Benjamin T. King: Car care in the age of coronavirus

For the Monitor
Published: 10/31/2020 6:00:10 AM

Hear ye! Hear ye! I am about to give auto maintenance tips! I don’t recall ever before being in a position to offer guidance about maintaining one’s vehicle. Who knows when such an occasion will arise again?

I typically drive 17,000 miles a year, resulting in about three routine service visits annually. I get an oil change at each of these service visits. My service adviser never fails to remind me that oil changes for my car are only indicated every 10,000 miles.

The manual does indeed say this, but our upbringings can etch some beliefs so deeply in our psyches that no reasoning to the contrary can ever undo them.

Mom would never drink milk past the sell-by date, and neither will I. “Ben!” my significant other would cry, as I poured a quarter of the milk jug down the sink, holding my nose with my free hand. “We don’t need to throw that out! Today is the sell-by date! The milk will be good for another few days!” “I’ll buy more,” I would reply, because Mom taught me, and I shall always believe, that the sell-by date is when creamy deliciousness metamorphoses into curdled poison.

I shall never back up without extending my right arm across the back of the passenger seat, and craning my neck to its breaking point, as I peer out the rear window – just as Dad always did and as he taught me 31 years ago. Sure, I have a rear video camera in my car now, but would Dad trust that newfangled technology?

And I will never drive more than 5,000 miles without an oil change. “Change the oil every 3,000 miles!” was a mantra preached in my parents’ household with the frequency and fervor of “Wash your hands before dinner!” and “Brush your teeth before bed!” It was rare, if not unheard-of, for Dad to waver from core convictions such as these. But, somehow, Dave Hanson, a salesman at Toyota of Portsmouth whom Dad uncharacteristically trusted ( I once had to intervene at the Ira dealership in Danvers when Dad started bellowing “BAIT AND SWITCH!” at a salesman who offered to sell him a car for $90 below invoice) convinced him that oil changes every 5,000 miles were more than sufficient. Dad lived by that principle. So do I.

Anyhow, my jaw dropped at a postcard I received this week from my dealership. My car hadn’t been serviced since November of last year! How could this be? COVID-19 is how. It’s hard to drive 17,000 miles in a year when I have seldom ventured beyond the Concord city limits. I hadn’t been into the dealership for service because I’ve only driven 4,700 miles in the past 11 months. The cents my dealership spent on that postcard yielded mighty returns. I scheduled my car to be serviced last Saturday.

“So, we’ll do a tire rotation and the inspection,” the service adviser said in speech somewhat muffled by his mask, as he peered at my car’s records on his computer screen through fogged-up glasses.

“I’d like you to change the oil too,” I responded, also muffled, steam coating my glasses.

“You know,” he turned to me, his eyes suggesting that he was about to impart a secret wisdom to which someone not a service advisor might not be privy, “your car only needs its oil changed every 10,000 miles. You can wait.”

“No, I’d like you to change the oil,” I replied. “Better safe than sorry.” I beamed at him, not wanting to cause offense, forgetting that he could not see my luminescent smile through my mask.

I settled into a chair in the mostly deserted waiting room to read the newspapers that had accumulated unread on my kitchen table the past week. The service adviser approached me after an hour or so.

“Ben, do you have a minute?”

“No,” I thought. “I’m much too busy reading Thursday’s Concord Monitor to speak to you about why I’m here.” I gave silent thanks that he couldn’t read my mind and bounded to my feet. “Of course!” I exclaimed.

Back in his office, he explained that something was rusted, that some parts weren’t moving, and that generally there was a problem that was bad. But the explanation made me feel as I did 30 years ago in organic chemistry. This person is speaking English, but I don’t understand a word.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t quite understand.”

“You need new brake pads,” he said flatly before gently adding, “I didn’t know if you had time to deal with that today.”

This time I spoke my inner thoughts. “Sir, I have to leave here, get on I-93, and drive 70 mph! I don’t have time to fix my brakes!”

A few seconds passed before he realized I was joking. We shared a good laugh as I signed up to spend bundles more than I had planned, then returned to Thursday’s paper.

I had just about finished the Saturday paper when he returned. “You’re all set!” he cried cheerily, directing me to the cashier.

“By the way,” I asked him, as I charged an amount that might provoke a call from Citibank, “how was the oil?”

“Oh,” he winced, before turning to me apologetically. “You were right. It was really dirty.”

So here come those tips I promised. The pandemic has decreased the degree to which most of us drive, dramatically. Oil turns to sludge faster when we mostly putter about our towns and rarely hit the highway. Moreover, cars like people need regular checkups, and regularity should be dictated by time rather than miles, particularly in a pandemic when most of us drive so much less. I shudder to think what might have happened with my brakes if Dad hadn’t ingrained in me the 5,000 mile rule.

Sometimes we have to evolve, but sometimes it’s best to cling to what we have always known to be true. I’ve never gone wrong throwing out milk on the sell-by date, and I haven’t suffered a neck injury yet, craning backwards when I put my car in reverse.

And I won’t ever regret getting my car checked every 5,000 miles. We develop relationships with our cars. I could feel my car’s rejuvenation (and gratitude for the good care its owner takes of it!) as I glided up I-93 from the dealership toward home. And when I applied the brakes when some mad motorcyclist darted directly in front of me, my car decelerated as though suddenly felled by quicksand, until the motorcyclist fled away and it could break free again.

(Benjamin T. King is a Concord resident and a partner with the Concord law firm Douglas, Leonard & Garvey, P.C.)


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