Your Street Rod: Maintenance and Upkeep

Maintaining Your Street Rod

Just because the weather turns cold, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drive your rod. While no one’s suggesting that you should drive your most prized possession during winter’s worst moments, the days of putting your car up on blocks until spring are long gone. In fact, your rod should really be driven once a month at a minimum throughout the year if possible. Besides, it’s a great excuse to go for a nice drive during a few of those unseasonably warm winter days.

Because you’ll be driving your car substantially less during winter, it’s a good time to make sure that everything is in tip-top shape for the spring. Many owners use the winter months to complete various projects on their rods, but even if you don’t have any major projects pending it’s a good time to take care of any nagging problems. Start by assessing how the car ran over the last year and determine if there are any areas that need special attention.

Regular Maintenance

Just like your daily driver, your street rod needs regular maintenance in order to keep it in good running condition. Unlike your daily driver, it’s harder to know when it’s necessary to perform that maintenance because you may put far fewer miles on your rod than on your daily driver. Plus, you may drive it in spurts and it may sit for extended periods of time. So, just how do you figure out what to do and when?

Start by giving your rod a good once-over annually, by looking at all the hoses and belts for signs of wear. Next, check all the connections throughout the vehicle, making sure that everything is fully tightened down. Test the electrical system to make sure there are no intermittent connections or bulbs burned out.

As with any vehicle, modern or collector, fluids are the must important maintenance items to address. According to Valvoline engineer Scott Wieland, the maintenance for a rod is often different than for other vehicles you may have in your garage, because rods generally aren’t driven daily and frequently spend a lot of time just sitting. Other times, they’re taken on long road trips to major street rodding events. Keeping the use in mind, Wieland suggested running whatever oil is recommended by the engine manufacturer for your particular set up. His general rule of thumb is to change the oil every 3,000 miles or every three months. When a vehicle isn’t being driven much, “condensation builds up and you can get rust inside the engine,” says Wieland. Using an oil with a corrosion inhibitor can increase the length of time between oil changes, but you’d still want to change your oil several times a year.

On the other hand, the main enemy of your transmission is heat, so unless you’re planning a cross-country trip over the entire summer, you aren’t likely to be subjecting it to anything near what it is built to withstand. As a result, you can simply follow your manufacturer’s guidelines. Keep in mind that both engine and transmission gaskets dry out faster when the lubricants aren’t running through the vehicle often enough to keep them moist. Watch for leaks, and if you see them, change your gaskets or do like some rodders and go without them entirely, using a silicone-type sealer instead.

Radiators also have more issues from use than from a lack of driving. While flushes aren’t really necessary, Wieland says it would be best to be sure your rod gets up to operating temperature at least every couple of weeks. This could include just starting it and letting it idle if the weather conditions aren’t conducive for driving.

Rodders and other collectors cars often experience issues with brakes and wheels when the vehicle has been sitting. “Brake fluid takes in moisture from sitting around—even when it’s in your vehicle,” he explains. “As a result, you’ll want to change it annually.” For those who don’t want to do a complete flush, Wieland suggests drawing the fluid out of the reserve or pump instead. Moisture can get in the fluid while it’s stored in the bottle too, so if the foil seal has been broken, make sure it’s less than one year old. If the foil seal is intact, it has a five-year shelf life.

As an alternative, some rod builders opt for silicone brake fluid because it doesn’t damage paint the way traditional brake fluid does. However, it does have its drawbacks as well, according to Wieland. “The silicone brake fluid chemistry was developed for certain systems and can have a seal compatibility issue with older systems and will expand more than your typical brake fluid when hot. It will not mix with moisture, so if any moisture is in the system, you could have a rust problem.”

When it comes to grease for brakes or wheel bearings, Wieland advises using a lithium complex grease and re-greasing things annually. If a wheel bearing seizes while you are driving, it can cause a fire and be quite destructive, not to mention a potential loss of control. “After a while the grease separates and will drip, so flush it until you see the new grease coming out,” he says.

When it comes to tires, tire manufacturers recommend you check tire pressure monthly. You’ll also want to do a visual inspection of your tires once a year looking for cracks in the rubber, as even hairline cracks are a sign to think about replacement soon. Check the tread depth by inserting a penny with Abe’s head down in between the treads. If you see any of his hair, it’s time to replace your tires. Finally, if your tires are more than six years old, they should also be replaced even if they don’t visually show any signs of wear because of the natural deterioration of rubber when it is exposed to sunlight, heat and the bearing weight of the vehicle. Ford issued this recommendation in spring 2006, but similar recommendations have been made to European drivers for years.

Paint Care

A car that spends more time in the garage than on the street still needs regular cleaning to keep it in tip-top shape. If you wait until your rod looks dirty to think about cleaning it, you may want to re-think that approach.

Every time you drive your car, it’s exposed to a range of elements that are dangerous to your paint including sun, pollution, bugs and road tar. Even when it is stored in your garage it’s still exposed it to damaging elements, such as exhaust from other vehicles, dust and pollutants created from welding, grinding, sawing and even fumes from lawnmowers and clothes dryers. Your paint will deteriorate more quickly if exposed to the extreme temperatures of winter storage in an unheated garage or sitting outside on a hot summer day.


The first step in making sure your rod maintains its high luster is washing it. Dust, grime and bird droppings can all scratch and damage your paint. If there’s more than a very light coating of dust, there’s no substitute to washing the car with a high-quality car wash in water. You should always wash the car in the shade and rinse it thoroughly to reduce the chance of water spots as it dries.

Most people use a towel or chamois to dry their car, but some experts use another tool – a leaf blower to blow the water out of cracks and crevices, while simultaneously drying the car without streaks. Although you can use it to dry the entire car, you might try using it to push the water out of the crevices first and then using a towel or chamois to clean large areas.

With most of the water gone, follow up with a chamois (synthetic or natural) or the softest all-cotton or microfiber towels you can find that haven’t been washed with fabric softener.

Waxing & Detailing

After washing and drying your rod it’s an excellent idea to make sure the vehicle has a good coat of wax.

For hand waxing, you’ll need a foam or terry applicator pad and six to eight 100 percent cotton polishing cloths or three or four microfiber polishing cloths to apply and remove the various products you are using. And, just as during washing, it’s best to apply and buff out wax in the shade or in a garage.

When choosing a wax, look for one that is carnauba based. A paste or liquid formula can be used, depending on your personal preference. Your last step in the detailing process is to polish any chrome, aluminum, stainless and rubber surfaces.

Car Covers

It’s a good idea to invest in a high-quality car cover to protect your rod’s finish. Although many people use sheets, blankets and even plastic to cover their vehicles, it’s not recommended. A cover designed expressly for use on a vehicle will help keep your rod in terrific condition.

When choosing a car cover, you first need to decide if you’ll be using it outdoors, indoors or both. If you’re storing your vehicle exclusively indoors, choose a car cover specifically designed for indoor use. These types of car covers are made of a breathable fabric to keep dust out. “You can use an outdoor cover indoors, but covers designed for the indoors often aren’t water repellant and don’t have the UV protection you need for outdoor use,” explains California Car Cover’s Jim DeFrank.

Also consider if you’ll be using your cover while traveling. Covering your car will protect your paint when you don’t have garage access, but storing the cover when it’s not in use can be a challenge if your rod is already loaded with suitcases and other travel gear. If this is the case, consider investing in a cover made of a fabric that compacts nicely, such as California Car Cover’s Superweave material, which folds up to the size of a shoebox.

Although it may not look dirty, car covers pick up dirt like any fabric, especially if your car is stored in the same garage as your daily driver. Many quality covers are washable, and it’s important to make sure yours is clean before you put it on your car. If you already own a cover, check its washing instructions. Home washing machines often aren’t large enough to wash a car cover properly, so you may need to go to a commercial laundromat to clean it.

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