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Back to the Future…

Classic cars offer variety to your workshop, bolster repute and serve as useful revenue earners but they can also be profit killers. Rob Marshall looks at the basic considerations of welcoming them.

‘What goes around comes around’ is such a truism with cars. When new, they are coveted possessions, before they fall into the ignominy of unloved bangerdom, skipped servicing and part-worn tyres. Those examples that survive the crusher see their lowly worth increase beyond their weigh-in values, before becoming treasured possessions, once more.

Traditionally, many cherished vehicles tended to have their maintenance and repair needs attended by owner enthusiasts. Yet, in recent years, this appears to be changing and garages are reporting an increasing number of customers approaching them with classics. The reasons are varied. Longer-term owners may have given up on DIY, due to time limitations, illness, or lack of enthusiasm to lie on their driveway, while getting splattered with hot sump oil.

A new band of enthusiasts is fast growing, too, attracted to the romanticism and individuality of owning an older vehicle. The financial draws are strong, too. Historic vehicles are exempt from road tax (VED), Low Emission Zones and even MOT Tests. Insurance is also inexpensive, compared with mainstream cars, their values are increasing and any gain on sale is Capital Gains Tax free.

Unfortunately, an increasing proportion of these owners lack the time, skill, or inclination to indulge in DIY, meaning that they are approaching garages to not just do the work but also to advise them on how to keep the car safe.

A missed opportunity?

Many of these garages turned the work away. Their reasons for doing so differ. Several workshop owners told us that they

were too busy to take on anything that might be ‘too much trouble’. After all, in the old car world, all that glistens may not be golden; it could be chicken wire and filler. One garage proprietor (ironically, a classic car owner) pointed out that he did not wish to take the blame for over 40 years of someone else’s bodges and that his workshop was busy enough already. Ironically, some garages and even technicians admitted to skills shortages, where older cars are concerned. While the motor industry, quite rightly, remains focussed on electrification, ADAS, et al, there is a skills shortage at the other end, especially with so much experience exiting the industry. One senior technician admitted to us that his youngest colleague, aged in his late 20s, was extremely capable with EOBD-based diagnostics but his assessment of mechanical components, even on modern vehicles, was relatively poor. The tech explained that, in his view, he would not want him to work on a classic vehicle. Yet, training is available to correct this. Organisations, such as the Federation Skills Trust, and even the IMI, realise that there is a viable career in older vehicles and provide courses for classic car maintenance, repair and restoration to prove it.

Protecting yourself and your customer…

MOT testing on historic vehicles that have not been modified substantially is optional, meaning a car coming into your workshop may not have been inspected independently for many years. Therefore, making extra checks of safety-critical components is a prudent move.

If you have not worked on older cars for some time, if at all, you will have to review your tooling, or consider even going back to basics. Sealey highlights that most British cars employed imperial fasteners until the 1980s, dictating imperial-sized sockets and spanners. Should you delve back even further, many pre-1950s vehicles employed Whitworth sizes. You may need other tools too but, fortunately, they tend to be relatively inexpensive, compared to other workshop capital investments.

Parts also pose a significant problem, because many factors (let alone dealers) are unlikely to have, for instance, a handbrake cable for a Citroën GSA, let alone an oil filter. Some OEMs have a classic spares line but availability can be variable. Citroën, for instance, has a French-based site, from which you can order your GSA’s handbrake cable:

Even so, OEM parts coverage is patchy, meaning you are likely to have to rely on the aftermarket, where quality varies from good to appalling. Some specialists use companies that produce parts to OE quality – a typical example of which is Heritage Parts of Shoreham-by-Sea, which sells Meyle tie rods for Type Two Volkswagen camper vans (’69-’78). Yet, alternative parts, from unknown far-eastern manufacturers, may not be so good and the idiom ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ should be in your mind.

Restorations can take a long time, hogging space and profitability, unless you handle the situation properly and communicate with the customer before you take on the job.

Perhaps the market is to blame. Several British classic parts suppliers, which wish to remain nameless, expressed to AT a frustration that cheaper but comparatively lower quality components in their ranges fly out the door, while far superior and longer lasting identical parts gather dust on their shelves. You should also be wary that the quality of many cheaper parts can be extremely poor, with rubber steering/suspension components and electric parts (such as rotor arms) being particularly low-quality.

Even when tackling routine maintenance, obtaining accurate data is not always easy. Often, registration/chassis numbers are useless for parts identification. It may be worth asking the owner for this information, if your usual trade sources cannot help. (Thanks to Volvo Cars).

Owner reliance…

An advantage to dealing with owners of cherished, historic, classic and youngtimer cars is that they are invested emotionally. They can also be incredibly knowledgeable. While many garages do not want to be overseen by the extreme ‘You don’t wanna do it like that’ type of owner, consider tapping into this enthusiast anorak, especially when querying quality parts suppliers – you will save a lot
of time. Whether you decide to fit customer-supplied parts remains your personal choice but it may be your only option – especially when some car clubs have had their very high- quality parts made but will sell only to club members, for liability and taxation reasons. You may have to fit second- hand components. For example, some gearbox rebuilders prefer to install good used synchromesh parts, because the reproduction new components are made so poorly. Low- grade bearings pose another problem; seek known quality parts, such as those from the FAG brand, but be wary of fakes. Alternatively, you could also be confronted with a newbie to cherished car ownership, who looks to you for advice.

Just as modern cars are harmed severely by incorrect lubricants, so too can classics. Garages should select quality brands that use formulations designed for classic cars, such as gear oils containing extreme- pressure anti-wear additives that do not attack soft metals.

Basic theories, which are not relevant in real-world repairs, such as dwell angle measurements as a more accurate means of establishing contact breaker point gaps, are relevant for classic car servicing. Fortunately, measurement tools are still available.

Many fuel-injected youngtimers lack an EOBD port. Naturally, access to 30+ years-old OE equipment that can piggyback into the ECU for diagnostic purposes is not easy. However, we have visited long-established garages that have mothballed their old hardware.

Parts quality for classic cars can be very hit-and-miss. The pictured suspension bush was fitted less than 18 months ago.

This feature may leave you with the impression that dealing with older cars is too much hassle. Yet, consider the facts. Older skills are being lost and owner demand is increasing. By embracing the older car movement, you open yourself up not just to variety for your social media posts but, potentially,
a whole new business opportunity. The key to this is researching how cars of yesterday can be used on modern roads, using modern fuels, lubricants and parts. To help, AT shall be investigating all of these issues, and more, so you can keep looking to the future, by maintaining the past.

What is a classic car?

There is no strict designation of what comprises a classic car. Therefore, the definition varies. Some organisations define a car as young as 15 years-old as a classic. Owners of certain exotica, especially rare and high-performance models, may refer to their car as ‘cherished’. The DVSA’s Historic Vehicles is a formal taxation class for vehicles over 40 years-old, with some exceptions. Many worthy retro cars are aged between 20-40 years, which tend to be called Youngtimers, a term borrowed from continental Europe.

About Autotechnician
Autotechnician is a magazine published nine times a year, delivering essential information to independent garage owners and technicians in the UK. Delivered both digitally and in print, autotechnician provides readers with technical, training, business advice, product and news, allowing our readers to keep up to date with information they need to run and work within a modern workshop.
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