News & Stories

Mechanical Preservation: How and Why We Exercise our Cars

April 16, 2019 In the News

By David Santiago

From both a financial and historical perspective, driving a highly valuable automobile on public roads seems like an unnecessary liability for an automotive museum. The risks might seem to outweigh the rewards. However, just like all machines, if a car sits stationary for an extended period of time the effects can be costly and damaging. At Revs Institute we pride ourselves on the fact that nearly every car in the museum is kept in running condition and each one is driven periodically. In fact, only a very small number of cars are not kept in running condition. An internal decision was made to conserve a select number of highly original cars and to put them in a “cold storage” state to preserve original finishes or vulnerable systems with the highest degree of care. These cars can be recommissioned as needed. This is not just an interesting factoid meant to wow our patrons either. It’s much more than that — this process literally keeps the cars alive.

Automobiles, like all artifacts, are not impervious to the damaging effects of time. The inevitable reality is that one day all cars will reach a point where they will break down to a level where they need to be restored or at least mechanically refreshed. As an institution, we have a responsibility to delay the deterioration of these objects for as long as is humanly possible for the benefit of future generations. To accomplish this goal, we maintain and “exercise” our cars on a regular basis, with the utmost regard for historic preservation.  The road cars are driven on the public roads and the racing cars are restricted to laps in the parking lot, a track test day, or run at select historic racing events.

The 1964 Alfa Romeo GTZ after being rolled off the podium display and onto the portable lift. Photo: David Santiago

So, what’s involved in the process of our vehicle maintenance and exercise? First things first, the car needs to get from its respective display area to the workshop. Most cars are easily maneuvered in and out of the workshop, but others, such as this Alfa Romeo GTZ displayed on a platform on our upper lobby level, are trickier. In this case, a portable lift, designed and built in-house, is used to move the car off the platform and onto the museum floor. After that, it’s a short trip in the car elevator down to the lower lobby level and straight into one of the workshop bays. 

Generally, the cars are displayed in the gallery with all vital fluids aboard except fuel, for obvious reasons. One of the most important areas to focus on with our water-cooled cars is the cooling system in order to make sure there is no evidence of corrosion. This is one of the areas that can become problematic when a car sits stationary for an extended period. The best way to combat this is to exercise the car and continually check the nitrate and pH levels of the coolant and maintain the anti-corrosion additive. 

Top view of the 1570cc engine that powers the GTZ. Photo: David Santiago

A vehicle checklist is followed to prepare each of the cars for exercise or track use, which outlines routine maintenance checks and service including: compression testing, spark plug inspection, a thorough check of the entire chassis and suspension components, fuel system inspection, bleeding/flushing of the brake system, and the lubrication of all moving parts including chassis lubrication and mechanical linkages.  Batteries are also installed in the car at this time, which are not kept in place while in our galleries for safety reasons.  In fact, there are only 15 batteries of varying types and sizes for all the cars in the museum. 

One of the most overlooked aspects regarding the performance and safety of any classic car or racing car, is its tires. Many of the cars on display have two sets of wheels and tires, one for display purposes and one for exercise, or track use. This enables us to display cars like the 917k with its period correct, 1971 Firestone Super Sports GP tires, but still ensures the car is safe to operate, with a reproduction set of magnesium wheels and modern-era historic race tires.

A common sight in the workshop as cars are carefully prepared for track events and routine exercise. Photo: David Santiago

All the work completed on each car is carefully documented by Revs technicians to keep a detailed record that can be referred to at any time. Photographs of each step and repair are taken and archived in a specific folder unique to each car. 

Once the necessary maintenance and preservation work is completed, which can take a minimum of one day up to several days, it’s time to roll the car outside to see if everything is operating as it should. Even with meticulous maintenance and care, cars are fickle, and parts or materials can go bad due to age. This is why it’s important to fire up the car outside and do some laps in the parking lot before heading out onto the open road. If there are any issues that pop up at this stage, this is the best time to correct them! These small issues are exactly the kinds of problems that regular maintenance and exercise will identify and resolve. The entire electrical system; lights, horns, wipers, fans, etc., are also checked for proper operation at this time.

The 1927 Vauxhall Type OE 30/98 Velox heading out for some exercise. Photo: David Santiago

If everything looks good, then it’s time to head out onto the public road or load up for the track. Approximately 30-40 miles are put on each road car, enough to make sure that everything reaches full operating temperature, with consideration for excessive or unnecessary wear. It’s also important to drive each car as it was intended to be driven to ensure it is truly in proper running order. 

After the car returns to the workshop, the process is reversed and a post-run checklist is followed to decommission the car for display again, which includes fogging the cylinders with oil, pumping fuel out of the tank, removing the battery, and refitting the display wheels/tires. As a final check, oil and coolant samples are regularly sent out for lab testing to verify there are no problems inside the engine. After what seems like just a few hours or days, the car is returned to its display area.  

The Vauxhall Type OE 30/98 Velox at speed. Photo: David Santiago

So why go through all the effort? The automobile is a unique type of historical artifact in that its value is not limited to what we can see in a museum display. The experience of driving and viewing these cars in their natural operating state is something that is important to our mission. An automobile must be driven or seen in operation to be fully appreciated. Without experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of cars in operation, one cannot fully grasp the technological achievements that they truly represent.

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David Santiago

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