My favorite Cannibal Cupcake has asked for help so I thought that I should start a bit of a thread about "first things first" car maintenance. If you know little or nothing about a car, I understand how intimidating the prospect of maintenance can be. I hope I can make it a tad less mysterious for you, lovely lady!
So here we go!
1) The car, proper. Is your car one you're already familiar with? I.e. a family car that you've inherited that was being driven regularly? Is your car a "new" acquisition, i.e. you've bought it new from a lot or used? My suggestion about this is to never buy a car second-hand from a source that is uninsured. You WILL want the option of returning the car (based on your state's "lemon law") if things go terribly wrong.
Buying from Joe Nobody will most likely leave you in the lurch, esp if it's a flood damaged vehicle or one that's been fixed up after having a nasty accident (you won't be able to tell the frame is bent unless you know what to look for and particularly if the frame is bent only moderately... ) Don't risk it for your every day driver car!
Familiarity with your car is important. Look in your glove box. Is the owner's manual there? It's a great place for basic servicing information. If you lack a manual, buying a secondary manual (such as Chilton's) may help, though I've found them to be a bit spotty.
Take her/him to a trained mechanic for a good going over (esp the undercarriage) looking for holes, leaks, or failures in components that you will not be taking care of, like CV (constant velocity) joints, tie rods, shocks, brake lines/pistons, etc. Have the belts checked and if necessary, replaced. (Believe me, you don't want to be improvising when a belt breaks -- or in my case, completely shred away to nothing -- while on the road. Pantyhose don't always do the trick, esp with newer cars.)
We want to be sure everything is in good working order at the outset. While you're at the mechanic, have them flush your cooling system, change the oil/filter, flush the transmission (in case the car has been sitting or has had it's systems exposed to a great deal of moisture from a leak), flush the brake lines and replace the shoes after inspecting the rotors/drums.
2) Ok! Mr/Mrs. Awesome Car has been to the doctor and passes inspection. You are the proud new parent of a four-wheeled baby. It will scream and spit up on you if you don't look after it.
Basic rules of thumb:
*Tires (or tyres for you wacky UK-ers....) : You will not drive on anything less than 1/4 inch of tread. Anything lower is dangerous. Look at a car, consider how heavy it seems, then realize that it is making contact with the road at only four relatively small points -- a small section of rubber at any given time. This is why only a few inches of water will lift a car and sweep it into a river. Your tread is a non-negotiable part of the car. For those of you living in the US... take out a penny and stick it into the tread with Lincoln's head down. If his head disappears into the tread, you're good to go. If not, time to change those tires.
Regular tire rotation (it can be either two wheel, or four wheel rotation, based on your make and model of car) will get the most life from your tires. And tires can be expensive, so view them as an investment. You won't be rotating the tires yourself (trust me, you don't want to... after months of hugging tires and being covered in brake dust, you won't be charmed with the idea.)
*Oil/Lubrication system: Negligence in this area will kill a car faster than any other. It's the pulmonary system of the car body. (I once knew a guy who bought a very old Subaru 4WD that never had it's old changed, only added as it baked or leaked away. To change the oil would cause the entire engine to fall apart. lol ) It's been debated between myself and my foreman many times about the whole "x,000 miles mandatory change" but playing it safe is best. Considering that many cars may inhale a great deal more dirt and dust than others, don't take a chance.
Oil isn't just for floating the gaps between your main bearings or keeping the engine cooler, it's for washing away the sins of the road. It suspends grit and sends it through a filter which, depending on your car, will be able to filter anything from grit to metal shavings (!!!!, danger, Will Robinson!), but the gritty action of the nastiness floating in the oil will be abrasive to your baby's heart which makes frequent changes necessary.
I won't advise about real vs. synthetic, but I will say, use your car's owner's manual for oil weight, and NEVER buy recycled oil. It will NEVER be fully rid of particulates. It's fine for two-strokes, like lawn mowers or chain saws, but never never a passenger vehicle!!
How are we doing so far?