Preflight check: The key to a better driving adventure

Photography Credit: Tom Suddard

You’ve done it: After all of that head scratching, parts sourcing and engine sorting, you’ve finally finished restoring your car. You’ve even shown off your handiwork at several local gatherings.

At this point, many enthusiasts are looking for the next big thing to do with their cars. For us, it comes down to two words: Road trip.

Whether you’re driving in an official tour, taking the scenic route to a national show, or just heading down to visit Grandma, a road trip is a great way to thoroughly enjoy your classic car. However, there’s more to it than just grabbing a road map and a change of clothes before hopping behind the wheel. A little prep work in the garage can pay miles of dividends.

Exercise and Conditioning

You wouldn’t run the Boston Marathon without some pre-event conditioning. Likewise, you should exercise your classic before leaving for a road trip. Call it a pre-event workout for your machine.

We can break down this process into three parts. First, identify weak points that might leave you stranded. Second, determine any comfort and convenience items that can be improved. Third, condition your own body.

Solution: Get out there and drive your car. Some people say that a 1000-mile drive is just like taking 50 separate 20-mile drives, but we disagree. While the math makes sense, those shorter drives are usually harder on a car than the longer ones. Therefore, if you want to identify weak points, take a lot of short drives. 

In other words, use your classic like a normal, modern car. Stop-and-go driving, speed bumps and potholes will point out any problems.

Make sure to take a few longer drives, too. Get out on the highway and run your car for a while. Make sure it’s happy at cruising speeds and that it continues to run well after you’ve pulled off at an exit or rest stop. 

For extra credit, don’t forget about rain. Watch the weather reports and leave the car outside during the next big storm. Does the car start just as well when wet? Did any moisture seep into the interior? Does the trunk leak? Knowing these things in advance will give you time to fix them, or at least take ample precautions. For example, you could wrap your luggage in plastic before heading out.

While it’s still raining, take the car out and drive it. Do the tires grip the road? Do the wipers properly clean the windshield? Did the cabin fill up with water? The answers to these questions might point toward more needed work.

In addition to monitoring your car’s performance, consider your own comfort. Let’s face it: Most classic cars just aren’t as cozy as their modern counterparts. Getting your back and butt accustomed to the seats and driving position may be the difference between fun and prescription painkillers. Also, is the car screaming for an additional arm rest? Should the driver’s seat get some new cushions or additional bolstering? Does the transmission need an overdrive gear? Take care of these upgrades before hitting the road.

The Big Checkup

At some point during your preparation, your car needs to undergo a thorough checkup. Whether you do it yourself or hire a professional, there are some essential points that must be covered.

Start with the safety items: tires, horn, brakes and suspension. While the tires and horn are the most important factors, they’re often neglected. If your tires are more than six years old, strongly consider new ones. No exceptions. And don’t forget the spare. 

The horn has to blast loud and clear—every time you push the button. Our little classics often get lost in traffic, so a loud horn can be the difference between an enjoyable drive and more prescription painkillers. In fact, we often go one step further and upgrade to air horns.

To inspect the brakes and suspension, first get the car up in the air and remove the wheels. The brake drums—if equipped—must come off to allow for proper inspection of the innards. Nothing should show signs of wear or leaks. The parking brake must secure the car and not stick when released. The suspension should show no visual signs of wear or fatigue; shake and pry as needed in order to ensure that all joints and pivots are free of wear and damage.

While the car is still in the air, it’s a good idea to go around with some tools and torque every nut and bolt in sight. We also recommend cleaning and wiping away excess oil and grease at this time. And while you’re at it, what’s the source of that leak? Can it be stopped or at least slowed before you hit the road?

Pay special attention to the exhaust. Bang on it in several spots and listen for inappropriate clunks or clangs. Look for areas that may leak. Also, carefully study the mounts—there are several, right? If the mounts are stressed, they may break during the drive and leave something hanging or buzzing.

This is a proper time to change all fluids as well. In addition to changing the oil in the engine, gearbox and rear axle, bleed the brakes and at least check the coolant. If you choose not to change fluids, at least top them off. 

Once the car is back on the ground, check all of the lights and other electrical equipment. Pay special attention to the brake lights and turn signals. Are they bright enough to be clearly seen? If not, you may want to spend some time cleaning the connections and grounds—or spring for an upgrade to brighter bulbs. Don’t forget to ensure that the headlights are aligned properly; a halogen conversion may also be a good idea.

Finally, consider the engine. Even if your car always runs well, it’s probably worth the time to go through the ignition and fuel systems to make sure they’re dialed in properly. Consider torquing the head and adjusting the valves, too. 

We have one simple goal for this exercise: to make sure everything on the car works as it did when delivered to the dealership—or better. It might take a few bucks to get there, but our road trip will be all the more enjoyable because of this effort. After all, we’d rather be enjoying the ride than making excuses or compensating for quirks.

Bath Time

Somewhere between our test drives and big checkup, we take the time to get the car spotlessly clean, inside and out. Exterior washing and interior vacuuming are obvious steps, but we usually go much further. 

We kick off our cleaning routine at the local pay-and-spray car wash, where we blast out the engine bay, wheel wells and chassis. We also deep-clean the carpets and seats if they need it. Sometimes we use specialized interior cleaners and do the job ourselves; other times we take the car to a professional detailing shop and have them work their magic.

We always pay a little extra attention to our windows and mirrors. We’re big fans of rain repellants like Rain-X, so after giving our windshield a good cleaning, we apply the stuff to both sides of the glass. We even hit the mirrors, too.

Not only do these treatments cause the water to puddle up and fly away, but they make subsequent cleaning easier, too. The side windows also deserve some attention, and those that wind down receive some silicone spray to lubricate their tracks. We finish off our car’s exterior with a fresh coat of wax plus our favorite chrome polish and rubber treatment. 

While bath time obviously gets our machine clean, it also offers one more opportunity for us to carefully inspect the car inch by inch.

Consider Upgrades

We’ve alluded to this already, but maybe it’s time to make some upgrades before the trip. Would a right-side mirror help you navigate traffic, or does adding a third brake light make you feel a little more comfortable? Maybe a change from lap belts to a three-point setup makes sense, too.

Cosmetic upgrades probably won’t help the car run any better, but now may be an appropriate time to splurge on new wheels or a fancier top. Remember, a lot of people are going to notice you during the trip. Should an ambassador of the classic sports car hobby show up with a ratty interior and cracked taillight lenses?

Our favorite upgrades center around comfort and convenience. We like a nice radio and often install aftermarket cruise control on our long-distance drivers. Aftermarket consoles and cupholders make for a nicer trip if tastefully installed. 

Seats fit this bill, too. Sometimes the stock pieces just need a rebuild. Other times they require new upholstery or inflatable lumbar supports. If your car isn’t concours-correct, aftermarket seats are also an option. Don’t forget about the steering wheel: If yours is worn and tattered, perhaps it’s time for a replacement. 

The bottom line: Everything we see, touch and feel should be very comfortable and pleasing to the eye.

It's easy to have a pleasant road trip when the weather is friendly, the sun is shining and the asphalt is smooth. However, it takes some pre-trip preparation to ensure that you and your classic car will remain happy through less-than-optimal travel conditions. Photography Credit: Chris Tropea.

Spares and Tools

We’re now in the home stretch. The car is clean and attractive. Time to pack some tools and spares. 

First, consider which repairs are feasible on the road. If something breaks, are you going to perform the complete repair, or is it more likely that you’ll just let a shop handle it? We usually only prepare tools for the jobs we’d take on ourselves. Sometimes we figure we won’t make any repairs; in those cases we just bring a few of the key parts.

Thanks to overnight shipping and national parts suppliers, you probably don’t need to carry every possible spare. Nonetheless, we still take a few things so we won’t spend any nights in a seedy motel if something goes wrong. If we want complete coverage, we usually take an alternator, fuel pump, distributor, water pump, throttle cable and alternator belt. Sometimes we include a set of hoses for our cooling system. Finally, we add spares of any parts that are considered weak links for the particular car we’re driving.

In addition to our parts and tools, we also bring our contingency items: nuts, bolts, wire and tie wraps plus some electrical or duct tape. In addition to our cell phones, credit cards and roadside assistance plans, these parts should allow us to be our own MacGyver—or at least allow us to call him. 

Gotta Have Insurance

When we say “insurance,” we mean more than just accident coverage. It also involves anticipating sticky situations and planning a way out of them.

First, we contact our insurance carrier to make sure we’re covered for our drive, especially if there’s a chance we’ll leave the country. We also ask if they have special options for long drives, like extended flatbed towing options.

Our second “insurance” consideration involves assistance along the way. As we plan our route, we look for club members or businesses that may be able to help if trouble occurs. We get their names, addresses and phone numbers from Web sites or club directories. If we’re feeling especially compulsive, we contact them in advance and let them know that we might be calling if trouble arises.

Our last piece of “insurance” is a fire extinguisher. We usually get a halon-type unit that doesn’t make a mess when discharged. Ideally, it should be securely mounted in the interior and easily reached by the driver. The next best place is in the trunk; if going that route, make sure to tell your co-driver where it is.

Pack for Success

While some people take long tours in their classic sedans, most of us seem to gravitate toward sports cars. As a result, luggage space is often at a premium during our trips. Given that our packing list also includes spare parts and tools, we’re likely in for some trouble if we don’t pack carefully.

We usually group our tools and spares in ziplock bags, then wrap them in rags or small towels. We fit these small bundles into the nooks and crannies of our car, targeting space that can’t accept luggage. The ziplock bags keep the parts dry and contained, while the rags and towels are handy for cleanup. Plus, we can spread the rags on the ground should we need to lie down while making repairs. 

Here’s a tip for creating extra packing room: The spare tire can often be flipped over to provide just a little more trunk space. (Speaking of the spare, make sure you have the lug nuts needed to secure it.)

Our final lesson on packing touches on a sensitive subject: weight. Your last big road trip in a classic car may have been about 20 years ago, and it’s possible you’ve gained a few pounds since then. Combined with possibly hundreds of pounds of tools and luggage, the car may sag when fully loaded. The extra weight will most likely impact handling, too. 

So, going back to our earlier exercise, we usually take some test runs with the car loaded. Don’t forget, the gasoline’s weight will add up, too—to the tune of about 7 pounds per gallon.

Watch While You Drive

Once you’re on the road, pay special attention to the car. Listen to the sounds and watch the gauges. If something starts to seem strange, pull off and investigate sooner rather than later. 

Pay particular attention to the oil pressure and temperature gauges. Both should stay constant and in a safe range. Don’t be tempted to drive “just a few more miles” with an overheated engine or low oil pressure—you could be making a very expensive mistake.

When you make stops, walk around the car and look it over. Feel the wheels and make sure they’re all about the same temperature. A hot wheel can indicate a dragging brake. Check the fluids frequently—usually along with each gas fill-up—and generally make sure nothing is going wrong. 

While we don’t want to make you paranoid, it’s worth paying a little extra attention to your car during the drive.

Remember, This Is Fun

If all of this preparation and planning seems like work, maybe you’re thinking about things the wrong way. Most of us own a classic car for some form of fun and entertainment. This kind of prep work should be part of that enjoyment.

Best of all, if we plan things correctly, we can stretch a basic three-day trip into a week or more of car-related activities. Just remember, what matters isn’t where you’re going but how you get there.

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2/19/21 1:25 p.m.

I just wish I had paid a little more attention to some if these, especally the part about  "small" fuel leakes and carying a good fire extinguisher!  If I had,  I wiuld still be enjoying my '63 MGB. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
2/19/21 2:46 p.m.

In reply to OldBumpy :

That stinks. FWIW, we're working on a piece about fire extinguishers. 

300zxfreak Reader
2/20/21 6:50 p.m.

I'm assuming that after loading in all those spare parts, you: A. Have a roof rack for luggage, B. Have a trailer for luggage, C. Don't take any luggage, D. Sorely need a good shower and new clothes every third day ( or at least every Saturday ).

I'm definitely down with the fire extinguisher, I've seen several really nice rides end up in ashes ( along with their spares and luggage )  :(


peter890 New Reader
2/21/21 6:07 p.m.

good article - but if I can add a few comments ? For carrying tools I use a leather tool-roll - keeps things tidy and stops rattles. You will also know when something is missing very quickly simply by opening the roll before you head off. Another thing is to always take a big but light-ish waterproof coat (the Aussie Dryz-a-Bone is ideal) that has a cape to keep your head dry if you need to be out in the elements. And two people can shelter under it at a pinch. Such a coat is also useful as a ground mat if you need to get under the car. If you are a long way from home, I always get my wife to carry a spare key in her handbag. Finally, a good strong torch with a good battery life is essential. 

Bardan New Reader
4/18/21 2:32 p.m.

Spare fuel pump? Why not plumb an auxiliary backup that bypasses the stock pump. One switch and you are back running. 

Cheap tire plug kit and learn how to use it. $7 and it takes little room. Tire people hate them but they work.

A good clear electric diagram and a maintenance logbook. This could save time and wrong direction effort.

If you are driving through the desert, BRING WATER, lots.


Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
4/20/21 9:11 a.m.

In reply to Bardan :

Great tips. Thanks

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
4/20/21 9:12 a.m.

In reply to peter890 :

More good tips. Thanks

8/17/21 2:36 a.m.

Fire extinguisher in the trunk?  Not much good back there, probably way to late by the time you get out, with your keys, open the trunk, get out the extinguisher, assuming there's not luggage or other things in the trunk...

Still, better than not having one I suppose, but it should be within arms reach of the driver.

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