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Deciphering a car's squeals, ticks, knocks, and roars

Here are 10 tips that may help motorists drive a safer car and identify incipient problems that should be attended to: The steering wheel should not have to be turned more than 2 inches before the wheels of the car move. With too much play there is less control. The steering system may be worn and should be repaired.

If tires squeal on corners even at low speeds, either the car is overloaded (a safety hazard), or the tires may be underinflated. Check the decal on the inner door panel to see how much air pressure is required. Then fill the tires yourself or ask a serviceman to do it. If the tires are underinflated, excessive tire wear will result.

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If the tires are not at fault, the problem could be worn shock absorbers.

If there is a ticking sound from the wheels, the hubcap may have trapped a pebble. If not, the noise may come from wheel bearings and should be fixed before it causes steering or braking problems. A softer, rhythmic ticking may be heard if there's a nail or piece of glass in a tire. Remove it to prevent a blowout.

Can you smell fumes in the car while driving? If so, the exhaust and fuel system need checking. Dangerous carbon monoxide may be seeping in. Protect yourself by always driving with one window or vent open a little when the air conditioner is not running.

Do the brakes squeal? It could mean dust or grease on the brake linings or common wear. Have the brakes cleaned, relined, or replaced.

Does the brake pedal sink almost to the floor before the car stops? The brake system may need adjustment or fluid added or replaced.

If the car pulls to one side when you brake, it could mean wet brake linings. Perhaps you drove through a deep puddle. If the car continues to pull to one side, you'd better have it checked. If you know the brake linings are wet, they will dry more quickly if you lightly apply the brakes a few times while driving.

If headlights blink, or turn signals burn steadily or flash erratically, it could be a short circuit and should be fixed at once before it damages the entire electrical system or starts a fire.

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If the temperature light turns red, stop at once, turn off the engine, and let the engine cool completely. Do not try to remove the radiator cap while it is hot. If the car can be operated again with the red light out, take the car immediately to a service station and add water and antifreeze to the radiator. If there is no station nearby, you may have to call for help.

If the engine knocks, you may be using the wrong grade of gasoline, or the oil pressure may be low. Either problem is easily corrected. If neither of these is at fault, it could be trouble in the bearings, valve springs, or ignition system, and your car could need a total tuneup.

A rapid clicking in the engine may mean a need for a valve adjustment, oil change, or new oil filter. If your car gets a regular checkup, as recommended in the driver's manual, these things should be taken care of then, but it is well to be sure they are. A chirping sound may mean the fan belt needs attention.

If your car sways excessively or bumps more than usual, have the shock absorbers checked.

Heavy blue smoke coming out the tail pipe can mean oil in the cylinders, the result of worn piston rings. Black smoke indicates a need for a carburetor adjustment.

Fumes and loud roaring noises mean problems with the exhaust system and muffler. A whining from the rear of the car may mean the need for differential fluid. If the fluid level gets too low, it can result in a worn rear axle. Soft popping noises while the car is idling may mean faulty spark plugs or defective ignition wiring.

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