How to Extend Your Transmission’s Life

Coaxing the maximum life out of your vehicle’s transmission isn’t difficult if you follow some simple yet proven advice. True, the transmission is one of the most expensive parts on a vehicle to fix or replace, but knowing how to take care of your transmission and what potential warning signs to watch for can help you realize years of trouble-free performance and big savings.

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Maintenance intervals, driving style, vehicle make and manufacturer, and even geography where the vehicle is driven most frequently all can impact a transmission’s life expectancy. Do you routinely stomp on the gas or tow heavy loads up and down mountains? If so, you’re asking a lot from your transmission. While it’s impossible to predict exactly how many miles a transmission will last—some have gone more than 300,000—there are steps you can take to help prolong its life.

Signs Your Transmission May be Failing

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Being a smart DIYer means knowing the warning signs associated with different problems (or knowing how to look it up online!) that often indicate a transmission isn’t functioning properly. Taking corrective action now may help prevent a full-blown transmission failure later. Become the “transmission whisperer” and listen for these following signals that something may be wrong:

  • Hesitation: A noticeable delay when the transmission shifts from one gear to the next, rough shifts between gears, or continually switches between gears.
  • Discolored or burned-smelling fluid: Transmission fluid that’s very dark and/or smells burned when you remove the dipstick to check it.
  • An illuminated check engine light: Could be accompanied by a delay in shifting—use an on-board diagnostic (OBD) reader to determine what the trouble is.
  • Strong odors: A burning odor when towing, carrying heavy cargo, or driving in hilly terrain could be the result of the transmission being overworked and overheating.

But that’s not all! The transmission may be your problem when you notice:

  • Slow acceleration
  • Reduced fuel mileage
  • Fluid leaks
  • Grinding noises or shaking
  • Whirring sounds when in neutral or in gear
  • Slipping gears
  • A dragging clutch (in manual transmissions)

Getting the Most Out of Your Transmission

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Granted, no transmission lasts forever (though some try), but regular maintenance can keep your car on the road for many years and miles without ever experiencing any transmission problems. Ignore the maintenance, however, and an automatic transmission can fail in as few as 75,000 miles, leaving you with costly repairs, and in some cases, a voided warranty.

A typical transmission service includes:

  • Replacing the automatic transmission fluid (ATF) roughly every 40,000 miles, depending on the OEM’s recommended schedule. Learn how to perform this relatively simple, inexpensive procedure yourself.
  • Upgrading to a synthetic transmission fluid (if appropriate for the vehicle)
  • Adjusting transmission bands every 60,000 miles (such as on an older car or heavy-duty pickup)
  • Checking the fluid level often and refilling it to the proper level when it’s low.
  • Using the ATF specified by the vehicle manufacturer and never mixing different types of transmission fluids.
  • Replacing the transmission filter or screen based on the vehicle manufacturer’s mileage and/or time intervals.
  • Cleaning the transmission pan’s magnet(s) to remove metal fragments it has trapped.
  • Using a transmission conditioning product to help restore performance and fix small leaks.

Keeping Your Transmission in Top Running Condition

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With proper maintenance, most drivers can expect their transmissions to last well over the 150,000-mile mark and beyond. The key to longevity is spending a little money now on preventive maintenance, instead of a lot of money later on rebuilding or replacing the transmission.

What’s the most mileage you’ve ever coaxed out of a transmission? What are your tips and tricks for extending transmission life?

Forgotten Fluids: Checking and Maintaining Lesser-Known Vehicle Fluids

Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/hardchessesandyou

Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/hardchessesandyou

You’ve probably heard a saying similar to this: just like your body, your car needs fluids to keep going. That’s a truth many of us car owners grew up knowing. But we want to be more specific here—your vehicle also needs the right fluids; fluid chambers filled to the proper level; and fluids and filters changed based on the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule. Not as catchy, sure, but equally true.

Most DIYers know that ignoring fluid levels and fluid-change intervals virtually guarantees that a mechanical breakdown and shortened vehicle life are in your car’s not-too-distant future. Engine oil and coolant are probably the two fluids most vehicle owners think of, hear about, and check most frequently, but there are several other fluids just as vital to a vehicle’s operation and longevity that many drivers inadvertently overlook. Here, we take you through those lesser-known fluids and how to check them.

Automatic Transmission Fluid

Automatic transmission fluid (ATF) lubricates and protects the transmission’s complex gears and also contains detergents that trap potentially destructive contaminants, holding onto them until they’re removed during a transmission fluid change. For the transmission to work properly, the right type of transmission fluid has to be used (there are many, and they are highly dependent on vehicle manufacturer specifications) and it has to be maintained at the proper level. Your car will tell you the ATF needs changing when you notice it is missing gears, its fuel economy is getting worse, or it revs up inconsistently.

How to check automatic transmission fluid

Consult your vehicle owner’s manual to locate the transmission fluid dipstick and for instructions on how to check the fluid level. Based on manufacturer, there could be differences in whether the fluid level should be checked when the vehicle is hot or cold, while it’s in park or neutral, and while it’s running or turned off.

The recommended transmission fluid change interval varies from vehicle to vehicle, and can also depend on whether synthetic or conventional ATF is being used. Consult your vehicle owner’s manual for the proper change interval—it could be as often as every 30,000 miles or as infrequently as every 100,000 miles. And while you’re at it, determine whether the maintenance schedule calls for changing the transmission fluid filter at the same time. A sure indication that the transmission fluid needs to be changed is if it’s dark or smells burned.

Brake Fluid

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Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/moto_club4ag

Brake fluid is hygroscopic, which means it attracts moisture. And moisture in brake fluid is a very destructive contaminant—it will corrode brake parts and eventually lead to system failure. The change interval, based on time and/or mileage, and specific type of brake fluid—there’s DOT 3, 4, 5 and even 5.1—is important, and like most vehicle fluids, dependent on vehicle manufacturer specifications found online or in the owner’s manual.

How to check brake fluid

The reason the under-hood, brake-fluid reservoir on most vehicles is usually see-through is so that it can be checked at a glance, without removing the cap and introducing atmospheric moisture into the fluid. There will be “minimum” and “maximum” levels indicated. The fluid level should be in between. If the brake fluid looks dark brown and dirty it needs to be changed as well.

Washer Fluid

Washer fluid is one of those fluids that you don’t know is low or empty until you need it and it’s not there. It’s also an important safety item, particularly in cold-weather climates where road slush and salt can quickly coat the windshield, instantly obscuring a driver’s vision. Washer fluid doesn’t need to be changed, mainly because it’s used and replaced frequently, but in cold-weather climates it’s important to ensure that the fluid won’t freeze. Most commercially available washer fluids are pre-mixed and won’t freeze so long as you don’t add water to them.

How to check windshield washer fluid

In most vehicles, washer fluid is blue and housed in a white plastic tank. Look on the side of the tank to see if the fluid level falls between the recommended levels, or open the cap covering the tank to check the fluid level.

Power Steering Fluid

Power steering used to be an expensive add-on option for older vehicles, but today, nearly every vehicle comes equipped with it as a standard feature, making it much easier to turn the steering wheel without feeling as though you’re doing an upper-body workout. The system depends on a power steering pump and power steering fluid, and if you’ve ever turned the wheel and heard a loud groaning or moaning sound under the hood, chances are the power steering fluid was low. How often or even whether power steering fluid ever needs to be changed is vehicle-specific, but it always needs to be maintained at the proper level to prevent damage to the power steering pump and so that the vehicle can be steered properly.

How to check power steering fluid

If you can’t find the power steering fluid reservoir, consult the owner’s manual for its location. It’ll either be an opaque tank where you can see the fluid level through the tank’s side, or the tank will have a removable cap and dipstick, possibly with a “hot” or “cold” marking indicating where the fluid level should be based on the engine temperature. Add the right amount, and the right type of power steering fluid.

Differential, Transfer Case, and Transaxle Fluids

Depending on the type of vehicle you’re driving, and possibly whether it’s all-wheel, four-wheel or front-wheel drive, there are other fluids related to the vehicle’s drivetrain (the system that transfers power between the engine, transmission, axles, and wheels) that you may not be aware of but that need to be checked and maintained. Once again, consult your owner’s manual or ask your trusted mechanic if your vehicle has these components, how to check their fluids, and when those fluids need to be changed.

Fluids Can’t Be Ignored

Fluids are a vehicle’s lifeblood and your vehicle is an expensive asset. Fluid maintenance is one of the easiest and most important ways you can protect it and help ensure miles and years of trouble-free driving.

Did we miss any important fluids? Do you have questions about any of the fluids we listed? Let us know in the comments.

 

Enter the Garage Games

Car + Culture: The Story Behind Houston’s Food Trucks

Food truck culture has exploded in popularity in the past few years, with adventurous chefs trying their hand at every type of cuisine you could imagine, from sushi burritos to Turkish pizza. You’ll find the trucks circled up at local weekend events or parked outside your office just in time for the lunch rush. People now use them for food at weddings too! There’s good reason for the food truck’s popularity: the food is often delicious and cheap, and a restaurant with wheels is as convenient a meal as you can get.

Marco Novo owns Chef Units, a Houston-based business that makes the food trucks you know, love, and maybe even follow on Instagram. In our latest Car + Culture video, we see how his team takes your standard truck and turns it into a roving kitchen. Shout out to Houston locals, you might spot some food truck favorites in the video too.

Announcing: The 2016 Garage Games

The Advance Auto Parts Garage Games are upon us! Check out all the possible games below and join us in the competition. To enter, just choose a game(s), take a photo or video of your performance (depending on the game you enter), and post it on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #AdvanceGames2016 . Or upload it directly at http://bit.ly/AdvanceGames2016 (and check out current entries at that page as well)!

You could win an Advance Auto Parts Gift Card valued up to $100, plus the admiration of thousands, well, at least your best friends. Play, share and win!

2016 Advance Auto Parts Garage Games

Are you ready to play? To enter, post the video or photo of your performance on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #AdvanceGames2016 or upload it directly at http://bit.ly/AdvanceGames2016.

So, What Is a Trickle Charger?

trickle charger

Trickle chargers, also called battery maintainers, can come in handy if you have a struggling car battery or when it’s time to dust off the long-garaged cars or recreational vehicles like boats, jet skis, RVs, motorcycles, and golf carts. Even though you may be ready to hit the road (or water), it doesn’t mean your vehicle’s battery is.

There’s an easy way to prevent battery failure when you’re storing vehicles for a while, however. Read on for some expert advice about battery maintenance and how these trickle chargers work.

First, about your batteries

All batteries self-discharge, which is a decrease in power over time. Motorcycle batteries, for example, self-discharge 1% every day, even when not in use. The same goes for car batteries: keep a car stored in the garage for a couple months and you might not have enough battery juice to start it. A car’s alternator does the job of maintaining a healthy battery, but it won’t recharge a dead battery. That’s where a trickle charger comes into play. Basically, trickle chargers help the battery maintain power and stop self-discharge.

Even when not in use, a battery still gradually loses power.

How trickle chargers workhow a trickle charger works

Trickle chargers use electricity to replenish batteries at the same rate as the self-discharge. The energy is transferred in a “trickle,” thus the name. We recommend that you use a trickle charger that shuts off automatically, or goes in “float” mode, when your battery is fully charged; otherwise, you need to monitor your battery and unplug the charger when you have enough power. A trickle charger can overcharge and damage your battery if you leave it on for too long, so don’t forget about it!

The “low and slow” method provided by a trickle charger results in a more thorough, reliable charge and longer battery life.

Low and slow wins the race

A quick jump charge from your neighbor or tow station may get your vehicle running, but it comes at a high cost to your battery by prematurely wearing it out. The “low and slow” method provided by a trickle charger results in a more thorough, reliable charge and longer battery life.

trickle charger for atvs

Battery storage and maintenance tips

A trickle charger is just one tool you can use to maintain your vehicle’s battery life. To ensure you don’t end up stranded on the road or lake, you can also follow these steps:

  • Store your battery or vehicle in a cool location protected from extreme temperatures and changes.
  • Use a battery with the correct amperage needed for your vehicle. Consult your owner’s manual.
  • Reduce vibrations by tightening the battery’s hold-down clamps when in use.
  • Accidents happen, but try to avoid deep-discharging, aka “killing/draining,” your battery (by leaving on your vehicle’s lights for example).
  • Never keep a battery dead for long periods of time.
  • Keep your battery fully charged as often as possible.

So, do you use a trickle charger to help with keeping your battery powered? Let us know in the comments.

Inside Jalopnik: Advance Auto Parts talks with Executive Director Matt Hardigree

“Car history is world history and the world is a strange place full of weird people.”

We recently read Jalopnik’s Book of Car Facts and History Even Gearheads Don’t Know, and wanted to know more about the story behind the story – about this book in particular and Jalopnik, in general. Fortunately, Jalopnik’s executive director, Matt Hardigree, was gracious enough to answer our questions shortly before the site’s 11th anniversary.

First, some context about the book’s title. “At Jalopnik,” Matt says, “we take a wide view of the definition of the term ‘gearhead,’ using it to mean anyone who likes cars because they’re interested in the history, what a car does, how it works. You can define it narrowly, of course, to make yourself feel good. We could say, ‘If you haven’t swapped an engine in every single kind of car, then you’re not part of our club.’ But we want to be inclusive, not inaccessible.” Even on the Jalopnik team, he says, people range from those who do full engine swaps to those who only do a bit of car maintenance.

In general, Matt isn’t a fan of car lingo. “Lingo keeps people away, shuts them out,” he says, “and only serves to make the person using the lingo feel smarter, cooler, and in the know.”

He does note that enthusiasts seldom refer to a car with its real name, instead giving it an affectionate nickname. “Each person might use shorthand that only he or she understands, and that can cause communication problems.”

The bottom line: a gearhead knows another gearhead when he or she realizes, “Hey! You have the same weird and wonderful problem that I do!”

Premise of the book

“People,” Matt says, “are more interesting than machines. In reality, machines are interesting BECAUSE of the people who invented them and the stories are crazy BECAUSE of people’s inventiveness.”

It was challenging to narrow down the topics to fit into this book, he admits, but they ultimately chose topics that gearheads should know about, but usually don’t, picking posts from six or seven years ago so they weren’t fresh in people’s minds. “Everyone knows the history of Mercedes Benz,” he says, “but who knows about the first amphicar? About an amphibious car that, when it was wrecked on the street, the owner charged a fee for people to view the wreckage? Now, that’s American ingenuity, and we want to educate people enough so that they could do bar chats on the topics.”

“At Jalopnik,” he adds, “we don’t necessarily choose stories because they would appeal to car enthusiasts. More accurately, we choose stories that will help TURN people into car enthusiasts.”

Book snippets

Here are snippets from stories on the brink between “genius and insanity” – targeted towards anyone who “cherishes the weird dark alleys of automobile history”:

  • Who is Ferdinand Verbiest and why did his name appear in the first chapter of Jalopnik’s book?
    • Flemish Jesuit missionary living in China who built the first self-propelled vehicle in 1672, a toy for the emperor. Unfortunately, he died after falling off of a horse.
  • Who was the first automaker to offer a television in a car – in what year at what cost?
    • Ford Motor Company: $169.95 in 1965; the television set hung from brackets off the front seats and could be powered by plugging it into the cigarette lighter or into a portable battery pack.
  • What does the 1963 Corvette have in common with a headless shark?
    • Design teams were brainstorming Corvette concept cars to follow up on the Stingray right when GM’s VP of Design Bill Mitchell came home from vacation. He’d supposedly caught a shark while traveling and brought home the head – and he wanted the car paint to duplicate the natural colors of the shark.

Jalopnik’s book is full of countless other stories like these. So, if you haven’t read it yet, we wholeheartedly recommend that you do.

 

Behind the scenes at Jalopnik

 “Jason is a ridiculous genius,” Matt says, “and can find the greatest moments in automotive history. When he decided to find the first drawing or cartoon of a car, as just one example, he worked on that project for months. Maybe for years. Once he’d find a cartoon that was the oldest he’d seen to date, he’d then start to try to find an older one. He wanted to discover what the oldest cartoons tell us about the people of that era.”

We also chatted about Doug DeMuro – and when he got stopped not once, but twice, in one single evening driving his 1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R (find Advance Auto Parts coverage on that here). “Doug is hilarious,” Matt says. “Here, he is – this average nice guy wearing cargo shorts, getting hassled. The way he interfaces with the outside world resonates with audiences and, when he writes for Jalopnik, traffic goes up.”
The reality is, Matt admits, there is enough material to write 1,000 stories every single day about cars: about crashes, about who is buying, who is selling, who is designing a new model. To make it into Jalopnik, though, it “needs to make us laugh, be a story that clearly targets us. Now that we’re big, we need to be thoughtful and not make jokes at someone else’s expense who never intended to become a public figure, which eliminates some of what we would have published in earlier days. In other words, we were willing to punch our way up, but we won’t punch down.”

Here are two examples of his thought processes about what makes a great story. “If you write about automated cars in a way that makes them seem as exciting as a toaster, that doesn’t work. But if you can write about them as Knight Rider coming to life, you’re writing about a car owner’s partner, his pal, rather than what’s comparable to a refrigerator on wheels.”

Here’s a second example. “When writing about the history of the Mustang, you’d include the story of the horse logo. You’d share how the last battle that used horses was in Hungary, tanks versus horses. The guy who ultimately designed the Mustang logo with a horse survived that battle and designed the logo as a tribute to everyone who fought. So, modern warfare brought about the end of horse participation, yet the animal ends up on a car. Those are the details that make you care.”

 

Crucial Cars: The Mini Cooper

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Image via miniusa.com

From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

For this installment, the Mechanic Next Door has some fun peeking under the bonnet of the iconic MINI Cooper and looking at how it’s evolved over the decades.

As the MINI Cooper approaches its 60th anniversary in 2019, its creator – Sir Alex Issigonis – would be equally proud and astonished at the iconic model’s longevity and steadily increasing popularity, and perhaps even a little taken aback that some of today’s MINIs aren’t so mini after all.

The first Mini Mark I rolled off the assembly line in 1959 and went on to become the best-selling British car in history with more than five million Mini’s produced until 2000. That was the year that production under the English Rover Group ended after BMW sold the Rover Group – which it had acquired in 1994 – but retained the MINI brand.

Image via miniusa.com

Image via miniusa.com

Fueling the 1960’s Mini craze was its innovative design – despite being small, it offered plenty of interior space for passengers and luggage. That early design included a transverse engine, front-wheel drive, compact dimensions, and a unibody that reduced weight and increased interior space. Mini’s first generation – called the Mark I but better known as the Austin 850 or Morris 850 outside the UK and as the Austin Seven or Morris Mini-Minor in the UK – encompasses the 1959 to 1966 model years.

The Cooper name became synonymous with Mini in the 60s when John Cooper, owner of the Cooper Car Company, added muscle to the Mini by giving it a larger engine and other enhancements. Cooper was already making a name for his company by leading the revolution toward building and winning with rear-engine race cars. His success carried over to the Mini when his versions won the 1964, ’65 and ’67 Monte Carlo Rallies, with a four-year sweep being thwarted only by the Mini Cooper’s disqualification in the ’66 Rally after taking the top three spots.

Mini’s popularity was helped further by the car’s appearance in chase scenes in the 1969 hit film “The Italian Job.” Those Minis represented generation two – Mini Mark II – and featured a larger rear window and redesigned grill, as compared to the first Minis.

Generation three Mini began with the 1969-70 model and the most noticeable change from the previous generation being larger doors with concealed hinges and larger windows that wound up and down, instead of sliding left or ride. Mini Mark IV through Mark VII followed until BMW’s change in 2000.

Throughout the years, Mini continued to rack up the awards, including Autocar magazine’s Car of the Century in 1995, the Number One Classic Car of All Time by Classic & Sports Car magazine in 1996, European Car of the Century by the Global Automotive Elections Foundation in 1999, and 2003 North American Car of the Year, among others.

Image via miniusa.com

Image via miniusa.com

Depending on which Mini you’re looking at today, it either looks much like its first ancestor, or only bears a faint resemblance to those early models. As Mini’s popularity grew, so too have the Mini models offered. Today, there are nine Mini models available.

  • Hardtop Two-Door – bears the closest resemblance to the original Mini
  • Hardtop Four-Door – a larger Mini with four doors and more space
  • Countryman – the “Big Mini” features four doors, seating for five, and all-wheel drive
  • Clubman – four doors, a split rear door, and the largest Mini available
  • Convertible – looks like the original, minus the hard top
  • Paceman – two-door hatch seats four and features all-wheel drive
  • Coupe – powerful, sporty two-seater
  • Roadster – similar to the Coupe, but more fun thanks to the soft top
  • John Cooper Works – race-ready Minis that look like they could be a lot of fun, and get you in a lot of trouble

With a $20,700 price tag, zero-to-60 stats that are 2.3 seconds faster than its predecessor thanks to a TwinPower turbo engine, tons of dashboard technology, and world-famous, go-kart like handling, today’s entry-level, two-door Mini’s all grown up, but still a serious toy for thrill-seeking drivers of all ages.

Editor’s note: If you want to keep your Mini looking and running great, count on Advance Auto Parts for all your vehicle needs. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

How a Vehicle Alignment Saves Your Tires and Your Money

vehicle alignment

Proper vehicle alignment saves money and improves handling.

A four-wheel alignment is an important maintenance item that needs to be performed regularly, saves drivers a significant amount of money over a vehicle’s lifetime, and affects vehicle handling and performance.

Too often, however, this maintenance item gets lumped into the category of “recommended vehicle services that just never seem to get done.” You know the ones I’m talking about – shock and strut replacement, washing and waxing, and the list goes on. These maintenance items are often neglected because of cost or drivers’ time constraints, but mainly because some drivers feel they just don’t need to be done. Their philosophy is that the car’s still going to get them from point a to point b regardless of whether it’s aligned.

Before explaining why ignoring the alignment issue is an expensive and potentially unsafe mindset, it helps to understand what alignment is, and isn’t.

Have you ever driven down a straight highway and felt the vehicle pulling to one side or another? Are your tires wearing unevenly with more wear on the outside or inside edge or across the tread face? These are signs that the vehicle is out of alignment.

While a vehicle’s wheels may be out of alignment, it isn’t the wheels themselves where the adjustments are being made during an alignment, simply because there’s nothing there to really adjust. Wheels are bolted on the vehicle, tightened down, and that’s pretty much that. What is being adjusted during a realignment is the vehicle’s suspension.

The three essential, technical elements of vehicle alignment are camber, caster and toe. Camber is the way the tire is angled in or out from the vehicle. If you look at the tires from the front of the vehicle, imagine that the tire’s top or bottom is angled in or out at an extreme angle. That’s camber. To understand toe, imagine you’re floating above the vehicle and looking down on the wheels. The degree to which the wheels turn in or out is toe. Caster or caster angle is more difficult to envision and explain. It refers to the angle of the steering axis and plays an important role in steering and handling.

Modern vehicles in particular have specific camber, toe, and caster specs that need to be maintained in order for the vehicle to handle properly, and so that tires don’t wear out prematurely because of uneven wear patterns. Unfortunately, vehicle alignment can be thrown out of whack easily by the simple act of hitting a big pothole or the curb. Even in the absence of any adverse events, alignment still changes over time. That’s why it’s important to have the vehicle realigned on a regular basis. Many experts recommend an alignment every 5,000 to 7,000 miles. An easy way to remember this is to have an alignment done every other oil change, along with a tire rotation. Some shops offer “lifetime alignments.” This doesn’t mean that the alignment is guaranteed to last forever, because it can’t, but rather that they will realign the vehicle at no cost in the future if it ever needs it. It will.

Alignments, particularly on today’s vehicles, can’t be performed just anywhere, nor can someone tell if a vehicle is aligned properly simply by eyeballing it. What’s required is a specialized alignment machine or rack that measures wheel angles precisely using lasers, and access to the vehicle manufacturer’s alignment specs for the vehicle being aligned. Based on those results, technicians make adjustments to the suspension to properly align the wheels. Most tire shops or mechanics that sell a lot of tires will have the equipment needed to perform alignments. A good time to have a vehicle alignment is when new tires are being installed. Doing so helps protect the sizable investment that a set of tires represents today.

And finally, there’s the option of having a two- or four-wheel alignment performed. Talk with your technician or tire professional to about what’s the best option for your particular vehicle and situation.

Alignments aren’t free, but in the long run, they more than pay for themselves because they increase tire life and improve fuel efficiency.

Editor’s note: When you need tire-care products or anything vehicle-related, turn to Advance Auto Parts  first. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.

Japanese Classic Cars: Legally Harnessing Godzilla

In an episode of MotorWeek (May 8, 2015) titled “Over the Edge: Driving a R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R,” you can see what it’s like to drive Godzilla without “selling body parts” to get such a vehicle:

The video calls the Skyline the “Holy Grail,” the “temptation of getting that forbidden fruit” that brings “so much joy.” And, what’s even better – you don’t even have to risk jail time, as many importers did in the past to own this car. At Japanese Classics, LLC, this car retails for $22,000 with spare parts available. If you’re interested in a particular make and model, sign up at Japanese Classics here and they’ll let you know when it’s available (more about Japanese Classics later!).

However . . . as Doug DeMuro shares, being a groundbreaker in this regard isn’t without its hassles. DeMuro owns a 1990 Nissan Skyline GT-R. Because he lives in crowded Philly, he parks his Skyline in a storage facility 20 minutes away (while keeping his Hummer in a “surface lot in West Philadelphia where I silently hope it will be stolen by those guys who beat up the Fresh Prince”). Late one evening, he took the Skyline for a spin in an upscale neighborhood, getting stopped by police twice – but not for reasons you might think.

Yes, he was stopped because his license plate was crooked. Although Japanese plates are similar in size to American ones, the bolt holes are placed differently so DeMuro could only screw in one side, using a zip tie for the other. “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s right: I’m driving a rare, powerful, freshly imported, high-performance turbocharged sports car late at night on virtually empty roads, and I get pulled over for – not speeding, not weaving, not reckless driving – a license plate violation.”

The second time, the police officer was questioning why DeMuro was sitting on the right side of the front seat, making it “seem like he thought I had decided earlier that day to spend the evening driving on the wrong side of the car. It was as if he thought that I walked up to the car, decided things weren’t exciting enough, and moved the steering wheel over like it was one of those child’s toy steering wheels where you press the horn and it makes animal noises.”

Wondering how to get your own classic Japanese beauty?

Here’s the law

For a car to be imported into the United States, it must meet all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards OR be at least 25 years old, with the clock ticking from the date of the vehicle’s manufacture. In other words, to import a car, it must be a classic. A classic can be “entered under Box 1 on the HS-7 Declaration form to be given to Customs at the time of importation.”

What if the manufacture date does not appear on the vehicle? According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, you can:

  • Collect documentation, such as an invoice, showing when the car was first sold or a registration document showing similar information
  • Obtain a statement from a trustworthy vehicle historical society that identifies the age of the car

Are you located in Canada? They have a shorter period before someone can privately import a car: 15 years.

Here’s the process

The most straightforward way is to buy a car that’s already been imported into the United States through a car dealership specializing in these vehicles, although you can also bid for one on eBay.

To get more in-depth info, we talked to Chris Bishop, owner of Japanese Classics, LCC, located in Richmond, Virginia – and he cleared up some common misconceptions. This includes definitions of what’s considered white market, gray market and black market when it comes to Japanese cars that didn’t meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) when newly manufactured (and most of them haven’t):

  • If a car doesn’t meet FMVSS, then it cannot ever be considered “white market,” even when it’s 25 years old and able to be legally imported into the United States.
  • In other words, if a car didn’t meet FMVSS but is 25 years old AND legally imported into the United States, then the state of Virginia still considers it gray market, even though it’s legal to own and drive in the U.S.
  • If a car that doesn’t meet FMVSS isn’t 25 years old or is but doesn’t go through appropriate channels to get to the U.S., then it’s black market – and that means that the importer can be arrested and imprisoned for smuggling and the car seized, crushed and/or exported.
  • If a black market vehicle is sold to someone who didn’t know that it was illegally imported, the car can still be seized, crushed and/or exported, with no reimbursement provided to the hapless owner.

People commonly use the term “gray market” to mean black market cars that somehow got a title from a state in the United States, but Chris says that these are still really black market. He shared two ways in which people make that happen, but would prefer not to be quoted on specifics because he doesn’t want to encourage illegal practices – and we agree.

Upcoming new service to legalize black market Japanese classic cars

In the past, if you’d found out that a car you’d bought was actually black market – even though it was now 25 years or older – the only way you could legitimize ownership was to export the car and then re-import it legally. “That takes plenty of time and money,” Chris says, “and provides a lot of headaches.”

In the near future, though, Japanese Classics will become the first car dealership to offer an easier method. If you have a car that is now 25 years old, but was not legally imported, soon you can ship that car to Japanese Classics. Customs will allow that dealership to export your car to a free trade zone and then legally reimport the vehicle without it ever leaving Japanese Classics’ possession. Then you will receive an official customs release and can get a 100% legal car title. The dealership also has about 15,000 square feet in their warehouse that contains car parts – and also has a car storage facility in Japan where they have significantly more parts to support repairs.

Prefer to do your own importing?

You can track down a 25-year-old car that is still in Japan, negotiate with the owner to buy it, and apply to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to import the vehicle – and then make arrangements for shipment. Here are the various forms used by the NHTSA. AutoWeek advises on something else you’ll need: “a boatload of patience – it could take a while to work through any red tape at the port, and after that you still need to deal with your state’s department of motor vehicles.”

Most recent models available

AutoWeek has also been reporting, on an annual basis, the 25 coolest cars that are available from Europe, Japan and Australia to import. In their most recent report (December 2014), they listed 1990 cars that now fit the parameters: “The year 1990 has some funky, newly eligible cars here to surprise your neighbors, your spouse or even yourself with – especially if you’re into eBay bidding wars that stretch into the wee hours of the morning.”

You can read the article to see all 25, although not all are Japanese. Here is just one sample: the 1990 Toyota Sera that is “basically a Tercel topped with a glass bubble instead of a metal roof. That’s weird enough as-is, but it gets even more outrageous when you open up the doors – they tilt forward and up like those on a LaFerrari or BMW i8.”

This car made the cool list because of the doors and the magazine recommends that you pay between $3,000 and $5,000.

Petrolicious talks up the Nissan Skyline Hakosuka, calling it “Godzilla’s grandpa” and going on to say that, “In many ways, it’s like Japan’s Mustang: it’s got humble sedan roots but was built and designed to whoop everything, no matter how expensive or exotic. The particular model you want is the GT-R Coupe with the S20 motor (that made 160hp). It was stripped for racing and looks every bit the part. In a couple of months, we’d happily take the R32, too.”

Prefer the rare?

Jalopnik suggests the Nissan C110 Skyline GT-R, saying that “The revered father figure of a ferocious clan, the Kenmari GT-R lived an unfortunately short life – only 197 rolled out of the NISMO shops before the project was shelved because of the oil crisis. Today real ones are among the most valuable and cherished Japanese cars on the classic market.”

Editor’s note: For more insights into the vehicles of the world, check out our recent post on Cars of the World: Italy