How To Make Your Classic Car Reliable (...as possible)
Classic cars have survived long past their sell-by dates. Most car makers expect their cars to last seven to 10 years; while in reality they can last much longer, they certainly weren't designed to last the 25 or more years that endows 'classic' status.
Owning a classic, therefore, puts you on borrowed time. You're the custodian of something that really isn't meant to be here. Given that, it's perhaps remarkable that cars 25, 40 or more years old manage to still perform the job of motoring. Of course, quite often they don't do that entirely well, managing to overheat, lose their electrics, or generally fail to proceed on a fairly regular basis.
Perhaps, since they have lasted longer than expected, we should just accept that. Unfortunately at Great Driving Days, where our business depends on ensuring old cars are as reliable as possible, that's not really an option. And if you own a classic, we don't think it has to be a situation you accept either. Old cars can be made extremely reliable - at least as reliable as cars 10 to 15 years old.
We've been hiring out classic cars for 15 years and in that time we've learnt a few tricks to make our cars reliable. And, as a general rule, they are. Our E Type, pictured here, typically covers 1,000 miles a week with many different customers. It's driven enthusiastically and sometimes very hard.
Here's what we've learnt to make our classics reliable. It's not exhaustive but it does cover the main things we do to keep our cars reliable.
1. Use Them
The key to creating a reliable classic car is use. Most classics cover 1,000 to 2,000 miles a year, often less. Sitting around in a carcoon or garage is the enemy of reliability: components need exercised, engines need run. When we add a new car to our fleet we anticipate 18 months of problems before it becomes reliable and that is due to lack of use by the previous owner.
When our 1965 Mk2 was off the road in 2020 for repairs and due to COVID, it returned to the road in 2021 with a continuous list of problems due to lack of use. But when this car was in regular use between 2012 and 2019 it was continuously reliable, despite heavy weekly mileages.
Using your car will initially lead to headaches as components fail and problems arise. But persevere and work through these and you will create a much more reliable car. You don't need to undertake hundreds of miles a week like we do, but instead make sure you use it every few days in decent weather.
2. Fit Electronic Ignition
In our experience the single biggest contributor to improved reliability has been fitting electronic ignition to all of our cars. Removing the points immediately does away with one of the weak points of old cars. Electronic ignition is a cheap and easy upgrade and available for virtually all classic cars. Forget originality, go for reliability.
3. Keep It Standard
With the exception of simple upgrades like electronic ignition, our advice is to avoid modern upgrades and keep your car as it left the factory. Five speed gearboxes and power steering may make the car more relaxing or enjoyable to drive, but they risk creating further problems. Many of these upgrades are time served and proven, but in our experience they are only as good as the people who fit them - often they are DIY home fits. They can cause problems for subsequent buyers because it is often unclear how the car has been adapted to enable them. If you are ordering parts from a marque specialist it is much easier to do if the car is still running the standard factory spec.
4. Don't Cut Corners on Parts
When you need to replace a part, use a reputable marque specialist. Unless the part is minor and non-critical, avoid EBay. Modern classic car parts supply now includes a lot of pattern or copy parts, often manufactured cheaply. It can be tempting to save a few pounds by buying non OEM but try to resist this: a genuine part from a good supplier is always worth the extra. Specialist suppliers are also generally very helpful with finding the right part - and supportive if it fails.
5. Store Your Car Properly
Using your classic to keep it reliable has to be balanced with the unpredictable nature of British weather. And its winters. Careful storage will help minimise problems. Disconnect the battery or, better still, use a trickle charger. If it runs on E10, drain the tank. If it runs on E5, fill the tank. Both will protect the fuel tank from rot.
If you have a damp garage, consider investing in a dehumidifier or a Carcoon, both of which are worth their weight in gold. If you can't do either, make sure there is good air circulation around the car. Consider a car cover but choose carefully and be prepared to spend money on the best: cheap car covers potentially cause paint to microblistering and can seal in dampness. If the car is under cover outside or in a garage, open all the windows to improve air circulation.
If you can, start and drive the car up to temperature every few weeks. This will aid reliability and avoid flat spotting the tyres. Don't just start it up and leave it running.
6. Check It Regularly
Using your car will enable you to really get to know your car. The noises it makes, the squeaks, how it drives and how it performs. Because our cars receive so much use we have got to know how they perform really well, which often enables us to identify problems before they cause breakdowns.
Aside from the obvious fluid checks, we have become attuned to changes in how they drive, new and unexpected noises, however minor, as well as changes to fuel and fluid consumption. This knowledge means we can undertake checks before parts fail and address the problem before it becomes a major one.
7. Regular Ramp Checks
Classics over 40 years old don't require a MOT but we strongly recommend they get one. The annual MOT is the absolute minimum level of checks to ensure the car is roadworthy, which is a legal obligation placed upon every owner.
Our cars are generally on a ramp at least once a month, which is an opportunity to check components, identify potential future problems and address them. This kind if simple, preventative maintenance helps avoid on-road failure and keeps repair costs down by fixing components before they break.
If you don't have access to a ramp it can be worth chatting to your local garage and asking if they'll undertake a simple ramp check every few months. It will be money well spent.
Wherever two or more classic car owners meet, two or more opinions will invariably be voiced. Which is one of the things we love about the classic car scene. It means we also recognise that, if you own a classic, you may either disagree with our maintenance regime or have additional points of your own. If so, please share them. This list is what we do to keep our very high mileage classics reliable, we're always open to new ideas.
Our classic car fleet covers the 1960s to 1990s and is available to hire by the hour, day or weekend from £49. To find out more call 01527 893733, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days, 01527 893733