Classic Car Maintenance

Classic Car Maintenance

Mike talks about how to maintain your classic car to keep it running smooth and in tip top condition.

Just like regular pets, our mechanical pets need more and more attention paid to their health as they age. Equally just like a new born pup, a new car requires frequent checks until it has aged and got some experience under its belt.

I believe routine checks should be turned into a ritual, quality, dedicated time that you spend with your car, the same time, same place each week to get to know it. This ensures consistency, and this breeds predictability which is a great basis for classic car motoring. So inbetween routine and mandatory visits to your vet aka classic car specialist, here are a few home treatments and checks to perform regularly. We will assume it is a Sunday morning and you have just stepped out of the house for a mornings motoring therapy before lunch with the family and that the car has stood at the minimum overnight, imperative for our first two checks.

Unlock your pride and joy and pop the bonnet. Our first check is the coolant. You may have an expansion tank or just a radiator, refer to your cars handbook or research online to find the exact procedure to be sure. Top up to the correct level if necessary, ensuring you use the correct colour of antifreeze – is yours blue/green or red? It is not advisable to mix them. You could check your coolants strength with an inexpensive anti freeze tester for peace of mind.

Visually check hoses and the radiator for any signs of leaks or potential failures. Are the hoses soft and perished? Any loose jubilee clips?

If you have a viscous fan is there any play in the fan itself? Try wiggling it gently side to side.

Once satisfied all is boxed up close the bonnet and fire her up. Put all the lights on, indicators one side at a time and pace around the car looking for any bulbs that are out. Brake lights and reverse lights are tricky to test for on your own, so we can save that for later unless you have a helper to hand.

As the car warms up on the spot, check your tyre pressures and make a note of any tyres that have lost pressure. A portable air compressor that plugs into the 12v outlet is best for this…no 12v outlet means it’s a foot pump for you, saves a trip to the gym that week. Visually inspect the tyre for cracks or slits, as well as the tread. Is it wearing evenly? You can use a tyre tread depth gauge to check the tread in mm too.

Once satisfied, jump in the car and take her on a twenty minute drive, paying close attention to whether she steers straight, the brakes pull, stop the car effectively, the wipers and washers are operative, the horn works, listen out for knocks or bumps from the suspension and judge if the engine and drivetrain are working as they should. Your destination is a flat open surface somewhere, an empty supermarket or pub car park for example, and as you reverse into a spot use a window or reflection in another car to check that your brake lights and reverse lights are working.

Turn the car off. Quickly plug all other seat belts in and out to ensure that they are working correctly. If you have three point seat belts yank them hard to test whether they lock into place as they should.

Now pop the bonnet and run through this little routine:

Make a visual check of brake fluid. My personal opinion is that although fluid levels gives an idea of brake wear, one should keep the level between minimum and maximum, closer to maximum. Ensure you use the correct fluid and that the bottle was securely closed before you used the fluid because it attracts moisture, this comprises the chemical make up and can cause brake failure. Always remember to replace the cap properly.

Check your engine oil. The oil should be at least 75% of the way up from “Min” to “Max”. Top up as necessary, generally the hatched area on a dipstick between Min and Max is 1 litre, but top up a little at a time as you don’t want to over fill her. Are you using the correct grade of oil? Oil is a huge topic and I suggest you research this or drop us a line and we can advise on possible options.

If your car has power steering check the fluid level and top up as necessary. Is your fluid red? Normal ATF/power steering fluid will do. Is it green? This is LHM fluid, not advisable to mix green with red.

If your car is automatic, check the auto transmission fluid now. Cars vary on procedure and thus for this one I advise to consult your handbook or specialist on advice on how to carry out a check and top up, if indeed it is not a sealed gearbox.

Does your car have hydraulic fluid for the suspension? Perhaps you are motoring along in a Citroen DS or a Bentley Turbo R. Again, as procedures vary, the handbook and specialist come into play here.

Make a visual check that fuse boxes look good, no wires are burning, no leads are loose, battery terminals and battery itself are secure and the bonnet catch does not look too dry of grease.

Once satisfied that all caps are securely and correctly replaced, close the bonnet and be secure in your mind you have ticked the boxes for basic checks inbetween routine essential servicing. Now enjoy your drive back and your Sunday lunch!

How often should I do this I hear you ask? And what if I can’t make it the same day and same place?

Well I would start off with once a week, and judge according to how many top ups if any you have to make. If no attention is required after one week, stretch it two weeks. I would never leave it longer than three weeks though. Of course please take note of how many miles your doing and vary the time frame accordingly, for example daily drivers may need to carry out fluid checks every three days. This is simply a consistent process to learn about your cars habits…once you know them you can perform all checks or just a few that apply anytime and anywhere you feel is suitable, the routine can be practiced at the drop of a hat, at a petrol station for example – as long as the surface is flat and you have your essential fluids in the boot.

Classic car maintenance is a religion. The little checks and procedures we carry out are simply rituals. Occasionally we have to resort to the advice and help of a priest. So do keep the car Gods happy by carrying out the regular rituals!

Why not share your rituals by responding to this article?


Mike Atwall
This article was written and published by Mike Atwall. Mike works for Trade Classics as an in-house journalist and copywriter and has many years’ experience in the classic car sector – for over 8 years he was the General Manager of the Classic Car Club in London and responsible for a fleet of over 100 cars worth multi-million pounds. So there’s not much Mike doesn’t know about makes, models, maintenance and idiosyncrasies of these old cars. Mike’s a true petrol head with a deep passion for the classics and he loves to talk cars all day, so why not write a reply on this article below.

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