Dear Car Talk:
I am a recent widower. My 22-year-old granddaughter is coming to live with me. Her dad (my son) gave her his 2004 Ford Focus. It has 106,000 miles on it. He did the basics, e.g., changed the oil, bought new tires, got brakes and an alignment. It has the original plugs, and the transmission has never been serviced. What else does this vehicle need to keep it safe and serviceable? It runs fine now. Thanks.
Well, you don't say if your son did all the scheduled maintenance on this car during the time he owned it. Ask him. If he did, that's great.
In any case, the best thing to do is to take it to a mechanic you trust, and have it checked out -- as if you were buying it as a used car.
If you don't have a mechanic you like, enter your ZIP code and do a search at www.mechanicsfiles.com. That's a database of mechanics that other listeners and readers of ours use, trust and recommend.
Anyway, your mechanic will check all the basics -- belts, hoses, water pump, brakes, steering, exhaust and suspension components. He should be able to let you know if there's anything unsafe, or anything that needs immediate attention.
I'd also ask him to see if he can remove the spark plugs. If they're original, they might never have been unscrewed from the cylinder head. And over a long time (like 106,000 miles), they can get stuck in there and basically fuse themselves in the cylinder-head threads. Then when you need to change them, you won't be able to get them out.
That's something I'd want a mechanic to do, because he'll have a feel for how hard he can push on a tight or sticky plug before it's likely to break. You don't want to try that yourself.
If the car checks out pretty well, and the plugs are removable, then you just need to follow the maintenance schedule from here on out.
In the back of the owner's manual, there's a mileage schedule that tells you when to do what. For instance, at 120,000 miles, it tells you to change the timing belt. I'd recommend that you do that now so your granddaughter doesn't get stranded when it breaks. Then she'll hit you up for a ride home in the middle of the night in addition to a new timing belt.