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Car Tune Up Checklist

Lyndon Bell
by Lyndon Bell
March 19, 2013
3 min. Reading Time

The concept of a car  “tune-up” has changed considerably over the years.

With the advent of contemporary electronics systems, many of the items that formerly needed attention in the maintenance procedure known as a tune-up no longer even exist in cars.

Points, condensers, and rotors, have all fallen by the wayside, displaced by modern electronic ignition systems. Similarly, the adoption of hydraulic valves, lifetime transmission fluids, and self-adjusting clutches has transformed those items into self-maintaining components as well.

Today’s “tune-up” is more about changing filters and fluids than it is replacing physical parts. In fact, in most instances it isn’t even called a tune-up any more, it’s referred to as a “major service” and is typically conducted every two years, or 30,000 miles — whichever, as they say, comes first.

If you have an older car, one built before roughly 1980 or so, your car may well require attention in physical areas as well as fluid and filter changes. For that reason, we’ll cover those items as well. However, to find out which tools, parts and procedures apply to your car and which do not, consult your owner’s manual.

Car Tune Up Check List: Parts And Tools

Keep in mind; this car tune up checklist is not a procedural for accomplishing a tune-up. We highly recommend you buy the service manual for your car and follow the list of procedures outlined therein. The service manual and the owner’s manual that came with your car are two very different items. Service manuals are usually sold at the dealer’s service department — or online for older cars.

With that said, in most instances you will need:

• Fuel Filter

• Spark Plugs

• Ratchet-type socket wrench

• Appropriately sized spark plug socket

• Spark Plug Gapping Tool

• Owner’s Manual

• Service manual

• Phillips and flat-head screwdrivers

• Combination Crescent/Open End Wrench Set

• Distributor Cap

• Spark Plug Wires

• Ignition Points and Rotor (for older cars)

• Air Filter

• Oil Filter

• Engine Oil

• Engine Coolant and Distilled Water

• Clutch/Brake Fluid

• Power Steering Fluid

•Transmission Oil/Fluid

• Windshield Washer Fluid

• PCV Valve

• Replacement Drive Belts (Serpentine, Timing— etc.)


Car Tune Up Check List: Fluid And Filter Changes

If you choose to change your auto’s fluids yourself, dispose of the old fluids properly. Always take them to a gas station, or another facility suitably equipped to appropriately handle toxic automotive liquids.

Under no circumstances should you ever put automotive fluids in your household garbage. This includes leaving gallon milk jugs full of oil/fluids on the curb for the trash collection service. NEVER EVER dump them into a storm drain on the street, flush them down a toilet, or dispose of them in any way, which could lead to them entering the water /sewer system.

When you change your engine oil, change the oil filter as well. Changing the oil and leaving the dirty filter in place is like not changing the oil at all. Your fuel and air filters should be changed at the same time to ensure your engine is getting the most from its intake and combustion systems.


Car Tune Up Check List: Ignition System

Many newer spark plugs are “platinum-tipped” and can last up to 60,000 miles between changes. To find out if your car is so equipped, simply remove one of the plugs and read it.

If you change your spark plugs, change all of the spark plug wires as well. Do so one at a time so you don’t have to worry about connecting the proper plug to the proper lead on the distributor to maintain your engine’s firing order (consult the service manual for a description of firing orders, if you are unsure of what this means).

While you’re at it, on older cars (pre-1980) you may need to replace the distributor cap, ignition points, and the cap’s rotor. The ignition timing should also be adjusted as part of this procedure. Be aware this is an operation that must be executed absolutely precisely to ensure your engine runs properly. Make sure you have the vehicle’s service manual to ensure you do it correctly.

Your battery should also be checked to ensure it is free of corrosion, as well as topped up with distilled water (if it isn’t a sealed battery).


Car Tune Up Check List: Belt, Clutch And Valve Adjustments

Clutch and valve adjustments are virtually self-maintaining on modern cars. However, on an older car it may be required to undertake them. Valve adjustments are relatively easy for a mechanically oriented individual. Again though, we highly recommend consulting your service manual for the accurate measurements.

A clutch adjustment on the other hand, performing one easily requires a vehicle lift and may even require removing the transmission housing. If you’re hard-core mechanical, and you look upon this as a relaxing way to pass a Saturday — more power to you. Otherwise, you’ll want to leave this one to a professional.

The drive belts (also known as the “fan belt” should be inspected for wear and replaced if needed. These are also self-adjusting on modern cars, but may need an adjustment to maintain the proper tension on older cars. Your service manual will outline the steps required. The other belt you need to be concerned about is the timing belt. This generally requires dismantling part of the engine to service.

The positive crankcase ventilation valve (PCV valve) should be replaced during the tune-up procedure on cars so equipped to ensure gases escape in a controlled manner from the engine’s crankcase.


Car Tune Up Check List: Conclusion/Special Considerations

Again, keep in mind, this is only a car tune up checklist of items you’ll need should you decide to execute one yourself. Always consult with a professional mechanic and/or the service manual before setting wrench to engine if you are unsure about any of the information listed here.



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