Recommissioning your classic car

Had your cherished vehicle in storage over winter? Here’s the AutoClassics guide to getting it back on the road after a long lay-up

Whether you have let your classic car slowly sink into the ground for the past ten years, or have just stored it away for a few months, certain items will require attending to before sticking the key in the ignition and roaring off on that first exhilarating drive.

Shorter lay-ups may not require too much in the way of recommissioning, but it is still wise to inspect a classic car before attempting to drive off for the first time. Seized or damaged components can cause a lot of headaches if left unchecked, and your Sunday drive may turn into a Monday-morning tow unless you follow a few essential steps.

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Engine

Start with a quick inspection of the drivebelts, HT leads and radiator hoses. If all is well, then turn the fan blades slowly (or use a socket or spanner on the crankshaft pulley) and see if the engine turns over freely.

No engine is going to be easy to turn over but if it's a real struggle to move, then the pistons or valves may be partially seized, or the piston rings and cylinder walls have corroded slightly. There is no need to panic just yet, but it may be worth removing the spark plugs and pouring a little penetrating oil into each cylinder; diesel works, too, and it won’t wash the oil off the bores in the process.

If this does not loosen things, then allow yourself a moment of panic as the engine may need to be stripped down. One last resort is to leave some diesel soaking in for a couple of nights in the hope that the components may become unseized.

Petrol tends to degrade over time – more so with modern, ethanol-laden, unleaded fuels. It also evaporates if left for long periods, so check that there is enough in the tank and don’t forget to replace the fuel filter if it was not done prior to storage.

Modern fuel is also known to degrade rubber fuel pipes, fuel pump diaphragms and seals, and the resulting particles of rubber can block filters, jets and particularly float chambers.

It may be wise to totally drain the fuel tank if the car has been standing for a number of years, as the consensus is that the octane rating drops significantly after a few months. This is especially so if the fuel tank is not airtight.

An oil change is also necessary if the car has been standing for a few months, as the fluid starts to lose its lubricating properties the moment it’s poured into the engine, whether or not the vehicle is driven. Corrosive chemicals tends to build up in old oil too, which you really don't want.

You might as well change the coolant while you’re at it, too, definitely if the car has been standing for longer than a year. If equipped with power steering, check the fluid level and change it if this has not been done in the past three years.

Cooling system

If the radiator (or expansion tank where fitted) shows no signs of leaking, then starting the car and running it will expose any weak areas in the rest of the system. The thermostat can be tested by putting it into boiling water and seeing whether or not it opens. There is no quick way to test the water pump, so keep an eye on the temperature when running the car.

Brakes

Replacing the brake fluid is a good idea if the car has been standing for ages, as it may have absorbed water over time. This can cause corrosion.

The brake discs will generally have a film of superficial rust on the surface, but this should rub off after the first few applications of the pedal. Drum brakes may require a bit more attention, as the shoes can bind to the drums and the actuator springs can rust.

If the handbrake has been left up, then usually pulling away will free off the stuck shoes. If not, you will most likely need to take the drums off – first tap them with a mallet until the shoes unstick.

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Suspension

Older cars will have grease points that need to be checked. Rubber bushes can also crack and perish over time, so inspect them visually and listen out for knocking noises over bumps. Dampers, too, may need a refresh, so look out for leaks. Also, press down on each corner, and see whether there is excessive bounce once you release it.

Clutch

Depress the clutch. If it goes down smoothly, this means the drive plate should be disengaging from the flywheel and all is well. If not, the plate could be seized and there are a few methods to get it unstuck. Warm up the car while it is stationary and pump the pedal a few times; the additional heat can work it free.

An alternative method is to leave the ‘box in gear and crank the starter motor to jolt the car into motion. This can loosen the mechanism, and should not damage any components if attempted once or twice. But make sure there's room in front of the car!

If none of the above works, then you may have to take the gearbox out and pry the clutch free manually. This job is best left to a specialist, unless you have the necessary equipment and skills.

Tyres

Tyres can develop flat spots if the car has not been left on blocks. You may notice an odd bumpy sensation as you drive off for the first time, but the rubber should return to its correct shape after a few miles.

If the car has been resting on completely flat tyres for years, or has severely cracked sidewalls, they will need to be replaced.

Check the four-digit date stamped into the sidewall; the first two numbers are the week of manufacture, while the last two refer to the year (post-2000). Three-digit codes mean the tyre was manufactured before 2000; these should be changed, as most tyres last a maximum of ten years. Don’t forget the spare wheel, either.

Wheel bearings can collapse after years of disuse, so check the wheel hubs for excessive play and listen out for any grumbling noises on your first drive.

Bodywork and interior

You may have washed and polished the car before the big sleep, and even had a cover on it, but we’d always advise you to hose it down and get rid of any cobwebs or dirt that might have accumulated on exposed panels.

This is also a good time to inspect the chassis for any signs of corrosion, rodents and other undesirable creepy crawlies that may have infiltrated the cabin or chewed on the pipes and cables under the bonnet.

The interior should be as you left it if the windows and/or convertible roof have been up the entire time. Check that the instrument gauges are working correctly, and if the car has been standing for ages open the doors gently at first to avoid tearing any rubber seals.

Electrics

Unless you have kept the car on a trickle charger the entire time, a new battery is almost always necessary. Many electrical issues on older classics can be traced back to corroded connectors or a bad earth, so check the wiring thoroughly.

It’s also important to check that all the lights, indicators and windscreen wipers (check the rubber blades, too) are in working order, and the horn as well.

Setting off

Don’t forget to renew any relevant paperwork; if the car has been registered as SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification), it will need to be re-taxed to get it on the road again. The good news for some classic car owners is that from May 2018 all classics over 40 years of age will be exempt from annual MoT requirements. This is already the case for all cars built before 1960.

Once you have gone through the above checks and verified that all is in order, you will be ready to get going on your first drive. Spraying starter fluid into the carburettor for the first fire-up can help reduce the strain on the starter and battery.

Allow the engine to idle only for a few minutes, as the oil pump functions best when on the move, and the tappets and rocker arms (or pushrods, depending on the engine) may exhibit a ticking noise until adequately lubricated. The gearbox and diff can only warm up once underway, too, so a short, gentle drive is the best way to check that all is functioning as it should.

Good luck – and remember, the best way to keep your classic in good roadworthy condition is to use and maintain it regularly.

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