How to make your classic car reliable
These simple DIY tips will change your life! No more breakdowns, no more frustrating non-starts – here's how to make your classic car reliable
Smoke billowing from under the bonnet; oil seeping on to your garage floor; scary noises emanating from the front suspension. These are some of the less savoury aspects of classic car ownership.
However, if you own an older car the simple fact is that something will go wrong – and usually at the most inopportune moment. Regular maintenance and preventative care can greatly reduce this possibility, although when it comes to tackling more complex mechanical and electrical issues, most people fall into one of two main groups.
The first type outsources their dirty work, and are happy to let their wallets do the heavy lifting. There is no problem with this approach – and if you own a fleet of classics or are particularly hamfisted, this may be the most viable option, too.
For those of us with more modest means or a slight mechanical bent, the do-it-yourself method can be more rewarding, and far less intimidating than you might think.
Unless your car is in dire need of a new motor, you should get many years of good service by doing regular oil and filter changes – and, if you are up for it, setting carburettors and valve clearances too. Don’t ignore cambelt-change intervals, as a snapped belt can destroy an engine in a few moments (most engines from the mid-1970s tend to have cambelts rather than camchains).
Gaskets can also perish over time, so look for any evidence of oil seeping out from around the seals. Some smoking out of the exhaust on start-up is inevitable in an oldie, but if it’s excessive a rebuild may be on the cards. Blue smoke usually indicates worn valve guides and piston rings, while black smoke tends to mean the car is running too rich.
Engine swaps are not unheard of, and they can range from an upgraded motor from a newer model (for instance, an Alfa 75 motor in a Spider) or a completely different engine from another manufacturer. While reliability can be improved, fiddling too much with the internals may cause problems with the rest of the components such as the cooling system, brakes and transmission.
Originality tip: Many manufacturers released updated components during the car’s production run, and fitting these items will retain the vehicle’s originality and enhance its reliability, too. Modern spark plugs are also far longer lasting nowadays, and easier to source.
Some specialists offer modern mechanical components, such as electrical ignition systems instead of a points and condenser. This can help with starting and will keep the engine in the correct state of tune for longer. Check the HT leads for cracks, as this can lead to a misfire. If fitted, the advance/retard ignition mechanism should be kept lubricated and the heel of the points lightly greased.
Converting from an old-style dynamo to an alternator and changing the electrical system from 6V to 12V both make a big difference to reliability. Also, installing LED tail-lights and indicators will lower the strain on the battery. Check the battery cables, ground straps and wiring harnesses, as grime and dirt can cause intermittent issues with the electrical components.
Many older British cars had a positive earth, and if you intend to use modern electronics such as radios and plug-in navigation units it is worth converting them to a negative-earth set-up. It is not too complicated a procedure, but may be best left to a specialist to avoid damaging the electronics.
Most of all, beware the cheap Chinese-made rotor arms, distributor caps and points sets that flooded the market a few years ago. Reputable suppliers have all but eliminated these now but for a while they caused huge reliability problems.
Originality tip: If you intend to keep the ignition system standard, then keep a spare points and condenser with you and ensure that the rotor arm contacts inside the distributor cap are kept clean. Some models benefit greatly from having their distributors sealed or protected by a shield; this keeps out moisture. Late-model classic Minis, for example, came with a shield to protect the distributor from water. This can be retro-fitted.
The majority of older cars still run on carburettors, and some preventative maintenance is essential to keep things going smoothly. Start by replacing fuel-pump diaphragms and fuel lines, and regularly checking the float bowls for sediment.
Sediment also builds up in old fuel tanks, so regular filter replacement can help prevent blockages. Adding an extra inline filter can also be a good idea. Make sure you use proper fuel pipe clips, as jubilee clips can crimp the lines, limiting flow and damaging the rubber pipes.
If hot-starting is a problem, buy or construct heat shields to protect the undersides of carburettor float chambers, fuel lines and fuel pumps from the effects of heat. If they're close to exhaust manifolds consider binding the exhaust in a heat-shielding wrap or having it coasted in a heat-reducing treatment, such as that offered by Zircotec. Modern fuel is more volatile, so is more likely to evaporate.
Fuel-injection conversions are available on some older cars, although they can be prohibitively expensive and may require a modern ECU and high-pressure fuel lines. Throttle body conversions are now available as SU or Weber carburettor lookalikes.
A more cost-effective, if not quite so beneficial, upgrade is to install a modern solid-state fuel pump in place of an older electric type. This eliminates the need for contact points and helps improve reliability, while some manufacturers such as SU offer modern pumps that retain the vintage-looking exterior casing.
Originality tip: If you have a multi-carb set-up and want to extract the best performance and fuel efficiency from your engine, it is well worth taking your motor to a specialist to get it correctly tuned.
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One of the most common issues with older cars is overheating cooling systems. Blocked radiators, cracked pipes and worn-out water pumps can all leave you stranded at best, or cause damage to the engine block at worst. Upgrading the radiator and water pump can greatly increase cooling efficiency. Installing an electrically operated cooling fan can also keep temperatures low.
Regular coolant flushing should be carried out every year, while more adventurous types can also tackle the water pump, thermostat and radiator pipes. A mayonnaise-like substance under the oil-filler cap may indicate a cracked cylinder head, so watch out for any oil contamination in the coolant. Hoses that show signs cracking, or feel brittle or hard to the touch, should be replaced.
Consider replacing the traditional water-based coolant with a a waterless coolant such as those made by Evans or 4Life, and also adding a 'water wetter' which reduces bubbling and cavitation in the coolant. These cheap, simple changes can reduce the boiling point by 15 degrees C or more.
For more extreme applications or problems, modern aftermarket electrically-powered water pumps can be a solution.
Originality tip: Original-specification rubber hoses can be more expensive and less durable than modern equivalents. Upgrading these items with hard-wearing silicone hoses (which can be found in black as well as some more lurid colour options) is highly recommended, and should not detrimentally affect the value of your investment.
Tyre technology has made major strides in recent years, and a good set of modern radials can transform the handling and braking capabilities of your old-timer.
Check the four-digit ‘date of manufacture’ marking that’s stamped into the side of the tyre wall; depending on the manufacturer, the recommended age for replacement is between four and ten years. The first two digits refer to the week of manufacture, while the last two are the year (post-2000). If your tyre has only a three-digit code, then it was made before 2000 and you should replace it as soon as possible.
If the rubber is cracked or down to the tread-mark indicator, a new set is on the cards. Odd wear patterns can also indicate issues with the alignment, shock absorbers or suspension bushes. Tyre-pressure monitors are standard equipment in most modern cars, and good aftermarket systems are now available for your classic, too. Don’t forget to put a valve cap on each tyre, as this helps prevent dust and dirt getting into the valve mechanism.
Remote tyre pressure monitoring systems are now available on the aftermarket, surprisingly cheaply. They simply replace the tyre valves and dust caps with pressure monitors, and provide a small unit to fit on the dashboard to warn of pressure drop while on the move.
Originality tip: Crossply tyres can still be sourced from specialists, and these tend to provide a more comfortable ride thanks to their softer sidewalls. Certain manufacturers are now offering original-specification radial tyres for their classic models, too – the Jaguar XJ220 and Lamborghini LM002 being two of the more recent examples.
Drum brakes require periodic adjustment, and in cars that are seldom used the actuator spring can rust. Upgrading to discs on the front can greatly enhance safety, and they are easier to maintain, too, as this job can be tackled at home – although certain set-ups may require a specialist.
Ensure that you install a dual master cylinder at the same time. A specialist may be better equipped for this job, as it separates the operation of the front and rear brakes, and reduces the chances of complete brake failure. Brake lines usually need to be replaced and sometimes rerouted when carrying out such a conversion. Ensure that each nipple has a cover on it to prevent dirt getting in when you next bleed the system.
Originality tip: Drum brakes obviously work best when set up properly, and modern shoe materials can enhance the performance without affecting the car’s originality. Make sure you check whether your classic requires Silicon or Glycol Ether-based brake fluid.
Instrumentation and electrical system
Most classic cars have beautiful dashboard instrumentation that offers wildly inaccurate information about what’s going on with the mechanical and electrical systems. Modern dials and gauges are relatively easy to source, and can warn you of impending doom before it’s too late.
A full overhaul of an old mechanical dashboard system can be expensive, but at the very least you should ensure that you know what the water and oil temperatures are up to.
Wiring issues can cause many frustrating intermittent problems, and while they are time consuming to rectify, they can generally be traced to corroded connections, crimped wires or faulty relays. Weak batteries can also cause havoc with starter motors, and should be kept on a trickle charger.
A simple though sometimes fiddly job that can transform the electrics is to pull apart every terminal, clean each half with a fine emery cloth and/or tiny Swiss file, then coat the terminals in a rustproofing liquid such as Waxoyl to ensure that it retains connection.
Originality tip: Although specialists offer fully refurbished original instruments, the dials’ accuracy won’t be significantly improved so visual inspection of the fluids should become part of every pre-trip procedure. Modern internal components can also be fitted in the original casings, which can be a useful upgrade if you use your classic car regularly. Some instrument specialists already supply these for more popular models.
Lubrication and general maintenance
Modern cars tend to require little in the way of lubrication of their components, but older vehicles will benefit greatly from regular greasing of suspension parts, brake mechanisms and gearbox linkages.
Gaiters and rubber boots should also be regularly inspected before they crack, as the ingress of dirt into components such as the CV joints can gradually erode the bearings and cause further damage. Don’t forget to lubricate the door hinges, and ensure that the drainage holes are not blocked by leaves or road grit.
Clean grease nipples before you use them, and check carefully that you're using the correct lubricant – some suspension components may require an EP90 oil, for example, rather than a grease. CV joints usually need graphite grease.
Being ready for every eventuality would require you to tow a mechanic behind you in an identical donor car. Short of that, you should keep with you a set of commonly used tools as well as some coolant, oil, spark plugs and a drive belt or two, to help tackle some of the more common impromptu roadside stops.
- Get in touch with specialists and car clubs, as there is a wealth of information to be gleaned from their experience.
- Use your classic regularly, as long periods of disuse can cause issues that will crop up just as you are negotiating a busy roundabout in a city centre.
- Conduct a quick pre-trip inspection of your car before each journey. It should comprise a visual check of the oil, coolant, brake fluid and tyres. Listen out for any new noises on start-up, and take a look at the garage floor for any fluid leaks.
- A decent jack, tyre pump and battery charger can salvage an otherwise aborted weekend drive.
- Sourcing original parts for most classics has been made much easier with the help of the Internet, and many manufacturers are realising that there is value to be had in supporting their heritage, too. Originality does come at a cost, though, both financially and practically. From a reliability point of view, upgrading to more modern components can make for a more cost-effective and pleasurable classic driving experience.
Picture courtesy of Calum Brown