Servicing the Semi-Retired Car

New cars come with maintenance schedules that give you time/mileage intervals for things like oil changes, tune-ups, tire rotation and so on. Follow these recommendations and — assuming a decent/sound car to start with — it ought to be a long-lived car.

But what about old, semi-retired cars?

They came with maintenance schedules, too. But these assumed regular use. When that assumption no longer applies . . . what to do?

For example, my 1976 Trans-Am. I still have all the original paperwork, including the service schedule. It tells me to change the oil once every 7,500 miles or six months — whichever comes first. Well, it’ll take me at least a decade to rack up 7,500 miles — since the car only leaves the garage occasionally. I drive it about 500 miles each year.

I should probably change the oil more often than once every ten years.

But once every six months? Given maybe 250 miles or so of driving? That seems . . . wasteful.

And is.

Expensive, too. Oil — the good stuff — costs more than $10/quart and the old Pontiac takes six. Plus a filter. Plus tax — and it’s about $75 to change the oil . . . myself.

But the oil does need to be changed at some point. So — what point? I split the difference and do it once a year, regardless of the mileage. Even if the car has barely been driven at all.

In fact, precisely for that reason.

Not because the oil wears out. Oil is pretty much eternal, actually. But it does become diluted and contaminated, especially if it’s sitting in the crankcase of an old car with a carburetor perched on top. These invariably leak gas, which finds its way into the crankcase, where it dilutes the oil. And gas is not a lubricant. It is a solvent. This is not what you want mixed in with your lubricating oil.

There is also condensation — water — that mixes with the oil. Also not a lubricant. And, sludge — the bane of lightly/rarely-used cars. It can gum up the works, including the oil pump pick-up, which is usually located in the bottom of the oil pan. If the intake screen gets glutted up with the internal combustion equivalent of chunks of cholesterol . . . well, the results are actually kind of the same.

Which is why I change the TA’s oil once a year, no matter how few miles it’s been since the last oil change. I take it for a half-hour drive first, too. In order to thoroughly warm the engine so that the hot oil carries with it as much stuff-I-don’t-want in the crankcase out with it as possible when the drain plug is removed.

And I use synthetic oil (Amsoil, usually) because of the superior protection it provides, especially in a car that sometimes sits for weeks at a time. Synthetics stand up better to that kind of duty, in particular, the thin lubricating (and protective) film on critical wear surfaces such as bearings, cylinder walls and camshaft lobes.

Speaking of which . . .

If you own a car like my TA that has an engine with a flat tappet camshaft (as opposed to a roller camshaft) you should use an oil with the anti-wear additives — manganese and zinc — these engines require, but which have been eliminated from almost all over-the-counter engine oil, including the high-end synthetics.

This doesn’t mean they are not high-quality and using them in modern engines is no problem. But if you have an older engine with a flat tappet camshaft (generally speaking, this is American-brand stuff made before the early 1980s) then you should either buy an oil that has the additives (I use Amsoil’s Z-rod 10W30 in the TA) or buy a bottle of additive (GM sells it over the counter at dealers; there are other sources, too) and . . . add it to the oil at each changeout.

So, what else?

Brake pads and shoes last almost forever when you only drive a few hundred miles each year. But brake fluid doesn’t. If you neglect to bleed the system — purge out all the fluid, from the master cylinder and lines — every three years or so — you are practically begging to have problems with your master cylinder, calipers, wheel cylinders and the steel lines — which will rust from the inside out if you leave old, contaminated (with water) fluid inside them for too long.

Your radiator will last decades . . . if you regularly (every three years or so) drain/flush and refill the cooling system with fresh coolant. Don’t just top it off. Coolant does degrade over time. And ugly — costly — chemical reactions occur inside a radiator filled with decaying, Wilford Brimley fluid.

Tires won’t go bald if the car is rarely driven . . . but they will flat spot if you leave the car unmoved for months. And they’ll get harder and crack-prone over time, regardless. You can delay this by keeping the sun off them, but exposure to air (and oxygen) will do the dirty work regardless. It is smart policy to chuck the tires for a new set after ten years, even if they still look new and have 90 percent of their original tread. Because they are old — and tired. Drive on them with caution, if you must — and not at high speeds.

Batteries are meant to be regularly recharged, but that doesn’t happen if the car isn’t regularly driven. Starting the car drains the battery; but once the engine is running, the alternator generates electricity to keep the engine running and recharges the battery as you drive. . . if you drive long enough. If you just fire the car up and let it idle a few minutes (bad, do not do this) or drive it for just a few minutes before putting it back to bed (also not good) the alternator won’t be running long enough to fully recharge the battery and its life will be shorter, due to the fact of it being perpetually not fully charged.

Most of all, drive the car. For 30 minutes, at least — once a month, at least. That will keep it limber, keep seals pliable, keep the batter charged, fresh fuel circulating (instead of rotting in the tank and lines and carb/FI system).

That is arguably the most important service schedule of all to stick to!

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2 Responses to “Servicing the Semi-Retired Car”

  1. Dave Snellings says:

    Thanks for the guidelines on semi-retired cars.
    Much is common sense……..if you’re mechanically inclined.
    Some points such as oil, oil changes, brake fluid, coolant changes are more based on a solid understanding of the fluids & how they work / don ‘t work so well in the various systems. THAT information is beyond common sense.
    Thank you.

  2. Joe says:

    I am not sure there are 100% ironclad times to do a lot of this work. Many service manuals talk about mileages, rather than calendar time. Many modern fluids are not ever meant to be changed, and some have no interval listed at all. You play a game of better safe than sorry, versus overmaintaining. I would not rarely drive a car, then one day go cross-country with it. How many people even check their fluids, belts, hoses, tires, etc? If you live where it snows, I would be more fearful of the brine sprays and road salt than anything else. Seems similar to spraying acid all over the road. You can drive during fair days and still pick it up.