11 ways to get your classic car ready for driving season


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Winter brings about a sense of sadness for some classic car collectors, because the inevitable arrival of snow and ice means that it’s time to put their vehicles away until spring. For drivers in hotter climates, though, the arrival of winter means cooler weather and the chance to finally get behind the wheel after a broiling summer. 

Take heed — getting your favorite car ready for driving season likely won’t be as simple as easing it out of the garage. A lot can happen to a car while it sits in storage for months, so check all its systems before hitting the road. 

“The seasonal changes are a really good time to go through a bumper-to-bumper (inspection),” said Frank Leutz, who hosts the Wrench Nation radio show and owns Desert Car Care in Chandler, Arizona. 

Don’t feel overwhelmed by the tasks at hand. They’re important for both your safety and your vehicle’s continued longevity. With that in mind, we put together a list of 11 things you should check before driving your long-stored vehicle. Don’t worry; you can perform most of these tasks yourself.


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1. Battery

For Leutz, this process begins with the battery. 

“What folks may do is trickle charge or slow charge, thinking that’s going to be my battery service, but if a battery is over two years old, especially in the Southwest, going into winter can be a big difference,” he said, noting that car batteries in hot climates can fail without warning. 

Leutz said that your car’s alternator should be charging at a 13.8-14.2 reading when the car is running. Additionally, the battery should be in the 12-12.5-volt range when the engine is shut off. Check these readings with an inexpensive, hand-held volt meter. Make sure that the meter’s contacts touch each battery terminal. 

It’s also important to inspect the battery terminals and connectors for corrosion, as well as check that none of the wires have become frayed. 

“On a newer vehicle, that can be a chore, but if you have an engine bay the size of half a football field on an old ’55, not too terribly difficult,” Leutz added.

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2. Coolant

Keeping an engine from overheating is pretty (read: very) important. Leutz recommends checking all seals for leakage, as well as carefully examining radiator hoses and fan belts. Replace them if you’re unsure of their condition.

“If your radiator hoses are brittle to the touch, like peanut brittle, they are breaking down internally,” he said, adding that bloating around the hose clamps could indicate a hose is going bad. 

Leutz also said that staining from crystallization near the water pump is an indication of gasket seepage, which means that the system could soon start leaking.

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3. Fluids

Check that all fluids — engine oil, transmission fluid, differential oil, brake fluid and coolant — are topped off and in good condition, Leutz said. Change the engine oil and filter it if it was not fresh when you put the vehicle away. Additionally, consider changing the coolant and brake fluid if they are more than a few years old. 

“Don’t forget the differentials… Those little pumpkins underneath,” Leutz said. “Differential fluids are really important.” 

A low fluid level in any system could indicate a bigger problem, and that system should be examined carefully for leakage. Repair it immediately if it is indeed leaking. 

“The only fluid in a vehicle that should be low or empty is washer fluid… Those (the rest) are sealed systems,” Leutz said. “They shouldn’t be leaking.”

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4. Brakes

As fun as it is to drive a classic car, stopping that car is existentially important. So, ensuring that the brake system meets specs is key when getting a car ready to drive. You’ve already checked the brake fluid, so you should now turn your attention to pad (or brake shoe) depth. 

“Anything below 2 mm, it’s time to give it some attention,” Leutz said, meaning that they need to be replaced soon. 

Drum shoes and the emergency brake should be adjusted if they need to be, he added. 

Leutz also noted that brake fluid that is low without any leakage can be a sign of low pad depth. 

“If the system is low, it means the pad lining is starting to thin out, and the caliper piston is coming out further,” he said.

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5. Tires

It may seem obvious, but Leutz said that it’s key to inspect a car’s tires after a few months in storage. Ideally, the front-end alignment should be checked and the tires should be rotated. These simple steps can make tires last longer. 

“At the end of the day, if you have a very expensive set of tires, you want to extend the life of those,” Leutz said. 

Owners also need to check the tire’s born-on date, which is located on the sidewall and will tell you its age. Online tire-care sites can explain how to decode those numbers. 

Leutz recommends that even if the tires look good and have good tread, they should be replaced after six years. That figure varies with conditions, however, so owners should have their tires checked by professionals to decide whether they have outlived their usefulness.

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6. Convertible tops/exterior seals

A fabric convertible top needs to be kept in the up position during storage, or you might find that the material has shrunk and that it is now difficult to erect. Enlist a pro if you find you can’t get the shrunken roof to reach the windshield. It needs to be stretched back into shape gradually. 

Check the top for rips, wear or other damage, then wash and treat it with a product made for those purposes. Lubricate all linkage points with lithium grease. If the top is electrically operated, make sure it works without roughness or binding. 

Exterior rubber moldings and seals should be examined for rot and checked for leaks, especially around windows and doors. You can do this by spraying the vehicle with a garden hose. If any water gets into the interior, trunk or inside the doors, replace the offending gaskets.

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7. Lighting

Walk around the vehicle and make sure all your lights are still operational, including brake lights and turn signals. Replace any bulbs that have failed and check their sockets for corrosion. Sometimes, a seemingly nonfunctional bulb just needs to be tightened.

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8. Fuel system

Gas that has been left in the tank for months without a stabilizer can turn into gunk and gum up the fuel system, including carburetors, fuel injectors and filters. If you start the vehicle with old gas, be prepared to clean out the carburetor and replace the filters.

If you have any doubts about the condition of the gas, drain the system and add fresh fuel before attempting to start the vehicle. 

In the worst-case scenario after long-term storage, Leutz said, the gas tank might be so gunked up that it needs to be dropped out of the car and flushed, which in most instances is a job best left to a professional.

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9. Air-fuel management

A carburetor’s air-fuel mixture settings can go out of whack during storage, so these should be checked as well. This is another task that you might want to leave to a professional if you have any doubts. Both idle mix and the running mix need to be checked, as well the operation of the choke for cold starts. 

In multi-barrel carbs, make sure the secondaries are opening properly for best performance.

“Sometimes, the secondaries can stick,” Leutz said. “You want to make sure the secondary portion of that carburetor, those throttle plates, are opening properly for optimum performance.” 

Later-model vehicles with fuel injection and electronic fuel management must be maintained by a professional. Don’t attempt to adjust the factory settings without the right equipment and the technical know-how.

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10. Ignition

Check the condition of the spark plugs and, in pre-electronic vehicles, ignition points, the rotor and the distributor cap. Spark plug wires need periodic replacement, so do so if they are more than a few years old. Ignition timing (in older vehicles) can be checked with a timing light — check your workshop manual or online for correct numbers.

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11. Errant noises

When you start up your vehicle, listen carefully under the hood for any unusual clunks, rattles, hisses and even whistles. Call in a professional if you can’t address the problem. 

Additionally, when you get your vehicle on the road again, listen carefully for any noises that might be coming from the transmission, brakes, suspension or differential. Any worrisome noises need to be analyzed by a professional. 

“Noises should be taken serious,” Leutz said, adding that under-the-hood sounds can sometimes be isolated with a mere stethoscope.

This article originally appeared on ClassicCars.com and was syndicated by MediaFeed.org.

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