Old Car Electrical

Compared to late-model vehicles, the electrical and ignition systems in your classic car are simple, but old car electrical problems are still difficult to find and repair.

diagnosing electrical problems

A good plan of attack is to break the electrical system into smaller categories. In no particular order, it would look like this:

Components Of Automotive Electrical System

  • Low tension side (battery, ignition switch, contact breaker, primary winding of the coil)
  • High tension side (distributor cap and rotor, spark plug wires, spark plugs)
  • Charging system (alternator/generator, voltage regulator)
  • Starting system (starter, starter relay, starter solenoid)
  • Electrical components (blower motor, wiper motor)
  • Fuses and fuse box
  • Wires, switches and relays
  • Light bulbs (interior and exterior)

Before tackling any old car electrical problems, start with a fully charged battery. Have a factory service manual for your make and model car and study the wiring diagram.

Magnifying glass with large viewing area for reading small prints

If the diagram is too small to read clearly, pick up a magnifying lens with a large viewing area and transcribe the information you need onto a larger piece of paper.

Several companies offer large, laminated posters of electrical wiring for individual vehicles, but these are limited by the vehicle's popularity.

Wires and Harnesses

As cars get old, electrical wires get dirty and brittle and lose conductivity. The wiring harness and switches may be 50 years old or older, and never designed to last that long. Distributors and coils cannot work efficiently if they do not get the full voltage they require.

old car fuse box

Many old car electrical problems are as simple as loose and corroded connections, a blown fuse, or a melted fusible link. If several electrical components aren't working, that may indicate a fuse or ground connection.

Read: Old Car Ignition

Electrical Test Light

A test light, also called a circuit tester or continuity tester, is invaluable for finding electrical shorts.

Be sure to use an automotive test lamp which works with 12 volt systems. One end goes to a positive and the other end goes to a ground.

old car electrical test light

Shop: 12 Volt Test Light

When diagnosing an automotive electrical problem, always start by checking the test light on the car's battery. Depending on what you testing for, you may have to turn the ignition switch on.

Most test lights have a sharp pointed end. Use this to pierce the plastic insulation on a wire. Now you can test the circuit without disconnecting anything.

Digital Multimeter

A multimeter is a test tool instrument designed to measure electrical values such as voltage (volts), current (amps), and resistance (ohms).

There are two main types of multimeters, analog and digital. Digital is by far more common, they have an easy-to-read numeric display, and one can be had for less than $20.

electrical multimeter

Shop: Digital Multimeter

Although you can run dozens of tests with a multimeter, I use mine for about two.

To check if a wire is good or bad, connect one test probe to one end of the wire, and the other test probe to the other end of the wire. With the meter on ohm setting, it should read .02 or less. Anything higher than that, replace the wire and/or the terminals.

Battery Cables and Terminals

Check the battery cables; make sure the cables fit firmly and securely on the battery posts. There should be no wiggle in them. Also make sure that the cables going to the terminals are in good shape. If not, replace them.

Ground Straps

Another area of concern is the condition of the ground straps. All old cars need a good electrical ground from engine to frame and engine to firewall. Often, these straps are old and grimy and need to be cleaned or replaced. If you start looking through your car, you may notice several ground straps from the factory, and some may have disappeared over the years.

Aside from the cable from the negative post on the battery to the engine block, there may also be a strap from the engine to the firewall, from the dash to the body, from the body to the frame or the battery negative post, and a strap from the frame to the engine block. Make sure your grounds have clean connections and are in good shape. If you're not sure, replace them or add another one.

Checking Low Tension Side

To perform a simple check, switch the headlights on, then watch them while a helper cranks the starter. They should dim slightly, and the starter should turn at it's usual speed. If the headlights go dim while the starter turns slowly, either the battery is low or it's connections are bad. Check positive and negative battery cables to be clean and tight. Also check ground straps from motor to frame.

VW Beetle restored

Parasitic Draw

The easiest way of finding a parasitic draw is to use a multimeter. With the vehicle off, disconnect the negative battery terminal. Check that the car doors are shut and other accessories turned off. Set your multimeter to 10 amps DC, touch the positive lead to your disconnected negative battery cable, and touch the ground lead to your negative battery post. If your meter shows anything above 50 milliamps, you have a parasitic draw.

old car electrical

6 Volt to 12 Volt Conversion

You may consider upgrading to a 12 volt system if you're adding power accessories such as an aftermarket radio and amplifier, electric cooling fan, power windows or power seats, halogen headlights, or LED tail lights. If not, a 6-volt system in good shape should continue getting the job done.

Read:Convert 6-Volt Car To 12-Volts

Positive Ground Cars

The electricity in a car travels in a circle. Power leaves the battery from one terminal, passes through components (lights, horn, coil, etc.) and ends up back to the battery on the opposite terminal.

Read: Positive-Ground Electrical Systems

Electricity doesn't care which way it goes, it just needs a path to come back.

Diagnosing Positive Ground Cars

The simplest way to diagnose a positive-ground system is to reverse any diagnostic procedure normally used on a negative-ground system. For example, instead of starting on the positive side of the battery and following the current that way, start at the negative side of the battery and follow the current the other way.

Points Ignition

The majority of old cars have a points/condenser ignition system, which is easy to understand and diagnose. When in proper working order, a points ignition system works very well and should give 10,000 to 15,000 miles of service. For a classic car that gets driven a 1,000 miles a year, that's a pretty trouble-free system.

diagnosing ignition points

Read: Points vs Electronic Ignition

battery jump pack review

Read: Battery Jump Pack Review