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There's one big secret to keeping a motor vehicle running for years: Maintain it properly.

If there is any doubt, check with the U.S. Postal Service. The post office bought 4,994 Ford Pintos in 1980 and at midsummer still had more than 4,200 of them on the road."We inspect them thoroughly twice a year and repair or replace everything that needs it," said Robert St. Francis, director of Fleet Management for the Postal Service.

The American Automobile Association, the AAA which goes out and hauls `em in, on the other hand, reports that one driver in five on the road today is flirting with an emergency call.

Specifically, it adds, 40 percent have under-inflated tires, 31 percent need one or more drive belts, 30 percent need oil or an oil change, 27 percent have light problems and 23 percent have battery or electrical problems.

As significant, perhaps, a recent survey of fleet administrators by Runzheimer International turned up "driver abuse" as the No. 1 reason for premature auto breakdowns.

With the price of the average car escalating near $15,000, maintenance is more critical today than ever, so here is a basic outline, some of which you can do yourself:

Changing the oil, filter and getting a grease job is No. 1 for several reasons. Today's smaller engines work harder and run hotter. AAA recommends changing oil every 3,000 miles or six months, far sooner than most owner's manuals suggest.

Oil filters should be changed every other oil change, but twice a year also is a good idea. Use the best oil and the grade recommended in the owner's manual.

Air and fuel filters also should be checked, and while you are under the hood, it's a good idea to test all drive belts for wear and tension, all hoses for cracks or weak spots.

Loose connections are one of the major reasons behind battery trouble. Make sure yours are secure.

Fluid levels - coolant, transmission, brake - also are critical. Coolant is very important, winter and summer. If the transmission fluid appears dirty or smells burned, it probably needs changing. Enough brake fluid is far more critical than those fancy anti-locks you've been reading about.

Agreed, that's a lot to think about or do.

However, if you spend less than an hour at your dealer's, a good service station (there are some remaining) or one of the many quick-change facilities mushrooming along most highways, you'll get all of these things checked professionally.

Many such facilities run specials on the entire package, spring and fall. Most combine a grease job, and that's important because the new front drives can wear out an expensive suspension if not properly maintained.

That done, don't expect to be finished.

Tires probably are the most abused component on your vehicle, and the cheapest to maintain. The proper pressure is in the owner's manual and you can check them yourself, every week or so. If you do not, tires will wear out sooner.

Tuneups are easy to forget, but the U.S. Department of Energy says a poorly tuned car can use 3 percent to 9 percent more gasoline than a properly tuned one, so again, there are savings in proper maintenance.

DOT also suggests removing unnecessary weight from your car. It estimates that an extra 100 pounds will reduce your fuel economy 1 percent.

New car paint jobs are better than ever, but a good coat of wax does wonders toward protecting a motor vehicle. In the north, road salt can be sealed out, and at the beach the salt spray can be kept at bay.

Remove leaves and the like from crevices and crannies, touch up all nicks and scratches, make certain the car is clean, pick a cloudy day or find some shade and use a good wax. Your time is more expensive than the wax.

Don't forget the windows, inside and out. Windshield glare can be very dangerous on a cold, rainy night.

Now you can sit down and be proud, fairly confident you won't be stuck on the berm of the interstate at night in the snow or rain with the whole world passing you by.