Ready for Driving Again

It’s hard to sustain a state of panic, a sense of imminent doom, when the sun is shining, the breeze is warm — and you’re getting your classic car ready for spring.

This is a necessary and therapeutic annual ritual. Like the first green shoots and buds on the trees, it marks the end of the dead season and the beginning of a new beginning. We could all use a lot of that right now.

The basics first:

  • Air up the tires
  • Check all the fluids
  • A general walk-around and close inspection

Cars that sit for weeks and months have different needs and develop different problems than regularly used cars.

For example, there’s more to check than just the air in the tires. Cars that are driven regularly usually wear out their tires before the tires age out. Cars that aren’t driven regularly often have tires with plenty of tread but hairline cracks on the sidewall and maybe also structural deterioration you can’t even see—the result of age and oxidation of the compounds that make rubber pliable.

I drive my classic, maybe 500 miles each year. Its tires will never go bald. Well, maybe the rear tires will from burnouts—but you get the point. Unless you drive your classic car at least a few thousand miles each year, it is very likely the tires you buy today will still have most of their tread a decade or even two from now. But by that time, they may no longer be safe to drive on.

If you see cracks, it’s a clue that it’s time for new rubber. Send the old ones to Valhalla via celebratory burnouts!

I next check all the lights. Head and brake and tail and turn. Hi and low beam. Make sure they’re all working before you go driving.

Remember that the cost of a turn signal bulb is much lower than a ticket from police. Also cheaper than the cost of body and paint work for your classic car and the cost of more insurance after it’s been determined that you’re the cause for an accident because you thought you signaled a left turn.

Oil and filter change. My practice is every spring, regardless of mileage. As with tires, the passage of time is the determining factor here. The oil does not wear out, certainly not after 500 miles (or less) of driving in a year.

But it does get contaminated. By gas especially, which inevitably leaks down into the crankcase from the carburetor—a fuel delivery device that most cars made before the mid-1980s used. And by short-distance driving.

Older cars do not warm up as quickly as modern cars, which are specifically designed to lower their emissions. Older cars weren’t, and if driven short distances or just fired up and allowed to idle a while in the garage during the winter months, it will accumulate things in the crankcase that are not good for them.

Changing the oil and filter purges out the not-good-things, and the fresh oil coats all those important things with lubricants and anti-wear additives, your old car’s engine deserves. If it’s an engine with a flat-tappet camshaft (which is almost all American car engines made before the early ’80s), it is really important to get oil that has the zinc/manganese additives (ZDDP) which many off-the-shelf oils no longer have.

You can buy an additive to add to off-the-shelf oil.

Three other fluids to check are coolant, brake, and transmission fluid.

The years roll by fast, and it’s easy to forget how long it’s been since these were last changed. Keeping a logbook with dates and what you did is extremely helpful here.

Check the fluids and then check the book. Deal with each as necessary. This will be differently necessary than the original factory service recommendations because designers didn’t anticipate a car that mostly stays hunkered down in a garage. Once again, forget the mileage and focus on the time. I replace the above three every three years, regardless of what the odometer says.

What the calendar says matters more.

Pre-flight done—next is the most enjoyable part. For me, it’s the yearly wash. I avoid getting my old car wet, whether by weather or by hose, because water is a rust-accelerant. But a wash is periodically needed to really clean the car. In between, one can use waterless wash products or a “detailer in a can,” but accumulated heavy dust, and other such things are better dealt with using good old H2O.

There is joy to be had, out in the warm with the sun not too hot going over the panels you know so well. After you towel off the car, it’s now time for a drive. Your excuse here is to blow-dry the crevices, to get all the water out. But there’s an even more important reason, especially this season.


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