“Will it start?” That’s the most common question on the mind of classic car owners who find themselves going weeks or even months in between Sunday drives or late-night cruise-ins.
However, when it comes to keeping a classic car both ready and safe to use over long periods of time, there are other factors at play that can be even more important than the level of charge in the battery. We listed some common failure points below, plus a few expiration dates that every classic car owner should be aware of.
What does my classic need in order to be ready?
Battery tending device
The most common problem faced when firing up a classic car for the first time in a while is the obvious one—it won’t start! For most owners, this is as simple as buying a battery tending device. Most of them have two parts: a small harness that connects to the positive and negative terminals of your car’s battery, and the charger itself, that plugs into the wall and then can be plugged into the harness in between drives.
The best tenders are capable of charging a battery up from a low-or-no-charge state, keeping the battery properly charged when not in use, and conditioning the battery with gentle charge and discharge cycles. Some of them will even offer you a condition report on the battery as they charge. When in doubt, buy a heavier-duty model. Classic-car owners whose vehicles use a six-volt electrical system will want to make sure they buy the appropriate version; the combination of a 12-volt charger and a six-volt electrical system can be an unhappy one.
Are you in a situation where you can’t get AC power to your garage or storage area? Consider removing your battery and storing it at your home between drives. In most cases, you’ll still want to use a battery tending device, although since an unplugged battery shouldn’t discharge quickly you can often leave it off the tender for a week or more at a time.
Battery disconnect device
Last but not least, consider getting a battery disconnect device, which puts a small removable pin or plug into the positive-side terminal connection. Older cars tend to accumulate small short-circuits and mysterious electrical drains over time, and this can prevent those drains from taking their toll on your battery and making the battery tending device work harder.
The next thing to consider is fuel. It’s always a good idea to use a fuel stabilizing product between fill-ups, particularly if you live in an area where ethanol is added to the fuel at the pump. While traditional pure gasoline can retain its properties for a year or more, ethanol-added gasoline often deteriorates quickly in the tank.
Tire gauge and pancake air compressor
A tire gauge and small pancake air compressor are also helpful for occasional-use automobiles. Just start up the compressor, bring it to full pressure, then take it out to the garage or storage area. You can then adjust the pressure of all four tires to the correct levels. While modern wheel/tire combinations rarely lose significant pressure over months or even years, the same is not the case for older wheels and tires, which frequently don’t have the same precise airtight seal as their newer counterparts.
Watch the age and condition of these items
The relaxed rate at which occasional-use vehicles rack up miles and operating hours can cause us to forget some important maintenance intervals. Some of the below items are related to the health of your car, while others can be important to your health.
Engine oil is often the first thing people think about keeping changed in a classic car, but if the car reaches proper operating temperature every time it’s started up, it can be possible to use the same oil for years with no trouble. Take a quick look at your dipstick before starting. If the oil is still clear and clean, chances are you’re fine. But if it’s dark or sludgy, now’s a good time to change it.
Antifreeze has a limited lifespan in normal use. A basic antifreeze tester, available at any auto parts shop, can let you know if it’s time to make a change.
Rubber seals can deteriorate with time and sunlight. Before making a longer trip, check under the car for leaks and visual condition. Start the car, bring it to temperature, let it cool off, then check again.
Transmission and differential fluid/oil are often overlooked. If you don’t know the last time your transmission fluid was changed or the last time your differential was serviced, it’s a good idea to have those services performed. In particular, rear differentials can run dry in use and fail in an expensive fashion on the open road.
Headlight and taillight bulbs don’t just wear out when they are in use; over time, they can deteriorate in storage, leading to a dim view of the road or potential problems with traffic behind you.
The most overlooked, and important, item
Almost nobody worries about the age of their tires. After all, don’t they wear out in use? That’s true for daily-driven cars, but for classics, it’s common to see tires that look pretty good despite being 10 or even 20 years old. Keeping a car out of the sun can prevent dry rot and cracking in the sidewalls. That does not mean that the tire is safe to use.
Over time, even the highest-quality tires degrade in ways you can see and ways you cannot see. Most vehicle manufacturers recommend that you replace your tires every six years, while the tire manufacturers often recommend a replacement at the 10-year mark regardless of wear or visual condition. This can be a tough pill to swallow—who wants to spend serious money on new tires when the old ones still look fine? But it can have a significant impact on the safety of your vehicle.
Watch that cold start!
Has it been more than a year since you last started your classic? You might want to consider consulting with a mechanic about turning the engine over safely. Over time, the oil drains from all parts of an engine, meaning that the cold start can be hard both on the starter and on the wear surfaces of the engine. It’s common to put a few drops of oil into the spark plug holes before starting an engine that has been dormant for a while, but your mechanic may have specific tips for your car.
When your car is ready to run, it’s also a good idea to make sure that your insurance is still in force and up to date. Print out a proof of insurance and put it in the glovebox. It can save you a lot of time and hassle in the event of a traffic stop—leaving you, and your classic, more time to enjoy the open road!