So you’ve got a vintage car? Welcome to the club! In our quest to keep these pieces of automotive history alive, we’ve learned a few things about keeping old cars on the road in the modern age. That extends to helping you keep your vintage iron in top running condition. To make sure you’re ready for the road—and stay that way—we’ve put together this FAQ.
Here, you will learn:
There are five basic facts you need to know about today’s gasoline and how it can affect the proper operation of your vintage car:
Have zero tolerance for fuel leaks: Gasoline isn’t like oil or antifreeze. It’s not OK to have a few drops of gas beneath the car as long as they don’t get bigger. If you smell gas, you need to find the leak and fix it before you drive the car again. Often, it’s just the end of a section of rubber fuel line that can, if necessary, be trimmed and re-clamped. But if it’s from a rotted metal fuel line, or from the rusted seam of a gas tank, then unfortunately you have some pain and expense ahead of you. Better that than having your car do an impression of The Towering Inferno.
Ethanol in gas is a problem: Depending on the state or region, every gallon of gas may contain 10 percent to 15 percent of government-mandated ethanol, an alcohol that is derived mostly from corn. There is little good about ethanol in gasoline. The most common gasoline/ethanol blend is E10. This refers to a federally mandated blend of gasoline that has 10 percent ethanol in it and is sold at most gas stations around the country. E15, which contains 15 percent ethanol, is found in some areas. “Ethanol is hygroscopic, meaning that it absorbs water,” states Paul Millner, a retired refinery engineer who worked at Chevron for 38 years. “When ethanol is present in gasoline, a corrosive mixture of water and ethanol can accumulate at the bottom of the gas tank, as the water/ethanol drops out of solution with gasoline at lower temperatures.” Millner explains that the corrosion problems are exacerbated in vintage cars that aren’t driven frequently, often have steel fuel tanks, and have tanks that are poorly sealed, either by design or due to degraded or missing emissions system components. Moist air enters the tank, the water gets absorbed by the ethanol in the gas, and an ethanol/water solution separates out and accumulates at the bottom of the tank. The water rusts the tanks, and a combination of water and corrosion products cause rough engine operation due to plugged filters, injectors, or carburetors.
Ethanol also attacks rubber fuel lines, seals, gaskets, and older sealant material as well as other soft fuel-system parts such as carburetor floats. If you haven’t replaced your original rubber fuel lines with modern ethanol-resistant ones, you should. If the lines feel soft and spongy when you squeeze them, you should have them replaced now.
Note: Gasoline refiners rely on ethanol’s octane boost to achieve the advertised gasoline octane. As ethanol is lost with water separation, the octane of the gasoline arriving at the engine is reduced.
You should seek out ethanol-free gas, which often will be labeled as “recreational gas” or “rec gas” because it is intended for use in recreational/marine engines that can be damaged by ethanol found in other gas blends. Availability varies from state to state. Websites such as Pure-Gas.org and BuyRealGas.com assist in locating ethanol-free fuel.
Don’t allow gasoline to sit too long: Before a car is stored for months, it’s wise to add fuel stabilizer such as Stabil or Sea Foam to the tank and then fill it with gas. However, doing so only prevents the gasoline from going “sour.” It doesn’t alter ethanol’s hygroscopic properties or cause water that has already formed in the gas to magically dissolve. Adding a different alcohol, isopropanol (also known as isopropyl alcohol), makes the water soluble in gasoline when used in a ratio of two percent by volume of isopropanol to gas. This helps carry it through the combustion process. “Methanol also has this property, but methanol should be avoided due to its propensity to attack soft metals in the fuel system,” says Millner. As a reference point, Chrysler forbids use of methanol-containing fuel additives in its products. As a result, it is important to read the label. For example, HEET brand fuel additive comes in both methanol and isopropanol formulations. Only buy and use the isopropanol version.
It’s a good idea to completely fill the tank before storage, as this eliminates the air space where condensation can occur as exterior temperatures fluctuate. Take this consideration as a justification to use the entire tankful on an extended pleasure drive when you pull the car out of storage.
While gasoline aging rarely becomes an issue over the course of two to three months, letting gas sit longer can have undesirable consequences. If you open up the gas tank and catch a whiff of that “varnish” smell, the gas will need to be drained. As gasoline sits longer, the fuel will leave behind a gummy residue that will need to be removed professionally either by scraping or by using chemicals.
Motor gasoline (also known as “mogas” for cars and trucks, as opposed to aviation gasoline, known as “avgas,” for airplanes) contains olefins, a relatively less expensive, moderately good octane component. Olefins, however, are not time stable. “Catalyzed by the presence of metal such as that of your car’s fuel tank and lines, the olefin molecules connect together, or polymerize,” says Millner. “The polymerization first creates goo in the form of gums and varnish and then eventually turns into a solid.” Stabil can slow this process by inhibiting the metal surfaces, but it doesn’t completely stop it. Since most older vehicles have metal rather than plastic tanks, this is a common problem.
If you buy a car that has had a long sit, you should never just add gas to the tank and try to start it. Instead, you should perform a back-to-front clean out of the fuel system. First, inspect the tank and fuel pickup tube. Next, change every rubber fuel hose as well as the fuel filter, and then open up the carburetor to check for gum or sediment in the float bowl. If it’s a fuel-injected car, getting the injectors cleaned is good insurance against running problems.
Don’t buy lead replacements; do buy premium gas: Your valves don’t need any more help than a higher grade of gasoline would provide. So-called “lead replacements” are generally ineffective in boosting octane or protecting the valvetrain. Conventional wisdom says that the lead in leaded gasoline protected valve seats, stems, and guides, which many owners of pre-1976 engines address with lead-replacement additives. Millner says these efforts are misguided. “In the combustion process, lead becomes lead oxide, or in the presence of lead scavengers in the fuel-additive package, lead oxybromide,” he explains. “Neither of these lead salts are lubricants but are rather more like abrasives.” It is true that receding valve seats were recognized as an issue with the phaseout of lead in gasoline in the 1980s and early 1990s, but that was not due to the absence of lead. The Environmental Protection Administration’s mandated shift in gasoline-octane-reporting schemes added to the confusion.
“The bottom line is that lead didn’t prevent valve problems—the changes in how gasoline-octane ratings were calculated did,” states Millner. With the phaseout phaseout of lead, octane ratings became much more difficult and costly for gasoline blenders to achieve. At the same time, the industry was successful in getting the EPA to recognize statistical methods for octane verification, since results from individual octane tests vary significantly (as much as one octane number) around a statistical norm. The bottom line is that the *delivered* gasoline octane declined to being much closer to the number on the pump. For instance, in 1970, a gasoline rated at 92 Research (~today’s 87 (R+M)/2) might actually have two or three numbers of octane giveaway, testing at 94 to 95 octane. By 1990, with the cost of delivering octane having escalated, and as permitted by the EPA’s statistical methods, the octane giveaway was likely to be closer to just a tenth or two of octane number. It was this decline in *delivered* octane, say from 95 to 92 (while the number on the pump didn’t change from 92, or 87 in the new system) that affected engine performance and valve wear.
When it’s time for a valve job, by all means elect hardened valve seats, because they will last longer and won’t be damaged when you aren’t able to use high-octane gas. “There’s nothing in a pint or two of ‘lead-replacement’ tonic that will either affect valvetrain longevity or gasoline octane,” says Millner. “To noticeably boost octane with such a small quantity, the additive would have to include lead (very toxic) or methyl-manganese (tough on spark plugs and catalysts).” As a side benefit, premium gasoline often contains fewer olefins, and so is less likely to degrade over time.
Fuel pumps die: Carbureted cars usually have a low-pressure mechanical fuel pump with a rubber diaphragm. With age, the rubber loses its elasticity. This can first manifest itself in the car being very difficult to start after sitting, as the pump has trouble filling the fuel lines and the float bowl in the carburetor. Eventually the pump stops working completely. Electric fuel pumps usually fail in a more binary way—they either work or they don’t. Sometimes pumps get clogged by rust from the gas tank that finds its way into the rest of the fuel system. In either case, the symptom is a car that starts, but dies a few seconds later. The fuel pump is usually the culprit.
Cars with internal fuel pumps in the fuel tank rely on the fuel to cool the pump. If you normally keep the tank one-quarter full or less (which is understandable perhaps for a car not driven often), you have insufficient fuel to cool the pump. As the pump ages, it becomes more susceptible to cooling-related failure. So keep the tank at least half full.
Let’s be clear: Oil is the lifeblood of any engine. And just as there are different blood types, so are there different oils for different engines, uses, and climatic conditions. So while there’s no “one-oil-fits-all” answer, there are some pretty general guidelines you can follow. Here are some considerations on lubricating oil for vintage cars:
Stick with conventional oil versus synthetics: If the manufacturer didn’t originally specify synthetic oil, you can stick with conventional oils to avoid problems. You could consider semi-synthetic oils, but the synthetic content can lead to seal leakage on older cars. The benefits of synthetics include very high operating temperatures and long life between changes, benefits that aren't generally realized in older cars that were designed for lower operating temperatures. Classic car oil generally loses its lubrication quality from time-related oxidation and engine-blowby water and acids long before the recommended mileage is reached.
Change your vehicle’s oil annually (at minimum): Most vintage cars won’t reach the mileage recommendations for oil changes, so change your oil and oil filter at least once a year. Motor oils contain antioxidation additives; when you open the container, however, oxidation begins. Once the engine is started, the act of combustion contaminates the oil with moisture and combustion-byproduct acids. This underlies the lubricant maker’s suggestion to change oil at least every four months, no matter how many miles are driven.
Change your oil right before you store your car at the end of the driving season. This ensures that the oil is free of moisture and acids, which you don’t want sitting in the engine over the storage period. Better to drain that out and replace with fresh oil, preferably with an anticorrosion additive.
Choose the correct viscosity of motor oil: there’s a lot to consider when choosing motor oil viscosity, and nothing can replace the specialized knowledge of your make's car club, so consider joining it. Here are some general observations to get you started.
Begin by researching what the original viscosity recommendation was. Perhaps you don't have the original motorist's information booklet that came with your car, but someone has likely uploaded it online. Start there.
Single-grade oils may still be the best choice for pre-World-War-II design engines, especially if the crankshaft has roller bearings. Bearing metallurgy may be incompatible with modern oil detergents. Do your research!
Our classic cars aren't spring chickens, and engine wear is to be expected. The modern multi-viscosity oils are a great option, since the oil is thicker at operating temperature than a corresponding single-weight oil. This improves oil pressure and reduces oil being pumped past the rings, thus reducing spark-plug fouling and oil consumption. Let's explain the numbers: When we refer to an oil as a 20W-50, that means at room temperature, it's a 20-weight motor oil, which is important for winter (hence the “W”) starting conditions. However, through the choice of blending components with a high viscosity index and addition of viscosity-index improvers, the multi-viscosity 20W-50 oil thins much less with temperature than a straight 20 weight would. The “50” in the 20W-50 grade tells us that at engine operating temperature, around 200 degrees, this specially blended oil has the same high-temperature viscosity that a 50-weight oil would have. The viscosity index (VI) is the measure of how little or how much the oil thins with increased temperature. Choosing or additizing to high VI oils gives us the best of both worlds: a light oil when the engine is cold and oil pumping is more difficult, but a thicker protective oil at engine operating temperature. You may have selected a 20W-40 in the 1960s for your then-recent Lincoln; today, that senior vehicle might well favor a 20W-50 or even 20W-60.
Check your oil level before you drive: We’re not in favor of adding oil every time the level changes minutely, but at least top up when the oil level drops by a half-quart. If you’ve been driving mostly around town, the odds are that some combustion-byproduct water has condensed in the oil supply. Don’t be surprised if you have to add some after a freeway run that boils off that water.
Asking for recommendations on which oil to use is like bringing up politics at a family Thanksgiving: You’ll hear a lot of opinions, and some strongly held ones. If you don’t have a trusted local mechanic you can consult, try an online forum for your model of car and be specific about the climate where you live.
Choose the zinc level of your oil carefully: Modern oils do require modification to meet the needs of older engines. One alternative is to select a diesel-spec oil such as Shell Rotella with ZDDP, but be sure to check the manufacturer’s safety-data sheet for the zinc level. Zinc dialkyldithiophosphate (ZDDP) is the most commonly used antiwear additive in motor oils, expressed on the spec sheet either as a percentage or in parts per million (ppm). The ZDDP compound forms a protective layer on steel in the presence of pressure and temperature, preventing metal-to-metal contact. In classic car engines, this is most important to mitigate sliding wear at the tappets in the valvetrain. In more modern engines, roller tappets mitigate this wear point. The traditional zinc additive isn’t very friendly to catalytic converters, so modern engine oils have dramatically reduced requirements and levels.
You’ll definitely want these additives to protect the flat tappets—or an alternative (see below)—for almost all engines used before catalytic converters became mandatory in 1976. Look for the specialty oils that contain them. A few mass-market oil brands now offer “racing” lines of oil that are sold in most chain auto-parts stores, including Valvoline VR1 and Mobil 1 Racing. These racing oils have elevated levels of ZDDP of around 1100-1300 ppm and are designed to capture the market for older vehicles. The racing designation is meant to separate these oils from oils that are compatible with modern road cars and have zinc levels closer to 600-700 ppm. The high-zinc oils should not be used in anything modern to avoid damage to the catalytic converter. Again, some research into the ZDDP content of each oil is a good idea, with a comparison of that to the requirements of your car’s engine, since different cars need different amounts of zinc. For instance, a 1966 MGB running a stock camshaft will be happy on the 1300 ppm of ZDDP in common brands like Valvoline VR1, but it doesn’t need as much ZDDP as a 1966 Chevy Chevelle quarter-miler running a racing camshaft. The race camshaft will benefit from the 2000-2400 ppm of zinc in, say, Red Line Racing Oil, to prevent metal-to-metal contact between the lifter and cam face.
However, you shouldn’t assume that more zinc is always better. Don’t blindly choose oil with a really high content of ZDDP or “top off” a high-zinc oil by using even more ZDDP additives that are sold separately by companies such as ZDDPPlus or Rev X. Too much zinc in the oil causes bearing corrosion, sludging, and plug-fouling problems. This won’t be an issue if you’re changing oil between race weekends, but it might be a problem if you drive the car once a month and change the oil only once a year. In other words, what kind of car you drive and how often you drive it should be your guide on what kind of ZDDP content to seek in your oil.
Consider alternative additives: Many “mechanic-in-a-can” solutions are offered online and at the auto-parts store; some are formulations that have been around for decades. Even so, many offer no real advantage, being composed of light-weight motor oil, fragrance, and coloring. There are some additive packages that are derived from more modern lubrication science, but it’s always wise to investigate the science behind any offering. One additive worth your investigation is ASL CamGuard, which is touted to reduce wear, control corrosion, protect highly loaded surfaces such as tappet faces, and extend the life of engine seals. The formulation comes out of work done at Exxon but was deemed by management as being too expensive for inclusion in its motor oils. For our classic cars and their special needs, however, there are some real advantages. Take a look at the website (https://aslcamguard.com/) and make special note of the tech data there. Those who have their engines on oil analysis report reduced wear of metals, and that is promising. It may be possible to sidestep choosing the right level of zinc in your motor oil by including this alternative instead.
That heavy plastic box in your engine compartment (or under the rear seat, or in the trunk) is as vital a component to the functioning of your car as its engine. Often the battery is completely overlooked until it dies. Car batteries don’t have to die as frequently as they do, however, and sometimes when they’re “dead,” they can be brought back to life.
Let’s start with the basics: A battery is an energy bank that makes both deposits and withdrawals as needed. When charging, the incoming electrical energy is converted into chemical energy as electrons are deposited via a conductive electrolyte onto the battery’s plates. When discharging, the battery converts the chemical energy stored on its plates to electrical energy for powering devices in the car, such as the starter or fuel pump. A car battery also serves other functions. Even though the engine’s alternator produces the current that runs the car’s electrical devices when the engine is on, the battery acts as a buffer in the system by smoothing out the peaks and valleys in the voltage, so that the electrical devices receive a uniform amount of energy at all times. The battery also powers the car’s electrical systems when the engine isn’t burning gas and turning the alternator. It also stores electricity for when the car is parked, so that it will have juice later for a restart.
There are different types of car batteries, the cheapest and most common being a “flooded” or wet-cell battery, in which the lead plates sit in a bath of liquid electrolyte. Newer gel batteries use a thicker putty-like electrolyte that gives some advantages, such as longer life and less required maintenance. One type of gel battery is the absorbent glass-mat (AGM) battery, such as those made by Optima, which hold their electrolyte in rolls of absorbent glass-fiber pad.
All the charging and discharging that batteries endure during normal use makes the battery one busy box, but it should last a long time because lead-acid batteries like the exercise. Indeed, inactivity hastens their demise. For example, over a long period of storage, the battery discharges slowly. As this is happening, something called sulfation occurs to the negatively charged plates inside. Lead sulfate crystals build up on the surface of the plates and reduce the amount of active material available for electron transfer.
Sulfation is not necessarily an irreversible process. A series of sharp electrical pulses that effectively overcharge the battery can shake any “soft” sulfate crystals loose and revive a dying battery. Some of the more sophisticated battery chargers offer this feature, though results are hardly guaranteed and are based on how abused/sulfated the battery is. “Hard” sulfation happens when the battery has been left for dead for weeks or months and a healthy amount of crystallization has occurred. Batteries at this point are rarely recoverable.
You can’t depend on your car’s charging system to fully recharge a dying battery. The charging system in your car wasn’t designed to bring the battery back from the dead; its purpose is to supply a maintenance charge to the battery while the car is underway. If it seems as though your starter is chug-chugging the engine to life with barely enough juice to get it started, then your battery is weak and you are putting undue stress on the charging system. Starters do not chug when operating properly. Ignore this situation and soon you will be shopping for a new generator/alternator as well as a new battery—or, worse yet, stuck on the side of the road or in some lonely, dark parking lot.
Ways you can extend your battery life
Installing a cutoff switch: Several types are available, from cheap screw-type switches that bolt directly to the battery post to heavy-duty marine switches. Car batteries have a shocking amount of power and can easily start fires if metal bits are touching each other in the right way. Some people have had good luck with the inexpensive screw-type disconnectors—the kind typically with a green knob—yet others prefer using marine-rated shutoffs.
A remote cutoff switch such as the heavy-duty marine style lets you put it wherever is safest and also, if desired, convenient to the driver, such as under the dash. However, more work is involved running cable and properly securing both the cables and the switch so that the battery disconnect system will be reliable.
Always connect any type of cutoff switch to the negative post of the battery, since incidental contact between it and the car body won’t result in an electrical arc and possible fire, which is more likely if the switch is affixed to the positive post. The negative post is the one marked with a minus sign and/or with a black boot over the cable end. (Tip: If you have to pound the switch on, you’re attaching it to the wrong post.)
Disconnecting the battery eliminates the possibility of a major short causing a fire. It also keeps the battery from suffering a slow death through more common low-amperage shorts, which are prevalent in old cars with aging wires.
Use a battery charger: These are popular with owners of classic and exotic cars that sit caged in garages most of the time. Modern exotics with onboard computers and security systems consume significant juice even while parked, and a dead battery can mean more than a car that won’t start. It can mean computer onboard-diagnostic codes that trigger the car’s warning lights, which must be cleared by a dealership or somebody handy with an OBD scanner. Thus, many owners prefer trickle chargers and “float chargers” to keep the battery topped up. A trickle charger provides a steady low-amperage charge to the battery; a more sophisticated float charger senses when the battery is starting to discharge, then applies a charge to the battery until it is topped up again, at which point it switches off.
Trickle chargers come with downsides as well. Cheap ones can overcharge the battery and cause fires. Check the internet for horror stories and photos if you don’t believe it. Ones without internal float controls can also dry out wet-cell batteries when left on for a long time, thus killing the thing that they are meant to be saving.
Any time an external power source is connected to your battery and you are not there to physically monitor it, there is a risk. You can allay the risk by buying a high-quality charger, buying one that matches the type of battery, or by having a set time once every six months to fully charge your car’s battery. Your battery will thank you for the attention, but the best way to keep your battery and car healthy is to drive it regularly.
Keep your battery posts clean by using a mixture of one cup of baking soda and one cup of hot water. Scrub the posts with the solution using an old toothbrush. The baking soda neutralizes the toxic sulfuric acid in that corrosive white buildup on the posts. When done, dry off both posts and apply some petroleum jelly or lithium grease to keep them insulated and prevent future corrosion.
Some things to know about battery chargers: If you have a charger more than 10 years old, stop using it. Old chargers have aging wiring and no modern controls to prevent overcharging. You’re risking a fire every time you use it. Overcharging a lead-acid battery produces hydrogen-sulfide gas, which is both flammable and toxic. Buy a high-quality modern charger that matches the type of battery—wet, gel, or AGM—that you have in your car.
Some chargers allow you to select deep-cycle or maintenance charging. Deep cycle is for batteries designed to completely discharge and then recharge, such as those in golf carts. Your car battery is not a deep-cycle battery; it’s designed to have a certain level of charge at all times. Hence, maintenance charging is a better selection for a car battery.
Many modern chargers automatically control the charge mode. You connect them and the charger does the rest. Manual chargers keep charging at whatever level you select, assuming there are controls. Some let you select the charging amperage. If you’re trying to get your car started in 15 minutes so you can go for a drive, that much time on a high, 12-amp setting may be enough to give your battery a squirt to get the car started (just don’t shut off the car anytime soon). When you get home, you can switch the charger to a lower-amp trickle charge and leave it until the next time you go for a drive. Some chargers have a 2-amp setting, but that is really intended for motorcycles and other devices with small batteries; car batteries are so big that they may actually discharge faster than they charge on a 2-amp setting.
Jump-start. Some chargers have a jump-start function, which means they can briefly supply high current to the battery to get the engine started without waiting for a lengthy charge. However, a battery in need of a jump-start is a battery either in need of a full charge or possibly replacement. If you find yourself jump-starting your car’s battery often, then even if it has enough juice to run the car for a while, it’s going to need replacing soon.
TOOLS FOR THE ROAD
We once knew a mechanic who carried around a complete small-block Chevy engine in the back of his van. It was handy when one needed a snap-on wiring loom at a moment’s notice, but it sure took up a lot of space. Alternately, there is the theory that all one needs for a properly prepared classic is a pair of quality driving gloves. And though that would indeed be nice, there is a middle ground that acknowledges that a) some unplanned situations arise, and b) older cars consume more fluids than brand-new ones. Therefore, we’ve compiled a list of things that everyone should have in their touring box. Though not exhaustive, we think it provides a good balance between the two extremes outlined:
FIRE EXTINGUISHER: Not in the trunk but secured in the cabin or under the front seat and accessible on a moment's notice. We recommend the Element brand of fire extinguishers, because they are small enough to fit in the glovebox and light enough to be wielded easily. An E50 model will discharge for 50 seconds, which is almost five times the time that is offered by a standard 5-pound fire bottle-type extinguisher.
REFLECTIVE SAFETY TRIANGLE/FLARES: Carry a reflective safety triangle or flares to place behind your vehicle so oncoming traffic can see you.
OIL: By now, we’ve gone to some lengths to obtain the proper oil for the crankcase, but don’t expect to find it at the Corner Gas in Randomville USA if you need it. Carry 2 spare quarts and you won’t be left scrambling. If your car needs more than a quart per thousand miles, then it might be a sign of internal engine wear, which tends to make itself evident in unpleasant ways, e.g., the engine going boom.
COOLANT: Same theory as above regarding oil applies to coolant. Until the advent of the coolant recovery tank in the mid-’70s, engines routinely spit coolant on the ground after highway driving. You don’t want to be pouring creek water into your pre-mixed Prestone or, worse yet, into your waterless coolant, so carry an extra gallon.
VITAL FLUIDS: While we’re on the subject of fluids, consider also packing the appropriate fluids for the automatic transmission, brakes, and power steering. Even if there are no leaks, condensation can be present, which burns off at high speed. Better safe and lubricated than dry and disappointed.
TIRES: Of course, the tire pressures are all freshly set before your trip, but a digital gauge can help you determine a slow leak and prevent a flat. And speaking of flats, a verified spare tire, fully inflated, and of the same size and type as the road tires is a must. That means no bias-ply original spare if the car rolls on radials. And if all the parts of the jack are not present and accounted for, simply pack a portable car jack. There are even electric ones available.
TOOLS: Unless you drive a Snap-On truck, only a few essential tools are needed. We recommend a selection of sockets, a few screwdrivers, and wrenches. You don’t want to be the guy standing on the side of the road shouting, “My kingdom for a Phillips screwdriver!” Also pack a rubber mallet for whacking a sticking starter or reinstalling wheel covers. Many cars have a fuel filter in line, and it wouldn't hurt to carry a fresh one. And, of course, fuses. There are three basic fuse styles: glass for domestic cars up to about 1982, barrel for older European cars, and blade type for the 1980s and newer. (You Lucas folks are on your own here). Whichever style your car uses, it’s peace of mind to pack a few spares. It’s always handy to have a length of wire with a couple alligator clips for jumping a misbehaving wire. The well-maintained classic should have no need for jumper cables but carrying them will probably provide peace of mind.
And if you know how to use one, a compact electrical tester can help isolate roadside gremlins.
LONGER TOURING: For long-distance road trips, an extra set of belts can save the day. Some folks even carry extra water pumps and fuel pumps. Even if you don’t plan to install them yourself, having the parts with you will certainly expedite the repair process, especially if your vehicle is rare or you’re in the middle of nowhere.
WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD
Does passing the penny-tread depth test (i.e., flipping Lincoln’s head upside down, inserting the penny in the tread, and ensuring his head is not fully exposed) and checking tire pressures mean you are ready to go for a trip in your classic? Not yet, as old cars with old tires are a dangerous combination.
Both aforementioned tests are important, but a visual inspection is likely to save you and your classic from harm. As a result, consider two other items when inspecting your tires: the date code and the rubber’s physical condition.
Deciphering the date code is the easiest way to ensure your safety in your classic. First, find the tire-identification number—which has been stamped into tire sidewalls since the year 2000—and read the last four digits. If the code is present, the first two digits are the week of production and the last two denote the year of production. The general consensus of tire and auto manufacturers is that they have a lifespan between 6 and 10 years, no matter how much tread is present. And yes, if your tires do not have a date code stamped on the sidewall, they should be replaced immediately!
The 6- to 10-year range is purposefully vague, as not all living and driving conditions are the same. Exposure to sunlight (UV rays), ozone, and high temperatures exacerbate the breakdown of rubber, and the most visible symptoms are cracks in the sidewall and between the tread blocks. But that’s not all: Dry-rotted tires free of cracks are still hardened, discolored (turning dark gray) and have lost enough performance to negatively affect ride and handling, especially in wet weather conditions. You don’t want to learn this after another car cuts in front of you on a wet road, so take dry rot seriously!
Back to tire pressures: It’s important to ensure your tires aren’t under-inflated but consider over-inflation (especially if still running bias-ply tires) on your vehicle’s ride and handling. Just because your late-model Navigator runs 35 psi doesn’t mean your ’67 Lotus Elan should, nor your ’47 Packard. Bias-ply tires are usually inflated at 25 psi or less; radial tires are usually 32 psi or less. When in doubt, consult with your vehicle’s owner’s manual (or body tag).
ONGOING CARE OF YOUR FOUR-WHEELED FRIEND
While that old saying that accidents will happen is true, there are some situations where catastrophes can be all but eliminated if you know how to spot them before they can turn tragic. Here at Hagerty, we have seen owners experience damage to their beloved vehicles that could have been avoided if the owners had a bit of knowledge and knew where to look. Consider these tips our way of sharing lessons learned the hard way by others to help you enjoy trouble-free driving for many miles.
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
You've done all the preventive maintenance, checked all the trouble spots, and given your classic a clean bill of health … and yet here you are on the side of the road. Not to worry: Follow these steps to keep you and your classic safe:
PREPPING FOR STORAGE
For those who must endure the deep cruelty of snowfall, each year you'll come to that most painful of moments (aside from April 15, of course): the end of the driving season and a long winter's storage nap. In order to retrieve your car in the same condition you left it, follow these steps (which also apply for seasonal storage regardless of climate):
Start by scoping out the spot where you will store the car. Your primary goal is to ensure that the bottom of the car stays dry, because moisture causes rust and rust is the enemy. Moisture can flow upward from the concrete, so the idea is to create a barrier between the concrete and the underside of the car.
First, clean the concrete as well as you can, preferably with a degreasing cleaner. Then lay down a plastic vapor barrier—the thickest one you can find. These are available in the paint department at home-improvement stores. Use duct tape to seal the edges to the floor, then put a basic cloth/canvas layer on top of that, which you also can find in the paint department of a home-improvement store.
Damage from insects and rodents is among the top reasons Hagerty owners file claims, and in this case, a few simple steps can help avoid such misfortune. While adding these layers doesn’t specifically deter rodents or insects, if the car is on a clean surface, you can easily see if there is evidence of their activity underneath or around the car.
Think of what critters use to build homes. Is there any old furniture stored near the cars? Stuffing from pillows and chairs can be easily hijacked and made into mouse nests inside every crevice of your car. We know of one owner who had a family of mice build a lovely home in the transmission tunnel in his 1968 Porsche 911; he thought he'd never dig all that fuzz out of there, and the unpleasant odor lingered long after the mice were gone.
Many people swear by dryer sheets such as Bounce, Irish Spring soap, and mothballs to deter rodents, but we swear at them; their scent can potentially harm your car’s interior. If you do choose to use them, we advise that you place them only on the exterior of your vehicle. Use dryer sheets in spots such as under the hood, on the tops of the tires, and even over the end of the car’s exhaust tips. Make a list of all the spots where you placed the dryer sheets; it’s easy to forget over the course of the winter. Then, at the beginning of the driving season, gather them all up and toss them—but not in the dryer.
To keep rodents out of exhaust systems and air cleaners, place wads of steel wool inside them. We know of someone who was tearing down an engine and found a mouse carcass on top of a piston.
Mice will make nests out of almost anything, so empty your car of all paper products. Remove items such as the owner’s manual or your vehicle documents (registration proof of insurance, etc.) from the glovebox. Make sure the trunk is empty, too.
On the subject of traps: If you decide to use them, place them only on the outside of your vehicle. You definitely don’t want your vehicle’s interior to reek of rodents that have gone to that big piece of cheese in the sky.
This is not a method to prevent mice from getting into your vehicle, but rather an extra precaution in case they do get into the interior: Mice have been known to nest behind sun visors and cause damage to the visors and headliner. To avoid this, always lower the visors to eliminate the chance for the critters to establish residence on them.
Falling objects damaging vehicles are also major causes of filed claims. Make sure there is nothing within the perimeter of your vehicle or stored above it. Move items such as rakes, shovels, or bikes that could fall against your vehicle and cause damage.
Once you’ve prepped the spot where your car will be hibernating, follow these steps to make sure it’s stored properly:
Just before you put your vehicle away, give it a good wash and wax to protect the paint. Protect the chrome with wax or paint sealant.
Make your last drive of the season to a gas station, preferably right after you wash and wax it to make sure it’s dry. Before you head out, add a bottle of fuel preservative such as Stabil or Sea Foam. The drive will help run the preservative through your car’s fuel system. Once at the gas station, top off the gas tank. The full tank will keep out moisture, and the preservative will keep the gas from breaking down.
Change the oil before putting your vehicle in storage. You don’t want to see nasty sludge in the spring; having fresh oil will mean your car will be ready to roll when driving season returns.
If you’re in a climate where temperatures drop below freezing, make sure your antifreeze is fresh and topped off to avoid corrosion. Top off your windshield solvent, too, to keep it from freezing.
Put down a few silica-gel desiccant bags to absorb moisture inside the car. Set them on plates or similar so they don’t sit directly on the carpet or upholstery.
If you’re storing your car for longer than a month, put a battery manager on it. (See the Battery section.)
Some owners avoid covering their car because mice like dark areas to build their nests, usually out of the car’s insulation, hood blanket, or seat-cushioning material. Use a car cover if storing indoors; if you use one on a vehicle that you store outside, it can get whipped by the wind and seriously damage the vehicle’s paint. These covers can range in price from several hundred dollars for heavy-duty breathable covers to less than $20 for thin, translucent plastic covers with elastic along the bottoms to snug up the cover once it’s on the vehicle. One person can easily put it on, and since the plastic is translucent, you can see the vehicle underneath it. Seeing your car slumbering away in your garage can do your car-loving heart some good in the depths of winter.
Over-inflate your tires to avoid flat spotting. Typically 40 psi or so is enough. If you’re storing it longer than a couple of months, you can jack up the car to take pressure off the tires.
When a car sits, the oil settles into the pan, leaving the engine without lubrication. At the beginning of the driving season, disconnect the coil wire. If your vehicle doesn’t have a pressure gauge, crank the engine over for about 30 seconds or so; that should be enough time for the engine to develop sufficient pressure. Reconnect the coil wire and let the car fast-idle at 1500–2000 rpm for a couple minutes. Get out, do a walk-around of the vehicle and look under the hood to check for leaks or any other issues.
Get behind the wheel and give the brake pedal a couple pumps; do the same with the clutch pedal if your car has one. If they feel soft or spongy, look under the hood to see if there are any leaks. Don’t drive the car until these issues are resolved.
Make your first drive of the season a short one around your neighborhood; that way, if anything happens, you won’t be too far from home. Return home and check over the car again, looking for leaks or other issues.
If everything checks out, then you’re ready to take some longer trips, so head out on the open road and enjoy the journey!