I think my Pontiac is “roadworthy”...now what?
We have completed the series of articles begun last December on “Getting Your Pontiac Roadworthy”. We covered the cooling system, proper lubrication, the brake system, fuel system, and finally the ignition system. It has not been that long ago that we ran several articles on the electrical system, so we felt it was not necessary to cover that subject again. We have been working from the assumption that your car is in basically sound mechanical condition, either as a survivor or after having been restored; so we outlined the systems we believe most likely to cause you minor trouble.
We have received a number of very positive comments from you and know that some have been inspired to go out to the garage and tackle that one aspect of their vintage Pontiac that has them concerned. Perhaps some have even applied all of the featured information to their car, just to satisfy themselves that it was done right the first time. Of course there are surely some who, although they enjoyed the articles, know that everything is OK with their car. Regardless of where you sit, spring is here and the logical question is “now what”? “Take it out for a test drive” is the obvious answer.
A number of years ago, a fellow in Australia wrote me that he and his buddy had put 2,500 miles on a 1930 Oakland V-8 in the first week after a complete rebuild! That’s the equivalent of driving from my home in Maryland to California! Not many of us are going to have that much confidence in our work and I certainly would not recommend it.
Decades ago I had a private pilot license and was involved in the homebuilt aircraft hobby. Folks would spend years building or completely restoring an old plane. When it was all done, and all the inspections were signed off by the local FAA officials, we didn’t just jump in and take off on a cross country flight. Rather we would carefully and deliberately go through a series of tests; taxi tests of increasing speed, short flights in the airport pattern or immediate area, and only then longer, more ambitious flights.
At any good garage, the mechanic’s work is followed by a road test before returning the car to the customer. Regardless of whether you are simply getting your car out of winter hibernation, or you have just finished a repair (or repairs) and need to confirm that it has been effective; we are now ready to talk about road testing procedures.
Let us begin with those that are getting their car out of winter hibernation. The information we provided in the lubrication article is the logical starting point. You are going to want to check all of the fluid levels, the tire pressures including the spare, and all of the lights. While you are warming the engine to operating temperature you can check to see that the gauges are reading, the generator is charging and that the wipers work. Pay particular attention for unfamiliar noises or odors, both in the passenger compartment and also under the hood. Hydramatic owners will need to check the transmission fluid after their car is fully warmed up. Synchromesh owners need to check for the proper amount of free-play in the clutch pedal and smooth operation of the gearshift. Check the brake pedal travel, and that the pedal remains firm under pressure; also confirm that the parking brake will hold the car securely when applied.
If you plan to wash your car before road testing, look underneath before you do to make sure nothing is leaking; water could rinse away important evidence of an impending failure!
Now that you have fully inspected your car and warmed it to operating temperature, it is time for that first drive! Even if you live in the country and can legally run at highway speeds right out of your driveway, we recommend that you limit your speed to 35mph for the first few miles. If possible, a good road test route will include as many varied road conditions as your area has available. Even in relatively flat northern Ohio I know of some roads that offer some degree of grade to climb. You may also want someone to follow along in another car; not that your vintage Pontiac won’t bring you home, but they could tell you the color of smoke out the tail pipe or if your brake lights are nice and bright.
The main purpose of a road test is to pay particular attention to your car while you drive. Make multiple stops and starts, turns in both directions, and while moving forward and backward as you would when parking. Listen closely for any unusual sounds or noises; also be aware of any unfamiliar odors. Check your mirror for excessive smoke, your following driver should be able to tell you if it was coming from the tail pipe or from under the car, such as the road draft tube.
Does your car stop straight when you apply the brakes?
Is the steering as precise as you expect it to be, and does your can handle in the accustomed manner?
Does the steering wheel “return” promptly after you have rounded a corner?
Does the wheel “pull” to the right or left; if it wants to veer to the right, find a deserted road and drive in the oncoming lane to eliminate the effect of a highly crowned road.
Does the steering wheel shake or vibrate at higher speeds, indicating a wheel balance problem.
Does the clutch engage near the floorboard as you release the pedal or nearly at the end of its travel?
Is the clutch engagement smooth or does it “chatter”?
Does it disengage fully, allowing you to shift between first and reverse without gear clash?
Can you shift gears without gear clash?
Is your Hydramatic shifting smoothly and when you expect it to?
Will it “downshift” if you floor the accelerator while driving at 30-35mph?
Does your engine hesitate as you accelerate away from a stop?
Are you hearing excessive spark knock on acceleration, remember that some spark knock is expected if you have adjusted the timing correctly.
Is your engine running smoothly at all times? It should remain smooth even under full throttle acceleration.
Does your engine “miss” under light to moderate acceleration from low speed in high gear? A cracked spark plug or bad plug wire is the likely cause under this condition.
Be sure to keep an eye on the gauges, especially the engine temperature. At very low speeds, most of our cars will run hotter than normal, the fan and water pump are turning slowly and there is not any forward speed to push air into the radiator. If you are caught in slow moving traffic and the temperature begins to climb, try driving in second gear, (Synchromesh) or Lo (Hydramatic) to increase the fan and water pump speeds. To prevent the radiator from boiling over, you could also turn on the heater and fan if your car is so equipped; any heat you can remove from the engine is a good thing under severe conditions! Keeping the engine at a high idle when sitting stopped is also helpful, this is much easier on early cars with a hand throttle.
A thorough road test should take 30 minutes or more, and cover a distance of at least 15 miles. The water temperature gauge will reach the normal range relatively quickly, but it takes at least 15 miles of driving for the engine oil and Hydramatic fluid to reach their normal operating temperatures.
Once the engine oil is thoroughly heated, note the oil pressure at idle; it is permissible for it to drop nearly to zero so long as it immediately increases as you accelerate the engine. The better the condition of the engine, the smaller drop in pressure at hot idle.
Watch the speedometer needle for fluctuation, it is more likely to act up in severe cold or high heat, but a wavering needle under normal driving conditions could mean its time to lubricate the cable. I highly recommend that you apply 1 or 2 drops of light oil to the shaft that the cable fits into; it rides in a bushing that can cause the speedometer to fluctuate as well.
When you get home from your road test, take another look under the hood while the engine is still hot, just to be sure that everything still seems to be normal. Check the ground under the car as soon as you park and again later, just to be sure that there is nothing leaking.
If you have been having a particular issue with your car, or have worked on it for a specific problem, such as overheating, then your road test should be tailored to expose that problem. Drive the car under the conditions where the problem was the worst to see if your repairs have been effective.
Once you know that your car does not have any obvious problems, then you can begin driving it on longer trips as you build your confidence in its reliability.
I highly recommend that you read your owner’s guide thoroughly; it contains a wealth of information and operating tips that you may never have known or have simply forgotten. Automobiles have become so reliable in the past decade that we simply get in and drive them. Vintage cars, even those that have been fully restored to “as-new” condition, should never be driven as you can drive your new vehicle. Even in the early fifties, overheating and vapor lock were common occurrences for many automobiles, and drivers’ were accustomed to dealing with them.
People used to have to tailor their driving to match the capabilities of their automobile; driver’s learned from experience what their car was capable of and drove it accordingly; or risked being stranded by the side of the road. The differences between an entry level car and an expensive car were far more significant in the fifties than they are today. Other than some oddball electric cars for urban use; every automobile sold today is capable of being driven all day on the Interstate without the slightest trace of overheating, or concerns about vapor lock during a 10 minute restroom stop! This type of driving was just beginning in 1954 and none of our cars’ were designed to be driven in this manner.