Depending on your age, you may remember when a 1969 Camaro was “just another car” on the road. It was undoubtedly a good time to be a child or young adult, because the streets were full of muscle cars. The fact of the matter is that the cars we now cherish were likely used for general transportation for their first 10 years of service. Sure, the high-end cars with rare option packages may have lived a privileged life, but a high percentage of Camaro, Chevelle, Nova, Impala, and other models were daily drivers. Fast-forward a few decades and the majority of car guys aren’t taking full advantage of their vintage iron due to fears of scratching the paint, being on the side of the road with a mechanical gremlin, or dealing with rush hour traffic. This results in a bunch of old cars sitting in garages, waiting for the next cruise night to come around. An occasional cruiser is perfectly acceptable, but wouldn’t it be cool to drive your classic Chevy to work on a regular basis?
Admittedly, we’re all spoiled by GM’s excellent longevity with the LS family of engines. Let’s use the 1999-’14 Chevy Silverado as an example. If one is your current daily driver, then you know that the Vortec series of engines will essentially run forever with just regular oil changes. Spark plugs may last 100,000 miles, and you can typically expect to get 300,000 miles out of a 4.8L, 5.3L, or 6.0L if it has been properly maintained. This is not the case for classic Chevy applications from the 1960’s and 1970’s. It could be said that your car was “used up” if it reached 100,000 miles, and it was probably true. An old-school small-block would’ve gone through several sets of spark plugs, points, and probably a fuel pump by the time the odometer made the glorious roll back to zero. And if it survived that long, it would likely be consuming and leaking oil, and it would need the timing set replaced. It’s the ugly truth, and it goes to show how well the LS family of engines performs in daily driving duty. Of course, we’ll touch on LS swaps in our 10 tips, but the point of our brief diatribe on vintage engines was to explain that old engines need love regularly. So, if you’re planning to keep the old 283 in service, get ready to work on it.
It isn’t just the engine that wears out—the drivetrain, suspension, braking system, and more can and will wear out, even if the car has spent the last decade in the garage. Parts fatigue can be attributed to lack of maintenance, a poor engineering design, or simply the amount of time the component has been in service. Luckily, the aftermarket support for most classic Chevy platforms is strong, allowing us to repair, replace, and upgrade our original components. We’re going to cover the top 10 items to address if you want to make the daily commute in a classic Chevy. Put these tips to work on your project and you’ll enjoy the seat time while your car stays limbered up and ready for action.
The braking system needs to be number one on your checklist. If you’re planning to truly daily drive a classic Chevy, it’s a good idea to check all of the components. On Chevy passenger cars built before 1967, original equipment consisted of a single reservoir master cylinder, which is not ideal for daily driving. This system can fully evacuate itself, due to a leaky wheel cylinder, a split brake line, or a simple mistake like a loose bleeder screw. Companies like Classic Performance Products and Master Power Brakes offer affordable conversion kits that include the necessary lines and blocks to make a dual reservoir master cylinder work with your setup.
If your car still has drum brakes, the easiest route is a disc brake conversion. Front discs and rear drums are a great combination for a budget-friendly daily driver. If you want to keep the drums all around, be sure to replace the flex hoses, as old hoses are prone to making the car dart under braking. The real take-away here is that you can spend a couple hundred or a couple thousand bucks on an updated braking setup. Figure out what your budget allows, but always play it safe when it comes to brakes.
Another essential item on the to-do list is checking out your car’s cooling system. Even a properly functioning original cooling system can leave your engine running a little warmer than desired. If the car has been sitting a year or two without regular driving, it’s a good idea to inspect or replace the radiator and heater hoses. It’s cheap insurance that will keep you from sitting on the side of the road. It’s also a good idea to keep a few tools and hose clamps in the glovebox for quick roadside repairs if something goes awry.
While aluminum radiators continue to get more affordable, you may have better luck with a good old-fashioned brass/copper radiator. Companies like U.S. Radiator manufacture stock-appearing radiators with high-efficiency internals to keep your engine cool without having the aftermarket look. Another old-fashioned cooling item that we suggest is a mechanical cooling fan. Yes, it takes away a little horsepower and fuel economy, but it’s a foolproof design.
Every car guy knows that tires and wheels can make or break the looks of a classic Chevy. More importantly, the wrong tires may be dangerous if you plan to put some serious heat in them on the daily commute. Always check date codes on your tires and use your head. A 10-year-old tire doesn’t need to be on the road, even if it has plenty of tread left. Inspect your tires often, and if they start showing signs of dry rot, irregular places on the sidewall, or uneven treadwear, it’s time to do something about it.
Proper tire balancing and a suspension alignment can get the most out of your tire purchase. The experts at Coker Tire suggest driving your car often, as long periods of sitting in the garage can wreak havoc on a steel-belted radial tire. Flat-spotting is a common problem with cars that sit in the garage, and it can ruin the ride quality of your car. The heat cycles created by daily driving, along with the weight distribution across the tire as it’s rolling down the road, helps the ride quality to last for the life of the tread.
Protecting Your Investment
We don’t expect you will be daily driving an all-out show car, but if you have a nicely restored car, it’s worth the effort to protect the paint and the interior. 3M Scotchgard Paint Protection Film is a no-brainer for the exterior, but what can you do to protect your carpet, seats, and door panels from the abuse from everyday use? There isn’t an attractive way to protect your interior, so an Indian blanket seat cover and rubber floor mats are the go-to items for removable protection. This 1962 Bel Air interior is simply too nice to sacrifice!
Speaking of protection, the subject of classic car insurance is an important topic. Some policies put a limit on how many miles you can drive your classic. Be sure to have all this cleared up before you start racking up the miles. If you’re serious about daily driving, don’t risk voiding your car’s insurance policy. We also suggest looking into your state laws regarding “Antique” auto tags and registration, as specialized collector vehicle registration typically prohibits daily driving.
Fuel Injection or LS Swap?
Daily driving a car with a carburetor isn’t out of the question, but with so many high-tech fuel-injection systems out there why would you throw away horsepower and fuel economy? So, the real question is: Would you rather add fuel injection to your old-school engine or swap in an LS engine?
With EFI conversions, like Holley’s new Sniper EFI, coming in at less than a grand, it is certainly cheaper to modernize your old engine. A stock 283ci small-block might be wimpy, but if you’re cruising down the highway with no worries of vapor lock or flooding that counts for something. A junkyard LS swap would be the next cheapest option, but you can expect to spend a couple of thousand dollars on the engine, fuel system, wiring, and mounts to complete the swap. The last option is go put all your chips on the table with a Chevrolet Performance crate engine like the LS3 pictured here—it might cost a few bucks, but 500-plus horsepower with a warranty sounds pretty good.
Old cars and fuel mileage are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but it’s a concern when you’re racking up miles in your classic Chevy. If the engine and drivetrain is mostly stock, you can expect to get mid-teens from a mild-mannered car from the 1960s. The 1970s and 1980s saw higher gear ratios and eventually overdrive transmissions, but that time frame also saw additional weight and less horsepower, so it’s a trade-off that could net you a few more miles per gallon. If your commute consists of a lot of stop-and-go traffic, you can adjust the idle/air mixture a little leaner to keep it from dumping too much fuel at idle. Highway commuters can benefit from stepping down on the jet size to get just enough fuel for part throttle cruising. Of course, all of this sacrificial carburetor tuning can be eliminated with fuel injection.
If you’re really serious about fuel economy, you can eliminate some of the car’s belt-driven accessories, such as power steering and air conditioning. You can also eliminate the mechanical fan, in favor of an electric fan, but we like the reliability of a mechanical fan on a daily driver. You can also see a gain in mileage with a free flowing exhaust system, but you don’t need something obnoxiously loud. Simple things like properly inflating your tires and making sure that none of the brakes are dragging can ensure the best possible fuel economy.
A large part of the fuel economy game is in the car’s gearing, but drivetrain ratios can also preserve an old engine that might be overworked with the stock gearing configuration. Even if your car has a relatively “high” gear ratio, such as a 3.08:1, you’ll be turning more than 2,700 rpm at 70 miles per hour with a 27-inch tall tire. An overdrive transmission takes a lot of stress off the engine by letting it calm down at highway speeds. For instance, the 0.70:1 overdrive ratio in a 700-R4 transmission brings that same 70-mph rpm down to around 1,900, which helps fuel economy and the longevity of the engine. Overdrive transmissions also help with acceleration, as the First gear ratio is drastically lower than original Powerglide or TH350 transmissions.
Charging and Wiring
Fortunately, wiring can be fairly simple on an old car, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when a wiring gremlin rears its ugly head. You could spend countless hours in the shop or on the side of the road to put a band-aid on a wiring problem, or you could fix it for good with a complete harness. This helps to ensure that all of your lights work properly, which is pretty important on a daily driver. It’s also a good idea to simplify the charging system with a one-wire alternator. You may also need a higher output alternator if you’re adding items like air conditioning or fuel injection.
If you’re a hands-on type of car guy, then you already spend a lot of time changing oil, rotating tires, and installing brakes on your current daily driver. Old cars require a little more love to keep them going, but it’s totally worth it. It’s also important to check the fluids often, as old cars have a tendency to consume oil—this is especially the case with early small-blocks, due to poor crankcase venting.
Driving an old Chevy is supposed to be fun, so comfort plays into your overall level of satisfaction. It doesn’t take a lot to make a die-hard gearhead happy, but if you’re significant other is riding shotgun, or if your kids are buckled into the backseat, creature comforts suddenly become more important. Air-conditioning systems are obtainable for basically any Chevrolet model so there’s no excuse for sweating those summer days. Other creature comforts include a tilt steering column, a stereo system, and sound damping material, all of which is implemented in this Chevy II interior.