Puppy Love

Much like that puppy with those big, brown eyes that you first saw down at the pound, another classic car has followed you home. Once again, you just couldn’t say no. And like that puppy, your latest find is cute and lovable, but it also needs a bath and some care.

This one’s also a bit different from the last big project you tackled. It’s not the abandoned mutt you found last time. It’s not a pedigree, either, but at least this one is presentable. It won’t leave big stains on the floor. It runs. It doesn’t smell too bad, either. And just a few weekends’ work will make it exactly what you want—a good looking, reliable classic.

How do you proceed? Well, a good cleanup, some inspection and a little attention might be all that it needs. Follow along as we detail these steps with our latest version of man’s best friend, a 1971 Innocenti Mini Cooper.

License and Registration

Before even taking possession of the car, make sure the paperwork is lined up. There’s nothing worse than having an uninsured car fall off a trailer during the ride home.

Registering and insuring a classic can be a lot less expensive than you’d think. For one, several companies specialize in insurance for classic cars. Yes, they probably have mileage restrictions, but the rates are very tasty. Don’t be surprised when a quote for full coverage insurance on your classic comes back for much less than a similar policy for a normal family sedan.

You’ll also need to register the vehicle, and many states offer special plates for historical, antique or collector cars, often with discounted rates. The key is to request one of these plates when at the DMV office, as it might not be an automatic process.

Want to be really trick? See if your state allows older cars to run year-of-manufacture plates. We can do this in our home state of Florida. Including the annual renewal, the total cost for this procedure was about $35 on the Mini. (We bought a good 1971 Florida plate via eBay for $4.99.)

Start With a Good Bath

No matter how clean your car is when you get it, you should set out to make it cleaner. Once home, give it the wash of its lifetime.

Start at the local pay-and-spray quarter car wash and focus on the engine bay and underbody. Watch out for peeling paint, old decals, loose trim and dried-out rubber, however, as the high-pressure spray will probably blow them to smithereens. On the plus side, you’ll uncover every leak in the car.

Next, go home and hit it with your favorite hose and bucket to get the outside looking great. Then vacuum the interior, trunk and all the nooks and crannies that undoubtedly hold 30-plus years of gunk. Give the wheels and tires some love, too, and maybe work on the fenderwells while you’re down there.

The purpose of this bath is more than just to shine up your new prize—it’s to start a good visual inspection of every square inch. During this inspection, you’ll be taking notes—maybe in your mind, maybe on paper—about the condition of everything you see. Hopefully, as you add some luster to your new pet, you’ll get happier and happier, knowing you made the right choice.

Now Go Deep

The bath gave you a chance to make a preliminary inspection, but now it’s time to go deep. Remember, the previous owner sold the car for a reason. Maybe he or she was getting bored—or maybe the car had some problems, ones disclosed by the seller or ones you’ll eventually uncover.

Often, as previous owners start thinking about selling a car, they start to let the maintenance go. Your job now is to look into the car and find any problems and deferred maintenance that need to be addressed. Your priorities are simple: safety, drivability, comfort and cosmetics.

Safety First

First, you want to check everything that affects your safety. Start with the brakes and then check out the tires, suspension, fuel system and electrics.

Look for things that leak, have visual wear or look too wet or too dry. Also be on the lookout for repairs that look unprofessional—bailing wire and duct tape are clues that a DIY fix might need some attention.

We see a lot of classics riding on tires that are older than they look. Just because there’s plenty of tread doesn’t mean that they’re still good. The rubber and other materials used to build tires degrade over time. After six or eight years, most tires are due for a replacement, regardless of wear. (An article explaining how to decipher the date codes used by tire manufacturers can be found in the Tire Tech section of The Tire Rack’s Web site, tirerack.com.)

Brakes also need to be addressed. How old is the fluid? Don’t know? Change it. Most brake fluid absorbs moisture over time, lowering the boiling point and causing all kinds of problems, from rusty components to a spongy pedal. Quality brake fluid doesn’t cost too much and is available at any auto parts store. Brake bleeding is often a two-person job, but it will allow you to share the fun of owning a classic with someone else. Remember, it’s pump, pump, pump, hold.

If you find anything wrong or suspect during this inspection process, address these issues immediately, as these flaws can be dangerous. You bought this car to enjoy it, and getting hurt or hurting someone is not going to help you meet this goal.

Drivability and Comfort

Next, you want to inspect the things that affect drivability: ignition, carbs, filters and anything else that makes the engine purr or the shifter catch each gear with a nice click. You’ll be wise to address these quickly, as well, since you won’t enjoy your new prize nearly as much if it’s coughing or sputtering during your evening drives.

A lot of drivability problems can be traced to ignition problems. Before you disassemble the carburetors or call in a witch doctor, break out the timing light and do a good tune-up. We detailed this process in Issue 116. Don’t have that issue handy? Just for you, we’ll post it online at classicmotorsports.net.

Now is also a good time to tackle that deferred maintenance. For about a hundred dollars, you should be able to do an oil change and replace the spark plugs and plug wires. Not only will this help get the car up to snuff, but it will also allow you to test a supplier. Would you rather have a problem with a hundred dollar order or a really big one?

Comfort follows. Is the shift knob tight? Do the mirrors rattle? How do the seat cushions feel? Are the seat adjusters moving freely or are they rusted in place? Do the turn signals cancel properly? Are there rattles or other annoyances that you can address? Fix them soon, or you’ll have less love for your new pet.

How’s It Look?

Finally, we can address the cosmetics. Why wait until you’ve finished the other steps? Primarily because we’ve found that a safe, good-driving, comfortable car is often much more fun than a pristine rattletrap with bad brakes—not to mention that the pristine rattletrap with bad brakes will likely have a big dent in the nose pretty soon if you’re not careful.

Another good reason to wait on the cosmetics is that they’re often pretty expensive. Before you start laying out some big change for new paint, upholstery or chrome, you should make sure that your car is enjoyable enough to be worth the investment. Besides, while mechanical investments often pay off fairly proportionately to a car’s value, cosmetic investments tend to be a losing venture—spending $1500 on new chrome and $5000 on a paint job might only add about $3500 value to your MGB, Mini or TR6. Keep this in mind before you start dolling up your baby.

Now Drive It. A Lot

Just as a new pet will love attention and exercise, so will your new classic. Plan on a lot of seat time to get to know your car and to put it through its paces.

Drive it whenever you can, not only to continue maximizing your enjoyment, but to get to know its personality. As you get more comfortable with your new classic, you’ll know which corners you can throw it into, where to shift as you accelerate into traffic, where its edges are as you move from lane to lane, and when to hit the whoa pedal to stop with controlled confidence. In addition, you might notice a few things you missed during the inspection, giving you more chances to address the issues and keep the car at its best.

Make Friends Online

No, we’re not talking about those kinds of friends. For just about every classic ever produced, there is a specific Internet message board or club filled with enthusiastic supporters, tech gurus and all-around nice people who’ll help you learn more about your car.

You can start your online journey at our site, classicmotorsports.net. We have a friendly message board as well as a big list of clubs.

Once you find a club that specializes in your chosen car, you might want to lurk around for a little while to get a feel for the board’s culture. Soon after, jump on in and post an introduction telling the members about your car—you’ll find the broad community very helpful over time.

Make Friends in a Club

And no, we’re not talking about that kind of club. Just as there are message boards and Web sites for just about every kind of car, so are there clubs. Join one or more.

For most cars, there is a local club as well as a national or international one. Find the one that best meets your needs, join and take advantage of this community, as well. You’ll usually find a lot of friendly people ready to help with technical matters. It’s also a great way to find out about local outings and just bench race about cars like yours.

Add Some Upgrades

Up until now, all you’ve done is clean up someone else’s car and catch up on its maintenance. Now it’s time to make it yours.

Maybe it’s time for a new set of wheels and tires, or to spring for a nice steering wheel. Perhaps you’ll add that fancy exhaust or a cloth top. Or maybe you’ll wake it up with a supercharger or other performance enhancement. Now that you’ve gotten to know your new classic, you’ll know just how to customize it.

Need some ideas? Start flipping through this magazine. There are tons of companies ready to help you personalize your latest classic, whether that means giving the car a shinier coat or a louder bark.

Know When to Call the Pros

Just as you would take your new pet to the vet from time to time, don’t forget that sometimes professional help is useful for your new classic. Whenever you’re feeling a little uncomfortable with your car or your abilities, consider a pro to help keep your car safe, reliable and pretty.

A pro’s experience is also very helpful just before or after a purchase. Someone with a little more experience will probably better spot the problems and can make sure you’re going to be able to rely on your new friend.

Show It Off

Now that your car’s in tiptop shape and you’ve got a good community around you, it’s time for you to show your car to others. Find a few shows and head out.

Don’t feel that you have to jump in with both feet and go to a national show. Look for some nearby shows—maybe the local British car club is having a field meet, or there’s a cruise night where the muscle car owners would get a kick out of your tiny European classic.

Even if your car isn’t cosmetically perfect, you’ll find it welcomed at most events and you’ll get to hang around more car people. You might have to try several times to find a show that fits your style, but give it a shot—you’ll enjoy it. Plus it beats another night spent on the couch.

Now Go Have Fun

You didn’t drag that puppy home from the pound to fight it. You did it to have fun. The same thing should be true of your classic. If you treat your classic like you do your puppy, you should have many years of fun ahead of you.

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