How To Make A Classic Car A Daily Driver


Mercedes steering wheel

I own an old classic Mercedes car, and I wondered if I could use it as my daily driver. It took me a year to make it reliable, but I learned a lot, and hopefully you’ll find my experience useful.

So how to make a classic car a daily driver? Have a professional mechanical inspection carried out, here’s a list of common repairs:

  • Brake System Overhaul
  • Major Tune-up
  • New Shocks & Springs
  • New Exhaust
  • Under-seal Chassis
  • New Fuel Pump
  • Reconditioned Starter & Alternator
  • New Battery
  • Fit Kill Switch
  • New Tyres & Alignment

Building in reliability is never easy with old cars, and the condition of yours will dictate how difficult and expensive that will be, but there’s one area we need to get right – The brakes.

In this post I’ll share why I decided to do a complete brake job, and if I was doing it again, what I’d do differently.

There’s actually a lot to preparing your classic car as a reliable daily driver, I’ve come up with a hit list, these are the things you’ll definitely need to do.

Making A Classic Car A Daily Driver

Engine

To make an old car reliable enough to be used as a daily driver may be challenging for some old cars. Success will depend on the condition of your classic and how deep your willing to go. Obviously you’ll save quite a lot if you can take care of some of the work yourself.

When I decided to use my Mercedes as a daily driver, I got it apprised bumper to bumper, some of the problems I knew about and some were a surprise.

I didn’t have any major corrosion issues to deal with even though the underside of the the Merc was a little scruffy.

My issues were more on the maintenance side of things, technically the car was fine, but some of the components like the fan belt, battery and fluids were just old.

And old components just are’t reliable.

Classic Car Checklist

This is a list of things you’ll need to do, to make a classic car a daily driver.

Mechanicals

  • Tune-up – Change oil, plugs & all filters
  • Fan Belt – Replace
  • Starter – Recondition
  • Alternator – Recondition
  • Battery – Replace
  • Coolant – Replace
  • Thermostat – Replace
  • Rad Hoses – Replace
  • Transmission – Change oil & filter
  • Timing Belt – Replace
  • Suspension – Replace shocks & mounts
  • Suspension – Replace springs
  • Wheels – New tyres & balance
  • Alignment – Four wheel camber, caster & toe
  • Exhaust – Check condition
  • Fuel Pump – Replace
  • Power Steering – Replace fluid
  • Window Rails – Treat with Silicone spray lube

Brakes

Brake caliper and rotor
  • Rotors/Drums – Replace
  • Wheel Cylinders – Replace
  • Brake Lines – Check/Replace
  • Pads/Shoes – Replace
  • Brake Fluid – Replace
  • Fixing Classic Car Brakes

If your going to use your classic as a daily driver, you need brakes that are reliable and effective, and the only way to be sure, is to overhaul them.

Brakes on old cars can be problematic, sticking, dragging and noisy brakes are common. Rotors and drums get rusty just sitting around, they really need to used, the constant braking under normal driving keeps them clean.

COPPER BRAKE LINES

My brakes felt fine, but the metal brake lines were corroded at the body fixings, and anywhere muck got trapped around them looked rusty.

My Mercedes isn’t unusual, it’s a common problem with old classic cars. So you’ll need to check your brake lines really well, a special brake line scrapping tool makes the job easier.

A complete brake job will include replacing:

  • Rotors/Drums
  • Pads
  • Brake Lines
  • Flexi Hoses
  • Brake Fluid Change
  • Parking Brake Cables/Shoes

Brake calipers are pretty reliable but they can stick, and the bleed nipples are often rusted solid. This makes a simple brake bleeding job impossible and the only solution is to replace the whole caliper.

caliper

Old cars usually have calipers at the front and drums at the rear. Calipers are a lot easier to work on than drum brakes. The drum brake set up has lots of springs and clips and a brake cylinder to actuate the brakes. The cylinders are prone to leaking.

That just leaves a few other components on the brake system, and generally they don’t give much trouble. The ABS modulator (if fitted), the Master Cylinder, Servo and Rear Axle Brake Equaliser.

Car brake Abs unit

Anti lock brakes have been fitted to high end cars since the mid 80s, so depending on how old your classic is, you may have a modulator fitted. It’s the heart and brain of the the system. They don’t tend to give much trouble, brake lines to and from the modulator may be corroded, depending where the modulator is located.

Master cylinders are pretty durable too, however old age can cause the seals to leak. The brake servo is the large black disk shaped cylinder behind the master cylinder and it’s job is to assist help apply brake pressure when needed. The servo has a diaphragm inside and the rubber as you can imagine perishes with age. The servo is a solid state unit.

If I was doing the brake job again I would have upgraded my brake Rotors and painted my brake calipers, my car is fitted with open dish alloys and everything’s on show, O well, next time she needs Rotors!

Fixing Classic Car Mechanical Faults

starter motor

I decided to replace my starter, alternator and battery, they were all working OK, but I’ve been around old cars long enough to know these are likely components to give issues.

I also paid particular attention to the cooling system, old cars with old cooling systems like to overheat. It’s usually because the radiator, hose, fan, thermostat or rad cap has failed.

thermostat

So I went ahead and replaced most of it, and back-flushed my heater matrix which flushed out an incredible amount of crap, and I immediately knew why the heater was so poor.

I also replaced my plug wires, distributor cap and rotor arm. They had worked hard over the last 30 years and are another common component to fail. These type jobs are pretty easy to do and just require common sense.

springs and shocks

Springs and shocks are a little more challenging for the novice to replace. They will require special spring clamp tools, which aren’t expensive. The biggest challenge I found working on an old car is the rusted out nuts and bolts. My top tip, spray lots of wd40 on the offending fastener and allow it to soak overnight.

Your classic may have a engine timing belt fitted, the belt keeps the top and bottom parts of the engine in time. If the belt breaks, it usually causes a lot of cylinder head and valve damage. I suggest replacing it before using the car.

Timing belt

Other engine types may have a timing chain, they stretch and get noisy when they need to be changed, they’re also less likely to break and have a longer service life than a belt.

On the down side timing chains and guides are more expensive and more difficult to replace.

Related Questions

How to drive a classic car? A classic car will still feel pretty modern behind the wheel, but the more basic models won’t have airbags, ABS or stability control systems. So cornering especially in slippery conditions requires more finesse with the right foot.

How many miles can you drive a classic car? If the car is in good mechanical condition, then there’s no limit, but bear in mind, some insurance companies limit the miles you can drive the classic car from its registered address.

John Cunningham

John Cunningham is an Automotive Technician and writer on Rustyautos.com. I've been a mechanic for over twenty years, I use my knowledge and experience to write articles that help fellow gear-heads with all aspects of classic car ownership, from tires to roof aerials and everything in between.

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