Are Classic Cars Expensive To Maintain? (Mechanic Tells All)


Classic Mercedes

I’ve worked on my own classic cars for years, and you are right to think about the cost of maintenance because they do need a lot of love. But owning a classic car is a joy, people greet a classic car with a smile on their face, an old car is a great way to meet new people.

So are classic cars expensive to maintain? Mass market classic cars like Ford and GM are inexpensive to maintain, but any car that’s ultra-rare will be expensive. Cars like Maserati, Ferrari, Porsche, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Mercedes. They all require specialist knowledge, tools and that’s usually expensive.

In this post, I’ll cover the type of maintenance a classic car will need for average use and what you can do to keep costs down.

What Factors Effect Classic Car Maintenance Cost?

The cost of maintenance for every classic car will vary, costs are mostly affected by the condition of the car. But the condition isn’t the only factor to affect costs, here’s a few other variables that should be considered:

  • Type of car
  • Usage
  • Maintenance plan
  • Location

Obviously, a nut and bolt rebuilt classic car is a different story, they won’t cost as much to maintain, since they’re practically a new car. The downside is they cost a ton to buy on day one.

Classic Car Condition Effects Maintenance Costs

Of course, every classic car is going to need some repairs, but you don’t want to buy a classic that seems to run fine, but shortly after buying it, develops a gazillion problems that will cost big numbers to put right.

How a car was treated over its life makes all the difference to its future. When the maintenance file is on the thin side, it usually means problems down the road. I try and avoid large time or mileage gaps in the service stamps.

Paying a bit more and buying a good car even with high mileage is OK if the maintenance record is solid.

Type Of Car Effects Maintenance Costs

Ford GT40

You already know that rare high-end models, the likes of Ferrari and Maserati will cost a lot to maintain.

These models are usually difficult to work on. The engines are pretty well wedged in there, special tools and knowledge are needed, and even simple jobs can be labor-intensive.

It is possible for a regular mechanic to work on these higher-end motors, but because of their value, using a specialist recognized professional garage and having their stamp is a better investment. Especially for any of the more technical jobs like timing belts or head gaskets etc.

Parts are the next hurdle, classic imports are going to be more challenging to get parts for, and if the car is a rare classic import, close to impossible. And the price of these precious rare commodities?……. You guessed it!

American muscle car parts are easy to get and not very expensive. The more mass-market the model the cheaper and more widely available the parts.

Classic Car Usage Effects Maintenance Costs

Ferrari

How often are you going to use the car? I know some guys that wouldn’t put 200 miles on their classic in a year. Their wheels are for shows not for driving, the trailer puts in the mileage. These types of cars are obviously pretty inexpensive to maintain.

Maybe you intend to use your car as a daily driver, and that’s perfectly possible but your maintenance schedule will need to be carried out with military discipline. A classic car that’s used as a daily driver will protest if she’s neglected.

Maintenance Plan Effects Costs

Rustyautos.com workshop

When it comes to maintenance you have two choices – DIY or use a garage.

DIY: Taking care of all your own repairs may not be practical. Some jobs will require a high level of skill, specialist tools, and equipment.

But lots of jobs can be taken care of DIY style, and the savings can add up to quite a lot. Remember older cars are generally easier to work on.

The kind of jobs a classic car will likely need and a DIY enthusiast can easily take care of, include:

  • Engine oil change
  • Transmission oil change
  • Tune-up
  • Muffler repairs
  • Brake overhaul
  • Suspension replacing
  • Battery replacing
  • Starter replacing
  • Alternator replacing
  • Radiator replacing
  • Coolant change
  • Brake fluid change
  • Wiper blade replacing
  • Bulb replacing
  • Fuse replacing
  • Wiring repairs
  • Rust treatment
  • Paint oxidation repair
  • Paint touch-up repairs
  • Oil pan gasket replacing
  • Valve cover gasket replacing

These types of jobs can be done on the driveway. You’ll need a few tools, but nothing too specialized or expensive.

Tool rack

You’ll only need the pro’s for more technical jobs, the kind of jobs that a classic car may need, include:

  • Timing belts/timing chain replacement
  • Wheel bearings replaced
  • Transmission repairs
  • Cylinder head gasket replacement
  • Oil stem valve seals replaced
  • Cylinder head valves re-seating
  • Rear main oil seals replaced
Head gasket failure chart

Not into swinging wrenches? Then you have no choice, you’ll need a good trustworthy garage or better. Find a semi-retired mechanic, he’ll likely love the chance to use his experience and skills on a classic car. A great place to ask is at your local classic car club.

Classic Car Location Effects Maintenance Costs

Frozen windshield

Location, Location, Loc…… you know how it goes, well, it’s the same for classic cars. A car from a cold climate has had a harder life. Classic cars don’t like the damp or the cold and defo not salted roads.

Where a classic lived for most of its life will have a bearing on future maintenance costs, as will its future location.

Rusty axle

Dampness and road salt attack cars and often in places you can’t see. A tel-tail sign is badly corroded underpinnings, that my friends are a window into the future. A car with badly corroded underpinnings didn’t live in a dry state or in a heated garage. This is the kind of car that will blow a hole in your pocket.

A classic car that’s garaged every night will, without doubt, cause you fewer issues, and if the garage is heated, your odds get even better. Classic cars from dry states are prised for good reason.

The Cost Of Maintenance

It’s difficult to be precise about the actual price and amount of maintenance, prices across the country will vary according to factors such as availability of mechanics, how busy they are, type of classic car, parts availability, etc.

Jaguar

The amount of maintenance will obviously vary by the annual mileage.

Typical classic car maintenance schedules

Every 10,000 Miles:

  • Oil and filter change
  • Brake checks
  • Fluid checks
  • Belt checks
  • Tire rotation

Every 30,000 Miles:

  • Full Tune-up
  • Wiper blades
  • Alignment

Every 40,000 Miles

  • Transmission Flush
  • Rear differential oil change

Every 90,000 Miles

  • Replace timing belt (If fitted)
  • Replace Water pump

Every 3 Years

  • Coolant change
  • Brake fluid change
  • Replace battery

Expect to spend between two and three thousand dollars per year, which covers all the foreseeable failures. Some years will be less and some more, it’s like growing crops in that respect and so makes sense to hold a contingency fund.

clutch plate

Here’s a ballpark price for the various types of repairs that a classic will likely need. The prices assume that the car is repaired at a mom-and-pop type shop and that the repair work is completed as individual jobs.

Having all the work completed at once would allow the car owner to strike a better price. If you can take care of this work yourself, you could save up to 75% of the price on some jobs.

Year One:

  • Tune-up $250
  • Wiper blades $50
  • Timing belt replacement $500
  • New Battery $120
  • New Tires $400
  • Alignment $75
  • Replaced Antifreeze $90
  • Brake job $850
  • Two oil changes $150
  • Rust proofing under body seal

The first year is usually the most expensive as many of these jobs will need to be done before you start driving the vehicle. Jobs like the timing belt (not fitted to all cars) must be done, a broken belt causes a lot of expensive damage.

Jaguar

Also makes sense to do a complete brake job now, classic cars usually need brake rotors, pads, fluid change, and possibly brake lines replaced.

Brake inspection chart

Year Two:

  • Tune-up $250
  • Wiper blades $50
  • Alignment $75
  • Aux belt replaced $50
  • New starter motor $175
  • Transmission flush $120
  • Power steering flush $75
  • Suspension repairs $300
  • Brake pads $100
  • Two oil changes $150
  • Replace plug wires and distributor cap $150
  • Water leak repairs $300
  • Electrical repairs $200

Year Three:

  • Tune-up $250
  • Wiper blades $50
  • Alignment $75
  • Two oil changes $150
  • Brake Pads $100
  • Electrical repairs $200
  • Bodywork repairs $500
  • New alternator $200
  • Power steering pump repair $300
  • Suspension/steering repairs $250

Related Questions

Are old cars reliable? If an old car is maintained in top-class condition and garaged overnight, then yes, an old car is still capable of being a reliable vehicle.

John Cunningham

John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. I've been a mechanic for over twenty-five years, and I've worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Landrover, and Jaguar dealerships. My passion is cars. I use my knowledge and experience to write articles that help fellow gear-heads with all aspects of car ownership, including buying advice, maintenance, and troubleshooting.

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