Living With A Classic : Part Six
Preparing Your Home For Adoption
I remember the first puppy I ever adopted. I was completely unprepared. I figured that I didn't need all the training aids and how-to books, and that I could just be a man and teach this little guy on my own. Not to mention, I thought that any puppy I adopted would naturally be smart enough not to poop on my shoes, or chew on my guitars. Oh, how wrong I was. Within days, I realized I was in way over my head, and needed the help of the big guns. I hightailed it to the closest pet store and laid down my credit card for a bounty of puppy specific aids. Books, beds, toys, diapers, newspapers, pee pads, you name it. They helped, but it was too little, too late. I was woefully out of my depth, and I paid the price for many years because of it. The bad habits multiplied quickly, and though my love for that dog was always unmatched, Parveaux (that was his name) was a daily reminder to swallow my pride and be prepared next time, if there was a next time. Indeed, there were many next times.
Classic cars aren't much like puppies. They don't piss in the house (usually), and they don't bite your neighbor's kid (usually). But they certainly test your patience, and they absolutely require your constant attention. Problems, like bad habits, will often multiply if you don't nip them in the bud right away, and if you're unprepared for them at the outset, you'll find yourself always playing catch up, when it's least desired.
Signed, Sealed, Delivered
So your new car is chosen and paid for, and soon to be in your stead. What next? Well, this is where we refer back to what kind of classic car owner you want to be. Even if you fancy yourself the 'clean hands' type, much of this will apply. And if you're the steadfast and stubborn DIY type, then congrats to you, and welcome to our ever shrinking ranks. No matter where you fall, much of this will hopefully be helpful in preparing you for your 'gotcha day' and beyond.
First things first, you've got to have a place to park the thing. I can't even count how many people I've known, myself included, who have bought a classic car only to get it home and realize "Oh shit. Where do I keep it when I'm not driving it?". This seems so utterly obvious, yet it's sadly not. Make sure that if you haven't got a nice dry garage, you at least have a decent spot to keep it, that has dry ground and hopefully some kind of cover. If there's no cover, buy a car cover, and one that is all weather. Skimping out on a cover is just about the worst idea in the world, especially after throwing down good money on it. And even if you have a garage, a cover is still a good idea, to keep dust and critters out during the winter months.
Do your best to keep the car on anything but dirt. Soil has moisture and the reality of physics is that moisture will always find a way into the undercarriage of your new friend, over and over. Investigate storage options elsewhere too. There are sometimes garages for rent in your town, or even dedicated storage facilities that accept vehicles. Either way, make sure you have a relatively dry place to keep your friend out of the elements as much as possible. This cannot be stressed enough, even if it's seemingly obvious.
Insure Your Investment
Naturally, you'll need to insure your new classic. No matter where you live, you'll need to have insurance to legally drive the thing, and it's nice to have insurance even if it's not driveable yet. Damage doesn't only happen on the road. Most people don't realize that classic car insurance is usually stupidly cheap, at least compared to normal insurance. This is where the help of specialists is advantageous. Rather than insuring your car through the same company that insures your daily driver, first go directly to companies that specialize in classics and collectibles. Even if your car is a beater right now, if it's considered a classic or a collectible, it applies.
Companies like Hagerty, American Collectors, and Grundy offer classic-specific coverage with a host of other amenities like roadside assistance, spare parts coverage, and service discounts. They're all a little different, and offer something more to various types of owners, but they're all worth a look. The thing to remember is that most of these companies will require, or prefer, that your car is garage kept, and that it's not your daily driver. Each of them will offer different caps on mileage, and different plans for each car, so it's worth investigating before signing on the dotted line.
One thing to look for and to make sure you have, is unlimited towing and roadside assistance. Trust me, this can't be overstated. Twice in one week, I used my unlimited towing for my 1979 BMW 733i, because the ignition module had crapped out. I had to first tow it home to suss out the problem, and then when I couldn't, I needed to tow it to the shop. Hagerty never balked, and both times it was picked up within an hour, and safely brought to its destination, without a dime leaving my pocket. Can't beat that.
This doesn't mean that the big guys like Progressive, Geico, and State Farm aren't worth looking at. In fact, all of them offer policies for classic cars. I've never personally gone this route, simply because I'm quite happy to deal with a company that only does one thing. But it may make sense for you, if you need more flexibility, or perhaps it offers something that the specialists don't.
The single greatest thing about classic car insurance, is that your investment is truly protected. They all offer coverage that makes you whole in the event of a total loss, and they don't pull the same tricks as normal insurance, where they only cover the cash value. I've been fortunate enough never to have a large claim on any of my old cars, but rumour has it they actually do cover the value, if you need it. That's pretty good peace of mind to have, especially if you've got a bunch of money tied up in the thing.
For any car that you decide to bring home, there is at least one thing you absolutely need to get, and that is a repair manual. A repair manual is really the one thing that will save your ass many times over. It's impossible to say this enough. It is the bible of car repair, especially if you're the dirty handed DIY type.
The gold standard of repair manuals is a 'Factory Service Manual' for your car. This is essentially what every company sent out to its dealerships and mechanics, in order to repair any and every problem for each car they made. They're sometimes only found in original form on Ebay or other online sites, and other times you can find either reprints or electronic PDF versions from various suppliers, and even the local chapter of your car club. Because they tend to be quite large and in some cases, very rare, FSMs are often expensive, running anywhere from $50-$300.
The one difficulty of these factory manuals is that because they're written for seasoned factory mechanics who already know many vehicle specific procedures, some of the detail may go unmentioned, leaving you in the dark as to how to do certain seemingly simple things. For instance, in writing about how to replace a harness, BMW may have assumed that a factory trained BMW mechanic would already know to use that one special tool to remove that one special piece - a detail that they neglect to mention to you, the weekend spanner. That can be frustrating, but it doesn't devalue the utility of these manuals. In fact, they can still come in handy even when you're stumped and need to hire the help of a shop. It may give them a head start in diagnosing and fixing any number of issues that you can't sort out, saving you money and time.
The other more common and affordable type of repair manual is the classic Haynes, Chilton, or Clymer manual. I've found that these manuals are sometimes less than ideal, but they can be fantastic, depending on the car. They sometimes cover multiple models in one volume, which can either be good or bad, and they usually are written with the DIY mechanic in mind, making them easier to understand and sometimes more useful. They typically have loads of pictures and blown-up schematics of various parts and procedures, helping save time and headaches.
The unfortunate problem is that there is no such manual for a lot of cars. Some of the transitional years or less desirable models will have no companion service manual by any of these companies, and that makes things well, interesting. That's where we refer back to the Factory Manual, if you can find it. It may be the only hope you have for servicing various issues. Fortunately though, many of the stranger cars do share many of the same bits as the more common models, so you can sometimes poke your way through, using a manual from a similar car. It can be a crapshoot when you get into the weirder and less common cars, so pick your battles wisely, as they say.
Tools Of The Trade
Any self respecting car lover is likely to have at least some tools at their disposal. The requisite socket set, screwdriver selection, and a handful of carelessly scattered open ended wrenches. Maybe you even have a toolbox to keep them in. The reality is, you'll need to prepare to spend some time revamping your toolset, and set some money aside to buy some critical items that will always be useful.
It goes without saying that there will likely be some specific tools you'll need over the course of owning any given car. Perhaps it's a timing chain remover that only works on a 1981-85 Mercedes SL, or a bracket puller for a 1983 Porsche. it could be the case that some of these really specific tools are just too costly to purchase for the one time you'll ever use them. In that case, I can't help you other than to suggest doing the math, and deducing if its easier to have your local shop do the job. But for the rest of the car, you'll likely just need the standard fare tools that can be bought in any Lowes or Home Depot. Hell, even Harbor Freight isn't half bad sometimes. There's no need to discuss normal workshop tools here, but it may be useful to discuss some tools that are very helpful to have around.
One tool that every classic car owner should have, is a good voltmeter. I use mine probably twice a week, diagnosing electrical shorts, or even just to confirm that an alternator is sending out the right voltage. A good voltmeter is like a good pair of hiking shoes. Nothing else will do when that's the problem at hand. It will save you time, money, and headache. Not to mention, they're useful for the home, in general. While you're at it, grab a test light too. While not as specific as a voltmeter, they're useful every day in a multitude of tasks, from setting ignition timing to quickly checking electrical continuity on any connection.
Another bit that I think is critical, is a handheld infrared thermometer. It may not be an obvious contender for tool of the year, but the fact is, once you have one you'll use it often, and you'll realize how handy it is. They're indispensable for troubleshooting cooling system issues as well as some electrical shorts, in the event they start a fire or create heat somewhere hidden. They can come in handy too, for sorting out climate issues in a heating or A/C system. Just point, press the trigger, and get the temperature of whatever you're pointing at. So obvious and simple, yet forgotten.
Then there is the compression tester. Without question, this is one of the most helpful tools you'll ever own. Aside from the obvious task of checking compression on a suspect cylinder, it's very helpful to tell a prospective buyer what the compression is in the event of selling a car. Of course, you can't even think about rebuilding an engine without one. A compression test will give you critical information about the the valves, pistons, and rings, and in the event of an engine failure, it's your first line of attack in solving the problem.
Lastly, may I suggest an auto stethoscope? Yep, a stethoscope. There will come a time when something in your car starts clicking or tapping or rattling, and you just can't find the source. That's exactly when you whip out your trusty stethoscope and give a listen. You'll not only be one step closer to fixing the noise, but I can guarantee you'll be like a kid with a new toy, running around and putting it everywhere to listen to all the crazy sounds in your engine. It's actually a lot of fun, and informative, hearing oil and coolant slush from one place to the next, or the clacking of a valve spring. It's really one of the most helpful tools you can buy, and they're cheap as dirt.
If I think hard enough, I imagine I could fill another several paragraphs of things to do and procure before you adopt your classic car. And like anything car related, there will be no shortage of opinions even on this matter. Just use your head, talk to other friends, borrow things you can borrow, and buy the things you can afford, before your car pulls into your garage. That way, you're not always playing catch up while your new car sits there waiting for you to get your act together.
That's it for now. Enjoy and congratulations.