Battery Life – Dave’s Garage

Hi Dave. I have a question that may be good for Wheel Tracks as well. Battery life. Since we all have old cars that are not used too much–or not enough is a better description. I am now in a position that 6 car battery’s are over 8 years old. Some still working and others don’t have enough power to crank the starter. That can be a size-able expense that will face me again in about 5 years assuming that is the life expectancy. What options are there for Battery’s besides going new?

There are two real options for buying new. Conventional “wet” batteries, and newer, spiral glass mat gel cell batteries, like the “Optima” battery. If properly maintained, batteries can go strong for eight years or more, while a service life of 3-5 years is more typical. The biggest issues with the conventional “wet” batteries are:

  1. They leak. Battery acid is nasty, and can do considerable damage to the body of the car it is in. Leaking near the terminals can also cause considerable corrosion at the terminals.
  2. Conventional batteries lose energy, about 1% a day. This is made worse if it is a parasitic drain on an installed battery, like radio memory for example.
  3. Conventional batteries do not do well in hot environments, the water in the acid solution will evaporate. Heat is one of the biggest killers of “wet” batteries. It is often said that batteries are fatally damaged in the summer, then fail when the weather gets cold in the fall.
  4. Conventional batteries discharge explosive hydrogen gas, presenting the possibility of an explosion given the right situation.
  5. Conventional batteries must be mounted rigidly, right side up. They can not be tipped or subjected to severe vibration or jarring im-pacts. If tipped, they will leak. If shaken, they will fail structurally inside and could potentially short out. If loose, in addition to being unsafe, they will jounce about causing failure internally.
  6. If not properly charged, conventional batteries will freeze, and be destroyed. A charged battery has a freeze point of -95’F. A discharged battery will freeze at 20’F.

The other option is a glass mat spiral gel cell battery, like the Johnson Controls “Optima” battery. These batteries are significantly more expensive, about $50 more.

Gel cell batteries do not leak. Because they do not have the acid bath construction, they can be mounted in any position, even up-side-down. There is no concern about leaking acid or corrosion on the battery terminals. These batteries also do not discharge hydrogen gas, so there is no issue with venting them. Because there is no issue with evaporation of the electrolyte, they hold up better in very hot environments.

Because of the spiral, fiberglass mat gel cell construction, these batteries hold up very well to vibration and jarring impacts.

AGM batteries discharge at a much lower rate than conventional “wet” batteries. This can be a big plus for a vehicle that spends a considerable amount of time in storage.

The down side of AGM batteries is they are considerably more expensive, and there reliability is spotty. I have had three fail in less than two years. The warranty of the Optima is only a two year replacement warranty, kind of skimpy given the high purchase price in my opinion.

How can they be stored over the winter to maximize life?

Conventional “wet” batteries do well with a battery tender hooked up to them. Battery tenders charge the battery, then provide a “float” charge to maintain a full charge. They will not overcharge the battery. When the vehicle is returned to service, simply unplug the battery tender, and you are good to go. AGM batteries can simply be unhooked and left in the vehicle, they will not discharge.

Do battery’s like “Optima’s” last any longer in rarely used vehicles?

In theory, yes. In reality, that depends. I have had three Optima batteries fail in under two years.

Also, when I check my acid, I am finding particles in the fluid. Is that a sign that the plates are going bad? It actually looks dirty. I’d also guess you’d tell me to wait until spring to buy one. Otherwise it will sit on the shelf for 5 months.

When you check the acid, it should be clear. If it isn’t, there are impurities in it. This could be caused by sulfate on the lead plates, or impurities suspended in the acid. Either way, the battery is no longer good. If the plates are sulfating, the battery will not provide the proper amperage. If there are impurities in the electrolyte, the battery could short internally.

Proper maintenance of the battery includes checking the level of the acid in the individual cells. Only add distiller water. There is a myth that you should add acid. The level drops when the water in the solution evaporates. If you replace the water, you are keeping the concentration correct. The plates should remain under the surface of the acid.

I have learned that buying a new battery that may be “special” and some are, does not mean your getting a fresh battery. It may well have been left on the shelf waiting for me.”

The first thing you should check when purchasing a battery is the manufacture date on the battery. It will give the month and the year of manufacture. The battery should only be a month or two old. Any older, and I would ask for a newer one.

I always load check a battery to check it. I have a carbon pile load tester. It will put a load on the battery, and maintain the load for about ten seconds. There is both an amperage and a voltage gauge on the meter. If either the amperage of the voltage falls during the load test, an alarm sounds, and the needles on the gauges sweep down. If the battery is good, the needles on the gauges hold. Snap-on sells such a tester for about $600. I got mine at Harbor Freight for $50. I’m sure the Snap-on is a much better unit, but mine has worked fine for many years and I have no complaints. The Harbor Freight unit is well made and has good reviews.


Please email all inquiries to: Dave
or snail mail
32 Turkey Hill Road
Richmond VT 05477

1960 Hillman Minx

1960 Hillman MinxHillman is a name not well known in the automotive field anymore. Hillmans are British and like most British manufacturers of automobiles, the Hillman Motor Car Company is defunct. The last Hillman imported into this country was the Super Minx of the mid 1960s. The company was still being run by Lord Rootes, a founder, at the time. The Hillman Motor Car Company began in 1907. Previous to that, the company had made sewing machines and bicycles. Hillman played a role in pioneering the American automobile market, opening doors for other makes back in the days when those funny foreign cars drove a lonely road in this country.

Hillman had been importing small sedans since before World War II, but after the war, the small car market became more competitive. To get a leg up in styling, Lord Rootes hired the designer Raymond Lowey (think Studebaker Hawk of 1953) in 1948 to design a new car. Thus came about the shaping of my car, which takes styling cues from the 1953 Studebaker and the 1955-56 Ford. To further compete in the American market, Rootes sought a technical advantage as well. After all, some American manufacturers were starting to build “compact” cars, bidding for sales with fresh new packages. Consider the Ford Falcon or the Chevy Corvair. In 1960, Hillman was offering a product that no one else had-a fully automatic transmission that did away with the power loss associated with ordinary automatic transmissions of the day. Acceleration of a Hillman does not suffer as a result of the Easidrive option. This was important in 1960 because thousands of drivers in this country didn’t want small cars because of the bother of shifting gears manually. The Easidrive was a significant small car development in the days of oversized Detroit sedans and small, slow American cars optionally equipped with automatic transmissions.

I bought my car in 2002 from an antiques dealer in Wiscasset, Maine. It had been acquired by him as part of an elderly man’s estate. It had 40,000 miles on it then and I have taken it 24,000 sort-of carefree miles since then. My initial test drive of the car did not inspire confidence. Looking behind the steering wheel I noticed it had….an automatic transmission? I had always feared foreign automatics of the post-war generation since they could be weird and prone to trouble. Oh well, the car did start right up and sounded solid and quiet. The gear selector quadrant is minimalist in nature: D 2 N R in that order. There is no P position and I assumed the handbrake was a dubious instrument as evidenced by the rock placed behind the rear wheel. The car moved forward in D but would not shift into a higher gear. I stopped and gave it another try. This time, at about 15mph, I lifted my foot off the throttle and heard a distinct “clunk” and then we were in 2nd gear. At about 27mph the car shifted automatically into 3rd which felt like top gear. I could live with this. I came to a full stop and tried reverse. There was a slight grinding of gears to be heard as I shifted the lever. What the hell kind of automatic was this???

Thus begins the tale of what makes this car different. Here in layman’s terms is the Easidrive story. Remember the science experiment back in elementary school in which iron filings placed on a piece of paper were arranged in lines of magnetic flux by a magnet placed beneath the paper? If you can visualize that experiment, you have the basic idea of Easidrive. Easidrive uses a magnetic powder coupling in place of a friction clutch. The transmission itself is a regular sliding gear type 3 speed transmission. Imagine a drum bolted to the flange on the rear of the crankshaft. Then, imagine a slightly smaller drum which fits inside the aforementioned drum and is connected to the transmission input shaft. These drums are separated by a small air gap filled with an amount of iron powder. In neutral, as the crankshaft turns, this powder is thrown harmlessly by centrifugal force against the inside of the outer (crankshaft) drum. Now surround these drums with a stationary magnetic coil mounted in the transmission’s bell housing. When this coil is energized, the iron powder organizes itself in columns of magnetic flux between the two drums, forming a solid coupling between the engine and transmission. The advantage to such a coupling is that there is little or no slippage. There is no hydraulic torque converter to waste power, an important consideration in a 57 hp, 2375 lb. car such as the Hillman. This represented a design coup, applying a fully automatic transmission to a 1500 cc car.

But the devil is in the details, of course. All this stuff under the floorboards is con-trolled by the troublemakers under the bonnet, or hood as we Yanks would put it. This trouble includes: an electric gear selector switch, a governor which monitors road speed and throttle position, a gearshift solenoid and a control unit (black box) which contains eight 2 way relays, a thermal switch and a rectifier. Maintaining this lot is no problem if you’re an electrical engineer, which I am not. Fortunately for me and my Minx, my brother is. All the above-mentioned electrical units are wired closed with lead seals from the factory. Even Hillman mechanics were not allowed to open them up and investigate what might be wrong inside. Units were tested and if found faulty, replaced. Even the experienced garage mechanic in the early 1960s had no idea what he was looking at when he got under the hood of an Easidrive Hillman Minx. It was just another weird foreign car that nobody, including the dealers, wanted to deal with. This contributed greatly to Hillman’s demise. As the Easidrive reputation spread, dozens of new Easidrive cars sat in dealers lots unsold for years.

My car has experienced burned relay points and a broken wire in the control unit as well as another broken wire in the governor. My brother was able to decipher its woes from among the 96 symptoms and numerous wiring diagrams featured in the Easidrive repair manual. We broke into the sealed units fearlessly and solved my Easidrive’s problems. It wasn’t easy. It took about 8 hours, but I’ve been lucky. Most Easidrives were converted to normal Hillman 4 speed manual transmissions or simply scrapped. And that’s a shame because it is a nice car on the road or in town. I’ve driven without trouble to Ohio and back for 3 different “Hillmans on Holiday” car events, cruising at 65 mph with no trouble. I only know of one other Easidrive in the country, in Washington state, which is still running. I doubt we’ll ever meet car to car.