Today’s driving environment makes it difficult to think of many classic autos as “daily drivers”. Let’s face it. Today’s highways are a 4-wheel antilock disc-brake world that leaves many of us feeling very vulnerable in our 30-60 year-old treasures. And, with the addition of ethanol in our gasoline appearing to be on the increase, just keeping our babies running properly will continue to be more of a challenge.
So, while many classic auto owners remain purists that insist on total originality, many of us are happy to make certain concessions in the interest of safety, drivability and reliability. Wherever you stand on the subject of originality vs. drivability, we’re here to make sure you’re driving what you want whenever you want to drive it.
If you exclude cosmetic customization, there are essentially three categories of modifications that can be done to upgrade most classic autos:
Obviously, there is a lot of opportunity for overlap between these categories. But, nearly any non-cosmetic modification or upgrade can fit into at least one of the three.
- Safety – upgrades that improve your ability to react to situations and survive a potential accident.
- Drivability – upgrades to the way the vehicle runs and/or drives that will make it both easier and more enjoyable to drive.
- Reliability – upgrades to the vehicles original systems that help to reduce the possibility of breakdowns or other difficulties that can cut a trip short.
Here are just some of the upgrades and modifications that you might consider:
- Power Assisted Disc Brakes
- Rack & Pinion Steering
- Electronic Ignition
- Fuel Injection
- Engine Swap
- Digital Dash
- Audio System
- Modern Heat & A/C
- Creature Comforts:
- Bucket Seats
- Heated Seats
- Power Windows
- Power Door Locks
- Power Trunk Lock
- Center Consoles
- Security Systems
Each is described in detail below:
- Power Assisted Disc Brakes: Before the mid 60s, nearly every domestic automobile utilized drum brakes on all four wheels. Upgrading to disc brakes on at least the front can improve braking performance significantly – and adding power assist makes it even better. Disc brake conversions – from unassisted front disc only to power assisted 4-wheel disc with 6-piston performance calipers and oversize discs – are available for most of the more popular domestic classics. You never know, better brakes may on day help you avoid disaster.
- Rack & Pinion Steering: Many of the early domestic cars (especially Ford products utilizing power steering) suffer from vague or “sloppy” steering. Even with all new parts, the steering feel and accuracy doesn’t come close to modern vehicles. And, considering that “new” steering boxes are not available for most cars (and the “remanufactured” ones rarely work much better than the ones they’re used to replace), you’re not likely to get truly “confidence inspiring” steering feel and accuracy out of most original steering systems. Fortunately, there are rack & pinion conversion options (with and without power assist) on the market for most popular domestic classics and the difference it can make is well worth the cost.
- Suspension: Back in the days when many of our classics were designed, suspension design was less of an exercise in performance engineering than it was an effort to just make the ride comfortable for the driver and occupants. Today’s cars are loaded with suspension and handling technology that – in some cases – requires an engineering degree to understand. Fortunately, some of the less-intensive technology has made it to the classic market and can be integrated in our cars to make them handle much better without completely sacrificing comfort. Some of the more popular classics can even be upgraded to full 4-wheel independent suspension and race-car like handling.
- Electronic Ignition: The next time your classic needs a tune up, forget about replacing the ignition points. Instead, consider upgrading to an electronic ignition conversion. There are simple conversion options that fit entirely under the original distributor cap with nothing to give away the fact that you’ve made the conversion aside from an extra wire coming out from under the distributor cap. The costs are negligible – especially if you consider the cost savings of never again having to replace the points and condenser or having the dwell and timing reset.
- Fuel Injection: Back when fuel injection first arrived on the hotrod scene, it was seen purely as a performance enhancement. Today’s fuel injection conversions can not only improve performance (typically to the tune of ~15% more horsepower), but they can also make a notable difference in fuel economy (again, typically ~15%). But, what many fail to consider is that – especially with today’s changing fuel blends – fuel injection improves drivability and reliability. The increase in the levels of ethanol in gasoline requires a richer fuel/air mixture. If the mixture ratio isn’t corrected, the engine will run lean and will tend to hesitate off of idle, run rough and/or surge. It can also cause the engine to run hotter. With the fuel systems found in most classics, correcting the mixture requires opening up the carburetor(s) and changing the fuel jet sizes to compensate. This “re-jetting” is somewhat of a hit-and-miss process and can take several attempts to get the jetting just right. Once done, the engine will run better, but if the ethanol level in the fuel changes again, so will the fuel system’s mixture requirements. That’s where fuel injection can be a major benefit. The feedback loop in modern fuel injection systems provides for automatic control of the fuel/air mixture to provide optimum performance in all conditions – including cold starts. These systems are not inexpensive, but they can make a world of difference in the drivability and reliability of almost any classic.
- Engine Swap: Sometimes people just aren’t satisfied with the engine the factory decided to put in their classics. Transplanting a period-correct “big block” engine in place of the original “small block” is a common upgrade that has been done since the days when these cars were new. Today, the option to upgrade to a more modern engine is also available. Such engine swaps can not only improve performance and even fuel economy (especially when installing a fuel-injected engine), but reliability can be significantly improved. Also, for those vehicles that may be subject to emissions inspections, modern engines may be the answer.
- Digital Dash: Advancements in technology have made digital gauges a reality and they are now available as upgrades for many of our classics. In fact, complete conversion kits are available for several models that are direct replacements for the entire original gauge cluster. Universal gauges are also available for custom installations.
- Audio System: If you didn’t destroy your hearing listening to loud music in your car when you were young, you may still want to have a quality audio system in your classic. Many OEM-styled stereo systems are available that will mount in your car’s original radio opening without modification. These new replacement systems feature connectivity for CD/MP3 disc changers and iPod/MP3 inputs. You don’t have to go all-out to have a nice audio system in your classic, but if that’s what you want, we can do that too.
- Modern Heat & A/C: Looking cool in you classic ride only goes so far when you’re driving in 100°+ heat. The air conditioning system in your classic may have worked fine back in the day, but after R-12 refrigerant was found to be an environmental hazard, we were forced to convert our A/C systems to use R-134A refrigerant – or pay a very hefty price to have only licensed A/C professionals refill our systems with R-12 at a price that could have covered a car payment. Unfortunately, R-134A is about 15% less efficient at cooling than R-12. So, most classic auto air conditioning systems are left blowing not-so-cold air. The solution is to replace the entire system with a modern aftermarket replacement that works as you would expect and often leave the interior look of the car unchanged.
- Creature Comforts: Many additional features typically found on newer vehicles can be retrofitted to fit your classic:
- Bucket Seats: Pick your favorite bucket seats – front and/or rear – and we’ll mount them in your interior. Or – in the case of rear buckets – we can fabricate custom seats.
- Heated Seats: If you’re reupholstering your seats, consider adding a heated-seat panel under the fabric or vinyl covering. They’re not all that expensive and easy to install. And, you’ll really appreciate them on those cold-weather drives.
- Power Windows: One of the first things we notice when we hop into a classic car is the absence of power windows – especially when it’s time to open the passenger window while driving solo. Model-specific and universal-fit power window conversions are available to fit many classics.
- Power Door Locks: If your door panels are going to be removed for any reason, consider upgrading to power door locks. They’re available in everything from simple one-door-unlocks-all configurations to full remote control key fob systems that can integrate with an alarm.
- Power Trunk Lock: Like power door locks, trunk locks can be simple (a release button in the console) or fully integrated into a remote key fob.
- Center Consoles: Truly useful center consoles didn’t arrive until sometime in the 1960s. And even then they weren’t available on many vehicles. If you’re considering a custom interior, think about a console – anywhere from a simple one that just surrounds the shifter to one that runs the full length of the interior – splitting the rear into bucket seats and integrating with the package tray. It may be overkill if all you want is a place to put your cup holders, but if you’re looking for an interior that sets your classic apart from the rest, it can make a definitive statement.
- Security Systems: There are many security systems available on today’s market that will work quite well on classic cars. Integration with remote door and trunk locks increase their utility. New technology can even increase the remote’s range to 1500 feet or more with remote key fob notification when the alarm is triggered.