If you work slowly and carefully, you can do a nice job of detailing your collector car’s engine without removing it from the vehicle. Detailing involves cleaning the engine, renewing stickers and decals and giving things like belts and hoses a looks-like-new appearance.
To detail an engine, you need light. You have to know what you’re going to clean before you start the process. Use a flashlight or a trouble lamp to take a good look at the engine. When using a trouble lamp, be certain there are no fuel leaks. Many a shop has burned when a hot, exposed bulb ignited leaking gas. When working around carburetors, a flashlight will provide the safest light.
When cleaning an engine, remove as much excess grease as possible. Steam cleaning is an excellent way to remove grease, and a few inexpensive steam cleaners are making their way into the consumer market. Alternatively, you can use a spray cleaner. Some of these are soapy solutions that you spray on, let sit and then wash off with a garden hose. Others are grease cutters that you spray on and wipe off with a rag. Wear safety goggles and rubber gloves when working with any chemical spray.
A collection of brushes is handy for cleaning hard-to-reach areas. Stock an old tackle-box with toothbrushes, steel brushes of various shapes, a toilet bowl brush, scrub brushes, paint brushes and a barbeque grill brush. You might be surprised at how useful a discarded toothbrush can be. For $10 you can buy a gun cleaning kit with long metal brushes that can be chucked in a power-drill. Oddly shaped brushes can get cleaning solution into spots where hands won’t fit.
An air compressor can be an invaluable tool. It can be used to blow dirt out of nicks and crannies. Even a cheap 2-horse unit can save you hours of brushing. Always wear goggles when using compressed air.
To do a really nice job of cleaning an engine, you may want to remove the generator, starter, carburetor, exhaust manifold and air cleaner. Remember to operate within the often ignored maxim, “If you don’t know how to put it together, don’t take it apart.”
If your engine still has original stickers or decals in good condition, you’ll want take special care in preserving them. Many vendors sell reproduction engine stickers and decals to give air cleaners and valve covers the factory look. Catalogs are available to determine which decals your car should have.
When it comes to belts and hoses – as well as service parts like spark plugs, distributor caps, boils, voltage regulators and oil filters – the best way to make them look new is to install new ones as part of a spring tune-up. However, if these parts are in working order, keeping it original is ideal. A soft-bristle toothbrush to break up the dirt and a clean rag to wipe it off will do wonders for their appearance. Spray protectorants can be used to clean wires, plastic windshield washer jugs, brake master cylinders and so on. Split flexible wire loom is used to cover the wiring on many modern cars and can be added to older ones. Such coverings are great for protecting your original spark plug wires but they are hard to keep clean. You can renew their appearance with liquid shoe polish.
A few hours spent detailing your collector car’s engine in the spring is well worth the time and energy. It will make the car more show worthy, and it provides you with a great opportunity to check over crucial mechanical components before hitting the road. Should you decide to sell the car, a nicely detailed engine could help swing the deal.
John "Gunner" Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola, Wis., and former editor of Old Cars Weekly and Old Cars Price Guide.