How to Take Your Hot Rod on a Road Trip

How to Take Your Hot Rod on a Road Trip
Make sure all gauges work. Vintage tape deck and CD radio are good travel ideas.

The Importance of Preparation

In the early days of motoring, “reliability tours” were organized to test the dependability of cars making long trips. Today’s hot rod owners take pride in driving a dependable vehicle that can make it back from a lengthy run without breaking down. To do this, a hot rod must be well maintained.

Electrical problems, vapor lock, overheating, brake failure and flat tires are typical problems rodders encounter on a road trip.

Some drivers have car problems often, while others usually do not. Why? Because knowledgeable hobbyists take the time to prepare their hot rod for the road, while others do not.

Preparation is important. No one wants to be stranded by the side of the road. Breakdowns cost money. In addition to towing and repair bills, parts flying loose, boiling coolant or spilled brake fluid can damage a car. If you need to get replacement parts while on a road trip, it can add greatly to the cost. Worst of all, if an on-the-road parts failure causes an accident, it can hurt you both financially and physically.

Preparing for a road trip is more important now than it was years ago. Less help is available once you get started. The convenience store has replaced the old filling station as the place to stop when traveling. Such stores will sell you gas and oil, and maybe even air for your tires, but you won’t typically find a hot rodder behind the counter.

Take the “Right” Rod

Taking the right hot rod to travel in is part of your preparation. If you own several cars, one may be best for touring and it may not be your roadster. It depends. If you’re traveling to the Hot Rod Nationals, you’ll probably want to take your 5-window coupe that won’t be bothered much by wind or rain. On the other hand, if you’re heading to the T-Bucket Nats, you’ll definitely want to drive your T Bucket.

How to Take Your Hot Rod on a Road Trip
Check the condition of sheet metal, like the running board.

You may also want to think about the number of people traveling with you, the amount of luggage you‘ll need, the type of engine and transmission the car has, the rear-axle gearing, whether the roads will be hilly or flat, if the car has a trunk and who’s going to drive. If you’re sharing driving duties with others, they may prefer an automatic transmission. On a long tour, accessories like a radio, heater and GPS system might come in handy. In some cases, driving a smaller-engined car with better fuel economy may be important.

Vehicle Preparation

When that shiny, polished and waxed hot rod is sitting in your garage, it may be hard to “pump yourself up” to prep it for travel. It doesn’t look like it’s going to break down, and you may think spending Sunday afternoon watching that big NASCAR race on the tube would be more fun than car prep. Don’t get side-tracked! Remember, any problem you fix before hitting the road can save you a lot of hassle and tons of money.

How to Take Your Hot Rod on a Road Trip
If you’re doing a long trip, make sure the seats are comfy and adjustable.

Tires and Wheels

Trip preparation starts from the tires up. Use a small, high-intensity flashlight to inspect all tires for cuts, breaks, crazing and damage. The valve stems should show no signs of leakage, breakage or rotting. A tire pressure gauge will help you check for proper inflation. Use a thread-depth gauge to check for excessive tire wear. Make sure your spare tire has sufficient air in it.

How to Take Your Hot Rod on a Road Trip
The door latches should close tightly and securely.

Carefully go over the wheels looking for bends, breaks and rust, especially at the rim edges and the bolt holes. Check the tightness of wire wheel spokes. Are all of the wheel lug nuts tight? Be sure that all of your tire-changing tools are in the car and in good shape. Test the operation of the jack before leaving home. Have your wheel balance checked professionally once a year.

Brakes and Shakes

Stopping is more important than going, so check the hydraulic braking system. Start under the hood by checking the fluid level in the master cylinder. Top it off with the proper type of fluid. Check to make sure the air vent in the master cylinder isn’t clogged. Check the inside of each tire, at the bottom, for telltale brake fluid drips that indicate a leaky wheel cylinder.

How to Take Your Hot Rod on a Road Trip
Check the condition of underhood belts and hoses.

Inside the car, step on the brake pedal. It should be firm and not “give” under pressure. Apply and release the parking brake and be sure it keeps the car from rolling. With the parking brake released, jack each corner of the car and spin the wheel to check for frozen brake drums. Pull the brake drum off and check all parts, then replace the drum and adjust brakes. Re-pack the wheel-bearing grease every 3-5 years. Make sure that the brake lights work properly.


A hot rod is only as strong as its foundation, so check the chassis and frame. Does the car sit level or lean to one side? Does the rear bumper drag? Inspect for rusty, damaged, bent or broken frame or chassis parts. If your hot rod has front and/or rear leaf springs, broken or “splayed” leaves in the spring pack indicate a problem. Check shocks (especially lever-action type) for fluid leaks. When you push down on the bumper, does the car keep bouncing? That’s a sign you need new shocks.

How to Take Your Hot Rod on a Road Trip
Is the window glass clean and crack free? Does the car have an outside rearview mirror?

Look for open bolt holes or missing rubber bushings. Visually inspect the motor mounts for fractures or missing bits of rubber. Make sure the steering parts aren’t loose or bent. Check the exhaust system for broken parts, too much rust or too much noise. Have front-wheel alignment professionally checked yearly.

Front Matters

Start inspecting the vehicle from the front. On a ‘30s car, check the headlight buckets for exposed wires. All electrical and vacuum hose connections in the engine bay should be clean and tight. Check battery condition: Are the battery cables tight and clean? At the least, you should do a minor engine tune-up, servicing the points and spark plugs, etc. Check around the carburetor(s) and fuel pump(s) for fuel leakage. Re-torque all fasteners.

Cooling System Checks

It is very important to avoid overheating on road trips. It can warp a cylinder head or crack an engine block. Shine your flashlight through the radiator fins to make sure they aren’t clogged with debris, which reduces airflow. Test the radiator cap and thermostat. Flush the cooling system and refill it with new coolant. Check the condition of belts and hoses. If the water pump has grease fitting, lubricate it.

How to Take Your Hot Rod on a Road Trip
Look over the tires for wear and damage.

Side Glances

Check the sides of the vehicle from front to rear. Make sure the headlights, parking lights, taillights and directional signals are all working. Door hardware should be secure and adjusted correctly. All window glass should be clean, clear and crack-free. On open cars, check the fit of the top and side curtains. Fix loose snap-the-dot fasteners.

How to Take Your Hot Rod on a Road Trip
If you have a bunch of friends going, taking the station wagon might be a good idea.

Tighten all access panels and wiring looms hidden under the fenders. Check below door sills for fluid leaks, loose brackets, hanging wires. All side trim moldings should be secure so that they won’t fly off. If the car has rear fender skirts, test the mountings. Re-torque all fasteners on the engine and the body.

The Inside Story

Inside the car, make sure the seats are secured to the floor and that the seat-frame-adjuster mechanism works. Safety belts should be attached to the vehicle’s frame, not to the seat frame or floor (especially in hot rods with wooden floors). Check for a worn accelerator pedal that comes off the mounting studs while driving. That can cause a sticking accelerator. Worn pedal rod bushings can lead to a sloppy or sticking brake pedal.

All courtesy lights should be working. Check for electrical shorts under the dash or headliner. Check the accuracy of all gauges and repair if necessary. You don’t want to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. Test all roll-up or push-out windows and be sure they have safety glass. Check for proper operation of all under-seat heaters and air vents.

How to Take Your Hot Rod on a Road Trip
Or you might want to ride in style in your 1959 Cadillac.


Preparing for a trip means having a hot rod properly lubricated. Know what types of lubricants to use and where and when to check them. Simply changing the engine oil and filter on a routine schedule isn’t enough. You’ll also want to check the lubricant levels in the transmission, rear axle, steering gearbox and power steering pump.

Test Drive the Vehicle

A lengthy and challenging test drive is absolutely necessary to make sure your hot rod is ready for a long trip to the Nationals. In such instances, set one full day aside for a test drive. Travel at least 100 miles and maintain 55 mph at least 30 percent of the time. While that may sound a bit “over the top,” there are sound reasons behind this advice. You can’t really test a vehicle until it reaches normal operating temperature and certain electrical parts won’t act up until heat in the engine bay affects them.

How to Take Your Hot Rod on a Road Trip
Maybe a vintage trailer (a real one of course) would cut down overnight travel expenses.

This is why auto manufacturers have engine-durability laboratories where they run power plants at driving speed until they break. Testing the engines under simulated “real-world” conditions is the only way to get an accurate assessment. For hot rodders, the long test drive is as close as it gets to a durability lab. It is the best way to prove that your ride has been well maintained and can go anywhere without breaking down.



Tires & Wheels

[ ] Check inflation pressure at each tire

[ ] Check thread depth

[ ] Any bends, breaks, rust on wheels?

[ ] Torque lug nuts to spec

[ ] Check spare-tire condition

[ ] Test jack and lug wrench


[ ] Check for firm pedal

[ ] Test parking brake

[ ] Check master cylinder level

[ ] Check to make sure vent in master cylinder is open

[ ] With e-brake released, spin all wheels to check for frozen brakes

[ ] Do brake lights work properly?


[ ] Check exhaust for breakage, rust, noise

[ ] Check levelness of vehicle

[ ] Check steering parts for looseness or obvious bends

[ ] Have wheel balance and alignment set

[ ] Check shocks for fluid leaks and bounciness

[ ] Check chassis and frame for open holes and missing parts

Avoid Overheating

[ ] Check for clogged radiator fins

[ ] Flush and refill cooling system

[ ] Check all drive belts and hoses

[ ] Check coolant level and mixture

[ ] Test radiator cap

[ ] Check timing


[ ] Check for frayed or exposed wires

[ ] Clean points & plugs and do minor tune-up,

[ ] Are all electrical connections clean & tight?

[ ] Test battery cables (many need replacement)

[ ] Check condition of battery


[ ] Check headlights, parking lights, taillights, directionals

[ ] Adjust rearview mirrors

[ ] Check glass

[ ] Check side curtains and soft tops

[ ] Check fender skirt mountings, if applicable

[ ] Re-torque all fasteners


[ ] Check for worn or sloppy pedals

[ ] Check all interior light bulbs

[ ] Make sure seats are secured to floor

[ ] Check safety glass in all windows

[ ] Check heating and ventilation system

[ ] Safety belts should be secured to frame


Car: 1935 Chevrolet Coupe

Owner: Don Ciano, Jr., La Crosse, Wis.

Model (all photos): “Candy Girl” Krista Peters

2nd Model: (Trailer Photo): Linda Clark

About John Gunnell 141 Articles
John “Gunner” Gunnell has been writing about cars since ‘72. As a kid in Staten Island, N.Y., he played with a tin Marx “Service Garage” loaded with toy vehicles, his favorite being a Hubley hot rod. In 2010, he opened Gunner’s Great Garage, in Manawa, Wis., a shop that helps enthusiasts restore cars. To no one’s surprise, he decorated 3G’s with tin gas stations and car toys. Gunner started writing for two car club magazines. In 1978, publisher Chet Krause hired him at Old Cars Weekly, where he worked from 1978-2008. Hot rodding legend LeRoi “Tex” Smith was his boss for a while. Gunner had no formal journalism training, but working at a weekly quickly taught him the trade. Over three decades, he’s met famous collectors, penned thousands of articles and written over 85 books. He lives in Iola, Wis., with his nine old cars, three trucks and seven motorcycles.

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