Date:17 February 2013
For me, owning cars without driving them just isn’t fun. I drive mine to work and all around LA. But many of my old cars simply weren’t built to perform in today’s conditions.
Modern cars have to start and stop reliably, idle in traffic and cruise at freeway speeds. I always want to keep my cars as original-looking as possible, but when I can improve a car for safety or functional reasons, I’ll do it.
Fortunately, I’ve discovered a number of products and technologies that solve many problems common to old cars and help make them much more reliable to drive. For example, overheating can be a big issue. Most old cars have non-pressurised cooling systems; if the car runs too hot, the coolant boils and overflows. Today’s pressurised systems might fail in a plume of steam, but they are more effective at heat transfer, and they keep the coolant from boiling.
In older cars, when the coolant boils over, the quick fix is to top off the radiator with water. But each time you do that you’re diluting the coolant, and in California, at least, you’re pouring water into the radiator that contains minerals harmful to the vehicle. Many of my cars sit for a month or two between drives, so sometimes I’d find green corrosion all around the radiator pipes and drainage petcocks.
Now I use a terrific product called Evans Waterless Coolant. Since there’s no water in it, it can’t corrode anything. It’s also good for the life of the car. I’ve had it in my replica 1937 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic for 14 years, and the coolant is as clean as the day it went in. Even better, it doesn’t boil up to 190 degrees C, so your car won’t overheat. And it’s good to minus 40, so it also acts as an antifreeze. The only disadvantage? At R60 for 5 litres, it can cost a fortune to fill a big radiator. But if you have a valuable antique car, this product is worth every penny.
Another great idea is called frictionless, or induction, braking. With a Telma induction brake set-up, there’s no wear and tear on the conventional brake parts. It’s essentially an electromagnetic retarder. A pair of ventilated rotors is attached to the centre of the driveshaft. (You may have to cut your driveshaft in two and shorten it to accommodate the new rotor assembly.) Instead of callipers, like a conventional disc brake, you have a stator that’s attached to the chassis, but separated from the disc by an air gap. Electricity flows through the stator coils, creating powerful electromagnetic fields with alternate polarities. As the rotors pass through these fields, eddy currents are generated that retard the rotors, which in turn slow the driveshaft. Most of the heat that’s produced by braking is dissipated through the rotor vanes. The air gap means there’s no friction.
I installed the system in my 1941 American LaFrance 600 Series firetruck, which is equipped with huge hydraulic drums aided by power assist. The original brakes are only fade-free up to about 65 m/h. So I put a Gear Vendors overdrive unit in the truck, and it’s now capable of going up to 120 km/h on the freeway. With a Telma unit, I barely use the brakes. Approaching an intersection, for example, I just tap the pedal and the Telma unit slows me right down. When I get closer, I step fully on the brakes to reach a complete stop. I don’t think I’ll have to do a brake job on this truck for 10 years.
There’s a cure for antique charging systems too. I have a 1937 Cord 812 Westchester sedan with a vacuum-electric four-speed Bendix semi-automatic transmission. Operating its shifter required more electricity at low speeds than the car’s 6-volt generator could supply. Even worse, when I pulled up to a light at night, the lights dimmed and the radio went oooohhhh. The generator was probably sufficient for the original lights, but I had installed 6-volt halogen bulbs that are much brighter and need more current to operate.
To increase the charge at a stoplight, I had to quickly depress the clutch pedal and rev the engine. That ran the generator a little faster and brightened the lights a bit.
In cases like this, a lot of people install a 6-volt alternator or even convert to a 12-volt system, but a Cord is a very special vintage car. I didn’t want to change the appearance of the engine, so I installed a Gener-Nator, which converts an original 6-volt (or 12-volt) generator into a 50- to 60-watt alternator. The generator still looks the same, but internally it’s all updated. The voltage regulator is built-in, and there’s even a little fan to cool the device. Now when I drive the Cord at night and pull up to a stoplight, the lights stay bright. And when I crank it, the headlights don’t dim.
Shifting with old transmissions can also be an issue. Red Line Oil makes a product called MTL 70W80 GL-4, a manual transmission lubricant that acts like a liquid synchroniser. My 1972 Dodge Challenger was always difficult to get into gear, and the gears ground when I shifted. I added a litre of MTL, and it doesn’t even feel like the same transmission. MTL provides the perfect coefficient of friction; it protects the gears and the synchronisers. Better shifting through chemistry?