Spring is finally here. What perfect time to drag that classic car you have been procrastinating on out of the garage so you can take her on the road again. Maybe your plan is to make the occasional weekend trip in the old car a longer one, or maybe you just want to cruise more frequently. The only problem? You’re not really comfortable with getting too far from home or your trusted mechanic? Well have no fear! We are here to share a few simple ways to achieve a more reliable and comfortable ride so you can have more time with your baby.
*Disclaimer: Keep in mind that if your desire is to maintain your car’s originality, many of these upgrades can be engineered as bolt on and will allow you to return your car to its original configuration when desired.
As my grandfather always said, “Safety First!” So, in his honor, let’s start with the safety items.
Every time I transition from a late model car to a classic, the most striking change in drive-ability is in the braking and steering. We always joke about hitting the brakes in an old car then guessing which lane you will be in when the car comes to a stop. Fun game—just not a very safe one.
There are two components to consider here. First is the master brake cylinder. On most pre-1960 cars this was a single cylinder system, which means that if you develop a leak or have a break line that fails you will have zero braking ability. The modern dual cylinder master divides the front brakes from the rear brakes. In this scenario you may loose the braking capability of the front brakes OR the rear brakes, but not both, resulting in less stopping force but still having the ability to stop the car. Much safer. A dual master cylinder conversion can certainly be done in a home shop, but you have to have a little know-how. I’d strongly recommend you visit a professional for this safety upgrade.
The second braking component to consider is front disc brakes. A properly designed front disc brake system not only provides more stopping power but most importantly, better steering control while braking. Drum brake systems are effective for stopping because they provide a lot of braking surface against the drums, but they are notorious for pulling left or right and often it takes frequent adjustments as the brakes wear to keep the vehicle stopping in a straight line. Leaving drum brakes on the rear is a functional and acceptable option—that is unless you are going for cool factor along with some hot new wheels. If not, there are many solutions that incorporate the original front spindles allowing you to retain the stock wheels and look.
This may seem like an obvious need and most folks may already have seat belts installed. The concern here is to make sure they are installed correctly, to the structural components of the car, and work properly. I frequently see belts installed with a single bolt or lag screw through the sheet metal floor, or a retractable system where re-tractors are mounted incorrectly and do not function. Seat belts aren’t for looks folks. I strongly recommend purchasing newly manufactured seatbelts over something you can find in a salvage yard. I think this is for obvious reasons. Follow the installation instructions for attaching to suitable structural points of the vehicle making sure you use the correct grade bolts and washers. Don’t cut corners here; your life may depend on it! There are several quality custom seatbelt manufacturers to choose from like Seat Belt Planet, who offer an array of options including an infinite selection of colors and webbing.
Now that we have all of that out of the way, let’s move on to some comfort and confidence options.
For me it’s a confidence builder to know what the engine temperature is and that the charging system is operating properly. The 70’s and 80’s saw the introduction of the idiot light. You know that screaming red light that would come on at the very minute your radiator top blew off and steam poured out from beneath the hood the? Big help! :note sarcasm:
Most vehicles today have returned to analog or digital gauges that provide current system status for your viewing pleasure. Many older cars may not have a full set of gauges, and if they do, not fully functioning ones. Temperature and charging are important to monitor on an old car. Installing a set of replacement gauges is smart and can save you a lot of money in the long run. Keep in mind that this new set of gauges can be hidden under the dash or even in the glove box while still allowing you a quick look for confirmation that everything is normal. You now have time to take action before the cap blows! Imagine that. :more sarcasm:
Electronic ignition is another item that will bring an old car engine a big step closer to the reliability of modern engines. I used to carry a small screwdriver and a diamond file just in case I had a points ignition issue. Some cars were better that others but I was guaranteed a points adjustment every month or two in my old 66 Mustang. I became VERY proficient at adjusting the points on the fly. For some reason it always seemed to occur just as I was running late to pick up a date! An electronic ignition module is a quick and inexpensive was to improve the running and reliability of your classic car. This is definitely a DIY job if you like getting under the hood. Petronix has been around for about 30 years now and they same a pretty decent product. Here is a really good instructional article we found on converting to electronic ignition.
Now, keep in mind that I live in The South and many folks here don’t consider air conditioning an option. This is a great upgrade for nearly any vehicle that is used in hot climates, even if you’re driving a 70’s muscle car with factory equipped A/C you’ll find the modern replacement systems much more efficient with very little engine drag and far more cooling capacity. These can be installed as a replacement for an older system at not much more than the cost of refurbishing an old system and upgrading to the new refrigerant. The result is heat that works, cooling that works, and a defroster that works! What a concept. Vintage Air offers many direct fit systems or several different sizes of universal systems that leave you with more under-dash room, a cleaned up firewall, more engine bay space, and a cooler ride. Here is a product installation article from Camaro Performers Magazine.
Most of this seems obvious, but hopefully we gave you some resources to consider when you feel like going about some of these projects. More than anything we want you to be able to enjoy greater safety, confidence and comfort for more classic car enjoyment!
If you have any products that you like to use for items mentioned in this article, share the knowledge and leave them in the comments section.