In the past 5-10 years the buzz words in the automotive hobby are “barn finds” or “garage finds” and “picking”. This is just a car guy or gals way of explaining automotive treasure hunting. The dream is to find an untouched car or parts that’s been stashed away and forgotten in a barn, garage, yard, etc. and you pull it out and put it back into use. There’s practically an entire subculture in the classic car world dedicated to this with shows like American Pickers, Chasing Classic Cars, Backroad Gold, etc making it look like an easy process. I’ve been doing this sort of thing for quite a while and it can be as easy as knocking on a door and handing over a stack of cash, but the process to make these cars and parts usable again IS NOT. Any car that’s been sitting for more than a few years is going to need a LOT of work to get it ready to cruise the streets again. Not only that, there are some key steps you should take to avoid causing damage to the vehicle when trying to get it going.
This past winter I’ve been working on one of these “garage finds”; a 1952 Chevy Styleline Deluxe in the family and meticulously maintained since new. The story is almost too good to be true as far as old car stories go, but I’ll spare you the winded details for now. I decided I’d show you some of the steps I take when first trying to get an old patina queen back on the road. This car has been sitting for 25-30 years and has been completely untouched for probably close to 20. While the car was in good running order when it was parked (minus a leaky fuel sediment bowl), it was not stored in a manner in which they planned to drive it again. Below are the first steps I take to check over a vehicle I’ve pulled out of a long slumber.
1. Check for major rust, rot, or corrosion- This is a pretty simple one, take a trusty flathead screwdriver and poke around anywhere on the vehicle that seems to have flaky rust or corrosion. If you can easily poke a screwdriver through any panels, they need to be repaired or replaced, especially if they’re in structural spots. If it’s a vehicle with a chassis, check the body mounts points on the chassis and body. Are they solid or do they have any rot or holes? Make notes and prioritize any rust repair that needs to be done. On this Chevy I’m pretty fortunate that the only rust holes are hidden behind the gravel covers on the front of the rear fenders. For now I’ll be leaving the rust go until I can get the car a little further along.
2. Verify condition of engine- If you’ve made it to step two, you’re doing good and you haven’t sent the car to the scrap yard because of rust or torn it down for a full restoration. A tie for the most important part of determining the condition of your barn or garage find is to see what sort of condition the drivetrain is in. The first thing is to pull the oil dipstick and check to see if there is any oil left in the engine and make note of the condition. If it still resembles oil and isn’t a gummed up mess, than you’re doing alright. If the oil is gummy or not a liquid any longer you’re going to need to pull the oil pan and valve cover to check the rotating assemblies and see how gummed up those are. If the engine has some sort of oil in it you can take a socket wrench or pry bar and put it on the crankshaft pulley or gear. All you want to do is to try and bump the engine over a quarter or half turn to verify the engine isn’t completely seized (make sure the transmission is in neutral!). If the engine is seized or VERY hard to budge, you may still have a hope to break it free. I’ve read a number of different methods. I personally pour a tiny bit of engine oil down each spark plug hole and let the engine sit for the oil to get down into the cylinders before trying to rock the engine free. I’ve seen all sorts of other additives suggested from automatic transmission fluid, kerosene, etc, but all personal preference I suppose. I still like to pour a little oil down each cylinder before I crank the engine over multiple turns or before using the starter, dry cylinder walls and pistons are bad!. I was lucky enough my engine turned over easily with a pry bar and the oil was still pretty clean, so I could continue forward.
3. Verify engine electrical components- So far you’ve made sure the vehicle isn’t a rotted mess and can be saved, the engine broke free and turned over by hand a few times, and you’ve filled the engine with fresh oil. Now you’re ready to check the electrical system in your vehicle. Regardless if your vehicle is 6 or 12 volt, if it’s sat for more than a year or two without a charge it’s probably junk. In my case the car was left with the battery terminals connected for 20-30 years and I didn’t even attempt to test the battery, I just removed it and picked up a new one at a local auto parts store. If your battery has been left connected for any period of time it also may have corrosion at both ends of the terminals. Disconnect the cables from both ends and use a wire brush or sandpaper where it connects to the body or starter/engine and then use a terminal brush cleaner or sandpaper to clean them all up and get the inside shiny. From here you can determine if the cables are trash and need replaced or if you can save yours. Install your cleaned or new cables onto the battery and listen for any odd sounds (sparking, electrical components whining, etc) and make sure nothing is smoking with the key off and on. If the critters haven’t gotten to your wiring and nothing is stuck on, you can go around and check electrical components. Now it’s time to to see if the starter will turn the engine over and if you have spark.
-Have a helper activate the starter switch inside the vehicle. If the engine cranks over with the starter you’re in luck (and I’m jealous!), you can proceed to the next step. If you hear NOTHING at all, then you need to check for voltage to the starter. Does the main terminal where the positive battery cable connect show the same voltage as the battery? If not, check your battery cable for breaks or a bad connection. Next check if the other terminal with a wire connected gets battery voltage when your helper hits the starter switch. If so, then you may have a bad or stuck starter, if not check your starter switch or bypass it to keep going with your tests. In my case I found I had a bad starter switch and my starter took a few taps with a starter to free it up enough to crank the engine (but it will need to be cleaned/rebuilt).
4. Verify if your engine has spark- I like to be proactive and at least pull every spark plug and AT LEAST inspect it, clean it (sandpaper or media blast), and apply anti-seize to the threads. If they’re a common plug you can get at the autoparts store it doesn’t hurt to throw a new set in while you’re at it! Then you can pull a plug wire and install a spark tester or a spare spark plug and ground it to the engine. Then have your helper crank the engine and see if you have spark at the spark plugs. If so, you’re golden and can move to the next step. If not, remove the coil wire from the distributor cap and hold it a few millimeters from the engine or a grounded location and crank the engine again. You should see a strong spark jump across the gap to the ground when you crank the engine to verify your distributor is working correctly. If spark isn’t present you may need to check the condition of your cap and rotor and ignition trigger (points and condenser or electronic pickup) and see your repair manual for the steps to test your specific ignition system. If you have a weak spark from the coil wire it could be a loose wire or corroded connection or an internal distributor part that is on its last leg. In my case I had a mix of problems, a ripped coil wire boot and a condenser on its last leg caused a no spark and then a “weak spark” at the coil. I replaced the condenser, manually operated the points, and I had a strong spark from the coil wire and the plugs when cranking the engine.
5. Fuel system check- With your engine cranking and sparking you’re almost ready to make some noise. If you’re lucky at this point your car may have tried to start when verifying spark. When vehicles sit, the fuel tends to turn and will go bad and ruin fuel system parts. Yes gasoline has an expiration date and if it’s left long enough it will slowly turn back into a solid! If you plan to park a vehicle for a long period of time, the first thing you should do is drain the fuel out of the tank and fuel system. Bad gas and its effects are the BIGGEST headache on an old barn or garage find. In my case 3-4 gallons of gas had been left in the system and I wasn’t getting any fuel to the carburetor to make my engine start. I bypassed the fuel system and poured a little fuel down the carb and the engine fired right up and ran for a few seconds. You can also spray some carb cleaner, starting fluid, or brake clean into the intake manifold or carburetor to quickly check if the engine will fire, but DON”T run an engine long off that stuff!
At this point you should have hopefully verified if your engine is savable and can be fixed up, or if it needs to be torn down and replaced or rebuilt. I usually like to try and do these steps quickly to just get the vehicle to at least fire and run for a few seconds. From here you can go back and diagnose exactly why your starter is acting up, or why you aren’t getting fuel, etc. In my case I have a mess on my hands with my fuel system and I will be doing a separate article on how to clean and fix your fuel system on an old barn or garage find. Stay tuned, I’m just getting started!