Why your vintage ride should be your daily driver
Not counting the 1947 Ford beater that I drove during my freshman year in college, I’m on my third daily-driver classic. Why? It’s easy to find in the parking lot, for one. You never see a check-engine light on the instrument panel, even though there are times when that would be helpful. People wave, which isn’t going to happen in a two-year-old sedan unless you pass your mom.
Really, I just like driving something different.
Let’s review. Back in the mid-’80s for a couple of years, I drove a 1965 El Camino. It was only 30 years old then, which is like driving a 1989 Honda today. But it was fun to drive and useful while I was building my long-term daily driver—a 1955 Chevy wagon.
Just after completing the build in 1991 (and selling the El Camino) I drove the ’55 from Monterey County, California, to Leesburg, Florida. The car performed perfectly on the cross-country trip and for the next dozen or more years. Before I sold it in 2004, the ’55 logged more than 100,000 mostly-trouble-free miles. The wagon hauled mulch, lumber, Christmas trees, dogs—you name it.
After years of driving newer cars, I’m back in the classic-driver club. Late last year I bought a 1970 El Camino. I don’t commute daily these days, but the El Camino leaves the driveway pretty much every day. It’s off to the gym, the grocery store, the doctor, even spending several days in the Tampa airport parking garage.
Enthusiasts who love old cars as daily drivers come in all shapes and sizes. Here are three from far different points of the old-car-daily-driver spectrum.
The 900-horsepower daily driver
Brian Havlik of Hot Rods by Havlik in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, drives a ’55 Chevy regularly, but it falls in an unusual daily-driver category. Consider: The 900-horsepower, big-block-powered classic runs 9.5-second quarter-mile times while logging 8000–10000 highway miles a year.
Havlik’s car makes its way to the shop most days, rolls up to car shows and cruise nights, and competes in various drive-and-drag events where participants have to drive, rain or shine, from track to track, then compete. The high-horsepower ’55 has a full interior and a high-end stereo system, so it’s definitely a dual-purpose daily driver.
“It gets a lot of attention going down the road,” Havlik says. The ’55 has racked up miles throughout the Midwest, as well as longer trips to Georgia, South Carolina, and other southern states. He has to be careful when getting gas—which is often, since the car averages only 10 mpg—because stopping to pump gas means attracting curious passersby.
“You have to pick one that isn’t busy or you can end up there forever talking to people about it,” he says. “Which is great until you are in a hurry.”
165,000 miles in a ’32 Ford
Bart Caliaro, who splits his time between Vermont and Florida, has covered 165,000 miles of highway in his 1932 Ford two-door sedan in the eight years that he’s owned the 302-powered hot rod.
We caught up with Caliaro after a cross-country trip from Vermont to Victoria, British Columbia, for the Deuce Days event, with a stop on the return trip in Louisville, Kentucky, for the 50th NSRA Street Rod Nationals. (He also owns a ’32 roadster that his son drove on the 7500-mile jaunt, a combined 15,000 trouble-free miles that are testament to the durability of old wheels well cared-for.)
“It’s a good road car,” Caliaro says. “You can drive it anywhere you want, run 80 mph (where it’s legal on parts of Interstate 90), travel all day on the interstate.”
His 87-year-old hot rod lacks most modern conveniences. There’s no radio and only a weak AC system, but Caliaro says the heated seats do come in handy in the cooler months.
“It’s fun,” he says. “I enjoy the reaction that people have when I pass them at 70 mph on the highway.”
Reliability during those 165,000 miles? Other than normal maintenance, a transmission rebuild is the only major cost. One often-stated advantage of driving a vintage set of wheels? You can do most of the work yourself.
“You meet a lot of nice people,” Caliaro says. “If you do have a problem when you’re on the road, they’ll stop everything to help you out.”
Rain or shine in a ’54 Ford pickup
Southern California’s Scott Bryant has racked up the miles for the past 10 years in his custom 1954 Ford pickup. The small-block truck carries Bryant to work every day and just about everywhere else.
“The hardware store, family visits, swap meets,” Bryant says. “And even the grocery store. I love to see it in the parking lot. It turns heads when I drive it. You get thumbs up a lot.”
The truck was featured in Classic Trucks magazine in 2009 and has performed nicely ever since. He reports minor breakdowns and repairs, but nothing serious.“I fix it when needed,” he says. “I have troubles with my other family cars, too. Cars have troubles, but you have to fix them and keep rolling.”
The best part for Bryant? “There is something special when you have something that you’ve built and drive it every day.”
Keep your classic driver road worthy
If you’re driving a vintage car daily, it’s safe to assume that you’re not talking about a numbers-matching 1969 Z28 Camaro or a 1971 Hemi Challenger convertible. With that in mind, let’s look at a few things you can do to keep your classic between the lines and not on the side of the road.
In no particular order, consider:
- Disc brakes, at least in the front.
- Power steering, since you’ll have to parallel park occasionally.
- Air conditioning, especially in warmer climates.
- Electronic ignition. Points should be on the scoreboard, not in the car.
- Electrical. With AC, stereos, electronic ignition, etc., make sure your alternator, battery and wiring are up to the job.
- Windshield wipers. If your classic is old enough to have vacuum wipers, upgrade to electrics. If electric wipers were an option for your model year, you can often find used original pieces. Or consider an aftermarket electric system.
- Suspension upgrades. Gas shocks for sure. Make sure bushings, ball joints, etc., are in good order.
- Lighting. Step up to halogen headlights. In back, consider upgrading to LEDs. It’s an easy project and several companies offer affordable conversions. For my ’70 El Camino, I added LED rear lights that included new lenses for about $100. They plugged into the stock sockets. Just remember that you need to change flashers when you upgrade to LEDs.
- Cooling system. You’ll spend time stopped in traffic, so consider upgrading to an aluminum radiator and adding electric puller fans, especially if you have air conditioning.
- Transmission. If you spend substantial time on cross-country trips, consider upgrading your manual or standard transmission to add overdrive. This is not a cheap option, but you’ll get better mileage and put less wear on the engine.
- Safety. If your classic didn’t come with seat belts, add them. Consider three-point belts that are offered by the aftermarket. And, of course, carry a fire extinguisher and jumper cables.
- Insurance. Last but not least, make sure you have the correct policy. You don’t want to have collector-car insurance that mandates low-mileage, kept-in-a-garage status when you’re driving the car every day. And make sure you have emergency road service. Better safe than sorry.
One last thing: Buy and read repair manuals. Make Google and YouTube your friends. One great thing about vintage rides is that they are easy to work on. You don’t need a degree in computer science. And, if you’re driving a GM, Ford, or Mopar product, among others, you’ll find many parts at the neighborhood auto parts store or through a very thorough aftermarket.