How To Maintain A Classic Car: 11 Things You Should Do


Owning a classic car holds a lot of advantages that includes participating in car shows, being part of the car enthusiast community, and simply owning a beautiful piece of history. If you wish to keep your classic car in the best shape possible, there are several things you need to regularly do, even more so than a normal car.

I’ve been able to compile a list of the most important things you can do to maintain your classic car that will keep it in it’s best shape for years to come. As annoying it may be to have to spend the extra time doing maintenance, I guarantee those extra few minutes will be absolutely worth it. If you’re going to own a classic car, this is simply something you have to do. So, how do you maintain a classic car? The best steps to maintain a classic car are:

  • Monthly tire inspections
  • Use battery tender
  • Check cooling system
  • Test/check brakes
  • Drive regularly
  • Check/change filters
  • Change oil more often
  • Clean and condition interior
  • Proper coverage
  • Thorough wash
  • Check all other fluids

I have owned several classic cars throughout my life and have seen first-hand what happens when you don’t take the proper care of your vehicle. Not taking a simple hour or two per month for maintenance can lead to several problems that take a lot more time and money to fix. All these points I’ve listed need to be done right and I can explain each in further detail.

Monthly Tire Inspections

The tires on our cars are hardly given the credit they deserve. They’re a huge factor in our ability to take our classic cars out for a stroll. They’re our cushion between us and the road so it’s definitely a good idea to make sure they’re working right.

Most people don’t attend to their tires until they notice something is wrong. Some may not know they had tire issues until something catastrophic happens; you don’t want to be in that situation, trust me. So set aside some time to take care of your tires and they will take care of you in return.

You should never have tires longer than 6 years or 40,000 miles, whichever comes first. This also includes spares. Even if you only put a couple of thousand miles on them, tires get old and are no longer safe after a while. You’ll also need to rotate your tires every two years or every 5,000 miles, whichever comes first. This prevents wear from happening on one side of the tires.

It can be very difficult to get rid of tires you didn’t use very much after six years. Looking at them and seeing, from a visual perspective, that they are perfectly fine and having to throw them out is a thrifty person’s nightmare. While tires can look great even after 6 years, they are not safe. There’s more going on underneath that you cannot see.

Always buy brand new tires straight from a tire shop. This will ensure they have a full life expectancy with no surprises. It’ll be very tempting to buy what looks like new tires from a second hand shop or from someone on Craigslist, but it’s never ideal to do that. You don’t really know how old they are or how long they’ll last.

Use Battery Tender

Some of you lucky people out there have a classic car that works so well that you’re able to use it as a daily driver. Maybe you’ve made some modifications that makes it a bit more modern which makes daily driving a possibility. Unfortunately, most of us that own a classic car don’t have the luxury of driving it every day either because it’s not the most reliable source of daily driving or because antique plate regulations don’t allow you to drive it as much.

Though most of us wish we could drive our classic cars every day and show it off, it’s okay that it sits for longer periods of time. But it’s because of those longer times it’s sitting you have to perform more maintenance. Your battery will be a huge issue if you don’t maintain it right because a dormant car means there’s a battery that’s losing it’s charge.

There is also a phenomenon called parasitic drain. This happens when the old computers and poorly grounded wires in the car cause slight discharge of the battery over time. In other words, your battery charge is slowly getting drained from some other unwanted source. Each time you don’t use your classic car, this parasitic drain can cause further damage. Each time you let the battery fully discharge it loses some of it’s full charging potential.

Luckily there is a perfect way to combat this which is using a battery tender. This type of battery charger is one that I use and highly recommend. All you have to do is hook it up to your battery when you’re not using your classic car and it’ll take care of the rest. It has a sensor that indicates when your charge is too low and needs to start charging and it’ll also sense that your battery is full and will stop supplying a charge. You can keep this charger connected to your battery for any amount of time, worry-free.

Using a battery tender is a perfect tool to use to help maintain your classic car. It’ll save you future headaches as well as missed trips because your classic car’s battery was dead. You can also try keeping a portable jump starter (click here to see it in my list of recommended products) in your car in case you’re out and about and find yourself with a dead battery.

Check Cooling System

When it comes to classic cars, the cooling system is an extremely important component, even more so than modern cars. Classic cars are older and have a higher tendency to overheat which is why maintenance on your cooling system is vital to the health of your vehicle.

The main components you’ll want to check are the coolant, fan, hoses, and radiator. The water pump is also an important part to the cooling system, but it’s a little harder to get to and check, so if you’re having issues with overheating and all the first components look fine, you’ll know you have a water pump problem.

First, you’ll want to check the coolant. When your classic car is cooled down or hasn’t run for at least a few hours, open up the coolant/antifreeze resevoir cap and peer inside, noting the condition of the fluid. Coolant is usually a neon green or red color. It is claimed that coolant doesn’t have an expiration date when it’s in an air tight container, however your cooling system isn’t exactly air tight.

It is possible for rust to form or for it to gunk up in the cooling system and you’ll be able to tell through the condition of the coolant. This usually happens because of lack of continued use of your classic car. If you’ve noticed a poor condition of the coolant, you’ll need to get the system flushed out and replace it with new fluid (I recommend a shop does that). Otherwise, top off your coolant every few weeks and alternate between water and coolant to get a 50/50 mixture.

Several times a year, check the status of your fan, fan shroud, and radiator. Make sure the fan runs correctly and kicks on when it needs to, that it doesn’t hit the fan shroud, and that you don’t have any holes or several dents in your radiator. If you have a temperature gauge, make sure to glance at it several times while you’re driving to ensure your classic car is maintaining a healthy temperature.

Test/Check Brakes

Testing and checking the brakes on your classic car is vital when it comes to maintaining your classic car. Brakes won’t suddenly fail if you let your classic car sit, however they can lose some functionality and require longer distances to stop.

Because we don’t drive our classic cars all too often, dust and dirt can build up in places we never want it to go. This can include the brakes. Rain and condensation can also get into the brakes and cause a little bit of rust if they’re not used enough.

Whether you have drum brakes, disc brakes, or a mixture of both, either one can become a victim to dust and/or rust. You’ll want to be especially careful with drum brakes because they are already inferior to disc brakes and require more pressure and timing to get your car to stop. Each time you take your classic car out for a ride, make sure to use the brakes a little more often than you normally would.

Try applying a bit more pressure than you normally would at stops to get all the dust and rust out of the way. This does not mean you need to slam on your brakes, that’s not good for them. Just make sure you use your brakes to their full potential to dust them off a little.

If you have an emergency brake, use that a few times a year to stop the car. That’s also susceptible to dirt and rust and you don’t want to find out it’s been building up when you actually need to use the emergency brake.

Drive Regularly

There’s a lot that can happen to your car when you just let it sit for long periods of time. Like I said before, it’s okay if you can’t take it for a drive every day, however you shouldn’t just let it sit for months at a time with no attention and no driving.

If you have not taken the steps to prepare it for long term dormancy, you should never let your car sit for longer than a month without starting it up for at least a few minutes. If you let your car sit, parts of your car will start breaking down and will eventually cause issues; the whole mechanics and chemistry of the car is in jeopardy.

If you simply don’t have the time to take it out for a stroll every so often, you need to at least let it sit and idle for 10 – 15 minutes to burn out any condensation. This will keep the seals and gaskets lubricated. However, you can’t solely rely on this method and assume this will keep your classic car in top shape. You will still occasionally need to take it out for drives so it gets up to full operating temperature. This will ensure all the water vapor is eliminated and that all the components are properly getting lubricated. Click here for more information on this.

If you have a classic car that currently is not running, try rotating the crankshaft pulley so the pistons don’t rust to the cylinder walls. This is also applicable if you’re restoring a classic car and have the engine on an engine hoist. Rotating the crankshaft pulley will ensure your engine stays healthy.

Check/Change Filters

There are a few filters that classic cars have. It’s important you add these to your classic car maintenance because these filters, when dirty, can cause your car to not start or run poorly.

The first filter you’ll want to check occasionally is the air filter. Each car is different with the type of air filter they have, but a lot of classic cars have it directly on top of the carburetor. Every few months, examine it’s condition to make sure it’s not completely dirty or clogged up. If air isn’t able to pass through your air filter, the carburetor won’t get enough air to make the necessary air-fuel mixture the engine needs to start and run.

The next filter you’ll want to check on is the fuel filter. The type of fuel filter I’m talking about is the one that directly connects into the carburetor which most classic cars have. These can easily get clogged if you’ve been using ethanol gas. Some of you have updated your classic cars and have fuel injection so your fuel filter will either be in the fuel line somewhere or in the gas tank. You won’t need to check that one as often.

Both the air filter and the fuel filter should be changed every 15,000 – 30,000 miles or every 3 years, whichever comes first. Never have filters older than 3 years old because they can age and become brittle, even with little use.

Change Oil More Often

The health of the oil in your classic car can mean the life or death of your engine. Regular oil changes and maintenance is a lot less expensive than having to repair to even replace your engine.

People often make the mistake thinking that because they don’t drive their classic car that often, they don’t need to do as frequent of oil changes. The truth is actually quite the opposite; because you drive your car less, you need to do as frequent of oil changes if not more frequent than a regular car. You oil will break down whether or not it’s being used. In fact, it tends to break down a little faster when it’s not being used.

You need to change your oil every 3,000 – 5,000 miles or every six months, whichever comes first. Again, it may be difficult for the thrifty person to see what looks like good oil going to waste because you didn’t use it that much, but I assure you that it will solidify better health to your classic car.

Two oil changes a year really isn’t that expensive anyway; you’ll essentially be spending $65-$80 a year for oil changes as apposed to thousands of dollars for a new engine. Most people can do it themselves and you can easily learn yourself if you don’t know how. It’s a procedure that takes no more than an hour to finish. Click here for more information about changing the oil in your classic car.

Clean And Condition Interior

The interior of a classic car is just as important as the exterior. Taking care of the interior is important because that’s essentially where you sit and spend your time while you’re out driving your classic car.

There are a few simple steps you can take to make sure your interior stays in pristine shape. The sun can do a whole lot of damage to your seats, carpet, and dashboard by both the light and the heat combined. The sun does an excellent job at bleaching seat and dash colors, but of course only does it in certain spots which leaves you with different shades across your interior.

If you’re unable to park in a garage or use a car cover, at the very least use window sun shades. This will greatly reduce discoloration inside your classic car. Unfortunately, the fluctuation of heat can cause leather seats to expand and become more susceptible to tears and rips. Luckily there are leather seat treatments you can use that will not only clean your leather seat, but help maintain them and keep them from ripping.

There are also dashboard treatments you can use. No matter what material you have on your dash, there is a treatment out there for it. Dashboard treatments help prevent any cracks or splits while also serving as a protector against UV rays.

You may think you’re off the hook if you have cloth seats. The sun and heat can also have an impact on cloth seats, too, and it’s important you treat them so they don’t get sun bleached or torn. Something about the mixture of dirt and sun makes cloth disintegrate and rip easily. Periodically clean your seats with a vacuum to keep dust and dirt off of them.

Proper Coverage

This may be an obvious way to maintain your classic car, but not as many people yield to it as they should. If you’re going to own a classic car, you need to have the right space for it so it won’t get damaged from the sun and other elements.

Your first priority should be keeping it in a garage. This will exponentially decrease your chances to body damage to your classic car while also maintaining regular temperatures. While it’s in the garage, keep a cover over it. That will prevent any dust or dirt from getting on it. If a garage is not available for you to park your classic car in, at the very least you need to have a cover over it. Click here to see the cover I recommend.

When a classic car just sits outside in the elements, you’re letting the whole car age exponentially quicker than you would if you had a cover on or put it in a garage. The UV rays from the sun eat away at the clear coat on the body and the clear coat will start peeling. Once the clear coat starts peeling, the paint underneath it is exposed and will start to fade. You risk the expense of a new paint job if you do not cover your classic car.

I have seen the damage the sun can do to a car and it only takes one hot summer to do this much damage. Snow and rain can also greatly affect your classic car as it will aid in the formation of rust.

Thorough Wash

While a car wash can make your classic car look amazing, there’s actually a lot more benefits to it than just that. Part of proper classic car maintenance is giving your car a thorough wash every few months including underneath it.

Modern cars are painted with a type of paint that is better for metal and prevents it from rusting. So unless you have a brand new paint job, your classic car may be more susceptible to rust. Older cars also weren’t made with the galvanized steel they use nowadays that has rust-resistant zinc coated on it.

Salty roads can be brutal to classic cars; salt likes to create the formation of rust and since your classic car doesn’t have as many protective features on it against rust, your car is at a higher risk of forming it.

Doing a thorough wash of your classic car every few months will prevent a lot of rust from forming. A thorough wash should include a pressure wash as well as a wax and polish. Pressure washing underneath the car is vital because that’s where most of the rust will form. Pressure washing it will remove any components that are inviting rust to stick around.

If your classic car is low to the ground, you may need to get a few jack stands to get it a little higher so you have room to pressure wash down there. You’ll feel satisfied with each wash while you watch all the gunk the forms under there come off.

Check All Other Fluids

Finally, don’t forget to check and top off all the other fluids as part of your classic car maintenance. Such fluids include transmission fluid, brake fluid, and washer fluid.

There is usually a dip stick towards the back of the engine that is used to check the transmission fluid. Turn your car on and leave it parked while you check the fluid. The stick will be able to tell you whether or not it’s at a good level. If you need to add some transmission fluid, the stick will sometimes tell you what kind of fluid you need or you can check with your local auto parts store. Only add a little bit at a time and recheck the level. You don’t want to put in too much.

Check the master cylinder and see the status of the brake fluid. Be sure to always wear gloves while handling brake fluid because it’s a very corrosive substance and should not get on your hands or any other parts besides the master cylinder.

If your classic car has washer fluid, be sure to always make sure the reservoir is full. If at any time you have to use it, top it off when you get home. This is a luxury that can turn in to a life saving thing. You don’t want to ever have an obstructed view while driving your classic car.

Related Question

How much does it cost to maintain a classic car every year? Aside from the actual purchase of the classic car and the gas, it costs on average about $800 – $1000 per year to maintain if you maintain it well. This include insurance costs, fluids, and random fixes you may need to do.

Is it worth it to restore a classic car? The amount it will cost to restore compared to the amount it will be worth when you’re done will be able to tell you if it’s worth it or not to restore a classic car. Generally a classic car restoration is worth it if you know how to do it yourself.

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