How to keep your car safe without an MOT
If your car is MOT exempt, or will become MOT exempt with the new UK regulations, here's how to check it over yourself
Let's get one thing straight: we think classic cars in the UK should be MOT tested. But the Department for Transport has already allowed pre-1960 cars to be MOT-exempt, and from May 2018, cars built or registered more than 40 years previously will be eligible to go MOT-free.
There's more to explain that ruling with the full AutoClassics MoT exemption report.
But if you insist on avoiding an MOT, here's how to check your car over yourself. Some of the checks might sound daunting and the list might sound long but, in many cases, it will be quicker to carry out certain checks than it is to read about them.
You will need basic mechanical knowledge, and a trolley jack and good-quality axle stands. If your knowledge doesn't go as far as knowing how to jack up the car safely, then stop right now, and learn how to do that from an expert before you go any further.
Open the bonnet and, before anything else, make sure the bonnet stay is secure, or that the gas struts are supporting the weight of the bonnet. Grease the bonnet catch and check the release mechanism to avoid the chance of the bonnet flipping open while you’re driving.
Check around the engine bay with a torch. First look at all wiring, checking for frayed or chafed insulation, particularly where wires pass through panels. Rebind any loose coverings – cloth insulation tape is available, to stay in keeping with older cars.
If the fuse box is inside the engine bay, make sure all fuses are dry, free of corrosion and of the correct rating. If it's inside the car, do the same.
Check all fluid levels. You should be doing this before every major drive anyway. Certain classics, without sealed systems (pre-1980, roughly) will lose some coolant naturally but anything with a sealed system should retain it – if not, there might be a problem. DO NOT open a coolant system if the engine is hot.
Power steering fluid shouldn’t go down unless there’s a leak – which would cause an MOT failure.
Brake fluid will go down fractionally as caliper or brake cylinder pistons move to take up wear in the pads or linings. But that’s by millimetres – more and there’s a problem. Brake fluid is best changed every couple of years. Check the condition and security of any servo hoses.
Look for fluid leaks all around the engine bay, particularly fuel leaks. Check the condition and security of all fuel hoses. Replace any clip or hose that looks even a little tired.
The battery must be securely fixed, as should the leads. Make sure the battery tray isn’t rusty.
Look around the car for wires or cables hanging down, particularly around bumpers that have lights fitted to or into them.
Make sure all light lenses are intact – tiny holes can be filled with Araldite if caught early, to prevent water ingress. Check that all lights are working correctly.
Look for jagged or sharp edges of bodywork. Let’s hope there aren’t any! Check the windscreen for chips and cracks. If they’re in the driver’s line of vision, they’d often cause a fail.
Check that all doors, and the boot, unlock and open and close correctly. If the doors drop as they open, you could have worn hinges or – much worse – rusty door pillars, which would indicate serious problems with the structure of the car.
Inside the car
Check for wires hanging down below the dashboard, and any sign of wiring fraying or rubbing against sharp edges. Check the condition and security of pedal rubbers, and that the pedals aren’t oily – sometimes fluid will run down the pedal from a leaking master cylinder.
Make sure that the steering lock (if fitted) works correctly and smoothly. Switch on the ignition and check all warning lights illuminate correctly and then go out when the engine is started.
Check that seats are secure and that any adjustment works correctly – and particularly that they lock into place after fore-aft adjustment.
Check seatbelts for fraying or any other damage, make sure they’re clicking into place correctly, and check their mounting points where possible. If carpets are damp around the mounting points, the metal below may be rusty – in an accident, seat belt mounts can tear out of rusty metal.
With inertia reel seatbelts, grab each belt and pull sharply. It should lock immediately and stay locked under tension. It should then retract back easily, and not need feeding back manually.
Make sure all doors open easily from the inside – if they don't, not only is it an official MOT fail but also highly dangerous in the event of a crash.
Jack up the car
This is where garage ramps make life much easier. But if you don't have access to ramps, jack up the car carefully on the assigned jacking points (usually described in the owners manual or online forum) and support it on axle stands. You can do this one corner or one end at a time if necessary. If you’re not sure how to do it, get expert advice.
Check each tyre, looking for damage or perishing to inner and outer sidewalls as well as to the treads. Legally, the minimum tread depth in the UK is 1.6mm but anything less than 2.5mm will have a detrimental effect on grip in the wet. Tread depth gauges can be bought cheaply for motor factors, Halfords, etc.
A problem on classics is tyres that have good tread but that are old and therefore hardened. On the sidewall you’ll find a four-digit number, often within an oval ‘window’. The second two digits are the year of manufacture. Ideally, anything over five years old should be replaced; definitely replace anything older than ten years old. If there’s only a three-digit code, then the tyre was made before 2000. Replace it!
Check the pressure and that valve stems are in good condition, with caps fitted.
While the wheel is off the ground, spin it. There will be some noise but it shouldn’t sound graunchy. Grip the tyre at top and bottom and attempt to rock the wheel. Can you feel any play? Certain classics are meant to have a tiny amount of play (check the workshop manual) in the wheel bearings but it’s usually only just perceptible.
Rock the wheel more vigorously. Can you feel larger amounts of play or hear knocking, indicating that suspension or steering components might be worn or damaged? Do the same with the tyre gripped at either side rather than top and bottom – this is more likely to expose steering faults.
If both front wheels are off the ground, turn the steering from lock to lock, feeling for play and roughness. At either lock, use a torch to check the condition of steering rack gaiters, steering arm rubber boots and, if front-wheel drive, the driveshaft boots. Check too for power steering fluid leaks – any leak would be an MOT fail.
Steering racks shouldn’t exhibit any play, while a steering box (more common on pre-1970s cars) will often naturally have some play. The danger with a steering box is over-adjustment that reduces play but creates tight spots towards the full lock position. The effort needed to turn the steering wheel should be consistent generally.
Look for oil leaks around the suspension dampers. Lever arm dampers (again, more common pre-1970) do tend to leak or vent slightly, and can often be topped up, but telescopic dampers should not show any signs of fluid leaks. If they do, they must be replaced.
Look for cracked or broken coil springs, or broken leaves on leaf springs. All would be instant fails and are dangerous.
Still at each corner, check the security and condition of the brake lines. Very light surface corrosion is permitted on metal brake lines but any sign of pitting to the metal would earn a fail. Smear grease along the metal lines to protect them.
Similarly, flexible hoses must not show any sign of chafing, cracking or any other damage. Make sure they’re not twisting and that they’re routed correctly, with all guide fittings intact.
Of course, look for brake fluid leaks around all brake line fittings and calipers. On drum brakes, it’s harder to spot leaks externally but it’s always worth removing a drum to check the state of the linings and the brake cylinders. Peel back each brake cylinder rubber boot – there shouldn’t be any fluid under the boot. If there is, the cylinder seal has failed.
While the drum is off, make sure all the springs holding the brake shoes in place are intact – they sometimes corrode and brake, which can cause brakes to stick on.
Check handbrake mechanisms and, on older cars, mechanical brake mechanisms for wear, and make sure they’re lubricated.
Across suspension, brakes and steering components, fittings should generally be by locking nut (Nyloc for example) or a split pin or similar. Missing or incorrect fixings must be replaced.
At the rear, on a rear-wheel-drive car, watch out for transmission oil leaks from the rear axle, particularly any close to brake components. If an oil seal fails on the end of an axle or driveshaft tube, for example, the oil may make its way onto a brake disc or into the brake drum.
Under the car
Check and recheck the security of the axle stands or supports before crawling underneath.
Then continue to check brake lines, fluid lines, coolant hoses, engine and transmission for leaks, and brake mechanisms for wear and damage.
Examine suspension bushes. The edges will often be frayed, without there being a problem to the important part of the bush, but if any bush is obviously squeezing out of its mounting or perished, chances are it will need replacing.
An MoT tester may use a crowbar or similar to check for movement in bushes and balljoints but it’s not an easy thing to detect without expertise, and it’s especially difficult without a ramp. Try levering suspension components to feel for movement but be careful not to injure yourself.
Wearing eye protection, use a small hammer to tap at parts of the structure, especially sills (when they’re structural), chassis members and most importantly seat belt mounting points and spring mounting points. In theory, the hammer tap will ‘ring’ on good metal and sound dull on corrosion, though thick underseal will scupper that. The hammer can reveal heavy corrosion though.
Poke at suspect areas with a large screwdriver. If serious corrosion is found, welded repairs will be needed.
Looks closely at the fuel tank and filler pipe (sometimes under a rear wheelarch) if they’re exposed to the elements. Any corrosion would be an immediate fail.
Lastly, while underneath, make sure that the exhaust is hung properly, without any missing or broken mounts, and that there are no holes or obvious leaks (often shown up by black soot marks).
With the engine running
With all four wheels back on the ground, start the car. While it’s idling, listen for exhaust leaks, often heard as ‘chuffing’ from under the car. The extra noise might not be a problem but the job of an exhaust is to divert poisonous fumes away from the car – a blowing exhaust might fill the car with fumes.
Meanwhile, check wipers and windscreen washer works. Ask a helper to watch the lights as you check them all, including brake lights and indicators. Try operating lights and indicators while the brakes are applied – if one light goes out or both illuminate dimly together, there’s a bad earth.
Check the horn too – best to warn your helper first.
Once the engine is warm, with choke pushed in, rev the engine as a helper watches for smoke. By the third or fourth blip of the accelerator, any unburnt fuel should be cleared, and there shouldn’t be visible smoke (don’t confuse this with white condensation on a cold day).
Oil smoke from a worn engine will be blue, excessive fuelling will cause black smoke. Two-strokes and some pre-war cars will always emit some smoke.
On the road
If you’ve not found any major faults, then drive to a quiet section of road. Take your hands off the steering wheel at around 20mph – if the road is flat and smooth, the car should steer straight.
If the steering wheel shakes at any speed, it’s most likely that the wheels need balancing but it may be that there’s play in the steering and/or suspension components.
Drive over bumpy tarmac and listen for clonks from the suspension. There are very few cars that will bang, rattle or clonk over minor bumps when in good condition.
Brake lightly from 30mph. If the pedal pulses or vibrates, then a disc or drum is warped. If the car has ABS the pedal may pulse under very heavy braking but not under light braking.
Brake hard from 30mph. The car should not veer to one side. If it does, one or more of the brakes aren’t working properly.
Brake even harder. Most cars, with the exception of a few pre-wars and certain immediate post-war cars with hydro-mechanical brakes, should be able to lock the wheels when braked hard from 30mph. Make sure they lock evenly.
How does the pedal feel? It should be firm, and it shouldn’t pump up to be harder or higher after successive braking. It certainly shouldn’t sink to the floor. If any of these traits are present, the brakes might need bleeding – or there might be more serious problems.
At around 20mph, listen for whirring that starts or increases on cornering. It's likely to be a wheel bearing – a left-hand wheel if the noise occurs on a right-hand corner, and vice versa.
If you have a front-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive car, turn slowly (5mph) in a circle on full lock. Any clicking noises will be failing driveshaft joints. Repeat in the opposite direction.
On any car, knocks and clonks on pulling away will generally mean that there are worn joints or components in the transmission. Propshafts, for example, can let go dangerously if a worn joint is overlooked.
On a slope, check the handbrake will hold the car. The number of clicks that it takes to operate the handbrake varies per car but it shouldn’t usually be more than five – if it’s more, or the lever seems to come up a long way, then the brakes or mechanisms need adjustment.
Last thing: drive to a flat piece of tarmac and stop two metres away from a wall. Switch on high beam – are the light beams both level? They should point at roughly the same height that the middle of the lights are mounted in the car. If you suspect they’re wrong, a garage will set them properly using a proper measuring device.
That’s it, though certain cars may need other specific checks, and we can't guarantee that the checks listed will uncover every fault. We’d still recommend taking a car for an MOT but if you don’t, these checks are at least second-best.
Remember, though, you can’t beat an experienced tester working on a ramp and brake testing rollers.
But if you are inspired by MOT-exemption, here are ten of our favourite MOT-exempt cars.
Picture courtesy of Gillian Carmoodie