Classic car maintenance guide

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Running a classic car may not be as daunting as some may think. There are things to take into consideration such as parts availability and economy. But, for the most part, these cars are a labour of love and not a vehicle for the daily grind.

It’s also worth remembering these cars were once the everyday car so people used classics for commuting and long journeys and relied on them as much as today’s motorists rely on their cars. The only difference back then? Fewer cars and less congested roads.

So, if you’re thinking of investing in a classic car, let’s take a look at some of the differences between modern and classic cars (petrol), what considerations need to be made and what changes can be made to your classic to make it more reliable without taking away the charm and character.

Points and condenser/Electronic Ignition Conversions

Modern cars utilise distributorless electronic ignition and coil packs so the need to set the ignition timing, replace worn points and condensers and set the gaps and dwell angle of the points are a thing of the past.

But, if you decide the run a classic car, these are things that will be part and parcel of keeping the car running at its best. There is an inexpensive alternative however; you can replace the points and condenser with an electronic ignition module which screws into the position usually occupied by the points, with the wiring to the coil exiting through the hole left by the absent condenser and a rubber grommet keeping things sealed up.

The ignition module works where ignition points physically open and close in response to the movement of an eccentric ring on the shaft of a distributor - a hall effect sensor produces a small current in response to the movement of a reluctor or magnetic ring placed over the shaft of a distributor.

As the reluctor rotates, it causes the hall-effect sensor’s magnetic field to expand and contract, which in turn generates a small current that is precisely timed to the rotation of the engine. These solid state conversions are maintenance free and last a lot longer than their mechanical contact breaker counterparts.

Metal work and rust in a classic car

One of the most fatal issues with any car is rust; it’s a car owner/lover’s nightmare and depending on its location and severity can consign a car to scrap.

Another issue to keep in mind with classic cars when thinking about rust or accident damage is the availability of panels and parts. There are some suppliers out there of pattern panels (reproduction) but original items can be few and far between and come at a premium price.

Another thing to think about, especially if you plan on using the car daily, is accident damage and the subsequent repairs - how long will it take to source panels? Will fabrication be required? Will a paint match be possible?

All this equates to time with parts not stocking up shelves for these cars anymore. This is where owners clubs and groups are beneficial, like-minded enthusiasts who can help each other out and have a similar passion can be a great source of advice and stock.

Cooling system

The thought of classic cars can evoke images of being on the side of the road in plumes of steam to some.

But I would wager the majority of the time, a classic car overheating is down to poor maintenance of the cooling system. Old coolant or sometimes no coolant at all and just water, stuck thermostats and blocked radiators all lead to the inevitable overheating which can be avoided by regular, thorough maintenance.

Changing the coolant when required will help keep internal corrosion of both the radiator and the engine to a minimum while also helping to transfer the heat from the engine to the rad to a maximum.

Thermostats when past their best or clogged up with corrosion can either stick open or closed, if stuck closed the coolant won’t be able to cycle into the radiator for the heat to be transferred to the passing air, leading to an overheating engine.

If the thermostat is stuck open, the car can fail to come up to optimum operating temperature as the coolant is doing a complete cycle through the engine and radiator from the start.

Many older cars had radiator fans that were belt driven from the engine, a simple enough set up but one which saw the fan constantly spinning; this saps a bit of power from the engine and the spinning rate on tick over while in traffic isn’t as high so the engine can run hotter while waiting for the line to move.

So if there are any of the underlying issues raised above, this could be the moment things come to a head and that temperature needle starts climbing.

A modern upgrade would be to fit an aluminium radiator with an electric fan designed to kick on at a given temperature when active spins at a much faster rpm, thus drawing air through the radiator transferring the heat from the coolant.

For me, there is only one drawback to the electric fan and that’s taking away the classic nature of the car and the reason why I resisted this temptation on my car running a Pinto Engine. I like the car looking and running the way it was back then but I don’t begrudge anyone who decides to install an electric fan.

Fuel and induction

There was a time when most cars, both mainstream and high-end, had their engines fed with the fuel air mixture by a carburettor which itself is usually fed petrol by a mechanical fuel pump driven by the engine.

The carburettor is a clever mechanical gadget responsible for getting the air-fuel mixture just right; the air is drawn into the venturi - a kinked pipe - the narrowing of the pipe makes the speed of the air increase and its pressure drop, creating a sucking effect which draws in air through the fuel pipe at the side pulling fuel with it as well.

As mentioned earlier, the carburettor is a mechanical device which requires manual setting up and maintenance. The carburettor will either have a manual or automatic choke for cold starting but a classic car can be quite grumpy when cold in comparison to modern vehicles.

One option is to fit an electronic fuel injection or a modern engine with the complete package; this is not as uncommon as you may think but for me takes away a lot of the charm of what makes these cars classic.

Raw spirit or luxuries

One area where cars have advanced leaps and bounds over the past few years is with their on board extras. Even the most luxurious cars of the past look spartan when compared to modern vehicles, many won’t even have extras that are seen as standard fitment today such as electric windows and power steering.

Today’s motors feature built in Sat Navs, Bluetooth connectivity, heated steering wheels and on-board vehicle settings adjustable from the driver’s seat.

Along with this is the advancement of driver aids such as traction control, ESP, intelligent all wheel drive and self parking - all designed to make the driver’s job easier and the journey safer, but there is a cost to this other than monetary.

The cost is subjective, not easily quantifiable and not one that everyone will experience or understand. This cost is the feel of the road and the raw experience of just the driver, the car and the road. Get it wrong and you’ll have a crash, get it right and it’s far more rewarding than the technological tour de forces modern motoring offers.

Final thought

Ultimately, even though there’s more manual interaction and tuning required with older cars, the message is the same old or new - look after them with regular servicing and maintenance and they will look after you. 

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