How to Start a Crusty Engine That’s Been Sitting for Years

Most of us love the idea of barn-find cars. What could be better than the thrill of unearthing a ‘Cuda in a shed, or a big-block Chevelle buried in some back-alley garage? But with these rightly-rough treasures comes a difficult quandary — should you restore the car to pristine condition, or drive it in its ratty, untouched splendor?

It’s a tough choice. A solid barn-find car can be a great starting point for a full restoration. But at the same time, you can’t beat the badge-of-honor coolness that comes from putting a car back on the road with all of its hard-earned scratches, scrapes, and rust.

One of the best ways to decide how to proceed with such a machine is to first see if you can get the car running. From there, you can probably do at least a short test drive, which will reveal a lot about the condition of the rest of the car.

That said, starting a dormant car isn’t as simple as just topping off the fluids and tossing in a new battery. You have to proceed slowly and methodically, or risk severely damaging the engine by hastily trying to fire it up. Here’s a great plan to follow for starting an engine that’s been sitting for many years.

See if the engine turns freely
You don’t want to waste a lot of time, energy, and money on an engine that’s hopelessly locked up. If the crank doesn’t turn somewhat freely, there’s little hope for the engine starting, no matter how tip-top you’ve got everything else under the hood.

First, pull out all the spark plugs. This helps reduce resistance from compression. And believe me, even if this lump does turn over, it’s going to be pretty stiff. You’re going to need all the help you can get. Once you have the plugs out, squirt some oil in the cylinders. Let it sit a while to work its way down the cylinder walls to free the rings up.

For this phase of the process, don’t try to turn the engine over with the starter motor yet. If the engine is indeed locked, engaging the starter and trying to crank it may do more damage than good. Instead, use a socket wrench on the crank bolt to turn it.

If the engine does turn over, it has a decent chance of starting. It’s therefore probably worth investing a few bucks in trying to do so.

Change all the fluids
Fluids go bad over time. So, before you do anything else to the engine, replace everything with fresh stuff. Drain all the old gas and blow the fuel lines out to remove contaminants and blockage. And while you’re at it, put a new fuel filter in there — you can pretty much count on it being a mess from the old gas and years of deterioration.

Next, drain the old oil and replace it with the appropriate grade of fresh stuff. Replace any coolant hoses that are completely shot and refill the system with fresh antifreeze.

Install a new battery
Without a good battery charge, your attempts to start your old engine aren’t going anywhere. And when I say ‘a good charge’ I mean enough to keep cranking a while. This thing probably won’t start on the first couple turns.

Batteries don’t cost all that much. If this engine proves to be a lost cause, you can always use the new battery in some other project.

Crank briefly
Now we’re slowly inching toward actually taking a shot at starting the engine. Almost everything is in place, but we aren’t quite ready to fire it up. We still need to work methodically and patiently toward that final goal.

At this point, you’ll want to see if the starter motor is in good working order. Keep the spark plugs out, and crank the engine over with the starter. While you’re at it, check to see if the ignition system is making spark.

If everything looks good so far, you’re ready to proceed to the final step — hopefully the big payoff in this project.

Start!
Reinstall the spark plugs and give the whole engine one last close look to see if you missed anything. Are all the fuel fittings tight? Are there any vacuum leaks? Is the ignition system fully wired?

Again, take it slowly. You’d be surprised at how many people get to this stage and think something is really messed up with the engine, only to discover later that the coil wire was disconnected, or that there was a big vacuum fitting left wide open.

Once you’re satisfied everything is in order, give it a try. This part of the process is best done with two people, so one person can crank the ignition switch while the other person stands close to the engine looking for any signs of trouble.

As an added precaution, make sure you have a fire extinguisher within quick reach. You just don’t know what can happen with a mangy old machine that’s been lying dormant for a bunch of years.

Crank the engine over, listening for signs … good or bad. If the engine stumbles and tries to start, you’re getting close. If it’s not showing any signs of life whatsoever, stop and see what might be holding it back.

Keep going until you either get the engine running, or you exhaust all the possibilities for why it isn’t. If everything goes well, you may end up with an engine that runs well enough to take a test drive and check the rest of the car out. If you’re really lucky, you might even have an engine you can keep on the road and drive as-is — a great complement to that tasty patina of the exterior.

But, on the other hand, it’s possible your results won’t be so rosy. There had to be some reason this car was parked and left for dead so many years ago. Maybe it got put away because the engine was shot.

And that’s okay too. At least now you know.

With a relatively modest outlay of time and money, you were able to determine that your plan for this barn-find car will probably be either a mechanical rebuild or a complete restoration.

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