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When and the Art of Automotive Maintenance: An Inquiry into the Unknown

Punto leaving Nice for Italy

Punto leaving Nice for Italy © 2014 Sean M. Madden

As regular readers of this or my other blog know, Mufidah and I have been slow traveling for the past two years in our ’98 Fiat Punto for which I paid just £150 in 2009.

The car has carried us all around England, Scotland, Wales, France, Spain, Italy and through both the Italian and Swiss Alps to Lucerne without a single glitch. Apart from a bit of welding on the underside of the car to deal with rust which caused the Punto to fail the annual MOT on a few occasions, and oil changes that I do myself, we’ve done little else to the car.

I’m constantly checking the oil, brake fluid and coolant levels, as well as making sure the battery stays fully charged. And until yesterday when we threw four new tires on our wee Italian jalopy, every couple of weeks, or more often when traveling, we’d check the tire pressures, largely due to the driver’s side rear tire having had a slow leak ever since I bought the car.

And we’ve had a couple self-employed mechanics do a few odds and ends for us on occasion, most notably dealing with those aforementioned rusty patches which are common to, at least older, Fiats when they’re transported from Italy to rainy ol’ England.

But there’s been a growing tally of things that need doing to the car.

The tires were one of those things, now done, hastened on by the one MOT fail item this year being one of the front tires having tread below the legal minimum, the other front tire just barely passing, recently with a nail in it as well, and that rear tire which we’ve been nursing for years now.

We’re not very materialistic, or otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten rid of nearly everything we own to go a-traveling with no end in sight, living in a combination of other people’s homes (house- and pet-sitting), renting a flat on the cheap in Spain, living in a campsite for two months in France, and staying with hosts when we’re in transit between one place and another.

That said, Mufidah and I have a dream. Two of them, actually.

One is to buy a brand-new Fiat Panda 4×4 in which to continue our slow travels with a bit more ground clearance, traction, and newness all around. This isn’t even a remote possibility at this point, but it’s one we like to tap into for entrepreneurial inspiration.

Fiat Panda 4x4

Fiat Panda 4×4

The other dream is to have all the money we’d need to invest in our trusty ol’ Punto as a means to bolster its dependability, handling and longevity, if not necessarily its market value.

But when we entertain the particulars of this dream, the growing list of things which we’d, ideally, love to do to the car becomes a bit staggering, and somewhat silly from a purely monetary investment point-of-view. The car’s only worth a few hundred quid, perhaps a bit more. To us, however, it’s essentially our home, our lifeline, the means by which we hop from hither to thither.

A list of things that need doing, some more urgently than others:

  • Replace sump (American: oil pan)
  • Replace cam gasket
  • Two front shocks
  • Two front springs
  • Two outer front anti-roll bar linkage rubber mountings
  • Tracking (American: front-end alignment)
  • Two rear sub-frame rubber bushes

Most of these are amongst the knowns.

Without adopting Donald Rumsfeld’s war crime obfuscation tactics, there are also the unknowns. Thus the When in the title of this blog post.

Most ominously looms the unknown state of the timing belt, that horror of all horrors of car ownership whereby drivers are continually warned that if it goes, so, essentially, can your engine as the pistons collide with the valves and the head. That may not apply to the Punto as I think the engine might be of the non-interference sort. But still it would leave us stranded.

The timing belt on our car should be replaced every 60,000 miles or every 5 years, whichever comes first. I have no idea if/when the timing belt has ever been replaced, but even assuming it was done at the 60,000-mile mark, the odometer presently reads about 112,000. And I’ve owned the car for four-and-a-half years, and know I’ve not replaced it.

The belt itself is inexpensive. But the labor involved is pricey. Just how pricey, I’m waiting to hear. I telephoned the same self-employed mechanic we hired last year to get an itemized cost of doing all the work listed above plus the timing belt and any associated work that makes sense to do alongside it, like replacing the water pump.

The springs were likewise reported rusty a year ago. The shocks are toast. That I know. But I’ve had at least two mechanics say the springs could last several more years, or go tomorrow. So they fall squarely into the unknown.

Back to Mufidah’s and my Automotive Maintenance dream, if not our preferred dream of buying that new Panda 4×4.

If we had the money to do the Punto up right, the above considerations would be a no-brainer. We’d get it all done, period. The reality, however, is that we have limited funds, and need to travel from England to Germany in less than three weeks. We, therefore, have to make potentially imperative judgement calls as to prioritizing which of these maintenance items — whether known or unknown — to invest in and which to gamble might not be necessary for the year ahead.

The last thing we need is for one of the unknowns to suddenly become known just as we’re tootling along from one part of Europe to another, with most of our worldly possessions alongside us.


Photo: Sean M. MaddenSean M. Madden is a writer, photographer and slow-traveling digital nomad. He’s also Co-Founder & CEO of, working with creative businesses and individuals, worldwide, to build tribes of loyal customers via strategic websites and visual storytelling.