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11 reasons not to buy a vintage car–and why you should ignore them | Articles

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

You grew up on a steady diet of front-drive Hondas, 5.0 Mustangs and force-fed Subarus, but you suddenly find yourself attracted to machines from another era—a time defined by chrome bumpers, bias-ply tires, ignition systems featuring moving parts, and mythical devices known as carburetors. 

Your attraction makes little sense. Why trade reliability, comfort and even performance for something that needs constant attention, can’t outrun a minivan, and drops rust and oil in nearly every parking space? 

Because classics are cool. Every trip will be a memorable adventure, whether it’s across state lines to visit friends or down to the corner store. 

Thinking about trading your Miata for an MGB or your Toyota for a Triumph? Be warned that older cars have their own idiosyncrasies, but it’s nothing our forefathers couldn’t handle. You can do it. 

They Have Rusty Gas Tanks

One major cause of carburetor problems comes from outside of it: After 40 or 50 years of service life, don’t be surprised to find rust or dirt in the tank.

Today’s solution:

While the fix used to be cleaning followed by using slushing/sealing compounds, we’re finding that today’s ethanol-blended fuels will dissolve these magic chemicals sooner or later. A new tank—figure a few hundred dollars, depending on application—may make more sense.

[Can a sealer kit really save a rusty, 50-year-old gas tank? | KBS Coatings test]

They Have Ignition Points

Not only do our modern cars not have points, but many don’t have distributors at all. In classics, breaker points controlled ignition timing. These are little spring-loaded devices found inside the distributor. Points were not perfect, though: Over time they would get dirty, fall out of adjustment, or simply get mad at the world. Additionally, other moving parts in the distributors would wear and cause their own maddening problems. 

Today’s solution:

The PerTronix Ignitor, a solid-state, self-contained electronic points replacement unit, has pretty much become part of the standard operating procedure for older cars. More than 300 applications are available, and it’s a quick install.

In some cases, it also makes sense to get a completely new aftermarket distributor from the likes of Crane or MSD or have the original unit totally rebuilt by a specialist like Advanced Distributors. Carry your old distributor in the trunk, though, as the replacement still isn’t immune to wear. 

They Have No Power

Power brakes, power steering, power seats, power mirrors, power antennas and powerful engines are, for the most part, things that classics don’t have. You’re also going to have a tough time finding a/c, and ABS simply didn’t exist back then. 

Today’s solution:

The good news is there’s less stuff to break, and there’s more room in the engine bay. More good news: The lack of this extra equipment will allow you to feel more connected to the driving experience. The bad news: Some say the experience is a bit more on the agricultural side of things. 

They Need to be Tuned

Modern cars have computers and sensors constantly checking the combustion quality and adjusting spark advance, valve timing and fuel pressure as necessary. Classics rely on drivers to listen to the engine, read spark plugs, and use their hands to dial fuel delivery and ignition back in.

Today’s solution:

Honestly, if the carb and distributor are in good shape, a car shouldn’t need attention more than once every 5000 miles or so. However, if the car sees limited use and parts have a chance to gum up from old fuel or corrode from stagnation, more frequent tuning may be necessary.

They Have Carburetors and Chokes

If distributors aren’t trouble enough, let’s add the carburetor to the mix. Until the 1980s, most cars had them. Most were single- or multi-venturi, float-type units from Holley, Weber, Solex or Carter. A butterfly choke—sometimes manually operated—aided the starting procedure. 

Many British cars came with SU carburetors, and we admit that they’re a different beast. They might look a little funny, but they work—well enough for Rolls-Royce and countless SCCA championships, in fact. Like all mechanical devices, though, any carburetor will wear with use.

Today’s solution:

If you’ve got SU or Stromberg, get to know Joe Curto. He is the Jedi Master when it comes to these carbs and has all the parts you’ll ever need. If you’ve got—or want—Webers, talk to Pierce Manifolds. 

And when you’re deep into trying to resolve your problems, remember two related tech tips we learned long ago: Most supposed carburetor problems are really ignition problems. And most real carb problems are caused by worn throttle shafts or vacuum leaks—a shot of carb cleaner will quickly tell you whether or not you have a vacuum leak somewhere. 

They Leak Oil

If you park a modern car in your friend’s driveway, no one will know you’d been there. But if you park your classic in the same spot, your car will leave its mark. 

Today’s solution:

Classics leak—some even leaked on the dealers’ floors. Don’t be surprised if your classic leaves a 2- or 3-inch spot of oil on the garage floor after each drive. If the leaks get bigger than that, you can make them smaller with new seals. We’ll be honest, though: You’ll go crazy trying to stop all of them. Call it the nature of the beast. 

They Like Different Oil

Remember that “motor oil is motor oil” commercial? That was standard procedure back in the day. Lately, though, to improve emissions, most commercially available oils have dropped their levels of zinc dialkyldithiophosphate or ZDDP. 

What’s the result? Depending on who you ask, these decreased zinc levels have played havoc on the flat tappet camshafts found in older cars. Additionally, today’s cars run on thinner oils like 5W30 or 0W30, while classics called for thicker formulations like 20W50 or straight 40. 

Today’s solution:

Specialized, high-zinc oils aimed at older engines have been released by Joe Gibbs Driven, Brad Penn, Valvoline and others. Red Line’s synthetic oils also contain high levels of zinc.

[Ask an Oil Expert: Industry Specialists Set the Record Straight on Motor Oil for Classic Cars]

They Have Scavenger-Hunt Tires

Need tires for your Lancer Evo? Easy. But what about an MGB, Triumph Spitfire or Fiat X1/9? The sad truth is that small, sporty tires have become increasingly difficult to find.

Today’s solution:

Before ordering those upsized wheels, check out the Vredestein Sprint Classic. It’s a modern radial that features period-correct looks and comes in vintage sizes. Coker Tire and Universal Vintage Tire Co. both carry Vredestein tires as well as other brands that offer new rubber created from old molds. If a street-legal race tire works for you, Toyo and Nitto still offer 13- and 14-inch sizes.

[Ultimate track tire guide | 200tw, 100tw, street-legal track and R-comps]

They’ve Been “Fixed” Before

If you’ve read this far, you’ve figured out that a classic car has likely had its hood opened more often than a modern car. There’s a pretty good chance someone has made a repair using just Vise-Grips, a brick and some bailing wire. 

Today’s solution:

These past “fixes” will now be your problem. Not only do you have to undo the “fix,” but you’ll still have to solve the original problem. It sounds frustrating, but it’s really part of the fun, so get used to it. Join a club, make some new friends, and learn more about these great cars. 

Worried about wiring woes—especially on older British cars? It’s usually a past “fix” that’s to blame, and fortunately, brand-new wiring harnesses can be purchased. Hint: Check British Wiring. 

They Rust

Classics don’t only suffer from rusty gas tanks; these cars can rust in other places, too. We know you’re shocked to hear that. 

Why all the rust? Well, for one, older steel is usually rustier than newer steel, right? Also, these classics weren’t treated to all the rust inhibitors newer cars have been blessed with. Thanks to advances in technology, newer cars, despite living in the rust belt, can usually fend off rust for at least a decade. Older cars often acquired rust by the third or fourth year. 

Today’s solution:

The proper fix usually involves welding in patch panels and a fresh coat of paint. Luckily, there is a wide aftermarket supporting these types of repairs. Need a fender or repair for a 45-year-old classic? It’s probably in production. Some caveats, though: The cost of repair might very well exceed the value of the car, and not all modern repair panels are created equal—some are excellent, while others will require some fiddling. 


They Attract Attention and Storytellers

This is it—the big one: When you park your Impreza, Civic or Escort at the supermarket lot, it’s just another car in a field of shoeboxes, minivans and stupid SUVs. But when you park your classic in the same spot, people are going to talk to you—and you’re going to leave a small puddle of oil, remember.

They’ll ask you what year it is, how long you’ve owned it, and where you buy parts. Then they’ll tell you that they had one like it, or their crazy Uncle Tim had one but only drove it once, or that they came home from the hospital in one when they were born. 

And then you’ll know why you’ve gone classic. These cars are much more about the interactions they deliver than the performance they offer. 

If you just want to go fast and cut the perfect apex, then maybe a modern car is for you. If you want a little more, like getting your hands dirty and enjoying the total experience, think about a classic.

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