Controlling water damage could save your classic in the wake of a disaster

In the wake of natural disaster and flooding, classic car owners often try to assess what they can do to save their vehicles. While damage from falling debris can wait, water needs to be addressed immediately. If you wait too long, corrosion and mold will begin to develop. Here’s how to mitigate the long-term damage from water intrusion. It’s a long list with some painstaking steps, but some effort now could save a lot of sorrow later.

First determine the extent of damage indicated by the floodwater level. If the level was high—if, for example, your car was completely submerged—a full restoration may be required. If not, there’s hope. Davin Reckow, Hagerty’s  parts finder and special project coordinator, shared the following steps to limit the damage.

With debris potentially under the hood and caught in the undercarriage—oil and other chemicals mixed in water, possibly sharp objects or jagged panels—you can’t be too careful when it comes to personal safety.
So before you touch your car:

  • Put on gloves.
  • Use eye protection.
  • If mold has started to form, wear a face mask or particulate respirator.
  • Disconnect the battery.
  • Use mild detergents in a well-ventilated area.

We know, we know. Why bother? Because there are actually some things that you can do to lessen the damage. You may even save your engine.

  • First and foremost, do not attempt to start the car unless you’re absolutely sure there is no water in the engine.
  • Clean and flush the radiator fins of any debris.
  • Then move to the engine:
    1. If there is any sign of mud or debris at the carb inlet, the engine will need to disassembled and cleaned before attempting to start.
    2. If water intrusion is a concern, drain the oil and inspect it for water. Oil and water do not mix, so the water will exit first and the oil will float on top. If there isn’t any water present, you are free and clear. If water is visible, however, fresh oil and filter are required. Prior to firing the engine, it is best to prime the oiling system by spinning the oil pump independent of starting system. Water isn’t compressible, so if water is present in the combustion chamber and the engine rotates, it is possible to damage the pistons and rods. To avoid an issue, remove the spark plugs and rotate the engine in order to blow out any water in the combustion chambers. At this point, put a couple of squirts of oil into the spark plug hole, which will help coat the cylinder walls and piston rings. Then rotate the engine over again and reinstall the spark plugs.
    3. With all openings carefully sealed, wash the engine bay with a mild car wash soap and then rinse, dry, and wax everything you can reach.
  • Next, the transmission:
    1. Drain and replace the fluid. Transmissions have a very small air vent so the likelihood of foreign debris is unlikely, but watch for it when the pan/plug is pulled to drain the fluid.
    2. If debris is present, a complete teardown may be required.
  • Move to the chassis, suspension and underbody:
    1. Thoroughly wash the underside of the car with a mixture of car wash soap and slightly warm water.
    2. Be sure to scrub everywhere you can possibly reach.
    3. Rinse carefully.
    4. A thorough cleaning of suspension components and a fresh application of grease will help maintain them.
  • Don’t forget axles:
    1. Drain and replace the fluid. Like transmissions, axles use a very small air vent so the likelihood of foreign debris is unlikely.
    2. If debris is present, a complete teardown may be needed.

Salt water can eat through finish surprisingly fast. So a couple of hours of work can easily save paint and prevent the need to replace costly chrome trim and bumpers.

  • Thoroughly clean and rinse all body panels. This includes the inner structures, especially if they’ve been exposed to salt water.
  • Your main focus should be on the front fenders, doors, rocker panels, and rear quarter panels.
  • Then turn your attention to exterior trim, lenses, and bumpers, which need to be rinsed, cleaned, and rinsed again.
  • Once cleaning and rinsing have been completed, wax everything you can reach.

When it comes to upholstery and carpets, water is unforgiving, and salt water is the worst.

  • Remove the seats and carpet.
  • If new carpet is readily available, it may be best to simply replace what’s in the car. If not, the rugs will need to be thoroughly cleaned and dried.
  • Once the seats are out of the car, the covers will need to be removed, rinsed, and dried. Same goes for the foam padding. After everything has dried, access the damage and decide if replacement is necessary.
  • Remove the door panels and other trim panels.  Clean and dry thoroughly and then determine if they will need replacement.
  • Thoroughly clean and rinse the stripped interior of the car, then leave the windows down, which will allow air flow and hopefully prevent mold and mildew from forming.
  • The headliner and rear window package tray may also need to be removed as the padding will likely be sodden and may require replacement.
  • Remove all contents from the trunk, including the spare tire, mat or carpet, and any trim panels. Thoroughly rinse the trunk area, including areas where the pan meets the quarter panel and outer wheel wells. Wax all interior panels after they are clean.
  • Don’t forget to pull back or remove the weather stripping to remove any trapped water, before carefully washing and rinsing the area and the underside of the rubber.
  • If you have access to an air compressor, use it to blow air to dry hard-to-reach spots.

Water is generally unforgiving when it comes to electrical components. As a rule, older cars are a little easier to address because they’re simpler and you don’t have to worry about any computer components.

  • All exposed electrical components need to be thoroughly dried before they can be used. That includes gauges, starter and alternator (or generator), and wiper motor.
  • Inspect and clean the wiring harness and all connections, as well as all switches.

If this seems like a lot of work, that’s because it is. But every hour you spend cleaning, drying, and protecting your car now will save time later. And since your effort will surely save some components and assemblies that would otherwise have required replacement, it will also provide financial dividends. Perhaps most of all, particularly in such disparate and depressing times, working on your car may provide some much-needed distraction and enjoyment.

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