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Classic car repair for beginners

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Classic car repair for beginners Empty Classic car repair for beginners

Post by zucchi Thu Oct 21, 2021 3:51 pm

I would have posted this in the Tech section but all the subsections are system specific and this is more comprehensive. I hope nobody minds.

For clarification, this article assumes the reader wishes to keep their classic car(s) as original as possible. Discussing radical upgrades and retrofits such as swapping out the engine and transmission with something intended for a new car is beyond the scope of this article.

Hopefully new classic car enthusiasts will read this so their eyes will be wide open before diving head first into the classic car hobby. I cannot begin to recall how often I hear from new hobbyists how their car isn’t running right and they don’t know what’s wrong, let alone how to fix it, and the shop they took it to wants a truckload of money, can’t fix it, can’t get parts, etc. That’s when the honeymoon period has ended and the new hobbyist, disillusioned, tries to “get rid of” the car or lets it sit and melt away for the next umpteen years.

I’ll share just one example that illustrates the above scenario. Many years ago, I had a co-worker bugging me for a couple of years to sell him my ’74 Monte Carlo. This guy was a vintage car admirer but not a hands-on “car guy”. I elucidated him on the pros and cons of vintage car ownership (expanded upon in the paragraphs below) but he would not be dissuaded. Then, sometime around 2005, he found a really nice all original 1973 Monte Carlo Landau survivor for sale. It was owned since new by a drooling (literally — using his shirt tail to wipe drool from his chin) old man who had his driver’s license revoked because he kept bumping into things with the car. This California car had <80K on the odometer and had been kept in a garage since new. Other than some minor dents, it was complete and mint. The owner sold it for about $500.00. My co-worker immediately asked me if I could “help” him tune it up — like I didn’t see that coming; he really meant “do for”. I’ve got my own projects so I gave him the name and address of a trustworthy place where he could get it worked on. I also gave him advice and suggestions (e.g., HEI or PerTronix, halogen headlights, etc.) which went in one ear and out the other; he insisted on wanting to keep it original. Like the Captain said referring to [Cool Hand] Luke (Paul Newman), “Some men you just can't reach.” He took it to a body shop where they took out the dents and gave it a fresh paint job. For the next few months, he drove the car practically every day, it had the preferred spot in the garage at home and while driving, random folks would offer to buy the car from him for more than what he put into it. The honeymoon came to an end when the car was getting hard to start and had less power than before; the points likely needed adjusting. He asked me to “help” him fix the car. I believe in the old adage, “give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach him to fish, feed him for life.” I said I would teach him how to fix it, otherwise he would need to take it to the preferred guy. Upon admitting he didn’t want to pay the trusted mechanic’s prices and he wanted me to “do for”, I gave him a rate sheet to which he said, “I thought we were friends.” I replied, “We are; those are my ‘friend’ rates.” The car didn’t get fixed. Its parking spot migrated from the garage to the driveway then ultimately to the street. After several months of being outside, the interior was no longer mint and the vinyl roof was weathered. Frustrated, he ended up selling it for less than what he put into it. Current fate of that car is unknown.

With that depressing intro behind us, I’ll get to the heart of the matter. For most of us, classic cars are a hobby; cars in this group are either trailer-queens or fair-weather fun drivers that never see rain. For some, they’re a lifestyle; cars in this group are daily-drivers. For even fewer, they’re both. I fall into that latter category. I own two classic cars; a 1974 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Landau I’ve been using as my daily-driver since 1984 (lifestyle), and a 1968 Miller-Meteor hearse on a Cadillac chassis which is my occasional fun-driver/show car which I’ve owned since 1993 (hobby). Albeit driving them is, indeed, fun and enjoyable (when everything is dialed-in and working as it should), and I get attention, offers to buy, and occasional thumbs-up, getting to that point and maintaining it is what separates the kids from the grownups.

Owning and driving an original classic car vis-à-vis a modern car as a daily-driver/commuter car will force you to make some hard choices. Modern cars fresh from the factory are more reliable and require less maintenance compared to their vintage ancestors. 100,000 mile warranties with routine maintenance included on modern cars is fairly common whereas back in the day, 3-years or 36,000 miles limited warranty was pretty much the best you could hope for and you still had to pay for all maintenance. Simply put, classic cars demand far more TLC. For instance, points based ignition systems require frequent adjustments as the points wear out. Driver safety issues must be considered for a daily-driver; seatbelts (mandatory in American made cars as of 1966), roadway illumination, handling, traction, etc. Upgrades and/or retrofits go a long way toward making your classic more suitable to today’s daily-driver demands while being easier to repair and maintain.

I consider myself fortunate that my Monte Carlo, being built at the end of the 1974 model year in August, came with HEI (magnetic pulse) from the factory; no points, less maintenance. I coupled that with iridium spark plugs which should give me 3-5 times more life than the stock plugs; less maintenance. I installed some aftermarket horns and modern H4 headlights with LED bulbs in my Monte Carlo as well as auxiliary fog and driving lights; improved safety. To power those lights and horns, I upgraded the charging system with heavier gauge wires and a 12SI alternator; improved reliability. Even though the a/c is still the original R-12 and it blows really cold, I upgraded from the VIR to an orifice tube; fewer moving parts means improved reliability. Despite the upgrades, I always carry a tool box filled with basic hand tools to address almost any issue that could arise. For anything I cannot repair or patch on the spot, I use my AAA card to have the car towed home where I’ve got everything I need to fix it.

So, to drive a classic car as a regular daily-driver without any upgrades or improvements is a monumental challenge in and of itself, even for the lifestyle enthusiast.

As for my 1968 Cadillac, the only upgrade I’ve done is halogen headlights but I retained the original T3 lights for car shows. I strive to keep everything correct and matching for my Cadillac which has its own challenges since a number of parts are one car/one year only. For instance, the fuel filter is unique to 1968 Cadillacs.

In my estimation, when it comes to maintenance and repairs, there are two types of serious classic car owners and devotees; the extreme hobbyist and the extreme wealthy. I fall into the first category and as such, I’ve had to become an expert in 1974 Monte Carlos and 1968 Cadillacs, excluding El Dorados. Becoming an expert starts with getting your hands on service manuals and service bulletins, then progresses on to the acquisition of lots of specialty tools (Kent-Moore), accumulating make-model-year specific parts which are made of, what I call, un-obtain-ium, and stocking in your garage spare parts such as filters, radiator hoses, fan belts, and wiper blades. I live in Los Angeles (the birthplace of car culture) yet I have to special order wiper blades for my ’74 Monte Carlo because parts stores no longer carry them in stock. Fortunately, the purchase of literature and tools is a one-time expense. When replacing parts, I get those with lifetime warranties whenever possible so I only have to buy them once; you should see the look on the face of the folks behind the counter when I show them a receipt from 1991 for a brake master cylinder. The acquisition and storage of all this stuff takes time and space, especially if you’re not Jeff Bezos wealthy. Though I’m more financially secure now than when I initially bought my cars, disappointing experiences with repair shops have galvanized my resolve to effect repairs myself. My philosophy is, why should I pay someone a bunch of money to do a crappy repair or damage my car (claiming it was that way when it came in) when I can screw it up myself for free? With the latter scenario, I will at least learn something along the way. The overall cost (monetary plus opportunity costs) for having to re-do a shoddy repair would have paid for any specialty tools needed for me to do the repair myself in the first place.

There’s no magic involved to work on cars — although I have been known to occasionally utter some vulgarity-laden incantations. All it takes are the physical and mental attributes of patience and endurance, skill with tools, and a healthy dose of common sense to boot. Experience is easiest learned, initially, from folks who have already been there, done that, and have the busted knuckles to prove it. Get multiple opinions and perspectives. If you’re fortunate enough to find one or more videos on YouTube, all the better. Beware, though; just because a YouTuber shows an “easy” way to do it, that doesn’t mean it’s an acceptable way to do it. Here’s one example; I saw a few YouTube videos where they used acetylene torches on control arms, heating the metal to where it glows, in order to burn away the rubber in the bushings so that the shaft can be removed and then the pressed in parts of the bushings could be pounded out with a hammer. That has about as much finesse as using a chainsaw to perform a vasectomy. Suspension and steering parts are built to be robust yet precise. This is where common sense comes into play. Applying the amount of localized heat the way those YouTubers did on control arms changes the metallurgical properties and overall dimensions of those parts. I, personally, would not trust my life to the parts they worked on. Anyway, in addition to direct instruction from old guys and watching YouTube videos, experience is gained over the years through actual hands-on work. There are times where common sense should also be applied to the service manual. I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve read and reread a service manual or bulletin and thought, “They want me to do what?” Like using the exhaust manifold on the engine as a fulcrum for a pry bar on suspension parts, or pound on steering components with a hammer. Most of the time, there’s a less invasive way to achieve the same result but it usually involves more labor and/or more specialty tools.

Working on classic cars is both easier and harder than new cars. Easier because, frequently, there’s more space for hands and tools than modern cars; I can R&R a horn in my Chevy in about 15 minutes whereas for a 2002 Rav4, it takes about 3 hours. Harder because you need an experienced human to troubleshoot and diagnose a problem whereas new cars can be plugged into a computer which can, ideally, tell you what the problem is. Usually, the computer localizes what’s throwing the code but doesn’t tell you why. Fixing the problem identified by the computer usually resolves the issue but may not address the cause which means the problem could return much sooner than it should. Without knowing what caused the part to fail in the first place, how do you know the repair will last? The experienced human is more likely to tell you the root cause of the problem unlike the scanning computer. For example, let’s say you get a transmission code after ~47K miles. On disassembly, it’s discovered the bronze bushings are worn. For a transmission that’s supposed to go for 200K, why would the bushings be worn in less than 50K? An experienced human would know that accelerated wear of bronze bushings may be caused by inadequate grounding because current flows through the transmission on its way to ground and bronze is more susceptible to erosion under those conditions.

This got way more longwinded than I wanted.

Us old guys who are walking databases of hard earned knowledge are getting fewer and farther between, and, unfortunately, fewer young guys have the enthusiasm and patience to benefit from what we have to offer.
I would like your takeaway from this to be that, we old guys love to talk about our experiences with our cars (as illustrated by the length of this post) and as long as you want to listen to us and learn from us, we’ll be happy to teach, otherwise, our knowledge vanishes as we die off.
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