Non-enthusiasts love to hold how reliable new cars are over the heads of classic car owners, headily confident that old hot rods and musclecars spend most of their time at the side of the road under the proverbial plume of smoke, while the droves of tan Toyotas keep buzzing by. I do not buy into this line of thinking for a second, and neither should you. Sure, a poorly maintained 45-year-old car is going run as well as a dead horse. But that is what you get for trying to drive around a jalopy held together with duct tape and bailing wire.
A classic car does not have to be fully restored to be reliable, and with the right tricks and parts, your old-school will almost never leave you stranded. Think about it: these cave-man cars only have so much that can fail, and that means there isn’t much that has to be done to get them rock-solid. There are no mysterious check engine lights blinking away and we are not at the mercy of computers that control everything from power windows to traction control. And when something does go wrong and the car stops running, it comes down to a three step diagnosis: Check for spark, fuel, and catastrophic mechanical failure.
But what happens when the uppity Prius pilot has a problem with his car and ends up at the side of the road? Do you think that guy will even bother opening the hood? Sure, but only to help signal the tow truck where to stop. The modern car driver just waits for the hook, while hot rodders replace a fuel pump or alternator at the side of the road and go on their merry way. But if you are proactive, you can get a jump on the most common failures that leave old school rides eating dust on the side of the highway.**
Go pointless. $150 of electronic ignition and a modern coil will save you $1 million in headaches and breakdowns. There is no nostalgia in running points my friends, just grief. Nobody has to know that you are running electronic ignition, and once the distributor cap is on, nobody can tell.
Keep 'er cool. A nice new radiator, water pump, hoses, a fan shroud and a real clutch fan will keep you from steaming up on the side of the road. Remember, almost ALL vintage factory cooling systems were woefully inadequate from day one, and completely useless if you have made any engine mods. And don’t be afraid to replace that old heater core hiding behind the dash, because if it hasn’t blown up yet, it will soon.
CHAAARGE! If you have added any current drawing devices to your car, like halogen lights, a stereo, or your phone charger, you need to upgrade the charging system. The stock 25-amp alternator or generator ain't worth a crap. Toss in a nice 75-120 amp alternator, a new voltage regulator, cables and a battery. And replacing them all at once is best, because a bad VR will kill the battery and alternator, a bad battery will kill the VR and alternator, etc.
You gotta take a brake sometimes. Modern, dual-circuit hydraulics and disc brakes are nice, but at least go through the old stock drummos and replace EVERYTHING. Every wheel cylinder, the MC, rubber lines, shoes drums, bearings and all the little springs and hardware. Do it all at once, and you'll be happy and safe for a long time. I have made the mistake of just tossing in a new pair of brake shoes held down by old hardware, and when the anchor springs broke and the brake pedal went to the floor, it luckily only ended up costing me a new pair underwear and some pride.
Turn baby, turn. Steering and suspension components aren’t usually the culprits in unintentional highway camping trips, but serious safety issues will arise from neglected suspension components. Catastrophic failure of front-end components can easily put you in a ditch, wreck your ride, or kill you, so don’t let this stuff go. Spending a couple hundred bucks on new tie rods and ball joints could save all your hard work and your life, not to mention make your ‘rod a little more pleasant to drive. Stock suspension will get you by, but this is another one of those things that just barely got the job done when your car rolled off the assembly line. Nice new springs, heavy sway bars, polyurethane bushings and some nice KYB gas shocks will get you a long way towards more modern performance standards without breaking the bank. You don’t need to spend thousands on rack-and-pinion steering and coil-overs to keep your hot rod from cornering like a couch on top of a shopping cart.
With due diligence, your old school ride will almost never leave you stranded, becasue simplicity does equal reliability. The more time you spend in the garage taking care of the simple stuff, the less time you'll spend at the side of the road enjoying the scenery.
**If you have an old British or Italian car, none of this really applies to you, as you are cursed by the Prince of Darkness, and plauged by gremlins. Breaking down, leaking oil, electrical fires and a never-ending stream of emergency repairs is just part of the joy of foreign sports car ownership. But you can still laugh at Camry drivers, because your car is worlds cooler, running or not.
Photo: Emran Kassim flickrCC