What to check when you've not used your car for a while

  • Has your car been left stationary for a while?
  • Here's what you'll need before setting off on your journey
  • Seven quick checks to make outside your home

What should you do if your vehicle has been parked up for a period of time?

While the government is advising drivers to keep their non-essential journeys to a minimum during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, some of you won’t be able to use your vehicles at all due to illness or financial difficulty. Is that good or bad news for your car?

If you’ve left your vehicle standing for a longer period of time than normal it’s worth carrying out some of these checks just to make sure everything works as it should.  Each of them only takes a few minutes to do, and while that means you can’t simply get in your vehicle and set off on your journey as immediately as you normally would, it’ll be worth it to know your vehicle is still in good shape.

>> Read more: Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice for drivers

First steps to take

Will it unlock and open?

Is there any sign of life when you go to unlock the vehicle? If the remote central locking isn’t working, you can resort to using the key blade – often neatly hidden away within the fob itself on most modern cars, especially those that have keyless entry.

Once you dismantle the fob, the keyhole is usually limited to the front doors and boot only. Once inside you can unlock the bonnet as you normally would with the latch in order to carry out the following checks.

If it's parked outside, you can ensure your car will have at least enough charge to unlock by using a low-cost solar battery charger in the windscreen. These usually plug into the 12V socket and provide a steady trickle of charge to offset the drain of things like alarms, clocks and remote sensors.

 Check engine oil, coolant and washer fluid

If your vehicle has been sat for a long period of time, the oil that lubricates the moving components will have sunk to the bottom into the reservoir. You don’t want to starve these components of oil, so it’s best to make sure you have enough before you set off. It’s also best to do this prior to the engine starting up as you’ll have a more accurate reading before it circulates again.

At the same time, you may as well check you have enough windscreen washer fluid before realising you can’t use them to wash off any dirt on the move.

 Will it start?

Chances are, if the central locking isn’t working, the battery won’t have enough in reserve to start the vehicle by itself. For the easiest boost, jump start battery packs are available from around £60 that are little larger than a USB power bank, and will safely restart most petrol or diesel cars. An alternative is to jump-start the car from another vehicle with a set of jump leads (heavy-duty, £12.99), provided you have access to get both cars close enough.

Once the vehicle is revived, you may find that certain functions inside the vehicle have stopped working. Depending on the state of the battery, the time on the clock may need resetting, or the radio may ask for a security code again.

Let the engine run at idle until it’s warmed up properly

It’s like asking anyone to go for a run as soon as they get out of bed in the morning in the cold weather without warming up - you just wouldn’t do it.

Let the engine idle for a while if you haven't driven it for a while

Start up the engine and let it run, idling away to allow all the moving parts to warm up and all liquids to circulate around their systems properly. You can use this time to check underneath the vehicle for any leaks, just in case any hoses have perished prior to this time.

 Check tyre pressures

Checking your tyre pressures

While you wait for the vehicle to warm up, check the pressures are correct. This also includes your spare tyre if you have one – it may take a few more minutes and it may be a slight faff to gain access to it, but it’ll save you hours of waiting for recovery and having to divert off your original route path to find a fitter elsewhere – and that’s even if they’re open at the time.

You can check tyre pressure with a mechanical gauge (£5.20), a digital one, or the gauge on a 12V tyre compressor/pump. Many modern cars will have a compressor for space-saver or puncture repair kits, but it's a useful tool to have. Prices start around £10, but more robust and accurate models are around £25.

 Clean debris off the windows and wipers

Covering windscreen wipers over winter

Another one that takes seconds to check but also look for any splits on the wiper blades. You don’t want to set off anywhere before discovering the wipers smear trapped leaves or dirt across your view. For future planning, if you intend to leave the vehicle outside for a period over winter, thread them into a plastic bag to protect them from the cold weather conditions.

Check bulbs

This is best done with the help of another person, as you can apply the brakes and switch certain systems on and off while they check for you around the vehicle. Remember it’s an MoT failure if any of these bulbs have not been replaced.

On the move

The first thing you may discover is the handbrake proving to be a little stubborn. It may need encouragement to release as it remains stuck on, especially after sitting in wet weather conditions.

This all depends on the direction you are heading, but for example, if you engage first gear (or Drive on an automatic gearbox), and it fails to budge fowards, try reverse and gently nudge the vehicle in the opposite direction – you can effectively rock the car back and forth gently alternating between these gears. This will depend on you having space.

Check your brakes as soon as possible when driving

Check the brakes as soon as you drive off as the discs will no doubt be covered with a layer of rust, and while you’re on the move, take note of the vehicle pulling in one direction under braking. This should improve the further you drive along, but only apply the brakes with increased force further into your journey.

If the steering wheel pulls in one direction, this could also be an alignment issue if you know the tyres are all correctly pressured.