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Top 10 tips to make your car nicer to drive

11 May 2015

We love old cars, but sometimes they’re not the best to drive, so here are some top tips to get them up to scratch without breaking the bank

Spending money on parts of your car that you can’t see, or that don’t give it more performance can often feel like a chore. But sometimes spending money where it’s not seen is the best investment you can make in your older vehicle. And while it may hurt paying the bill at the time, the reality is that it can cost a lot to improve how your vehicle feels, but it’s expenditure that you can reclaim in the asking price, as potential buyers will notice and be willing to pay more, not that this will be what’s on your mind once you’ve got it driving well, mind you.

While some of the following tips may seem stupidly obvious, some vehicle owners tend to turn a blind eye to them, or decide to live with the issues, when the fix is most likely a simple one. Obviously we didn’t bother with the complete basics, nor the things that regular maintenance should cover, as we’d like to think attending to these goes without saying.

And if you’ve got some tips of your own, we’d love to hear them — just comment at the bottom of this article.

1. Get in balance

Every front-engined, rear-wheel-drive car has a driveshaft leading from the transmission, back to the diff. More often than not, it’s something that people take for granted and never bother looking at. We all assume that our driveshaft has been built by someone who knows what they’re doing, and built with the correct components, and has never been damaged.

However, this isn’t always the case. If you notice a shudder or vibration when on the open road, or at a particular point in the rev range, your driveshaft may very well be out of balance, or worse, have a bend in it. The only way to really know is by pulling it from the car, and getting a driveshaft specialist to run it up on their purpose-built balancers. The cost to have it balanced will be bugger all, but the improvement in interior comfort and ride quality will be significant. 

2. Insulate

Just because your car is old, doesn’t mean that it needs to be uncomfortable. Fitting insulation such as Dynamat (or similar brands) to your vehicle will be one of the biggest differences you can make to your driving enjoyment. Whereas modern cars have a lot of insulation in them to keep road noise at bay, many old cars do not. Or what they did have from the factory has either been removed, or simply isn’t up to the task any more. There are plenty of options available, depending on how much heat or noise you’d like to block, or how much you’re willing to spend.

The best value-for-money option is to cover the firewall, and work your way back. Most brands offer different products specifically for heat and for noise suppression, which can be used individually, or together for maximum effect. Insulation makes cars feel more solid by stiffening the sheet metal reducing reverberation, and making your interior a quiet, comfortable cruising environment. It also helps to eliminate engine and exhaust noise.

The thermal insulation–type products are great to eliminate both heat from the engine bay/firewall, and also from the exhaust and transmission, but they can also be used on the roof to help keep the sun’s heat away from the interior during summer. The products are generally self-adhesive, and can be applied at home by even a novice DIY enthusiast. 

3. All in line

There are wheel alignments, and then there are real wheel alignments. Chances are if you’ve got an older vehicle that it won’t be listed on the modern computerized wheel alignment system that most people rely on these days. But if you’ve got an experienced and knowledgeable technician, they’ll have no problems getting it sorted anyway. If you’ve got a less experienced person on the job though, you may as well not bother. 

There are many specialist alignment centres around the country, that have staff both willing and able to work on older vehicles that require a bit more head scratching than today’s vehicles. With no computerised listings, the technician must know what they’re doing, to get the best set-up possible, and when they nail it, the change in the car’s drivability can be dramatic. In older vehicles with less responsive steering, the difference that a decent alignment can make could be life saving. 

4. Rubbered Up

Unless your vehicle has had a ground-up rebuild, chances are the body rubbers (which sit between the body and chassis/subframe) have never been replaced. From the factory, these would have had a bit of give in them, and would have helped to isolate the body from the harshness of the road surface. By now, they’re probably rock solid, and as flat as a pancake. There are a few options available: either take one of your existing rubbers to a mount specialist, a parts supply business, or create your own from commercially available rubber. We’ve been told that old conveyor belts, as used in the timber industry, work well, although we’d recommend pricing up the real deal first.

5. Bright lights

While American imports will have to have had their headlights changed to comply in New Zealand, chances are they’re still not as bright as those found in a modern vehicle. High Intensity Discharge (HID) lights are now increasingly common, and are easily and readily available as a retrofit item to almost any old-style headlight.

If you never intend to drive your older vehicle at night, obviously any old headlight will do, but if you intend to travel around the country, having decent (bright) lights will become a great benefit. HIDs are up to five times brighter than normal-style bulbs and emit a much cleaner white light. Kits such as the one pictured can be obtained for around $100 and take just 30 minutes or so to install. Similarly, if your taillights aren’t as bright as you’d like them to be, LED bulbs are now available for around $30 that simply fit as per a traditional taillight bulb, but offer a far brighter and safer light.

6. Shut up

On a hot summer’s day, there’s nothing like cruising with the wind in your hair. On a cold winter’s day or night though, there’s nothing more tiring than dealing with constant wind noise! The sound can be as irritating as fingers on a blackboard, yet as easily fixed as a trip to the local hardware store. While the ideal way to fix the problem is by replacing your worn-out, old window rubbers, a cheaper solution can be to add some home-style draught-stop to your existing ones. On the other hand, many auto glaziers will be able to custom-make rubbers to suit, which can often be cheaper than importing factory replacements. For about five minutes work, and $20 dollars, why wouldn’t you sort it?

7. Keep charged

There’s nothing more annoying than getting ready to take the car out, only to find that it’s got a flat battery. The reality is, old cars don’t have as many electronics as new cars, so there’s no valid reason why the battery should go flat when sitting in the garage. Of course, if it’s been sitting for months on end, the battery will naturally lose charge by itself. But over a period of a month or so, it should be good to go. 

The hardest thing with a battery that goes flat, is to isolate exactly what’s drawing the current. The best way to do this is to switch your multimeter to the fused setting, on a milliamp scale and disconnect the positive lead off the battery, placing one lead of the meter onto the terminal, and one onto the lead. Assuming there’s a current draw showing, have a friend pull the vehicle’s fuses one by one until the current-draw stops. Chances are it’s something simple, but even if it’s something you can’t fix yourself, like a faulty alternator, at least you’ve saved having the auto electrician look for the problem, and probably a few dollars off your bill too!

The other option is to invest in a battery terminal, with a built-in kill switch that isolates the battery with the turn of a knob; while if you’re intending on leaving your car sitting for a long period of time, a charging system that conditions the battery is the best option.  

8. Gauge it

If you own a car with gauges that do not work, you’re not alone. Over the years, the fuel and temperature gauges in older cars tend to stop working due to their design, which relies on a thin copper wire wound into a coil. No matter how rare your vehicle though, chances are it’s an easy fix, albeit one for a trained professional with the right tools. First of all, use a multimeter and test to ensure it’s not a faulty sender unit causing the problem.

Most gauges work on resistance, so they can be easily tested. If it is the gauge at fault, there are a number of instrument repair businesses around the country that can return almost any gauge back to working condition. The prices vary depending on what exactly is wrong with them, but as an example, the price to repair broken wires on these two items pictured was just over $100 in total. Sure beats running out of gas!

9. Steering

Some describe the vagueness in the steering of an old car as character … while others think it’s a pain in the arse. While there will always be a difference between driving an old car with a steering box, compared to one with a modern rack and pinion system, the difference can be reduced. The cheap solution is to fit a flow-control valve into the power steering line. However, while this can firm up the feel, it will not remove the play.

Specialist steering and hydraulic businesses on the other hand can remove plenty of that steering float, and firm up the feel by rebuilding your vehicle’s existing steering set-up. The price for this will vary, depending on how worn your existing steering is, and potentially also on the type of steering you have. It’s a small price to pay though for what will make your driving experience far more enjoyable, and not to mention safer, too.

10. Handle it

Just because your car weighs two tonne and has kingpin or torsion bar front suspension doesn’t mean it shouldn’t handle as well as any other vehicle on the road. While this is an area where you can spend plenty of money, you don’t necessarily need to. And while replacing worn shock absorbers is an obvious way to improve things, you’d be surprised at how many different upgrade options are available. Most suspension companies have listings for which shocks will fit your vehicle, regardless of age, and even if they don’t you can take your existing ones in to serve as a reference for comparison. Adjustable shock absorbers can be set up by your suspension specialist to suit the vehicle, and your type of driving, for remarkably low cost. 

If you’ve already got good springs and shocks, aftermarket sway bars are a great prospect. If they’re not available for your vehicle off the shelf, a quality suspension workshop will be able to custom-make some to suit, without breaking the bank. The difference between before and after will be dramatic!