Follow our Winter Prep series during October for articles and tips on how to prepare your classic car for winter storage or keeping it on the road in colder weather.
Winter brings about a sense of sadness for some classic car collectors because the inevitable arrival of snow and ice means it’s time to put their vehicles away until the spring. But for some of drivers in hotter climates, the arrival of winter means cooler weather and the chance to finally get behind the wheel after the broiling summer.
But take heed, getting your favorite car ready for the driving season likely won’t be as simple as starting it up and easing it out of the garage. A lot can happen to a car while it sits in storage for months. All the systems need to be inspected before heading out on 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 get overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, which are important for your safety as well as the vehicle’s continued longevity. Which is why we put together a list of the top-11 things you should check before driving your vehicle after long storage. But don’t worry: Most of these can be performed yourself without taking it to a shop.
For Leutz, that 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 much warning.
Leutz said the alternator should be charging at a 13.8-14.2 reading when the car is running, and the battery should be in the 12-12.5 volt range when the engine is shut off. Check these with an inexpensive hand-held volt meter with the contacts touching each battery terminal.
It’s also important to inspect the battery terminals and connectors for corrosion, and 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,” he added.
Keeping an engine from overheating is pretty (read: very) important. Leutz recommends checking all seals for leakage, and carefully examine the condition of the radiator hoses and fan belts, one of which powers the water pump. If there is any doubt, replace them.
“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 staining from crystallization near the water pump is an indication of gasket seepage, which means the system could soon start leaking.
Check that all fluids — engine oil, transmission fluid, differential oil, brake fluid and coolant — are all topped up and in good condition, Leutz said. Change the engine oil and filter if it was not fresh when you put the vehicle away for storage, and 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,” he said. “Differential fluids are really important.”
However, a significantly low fluid level in any system could indicate a bigger problem and should be examined carefully for leakage and repaired immediately.
“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.”
As much 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 again. You already checked the brake fluid, so now you should 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 re-placed 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.
It could seem obvious, but Leutz said it’s key for people to inspect their 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,” he said.
Owners also need to check the tire born-on date on the sidewall, which will tell you the age of the tires. 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 when they have outlived their usefulness.
Convertible top/exterior seals
A fabric convertible top needs to be kept in the up position during storage, or you might find the material has shrunk and the top is extremely difficult to erect if kept long-term in the down position. Enlist a pro if you find you can’t get the shrunken roof to reach the windshield. It needs to stretched back into shape gradually.
Otherwise, 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, which you can do by spraying the vehicle with a garden hose. If any water gets to the interior, trunk, or inside the doors, replace the offending gaskets.
Go 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 the sockets for corrosion. Sometimes a non-working bulb just needs to be tightened.
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 or fuel-injection systems, 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 replace with 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.
Aa carburetor’s air-fuel mixture settings can go out of whack during storage, so these should checked as well, another task that you might 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.
Check the condition of the spark plugs and (in older pre-electronic vehicles) ignition points, rotor and 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 check with a timing light — check your workshop manual or online for correct numbers.
When you start up your vehicle, listen carefully under the hood for any unusual clunks, rattles, hisses, even whistles. Call in a professional if you can’t address the problem.
And when you get your vehicle on the road again, 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-hood sounds sometime can be isolated by isolated using a cheap stethoscope.