28 March 2017

How to make your classic car dependable

Part I: The Big Six

The late folksinger John Hartford reportedly performed a song called When Your Car Breaks Down on the Road and the Wrench Won’t Fit at his live concerts. The song consisted of two lines. The first was the title. The second was a recitation of George Carlin’s famous list of the seven words you can’t say on television.

Whether the wrench fits or not, anyone who has ever had a car break down on the road knows that this sequence of events is startlingly accurate. The car breaks down, then you swear a blue streak. You hate the car, your spouse isn’t crazy about you… it’s not a good situation for anyone.

Now, while anything can happen to a car, particularly a vintage car, that causes it to transition from moving down the road under its own power to coasting to a stop while you hurl a stream of invective at it, most of the time, the things that do break fall into one of six fairly mundane categories (or, as I call them, The Big Six). They are:

The ignition system consisting of the distributor (housing, cap, rotor, points, and condenser), the coil, spark plugs, plug wires, and the voltage supply to the whole thing.

The fuel delivery system (the gas tank, fuel lines, fuel pump and pressure regulator, filters and screens, and either the carburetor or the fuel injection system).

The cooling system (the radiator, water pump, thermostat, hoses, heater core, and fan).

The charging system, by which I mean the battery, battery cables, alternator, and voltage regulator.

The belts (typically, on a vintage car, there’s only one, and it runs both the alternator and the water pump).

The ball joints that connect the suspension to the steering.

Note that there is also a zeroth element on the list: the tires—the part of your car that’s so prone to failure, the car comes with a spare one. It’s so ingrained in us that tires fail, but most other things don’t, that we simply call it a “spare,” not a “spare tire and wheel.” I think that most of us know not to motor around on 50-year old, bald, dry-rotted tires. And yet we often don’t think twice about the other old systems in the car until they fail and strand us.

Don’t get me wrong. It is possible for anything to happen to a car, particularly a vintage car. Ask me about the universal joint on my Triumph GT6’s half-axle that ripped out. Or the time the GT6’s clutch fork pulverized itself into corn flakes. Or when the transmission shaft splines in my BMW 2002 stripped, causing the output shaft to spin inside the output flange.

And, even excepting metal fatigue and bad superseded designs, it is certainly possible for the vicissitudes of time and decay to catch up to a head gasket on any car.

But these lightning bolts from the blue are less likely than The Big Six. Further, while there are many systems on your car that help you enjoy a comfortable, safe, pleasant ride, most of them are unlikely to fail while you are driving in a way that will cause you to pull the trigger and use your Hagerty Plus membership.

For example, take the suspension. While a fresh suspension is a delight, and seized or blown struts or shocks will certainly cause oxcart-like handling, the suspension’s performance is unlikely to degrade in such a way that drags you to the side of the road. (Yes, there are exceptions. The BMW E39 wagon I had, with the self-leveling rear suspension, became a beached whale when one of the pneumatic hoses blew.)

Or the exhaust. It can be grating to ride long distances in a car which has blown a hole in its exhaust, but other than attracting stares and possibly law enforcement’s attention, it’s an annoyance, not a showstopper.

Even the brakes. While, obviously, you want to verify that the brakes are functioning correctly before leaving for a trip, and while it is possible for a car to, say, burst a metal brake line, it is far less likely than a visit from one of The Big Six.

The take-away message is that if, prior to taking your vintage car on a long trip, you look at The Big Six – fuel, ignition, cooling, and charging systems, plus the belts and the ball joints – and prophylactically address any needs you find, you will inoculate yourself with a bolus of reliability. Learn it. Live it. It may save your car, your sanity, your marriage, and your allocation of blue language.

(In the coming weeks, we will drill down into each of The Big Six in detail.)

Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel Magazine for 30 years. He is the author of Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic and The Hack MechanicGuide to European Automotive Electrical Systems. Both are available from Bentley Publishers and Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.

19 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Robert Mencl TEXAS March 29, 2017 at 16:49
    I drive a Model A Ford and a Citroen Traction Avant. To both cars, I added an electric fuel pump under the floorboards, 6 volt Delco alternator, halogen headlight bulbs behind the original lenses, and Optima battery. No more problems!
  • 2
    Chris Easton MD March 29, 2017 at 17:01
    Great to see Rob Siegel is now writing for Hagerty. I have all of his books and have followed him for years in Roundel. His methodical advice on bringing a vintage car back to life has been invaluable. With his advice I was able to puzzle my way through a Gen I electronically controlled fuel injection system on a BMW.
  • 3
    Terry Deacon Orlando, Florida March 29, 2017 at 20:38
    You forgot about packing your wheel bearings. It's simple to do and you won't be stuck on the road with real problem.
  • 4
    Steve Lavender Seattle March 29, 2017 at 22:07
    whenever I'm planning a longer trip with my 1977 280Z, I drive it daily for about a month ahead of time. This usually shakes out any issues and I get them taken care of before leaving. After sitting in the garage all winter, this usually exposes any problems while I'm near home. Two trips form Seattle to LA and back without any incidents...
  • 5
    WALT REED Vacaville, Ca. March 29, 2017 at 22:20
    In the late 1990's I restored a 1963 Pontiac Catalina convertible my father gave me. I did not replace the ball joints. Luckily, when the right front gave out and broke, I was turning around at about 3 mph. Unfortunately, I was about 3 miles from Big Sur. It took 6 hours to get a tow. I had all the ball joints replaced the next day. Listing ball joints was good advice!
  • 6
    Loren Moore Dearborn, Michiga March 30, 2017 at 14:17
    While I love Optima batteries and have had several. What I don't like about them is they give no warning they are dying. They start right away in the morning, you start it to go home and it has died. And I keep a battery tender on them all the time. I now have a spare one I keep in the trunk when going on trips.
  • 7
    Ed MacVaugh Ruxton, Maryland March 30, 2017 at 20:51
    Excellent start on a most valuable topic! I have been blessed with many, many trouble free miles of travel, in part because I monitor each of the cars by driving them personally periodically, a different one each day, so that my wife's car gets driven by me around once a week, same with the kid's cars. A sensitive ear and use of all the other senses can keep maintenance less expensive and timely maintenance can help prevent unsafe conditions and tow bills.
  • 8
    Doug Parkville, MD March 31, 2017 at 01:13
    In !980 I bought a 1953 International Pick-up that needed restoring. I wanted to take it on a trip and was living in Atlanta, Ga. I decided to visit my Aunt and Uncle in New Port Richey, Fl., a 500 mile trip one way. Other than new tires, ignition, electric fuel pump, and the switch over from 6 to 12 volt, everything was original. I took a big chance and only had a broken coil wire (which I fixed) and one of the new tires had a slow leak. It turned out to be a very good and memorable trip. Even my wife was happy.
  • 9
    christopher Lemm genoa city Wi. March 31, 2017 at 08:14
    many years ago I used to line chase all over the United States in my home built 1935 Chevrolet street Rod, going to NSRA events, the week before the trip the car went up on jack stands, wheels removed to check brakes, bearings repacked, all fluids replaced, exhaust system checked, because this was a "hot rod" with high performance engine and driveline extra attention was given to the suspension and all attachment points, all the attention paid off, thousands of miles were racked up with no breakdowns.
  • 10
    John McIver Arizona March 31, 2017 at 00:19
    What about the seven words you can't say on TV...by the late George Carlin?
  • 11
    T Bergen California June 17, 2017 at 15:15
    I just replaced ply tires on my 50 studebaker with wide whitewall radials fron coker tires. The ride was soo much better i drove for hours just enjoying the new sensation.
  • 12
    Larry Vaincourt Vancouver BC June 17, 2017 at 15:38
    Wish you didn't use a corvette broken down as your picture for this article. Must have jinxed me. Looks exactly like my car broken down on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere on our first long run. Blown transmission. 6 hours for a flatbed to pick us up
  • 13
    Ron NEw Zealand June 17, 2017 at 17:19
    A couple of years ago whilst on the NZ Austin Healey National Rally in the South Island one of our members nearly came to a grinding halt when I jokingly said your left front wheel was leaning out a little! It turned out on closer inspection the whole top suspension which was connected to the Damper had ripped three of the four bolts from its mount this whilst traversing the renowned Tarkaka Hill similar to Pikes Peak. Up and down the other side. After the assistance of a local engineer who we woke from his sick bed and five hours later we managed to remove the mount and with a No 8 Wire rebuild and fashion a repair to enable him to drive the 60k back over the dreaded Hill back to Nelson and the Hotel and Rally headquarters
  • 14
    warren sjoberg MN June 17, 2017 at 21:56
    In '12 we took our '54 Ford Crestline to a family wedding in PA, we live in central MN. We always use this car on long trips, we've had it to NY and also in the deep south. A rear wheel bearing went bad on the way to the wedding, lucky we saw a car show going on, went to that and talked to guys, they helped, sent us to a guy nearby who had a spare rear end and an axle & bearing. I've since replaced both new. Bearings 20 years old should be replaced, it's just good sense for any old car taking long trips.
  • 15
    Jim Liberty United States June 18, 2017 at 19:46
    We just finished a 3000 mile tour through Western Europe in our '59 and '65 Porsche 356s. Our sixth year of these tours, and the only issue ever was a starter failure. Not to many other marques could do this. ...............................Jim.
  • 16
    Brad Krause White Lake Mi June 18, 2017 at 08:10
    If all things I broke a valve spring in my 63 Chevy pick up the evening before a road rally. Although I carry tools they are not always the right ones...so $2.50 for the spring and $80 in tools, and good friends we fixed it under a shade tree and started the rally with everyone!
  • 17
    Ben Lusskin Coral Springs, Fl June 18, 2017 at 10:35
    Or about the time I fixed a early 90's 325 when a hose nib broke off the thermostat housing with a sharpened lotto pencil! I theorized the hot coolent would swell the wood. It worked! My friend drove it that way for a month!
  • 18
    John V. Baton Rouge, LA June 18, 2017 at 00:21
    I agree with John McIver! I was hoping to learn some new words to say, not "if" but "when" the old car breaks down! Interestingly, I drove a 1974 Dodge Monaco (my Bluesmobile clone) as a daily driver for over 12 years, all day every day, rain & shine, but when we'd do band events or parades more than an hour away, I'd tow it to the event on my trailer just to guarantee that we were reliable and to make sure that we didn't have to worry about having to cancel on an event.
  • 19
    Robert Florian Nevada June 21, 2017 at 18:13
    My car is a 25th Anniversary Corvette, like the one in the picture. I keep it roadworthy, with preemptive replacements of hoses, belts, lubricants & filters. I regularly take it on road trips, with few if any surprises.

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