The classic car hobby is gaining momentum in this country right now, as people of all ages and lifestyles get involved in purchasing, restoring, and driving classic cars from all eras. If you’re a car guy, or even someone who likes to work with his hands, who has always been curious to learn what it would be like to tinker around under the hood of a classic car, it’s never too late to get started and there are easy and affordable ways to get involved with the hobby.

The Thrill of the Hunt

If you’re ready to purchase a classic car, there are many places to look. The internet offers obvious choices like Craigslist, eBay Motors, or really any site with online classifieds. Sometimes, you’ll see classic cars with ‘For Sale’ signs sitting on front lawns in your own neighborhood. Sometimes, searching for the car of your dreams can be half the fun!

Of course, older cars may or may not be in great shape; a common reason that someone sells a classic is that it’s a project that’s been sitting untouched for 20 years. These are often known as the “barn find” — a common term in the hobby which refers to a classic car that’s been discovered as-is, has never been restored and likely doesn’t run very well, if at all. These cars have become incredibly desirable in recent years, as they represent an original untouched car that hasn’t been butchered or improperly restored.

Note the poor door fit and ripped top on this barn-find Mustang, which will take a lot of effort to make right

Homeward Bound

Once you’ve ripped off the proverbial Band-Aid and purchased your classic, you need to get it home. For some projects, this is easier said than done. If the car you’ve purchased “runs” (meaning the engine starts, but doesn’t necessarily mean it drives), you need to perform a serious assessment of its systems and components if you intend to drive it any distance at all.

Check the battery, all fluid levels (engine, transmission, coolant, brakes, steering) and look for leaks while it’s idling. At idle, engage “D” and “R”; does the tranny shift? Does the car move in gear when you release the brake pedal? Speaking of brakes, is the pedal firm? Test them first at 5 mph in a driveway, not at 30 mph on the street. How do the tires look? Check the pressure, of course. But also, there should be visible tread remaining, and no bubbles or cracks in the sidewalls.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, find out how long the car has been sitting and when the last trip to the gas station was. Gas has about a six-month shelf life these days and bad gas can stop you in your tracks if it gums up the carburetor. Bring a gas can with fresh fuel, and be prepared to either drain the fuel tank or siphon out old gas, replacing it with a new supply before expecting to drive it home.

You should expect a lot of service needs with an engine compartment that looks this neglected

Getting a true barn find home presents more challenges, as it may have been years since the engine started or the car moved. The tires are likely flat and the brakes might even be seized. In some lucky cases, with a fresh battery and some fuel down the carburetor, a barn find will start! But this doesn’t mean you should race home in it. To get one of these cars out of its resting place, you need a few more tools. Jack it up with a floor jack, put dollies under the flats, and use a winch or tow rope to drag it into the daylight. At that point, a trailer or flat bed (you can rent them from U-Haul) will get it back to your garage.

The Right Tools for the Job

One major advantage of the older, less-complicated technology that’s used in most classic cars is that it makes them easier to work on. A modern vehicle has more complex systems and more difficult-to-diagnose electronics. On the flip side, technology found in a 25+ year-old classic car might be less unfamiliar to you as a new hobbyist. Before you get in over your head on a project, do your research. There is a wealth of information on the internet to help guide you through the process. A simple Google search can turn up how-to articles or even video demonstrations of the tasks you’re looking to perform. Flea markets and yard sales can yield old automotive service manuals and repair guides. Keep your eyes (and mind) open, as you never know where old car literature and information might turn up.

To help you with the parts and tools required, here’s a basic list to get started:

  • Drum brakes – Brakes found on older cars require specific tools to handle the shoes, wheel cylinders and springs you won’t find on modern car disc brakes.
  • Distributor points and condenser – You’ll need feeler gauges to set the gap on the points, and a tach-dwell meter to set the dwell (the percent of time the points are open).
  • Carburetors – These guys require special wrenches, including some found on flexible shafts, that are used to adjust the carburetor settings.
  • Mechanical fuel pumps – These run under a much lower pressure than electric pumps on modern cars. If you’re checking pump pressure, you might need a different gauge capable of measuring the lower pressure.
  • Ignition systems – To service an old-school ignition you’ll need special distributor wrenches, spark plug wire pliers and a timing light.
This non-electronic old school distributor uses a rotor (top), points (just below rotor) and condenser (bottom left)

While owning and working on a classic car is a fun solo project, it can also be a social activity, if you feel so inspired. Look into car clubs in your area and get acquainted with seasoned hobbyists. Not only are these guys always good for car story – they’re likely willing to help you with a repair, accompany you to view a car you’re interested in or share tips for where to find old car parts.

Buying your first classic car is a major investment and commitment, particularly if you plan to do all the maintenance and repair work yourself. But with the right knowledge, resources and a fully-stocked toolbox, you can rise to the challenge!


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Richard Reina is the Product Training Director at and a classic car enthusiast. He currently owns and shows a 1967 Alfa Romeo. You can also find his personal blog here.


Feature image courtesy of Martin Vorel