The 15 tools you need the most for a classic car
So many tools on offer but which do you really need? And which should you spend the most on? Our guide explains
Choosing the right tools
In relative terms, good quality tools have never been so cheap – and if you want to look after your classic car you'll need a few.
You don't have to spend a fortune though. In most cases, buy mid-range unless you're a professional using the tools every day. Don't buy the cheapest though – they will usually be hopeless!
Buy a good one. The best you can afford, with the widest base possible, which will make it less likely to topple over. And if your car is quite low, take that into account too.
The best (and most expensive of course) are the alloy racing-style jacks. Whichever you choose , it should be the most costly of your buys, along with the socket set.
These can, literally, be lifesavers. So don’t buy flimsy stands, don’t buy damaged secondhand ones, and do buy a reputable brand. Look for a wide base and plenty of adjustability of height.
There’s nothing wrong with the stands that simply use a peg in a hole, but the ratchet style stands shown give more adjustability.
The easy bit is which style to choose – go for combination spanners, with a ring at one end, open-ended at the other. The more difficult part is whether you need Whitworth/BSF, AF or metric.
Whitworth/AF were used on British and some American cars pre-World War 2. These were phased-out so that most post-war British and American cars used AF, though many used both standards for years.
European and Asian cars use metric, and from the 1970s British cars gradually moved to metric too, Ford leading the charge. Again, plenty of 1970s and ’80s Brits have a mix of metric and Imperial. American cars stuck with AF and even now you might find a mix of AF and Metric on relatively recent American cars.
There are three variations, according to the size of the socket drive: 1/4in, 3/8in and 1/2in. The biggest is the strongest – but also the most unwieldy. You also need to know whether you need Whitworth/BSF, AF or Metric, as with the spanners.
There’s an argument for buying a really good 1/4in drive set, because it will be lighter to carry around and easier to use. Then buy a 1/2in breaker bar and a handful of sockets for the nuts and bolts that you know will be difficult – usually 5/8in, 3/4in or 17mm, 19mm.
Call them locking grips, Mole Grips, Vise Grips, whatever you like. A good quality set will prove invaluable in gripping rounded-off fasteners and other similarly stubborn items.
Don’t buy cheap ones, because the jaws will be too soft, and will simply round off the item you’re trying to grip.
You don’t need many; usually far fewer than a typical set will give you. Many classic cars use Phillips head screws, but Posidriv was introduced from the mid-1960s – they look almost the same as Phillips screws but have smaller ribs at 45 degrees to the main sections. The fit is different too – Phillips will work, sloppily, in a Posidriv but not vice versa.
Pre-war cars in particular used slot-head screws, calling for much simpler flatblade screwdrivers, and any car of any age might make use of a few slot-head screws, particularly on trim fasteners.
Hitting things with a large hammer or mallet shouldn’t be the first option – but sooner or later you’ll end up needing to do it.
A hefty mallet with copper face on one side and 'rawhide' leather face on the other will at least protect whatever it is that you’re hitting with all your might. Better than a conventional hammer.
Wire strippers and crimpers
One of these combined tools along with a selection of crimp connectors can help solve wiring problems – though badly fitted or corroded crimp connectors may have caused the problems in the first place...
It’s amazing the trouble you can get yourself out of with a decent knife – fashioning makeshift cooling hoses, funnels for topping up oil or coolant, sorting out wiring, etc.
Of course it’s also amazing the trouble you can get yourself in with a knife if you’re a little careless, so be careful and make things safer for yourself by buying a sturdy knife with a retractable blade.
When all else fails, brute force and ignorance can be the only option. The breaker bar can help with the brute force side of that.
Make sure you’ve got a well-fitting socket and short extension that will allow you to use the breaker bar on tight wheel nuts too – but only to undo them, use a shorter bar to do them up.
Tire pressure gauge
You know you should have one anyway, don’t you? There’s arguably nothing more important to do on a car than checking tire pressures at least weekly – and of course no-one bothers, until they’ve experienced a tire blow-out at speed.
Digital gauges are great – and cheap – but it’s been shown that the basic metal pop-out type gauges are generally very accurate too. The most popular gauges currently are the dial type shown.
Safety gloasses and gloves
Not as exciting as a set of shiny spanners or an alloy trolley jack, but don't neglect to buy yourself your eye protection – just rooting around under the car can dislodge a shard of rust that naturally heads straight for your eyeball.
Heavy-duty gloves are useful for when you're handling rough metal objects, and a box of disposable medical gloves will protect your skins from the carcinogenic effects of old engine oil.
If your car still has contact breaker points in its ignition system then you'll definitely need a set of feeler gauges. But even if it's on electronic ignition, feeler gauges are needed to set valve clearances and spark plug gaps – and they're cheap!
Yes, you’re playing with fire here. But the careful use of a blowtorch on corroded fasteners will often help to free them, and for that you’ll be forever grateful to the god of fire. Don’t carry it around in the car though, keep it on a top shelf somewhere out of harm’s way.
Does this count as a ‘tool’? Maybe not, but buy one anyway, and keep it in the car and alongside you when you’re working on the car, just in case you short a wire or get carried away with the blowtorch.
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