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Getting Started with Classic Cars Part 3 – The Test Drive

5 June 2023

Last time we told you how to prepare yourself for classic car ownership (you can read that here), what facilities you’ll need and what to consider when purchasing a classic. Next comes the fun bit in Getting Started with Classic Cars Part 3… the test drive!

Aside from a powerful sense of nostalgia – from retro looks and the smell of imperfectly metered fuel and old leather – the main reason most of us love old cars is the way they drive. Modern cars seem increasingly designed to remove the driver from the process and that’s fine, if that’s what you want… But if you don’t, a classic might be the way to go. It has to be the right classic though – if you don’t love every minute spent behind the wheel, then you’re likely driving the wrong one.

Getting Started with Classic Cars Part 3: Why do a test drive

This vital assessment isn’t just important, it’s essential to your on-going relationship with your pride and joy. Get it right and the doors of automotive nirvana will swing wide, get it wrong, and you’ll be stuck on the soggy hard shoulder of motoring limbo, seemingly for eternity. Don’t fret, we’re here to make sure you make the right choice, first time.

Last time we advised going out for a spin in a good example of your chosen classic. If this was possible, you’ll now have something to compare to the car you’re viewing. If not, then don’t worry, we’ll clue you into a number of faulty classic car giveaways that can keep you clear of a clunker.

Getting Started with Classic Cars Part 3: Before the test drive

Before we move off on our test drive, it’s worth spending a little time under the bonnet. First, check that the engine’s cold. If you turn up to a viewing and the car’s either running or has been recently shut off, that’s cause for concern. Why did the seller want it running before you arrived? Are they trying to mask a starting fault?

Assuming the engine’s cold, unscrew the oil filler cap and look at its underside. You’re looking for a brown or white ‘mayonnaise’ colour and consistency to the oil. This could indicate that oil and coolant is mixing, but that’s not always just down to a blown head gasket. Some cars use an oil cooler that’s part of the coolant system and a failure of this gasket can exhibit similar symptoms. The same can be said of condensation that doesn’t burn off from the top of the engine. If it hasn’t been run for a while, or only gets taken on short trips, the oil doesn’t get hot enough and moisture remains in the block. Essentially, if the oil’s anything but a golden honey coloured, you should be asking the seller why and when it was last changed.

Remove the radiator cap and have a look at the coolant too. Depending on the type it needs (ensure you know this), you should be looking for a vivid red/pink/orange, green or blue colour. If it’s the wrong colour, that’s cause for concern, as it shows the owner’s ‘care’ might be doing more harm than good. If the coolant looks like brown or black sludge, then it’s not been changed for a long while and, worse still, is probably just neat tap water. Coolant contains corrosion inhibitors that stop the internal pathways of an engine block from rusting or silting up. If an engine’s been run on tap water for years, it will have caused damage, how much will require a strip down to properly assess. You should also be vigilant for ‘mayo’ in here too, of course, also hinting that oil and coolant are mingling.

Getting started with Classic Cars Part 3: Start the engine

When you start up the engine for the first time, make sure you do it with the bonnet up and listen, hard. You’re trying to hear how healthy the engine is, are there any odd noises? A high-pitched rattle could be the tappets. If this noise doesn’t go away after a light application of throttle – or after a few minutes of running – then it’s probably time for an overhaul. More serious are any low pitched ‘rumbling’ noises, as these can come from the bottom end. Here, any issues soon result in big bills, even if you can strip and rebuild an engine yourself.

While the car’s warming up, it’s probably a good time to go through its history folder. This should give you a clear idea of how well the car has been cared for, especially recently. Older bills are nice – if they show that care has been consistent – but are really not that helpful in ascertaining a car’s current state. If you have your phone on you, it’s also the ideal time to check the car is road legal (taxed, insured and MoT’d). If you haven’t already, do an MoT history check online or even an HPI. If the car’s MoT exempt, ask the seller if they’re happy to put the car in for a test. If not, ask them why.

Look around suspension turrets, chassis legs and front panels for rust and accident damage and also watch the pulleys and belts on the engine while running; are they wobbling or making a racket? If not, and all seems structurally sound and well, it’s finally time for that test drive.

Getting Started with Classic Cars Part 3

Getting started with Classic Cars Part 3: The test drive

If you haven’t already had a scoot around the back to check for any exhaust smoke, have a look now in the rear-view mirror as you drive away; is there a cloud following you? Excessive blue smoke means burning oil, black is running rich and white is condensation. All have several causes and if persistent, need further investigation.

Try extending the engine revs, but remember, this isn’t your car yet, so be respectful. Is the motor pulling the car along cleanly and is the performance what you’d expect? Are there any flat spots or jerks at part- or wide-open throttle? Does the transmission change correctly, without any crunches or lurches (latter more apparent if auto) and does overdrive engage and disengage smartly? Can you hear any high-pitched whining from the rear as you let off the throttle, which could indicate a worn differential? In top gear ease off a little, then put the throttle to the floor. Do revs rise without any change in forward progress? If so, this could hint at a slipping clutch.

Make sure you drive the car on a range of roads, ideally up to the national speed limit on both single and dual carriageways. This will highlight if the car has any specific quirks; like vibrating or droning at certain speeds? Make sure there are no odd knocks, squeaks or bangs evident from the underside, which could indicate worn suspension or steering components. While we’re at the helm, check that it responds accurately and without any slop – the latter is given away by needing to frequently correct the wheel to stay straight.

If you find yourself on a straight, flat section of well-sighted road, check in front and behind for any traffic and if clear, try the brakes. Despite classic brakes often being significantly less efficient than modern setups, a good firm press should still slow you down smartly and in a straight line. If the braking is worryingly lax or pulls to either side, you likely have issues. Depending on the severity, these are worth at least haggling a few hundred pounds off the asking price. If you feel that the brakes, or any element of the way the car drives, is unsafe obviously carefully return the car to the seller and walk away.

Make sure your test drive lasts at least 20 minutes, giving the engine time to get up to temperature, where it will hopefully stay. If you start to see the coolant needle creeping over halfway, keep an eye on it and make sure it’s not going to overheat. The same goes for the oil pressure gauge, if fitted. In fact, pay close attention to all the instruments; are they all working? Are the miles shown the same as when you set off?

When you get back from the test drive, leave the engine running for a few minutes and once again check that the car doesn’t overheat; do the fans kick in while it’s sitting? Try all the controls that you might have missed so far; do the electric windows or winders operate as they should. Does the sunroof open and close properly, do the mirrors adjust and are they secure? Does the 12V outlet have power and do courtesy lights come on and turn off as expected? None of these are deal breakers, including the overall condition of the interior (if replacements are available), but will give you a little wiggle room to haggle with the seller.

If you want to go ahead with the deal, ensure you contact us to get your insurance setup. The best way to do this is to call us at Peter James before you view the car, so you can just call us whilst you are there with it to confirm you still need the cover – we will get everything set up beforehand so you are not stuck on someone’s driveway having to answer all the application questions all over again!

Remember, once you sign the V5C document, you are legally obliged to tax the vehicle. Even if it is tax exempt, you will still need to go through the usual road-tax procedure, but you’re presented with a nice £0 charge at the end. Finally, get a receipt from the seller and keep their details in case there are any issues. Hopefully there’s not and you can now enjoy your classic as soon as the weather and mood take you.

Stay tuned!

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