Say you’ve got your eye on a car that you pass on your daily commute. One just off the road that has been sitting there long enough that it might actually be growing roots, never to be driven again. Or perhaps a friend alerted you to a car found on another friend’s property that was kept inside a garage or barn. “But,” they tell you, “it’s been sitting there for a while.”
Being a car enthusiast is sometimes extraordinarily painful. It’s not so much the lusting after high-end new Ferraris or McLarens that get us, it’s the cheap project cars that you could afford (at least in their current state) that really tear us up inside. Between scrolling through BringaTrailer.com and trying to reconcile our checking accounts (“c’mon, it won’t take that much to get it going”), it’s not so much a question of buying the wrong car as it is making the mistake of not buying the car in the first place.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to win this argument with your conscience, and you’ve shelled out some cash for a barn find, two things: First, congratulations on your new family member. Second, now you’ll need to get the thing running again. Godspeed.
Fortunately, Hot Rod Garage‘s Tony Angelo has some sound advice for getting that engine to turn over the first time in however many years. Using his own 1971 Dodge Demon as an example (it sat for some 18 years, he says), Angelo walks you through the process for getting the engine back in running condition. Check out his video above, and we’ve also laid out the steps below to serve as a handy guide to keep around when the big moment comes.
1. Make sure the engine is “free”
Over time, the engine’s internals can seize due to rust, corrosion, and grit and grime that finds its way in. Before subjecting the electrical system to such abuse, make sure the engine can turn over in the first place. Angelo simply places the appropriate socket on the end of the crank and uses a breaker bar. Although it might be difficult, the crank should turn somewhat smoothly. If it doesn’t spin, Angelo recommends filling the cylinders with ATF (automatic transmission fluid) or some other form of lubricant and letting it sit for a day or so to help it break free. (In this picture, the crank is located behind the drive belt pulley on the bottom).
2. Check and change your fluids
This should probably be a no-brainer, but chances are the fluids in your barn find are old and turned, if present at all. This goes for everything from the coolant to the gasoline; Angelo actually swapped out his entire gas tank, and his car was kept in a decent environment during that time. If it’s been more than year, Angelo says, just change everything out anyways, just to be on the safe side. Brake fluid, oil (obviously), transmission fluid — just make sure it’s all in good shape.
3. Pull your plugs and check the cylinders
The joy of older cars is that components like the spark plugs, and well, everything — are so easy to access and work on. Even though the crank is able to move, it’s always important to check the inside of the cylinders also, to make sure there aren’t deposits, rust, or anything that could cause major damage once the engine is running. Angelo uses an inspection camera, which can snake through the spark plug socket and give you a great view of the inside of the cylinder.
4. Prime your oil system
You could conceivably cause irreversible damage to various internal components by trying to turn the engine without priming the oil system. Though you might have filled the oil pan to spec, the engine will need a few cycles to get it flowing consistently, so make sure you negate the risk of overheating or fusing by helping the process along. Angelo pulled the distributor and was able to prime the system using a tool he made, but be aware that this isn’t something you can do on just any engine.
5. Install a clean fuel filter
You just put new gas (and maybe a whole damn tank) into the car, so why waste all that once it gets to the filter? By now, your barn find’s filter has likely dried out or is at least older and in need of replacing. Fresh fuel filters will help with performance, fuel economy, and help keep your engine running cleanly and smoothly for years. They don’t cost much, and you’re already pulling things apart, so go ahead and swap one in — even if you think it’s OK.
6. Turn it over and flush the fuel system
Even if you replaced the gas tank (or at least the gas in it) and cleared some of the fuel lines like Angelo did, you’ll still need to flush out whatever fuel was sitting in the system when it was powered down for the last time. To do this, simply turn the engine over (this is provided that all the previous steps have been taken). Disconnect your fuel line, add a length of hose, and run it into a bottle or reservoir of some kind, and give it some power — the fuel should start sputtering into the bottle. Once it’s running clean, you can re-connect your fuel line. Notably, your engine won’t catch since it won’t be getting fuel, so you’ll be relying on battery power for this.
7. Check your seals, gaskets, and water pump
“Time is the enemy of rubber,” Angelo says. And he’s right — over time, rubber gaskets and seals will deteriorate, crack, and lose their sealing ability. For a car that’s been sitting for any period of time, it’s definitely a safe bet to replace those seals and gaskets before it’s too late. Angelo singled out the seals on the fuel pump diaphragm, front and rear main seals, and accelerator pump — though these components will vary from engine to engine.
8. Inspect the carburetor
“If you have any issues like rough running, backfires, anything crazy, it’s probably going to be the carburetor,” Angelo notes. On older cars, the carburetor was the beating heart of the engine and the culmination of the fuel, air, and electrical systems. Making sure that yours is in good working order is just common sense.