Ost of us find the electrical bits inside our car something of a mystery, and the thought of toying around with a component that has wires poking out of it can be pretty daunting. So, when a piece of that puzzle seems amiss, what do you do?
Wires and harnesses
As cars get old, electrical wires begin to degrade. They have been subjected to years of road use, dirt, and changing conditions, which has caused them to become brittle and lose conductivity. In some cases, the wiring harness and switches may be 50 years old or older, and the designers back then probably weren’t expecting the car to be around in this day and age — weren’t we all meant to be flying in space-age vehicles by now? Distributors and coils cannot work efficiently if they aren’t receiving the full voltage that they require, and the number-one cause of this is worn-out wiring.
We asked Lesley Walton from Wiri Auto Electrical and Batteries, who has been in the industry for over 22 years and took over the company in 2000, what she had to say: “Wires can get brittle on older classic cars, so it pays to check yourself or have the electrical system checked regularly. People tend to forget about their electrical system until it’s too late and a problem arises — or they begin to smell smoke. You can keep on top of this, but keep an eye on what’s going on under your bonnet; make sure wires and harnesses are not making contact with hot surfaces that could melt through or cause them to go brittle prematurely. If you notice that the surface is becoming brittle or has already begun to flake off, wrap some electrical tape around the affected area for a temporary fix, and take it to your trusted auto electrician [for them] to have a proper look at. It may not be anything in the end, but it beats watching your car go up in smoke from lack of care.
“A lot of the younger generation in the industry aren’t overly thrilled about working on older classic cars, as, due to their age, a lot more effort is involved, and it can be considered dirtier work, due to how brittle wires and harnesses can become. We make sure to push the importance of catering to classics, as, in another 20 years’ time, who will be left to take care of them? We are dedicated to ensuring electrical expertise for classic car owners for years to come.”
Batteries, cables, and terminals
The electrical heart of any car, the battery provides the initial power needed to get things started and can cause a big problem if it’s unwell. Often, this is caused by long periods of storage or less-than-ideal storage conditions, which can make starting up your old girl a real hassle. Battery life may be degraded by a variety of issues, and this can be as basic as having the incorrect battery installed for the car’s needs or the terminals becoming old and corroded from lack of maintenance when it’s confined to the garage.
It’s tempting to assume a classic’s battery should hold its power, given there’s usually nothing sitting there to drain it. We talked to Ben from Jay Bee Auto Electrical about what the best solutions to battery issues are: “The problem occurs with the older vehicles — things from the ’50s and ’60s. Over the years, people will have played around fitting old-style alarms or stereos …, often incorrectly, so you will have a lot of power being drawn to odd places in the car where it may not be suited to do so. There’s a correct way to do these installations, and many, unfortunately, get this wrong. The first step is [to] get the professionals to do this to avoid parasitic draw on the battery, and [when such incorrect installation] … has been done, [to get it] fixed up — it also pays to keep an eye on your battery cables and terminals, as, the older they get, the more prone they [become] … to corrosion, … [and] heat in the connections, if installed incorrectly, posing a fire hazard.
“The second is a trickle charger — this ensures that your battery is always charged fully when you go to start up your car, whether it’s been stored for days or months. It consists of a couple of wires that are hooked up to your battery with a special plug that we tuck behind the grille, or [in an]other suitable area, which can then be plugged into a charger. This will stop your battery from dying and costing you a lot of heartache and more money.”
Jay Bee Auto Electrical services the greater Central Auckland areas while sister-company A&H Auto Electrical has the North Shore covered.
Fuses and relays
When an electrical component fails, it may turn out to be an issue with the fuse that protects it. Changing a fuse in your car is similar to changing one at home. Locating which is the right fuse, and where that fuse may live, can be tricky. Fuses are generally grouped together in a box or panel with a cover in the engine bay, and related fuses will usually be located in this area alongside engine relays, while accessories fuses are typically found under the dash.
We asked Neville at Wrack Auto Parts and Services — which has been attending to all of Whangarei’s and Northland’s autoelectrical needs since 1975 — what to do when a fuse blows:
“When there’s a fault in the electrical circuit, checking the fuses is the first … [thing we do], as it’s the most common thing to fail — they are designed to blow to prevent overloading of the electrical system. The major issue with older cars is the ends of the fuse corroding, as they tend to be oldertechnology fuses made from copper, and, while copper is a great conductor, back then, it wasn’t really made to last. This causes the fuse ends and plug ends in the fuse box where it pushes into to corrode.
“Similar issues are quite prominent in classic Japanese cars also — over time, the tail lights, indicators, wiper motors, horn, etc. will stop working. Depending on the fuse, you can see if it has blown by holding it up to a light source and noting the wire inside — if it’s broken, the fuse has blown. Plastic distortion and blackening are also obvious signs. If you’re unsure, this can be checked with a simple test light. This will tell you if the power is going to where it needs to be … There are also relays designed to allow manufacturers to use lighter-constructed switches and wiring without overloading the circuit. Over time, these can fail, too, and we highly recommend you seek advice before changing a relay with a non-genuine item. Incorrect relays can lead to a number of problems and even cause wiring to melt.”
Neville and the team at Wrack are more than happy to sort out any of your autoelectrical problems. lubrication. It’s tasked with the purpose of igniting the air-fuel mixture in the cylinder to create a power stroke, and almost all classic cars will use the traditional points/ condenser ignition system. Although it’s prone to unreliability, as it comprises a number of components, in principle, it is a relatively simple system.
So, what do you do if it fizzles out, as they are known to? We put this question to Blair Woodhead at Woodhead Auto Electrical, which has been servicing the electrical needs of classics and motor sport– oriented vehicles since 1993.
“There are two options,” he told us, “recondition the existing system, or convert it over to an electronic ignition system depending on the owner’s needs, and we make sure to understand those before making our suggestions. For the owner wanting a full historic restoration, you should, of course, keep the points/ condenser ignition — restoring these is something we’ve done plenty of — and have the distributor re-kitted, and sort out the weights, bushes, and advance unit. We can also refurbish the alternator, starter, and generators to make sure they are doing their job correctly.
“The second option is what we recommend to the classic owner wanting to use the car more often, as something for weekly driving and pottering around in — a conversion to electronic ignition. These are faultless-running, easy-starting options that ensure you won’t succumb to the heartache of a failure to run on a day’s outing. The electronic system is able to adapt to wear, and, when items like the distributor become older, the electronic system can overcome this to ensure the car keeps on running. We also advise fitting better light bulbs and the correct battery options to suit.”
Alternators and starter motors
While the alternator is a key component in keeping your battery full, the starter motor is what will kick off the whole shebang. Alternators, like any piece of the puzzle, are prone to wear, and signs of this include dim or flickering headlights, which they provide direct power for, and a constantly dying battery, as it is no longer charging. As for the starter, which cranks the engine over, a nostart due to a worn-out starter motor means you are either walking or pushing — neither of which is ideal.
We asked Ray from Auto Electrical Spares (AES) — which has become a first port of call over the last 15 years or so for providing comprehensive alternator and starter-motor servicing — what can be done to get both components under control:
“If your starter motor or alternator has broken down, you don’t need to commit it to the landfill just yet. AES can bring it back to life. The number-one issue for classic owners when their old starter or alternator dies is they can’t find a new replacement, so we rebuild both in-house. It’s the perfect option for those who want to keep their classic as if it had just come from the factory or are completing a full historic restoration project. We also custom manufacture units from your existing starter or alternator to suit specific requirements, and they can be upgraded for modern amenities.
“Both components are integral to a nice driving, functional vehicle, so doing things right the first time makes all the difference. We also carry a complete range of new examples for most brands; these cover European, American, and Japanese, and it doesn’t matter if you’re after a unit for a commercial, marine, or passenger vehicle.”
In a nutshell, AES can help you with all your starter motor and alternator needs.
One of the more modern conversions for classics these days is getting rid of the yellow, dated-looking incandescent bulbs throughout the car and fitting LED replacements. This can be done for the side indicator bulbs (special requirements are needed here), front parking and fog lights, rear brake lights and indicators, interior dome light bulb(s), and interior door-entry or footwell lighting — if applicable.
To find out where to start, we got in touch with Jason Brown at Te Rapa Auto Electrical — which has won the People’s Choice award for auto-electrical services three years running. Here’s what he had to say: “There are a number of lights that can be swapped out for newer LED equivalents, and changing them isn’t as costly or timeconsuming as people may imagine. First of all, you need to determine what bulbs will work for your needs. For the interior lighting, this is as simple as taking off the plastic covers and pulling a bulb out — they will typically be either a wedge-style push-in bulb or a longer-style bulb, which has connectors at each end; then you will need the code type.
“Rear brake lights and indicators are accessed through the light’s external housing inside the boot area, while front parking and headlights are similarly accessed in the engine bay. Some cars have limited access, so, if in doubt, take it to the professionals. Take note of how large the existing bulbs are, and make sure to select suitable, similar-sized options, as more powerful LED bulbs might be too big or too long to fit. Slot the existing bulbs out and replace [them] with the new LED option. Remember that LED bulbs can only flow current in one direction — test the bulb has been correctly installed by switching the light on; if it doesn’t light up, simply pull it out, spin it around, and install the opposite way.”
The team at Te Rapa Auto Electrical can save you the hassle of fitting your entire vehicle with LED lighting options, quickly and easily.
Plugs, switches, and the cost of it all
We’ve looked at how wiring can become damaged with age but often forgotten are the associated plugs and switches. These, too, can break down, corrode, and fizzle out over the years, especially when a car is stored for long periods. Certain makes and models are more susceptible than others, and it’s important to keep an eye on these things, as any failure can affect important components such as headlights, brake lights, and the fuel system.
We spoke with Paul from P&B Group — who spent a number of years in Europe working on cars in the famous Group B series and crewing for such names as Stig Blomqvist — to get a bit of insight into how this can affect a electrical system. He also got us thinking about how much time is involved and how much it will all cost in the end.
“When it comes to plugs and switches, there are two common types we see coming through the shop. British cars will use Lucas examples; these were known as being prone to failure in their heyday and, by now, many have been sitting around in storage for over 10 years, causing them to become corroded and broken,” he told us.
“The same goes for German cars, which run Bosch. These were better quality, but age has affected them the same way. The main issue, though, is [that] people will attempt to fix these issues themselves and cause more problems in the process — we’ve had cases where someone has spent a whole week and damaged other pieces over a job that would have been a few hours for us and [cost], say, $250 total.
“People tend not to think about the cost side of things; what’s your time worth to you? We try to help customers understand the cost of each step in the process before the job is started — that way, you have stepped budget control and don’t end up slapped with an unexpected bill at the end. We’ll start a job and get to a certain agreed point, then stop and call the customer to discuss where it is at and how much it will cost for the next step, asking how far they want to proceed. It’s important that you get the most for your money, quality workmanship, and a sense of happiness from the finished product.”
No matter how hard you try to prevent such things from occurring, there is always the possibility for disaster to strike and a fire to break out. It’s often hard to trace the cause back to one thing, and it’s often triggered by a combination of factors — human error, mechanical issues, chemical leaks, or electrical faults.
When the worst does happen, electrical systems are almost always affected in one way or another. If you’re lucky, it’s just a popped fused or a melted accessory wire, but, in other cases, it can be a full enginebay-loom refit and electrical-component rebuild, affecting the likes of generators and distributors.
This kind of work is best left to the professionals, as, although you may be handy with the old wire stripper and crimper, the chances of causing a future fire due to error during the fix-up are high when you don’t know the ins and outs. We asked Mike Barlow from Mike Barlow Auto Electrical how a classic can be saved in the event of such a fire occurring. Here’s what he had to say:
“Fires can happen quite easily and without warning, especially in … older and classic cars. That’s a factor of age and wear causing components to fail, which, if missed, can cause a similar incident to what one of our customers experienced. Jackie and Ian Goldingham had the misfortune of having a petrol fire in their 1924 Sunbeam roadster coupé.
“That meant we were tasked with dismantling the classic car’s engine bay and refurbishing the affected components. We dismantled the generator and overhauled it, re-taped the burned fields, and fitted an electronic distributor in place of the original mag[neto] system for more reliability. A battery-isolating switch — that, when engaged, disconnects the battery from pushing power through the car’s circuitry — was also installed for extra protection. Obviously, as you can see [below right], the wiring was heavily damaged from the fire, and we replaced the lot and overhauled the voltage regulators to suit. While in the process, indicators and brake lights were also added to the existing lights. Jackie and Ian were rapt with the finished product.”