"To Do" list for old cars
By Eric Peters

Today's cars have a useful life of 10-15 years -- the time interval before major things begin to go wrong and/or fall apart. But cars built before the 1980s reached decrepitude much sooner -- after about 8 years. 100,000 miles was about the limit for the engine -- which by that time often was either smoking, knocking or rattling (or all three). The cars of the 1970s and earlier were even less durable -- often showing significant signs of wear after as little as four or five years.

These older cars -- the handful of them still running, that is -- comprise the stock in trade of the antique and collector car hobby. But as neat as these cars are to look at, drive and be seen in, they often need a lot more TLC than newer cars just to remain roadworthy.

It's a good idea to perform the following checks and minor services when you buy an older car -- especially before you attempt a road trip more than a few miles from home (and help!):

* Change engine oil/filter using high quality oil & new filter. Avoid solvent-based "motor flush" products -- these can wash the protective film of lubricating oil off of cylinder walls and bearings. If you're concerned about a "gunky" crankcase, it's safer to perform 2-3 oil changes in fairly quick succession. Do the first one after a couple hours of use; then another after a week of use. This will gently remove internal sludgy build-up and varnish without the use of harsh solvents that could cause damage or accelerate wear.

* It's also a good idea, on cars with automatic transmissions, to drop the pan and check/replace the internal filter. If you find it (or the pan) filled with metal shavings, it's a strong clue that transmission troubles lie ahead. And if not, you'll have made sure the filter (and fluid) are new, reducing the chances of a fluid-filter-related problem down the road.

* Check and replace the air filter, vacuum canister filter, air filter housing breather as well as the condition of all spark plug wires and engine drive belts. Check for vaccum leaks and look at the condition of rubber fuel/vacuum hoses; replacing any that look cracked or old. If the car has a mechanical fan with a thermostatic clutch, make sure the clutch is working properly.

* Check, service and repair as necessary cooling system components: Usually, this means a flush and fill of the radiator, plus checking (and replacing, if need be) belts and hoses. The thermostat should be checked for proper operation, too. Be especially wary of the heater core on an older car -- it is often mounted in the cowl/firewall area and can seep (or even gush) coolant into the interior if it's got a leak. If you are suspicious of it -- or smell the distinctive musky-sticky aroma of engine coolant inside the car, feel moist spots on the carpet, or notice a film on the glass near the defroster outlets, a quick fix is to disconnect the smaller hoses that run to the heater core. You can run a "loop" connecting the disconnected heater hoses that will enable you to keep driving the car until you can get the heater core fixed. The only downside is you won't have heat in the car. But this is preferable to a coolant-soaked interior.

* Grease chassis fittings. Upper and lower ball joints on the front suspensions, tire-rod/steering idlers, etc. Also check wheel bearings -- and be sure they are in good shape and "packed" with grease, per the factory recommendations. Don't drive a car (new or old) with bad wheel bearings; it's potentially dangerous as well as damaging to the vehicle.

* Make sure the U-joints are ok before driving the car at road speeds. Bad U-joints can be dangerous, in addition to being noisy. If you hear clunking sounds when you put the car in gear (automatic-equipped cars), or notice any ka-thunking-type noises as you drive that seem to be related to the drivetrain, it's a clue you might have worn U-Joints.

* Suspension rubber. Most U.S. cars of the '70s '60s and before used rubber for insulators/bushings and grommets in the suspension system; usually, these are totally shot after 20-plus years -- causing the vehicle to handle poorly and possibly even making it dangerous to drive. Check and replace worn bushings as necessary. The shock absorbers should also be checked for leaks; remember to replace them in pairs, even if only one looks bad or has leaks.

* Thoroughly inspect and service the entire braking system. Any car that's more than 10 years old (and especially a 30-40 year old car) needs to have its brakes looked over closely, especially the condition of the hydraulic fluid and brake lines. Brake fluid attracts water and gets contaminated easily; it should be flushed at least every 2-3 years; on an older car, it's possible this has not been done in 10 years or more. Factory steel brake lines (and flexible rubber ones, too) need to be eyeballed for any sign of damage, especially rust. Look for leaks near wheel cylinders. Any leaks require immediate attention. You could be about to lose your brakes; some older cars have single circuit systems -- which means that you lose the brakes completely if a major leak or rupture happens. Don't forget the master cylinder. If you pop it open and it looks nasty in there (the fluid is mucky, brown and rusty-looking) it's very likely that the entire system is contaminated and you'll need to replace the master cylinder and maybe even the steel lines/rubber hoses with new parts, in order to get rid of the internal rust and moisture contamination. It's a smart to consider a complete rebuild of the entire brake system on any car that's more than 25 years old and still has its factory steel lines, etc.

If all this seems like a lot of work -- well, it is! But you'll need higher maintenance, too, when you get up there in years. The good news is that most of this stuff is neither difficult nor expensive to do. Also, the old car you've bought is likely just for fun and not a daily driver -- so you can take your time with the repairs. Having something to futz around with in your spare time is part of what the old car hobby is all about, anyway.