Asbestos in Classic Cars

By Cristina M. in Health

Asbestos was used in a myriad of products during the 20th century. Everyone favored its use, from construction to the automotive industry, because of its many properties, like friction and fire resistance.

It has been a component of small house appliances, construction materials, and vehicle parts. It wasn't until the partial ban on asbestos in the 1980s that new products containing asbestos could no longer be sold.

The incredible rigidity and heat-resistant qualities of asbestos made it an excellent additive to improve the functionality and lifetime of mechanical components subjected to significant amounts of friction and extreme heat.

In the 1920s, molded brake linings were designed, and almost every car built had drum brakes with molded linings. These linings were made with chrysotile asbestos, the only form of asbestos that wouldn't scratch the brake drums. Virtually all the cars 40 years old or older utilized some asbestos-containing component.

A study conducted on oldtimers has found asbestos components in several popular classic car models like:

  • 1948 Chevrolet Fleetline
  • 1969 Chevrolet Corvette
  • 1987 Nissan Skyline
  • 1973 Jaguar E-Type
  • 1965 Ford Mustang
  • 1967 Pontiac Firebird

Classic cars have always had a certain charm that speaks to those who like owning a piece of the automotive past and having this passion usually comes with the drive to repair the car to maintain it in the best shape possible.

But the hobby of many individuals to tinker in the garage and tend to antique vehicles could be dangerous as it often involves fitting, reshaping, or cleaning the old parts through grinding and cutting. In doing so, there's the potentiality of sending asbestos fibers into the air. The use of high-speed tools expands the danger of releasing asbestos fibers.

Asbestos in Car Parts Is Easy to Overlook

When the car parts are new, asbestos in them is not in a friable form. However, after years of abrasion, asbestos can break, contaminating even the smallest amount of dust, and can become airborne when changing a clutch disc or brake shoes.

Driving a classic car is a priceless feeling, and no do-it-yourselfer wants to pay for a brake repair - one of the simplest maintenance parts. Restoring or working on these cars involves many automotive parts containing asbestos:

  • clutch linings
  • brake pads
  • transmission plates
  • gaskets
  • valve rings
  • packings
  • heat seals
  • car batteries
  • engine components

Brakes are the most frequent place to find asbestos, as the mineral was used as insulation against the heat from friction. The same kind of insulation is to find within the clutch components.

Asbestos was used to increase durability and prevent gasket heat transfer, making automobile hoses and engine parts asbestos-containing components. Asbestos packings were used in the piston rings to protect the cylinder walls of the car's motor from wear. Because engine components must be protected against heat to function appropriately, asbestos was used in the engine parts components to serve this purpose.

Other Parts Where You Might Find Asbestos in a Classic Car

Not only the spare parts contained asbestos. The automotive industry applied it wherever it could, either for the strengthening or the insulating property. Here are some of the most usual places to find asbestos in classic cars:

  • fiberglass/plastic body construction
  • transmission housing
  • hood liner sheets
  • cabin insulation
  • mufflers
  • soundproofing
  • undercoating
  • body filler compound
  • floor insulation
  • firewall insulation
  • woven asbestos backing
  • decal stripes

The body construction of the oldtimers used asbestos mixed with fiberglass or plastic compounds to increase durability. Asbestos was perfect for hood liners as it protected the underside of the car's hood from damage due to engine heat.

The general insulation of the old cars also benefitted from using asbestos: the loose fill mineral was found between casing walls and in the casing itself, as well as a protective lining to maintain the interior warm or cool, depending on the outside temperature.

Restore, but Always Put Safety First

Asbestos exposure is a risk not to be taken lightly. Because asbestos was used in high-friction parts on vehicles, it could represent a dangerous situation for all who are repairing or reconditioning an old mobile. Considering these parts often create dust from continuous friction, one should look for the collected asbestos dust in brake drums and transmission housing.

The usual way to remove this dust is by using an air pump to blow out the drum or housing, creating a significant exposure hazard for the person performing the work and everyone in the vicinity as it may be blowing asbestos fibers haphazardly.

If asbestos is present, always wear and utilize proper protection. Old car enthusiasts shouldn't use a blow gun; consider using a HEPA vacuum instead with a negative pressure attachment. A typical shop vacuum doesn't do it, as a paper dust mask is insufficient in protecting one from asbestos.

When removing any dust, it is wise to wear a respirator. Tinkering in the garage should be done wearing a protective suit, as it could prevent secondhand exposure. No at-home mechanic wants to bring asbestos on clothes in the home to their family and expose loved ones to the danger of inhaling the toxic fibers.

Why Should I Test Products in My Home for Asbestos?

It is often impossible to tell whether asbestos is embedded in a material, as the fibers are too small to be observed with the naked eye. Exposure to asbestos is responsible for serious respiratory conditions, so thorough testing is required to ensure your home is asbestos-free.