Winterizing Your Vintage Vehicle

By Stephen Kassis

Each year, as leaves start falling and winter approaches, it is necessary to prepare our vintage cars & trucks to be inactive during the cold time of year. There are many items to be considered when storing a vehicle for extended periods – Gas, Oil, Water, Brakes, Tires, Tune Ups, Humidity Control, Windshield Wipers, Battery, and Miscellaneous Items.

GAS – Most fuels today contain ethanol and ethanol fuel breaks down in a shorter period than non-ethanol fuel. For collector vehicles, this is a big problem. When fuel goes bad in the gas tank, it can gum up the tank, fuel lines, fuel pump and carburetor. This problem will also show itself in other equipment at home, like lawn mowers, tractors, weed eaters, leaf blowers, etc. Preventing breakdown of the fuel is a vital part of protecting vehicles and equipment during inactive periods. For long term storage, draining the fuel system is recommended. However, be sure to run the motor until it quits from lack of fuel. This will insure that there is very little fuel still in the carburetor. An alternative is to find a source for ethanol-free gas. Aviation gas is usually non-ethanol but is more difficult to find and more expensive, if you do. The “shelf life” of non-ethanol gas is much longer than ethanol type fuels. Non-ethanol gas can be left in the tank for 3-5 months without breaking down.

Use of a fuel stabilizer such as Sta-Bil or Sea Foam is another method to prevent problems in the fuel system. Fuel stabilizers slow the breakdown of ethanol fuels. Add fuel stabilizer to the gas tank as recommended. Be sure to drive the vehicle long enough (5-10 minutes on the road) to get the stabilizer and gas mixture up to the carburetor. This will make sure that all fuel system components are protected.

OIL – When storing a vehicle for an extended period, it is a good idea to change oil. Acids and contaminants in oil can cause corrosion to take place within the engine. This is an especially big problem when engines sit idle in storage. By changing oil before storing a vehicle, it eliminates the problem and gets the vehicle ready for the next driving season. We recommend adding Lucas Oil Additive when changing oil. Lucas will help protect bearing surfaces so that, after long storage periods, bearing surfaces are not damaged when the engine is started. Again, it is wise to run the vehicle down the road for a short distance after the oil change to be sure clean oil is distributed throughout the engine.

WATER – If you have an early vehicle that is not running anti-freeze, either drain the cooling system or add anti-freeze to prevent damage to the engine from freezing. If your cooling system needs flushing due to corrosion buildup, this is the time to do it. If you are running coolant, check it for color. It should be a bright color. If it is dark or rusty looking, it should be replaced. You can also test it with an inexpensive coolant tester. When finished flushing, add a 50/50 mixture of coolant & water for winter storage. Anti-freeze will also prevent rust in the cooling system and the engine block. Be sure to run the engine after changing anti-freeze to circulate it throughout the cooling system.

BRAKES – Hydraulic brake systems can be a problem when vehicles sit idle. Brake fluid (except silicone brake fluid) attracts moisture and causes corrosion. Normal driving and braking with your vehicle heats the brake system and expels moisture. However, when the vehicle is inactive for long periods, moisture will be attracted into the brake system. This can corrode the inside of the brake system causing failures when the car is driven or even as it sits in storage. The best solution is to drive the vehicle occasionally during the idle periods. If this is not possible, consider draining the brake system during long term storage or adding silicone brake fluid. Note: If changing to silicone brake fluid, the brake system must be completely flushed before changing to silicone.

TIRES – For short term inactivity, checking air pressure in the tires is usually adequate. For long term storage, it is recommended to jack up the vehicle and put it on stands. This will prevent damage to the tires.

TUNE UPS – Tuning up the engine prior to storage gets the vehicle ready for the next touring season. A valve adjustment, checking plugs, points, condenser, distributor cap and rotor are all things to check out when storing a vehicle.

HUMIDITY CONTROL – If you live in a high humidity area, you may already have a dehumidifier. If not, consider getting one for the storage building or garage where the vehicle is kept. A low-cost alternative is a product like “Dri Eaze” which will remove moisture inside the car. A small plastic container holds white beads that absorb moisture inside the car and drops the liquid into a chamber in the container. Check it often during the winter as it will be surprising how much moisture will be removed from the air inside the car.

WINDSHIELD WIPERS – Check the wiper arms & blades, especially if you will be running your car in the winter months, instead of storing it. The normal lifetime of wiper blades is six months to a year. Replace old blades before they start to scratch your windshield. Weak wiper arms will not hold enough pressure against the wiper arm to properly wipe away rain water. Check the arms for good pressure.

This is also a good time to check the vacuum wiper motor, if your vehicle has one. Remove the vacuum line from the motor and shoot a little WD-40 into the inlet as you manually work the motor back and forth. This will suck the liquid into the motor and lubricate it. Repeat this several times to make sure to get it well lubricated.

BATTERY – Disconnect the battery cables for long term storage. This will prevent battery drain over storage periods. It is also can prevent electrical fires caused by shorts in the electrical system. A battery disconnect switch is an easy way to instantly remove power from the system wiring. This type of switch can be mounted in a hidden spot as a theft deterrent.

Clean the ends of the cables and battery posts with a battery post cleaning tool. This wire brush will clean the corrosion from the posts and cable ends. If you have a serviceable battery, open each cap and check for fluid level. Fill with distilled water to the proper level. Do not overfill. After all caps have been replaced, wet the top of the battery with water. Sprinkle a coating of baking soda over the battery and let set for a few minutes. Do this also for the battery tray and be sure to give the entire area a good rinse with water. Note: This process will not be necessary with a gel-type battery.

A battery will last longer if it is kept charged. Battery trickle chargers or battery tenders are a good way to keep your battery charged when it is not being used.

MISCELLANEOUS ITEMS – This section will address some additional items to consider when storing a vehicle for several months.

  1. Do not set the emergency brake when storing a vehicle. Over a period of time, moisture can cause brake lining to stick to the brake drums and cause lots of trouble when you want to drive the car again.
  2. Moth Control – Most vintage cars have cloth seats or headliners. To prevent moths from damaging your upholstery, be sure to close up the windows and doors of your vintage vehicle. Consider using moth balls or crystals to kill any of these pests that might get into your car.
  3. Periodic Maintenance – Use this time of year to do things like lubricate the chassis, change oil in the transmission, U-joint (closed driveline vehicles) and differential, repack wheel bearings, wash and wax the car, polish the chrome. The more you get done in the fall, the less you will need to do next driving season.

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