If you are buying a car in the sub-£1000 bracket, nine times out of ten it will come without a service history. The vendor will always tell you that the car has been regularly serviced - usually "by a mate who used to work for Rolls-Royce". But do you believe him?
Here are ten easy checks which will help you tell the difference between a well cared for car and a neglected old dog that has been given a quick polish....
How many different makes of tyre are there on it?
Decent tyres are the only thing preventing your car from disappearing backwards into the scenery on a sharp bend, so only the poor or terminally mean will skimp on expenditure in this area. If the car has four different makes of tyre on it, the vendor has almost certainly been buying tyres from scrapyards to save money. Ideally, all four tyres should be the same make; at the very least, each pair of tyres (front and back) should be the same make and pattern, with about the same amount of tread. Scrapyard tyres are not dangerous in themselves, but tell you a lot about how much the previous owner has been prepared to spend to keep the car on the road.
Is there antifreeze in the radiator?
Antifreeze does two jobs. It prevents the cooling system freezing in winter, and it prevents rust building up inside the engine and clogging the radiator. If the water in the radiator is clear, this suggests that the system has recently been drained (perhaps for a repair) and the owner was too mean to put in fresh antifreeze - not good, but understandable on a car he is about to sell. Rust-coloured water tells you the car has been run without antifreeze for a long time, which is not something any self-respecting mechanic would allow to happen. In other words, the car has not seen the inside of a garage for quite a while.
Is there an air filter fitted?
Paper element air filters (as fitted to 99% of cars) need to be changed regularly - usually every 12,000 miles or so. Otherwise they clog up, leading to worse fuel consumption and an MOT failure on exhaust emissions. The motoring Scrooge will take out the air filter for the MOT and not bother to fit a new one, saving a few quid but allowing dust, flies and other rubbish to be sucked into the engine, which will not do it any good.
This air filter thinks it's an oil filter. MoT failure will follow.
How clean is the oil?
Engine oil on most older cars should be changed every 6,000 miles. Over this period it changes from gold to black, at which point it is no longer doing a very good job of preventing the engine from wearing out. Pull out the dipstick and have a look at it. If the engine is overdue for an oil change, the oil will be jet black. If the oil level is also very low, you are looking at evidence of serious neglect which has probably shortened the life of the engine. Also unscrew the oil filler cap and peer inside the engine. Nice shiny components are what you want to see; a thick layer of black tar covering everything is bad news.
How does the engine sound?
Most older engines need the valve clearances adjusting about every 24,000 miles. Any mechanic worthy of the name will attend to this as part of a routine service. So if the engine is making a sound like a giant sewing machine, either it has not been properly serviced, or the valve mechanism is too worn to be adjusted.
Does it pull cleanly?
Spark plugs are intended to be replaced every 12,000 miles. This may come as a surprise to some owners, who ignore them until they are so worn that the car will not start. If the engine hesitates and will not pull cleanly, especially when the engine is warm, the plugs may be shot - easy and cheap to fix, but what does it tell you about the previous owner's attitude to routine maintenance?
How good are the brakes?
As part of a routine service, the brakes should be inspected. If any components cannot be guaranteed to last to the next service, a sensible person will have them replaced. So if the brakes do not pull up sharply, pull to one side, or make nasty grinding noises, it is probably quite some time since a competent mechanic had anything to do with the car.
The handbrake should also be adjusted as part of a routine service - so if you have to pull up the handbrake lever more than four or five 'clicks' before the handbrake comes on, be suspicious.
Are there lots of niggling faults?
Broken door handles, sticking bonnet catches, a heater fan which doesn't work, cracked light lenses, loose bits of interior trim - all annoying, but the car will keep going anyway. On a cheap car, you can always expect one or two niggling faults, but if the car you are looking at has lots of them, it has been in the hands of someone who resents spending money on it.
Has it been kept clean?
By this, I do not just mean the bits you can see, but the areas under the wings and around the inside of the wheelarches which are out of sight. If you allow mud to build up here, rust will develop and fester away until it eats through to the outside of the body. A thick layer of mud coating the hidden areas of the car tells you that the owner wasn't too worried about its long term survival.
How tidy is the interior?
Admittedly the state of the interior of a car will not affect the way it drives, but ripped seats, torn headlining, cigarette burns and filthy trim panels tell you plenty about the owner's attitude to the car, and the way it has been treated. If the interior looks as though it has been used for rearing Dobermann puppies, the owner probably didn't care enough to have the car serviced properly. Either that, or it really has been used for rearing Dobermann puppies. Look for paw prints on the dashboard....