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:
- Prioritized Major Issues
- Under-sealed Chassis
- Buffed Paintwork and Waxed
- Teflon Coated Interior
- Use Smart Charger
- Use Gas Stabilizer
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 roadmap.
I have included a checklist of things you’ll definitely need to do to help preserve your classic. In addition, I’ve listed the most common classic car problems that you’re likely to meet.
Preserve A Classic Car
The preservation process begins with a full detailed inspection. It’s important to appraise 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.
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 types of problems aren’t always as obvious as a rusty panel.
After the inspection comes the prioritizing 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 the rust is alive, it’s eating away your investment.
Tools You’ll Need For Inspection
You’ll be poking around some dirty and hard-to-gay places, so you’ll need a good inspection light, gloves, safety glasses, and a mechanics creeper that would make things real comfy.
An inspection light is the most important tool, the LED type is best. I use two, have a head-mounted light, like a minors helmet, and a handheld that has a magnetic base.
The mechanic’s creeper can make the process less of a chore, if you are 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 you are going to check components like steering and suspension ball joints. All these tools can be found here in the Recommended gear section.
Fix Major Faults First
Now armed with your checklist, you now know what you’re dealing with. This list allows you to 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
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. Check out the tools and products I use here on the Car cleaning tools page.
Dull paint is the easiest repair, and frankly, I’m jealous. Sun-damaged dull paint requires 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. I’ve covered it here in this post – Restore faded red paint.
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.
The rust converter stops the corrosion from spreading and seals the metal, it can be primed and painted as normal. You’ll find links to the products I use here on the Rust repair page.
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 the 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.
Typical Bodywork Problems
- Dull Paintwork
- Stone Chipped
- Dents and Scratches
- Rusty Patches
- Rust Holes
- Mismatched Color
- Panel Misalignment
- Sagging Doors
Preserving Your Mechanicals
Oil and coolant are the two fluids your 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 an oil pump and its job is to get oil to all the moving mechanical parts, if your oils are too thick it can be hard to move.
I don’t do a lot of mileage in my old Merc, but I change the oil & filter twice a year, I change it mid-summer and again just before winterizing. Your local parts store will know the correct oil type, just ask.
Coolant/Antifreeze needs special attention too, the old coolant won’t have the ability to keep your classic engine cool when it’s under stress in traffic on a hot summer’s day and also lacks the strength in antifreeze for winter protection.
Fresh coolant will protect your car up to 225°F and freezing protection to about -35°F.
The other problem with old coolant, it gets acidic, 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. Check out the tools I use here on the Coolant system tools page.
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
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 parking brake on, this will often stick on, which is a real pain in the ass.
Brake lines and hoses will need your full attention, they need to be examined very carefully. 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 you’re really stuck, it’s Okay. Check out the brake tools I use here on the Brake repair tools page.
You can mix DOT 3, DOT 4, and DOT 5.1. BUT DO NOT MIX DOT 5 WITH ANY OF THEM.
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 labor-intensive, but the results are worth it.
To begin you’ll need to get the underside power-washed, you can tackle this yourself if you can safely get the car off the ground enough to maneuver the wash lance.
Allow it to dry fully, this is important, otherwise, you 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 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.
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 of 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
- Axle Stands 4
- Power Washer
- Dust Mask
- Safety Glasses
- Power Tool
- Wire Brush Heads
- Rust Converter
- Compressed Air
- Schultz Gun
- Under-body Sealer
It’s a long checklist, but not everything on it will apply to your classic. You can check out the Recommended gear pages for the tools and products I use to help restore, repair and maintain my classic cars.
- 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
- Seats – Dry clean
- Carpets – Check for dampness
- Carpets – Dry clean
- Seats & Carpets – Spray Teflon coating
- Headlining – Dry clean
- Air Vents – Clean & deodorize
- Seat Belts – Clean & dry
- Window Rails – Treat with Silicone spray lube
- Engine oil – Change oil & filter
- Coolant – Change coolant and thermostat
- Filters – Replace air & fuel
- Plugs – Gap/Replace
- Plug Wires & Distributor – Spray Wd40
- Oil – Change oil & filter
- Leaks – Check regularly
- U-Joint – Grease
- Diff – Change oil
- Transfer Case – Change oil
- Wheel Hubs – Paint Copper grease
Steering & Suspension
- Power Steering – Check fluid level
- Noises – Listen for knocks, squeaks rattles and hums
- Shocks – Check for leaks
- Alignment – Check camber, caster and toe
- Brake Lines – Check for corrosion
- Brake Fluid – Check level & change every 4 years
- Brake Pads, Rotors & Shoes – Check/Replace
- Emergency Brake – Adjust
- 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
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, preferably 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 stabilizer and battery maintainer.
- 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.