How to Tuneup a Car: Car Tuneup Checklist

In the past, tune-ups were vital to many engines’ performance, but since the days of carburetors and distributors, the services covered in a “tuneup” have changed. So what is a tuneup? When do you need a tuneup? What is on a car tuneup checklist? This post will answer these questions and a few more.

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What Is a Truck or Car Tuneup?

A tuneup is a service offered at many professional automotive businesses that can improve the performance of a vehicle. It usually involves an inspection of consumable/wearable items and parts. In the past, this was more engine-based, but as cars have changed, the definition of what a tuneup is and what it entails has too.

A car tuneup is considered a general inspection of the vehicle that can help catch early wear like a broken water pump and maintain or replace consumable parts like fluids, filters, and spark plugs to restore performance. Make a car tuneup checklist before starting so that you don’t miss anything.

What Should be on a Car Tuneup Checklist?

A general tune up can include

A tuneup on an “older car,” which can vary from model to model but generally one built before the 2000s, would include parts like the distributor cap, distributor rotor, spark plug wires, spark plugs, PCV valve, air filter, fuel filter, etc. 

Get started on a car tuneup checklist with parts and free same-day shipping at 1A Auto

How Often Should You Get a Car Tuneup? How Do You Know When You Need a Tune-Up?

Tune-ups aren’t as important on newer vehicles, but that doesn’t mean they are a pastime or outdated. Some of the items listed above can have service dates specified in the owner’s manual, and other items listed are wearable that can be observed and, at the least, monitored or replaced.

Regularly scheduled maintenance can vary from vehicle to vehicle, but generally, the items listed higher on the list above like fluids and spark plugs will be more routine around 10,000 to 15,000 miles. Items lower on the list may start to wear around 80,000 to 120,000 miles.

Tune ups can also help with

  • A newly acquired used vehicle with an unknown repair history
  • If you have lost track of your vehicle’s last service interval
  • If you would like to bring your vehicle’s service up to date

What Does a Tune Up Do?

Tune-ups help keep up with the general maintenance of your vehicle. If tune-ups are skipped, you may miss signs of early wear or the condition of certain wearables like brakes and belts. It can also prevent potential problems from turning into bigger ones. For example, it’s better to catch a failing water pump before you have to replace the radiator because too much coolant leaked.

Routine tune up maintenance of parts can

  • Improve engine performance on older vehicles
  • Improve gas mileage
  • Give knowledge of parts and consumable items condition
  • Improve and restore performance

How Much Does a Tune Up Cost?

Tune-ups can cost up to and over $100 for minor inspection and work, but in-depth tune-ups to inspect parts like distributors and PVC valves can cost much more and over $200.

You can also do your own tune ups.

What Happens If You Don’t Tune Up an Engine?

On older vehicles, tune-ups were necessary for better engine performance. While the process has changed, a modern tuneup generally includes following the recommended service intervals found in the owner’s manual and standard routine maintenance. Not following service intervals or doing routine maintenance can lead to a bigger or costly repair. Preventative maintenance can help you catch problems early or create awareness of future potential problems.

Are Tune Ups Necessary?

On some vehicles older than the 2000s, tune-ups are actually vital to engine performance.

How to Perform Your Own Tune Up

1A Auto has many how-to videos that can teach you how to diagnose, inspect, and replace parts like spark plugs, distributors, brakes, air filters, and more on many makes and models.

General Ignition System Tips

Pro Tip: Don’t use flammable products to clean or loosen ignition system parts. Ignition system parts can get hot, are near parts that tend to heat up, and this can cause a fire.


If your car has a distributor, these tips will help with a tuneup.

1. Number the Wires Before Removing the Distributor

Number the wires on the distributor cap before removing them. If you reattach the wires in the wrong order, you can cause a misfire or non-running engine. Know the specific firing-order for your engine and keep in mind the rotor spins clockwise. If the firing order says “8, 4, 3, 6. . .” number these in a clockwise direction.

Tip: Use the right tools. Don’t tighten the distributor cap with an impact wrench for example, since the distributor cap is made of plastic and can break easily.

2. Inspect the Distributor Cap and Rotor’s Contact Points for Corrosion, and Don’t Remove the Entire Distributor
Contact points on a distributor cap
Contact points on a distributor cap

Remove the distributor cap and check the electrical contact points inside the cap and the points on the rotor. You may see build-up, and you can sand these down or smoothen them out. Don’t clean it with an item like a screwdriver, but use sandpaper or an emery cloth.

Contact points on the distributor's rotor
Contact points on the distributor’s rotor

Do the same with the contact points on the rotor. Then decide if you want to replace these parts or clean them. Build-up can cause resistance if there is a weak contact spot.

Tip: If replacing the spark plugs and spark plug wires, replace the distributor cap and rotor. It’s often an overlooked but just as important part of the ignition system.

Spark Plug Wires

Twist the Spark Plug Wires to Loosen Them
Wiggling a spark plug wire free from a spark plug
Wiggling a spark plug wire free from a spark plug

To prevent damage to the spark plug wires, don’t just tug on them and or grab them with tools like pliers. This can damage the rubber boot that acts as an insulator and can lead to spark transfer, which means the spark that should transfer to the spark plug will land someone else like the manifold.

Spark plug wires tend to stick and can be hard to loosen, to twist them back and forth to get them going.

Tip: Before removing the spark plug, clean the surrounding area with compressed air to remove any debris. You don’t want loose debris calling into the engine cylinder, and you don’t want to clean it with the wire removed so debris doesn’t fall inside. Don’t clean the empty cylinder with the spark plug removed.

Use Dielectric Grease
Applying dielectric grease to a spark plug wire
Applying dielectric grease to a spark plug wire

Don’t use all-purpose grease to reinstall spark plug wires. If you want to use grease, place a little around the rim of the wire with dielectric grease before installing.

Spark Plugs

To Remove the Spark Plugs, Use a Spark Plug Socket
Spark plug socket (bottom) and regular socket (top)
Spark plug socket (bottom) and regular socket (top)

Spark plug sockets are designed to grip the spark plug and loosen it. If you use a different socket, you risk damaging the old spark plug during the removal and the new spark plug during install.

Choose the Right Replacement and Inspect the Spark Plugs Before Installing

Spark plugs come in different shapes and sizes, and there are also different types. Common different types include copper, platinum and iridium spark plugs, so make sure you are using a replacement specified by the manufacturer, and make sure it looks like the old one. Using the wrong spark plugs can cause problems like no power, poor fuel economy, starting issues, and faster wear.

Before installing the spark plug, check it for damage and make sure it wasn’t broken during shipping, for example. If using a gap tool, be careful and delicate.

Ignition Coils

Two different types of ignition coils
Two different types of ignition coils
Check the Ignition Coils for Cracks

You don’t need to replace the ignition coil during every tuneup, but it’s important to inspect them. Before installing new ignition coils or during the tuneup, check the ignition coils for cracks. Sometimes the coils can crack from use and sometimes it’s because they were overtightened. A cracked ignition coil is susceptible to moisture, and moisture can create problems with electrical components.

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Car Tuneup Checklist - How to Do a Tuneup On a Car - 1A Auto
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Car Tuneup Checklist - How to Do a Tuneup On a Car - 1A Auto
In the past, tune-ups were vital to many engines’ performance, but since the days of carburetors and distributors, the services covered in a “tuneup” have changed. So what is a tuneup? When do you need a tuneup? What is on a car tuneup checklist? This post will answer these questions and a few more.
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