How much knowledge do you need to keep antique/vintage cars running?
July 1, 2004 11:19 AM   Subscribe

I love old cars from the 50s and 60s - especially pickup trucks - and I've always dreamed of owning one. Unfortunately my auto expertise is limited to oil changes and, vaguely, what a carburateur does. I assume you have to have a lot of knowledge to keep an antique car running. Then again, they are much simpler machines than modern vehicles. Right? Where would you recommend picking up the necessary know-how?

Of course, knowing how to spell carburetor is beyond me. As a bonus, I live in the desert, so there are lots of old cars around - they last forever out here. But how do you pick a non-clunker old car? And I hear that replacement parts are pretty easy to find - lots of places make them. Is this right? Would this just be a rolling money pit?
posted by gottabefunky to Shopping (8 answers total)
You might find a decent class or two by looking around at an adult education school and/or vocational school. I'm sure they won't teach you on antiques, but if you're really just getting off the ground, an introduction might help. I don't know if DeVry does auto repair, but I'm sure some do. Ask a local mechanic.
posted by scarabic at 11:56 AM on July 1, 2004

If money is no object (or less of an object), you can find fully restored 50s and 60s trucks with modern engines, suspensions, and transmissions fairly easily. I would guess something like a '56 big window Chevy pickup would tend to run pretty well with a new engine and not be too much of a headache to drive (beyond the terrible gas mileage those old heavy trucks get). But buying one like this would probably set you back about $20k.
posted by mathowie at 11:58 AM on July 1, 2004

trharlan - so you're saying this might be something you could pick up yourself, from books? That's my usual m.o.
posted by gottabefunky at 11:59 AM on July 1, 2004

I think that your best bet may be to figure out which car you want (make, model, maybe year) and then find people who know all about it. There are lots of people who are passionate about their cars and are excited to help others out. They will know what to look for in a car to ensure it's not a junker, where to find the parts, etc.
posted by Coffeemate at 12:08 PM on July 1, 2004

Look around your area for some local car clubs. You'll either find them on the internet or check a local parts store. Most clubs allow non-owners to join.

Think about the make of old car/truck you might be most interested in as that can lead you in a specific direction. Often you'll find the type that fits your personal philosophy/personality will be the most fun to own. My experience is that Chevy owners tend to go in the custom rod direction, Dodge/Mopar owners are about stock speed and Ford people are generally stock restorers. Of course, there are no absolutes.

Stay away from power seats/windows/locks, etc. The simpler the car is the less hassles you will potentially run into.

Some of the nicest people I know I met through car clubs.

I own and drive daily, (my only vehicle), a 1959 Edsel Ranger 2dr Sedan. My gf is still suprised and tickled when we are constantly given the thumbs up or waved at when driving somewhere. Driving an old car changes the way you drive, no more anonymity can cut down on your aggressive driving. No one wants to be that a-hole in the old car. My car has a very simple 6-cylinder engine with a single barrel carburator that is almost completely Ford parts, very easy to find. Well, mostly.

I am also very fortunate in that I have an excellent mechanic whom I trust implicitly.
posted by geekyguy at 12:12 PM on July 1, 2004

Oh - and any recommendations on books? Thanks.

Matt, that is just the sort of vehicle I drool over.
posted by gottabefunky at 12:21 PM on July 1, 2004

I grew up in a "car club" family... My father always had a project going in the garage. For the most part, everything he had back then was pre-1948, but he's branching out a bit now.... his club now lets anything before 1960 come in without a problem. He always has a "street-rod" and an all-original, so I got an early education on both sides of the classic car spectrum.
Working on old cars is actually a lot easier than some may think - books, videos, and the internet will help out a lot. Still, getting under the hood and starting with your hands on the metal works best. You'll make a lot of mistakes, but you will learn from them.
I'm working on a 1941 Willis Coupe at the moment - although I have owned and sold a few in the past. My last project from start to finish was a 1941 Ford Convertible, and before that I had a '39 Mercury. There's an old Mustang sitting in my barn that I take out every once in a while as well.
Be prepared for a lot of blood, sweat and tears - and a hell of a good feeling once it's all done.
posted by bradth27 at 4:23 PM on July 1, 2004

Working on cars is very similar to working on computers: foriegn if you don't know what you're doing, dead-easy if you do. I had been frustrated at my many years of purposeful ignorance about automobiles, so I finally took matters into my own hands. This is what I did.

First, I made friends with a guy who works in an auto repair shop. I used to be intimidated by "gear heads" in high school, but honestly these people are some of the nicest, easy-going, straight-shooters you'll ever meet. I offered my assistance on the weekends for free -- he got help in the shop, I learned what goes on under the hood.

At some point you're going to have to decide whether you're really serious about restoration, or whether you just want to have something you can fix when it breaks down. Restoration basically means two things: cleaning and more cleaning. The biggest pain-in-the-ass about any restoration project is body work. All that engine stuff may seem daunting to the unitiated, but it's actually the fun part. The bitch is working on body panels (removing rust, filling holes, etc.)

Now, there are some things you should probably just leave to professionals (paint work, convertible fabrication, chroming, etc.), but there is one thing that you really need to learn how to do just because any project is likely to require a lot of it: welding. It's not nearly as hard as it seems, and almost any local community college offers courses in basic welding. This is the one skill you'll have to pay for to get good at.

Besides that, you probably already have all the necessary skills for the rest of a restoration project. The biggy, the skill that everyone needs to have, everyone has already, but is so seldom implemented is organization. Keep your project organized, and everything else is easy. Really.

And remember: fixing up an older car is so rewarding because with older cars, you can actually fix the cars. New cars suck to work on -- computer-controlled-this-and-that just separates you from the basics of how a car works. Older cars are awesome because they're so simple. Gas+Oxygen+Spark = Ignition+Power+Exhaust. That's it.

I wish you the best of luck in your endeavor -- if you have any specific questions, feel free to ask.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:19 PM on July 1, 2004

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