ask your local dealership or mechanic where your fuel filter is located. If the fuel filter is in an accessible position, try to seek advice on how to change your fuel filter.  You may be able to pay a mechanic to teach you, but do not undertake this task if you don’t feel confident.


Another good tip is carrying the particular belts required for your car.  You need to be able to identify the types of belts your car has and what each one does. Depending on your vehicle you may have one large serpentine belt that runs all of the items on your engine or some makes and models have separate belts that run different items such as air conditioning, power steering, water pump and fan. Find out what belts your car has and carry the appropriate spares.

If you are going to a remote area and have the correct tools, spare belts and confidence to give it a go, I would recommend having a practice run of taking your fan belts on and off at home, as it may not be as easy as it seems.  Also draw a diagram and take a photo of where your fan belts are located on your vehicle, because if they break and come off while you are driving and you don’t know how they go back on, you could spend hours trying to figure it out.

I have a photo on my phone and I have also drawn a diagram on the front page of my vehicle owners manual of where my serpentine belt runs and what pulleys it weaves around.  Even some of us mechanics can find it extremely challenging when presented with a car and no belts on it.


The next thing is air filtration. Almost all of us who travel Australia will drive on dirt roads at some point. So being able to inspect and change a blocked air filter is a very handy thing to be able to do.  This is usually an easy job and a simple case of pulling the filter out, giving it a quick tap with your hand to see if a lot of dust falls out and if so, replacing with a new filter.  We don’t recommend attempting to clean your air filter unless you are very confident and mechanically minded as you may accidentally contaminate the filter more than what it already is and damage your motor. It is best to just pull the filter out, inspect it and replace it with a new one if necessary.


The next thing to be aware of is different or strange engine noises that start to develop once on the road. I’ve had client’s cars arrive on tow trucks and they have said to me “my car has been making funny “wurring” noises for a while but I didn’t think it was a problem because the car was still fine to drive.” That wurring noise was a wheel bearing starting to fail and ultimately ended in the bearing collapsing and the car having to be towed into the workshop.

We even experienced this ourselves towing our caravan when all of a sudden our turbo charger started to develop a winding noise. We thought we would be able to nurse the car gently into Darwin but ended up having to stop and call a tow truck to have some warranty work done. If you notice a noise developing, have it checked immediately as the problem can quickly develop once you are on the road travelling. Depending on what the problem is, if you continue to drive your car you may end up with the repairs costing a lot more due to further damage.


Handling a flat battery. Most of our modern day cars require a good quality battery to start and even to run. It pays to get a battery load test done every 12 months. This will give a clear indication of the usable life left in your battery.  Most batteries in my experience will need replacing after 3 years. Once a modern battery has dropped a cell, your car will not start and this can happen without any warning.


Every vehicle has different requirements for jump-starting. I would highly recommend that you read your owner’s manual in your vehicle and carry out all jump-starting as per the manual.  Some cars just don’t like a set of jumper-leads thrown on to help start their dead battery. This can lead to all sorts of electrical issues if done incorrectly. The other thing is if your battery has dropped a cell, no amount of jump-starting will run your modern car.  We always have RACQ ultra-care, which has been worth its weight in gold on our current trip for towing, hire car and accommodation. If you tow a caravan, make sure you add this to the policy because if your vehicle brakes down the van will also need towing.


Tyre changing. Changing your tyre on the side of the road shouldn’t really be a big deal, but on a heavily loaded 4×4 that is running bigger tyres and a lift kit, the standard jack may not be able to lift the car or extra weight high enough. To combat this problem, I always carry a spare hydraulic bottle jack that has a 2 tonne rating.  The jack can be purchased from any auto parts accessory store. You will also need a good solid jacking base plate to sit the jack upon when the ground is boggy, soft or uneven to prevent the jack from slipping sideways or sinking into the ground.  You could use a good solid piece of hardwood that is at least a foot long or alternatively a plastic high lift jack base plate. These are available at all 4X4 accessory stores. Never get underneath your car while a wheel is removed because if the jack fails and the car drops, you could be crushed or pinned underneath your car.


If your vehicle has after market wheels fitted, there may be a chance that the wheel nuts used are not the same size as your originals.  This could be a problem when you go to change your tire and your standard factory wheel brace will not undo the different sized wheel nuts.

Always make sure if you have locking nuts fitted to the wheels, that you have a spare removal tool, as I have seen many people stuck on the side of the road because they have lost or broken the fitting tool and they cannot change their tyre.


Be aware and carry the right type of engine oil to suit your vehicle. Modern cars do take a lot of different engine oils and the wrong oil can cause all sorts of motor issues.

The next thing is some modern diesels motors are now fitted with exhaust DPF filters (diesel particulate filter). These exhaust filters will sometimes require what is known as “regeneration”. If you have a new vehicle fitted with a DPF filter, it is crucial that you understand what to do when the DPF light comes on the dashboard.  As far as we know, you must keep the motor running while it is in “regeneration mode” until the light goes out, because if you don’t, you may have to take the car to a mechanic or dealer to have the regeneration done manually at your cost. We strongly recommend reading the manual of your vehicle to know exactly what to do.

Mechanical awareness is something you can never have enough of and we would recommend attending any workshops you can to learn more about your vehicle. Being able to recognize problems goes a long way in safe driving and trouble free motoring.

Written by This is Our Australia

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