The truth about daily driving a classic car

Photography by David S. Wallens

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Let’s say that you have decided to make a piece of classic machinery your usual ride—rain or shine, hot or cold, in sickness or in health. Overall, it’s a simple proposition. Back when they were new, most classics were intended to be used as daily transportation on one level or another. There’s no reason why that can’t be done today. 

Still, commitments like this should never be taken lightly. There are some considerations and preparations you should make, and since the classic-friendly months are just around the corner, now is the time to get to work.

Is It the One?

Chances are you’ve already picked out a car, but we hope you carefully considered whether it has what it takes to be your daily. While you may think about reliability first—we’ll get to that later—we think it’s best to weigh in safety and weather equipment pretty early on. Then you should consider how it fits your driving, parking and stowage needs.

For example, when it comes to weather and safety, a rubber-bumper MGB is probably a better choice for a daily driver than an MG TD or even an MGA. While the MGB may not top the T-series in the style department, the later car boasts a simpler convertible top, as well as roll-up windows instead of side curtains. The late MGB also features three-point seat belts from the factory plus door braces, real bumpers, a collapsible steering column and even headrests.

If you’re taking your three children to school, however, that rubber-bumper MGB isn’t going to cut it. You can’t just stick the kids in the trunk; a back seat can do wonders for their oxygen needs and your police record. Consider a Mini, Jaguar sedan, Alfa GTV or even a VW Beetle.

Also take into account where you’re going to park every morning. If you’re parallel parking at the office, you probably don’t want to drive an XKE. Its long nose makes it tough to park, and those low, little bumpers don’t offer much protection when Johnny SUV backs up a bit too far.

Is grocery shopping part of your routine? Then shop for a car with decent trunk or hatchback space. A Triumph GT6 makes more sense than a Spitfire, for example.

By now you’ve gotten the point. Committing to a classic isn’t just about finding the beautiful car of your dreams, but making sure you’ll still want it around when you wake up the next morning.

Is It Legal?

If you’re going to drive this car every day, you’ll need to make sure you’ve got your registration and insurance in order. We’ve discussed classic car insurance and historic licensing before, but that may not work for you with your daily driver. You might have to step up and get the same plates and insurance coverage that your modern cars enjoy.

While the state will be glad to issue a conventional plate and registration, you may find the insurance part a bit trickier. You’ll need to work with a company that will let you set an agreed value on the car and allow you to drive it on a daily basis, meaning trips to and from work plus those daily errands and shopping excursions. Make sure you’ve got this type of coverage and carefully read your policy.

The agreed value is especially important. For an example, if the insurance company follows the book value used for modern cars, they may only give you $1500 for your MGB in the event of a total loss—even though it would cost $7500 to replace it with a comparable car. Your policy should be a contract stating that the car is worth $7500 and that you can drive it every day and for every purpose.

Is It Faithful?

Now that you’ve chosen the right car and gotten all your paperwork in shape, it’s time for your commitment to commence. You’ve said your vows, but will she return the favor by faithfully starting, stopping and driving for better or for worse, for richer or poorer?

Look carefully at the safety equipment on the car. The tires, brakes and seat belts—it’s got seat belts, right?—better be in perfect shape. And don’t forget the horn. We consider the horn to be a major safety item. If that SUV driver doesn’t see you, hopefully a honk or two will prevent any disasters.

Almost all classic cars get an undeserved reputation for poor reliability—especially British cars. In reality, most classics are very reliable if you treat them right. Inherent weak points usually have a fix. The main impediments to reliability are deferred maintenance and lack of use. 

If you’re driving a 30-year-old car you just bought, you may find that the previous owners neglected a lot of maintenance during, oh, the past quarter-century. How old is the brake fluid? When’s the last time the battery terminals were cleaned or replaced? Does the windshield washer pump or the hazard switch work as intended? If you want this car to stick with you, you need to address those issues and more.

Just like deferred maintenance, lack of use is hard on a car. Nobody likes neglect, and neither do cars. If they sit for weeks or months at a time, their seals are going to stick to their mating surfaces. Electrical contacts inside switches and motors are going to corrode ever so slightly. Oil is going to seep out of the bottom of their engines, gearboxes and rear axles instead of staying where it’s most helpful. 

If you haven’t been driving your classic regularly, it’s poised for more potential trouble than if you are driving it regularly. Neglect is really worse than committed use.

Don’t Jump in Too Fast

Okay, you’ve got your ducks in a row and you’ve picked out a daily driver. Don’t jump in and take that long trip just yet. Spend a little time getting to know each other in short bursts before you lock yourselves into a really big commitment.

Start by running more and more errands with the car. Keep a sharp eye, ear and nose out for sights, sounds and smells of trouble and address them as quickly as you can. As you take care of problems, you’ll be making your car just a little more reliable and just a little more fun. Reward yourself with some pleasure trips, too. All work and no play isn’t right for you or your classic.

Time to Meet the Parents

When you’ve run enough errands and taken enough pleasure trips, it’s time to start driving to work. Continue to have your senses on full alert for any problems and fix them quickly. 

Once you’ve gotten to this level with your classic, be sure to show it extra affection. At first, check all the fluids at least once a week. Look under the car for big leaks, and keep on top of the tire pressures and brake adjustments. You may want to refine the tune-up as well.

With some real mileage and seat time under your belt, you can now consider longer trips. Maybe you’ll take it to the beach house for the weekend, or to that big show the next state over. Once you’ve accomplished a feat like this, you’ll be ready for that national meet a thousand miles away. 

The Long and Winding Road

How many roads must a classic drive down before you can call it a daily driver? We wouldn’t push it too far: Modern highways and traffic may not be the best scene for your classic. 

If your engine is turning 4500 rpm at 75 mph and your left foot gets sore from clutching through the parking lot they call I-5, then you may want to take the back roads and catch some scenery. Sure, it’ll take a little longer to get there, but isn’t that the point? You’ve made the commitment, so now spend that time together.

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Comments
BimmerMaven
BimmerMaven New Reader
2/19/20 8:05 a.m.

I've never had a new car.

I bought a few in the 3-5 yr old range....  Mini van, Chevy G10 van.
 

All the rest (I'm 66) have been 5-15 yrs old.
All daily drivers.   As an example, I have 91, 99. 00 BMWs and a 99 F250 now on the road daily.
 

Breakdowns ruin any fun I might have driving these cars, so reliability is #1 for me.  That means replacing things before they break.  Rubber parts are my pet peave....brake lines, fuel lines , coolant, belts....and seals in pumps, icv's, hydraulic parts.

I like to pull the drive train, replace all routine wear items at once, while it's easy to get to them....not on the side of the road.  I do my research regarding known weaknesses, and fix them before they break.  I can then start the 10 yr/ 120K clock and RARELY have unscheduled repairs.

 

BTW, I don't kid myself that cheap parts save money.  For me, time is the most expensive part.

sfisher71
sfisher71 New Reader
7/17/22 3:46 p.m.

The last time I had a job with a daily commute, my daily commuter was a 25-year-old Alfa Spider. Still have the Spider, though I've been a full-time telecommuter since 2001.

Still, I was on the way to work one morning and got stuck (in Silicon Valley traffic) behind a beige Corolla. The left lane opened up, so I popped over. 

A mile or so later a *different* beige Corolla -- a slightly more green version of beige -- pulled into my lane. 

"How sad it must be," I thought, "to see another car just like yours but in a different color."

About a mile after THAT, I looked to my right as I reached the merge lane for an onramp. What to my wondering eyes did appear but another stainless-steel bumpered Alfa Romeo Spider, coda tronca like mine, but in deep navy blue (my Spider -- seen in my profile pic, because of COURSE it is -- was originally Verde Pino but was repainted a Jaguar BRG by a previous owner, a slightly darker green than the Farina green).

We were immediately bonded, with grins, waves, thumbs-ups, and headlight flashes. We both downshifted to get the Alfa Song going (as well as we could in heavy 45-mph Silicon Valley traffic), and waved when I pulled off at work a few miles later.

Moral: how sad it is to see another car like yours but in a different color is entirely dependent on how sad the car is in the first place.

 

wspohn
wspohn SuperDork
7/18/22 9:59 a.m.

I drove an old British  car of one sort or another for most of my life as a daily driver.  MGA, MGC, TR3, Jensen Interceptors, CV8, Riley 1.5, Wolseley 6/99, Jag Mk 2 and Mk 9, and more recently I branched out - 88 Fiero GT, Solstice coupe and Z4M coupe.  All have been fine and reliable if maintained properly.

Why pay a premium for a new car that depreciates instantly as you drive it off the lot?

And for too many old car owners, 'maintenance' consists of a band-aid fix for whatever happens to be malfunctioning at the time and then waiting for something else to break instead of going through the whole car and fool proofing it properly.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
7/21/22 1:56 p.m.

Great comments. I have driven old cars cross country and have had very little trouble.

philacarguy
philacarguy New Reader
10/17/22 8:46 p.m.

I've driven an Alfa GTV6, a Jag XJS, several Fiat Spiders, and other older cars as daily drivers.  As an east coast resident, someone who until recently went to work in an office in something other than jeans and a tee shirt, and now well into middle age, air conditioning is a must.  The Jag and the Alfa, yes, they had AC, most older British cars, not likely.

 

MGARuss
MGARuss New Reader
10/19/22 11:02 a.m.

In the sidebar Carl Heideman mentions not having an alternative to the AM radio for his 66 Beetle.  I don't know if you all are aware of Out Of Sight Audio (outofsightaudio.com) but they make a bluetooth receiver/amp that operates on 6-24 volts, positive or negative ground.  It has no controls and is designed to be installed "out of sight".  It has a 2 channel output so you do have to install two speakers somewhere (Retrosound makes a dual voice coil 5.25" stereo speaker in a single speaker frame).  When you power it up, it connects to your phone and you can play any music from your phone and that is where you control the volume.  I have one in my 1960 MGA with the Retrosound speaker and it is a great solution.

james wattwood
james wattwood
1/10/23 12:14 p.m.

Just chiming in that you can indeed live with a classic.  My first car was a 1967 MGBGT hand me down from my sister.   54k miles on a primrose model with overdrive (luxury!).  I only drove it to 184K miles before having an accident that totaled it.  

I changed the brakes pads on Beach St in Daytona when they started squeaking.  I pushed started it a few times when I had to.  Did the rings, bearings, and valve job at 125K with my dad learning many skills from him that I still use today.  Replaced the layshaft  and needle bearings along with 1st and second gear somewhere along the way.  Rebuilt the generator, replaced voltage regulator.  New throttle shafts for the SUs.  Replaced several rear wheel cylinders. All the rest was very basic maintenace. 

For the driving pleasure and basic transportation, it was a wonderful.  Cheap, stone simple and never, ever left me stranded...... and so cool for a young guy....

I still drive classics today and think nothing of putting them on the road for 100+ mile trips.   In fact, my bugeye and I make the same trip depicted in this article from time to time out of Ormond FL.

Tony W

New Smyrna Beach, FL

69 Lotus Elan S4SE 

69 Lotus Europa S2

60 Austin Healey Bugeyed Sprite

74 Suzuki Titan T500 2-stroke

GeoWeb
GeoWeb New Reader
6/17/23 11:44 a.m.

I've just bought an 18-year old Miata with low mileage as a 'collector' type of car. I do plan to use it for trips to car events. This article and the comments are encouraging.

peterpan3201
peterpan3201 New Reader
11/19/23 3:56 p.m.

Nov 19 2023, about 10 years ago I found a Volvo 122s with 44k on the speedo, it needed brake work and tires a tune up and I located some recaro's. The original seats were split at the seams. I drove it semi regularly , and then got a street performance cam ,ported and polished the head. Added double valve springs a header ,3 inch exhaust and some 2 inch lowering springs. Some wheel spacer for Fuchs wheels staggered tires 205 rear 195 front. I never touched the paint. Changed the steering wheel ,added a school bus stop light for a third brake light and installed it on the rear package shelf behind my head . Added some triumph giant velocity stacks on the SU's built some  cylindrical foam air cleaners .installed an am fm radio and some driving lights. I drive it almost every day except during or after snow( mag chloride ) the BMW gets that duty. It so fun to drive, keeps up with modern traffic but has charm. It can be done but pick a solid ,reliable platform.

ddavidv
ddavidv UltimaDork
11/20/23 7:56 a.m.

My 1966 Ford Falcon could easily be a daily driver.  As simple as a rock, built of parts you can find almost anywhere. Comfortable, roomy yet not too big. The 200 six is...adequate. The impending 302 swap will make it much easier to merge into highway traffic and climb hills. No power anything to break or leak. Not a sports car, but with a big front sway bar it will do what you ask of it. 

Imported cars of the period were much more finnicky, made of less durable materials in many cases and parts aren't typically behind the counter at Autozone. I've done my time with British and Italian sports cars and am enjoying the simple engineering of the Made In USA Ford.

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