Owning a classic or can be a joyful experience. What qualifies as a classic may depend somewhat on who you ask. Depending on where you live, you can register your car as a “classic” as soon as 15 years after its original sale date. Look around, folks, the 90s started over 30 years ago. Classic cars just got a lot newer.
Whether you’ve got a true 50s or 60s classic or are more of a “modern classic” kind of person, your car will still need some special attention. I mean, the whole point of having it is to enjoy it, right? To have a classic as a weekend toy, to take to car shows, or even just to cruise down Main Street, it will take a little extra effort to keep it driving and looking its best.
I’ve compiled a short list of things you should keep in mind. If you’re smart about it (and decent with a wrench) it’s not even that great of an expense to properly maintain your classic. If you don’t have one yet, the first step will of course be getting one. Which brings me to…
If You’re Buying a Classic Car
If you haven’t got one yet and are looking, you have a few things to think about. First and foremost, what kind of car are you looking for? Maybe it was always your dream to own a ‘67 Mustang, or perhaps a late 80s Porsche 944. What about one of the Japanese Kings of the 1990s like the 300ZX, NA Miata or even a Toyota Supra? Whichever it is (and there’s no wrong answer) you will benefit TREMENDOUSLY from doing lots of research before your purchase.
Before purchasing any classic car, make sure you check our growing list of car buyer’s guides to see if we have information available that will make it easier to find and purchase a good example.
The internet is rife with information for… well, everything. This includes info on your specific dream car. I don’t use the word “specific” lightly, either. If you’ve found a car you’re considering, you can run a VIN report. With this you can see registration history and even find out where it was originally sold. Most importantly, you can see any major accidents that have been reported.
Beyond this, the biggest benefit to you will be finding information on the model itself. As an older vehicle, it’s going to need extra maintenance and likely some repairs as well. You can plan ahead for issues to expect by learning what commonly goes wrong with the model you’re looking for.
Internet forums are a great place for this. Yes, there is an awful lot of negativity to be found as well. If you can ignore the internet trolls, you’ll find that people have been working together to keep their cars on the road and running strong.
You may see a thread from 15 years ago detailing how to fix that annoying rattle on startup, and even huge write ups on how best to repair a curbed wheel. If you want a classic car and keep it roadworthy, educating yourself on as much as you can about your model will be an invaluable asset.
Don’t Skimp on Oil Changes!
We all know engines need oil changes to keep going (or at least I HOPE we all do). For a lot of modern cars, you can do this bare minimum and keep it going for a long time. Get this idea out of your head for your classic car. To keep it running well, and have some peace of mind, you’ll have to go all out.
I’d recommend sticking to a maximum of 2500-3000 miles or 6 months between oil and filter changes. This is likely what was recommended by the manufacturer on any car older than 1990 and most cars from 1990-2000 or so. It never hurts to change it early, however. Check the oil often and make sure it’s topped off in between changes.
Do Make Sure Your Other Fluids Are Fresh
Your other fluids matter, too. When I get any used car, I like to change all the fluids so I know they’re fresh. Manual transmission fluid, coolant, brake fluid and even power steering fluid. All of them should be changed, though not as frequently as your engine oil. This can help you avoid a lot of potential damage.
Don’t forget to do your research. Use the best fluids, oils and filters you can find. Note that “best” and “most expensive” are not the same, and most of the time this is not the case.
If You Only Have Two Pedals
Automatic transmission fluid can be tricky… if it hasn’t been changed for the past 20 years it may be best to leave it alone. If the fluid looks very dark, flushing it can actually do more harm than good. The reason for this is that a lot of the friction material for the transmission’s clutches is now absorbed in the fluid. It may work just fine as it is, but a flush would remove all that material from the transmission and ruin it.
Depending on the car, the transmission could still last a very long time like this, but plan on the possibility of replacing the transmission at some point in the future. If you do change the automatic trans fluid, I’d recommend sticking to the manufacturer’s mileage interval and fluid type.
Old School Maintenance
Since this is an “older” car we’re talking about, there are a lot of things included in the realm of maintenance that modern cars generally don’t need very often, if at all. Again, this is where your research on the specific model will help. Spark plugs have come a long way and usually last up to 100k miles on new cars, but older vehicles will need them more often. They may even need a specific type to run properly. This also goes for plug wires, the distributor and the whole ignition system.
Belts, PCV valves, hoses, vacuum lines, and even your shocks and suspension joints are all maintenance items that will need attention. If the car has a timing belt, it MUST be changed on time or you can have serious engine damage. Don’t neglect these and the car will be running and driving great for years to come.
Do Be Proactive!
Almost every car has that “one thing” to look out for. A lot of cars have SEVERAL “one things” (I’m looking at you, New Edge Mustang). A great practice, which can save you lots of time and money down the road, is going ahead and making preemptive repairs.
A couple great examples of this are the VTEC solenoids on some Hondas, or even the water pump on a GM V8. They are common points of failure, usually leaks. If a common failure part on your car looks like it hasn’t been replaced in a while, or at all, you can take it out of the equation by just replacing it before it becomes a problem.
Don’t Use Inferior Parts!
I’ve seen LOTS of poor quality parts fail within weeks or even days of installation. Alternators seem to be one of the most popular. Unfortunately this is one area that you usually do get what you pay for. Once again, doing research on your model (anyone else noticing a trend here?) is your best bet for finding the best parts to use.
In most cases, the OEM parts are going to be at the top of the list. Unfortunately they may be out of production due to the age of the car. Not to worry, there are lots of good quality aftermarket companies that will have the parts you need.
DON’T JUST LET THE CAR SIT!
There are so many reasons not to do this. For one, it can cause problems. Dead battery, moisture in the oil, flat spots on tires, you name it. If it sits long enough you could spend more on repairs than if you had been driving it. Get rid of the idea that you can start the car up and let it run for 10 minutes to keep things fresh and the battery charged. It doesn’t work and actually makes things worse.
To keep the moisture out of your oil the car needs to be at operating temperature and driving for at least 10-20 minutes, possibly longer. Similarly, it takes some time and driving for the alternator to properly keep a charge in the battery. If this is your concern, it’s better to leave the car on a trickle charger when it’s going to sit for a while.
But perhaps the worst thing about letting the car sit is that it’s not being enjoyed fully. It’s not getting to strut its stuff… YOUR stuff. If you’re reading this, you wanted to get an idea of what kind of work it would take to keep a classic car going. What’s the point of all that if it hardly ever gets to “go”?
Don’t take care of the car for the next owner. Drive the car for YOU. Show it off. Enjoy it. If you’re putting the effort into it, you deserve it.
Remember to check out our car buyer’s guides before purchasing as well!