4 modern upgrades for your classic car

Today's drivers are a bit spoiled. Options once considerd luxuries such as disc brakes, power steering and air conditioning are standard on almost every new car that rolls off the assembly line.

If you're thinking about transforming an old classic into a true modern daily driver, it's a good idea to think beyond the obvious improvements like adding extra horswepower and laying down the perfect paint job.

First, make sure it's roadworthy. Then think about adding modern upgrades to systems like the car's braking, steering and suspension. "The vehicle must be safe in all aspects," say Sue and John Matthews, owners of Vintage Specialties in Gettysburg, Pa. But once that work is complete, "Any car out there can be made to include all the luxuries that your everyday car has," they say.

Take a look at four ways you can add modern tech and creature comfort to make a classic car a modern driver:

1. Disc brakes

Unless you’re a big stickler for originality in your classic, one of the first modern upgrades you should consider is adding a new disc brake system. “People are usually upgrading the horsepower quite a bit with an engine rebuild and they want to make sure it’s safe,” says Jon Hanstbarger of Precision Restorations in St. Louis. “They’re not just worrying about themselves when they were 18 years old anymore, now they have a wife and kids that are going to be in the car with them and they want to make sure they’re going to be safe.”

If your vehicle has outdated drum brakes all the way around, consider adding a disc brake kit to the front wheels, you’ll be adding modern stopping power to your ride and possibly increasing its value should you go on to sell it. Kits for more common cars such as Camaros and Mustangs are widely available and relatively cheap.

Most of the classic car pros Angie’s List Classic Cars spoke to said kits for common domestic manufacturers can be purchased for as little as $800 to $1,200. Labor increases the starting price point for a front-end brake installation to around $3,000 for most widely available domestic classics.

If that sounds like too much, think of it as a relatively minor investment in safety. “When you have a billion dollars invested in your car, you want to be able to stop on a dime when some idiot pulls out in front of you,” says Chris Kuchem of Chris’ Garage in Kansas City, Mo.

And when you invest in more modern technology, you’ll get modern stopping power that’s easier to work on. “Disc brakes are easier to work on than drum brake setups, especially for someone more familiar with more modern cars,” Hanstbarger says. “The disc brakes are very simple and most of the time the parts are available at retail parts stores.”

2. Suspension

There are about as many ways to upgrade your suspension as there are classic car styles and customizations, but no matter what kind of upgrade you choose to add, it’s likely better than stock, says Kuchem: “The old stuff just won’t hold up, it was built in the day when the horsepower was a fraction of what it was today.”

Hantsbarger says an entry level suspension upgrade can add a stiffer, safer ride quality to your classic and increase its longevity. “Depending on the vehicle, at a minimum it’s going to be $800 to $1,200, which is basically just going through and replacing the rubber bushings with polyurethane ones,” he says. “It gives the car a bit stiffer ride, but they will last longer than the original rubber bushings, which usually cracked after a few years.”

Kuchem adds that with the right budget, suspension options are nearly unlimited. His next project includes adding an adjustable air ride kit to a ’51 Packard. “I’m guessing that that the suspension with the front end and back together will cost about $10,000 to $12,000,” he says.  

Much of that price would be wrapped up in custom fabrication, he adds. “You’re usually going to have to do fabricate some parts and fittings for suspensions on some of the lesser-known cars,” Kuchem says. “That also usually involves some chassis engineering to make sure you’re putting the right stuff in at the right angle.”

3. Power steering

Using too much muscle when trying to steer your muscle car? If power steering isn’t equipped on your vehicle, upgrading to a new rack-and-pinion power steering system can be a great investment. “When you have guys who want to drive their older cars to work on nice days and park in tight corners, they don’t want to have to make a 20-point turn,” Hantsbarger says. “You’d be better off installing upgraded rack and pinion power steering.”

Like any upgrade, the cost is dependent on the ride, its condition and what options were available when it was new, but you’re probably going to spend at least $1,000 to $2,000 at the low end. “A 1938 Buick Special? Yeah, we’re going to have to do some fabrication with that,” Hantsbarger says. “But a Chevelle, Mustang or Impala – those cars that get passed down the most or that had power steering as an original option are the easiest.”

4. Air conditioning

Nothing adds more comfort to your ride than the cool breeze of an upgraded AC system. Kits from manufacturers like Vintage Air are widely available and come in universal designs that can fit in any nearly vehicle.

“Installing a new AC system can run from $2,000 to $5,000, depending on the car and whether or not you’re starting from scratch,” says Nathan Ghalili of Vintage Autoworks in Tucker, Ga.

If your car came equipped with AC, but it’s no longer up to the task of cooling you and your passengers down, consider a upgrading the system components and retrofitting to make it compatible the most up-to-date refrigerant, R134. “With an R134 upgrade, you’re going to have to put about at least $1,400 put into it,” Hanstbarger says.

But Ghalili says that even with a new AC system or refrigerant upgrade, it’s a good idea not expect that your interior will necessarily become an icebox overnight. “We can get it to blow cold, but you’re usually talking about an older car that may have a lot of venting coming through the doors; they’re not sealed off well, so you could still be drawing in hot air from the outside,” he says.


I don't know where they came up with 1200 bucks for suspension rubber, that with the proper tools and experience take maybe an hour and a half to put in, or 3000 dollars for disc brakes, maybe two to three hours with the right tools, parts and experience, or FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS for air conditioning? Are you kidding me? 1400 dollars just to convert a system to R134? I've got nine collector cars ranging from a 1932 Nash Ambassador to a 1966 Rambler American convertible. All of them have had these upgrades and more done to them. None of these upgrades costed anywhere near these prices on any of them. Air ride suspension on the '32 Nash was the most expensive, and it was 4500 dollars from start to finish, nothing like the 12K figure given here.

There are modern retractible 3-point seat belts for classics now. I'd put that right with power front disc brakes. And frankly I would only use urethane on things like sway bar end links. Silly to use them all over your suspension - rubber was part of the engineering intent. Urethan has no give, and you may break things by going all urethane.

One note to remember when upgrading to a 4-wheel Disc system, is generally you will not stop in less distance(2 disc front/2 disc rear), but have better overall control with 4 discs instead of two.

Add comment


What is Angie's List?

Angie’s List is the trusted site where more than 3 million households go to get ratings and reviews on everything from home repair to health care. Stop guessing when it comes to hiring! Check Angie’s List to find out who does the best work in town.

Local Discounts

Daily deals up to 70% off popular home improvement projects from top-rated contractors on Angie’s List!