How To Preserve A Classic Car


Classic car under-sealer

When l bought my first classic car, I had planned to do a nut and bolt rebuild, I’m glad I didn’t. She managed to have a lived in look without being tatty, a rebuild just wasn’t needed.

So how to preserve a classic car? Carry out a full inspection. Repair major faults like mechanical, corrosion or water leaks before under-coating and waxing the Chassis. Classic car preservation, includes:

  1. Inspection
  2. Prioritised Major Issues
  3. Under-sealed Chassis
  4. Buffed Paintwork and Waxed
  5. Teflon Coated Interior
  6. Tune-up
  7. Use Smart Charger
  8. Use Gas Stabiliser

Preserving your classic is about finding the problems when they’re small, fixing them and staying on top of the maintenance.

There’s actually a lot to preserving your classic car, it’s easy to get lost in the detail, so I find it helpful to follow a road-map.

I have included a checklist of things you’ll definitely need to do to help preserve your classic, and a classic car storage checklist which you may also find useful.

In addition I’ve listed the most common classic car problems that you’re likely to meet.

Preserve A Classic Car

Rust

The preservation process begins with a full detailed inspection. It’s important to apprise your vehicle fully, there’s not much point touching up the paintwork if there’s a rusted out panel lurking beneath.

The inspection stage can’t be rushed and you’ll need a sharp eye. I approach it in a systematic way because there’s a lot to cover and it’s easy to miss something important.

Don’t be surprised if you don’t get this finished on the same day you start. You’ll find areas that’ll require further investigation and sometimes that means removing components.

Drying car carpets

Like my old vw, it had a damp carpet which I traced back to a leaking heater matrix. I had to strip out seats, carpets and half the dash just to confirm my suspicion.

Usually I start with the most likely areas to have hidden problems, bodywork and chassis. I’m looking for major signs of metal corrosion.

Next I’ll move on to the mechanicals engine, transmission, steering, suspension and brakes. Not forgetting the electrics, these type problems aren’t always as obvious as a rusty panel.

Rusty axle

After the inspection comes the prioritising and planning of the preservation work. This is where you’ll need to evaluate the problems and direct your resources.

Issues like body corrosion always take priority, because as long as rust is alive, it’s eating away your investment.

Tools You’ll Need For Inspection

Mechanics light

You’ll be poking around some dirty and hard to get places, so you’ll need a good inspection light, gloves, safety glasses and a mechanics creeper would make things real comfy.

An inspection light is the most important tool, the LED type are best. I use two, I have a head mounted light, like a minors helmet and a hand held that has a magnetic base.

The mechanics creeper can make the process less of a chore, if your comfortable you’ll do a better job.

A selection of scrapers, long screwdrivers, wire brush and basic tools such as garage jack and stands, will be needed. You may need a pry-bar if your going to check components like steering and suspension ball-joints.

Fix Major Faults First

Fabricating old car repair

Now armed with your checklist, you now know what your dealing with. This list allows you budget, plan and source spare parts ahead of time.

It makes good sense to fix the major problems first, since they’ll cost the most money, time and will likely dictate when other work can get done.

The types of work that I consider priority is anything like body corrosion, water leaks, rodent damage or known mechanical faults. These types of problems, if not repaired usually cause further expense and bigger problems down the road.

Preserving Your Bodywork

Red car waxing

Preserving your paintwork is important, paints first function is to protect the metal, so if the paint is cracked or chipped, the metal is corroding. A simple fix is to buy a stone chip repair kit, they’re easy to use and very effective.

Dull paint is the easiest repair, and frankly I’am jealous. Sun damaged dull paint requires a compound buffing, this is a job you can easily take care of yourself. It’s a process where you remove the top layer of dead paint, and using compounds and polish you bring it back to life.

If your classic has rust but the metal itself is sound, then you can simply clean the surface rust using a wire brush or power tool and coat it with a rust converter. This stuff really works, I’ve been using it for years.

Rust converter

The rust converter stops the corrosion spreading and seals the metal, it can be primed and painted as normal.

If you’ve got a Fred Flintstones type deal going on then you’ll need a bit more than a rust converter. You’ll need to cut out any rotten metal, just covering it with Bondo won’t work.

Rotten metal will spread to good metal if left untreated. I got into the habit of rust treating any holes I find as soon as I find them, this pumps the brakes on the infection. When I get around to it, I zip out the rot and stitch in fresh metal.

welder

Typical Bodywork Problems

  • Dull Paintwork
  • Stone Chipped
  • Dents and Scratches
  • Rusty Patches
  • Rust Holes
  • Mismatched Colour
  • Panel Misalignment
  • Sagging Doors

Preserving Your Mechanicals

Oil and coolant are the two fluids you engine relies on, if they fail, your engine will too, and don’t forget to check your transmission fluid. Before every trip, I check these three levels, I always keep a top-up in the trunk.

The engine needs to be hot and running in “P” in order to check the correct transmission fluid level.

All motor oils are not the same, and using the wrong type can damage your engine. The engine has a oil pump and it’s job is to get oil to all the moving mechanical parts, if your oils too thick it can be hard to move.

I don’t do a lot of mileage in my Merc, but I change the oil & filter twice a year, I change it mid summer and again just before Winterising. Your local parts store will know the correct oil type, just ask.

I change the plugs and gas & air filter before summer driving and check my belts.

Car coolant

Coolant/Antifreeze needs special attention too, old coolant won’t have the ability to keep your classic engine cool when it’s under stress in traffic on a hot summers day and also lacks the strength in antifreeze for winter protection.

Fresh coolant will protect you car up-to 225°F and freezing protection to about -35°F.

The other problem with old coolant, it gets acid, and actually starts to eat metal, plastic and rubber components. The coolant can be tested for strength and acidity or you can just change for fresh every 3 years.

Typical Mechanical Problems

  • Engine/Tranny Oil Leaks
  • Acidic Coolant
  • Lazy Thermostat
  • Rad Leaks/Cap Leaks
  • Rotten Coolant Hosepipes
  • Noisy Timing Chains
  • Noisy Tappets
  • Misfiring Cylinders
  • Head Gasket Failure
  • Smoky Engine
  • Oil Stem Valve Seals Worn
  • Hesitant Tranny
  • Broken Suspension Springs
  • Wheel Misalignment
  • Noisy Differentials
  • Worn Steering Components

Preserving Your Braking System

Wheel hub

Brakes deserve special attention they are the one area you need to get right. Classic car brakes are known for giving lots of problems and that’s because classic cars spend most of their time sitting around.

Brake Rotors and drums get rusty when sitting idle and this causes brakes to stick, often they’ll need to be dismantled in order to release them.

When parking your classic, try and do so when it’s dry, obviously the rain causes more corrosion to form. Never park her up with the park brake on, this will often stick on, which is a real pain in ass.

Brake flexi hose

Brake lines and hoses will need your full attention, they need to be examined very care fully. Rot will start usually at body clips or at a bend in the brake line. Use a brake line inspection tool to test them, if they look rusty, just change them out. Same for the flexi brake hoses.

Your brake fluid will need to be changed every four years. Brake fluid attracts moisture and that can cause corrosion inside the brake system.

Old brake fluid can be cause of a spongy brake pedal. If your fluid is low it could be a leak or your pads may be worn down. Your fluid type will be marked on the cap of your brake reservoir and fluid types shouldn’t be mixed but if your stuck.

Brake fluid

You can mix DOT 3, DOT 4 and DOT 5.1. BUT DO NOT MIX DOT 5 WITH ANY OF THEM.

bRAKE FLUID CHART

Typical Brake Problems

  • Worn Rotors/Drums
  • Worn Pads/Shoes
  • Noisy Brakes
  • Sticking Brakes
  • Spongy Brake Pedal
  • Hard Brake Pedal
  • Rotten Brake Lines
  • Old Brake Fluid
  • Faulty Park Brake
  • Dragging Brake
  • Leaking Brake Cylinders
  • Frozen Brake Bleed Nipple

Preserving Your Chassis

With all the bodywork and known mechanicals out of the way, now it’s time to under-seal the chassis and underpinnings. The prep work is dirty and labour intensive, but the results are worth it.

To begin you’ll need to get the under side power-washed, you can tackle this yourself if you can safely get the car off the ground enough to manoeuvre the wash lance.

Allow it to dry fully, this is important, otherwise, your locking in dampness. Now you get busy with a power tool and wire brush head, this bit can take days. I like to clean and treat any surface rust with the rust converter.

The under-body coating is specially formulated to flex with the car which prevents cracking. It’s a thick textured one coat that’s easy to apply. I use an air operated Schultz gun and tubing to get right into the chassis rails, I hit the underpinnings too with a nice fresh black coat.

back axle

All cars will have chassis drain holes, use them to direct your hose in and around the rail, go ahead if you need to drill a hole in the Chassis, remembering to treat it of course.

After a few days drying, I come at it again with waxyol, this is an oil based metal preservative that runs into all the places the Schultz didn’t. This stuff is sticky and stays sticky and that’s why I only use it when I’m done with my major mechanicals.

Stuff You’ll Need

  • Jack
  • Axle Stands 4
  • Power Washer
  • Dust Mask
  • Safety Glasses
  • Power Tool
  • Wire Brush Heads
  • Sandpaper
  • Rust Converter
  • Compressed Air
  • Schultz Gun
  • Under-body Sealer
  • Waxyol

Preservation Checklist

It’s a long checklist, but not everything on it will apply to your classic.

Body Exterior

Cowl drain
  • Rust – Treat any corrosion with rust converter
  • Chassis – Under-body seal & wax
  • Paintwork – Remove bugs, tree sap and bird droppings immediately
  • Paintwork – Wash, Chamois dry & wax
  • Chrome – Use Chrome polish & check for pitting
  • Paintwork – Touch-up Stone chips
  • Wheels – Clean brake dust and re-coat clear coat
  • Doors – Treat door hinges with white Lithium grease
  • Window/Door Seals – Treat with Silicone spray lube
  • Drains – Clear Windscreen/sunroof/a/c drain channels

Interior

  • Seats – Dry clean
  • Carpets – Check for dampness
  • Carpets – Dry clean
  • Seats & Carpets – Spray Teflon coating
  • Headlining – Dry clean
  • Air Vents – Clean & deodorise
  • Seat Belts – Clean & dry
  • Window Rails – Treat with Silicone spray lube

Engine

Engine
  • Engine oil – Change oil & filter
  • Coolant – Change coolant and thermostat
  • Filters – Replace air & fuel
  • Plugs – Gap/Replace
  • Plug Wires & Distributor – Spray Wd40
  • Transmission/Drive-line
  • Oil – Change oil & filter
  • Leaks – Check regularly
  • U-Joint – Grease
  • Diff – Change oil
  • Transfer Case – Change oil
  • Wheel Hubs – Paint Copper grease

Steering & Suspension

Jaguar suspension
  • Power Steering – Check fluid level
  • Noises – Listen for knocks, squeaks rattles and hums
  • Shocks – Check for leaks
  • Alignment – Check camber, caster and toe

Brakes

New brakes
  • Brake Lines – Check for corrosion
  • Brake Fluid – Check level & change every 4 years
  • Brake Pads, Rotors & Shoes – Check/Replace
  • Emergency Brake – Adjust

Electrics

Corroded wiring
  • Battery – Use a Smart battery charger
  • Battery Terminals – Clean and use dielectric grease
  • Battery – Check Electrolyte level
  • Fuses – Spray with contact cleaner
  • Bulbs – Replace with new

Related Questions

How often should you start a classic car? A classic car should be driven once a week, take it for a 30 minute drive. Just starting a classic car is OK for charging the battery but has a negative effect on the oil and exhaust system, short trips cause condensation which is the enemy.

How do you store a classic car? A classic car should be stored in a garage, preferable heated. If you don’t have a garage, then a breathable car cover is the next best thing, avoid plastic as it traps condensation. Keep your gas tank full and use a gas stabiliser and battery maintainer.

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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