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How to Clean and Restore a Classic Car’s Engine Compartment

Many classic car and truck owners spend a lot of time and money on keeping their prized possessions looking their best.  Pristine paint with a great wax job along with some polished chrome and dressed up tires can make any vehicle look remarkable.  But what about under the hood?

Far too often, we see classic cars that look incredible, but once the hoods are raised the grease and grime of an unkept engine compartment is revealed.  Keeping your motor and engine compartment sparkling clean is just as important as a good wax job if you want to keep your classic car or truck looking its best.

Nothing is more impressive than popping the hood of your spotless cruiser and seeing the engine shine.  For show cars it is a crucial step in caring for your vehicle.  For others it just shows that you take pride in owning a prized collector.

It is not necessary to remove your engine to clean everything if you take your time and are thorough with your work.  Not removing the engine from the car will save you a lot of time and effort.  If you do have the time, equipment and know-how to remove your motor, the ability to clean your engine and engine compartment will be much, much easier and the results are typically much better as well.

Before you begin you should realize that the most important tool you will need is proper lighting.  Being able to see all the areas that are dirty, scuffed, or tarnished is key to getting them really clean.  Use a strong flashlight or a trouble light to take a close look.

You may need to touch up paint on the engine and all dirt and grease must be removed before you can repaint any parts.  As you are likely aware, paint does not stick to grease and dirt.  If there is any left behind before you apply paint, you are certain to be left with poor results.

If you happen to own a steam cleaner, then you are in luck.  They do an excellent job with cleaning.  Otherwise there are spray on cleaners available that can do the trick.  WD-40 Contact Cleaner works really well.  Some cleaners you can simply spray on and then rinse off with a high-pressure hose.  Other spray on cleaners will require you to spray it on, wait for a short period of time and then wipe away with a clean rag.  Remember to wear gloves and safety goggles when working with these chemicals to avoid causing any harm to yourself.

To make the job easier we suggest you gather a wide variety of brushes to clean with.  Common household cleaning brushes, toothbrushes, wire brushes and even an unused toilet brush can be used for general scrubbing.  We use brushes from an inexpensive gun cleaning kit to help us get into the hard to reach places.  Many of them are attached to metal shanks that can be into slid into tight spaces to reach places that hands will not fit.

Compressed air is also extremely helpful to have a round to help get dirt out of corners and other hard to reach places.  Air compressors can be purchased relatively cheap these days and tend to have a lot of uses around the house for other projects and repairs.  This is another tool that you will want to wear safety goggles when using.  Nothing is worse that sand, dirt or small metal shavings when they get in your eye.

If you want to achieve superb detailing you may want to consider removing a few parts from the motor like the alternator, air cleaner, carburetor, starter, and manifold.  Depending on your mechanical skills you may not be able to remove all of these and that is okay.  At a minimum however you will need to remove the air cleaner to do a decent job painting and detailing your engine.

One other thing will need to be removed are the spark plugs.  We suggest temporarily replacing them with a set of old ones to protect the spark plug hole in the cylinder block from any cleaners or over spray if you need to paint.  If you also chose to remove the plug wires make sure you mark them so that you will know what order they go in when putting them back on.

After you are satisfied with your cleaning use masking tape and newspaper to cover up any parts that you do not want to get paint on.  Do not skimp on the making tape.  Use a high-quality brand so that the tape doesn’t peel off or give you troubles by sticking when you try to remove it.

When selecting the paint that you will use on your engine look for a high temperature engine paint.  Some restoration experts claim that you can get away with using a normal enamel paint, but we aren’t willing to roll the dice when working on our cars.  Eastwood makes some really great engine paint that can withstand temperatures up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

For most classic car aficionados, it is extremely important to use an original, authentic color.  We suggest you turn to Eastwood once again.  They have a list of engine paint colors to help you buy the perfect color match.  There are other paint companies as well that have engine colors listed on their websites in case Eastwood does not have the information you are looking for.  Otherwise you can also always ask your local car club or classic car body shop if they know which pain tone to use.

You may also want to repaint other parts like the alternator, starter, etc.  For those you can typically use a more generalized color like Chassis Black or Engine Builder Gray to do the job.  There are also paints that can replicate aluminum and other metals if that is the look you are going for.  If you choose to paint the radiator be sure to purchase a high temperature thin radiator paint that will not restrict airflow.  For the manifolds there are also special paints that typically are available in black, silver, or gray.

As for engine stickers and decals we suggest masking them off if they are in good condition.  Most vendors will sell reproduction stickers online or you can also often find your specific stickers on Ebay.  In our opinion, good looking stickers can really set off the look of your engine making it look official and new.  It is an easy addition to really polish off an engine detail.

As for belts and hoses, as well as distributor caps, spark plugs and other parts, you can usually shine them up with a soft brush and a little elbow grease.  If they are not looking top notch you may want to have them replaced not only to make them look good, but also to ensure your vehicle’s performance.  Another easy add on to spruce up wires are high temperature wire looms that not only look good but can also help to protect your wiring from being chewed through by pesky rodents and other damage.  They are easy to clean and/or replace.

Taking your time detailing your engine and compartment is time well invested.  Not only does a clean engine look great, but it also helps keep your engine in good running condition and helps to identify any future leaks or issues you may run into.  If you decide to put your classic car or truck on the market, nothing will sell a car quicker than a clean compartment.

Please consider subscribing to our monthly email newsletter to keep up with everything that’s going on at the Wilson Auto Repair garage. Also, follow us on Instagram, @carmechanic, and sign up for a LIVE, one-on-one Zoom consultation with Barry Wilson, our master mechanic to discuss any challenges you might be facing with your classic vehicle repair or restoration project. Finally, visit Wilson Auto.com, to find the tools we use and recommend to you for your classic car project.