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How to maintain and restore a classic car

If you’re thinking of investing in a classic car, or you’ve already invested and want to make sure your purchase stays valuable, it’s time to get familiar with classic car maintenance and restoration. Full restorations are not for the faint-hearted; they require considerable amounts of time, money and dedication, not to mention skill. General maintenance, on the other hand, can be as easy as you make it.

The average classic car restoration takes at least 1,000 hours, and while costs do vary, expect to spend anything from a few thousand to tens of thousands of pounds on replacement parts, specialist tools and at times, professional help. Realistically you’re also going to need access to a large workshop or garage where you can keep your restoration project away from wind and rain, rather than leaving it at risk of damp, dirt and rust in a driveway.

For those buying pre-restored cars, or cars which have simply been very well looked-after, there’s no need to brace yourself for the same level of specialist need and expenditure. Maintaining a classic car is similar in principle to any car maintenance – the only difference being that you’ll probably find yourself paying much closer attention, thanks to the value of the vehicle.

The basics 

The foundations of good classic car care are simple; oil, water, brake fluid and use. If your car is capable of running, don’t just leave it sitting around under cover. Older cars can really suffer when they’re left dormant, with seals and other rubber components prone to drying up and cracking, making way for leaks. Moving parts can also seize up as a result of corrosion or simple decay, and without oil changes and water top-ups even a hardy car can begin to suffer.

Starting up your classic car at least once or twice a month to warm the engine can make all the difference, and taking it for a spin to engage the tyres and gears helps to blow out any lingering dampness and condensation. This also helps to recharge the battery, minimising the risk that you go to start your car after months of downtime only to find that the battery has fully discharged.

To keep your investment sparkling clean, soft cleaning cloths and standard car wash formula in a bucket of water are all you really need. Alternative soaps and cleaning products can strip the wax from the bodywork, and are best avoided.

As far as storage goes, even cars that aren’t in need of a full restoration will be happiest in a garage or workshop. If that isn’t possible, aim to keep your new ride covered so that paintwork doesn’t end up fading in direct sunlight, and so that interior plastics and vinyl aren’t prematurely aged. Parking on dirt or gravel should also be avoided where possible, as either surface can allow moisture into the underneath of a vehicle, speeding up rust.

Engine repairs and rebuilds

Before you try to start the engine, remember that a car engine which has been out of use for years needs extra procedures and precautions. Internal parts can be needlessly damaged or broken by enthusiastic start-up attempts.

Depending on the state your car’s engine, you may only need sockets, wrenches and screwdrivers to give the engine a proper check and repair – or you might be in need of the kind of machinery only found at professional outfits.

How you go about repairing or rebuilding your engine will depend on the model, but this isn’t a job for the inexperienced. If you aren’t confident in identifying the correct specs for your car’s camshaft and compression ratio, for example, consider whether you should hand this job to qualified mechanics and save yourself a good portion of time for tasks like brake and suspension adjustments.

Disassembling and reassembling an engine isn’t overwhelmingly difficult in itself, but it requires huge amounts of attention to detail. If you do decide to do it yourself, be sure to take plenty of photos at every stage of disassembly. It’s likely to be weeks before you’re putting the pieces back together again, and photos make remembering orders and arrangements considerably easier.

Brake checks

Most classic cars use drum brakes, which are made up of a number of components that deteriorate over time and through lack of use. Wheel cylinders are often easier to replace than to rebuild if they’ve started to leak after years of sitting around, or if you find a broken bleeder screw that has sheared off or become so rusted that it can’t be opened.

Depending on your feelings toward original-style restorations and the addition of your own touch here and there, upgrading to disc brakes might be worth considering. Upgrading from front drum to front disc brakes is one of the most popular classic car upgrades, and it helps to make your car safer and more driveable – particularly if you’re planning on adding horsepower.

Your brakes may not be the eye-catching, attention-commanding part of your classic car project, but they’re a crucial safety feature and it’s important they’re working well regardless of the adjustments you make.

Resprays and detailing

The paint job your vehicle gets is one of the most important things when it comes to getting the right look. Only an experienced restoration enthusiast should attempt this, but the most efficient way to spend your paintwork budget is to give it to a professional paint sprayer.

To preserve the spirit of your classic car and to help the project retain value for subsequent sales, it’s advisable to stick to original colourways when organising a respray. Finishing touches you can safely do yourself include trim and mouldings; things like door handles, badges, fenders and headlamp surrounds.

You can get these kinds of original details online and from magazine classified ads, but the best place to search is at classic car shows and meetups around the country. You can find real bargains at these events, and your chances of paying too much are minimised by the fact that everyone attending has a vested interest in restorations.

Whether you’re fully restoring a 60s Chevy or putting the finishing touches on a well-loved Morris Minor, there’s plenty of make and model-specific advice to be found in online forums and from classic car club members across the country. You can even get discounts on insuring your classic car if you’re a member of some networks, along with a wealth of free advice from people who’ve already tried and tested different fixes and upgrades that might be right for your vehicle. Plot out your target schedule, establish your budget, and prepare to throw the whole lot out of the window in the name of perfecting a stunning classic car project.


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