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Although classic cars thrive on regular maintenance, at least the many checks are straightforward but Rob Marshall concentrates on the tasks that might be overlooked by an owner that is accustomed to more modern machinery

In today’s world, where 20,000 miles service intervals are common, it is easy to forget that many classic cars require regular pampering with feeler gauges and grease guns, while lacking any kind of fascia warning lamp to prompt a forgetful owner that work is due.

Yet, big savings can be made, by performing maintenance at home, and minor services can even be carried out for the equivalent cost of a small round of drinks. Should you not wish to get dirty, be sure to trust in the right establishment to carry out the work for you.

Beware; choosing ill-equipped garages will cost you dearly!

Whatever your decision might be, establish what attention your classic car needs and when. Study the manufacturer’s original service schedule carefully, noting that both time and mileage intervals tend to be stated, whichever comes first.

Therefore, if the intervals are 3000 miles, or three months, this does not mean that regular maintenance is required once every three years if you drive only 1000 miles annually as that’s really chancing it. Be aware that both extra checks and parts might be needed, as it is likely your car has lasted longer than the maker intended!


Depending on your makeand- model of car, a basic toolkit should comprise of:

A decent spanner, screwdriver and socket set, including spark plug socket

Oil filter wrench (pictured)

Oil pan bucket

Feeler gauge set

Lifting jack and axle stands

Grease gun

One-man brake bleeding kit

Torque wrench.


One of the most important operations is to drain the engine oil and replace its filter regularly, the rate at which you do so depends on the manufacturer’s recommendations but many enthusiasts (me included) prefer to carry out more frequent changes, if the car covers a low annual mileage. Engine oil tends to degrade faster if you carry many short journeys, or fast, continuous high-speed runs, especially if an oil cooler is not fitted. A general rule is to stick to the same viscosity of engine oil, maybe one with a high zinc content (depending on the engine), that was recommended by the maker but bear in mind that lubricants have changed dramatically in the ensuing decades. Well intentioned ‘upgrades’, such as using a fully-synthetic lube in a stock engine that is used to oils thicker than a 15W40 viscosity, can be either a waste of money, or might even result in engine damage. It is also prudent to allow the engine to ‘spin’ on the starter motor, after an oil change, to prime the oil filter before starting.

As moisture, which enters the brakes’ hydraulic circuit(s) via both the reservoir and the rubber components, lowers the boiling point of the brake fluid, it will need flushing through every two years, even if the car is stored. The risk of incurring not only internal corrosion but also of the brakes failing completely rises considerably, if this task is neglected. This instruction applies only for cars where DOT 3, 4 or 5.1 fluid is used and not for DOT 5 (silicon) brake fluids. However, as silicon fluid is slightly compressible, it should not be used in classics fitted with antilock brakes. Never use brake fluid in Citroëns that require green LHM fluid for their suspension and/or brakes, which turns yellow, when it requires changing.

Conventional antifreeze’s anticorrosion properties also diminish with time. Therefore, the cooling system should be emptied and refilled every two years, to maintain optimum efficiency. Modern, long-life Organic Acid Technology (OAT) antifreezes, used in many post-1995 engines, tend to damage older seals and gaskets meaning that they should be avoided unless the car was factory-filled with such coolant types from new. Do not exceed a 50/50 concentration and use deionised (distilled) water, which will prevent the risk of lime-scale furring-up the engine’s ‘arteries’.

Alternatively, you might wish to fill the system with Evans Waterless Coolant, which negates the need for routine draining completely. Finally, do not forget to use a screen wash additive, to inhibit both freezing and the risk of Legionnaire’s disease breeding in the washer bottle.

Although official schedules tend to limit transmission oil checks to topping-up only, it is a good idea to drain and renew the lubricant periodically. Magnetic inserts tend to be fitted to the drain plugs and attract metal swarf, which need occasional wiping. Apart from verifying the viscosity, some modern transmission oil blends can attack certain metals used within classic car gearboxes, therefore be doublysure that any new lube is compatible.


Other than carrying out basic inspections for leaks, split rubbers and general deterioration, attend to any underbody rusting resulting from damaged underseal. As modern unleaded petrol is incompatible with old rubber blends, check that any elderly fuel pipes are neither hardened, nor split. Checking the tightness of any subframe and propshaft fixings also tends to be neglected, as does lubrication of the propshaft. Greasing both the universal joints and the sliding joint tends to require a grease gun but you might have to remove blanking plugs and fit nipples temporarily.

Ball joints, steering racks and king pins may also require greasing but do not forget exposed cables.
Some pre-war cars require such attention every 500 miles but, even when required every 3000 miles for newer classics, it can still be forgotten. Neglecting vital lubrication tasks is a false economy, because the affected component will wear faster and require replacement sooner.

Broadly-speaking, modern, multi-purpose lithium-based grease can be used for most applications but seek the advice of your owners’ club, or specialist lubrication company that possesses a classic range, such as Castrol, Penrite, Morris Lubricants or Millers, for example.

Play, in modern vehicle wheel bearings, tends to indicate a failing part. Yet, many classic cars are equipped with adjustable taper bearings, which need a degree of free play. Never over-tighten them. While adjusting the engine’s valve clearances is specified in many old car service schedules, it may be worth carrying out more regularly, if the cylinder head has not been converted for unleaded petrol use. Overhead cam engines are trickier to adjust, because replacement shims are required, but this does not mean that the check should be ignored. A compression (or preferably, a leakdown) test will help establish if compression is leaking past the valves, on engines fitted with hydraulically-adjusted tappets.

Obviously, many older cars were equipped with contact breaker points and condensers but the poor quality of reproduction replacement parts has encouraged many owners to convert their cars to maintenancefree electronic ignition. Should you prefer to maintain your car’s original components, check that the distributor bearings are in good order and consider that a dwell angle check tends to be a more accurate method, compared to simply measuring the points gap with a feeler gauge.

Maintaining a classic at home is easy but consult the original maker’s schedule carefully and be aware of the extra jobs that may need doing. You can then get on with the fun task of driving your classic, while being reassured that it will not only last longer but that a breakdown is also less likely – never a nice experience!



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