Summer is the season for using our old cars. Portland’s 10-day forecast shows nothing but sunny days ahead with temperatures in the 70s and 80s.
This Wednesday, the Alfa Romeo Owners of Oregon have their annual summer tour, a relaxed two-hour affair that winds its way through the backcountry outside Portland. My eight-year-old son Bradley will be navigator, as he was last year.
Last year’s tour was great, and Bradley did an excellent job, but due to a defective fuel gauge, we ran out of gas on four-lane U.S. Route 26 — at night. I quickly lifted Bradley over the concrete barrier on the side of highway. The cars whizzing by at 70 mph just feet from my son and my old car was an unsettling experience — terrifying, actually.
Now I’m getting the 1967 Duetto ready for Wednesday. Even though I try to keep my cars in top shape, they are still vintage machines that require love and attention. If you let something slip, you could end up on the side of the road. Here is the short checklist I use every time I prepare to drive an old car:
1) Check your tire pressure. Old rims leak air, and you’d be surprised at how much a tire can deflate before it’s visible. I run my tires up to 32 psi at all four corners. Yes, that’s higher than recommended and may lead to a little increased tire wear in the center, but it makes the steering easier, and I don’t put enough miles on the tires for the wear to matter anyway. Be sure to carry a tire pressure gauge in your car.
2) Check the oil, coolant and brake fluids. This is especially important if your car has been sitting for a while. Given enough time, even a slow drip can add up to a big loss. It just takes a second to measure the oil on the dipstick, open the radiator cap and see that there is water up to the neck, and make sure the brake fluid canister is full. I also suggest you carry a spare quart of oil, some brake fluid and some coolant in the trunk of your car. Why not add a can of Fix-A-Flat, a set of jumper cables and a flexible tow cable? It’s really no extra effort to carry these things, and if you need one of them, you’ll be glad you did.
3) Don’t forget to take off the trickle charger before you leave. This may seem obvious, but more than once (especially with trunk-mounted batteries) I’ve left the garage only to notice something yellow bouncing around in my rear-view mirror.
4) Adjust your mirrors. Some old cars require a screwdriver to adjust them, and you can’t adjust the passenger’s side while you are behind the wheel. Take the time to get both mirrors right before you leave.
5) Clean your windshield in and out. Get all the road grime off the outside. Inside, some cars seem to exude something that forms a film on the glass. Take a second to get rid of it. Bring a roll of paper towels and some glass cleaner with you.
6) Fill your tank. It doesn’t matter what your gauge or your notes say — stop in at a gas station and fill the tank until the pump shuts off. Don’t “top off” your tank. I’ve had more than one paint job ruined when warm air caused gasoline to expand and spill out of an over-full tank.
7) Do a quick visual inspection of the engine and its hoses. Look for any unusual wet spots. Feel the hoses to make sure they haven’t gone soft. Look to see if any protruding bolts are rubbing against hoses or belts. Things on an old car can shift over time, and you want to be proactive and catch them before they shred a belt or perforate a hose.
The items on this list shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. You may be in a hurry and think you can skip some steps. But if something goes awry, I can tell you (from experience) that you will be sitting by the side of the road for more than 15 minutes.
Abiding by the list doesn’t guarantee that your car will start, run and stop properly for the whole tour, but it does gives you a chance to check over the simple things that can stop you dead in your tracks. You will be maximizing your chances of enjoying time in your old car.
After all, it won’t be long before the leaves turn, the temperature drops, and you’re putting your cars away for the winter.