23 easy ways to improve your classic car

Photography by the Classic Motorsports Staff unless otherwise credited • Lead Courtesy BMW

It’s a tough thing to admit: Although you really like driving your older classic, sometimes you don’t totally love the experience. Things just aren’t quite perfect.

The seats could be a little more comfortable. The car wanders a bit across the highway, too. And then there’s the fragrance of fuel that permeates the cabin on warm days. These issues are small, but they add up to a vague sense of unease associated with your classic. The result: More often than not, you find yourself reaching for the keys to your modern driver instead, leaving the classic to sit.

That’s where project car perfection comes in. To achieve it, you must complete that last 1 percent of sorting that separates a go-to driver from a piece of garage art. We recently set out to test-drive and perfect our entire fleet using these tips, and the endeavor has made our cars so much more pleasurable to both drive and look at.

Most of these fixes aren’t expensive, either. They’re just going to take some time and maybe a few basic tools. Summer is now upon us, so get that car out of the garage before the driving season passes you by.

1. Aim Those Lights


Most older cars don’t have the brightest headlights. When they’re not adjusted correctly, visibility gets even worse. This problem can range from annoying to downright dangerous–both for you and for other drivers.

Aiming your headlights is simple, and here’s the quick way: Park your car 15–20 feet away from a garage door so that its headlights shine directly on the door’s surface. Then, position the lights until the low-beam pattern concentrates at about waist height. Skew the beams slightly to the right, too, so they won’t blind oncoming drivers.

2. Align That Suspension


You’d be surprised at how much a chassis alignment can transform a car. Our Edsel wagon was nearly uncontrollable on the highway when it had 2 degrees of positive caster up front. Once we dialed in nearly 4 degrees, we could drive it with just one finger on the wheel.

Different situations will warrant different settings, and in theory your alignment technician can help. A bit of toe-in and nearly neutral camber can be nice on the highway, while extra negative camber and some toe-out is generally preferable for performance driving.

3. Tune It Up

The best place to fine-tune your car is on a chassis dyno Here you can determine the best setup for things like ignition timing and carburetor jetting. You may spend $100 or so per hour, but it’s the perfect laboratory. Since the clock will be ticking, get things as close to spec as possible beforehand.

4. Align That Body


We regularly serve as concours judges, and there’s nothing we notice more quickly than misaligned doors, hoods, deck lids and fenders. These minor-looking flaws tell a knowledgeable onlooker that something major could be wrong with the car.

Aligning body panels quickly takes years of experience, but a beginner with some patience, spare time and a good eye can do it at home. You just need a shop manual, which will identify the adjustment points, and some simple hand tools. Should you get frustrated or overwhelmed, any competent body shop can complete the job for just a few hundred dollars.

Besides the obvious aesthetic improvement, aligned panels also reduce wind noise, stave off water leaks, and yield smoother articulation.

5. Smells, Be Gone!

No one likes a smelly old car. Placing a dryer sheet under a seat may mask odors temporarily, but it’s not going to eliminate the source.

That source can be organic in nature, like the stuff animals leave behind while camping out in your car. Once you’ve evicted the visitors, a carpet and upholstery cleaner like Resolve can work wonders against the stench. Mold can stink, too, but we’ll address that topic separately.

To eliminate that all-too-common oil smell, find out where it’s coming from. Is there a leak allowing oil to drip onto the exhaust system? If so, you can typically trace it back to the rear main seals or valve covers. As for fuel odors, properly venting the fuel system banishes them most of the time.

Smell the exhaust? Check the trunk or hatchback seal–those were the culprits on our Shelby and our Z-car.

6. Balance Those Tires

If you feel a shudder in the steering wheel or a vibration in your seat, your tires may be to blame. Once your wheels and tires have been mounted and balanced, remember to check them for proper balance after 1000 or so miles. While you’re down there, check your tire pressures, too.

7. Beat Those Leaks


Leaks are annoying and can lead to musty-smelling mold, but fortunately most of them are fixable. Most are caused by worn-out door seals, misaligned windows, and rusty cowls, trunk ledges and firewalls. Sometimes solving the problem is as simple as repositioning a seal that has been knocked loose. Having trouble identifying the source? Shower the car with a garden hose and spot where it drips in.

8. Banish Heat and Noise

Sound deadening is basically a foil-backed material that you stick to your car’s floor, firewall and roof panels. This stuff has quieted and insulated so many of our project cars through the years, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised with how the technology has advanced. Thanks to companies like Koolmat, DEI and ThermoTec, it has become lighter and more effective.

9. Touch Up Those Nicks


Face it: Those nicks in your paint are holding you back from project car nirvana. And don’t forget, most rust problems start with just a scratch. Nipping this problem in the bud could save you a ton of rust repair money later on.

Any good paint supply store or body shop can provide touch-up paint in the proper color. (And please, don’t skimp and use something that’s “close enough.”) You can simply brush-touch the nicks or, as we outlined in the July 2016 issue of Classic Motorsports, fill them in layer by layer.

10. Refresh That Radio


Many of us enjoy the sounds of the open road and the purr of the exhaust, but eventually we just want to put on some tunes. Our Shelby needed some Rolling Stones and Deep Purple, and our Edsel had us in the mood for Martha and the Vandellas.

Companies like Retro Radio Restoration can turn your old AM radio into an AM/FM unit that also features inputs for an iPod, USB stick or satellite radio. Becker AutoSound does a wonderful job restoring systems originally fitted in German cars. And when upgrading your sound system, please don’t cut up the original door panels and package trays. That went out of vogue a few decades ago.

11. Get Comfortable


Many restorers simply replace the seat covers without rebuilding the frames and padding found underneath. This gives you a seat that looks pretty good but still isn’t very comfortable.

Another tip is to shim the seats so that the lower cushion tilts back a bit. Need more legroom? Can you drill new holes in the floor and slide back the mounts a bit?

Sometimes you need to just replace the seats entirely. Miata seats have become popular for British roadsters, and there’s an entire aftermarket waiting to deliver other options.

12. Help That Handling


When it comes to handling, every marque seems to have its own experts and preferred setups. To keep things simple, though, here’s a basic handling recipe that will revitalize most of our older cars: Combine a proper alignment with slightly wider tires and wheels, a set of good shocks, and a slightly larger front anti-roll bar.

13. Get Your Gauges in Gear


Accurate gauges are essential, especially when you’re doing rallies and tours and need a reliable speedometer and odometer. Companies like Nisonger specialize in this kind of stuff, so period-correct replacement gauges and parts are just a few mouse clicks away.

14. Keep That Engine Cool

Contrary to popular belief, finding yourself stranded by an overheated engine is not an inevitable part of classic car ownership. Most factory systems are adequate, so start by making sure yours is operating properly. Is the radiator fresh and clean or full of crud? Does the radiator cap still hold pressure? Are all of the factory ducts and shrouds still present?

If you need more cooling capacity, turn to simple fixes first, like adding Red Line’s WaterWetter to the coolant or running a colder thermostat. Consider Evans Waterless Engine Coolant, too, which is said to remain in a liquid state until north of 375 degrees.

Not enough? Would an upgraded fan, modernized water pump or increased shrouding help?

From there, try upgrading more major equipment. Companies like Ron Davis make beautiful, higher-capacity aluminum radiators for virtually any car. High-performance water pumps are also an option. And it’s a bit extreme, but a really radical engine may also need some extra hood and fender vents.

15. Improve Those Highway Manners

Long trips in your classic are always more appealing when you know it can cruise comfortably on the highway. The key to better high-speed manners may be as simple as slightly increasing the outside diameter of the tires. This solution comes with a tradeoff, however: slower acceleration.

Converting to a five-speed transmission, installing an overdrive, or changing the final-drive ratio may be more effective alternatives, and in many cases these mods actually have a positive impact on the car’s value.

16. Silence Those Clunks

There is nothing more frustrating-or potentially dangerous-than clunks and rattles coming from underneath your classic. Fortunately, silencing them is cheap and relatively easy. Common causes are exhaust components hitting the body, loose heat shields, bent or loose disc brake shields, and U-joint or half-shaft issues. To make a quick diagnosis, safely secure the car and then tap, shake or turn various components until you’ve reproduced the noise. Then fix.

17. Whip Those Wipers Into Shape


Do your windshield wipers do more harm than good? Then fix them. Fresh blades will do wonders. To increase their pressure on the windshield, try slightly tweaking the arms. If more work is needed, installing new motors and arms isn’t that difficult. While you’re at it, apply a coat of Rain-X to add another line of defense against the elements.

18. Let There Be Light


In addition to costing you points at concours events, blown-out lights are a serious safety issue. Fortunately, armed with a test light and a spotter, you can typically fix these problems with ease. Corrosion, blown bulbs, bad grounds and faulty brake light switches cause most electrical problems. Trace the problem back to where you do have power and repair as necessary.

19. Add Some Accessories


Want a simple way to add some custom touches to your classic? Shop the plethora of high-quality, period-correct accessories available today. We’ve long enjoyed adorning our project cars with items like chrome-plated driving lamps, racing stripes and vintage-looking wheels. We’re fans of interior accessories, too, like rally clocks, Coco Mats and aftermarket steering wheels–preferably with a wood rim or leather trim, depending on the car.

20. Center That Steering Wheel

This one is easy to fix but can make a huge impression: a steering wheel that is even a little off-center. This problem can easily be fixed by adjusting the tie rods. Make sure that you’re not changing your alignment, though. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and find the steering wheel of a tooth, meaning you just need to remove it–with a puller, not brute force–and then reinstall it.

21. Fix Those Dash Lights


Dash lights that are blown or dim can ruin that moonlit drive and leave you fumbling for knobs and switches. Luckily, they’re easy to correct. Most older cars have individual bulbs in each gauge. Each bulb is attached to both a positive and negative wire, with the negatives often ganged together and colored brown or black. A test light and a wiring diagram will show you what goes where.

Sometimes the rheostat–the knob that controls the brightness of the bulbs–goes bad. If cleaning it doesn’t solve the problem, you’ll have to replace it.

22. Tame That Exhaust

Exhaust problems are not only hazardous, but they can easily sour the classic sports car experience, too. Some exhausts emit harsh fumes, some clunk and clang, and others are just too loud.

Whatever the issue, get under there and fix it–or have someone do it. Aim for an exhaust that sounds sporty through the gears but gets mellow at cruising speeds.

23. Detail That Engine Compartment


So many cars that look immaculate on the outside harbor dirty, unrestored engine compartments. While it’s easiest to detail an engine bay during a full restoration, a weekend of work can still make a huge difference even with the engine in place.

Start by carefully pressure-washing or hand-cleaning the entire engine compartment with degreaser. Next, remove any accessories that you can easily unbolt, then clean each one as well as the area beneath it. If needed, you can spray a bit of black or body-colored paint where needed. Companies like Eastwood offer a variety of paint and restoration products that do a nice job of emulating correct plating finishes. Final tip: The more time you spend on this job, the better the result.

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greggearhead Reader
2/15/19 11:03 a.m.

Along with aiming your headlights, I would recommend upgrading to H4 headlights, and possibly some LED brake light bulbs.  


H4 headlights in good quality can be had for cheap these days, and are much, MUCH better than old sealed beams.  

LED bulbs for the brake (and reverse) lights can really help people notice you are slowing down in your (usually smaller and lower) classic car.  Be aware, some bulbs work great, some don't put light into the reflector and don't work that well.  

Volvoguy2 New Reader
2/18/21 4:46 p.m.

Regarding the slight smell of petrol and oil, I think its part and parcel of owning a classic. Sort of a 1960s esque smell.  Not an out and out overpowering odour of fuel  (fire hazard ) but a subtle and aged smell of lubricants and the merest whiff of petrol.  My car isnt perfect and never will be and i ve had it to shows and am quite content to race up the country roads at 100mph (carefully of course) and listen to the revs of the motor in Overdrive.   1967 Volvo P1800S  (ISSKY racing Cam and Laycock Overdrive)

murphmi New Reader
12/12/21 9:35 a.m.

A couple of things I've done recently to my TR6 have really improved my driving pleasure. When I discovered the advance weights and vacuum diaphragm in the distributor were both not working, I discovered a guy in New Hampshire who would rebuild it and convert it to vacuum advance--Triumph had switched from advance to retard in order to pass tightening emissions standards. The car's drivability was transformed. 

I also rebuilt the front suspension (everything was 50-year-of original), and replaced rubber bushings with polyurethane. I expected the ride to be a bit harsher but more direct, but instead found it to be much smoother and quieter. Everything compressed over bumps the way it should, and clunks were gone. 

and I also added sound deadening to the tunnel, firewall and foot wells. What a transformation! Not only is it much quieter, it's Olson much cooler on hot days. 

I rarely put the top up, which can get interesting here in New England in the fall, so for Christmas last year I asked for seat heaters. Now at least my butt is toasty warm on the coldest days  

I have H4 headlights yet to install--as lighting on modern cars continues to improve, by comparison the headlights on the Triumph seem worse and worse. Oh, and I added a center high third brake light, cobbled from a Scion light I had. I attached rubber-coated strong magnets to the bottom, and stick it to the trunk lid, and remove it to wash and wax the car. 

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
12/16/21 10:02 a.m.

In reply to greggearhead :

Good advice.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
12/16/21 10:03 a.m.

In reply to murphmi :

More good stuff!

BimmerMaven Reader
9/16/23 1:26 p.m.

another way to look at this:

are you building/preparing a car for display in a museum or "events"?, or

building /preparing a car to be driven?.

or both?

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