Riding a motorcycle teaches one many lessons, the first and foremost of which is never overlook maintenance. In my three-plus decades spent in the saddle, a pre-ride inspection was as routine as donning a helmet, gloves and riding gear, and (I’d like to think) it saved me from more than one far-from-home surprise. I’m equally diligent with four-wheeled vehicles now, particularly when planning a road trip of any distance. Here are the five things that many classic car owners often ignore – but really shouldn’t.
- Tires – Tires are among the most important components, and perhaps the single-most-important component, on any car. Tires determine traction, and with that, corning ability and braking distance, and the advances in tire technology over the past decade are staggering. Who, if given the choice, would want poorer handling, increased braking distances, or worse fuel economy? Tires also age, in some cases degrading internally long before the sidewalls show dry rot or the treads show wear. A blowout at speed can have serious consequences, and I’m religious about changing tires once they get beyond six years in age (though honestly, I tend to wear them out long before this milestone). New tires aren’t inexpensive, but an accident involving other motorists—and potentially hospital or medical bills—is a far costlier matter.Always check tire pressure before a road trip, but be sure you’re checking it cold (first thing in the morning, before the sun has warmed the tires, is the ideal time). Set the tires to the manufacturer’s recommended pressure (typically found in the driver’s door jamb, fuel filler door, or in the owner’s manual), and not to the maximum pressure on the tire’s sidewall. Do a cursory inspection of the tire, looking for cuts, punctures, sidewall cracking or any uneven wear, and pay attention to the measured tire pressures. If one tire shows significantly less pressure than the others, this could be a sign of a puncture, leaking valve stem, or other issue sure to manifest far from home.
- Brakes – Be honest: When was the last time you pulled your wheels (and brake drums, on cars so equipped) to check how much friction material was left on brake pads or shoes? If you’re like most of us, it’s been a while, perhaps even too long. I try to make this a springtime ritual, complete with a general cleaning of the brake calipers and rotors and greasing of the sliders. Doing so not only gives me a chance to inspect pads and rotors for wear, but also for issues like glazing of the pads. Cleaning the rotors, scuffing the pads and re-bedding the brakes is a good exercise to carry out yearly, as it prevents surprises (and expensive repairs) down the line.Brake fluid is another thing to monitor. Most (excluding silicone-based DOT 5 brake fluid) is hygroscopic, meaning that it absorbs moisture from the air, leading issues that include corrosion of internal brake system parts, and—under extreme conditions—a lower boiling point, raising the potential of brake failure. For most cars and brake systems, it’s good practice to change the brake fluid (following the manufacturer’s recommendation for type) every two years.
- Cooling system – It’s easy enough to check the coolant level in an overflow tank, or within the radiator itself (cold only, please, as those of us who’ve worked in garages understand the dangers of hot, pressurized coolant), but to err on the side of caution, an annual inspection of the entire cooling system is good preventative medicine.Starting with the coolant, follow the manufacturers recommendation for lifespan, and change coolant (ideally with a system flush) accordingly. Look for anything unusual during a visual inspection, such as oil mixed in the coolant or scale build-up within the radiator. It’s far better to diagnose a leaking head gasket in the comfort of one’s garage than by the side of the road, awaiting a tow truck (and likely an expensive repair bill).After checking the coolant, inspect the hoses for leaks or cuts, and give them a squeeze – if a radiator hose feels “soft,” it could be a sign of impending failure. Don’t neglect the hose clamps, either, and if one appears to be rusty, changing it is a good preventative measure.Next, inspect the radiator itself. Are the cooling fins allowing air to flow through the radiator, or are they bent and crushed from stone and bug impacts? Are there any leaks from internal radiator tubing? Is the radiator cap in good condition, holding pressure as it should? What about the water pump itself (a weeping water pump could indicate a failed gasket, or a worn-out pump) and the thermostat housing?
- Battery – Today, the popularity of “maintenance free” batteries has given consumers a false sense of security. Batteries are often ignored, until the time they fail to deliver enough charge to spin a starter and fire an engine. Do we need to point out that this usually happens at the worst possible time? Any visual inspection of the battery should include a close look at the terminals themselves. If corrosion appears on the terminals, it could be an indication of improper charging. The corrosion should be thoroughly cleaned with a mixture of baking soda and water (be sure to wear eye protection), making certain that any build-up is removed from both the battery terminals and the battery cables. Coating the reassembled terminals with grease or a dedicated battery terminal spray will help to delay the buildup of corrosion in the future.Batteries that can be serviced should be topped (only to the full mark) with distilled water, and again we’d remind you to wear eye protection. A “smart” battery charger (such as the Battery Tender from Deltran) is a great way to keep batteries topped without over-charging, and if used regularly will help prolong the battery’s life.
- Lighting – You’re driving a lonely road at sunset, motoring near the speed limit, when suddenly the red and blue lights appear in your rearview mirror. Certain you weren’t speeding, you ask the officer why you were stopped as you fumble for your license, registration and insurance card. “Your brake light’s out,” is his reply. Substitute headlamp or taillamp, and most of us have had a similar experience. It’s a safe observation to say that the roads aren’t as empty as they once were, and today’s drivers certainly aren’t more attentive, so it’s good practice to do everything you can to be seen in a classic car. That includes a regular review of headlamps, taillamps, stop lamps and directional signals.Many bulbs (particularly headlamps) dim over time, and our night vision certainly doesn’t improve with age. If the road ahead isn’t as bright as it used to be, perhaps it’s time to replace your headlamps, or at the very least ensure that the connections are tight and the grounds are solid. Check taillamps and turn signals for corrosion as well, since oxidation can be enough to reduce light output.Again, it’s a good idea to look over your classic car and check light output at the beginning of each season. Replacement bulbs aren’t expensive, especially when compared to a traffic ticket or, worse, an accident.