Caring for Your Vintage Motor Car

The Care of a Motor Car

By Wade Kaempffert, auto editor, McClure’s Magazine

Caring for Your Vintage Motor Car – Timely, Modern Advice from 1916

It’s amazing how relevant this advice from almost a century ago still is. Today’s cars require much less attention than in these early days, but the principles still hold true. If you want it to last, look after your car.


The Care of a Motor Car pic

The Care of a Motor Car – pays off in enjoyment !


A PREMIUM worth from $100. to $500. given free with every car! Sounds rather foolish, doesn’t it ?

If any automobile manufacturer should have the necessary nerve to emblazon that statement in his advertising, a few of his readers might write him immediate letters of inquiry, but the chances are that most of them would mentally consign him to the “booby hatch.”

Yet as an actual matter of real fact, not one but all up-to-date automobile manufacturers could so advertise with perfect propriety and truth, and get away with it, because they are doing this very thing. However strange this may seem to you, it is even more incredible, but also absolutely true, that the recipients of these valuable articles rarely, if ever, recognize their value. More frequently they turn up their noses and cast them aside as not worth preserving. This is happening every day.

Now, before you apply that national epithet made famous by our beloved T. R. [U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt], please have an apology ready. The premium referred to is the Instruction Book that is furnished with every new automobile. Were it carefully read and followed, it would save the owner many unnecessary and expensive repair bills, many days without the use of his car and not a few distressing entries on his page of the recording angel’s ledger.

Here’s a real problem in psychology. Why will a man spend days, week or months in selecting a car, invest in a goodly sum of this world’s goods to become its owner and then omit to spend a few short hours in learning how to handle his purchase so as to get from it the unfailing service that the maker has put into it and that every car owner desires? An unanswerable question. It is a conundrum that has puzzled some of the most symmetrical and well-balanced heads devoted to the manufacture and sale of automobiles.

It is a curious commentary on human nature that automobile manufacturers find it necessary to spend thousands of good dollars every year in attractively dressing up their Instruction Books so as to tempt the car owner into acquiring some few rudiments of automobile care; as for example, that the cooling system is inoperative in the absence of water, that the clutch is designed to accelerate the car smoothly and not hoppingly like a kangaroo, and above all, that it is not axiomatic, that because certain grease cups and oil holes are of necessity somewhat inaccessible, they can be supplied with lubricant by the absent treatment.

The average car owner looks on the Instruction Book as a kind of first-aid-to-the-injured cabinet of wisdom, a good thing to have at hand in case trouble develops. He cannot seem to get the idea that the real function of an Instruction Book is to prevent trouble rather than simply to assist in its diagnosis and cure.

It is true that car builders, after many years of endeavor, have gone far toward eliminating the necessity for instruction books by building cars that call for hardly human intelligence on the part of their owners, but there still remains the need that the work of those clever automobile engineers should be supplemented by reasonable care and attention on the part of car owners.

Now here’s some real meat on car care, which may for convenience be considered under two general headings.

Maintenance – Keeping the Car Itself In Condition

First, may be considered the conservation of the fabric of the car, so that it will do its work smoothly, efficiently and uninterruptedly over a period of sober, serviceable years, instead of being consumed in a colourful but costly career lasting only for a few strenuous repair-shop-seeking months.

Operation – Cost of Getting Over the Road

Second, the car owner who wishes to get full value for his money should give considerable thought to reducing operating expenses by avoiding waste of fuel and lubricants. He must also avoid wasting any of the useful life of those parts of the car which are naturally subject to wear and tear and which require periodic renewal. The most important of these from the point of view of operating expense are the tires and the storage battery, which on the modern car furnishes current for starting, lighting and ignition.

How ‘Car’ and ‘Care’ are Related

Now back to our first consideration. With respect to the conservation of the fabric of the car, it may be a disagreeable surprise to many car owners to learn that in the opinion of car manufacturers, progressive repairmen and others whose experience should qualify them to speak with authority, fully one-half the service value of most cars is frittered away because of neglect by the owner of elemental care. That is certainly some bump to our pride, but, unfortunately, it is true.

Lubrication – the First Auto Habit

This neglect is not so often willful as ignorant – the average owner having never taken the pains to determine the boundary line between reasonable use and abuse. Automobile, meaning “moves itself,” does not mean “cares for itself.”

In the department of lubrication the average owner feels that if he supplies oil and grease with reasonable fidelity, it is quite permissible for him to be occasionally neglectful. Here’s where he slips. The wear in a bearing run dry for however short a period cannot be made good by any amount of subsequent lubrication. A fact worth remembering.

Call him a “crank” if you will-but here’s how one car owner solved the lubricating problem:

He had made a hundred copies of the lubrication chart shown in his instruction book. He hung these on a clip in his garage and at regular intervals went over his car applying oil or grease at all points as indicated on the chart, checking each oil or grease cup on the chart as he applied the lubricant. He then hung in a conspicuous place on another clip the chart he had checked after having dated it, the date to be used as a reminder of the next time for oiling.

All parts must be kept lubricated at all times. This is the first and most important rule of car care.

Those Little Adjustments and Repairs

Next in importance to lubrication comes the making of minor adjustments and repairs as soon as the need for them is noted. The homely old saying, “A Stitch in Time Saves Nine,” applies right here. Not only does the habit of prompt repair of minor wear and tear contribute to the long life and reliable operation of the car, but it is also the best kind of safety insurance. Right here it must be said that a suit of overalls and a pair of cheap gloves are one of the best investments an autoist can make.

Every car driver writes a section of his autobiography on and into the fabric of the automobile he drives. It is writing that is familiar to and decipherable by every repair man. It is often pretty sad reading.

The repairman finds it on the scored walls of engine cylinders, telling of failure to replenish the crank case oil, or perhaps on the misshapen corners of transmission gears mute yet eloquent witnesses to the dragging clutch that made every gear change a harrowing episode, and which ten minutes would have adjusted, but which was neglected day after day. And he finds it in broken springs and strained axles, in frost-cracked cylinder jackets and in all the grease-starved, worn and noisy loose joints and bearings of brakes and brake rods, of radius rods, of steering connections and of those many other little-regarded, out-of-the-way parts where, in the operation of the car, metal moves against metal.

Water and Paint

Chassis care and upkeep contribute to good operation. Care and upkeep of the body, top and, in fact, the entire finished surface of the car, contribute to a continued good appearance. Paint and varnish are preserved by frequent and careful washings and especially by occasional applications of some one of the many reliable preparations which protect and give new life to the finish.

Apart from appearances, the paint and varnish preserve the body by preventing the absorption of moisture, which will quickly enter through paint cracks and rot away the wooden framing.

Out On the Road

Judicious operation of the car on the road will also help in no small way to conserve the bank account of the owner. All parts of the car are necessarily made as light as the service required of them permits, yet with strength to withstand all necessary strains with a reasonable factor of safety. Even legitimate emergency conditions have been given consideration.

But to run a heavily loaded car over rough roads at high speed, to stop and start violently, and the like, cannot fail to subject the parts to excessive and unnecessary strains. The parts so strained may not immediately give way, but the best of steel, like human flesh, is subject to fatigue and deterioration when its strength is overtaxed.

Gas – How Many Miles Per Gallon?

Let us now take up the second heading of car care. In view of the mounting price of gasoline, the subject of fuel economy has become of vital importance. [Has anything really changed? - Editor] The American motorist can, however, take such cold comfort as he can find in the thought at his brothers over-seas have for a number of years paid even higher prices for their fuel. Because of this more attention has in the past been paid to fuel economy abroad than has been paid here, where the lower cost of fuel has permitted us to subordinate economy to ease of starting, flexibility, freedom from the necessity of frequent carburetor adjustment and matters of this kind.

With gasoline promising to reach an even higher level in the near future, automobile manufacturers will undoubtedly apply themselves to reducing fuel consumption per mile. In a large part, this can be accomplished only by more accurate adjustments of mixture. To maintain the higher standard of economy which can thus be reached, it will be necessary for the car owner to supplement the work of the manufacturer and engineer by frequent checking of fuel consumption and prompt correction of any derangement of adjustment.

There are few cars now running over the roads of this country whose performance from the point of view of fuel consumption couldn’t be greatly improved if the car owner were willing to give the matter a little study. Care in the selection and use of cylinder oil, grease and lubricants generally will always pay good dividends in better performance of the car and the saving of many a dime.

Tires – Four on Every Car

Another big opportunity for the thrifty motorist is the saving that can be effected by proper care of tires. Statisticians tell us that the yearly bill for tires in this country alone [USA] is in the neighborhood of $140,000,000, and that $40,000,000 of this is wasted – the price of underinflation, overloading, neglect of small cuts and other forms of tire abuse.

“I’ll pump it up later,” is a thief that has dug deep into the pockets of many motorists. Every motorist should own a tire gauge and religiously keep his tires inflated to the proper pressure.

Pleasure cars are frequently overloaded. Oversized tires generally give more value as a return than the extra money which they cost. A slightly overloaded tire will depreciate much faster than most people would suppose.

Too many motorists have formed the habit of relying on their ability to obtain an adjustment to protect them from the consequences of their own neglect. Tire manufacturers generally deplore the fact that the adjustment policy has become so firmly fixed upon the industry. It was adopted years ago when tire making was not the exact science that it is to-day. Defective tires were not uncommon, and the tire manufacturer was not only willing but anxious to make good the defects he was powerless to prevent.

Now-a-days a really defective tire is seldom turned out by a reputable manufacturer. But although the need for it no longer exists, the adjustment policy has become, as most tire manufacturers and many motorists realize, a kind of vicious circle. So many claims for adjustment are made on account of low mileage due to abuse rather than a defect in the tire, that the tire manufacturer is, in self-defense, obliged to make provision for adjustments in fixing his prices. This means that the careful and conscientious tire user is paying for the neglect of the careless tire user. Motorists and tire manufacturers alike recognize and deplore this condition.

It is to be hoped that tire manufacturers will get together in the near future and abolish what has become a real evil. The adjustment policy is an evil because it fosters neglect. It should be done away with and the present cost of adjustment taken off tire prices. In no other way can proper tire care be really encouraged and a large part of that $40,000,000 annual tire wastage saved.

That Much and Often Abused Storage Battery

One of the greatest improvements made in automobiles was the elimination of hand cranking and the introduction of electric starters. You are willing to admit that a car without an electric starter is only half a car. You depend on your starter, but remember that your starter depends upon a storage battery.

Poor battery. Because it is usually hidden under the seat or some other out of the way place, it seldom gets the little attention it requires and the proper compensation for all the hard work it does – and it’s only a little care that a storage battery really needs. Proper, and the right amount of, food and an occasional drink about covers it. Its food consists of electric current fed to it by the generator. Whether or not it is receiving proper nourishment can be easily and quickly determined by a hydrometer syringe, which registers the specific gravity of the solution in the cells. A healthy battery should show a gravity of between 1.250 and 1.300.

For a drink a storage battery always prefers distilled water (never acid) about once in two weeks – sufficient water to just cover the tops of the battery plates. Remember the water in the solution gradually evaporates, but never the acid. A battery should also be kept clean and dry – even though it is not exposed to view.

And while discussing the electrical system for starting, lighting or ignition, it should be added that in case of any trouble the first thing to do is to carefully examine all of the wiring. All contacts should be kept clean and bright, with all terminals and connections screwed tightly in place. Examine carefully to be sure none of the insulation has been rubbed or burned from the wires.

The Dollars and Sense Side

What is the life of a motor car? Does it pay to spend time and money in caring for a car or is t more economical to buy a car, “run it out” and then replace it? How should a motorist handle a car in order to get the maximum service at a minimum cost? These are pertinent questions in connection with the care of a car.

The experience of one of the largest automobile operating companies in the country will perhaps best answer these questions. A study of this subject by expert engineers over a period of a number of years proved that the life of an automobile is practically indefinite provided it is given proper care and attention. A dollar saved by omitting to make good ordinary wear and tear in due season is almost sure to result in two dollars’ loss in the service and therefore the resale value of a car.

There is hardly a motorist who cannot call to mind some friend or acquaintance who is to-day running a car of the vintage of 1910 or 1912 and who is getting out of it as reliable and economical service as he did when the car was new. An investigation will always prove that such owners are giving prompt and careful attention to all details of the car and that any troubles that may develop are given immediate and intelligent attention.

This much is certain – good care means reliable service and long life.

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