I’ve been collecting and working on old cars for years, I’ve learned a lot, in this post I’ll share what I know about caring, preserving, and repairing them.
So how do you care for a classic car? Keeping your classic in great shape isn’t difficult, but you’ll need to do the basics:
- Garage It
- Keep a Strict Maintenance Schedule
- Under-seal & Wax Chassis
- Drive it Regularly
- Use Gas Stabiliser
- Use Battery Maintainer
In this post, I have included a mechanical, bodywork, interior, and electrical checklist. If you take care of this stuff, your classic car will be reliable and a pleasure to drive, guaranteed.
Care For A Classic Car
Caring for a classic car is something anyone can do. Lots of the easy stuff also happens to be the most important stuff, like dipping for oil, checking the coolant, brake fluid, doing regular inspections, keeping the bodywork protected, interior clean, and garaged carefully.
If you are a classic car owner, you’ll already know that they can be expensive to repair and maintain, but doing just simple regular maintenance will, without a doubt, save you money and time in the shop.
Classic cars don’t like sitting idle, it causes all sorts of problems. If your classic is roadworthy, then use it, take it for a good drive, once or twice a week. I avoid short runs where the engine doesn’t reach operating temperature, short runs cause condensation.
Driving the car cleans corrosion on the brake rotors and drums it also prevents flat spots on the tires. It boosts the battery and burns off any moisture in the muffler system and engine.
Cars were designed to be driven and so strangely you’ll find a classic car that’s driven regularly will cost less to maintain than a classic sitting idle in a garage for long periods.
The Importance Of Engine Oil
By far the most important fluid in your classic is the engine oil, so take special care with oil levels and the quality of oil you use. Check your oil regularly, at the very least, check it every time you fill the gas.
Add oil in small amounts, if needed. Overfilling is bad for the engine, it causes excessive crankcase pressure which can cause oil leaks.
Most older cars won’t do a lot of mileage so I don’t change the oil going by miles. I change my oil at the beginning of the driving season and again before I winterize it, so 2 lubes a year.
Changing The Oil
Changing the oil and oil filter is a simple job you can easily take care of yourself. You’ll need a few wrenches, an oil filter removal tool, an oil drain, and some rags. The car engine should be warm, it helps the draining process.
I like to replace the oil filter and the oil pan bung washer. The new bung crush washer prevents those irritating oil drips from the bung.
You’ll likely need to jack the car to gain access, use good quality jack stands for support. Drop the car back on its tires and allow the oil to drain a while.
Oil type is usually marked clearly on the oil cap but you won’t likely find the quantity, your parts store will give you that info. The quantity depends on the size of the engine, about a gallon usually does the job.
When fitting the oil filter apply a film of fresh oil on the seal and tighten the filter hand tight only. After fitting the bung, fill with oil and remember to dip again after running the engine for a minute to fill the oil filter.
Keep a record of your oil change by date and miles. Nice work!
The Importance Of Coolant
Coolant is the next most important fluid in the engine. The level is easy to check, and you’ll either fill the rad directly or fill up an expansion tank to the max level mark. I like to top up with coolant, I keep some in the trunk, but it’s OK to use water in an emergency.
Coolant is both coolant and antifreeze, it does both jobs, some people call it coolant and some antifreeze, both are right. Your coolant, as its name suggests helps keep the engine cool and also prevents the coolant from freezing in winter.
Checking coolant level is great, but it may have lost its strength, meaning your car may overheat in traffic, or come winter time the coolant could freeze solid and destroy the engine, or just push out the frost plugs if you are lucky.
Old coolant can damage your engine as it becomes acidic and eats away at metal and rubber components.
You can test your coolant by various means, volt meter, refractometer, specific gravity tester, ph tester. Or, just change it to be on the safe side, especially if it’s murky looking or older than 2 years.
Changing The Coolant
Replacing the coolant isn’t difficult but will require some basic tools. Most older cars will have a rad drain bolt at the bottom of the rad, if you have, I’m Jealous. I don’t, and so I remove the bottom rad hose from the rad.
You’ll need tools like screwdrivers and an oil pan drain, or something low profile enough to fit under the car. You may need to jack the car for access, but let it down while draining, which will get all the old coolant out.
Most cars take about a gallon of pre-mixed coolant, usually, it’s been mixed half concentrate and half water (50%) which means it offers cooling protection up to 225°F and freezing protection to about -35°F.
You can buy concentrate and mix it yourself or go the water less coolant route, it more expensive but has a much higher boiling point 375°F.
Ideally the thermostat should be changed also, it usually lives in a housing on the engine where the top hose connects. Its job is to help get the engine up to operating temperature quickly. They sometimes stick closed and cause the engine to overheat.
After changing the coolant, turn on the interior heater and test drive. Most systems will self bleed. Some may become air-locked, in which case it will need to be bled, most manufacturers place a bleed nipple high up in the coolant system – like on a top hose pipe. Opening this nipple will release the trapped air.
Check coolant level again after the engine cools.
Keep Your Gas Fresh
Keep your gas tank full, classic cars usually have metal tanks and the moisture in an empty tank causes corrosion… the Enemy.
Most gas stations use a blend of Ethanol gas which actually attracts moisture when it’s exposed to the atmosphere. This isn’t a problem for modern cars where the gas tank is sealed. A classic car’s gas tank is vented, meaning the moisture can make its way in.
The other problem with classic cars and Ethanol gas – it goes stale after just one month and regular gas dies after 3.
Avoid using ethanol gas if you can, or you can do what I do, use a gas stabilizer.
It’s easy to use and eliminates the chances of stale/contaminated gas. Just dump some stabilizer into your gas tank and fill it up with ethanol blend or regular gas. This will keep your gas fresh for up to 2 years, problem solved.
The Complete Mechanical Checklist
Old cars need lots of love, and by love, I don’t mean buying it a magic tree, I mean maintenance. Lots and lots of regular maintenance, luckily this stuff is pretty simple and you won’t need a mechanic for most of it but you will need a good tool kit.
Finding and fixing problems while they’re small, prevents big problems and big bills. It’s my duty to protect it and to be thorough in my inspection and disciplined in my maintenance.
I like to keep a copy of what I did when I did it, what products or parts I used, and the cost. I keep it in an excel spreadsheet, it removes a lot of the guesswork, like, when did I last did the coolant flush?
Here’s my checklist, lots of this stuff you can easily take care of your self and some jobs will need specialist tools, equipment, and knowledge unless of course, your name’s MacGyver.
- Check engine oil before starting
- Change oil & filter twice a year, once before winterising
- Check coolant/antifreeze level before starting
- Check coolant/antifreeze strength before summer/winter
- Change coolant/antifreeze every 2 years
- Change thermostat every 2 years
- Flush coolant system every 3 years
- Check all coolant hoses & clamps
- Clean Air filter every
- Replace air filter yearly
- Replace gas filter yearly
- Use a gas stabiliser in the fuel tank
- Top up washer bottle using an all season fluid
- Gap the plugs
- Replace plugs yearly
- Gap ignition points
- Replace ignition points yearly
- Check and adjust tappets yearly
- Check timing belt age or timing chain for age/wear
- Check/adjust fan belt
- Replace fan belt every 3 years
- Check plug leads, distributor cap and rotor arm cap
- Check mufflers, hangers, pipes for corrosion and leaks
- Check transmission oil level before driving
- Change oil & filter before winterising
- Check differential oil level yearly
- Check transfer box oil (truck) yearly
- Flush transmission every 3 years
- Check drive shaft u joints/cv joints, rubber booths and grease
- Check wheel bearings (listen for humming sound)
- Adjust wheel bearings (if applicable)
- Check garage floor for oil leaks continuously
Wheels & Tires Checklist
- Check tire pressures before driving
- Check tires for uneven wear
- Rotate tires every 6 months
- Check wheels for balance
- Torque wheels
- Apply Copper grease to wheel hubs
- Rest car on axle stands over winter to prevent tire flat spots
- Reduce tire pressure when winterising
- Check track rod inner and outer for excessive play
- Check steering rack/box excessive play
- Check steering I-shaft & u-joint for wear
- Check control arm bushings for cracking and excessive play
- Check continuously for squeak, rattle or thud noises
- Check split pins in all suspension ball-joints
- Check springs for cracks and excessive corrosion
- Check shocks for leaks and weakness
- Have alignment checked
- Check power steering fluid level
- Flush power steering system
- Check power steering hoses
- Grease all Steering and Suspension greasing points
Brake System Checklist
- Check brake fluid level every month
- Change brake fluid every 3 years
- Bleed brakes yearly
- Check brake pad/shoe wear
- Check condition of rotors and drums
- Check for brake cylinder/calipers fluid leaks
- Check and adjust emergency brake
- Check condition of brake lines and hoses
- Check operation of brake equaliser
Salt, grit, and moisture are the enemies of old cars. I avoid using my car in the rain, and I never use it in the winter, it’s tucked up tight until mid-may. If you live in a salt state, be sure to wash the car body, wheel wells, underpinnings, and undercarriage really well before winterizing. The salt can do ineradicable amounts of costly damage and isn’t easily repaired.
I avoid parking my car in harsh sun for long periods, it will kill the paint. Parking the car in dusty, windy conditions for long periods will cause fine scratch marks on the paint and glass.
Parking in a garage obviously is best, if not use a breathable car cover. You can always spot an old car that’s been garaged, the paintwork tells the story.
Classic car Paintwork
Paintwork deserves special attention, after all, it’s probably what caught your attention the first time you met. Paints’ primary function is to protect the body metal. Primer, paint, and clear coat need to be in good condition free from chips, cracks, and scrapes. Where ever you see broken paint, you have unprotected metal and that means corrosion.
It’s never been easier for classic car owners to care for their paintwork. It seems there’s an endless list of new products, like perfect match paint sticks, clear coat sticks, long life wax’s, Teflon coating, body wraps all designed for paint and bodywork protection.
I have used lots of these products and will keep you updated on how well they work, some are truly amazing.
Like the mechanical checklist, I keep a record of any bodywork repairs, I also take pictures of any treated corrosion, so I can check for creep over time.
- Wash & chamois dry
- Check for stone chipping/scratches
- Polish & wax
- Check/remove road-tar splashing
- Check/remove bird droppings immediately
- Check/remove tree sap immediately
- Check/remove bug splatter
- Check/treat bumper paintwork scuffing (if painted)
- Clean door Jams, polish & wax
- Clean/polish & wax hood, trunk underside openings
- Treat all door, trunk and hood hinges and latches with white lithium grease
- Wash under-body yearly
- Treat any body corrosion with rust proofing chemical
- Treat under-body and under pinnings with under-body sealer
- Spray wax body cavities, inner chassis rails, sills, inner doors and known problem areas
- Check under-body for any signs of corrosion
- Check/repair windshield for chips/cracks
- Replace wiper blades yearly
- Lubricate wiper arm springs
- Clean grit from weather stripping regularly
- Spray silicon on the window rails in the spring
- Treat all weather stripping to a coat of silicone spray
- Treat all glass and tail/front lights mirrors with glass polish
- Check/clean tail/front lights for debris and weather seal damage
Wheels Rim Checklist
- Check for buckles
- Check for kerb damage
- Remove brake dust regularly
- Check clear coat/chrome for chipping
- Check for alloy corrosion at hub interface
- Clean all surfaces
- Check bumper brackets and trim alignment
- Use chrome polish, then wax
- Check for corrosion/pitting
- Clean road grit from behind chrome bumpers etc
Keeping your interior clean is important for its own protection. In damp storage conditions, sweat and organic matter will promote fungus growth on seats, carpets, and seatbelts. Food that slips down the side of the seat will attract rodents and bugs. Grit in the carpets will attract and hold moisture, and that leads to corrosion.
That doesn’t mean we can’t use our cars, it just means we need to take extra care cleaning them, maybe fit some heavy rubber mats, they make cleaning the floor easy and fast.
Really you need to give the car a vacuum every time you use it. Give the handled areas like steering wheel, gear selector, door handle a quick wipe down with a damp cloth to remove sweat. A small handheld vacuum cleaner is perfect for this type of quick clean-up.
Sun and freezing conditions are hard on plastic dashboards and seats, so like the paintwork protection, try and keep them out of the elements of use protection.
Leather seats do require special attention, leather as you know is a natural product and like our skin can crack, get dry, and hard.
I clean my leather seats once a year and moisturize them. If you massage in a conditioner after cleaning, you’ll feel the leather come back to life. It softens it and gives it a more youthful glow.
Va-lour seats are less work but will need a deep clean once a year. I wouldn’t go at it with a bucket of sudsy water and stiff brush – too harsh. I like to dry clean fabric seats and vacuum out the dirt, it’s kinder to the seat fabric and seat cushions.
- Deep clean seats
- Condition leather seats
- Protect seats from direct sun and freezing conditions
- Treat with Teflon coating
- Use Lithium white grease on seat rails
- Carpets Checklist
- Check for carpet dampness
- Check for carpet dampness around heater matrix
- Vacuum after use
- Dry clean carpet
- Treat with Teflon coating
- Plastics Checklist
- Protect interior plastics like dash from direct sun with shade
- Clean and Teflon coat all plastics except steering wheel
- Clean all vents and switches using a stiff paintbrush
- Close all vents when vehicle not in use
- Wipe down head cloth
- Spray door seals with silicone spray
- Trunk Checklist
- Clean and wax trunk paintwork
- Check trunk vents are clear
- Teflon coat trunk mat
- Clean/lubricate tool kit to prevent corrosion
- Check spare wheel pressure
- Spray door seals with silicone
- Classic car wiring repairs
Keeping your electrical systems running as they should start with a good battery, and a battery that’s rated for your car is important.
Your engine size will dictate what power-rated battery you need. Batteries come in different widths, lengths, heights, pole orientation, and amp-hour ratings. A good parts store will know what’s right for your vehicle.
A battery will typically last 4-5 years, and longer if use a trickle charger on it. You already know classic cars don’t like sitting idle, well batteries hate it even more.
A sure way to kill or shorten the life of a good battery is to let it discharge over long periods. Like cars, they were designed to be used. A battery likes to be discharged and charged continuously, that’s why a smart battery charger is a smart investment.
I bought a smart battery charger 2 years ago. They’re easy to use, just hook them up, 2 crocodile clips on the battery, and plug it into the mains. I use my charger whenever the cars are not in use.
It’s smart, so it only turns itself on and charges the battery when needed. It’s cheaper than a new battery, but more importantly, it eliminates disappointment.
Voltage passes through the live cable but will only operate a motor if that voltage can pass through the ground path. Bad or corroded wiring grounds are a source of many electrical gremlins.
It’s common for old cars to have corroded body and engine grounds and broken wires within the ground cable causing high resistance to the flow of voltage.
Electrical Maintenance Checklist
- Rusty Classic Car Ground Connections
- Battery Checklist
- Check gel/dry battery health every 6 months
- Check wet battery and top-up electrolyte if needed
- Check battery terminals are rust free and tight
- Clean battery posts and apply dielectric grease
- Check battery cables for damage or corrosion
- Check battery clamp is rust free
- Use smart charger when your classics not in use
- Grounds Checklist
- Clean ground straps on chassis and apply dielectric grease
- Clean ground straps on engine and apply dielectric grease
- Perform ground side volt drop test
- Fuses Checklist
- Check fuse box for correct fuse ratings
- Clean fuse box contacts with electrical contact cleaner
- Replace all fuses
- Check/repair rear of fuse box for poor splice in wiring
- Bulbs Checklist
- Check/clean bulb holder grounds
- Check/clean bulb holders and plug in connectors with electrical contact cleaner
- Replace all bulbs
The Tools You’ll Need
Obviously you’ll need tools, a selection of wretches, standard imperial sizes, and metrics. A good socket set including a selection of deep sockets and a breaker bar.
A battery-operated impact gun would be nice, but not necessary, although some mechanics will argue it’s a basic human right.
A good trolley jack, min 4-ton lifting capacity, and good quality axle stand. Selection of pliers, hammers, chisels, files, screwdrivers, vice grips, and large channel grips. A good work light, mechanics gloves (anti-vibration) eye, and ear protection.
When you are working on old cars you can expect a lot of frozen bolts, it’s all part of the fun. I like to use a wire brush and WD40. I give the nuts and bolts a good soaking and allow it some time to work its way into the threads and go at it with an air gun preferred or ring spanner, some guys use a product called nut buster instead of the WD, anyway, that’s plan A.
Plan B – Involves hammer and chisel or long bar, the shocking action often gets things moving.
Sometimes you’ll need plan C – Heat. You can get a handheld butane torch which is OK when you don’t have plastic or rubber in the background of the work area. So I spent a few extra dollars for an electric heat gun.
Plan D – Involves a nut and bolt cutter, pretty effective when you have the room to work, but you won’t be reusing the bolt.
Plan E – Cut the bolt out with a cut-off wheel, if the bolt looks really corroded in there, I go straight to plan E.
Plan F – You going to need a welder for this one. I use this technique for bolts that I can’t get access to, they might be in a recess in the chassis. Weld a new bolt to the old one and just use an impact gun to back it out. This gets the job done every time.
Other tools and products you can pick up along the way as you need them, like:
- A basic volt meter
- Bench mounted Vice
- Drill with wire brush kit
- Selection of thread cleaners
- Tap and Die set
- Battery tester
- Copper grease
- Brake bleeder kit
- Brake line flaring kit
- Mig welder
- Power ratchet
- A test light
- Grease gun
- Electrical contact spray
- Dielectric grease
- Wheel Dolly’s
- Engine support
- Small air/hydraulic lift or pit ramp kit
- Soldering kit
- Wiring heat-shrink repair kit
- Spare bulb and fuse selection
- Silicone spray
Jump start positive to negative? The positive terminal is marked with a plus (+) sign and may be colored red, the negative terminal is marked with a negative (-) sign and is colored black.
How do you store a car long-term? Fill the gas tank and use a gas Stabiliser, remove the battery, rest chassis on axle stands and cover the car with a breathable car cover.
- About the Author
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John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. He’s been a mechanic for over twenty-five years and has worked for GM, Volvo, Volkswagen, Land Rover, and Jaguar dealerships.
John uses his know-how and experience to write fluff-free articles that help fellow gearheads with all aspects of vehicle ownership, including maintenance, repair, and troubleshooting.