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?

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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.

LED lights

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.”

Dreaded fires

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.”

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