First time classic car DIYer advice: Part 1

On the Road 5 min read

For millions of Americans, the ownership and upkeep of a classic car is an important part of life. Some call it a hobby. Others would describe it as a diversion, or maybe a pastime to fill up a few weekends. For many, though, it’s an obsession.

Our passion for old cars is growing, while the lifestyle built around them is becoming rapidly more popular. Especially for families, passing on that passion while attending a car show, or a few hours in the garage tinkering with your classic ride, is great way to spend an afternoon connecting with your kids.

But diving into a classic car project can be intimidating for the first-time classic car owner and do-it-yourselfer. Don’t let that stop you, though. With the right tools, the right project, and the right information, you can fix that old car and have a great time doing it. We’re here to help, too.

Getting over your fear and picking up that wrench is half the battle. Understand that the car is iron and steel. It’s strong and resilient and mostly impervious to your mistakes. The chances of you burning the car to the ground or destroying it completely are slim. Yes, you can fudge a repair, but you’ll learn from those mistakes. When that happens—and it probably will—just get something cold to drink and dive back in knowing better.

Remember, the three keys to doing-it-yourself are patience, patience, and more patience.

Safety first

Just as with any home improvement project, any classic car DIY undertaking should be approached with the safety in mind for all those involved. Cars are large heavy objects. They contain gasoline, which is flammable, and other caustic liquids like brake fluid, that don’t feel great on your skin. If you’re going to handle gasoline, do so only a well-ventilated area away from open flame. And always have a fire extinguisher nearby just in case.

Wear closed-toe shoes when working on any automobile, long pants and eye protection, especially when lying on your back looking up at the greasy side of a car. Gloves are always a good idea when coming into contact with things like oil, coolant, or other fluids.

Don’t ever crawl under a car that’s supported by a jack. Even a brand-new, expensive jack. If the jack fails the car will come down and crush you like a ripe grapefruit. A good, high-quality set of jack stands is a must if you plan on removing the cars wheels and tires or getting underneath it.

Overall, just use common sense and always err on the side of caution.

Basic tools

Purchasing high-quality hand tools can be as fun as buying the car itself, and in some cases, even more expensive. Reputable tool brands like Craftsman, Mac, Snap-On and others offer expansive tool lines that include specialty tools, power tools, air tools, and tool boxes large enough to support a race team. But as a first-time DIY-er, you should stick with the basics.

Pick up a set of high-quality screw drivers in assorted sizes, both flat-blade and Philips head. Also a high-quality ratchet set with standard and metric sockets and an extensive set of box and open end wrenches also in both standard and metric sizes. And if you want to step it up a notch, buy a set of ratchet end box wrenches, which can be a real timesaver in tight spaces. You’ll also need pliers in assorted shapes and sizes, a tape measure, the jack and jack stands we mentioned earlier, and a hammer. Because eventually, and sometimes when all else fails, everyone needs a hammer.

A tool box to keep them organized is a must. There’s no need to go overboard and get the huge “Pro-Series” Roller Box with the stainless steel finish and the USB ports, but you might want to get it anyway.

Where to get helpful information

Just because you’re working on an older analog automobile doesn’t mean you can’t use all the advantages of a digital world. For just about any issue you’ll run into, you can turn to the internet for all the information you need to do the job right.

For starters, Google the year, make and model of your project. Somewhere out there is a ravenous online community, usually located on an online forum, dedicated to your vehicle and how to keep it alive and healthy. Those fellow enthusiasts will want to engage with you. Be nice. Let them help. They know the answer to your question, or they know somebody that knows somebody that does. Maybe you’ll even find a friend in your area with the same passion and he or she will join you in the garage or point you in the right direction of quality parts.

Beyond the forums and websites, check YouTube, which is filled with how-to videos covering almost any auto repair. Even if the DIYer in the video isn’t working on your same make and model, often the techniques and basic knowledge shown will transfer to your project.

Finally buy a repair manual (Chilton, Bentley, or the like) for your vehicle or go to and do the research online. These manuals will break down the job for you, dissecting the vehicle and showing you how it works.

Start easy to keep your confidence alive

Choosing the right vehicle to work on is extremely important. Consider your budget, skill set, and work space when making your selection. Start with a project you can handle, staying away from a car with complicated needs like a full engine rebuild or extensive bodywork, which can be messy and require specialized know-how and tools. If space is limited, don’t drag home a huge pickup truck or full-size car. Remember—you’ll need room for parts and tools and to move comfortably around the vehicle.

American cars and trucks built before 1968 are usually a safe place for the beginner grassroots mechanic. These vehicles usually feature simple inline-six cylinder or V-8 engines with single camshafts and pushrods. They also lack emissions controls, which on later cars add complexity and often block easy access to other engine parts under the hood.

Cars with air-conditioning are also a little more difficult to work on. The subsystems on American cars from this era—steering, brakes and cooling—are also as simple as they come. Parts are easy to find and inexpensive for these cars, and they rarely require anything beyond basic hand tools. British sports cars of the 1950s and 1960s are also a good place to start, with the exception of Jaguars which have more complex engines and suspensions.

Once you choose the make and model you desire, always buy the best example you can afford. Purchase a running and driving car if you can. Driving the car in between fixes and upgrades will always keep you more motivated on the project, while a car that never moves out of the garage will just make the whole undertaking feel that much more daunting.

Diving into DIY fixes on a classic car is all about patience, persistence, and enjoying the process. When you finally fire up your precious ride, the sound of the engine firing up will be all the more rewarding.

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