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Having Your Vintage Car Serviced

By: Lucy Debenham BA (hons) - Updated: 15 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Service Vintage Car Servicing Vintage

If you want to drive your vintage car on a public highway, as with any other motor vehicle, and despite it's age, by law your car will have had to have passed it's MOT. Whilst an MOT ensures that a car will drive safely, it doesn't necessarily guarantee that your car is running as efficiently as it could. A good thorough car service will delve more deeply and make sure that there are no underlying problems, as well as checking general wear and tear and fine-tuning your car.

A service is especially important with vintage cars, as their age can make them more susceptible to the deteriorating effects of time. Although most vintage car owners will keep their vehicles under cover to protect them from the elements, a service is still a good idea as there are other factors that can cause a loss of condition, such as corrosive road salts, damp, dust, prolonged inactivity or regular general use of the car.

Where to Go?

It is generally recommended to have your car fully serviced each year. There are a number of specialist classic and vintage car garages that will perform the service for you. If you haven't signed up already, it's definitely worth joining a vintage car club, whether at a local or national level. This will allow you to contact and meet other vintage car owners who may be able to recommend a garage or mechanic.

However, if space and time allows, you could always perform a service on your vintage car yourself. Although the specifics of a full service will obviously depend on your make and model of car and your thoroughness, there are some basic checks that you can carry out yourself that could qualify as a service in-between your regular maintenance checks.

DIY Car Service - Oil

One of the first things you can check is your oil. If it's thick and black or you know that it hasn't been changed in a long time, then it's probably a good idea to do a complete oil change, including the oil filter. Remember that vintage cars require heavy-grade oil, as light-grade oils for modern engines don't lubricate the old vintage engines enough. You should NEVER pour old oil down a sink or drain - it is illegal and a dangerous pollutant. Bottle it up and take it to your nearest tidy tip or contact your local council for more information on oil disposal.

If your car's oil level is unexpectedly low, this is usually an indication that there is a crack or leak in the sump or engine. To locate the 'breach' you can either perform a visual inspection, or alternatively try a compression test using a pressure tester. A lack of pressure in a particular cylinder can indicate a worn or broken piston ring, which can cause the oil to leak into the combustion chamber. If the car's exhaust is giving off blue smoke, then this is also an indication that the engine is burning oil. In this instance you should check all piston rings and cylinder head valve seals for wear and tear or cracks, and replace as necessary.

You should also check the oil filler cap for any creamy white deposits. The presence of these deposits can be a sign of a leaking gasket, where water is mixing with the oil.

Spark Plugs and Carburettors

As part of your DIY service it's a very good idea to check your spark plugs. If they are black and sooty, then the fuel/air mixture may be too rich, with too much fuel. Alternatively, if the spark plugs are spotless or have white deposits then the mixture may be too lean (too much air). You can adjust and balance your carburettors to correct the fuel/air ratio.


There are many checks you can undertake to check for signs of corrosion. Check all structural components such as the chassis and sills for signs or rust and corrosion. The bodywork should also be checked thoroughly inside and out for signs of rust, not forgetting to check under any carpets and floor panels. Any signs of rust should be treated and repaired as soon as possible.

Vintage car water pipes, and in particular radiators, can be vulnerable to rust and corrosion, so a thorough visual inspection is always in order. Any problem areas and leaks can be welded or repaired with a product such as Radweld.

Brakes are also susceptible to corrosion and wear, so as part of your vintage car DIY service you should always check for damage in this area, and replace and repair as necessary. Holes in break pipes, leaking brake fluid, slack in the handbrake cable and general corrosion can all cause major problems and prove dangerous if left.

One last corrosion check should be in any wiring, particularly around the headlamps. Fiddling with wiring can open a can of worms if you're not sure what you're doing; so only take this job on yourself if you feel that you'll be adept. Otherwise, leave this to the professionals, as vintage car wiring can prove to be a big messy nightmare.

And Lastly…

Check that all the car's tyres are in a good condition - this check is also performed as part of an MOT, but it's still worth checking in-between MOT tests. If you have the time and the proper facilities, for better access you could always take each wheel off the car and check the tyres thoroughly this way.

You should also make sure that the steering arms, steering wheel and steering box are all in good working order and there is no excessive 'play'. Any cracks, bends or corrosion must be treated immediately. One final DIY service check is that the lights are working properly. If a bulb appears to be faulty, then it may be a problem with the wiring.

All in all, professionals will undertake the most thorough vintage car services, as they have all the necessary equipment to carry out scrupulous checks in a safe environment. If you're unsure about tackling a problem or particular element of the DIY service to your vintage car, ask an expert, consult a book, or simply leave it to the professionals. Tinkering with a vintage car when you're not really sure what you're doing could damage both you and your car!

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