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Restoring a Vintage Car Radiator

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

As any budding vintage car restorer knows, in order for a vintage car to run smoothly and reliably, the radiator really needs to be in optimum condition and fully functional. A leaky, damaged radiator can lead to overheating problems, as the poor condition can affect the radiator's ability to dissipate heat. So basically, if a problematic radiator is left to rust and rot, then the likelihood is that eventually the engine will become damaged and the car won't get you very far!

Vintage cars have had many years to be exposed to the elements, all of which can damage the body and metalwork in some way, both inside and out. So if you've managed to purchase a vintage car, it goes without saying that unless you want a major restoration project, try to opt for a well-cared car that has had as little weather exposure as possible. After all, prevention is always a better option than trying to find a cure!

Defining the Problem

If you have decided that your vintage car radiator is salvageable, and not a simple matter of finding a replacement, then you'll need to run a few 'diagnostic' tests to find out if there are any problem areas that could affect the radiator's performance.

One of the most common and visible complaints associated with vintage car radiators is rust. A simple but important examination of the radiator will reveal whether the radiator has fallen foul to rust. It's worth bearing in mind that even a radiator that is just corroded on the outside can malfunction.

If the rust hasn't caused any holes and leaks (see below), then you could try gently removing it with a stiff brush. A wire brush could be far too harsh, and might actually damage the radiator. An application of specialised radiator paint or sealant will also help to seal the metal and protect it from any further corrosion.

Some radiators may feature a complex matrix of metal strips. These are designed to increase the radiator's surface area, thereby enabling it to transfer heat to the surrounding air more efficiently. Removal of rust from these radiators can be a far more time consuming job. In these cases, a good alternative would be to apply rust converter liquid. This will minimise the risk of causing further damage that's always present when using harsh abrasives.

Checking for Leaks and Cracks

Leaks and cracks are some of the most common problems associated with radiators. This is due to fluctuations in temperature, which constantly forces the metal to expand and contract.

Special repair products are available for the home mechanic to block small leaks, such as Radweld. Before attempting any kind of repair, it's always a good idea to flush the radiator out, until the water runs clear, as rusty deposits will have undoubtedly built up internally over time. These "repairs in a bottle" are generally only considered a temporary solution, owing to the harsh operating environment of a typical engine bay.

In more severe cases, the radiator may need to be taken to a specialist repairer. They will typically weld up any holes and repair obvious signs of corrosion. A radiator pressure test may be carried out to check for any minor leaks, which can then be repaired. These can easily be missed when merely conducting a simple visual inspection.

Radiator Caps

It's important not to overlook the condition of your car's radiator cap. Aside from keeping the water inside the radiator, the radiator cap also regulates the pressure inside the radiator. A malfunctioning radiator cap could cause the pressure to become either too high, or too low, within the cooling system. A typical symptom of a faulty radiator cap is the coolant starting to boil. Replacement radiator caps for vintage cars are still fairly easy to come by - a quick search on the Internet to source the right cap should prove successful.


A really cold spell can sometimes spell disaster for the ill-prepared vintage car owner. When water freezes, it also expands. If the water coolant inside your car's engine and radiator freezes, the pressure resulting from its expansion is enough to cause serious cracks. It's therefore important to prevent this from happening by adding suitable anti-freeze coolant. This alters the physical properties of the water causing it to boil at a higher temperature and freeze at a lower temperature.

It's vitally important to use the correct type, and dilution, of anti-freeze. Some anti-freeze solutions are only suitable for certain types of metal. If used inappropriately, some anti-freeze coolants may actually cause corrosion instead of guarding against it.

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