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Improve the appearance of your vintage vehicle’s engine bay in time for cruising weather

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1963 Dodge 330, 426 Max Wedge. Photography by the author unless otherwise credited.

Though there may be snow on the ground where you are, just like there is where I live, the 2018 cruising/show season will be upon us before we know it. Have you gotten any work done on your vintage car over this winter?

If you could use a wakeup call, this article will remind you of several engine bay areas that may benefit from your attention, and it will get you thinking about what you’d like to accomplish visually under the hood. I’ll point out a few items you may have to fix before you begin to make them pretty, and typical areas where the overall visual impact may currently be diminished. An additional advantage of all the inspection work is that you will also be able to spot and correct some potential mechanical and electrical issues before they become more significant.

More of us own weekend drivers that may participate in local shows than concours-restored cars, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use photos of highly detailed engine compartments for inspiration, so some are provided in this article. Keep in mind, however, that they aren’t here to offer an unrealistic expectation that a couple of weekend’s worth of work will net similar results. Generally, long hours, substantial expense, and often the expertise of professional restorers were required to produce these pristine engine bays. However, even if they aren’t of your specific car, examining the level of detail that they possess can help you to decide how far you would like to go with yours. There are many choices available to you, but only you can decide what fits your budget, timeframe, and skillset.

1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1, 351 Windsor.

Examine your car’s engine bay with a critical eye, like it’s in a vehicle that your thinking of buying. You may be surprised by how much more you see. Then decide, does it simply need a bit of touchup here and there to bring it up to your standards? Does it need moderate work, or does it require a complete restoration to satisfy you?

How much disassembly do you want to perform to repaint certain areas? Will it be a quick masking off of parts and painting around them, or will you prefer to remove some or all bolt-on items before repainting the areas they’re attached to? Will you use spray cans or a paint gun and an air compressor? Will you be satisfied with using paint to replicate finishes that were plated from the factory or would you rather spend the extra time and incur the additional expense of having parts replated? Do you want to simply make what you already have look much better, or do you have to have the correct factory parts in most or all instances right down to belts, hoses, fasteners, and decals? Do you desire to go so far as to note and recreate the assembly-line markings, paint daubs, and stamps? Is the ultimate goal for your car’s engine bay to look presentable? Impressive? Factory new? Over restored? There are more considerations, but you get the idea.

Begin to improve upon the areas that you find lacking now, and possibly you won’t have to think about them once the weather is warm and sunny, and you could be driving or showing your car instead. And you’ll no longer have to be shy about popping the hood at an event or to show your friends.

Even if you can’t do the work now, you can still at least inspect the underhood area to make a list to prepare for working on it in the Spring.

1968 Pontiac Firebird 400, Ram Air II.

Oil, Coolant, Fuel, or Fluid Seepage

Any type of liquid leaking under the hood presents a potential hazard, so of course you should fix those immediately. What I’m discussing here, however, are the typical trace amounts of seepage that can go unnoticed, but soon stain areas and detract from the overall appearance of the engine compartment.

The rocker covers, breather, oil filler cap, PCV grommet, oil filler tube and more, depending upon the engine design, can all be prone to seepage that looks terrible, especially when it combines with under-hood dust and dirt to form dark stains. New seals, grommets, or gaskets should correct the issues, and a degreaser can clean up the area. If it persists with the rocker covers, check for warped sealing surfaces due to previous over-tightening of the fasteners.

Examine the upper and lower radiator hoses, heater hoses, thermostat housing, and water-pump area for signs of coolant seepage. Specific engine designs could provide additional areas to check. For instance, Pontiac V-8s like to seep where the engine’s timing cover’s coolant passage connects to the intake manifold, leaving a small puddle at the front of the valley pan. At the same time, you can check the hoses for dry rot, swelling, and other causes for replacement.

The power-steering pump may seep fluid from its seals, top, or hose connections. It could also seep through the vent in its top (if so equipped) if the fluid level is too high.

Look for stains on the carb(s) and intake manifold from fuel seepage. Properly tightening loose carb body screws may stop seepage from the carb body gaskets if you’re lucky. If not, it will have to come apart to change the gaskets.

1969 Chevy Z28, 302.

How’s that Engine Paint?

Stained or peeling paint, and exposed rust all undermine the appearance of your car’s engine; so, do touchups where needed or repaint altogether. Remove as many non-engine-color parts as is practical before painting, and seal all openings. Be sure to thoroughly degrease the area, scuff the existing paint or strip to bare metal, and then degrease it again to give the new paint a fighting chance to stick. On some engine designs, the paint loves to burn off the exhaust ports on the cylinder heads and the intake heat crossover, due to the higher heat. If you drive your car regularly, you’ll likely have to touchup those areas more frequently. Make sure you have the proper ventilation (and a respirator) if you are painting inside during the winter. If not, wait until the warmer weather when you can do it outside.

No Appreciation for Rust

Generally, the worst underhood rust offenders are the cast-iron exhaust manifolds and brake master cylinder, not to mention various fasteners and other metal parts that are susceptible. Myriad rust-removal products are available, as are paints formulated to look like bare cast-iron and steel etc. that can stand up to high temperatures. It may take some time and elbow grease to eliminate the rust and refinish the affected areas, but the results will be worth the effort.

1972 Oldsmobile 442, 350.

Someone Painted it All Black

Scrutinize the photos in “for sale” ads for vintage cars and you’ll likely find some that feature engine compartments spray-bombed entirely in black, including all of the firewall-, inner fender well-, and radiator support-mounted components. It’s an old trick to make a tired engine bay look cleaner without having to remove or mask-off a lot of items. It also makes the engine—if it’s painted a different color—standout from what were cluttered surroundings. It looks better than the worn and rusty surfaces it may be covering, but it’s generally a short-term and obvious coverup. And in a stock vehicle it doesn’t come off as well as having each of those items presented in their original finishes or something close to them. Conversely, if your engine is modified and you want to draw more attention to it, properly blacking out other items in the bay can be effective.

Engine Bay Paint

The firewall, inner fender wells, radiator support, and other associated engine bay panels are painted black from the factory in certain cars. Sometimes referred to as satin, semi-gloss, semi-flat, underhood, or 60-degree gloss black, many resto companies offer black paint in spray cans to replicate the factory finishes. However, for cars that have the firewall or the entire engine bay painted body color, you will likely have to get the color custom mixed, and put into spray cans if you’re not using a spray gun.

1971 Buick GSX, 455.

Additional Underhood Items and Engine Accessories

Pulleys, fan, alternator and its fan, brackets, distributor, vacuum hoses, fuel pump, external voltage regulator, wiper motor, power brake booster, hood hinges, hood latch, radiator, horns, and more items may need your detailing attention, so inspect them all. At the same time, see if the belts and vacuum hoses need to be changed, and if any fasteners require tightening.

Remanufactured Clues

Remanufacturers’ decals still on alternators, power-steering pumps, or other parts are fine for regular work-a-day drivers, but their appearance does detract from a stock engine bay that you plan to show off. Also, anything that obviously looks like autoparts-store replacement items with their logos or brand names on them can do the same, as can mixing red replacement heater hoses with black ones, etc. Depending upon the item, a little bit of prep and paint can make those aftermarket replacement parts appear at least close to factory issue. Conversely, if your engine compartment has lots of aftermarket performance parts, you may prefer to have all of their names and logos displayed.

No Crush

If you have an open-element air cleaner, make sure that the filter element hasn’t been partially crushed due to overtightening of the lid’s wing nut. We see this periodically at the shows.

1970 Mercury Cougar Eliminator, Boss 302. Photo by Daniel Strohl.

What Happened to the Rest of that A/C system?

Many of us own vintage vehicles with incomplete A/C systems—me included—and I’ve written about this in a previous blog. One rationale is, if the system isn’t going to work anyway then why spend a bucket of money to get new parts or reinstall the old ones that are no longer functional? It all depends on how important it is to you to have the engine bay look complete. For cars that have retained the larger parts—the compressor, evaporator, firewall-mounted case, and the condenser etc.—it may be worth it to find and install many of the smaller underhood system parts just so it appears to be complete, even if it doesn’t actually work.

In instances where most everything was already removed, depending on the make and model, there may be some fairly easy fixes. Block-off plates for the firewall are available for some cars, as are heater boxes that replace the evaporator case and have extension panels added to mount over A/C-specific firewall openings while retaining the heating system. Using one negates the need to weld patches onto the firewall when eliminating the A/C components. Though it may not look totally stock, it will look better than the case on the firewall with disconnected evaporator hard lines sticking out of it.


Inspect the front-suspension and steering-system components that are visible under the hood for rust and chipped or peeling paint. If your car is stock, replicating factory-appearing finishes in these areas, even via rattle cans, can go a long way toward improving visual impact of the engine compartment.

Inner Fender-Well Dust/Splash Shields

We see a lot of cars missing these shields, including mine, currently. They help to complete the underhood look and keep the amount of road grime entering the engine compartment to a minimum. The shields are reproduced for many cars, so they’re a win/win/win.

Chase Wires

Inspect all the underhood wiring for paint overspray to remove; torn or missing wrap, tape, or loom to replace; questionable prior splices and repairs to correct; and general damage. Make sure the wires’ insulation isn’t brittle, ensure the clips are there to hold them in place, and that the connections are tight.

1969 Plymouth Road Runner, 440 Six Barrel. Photo by Matthew Litwin and Terry Shea.

Don’t forget the easy stuff

If reproductions are available for your car, a new white plastic radiator overflow tank and windshield-washer reservoirs can replace yellowed ones, and a new underhood pad can be swapped in for a tattered one quickly and easily. Also check the condition of the paint on the underside of the hood. Applying reproduction factory engine-bay decals in place of worn or missing ones will add a finishing touch.

Please feel free to offer up your ideas for improving the appearance of the engine bay.