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How to Make your barn or garage find road-worthy- Part One Assessing the Vehicle

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!



28 thoughts on “How to Make your barn or garage find road-worthy- Part One Assessing the Vehicle”

  • Jason Thompson

    Great Article! Sometimes we forget that not everyone knows this stuff or is in the car business. Definitely some solid info. Keep up the good work.

  • Ray Rowlands

    I had a similar experience. Found a 71 Econoline Shasta camper sitting on a wrecker waiting to go to crushed.sat ten or more years under a tarp. I am 3rd owner. Btw.34,000 miles. Runs great

  • Bob D.

    I'd like to be lucky enough just to find an old car .I love to get going but do not like rust.

  • Robert

    Great article I went through that when I found my 62 Ford falcon. In the process of a five-year restoration on it now. Biggest setback was hidden rust and door glass mechanics. Drove car home when I purchased it . I was lucky.

  • Betty Fraser-Smith
    Betty Fraser-Smith July 22, 2014 at 4:09 am

    Great article - we have to remember that there are new people doing this every day who have no idea where to start. Love your web presence,
    Great work guys!

  • Chris

    And have a fire extinguisher near by!

    • MattM

      Great one to mention! I think everyone should have an extinguisher in their garage, but putting one at your feet when first starting a car for the first time is definitely good idea!

  • Jose Nassar

    You sale this car ?? Its beauty...I am a colector s car from Costa Rica Central America.

  • Kenneth Lowe

    Very good information, some of the things I wouldn't have done and now will be on the list when I find a barn find.

  • kurt fleiner

    we're a private auto transporter, think shipping wars. anyway a lot of these 'BARN FINDS" come out of neck of the woods up here in Montana. probably 95% are rust free due to the lack of road salt not being used. problem when people inquire about the cost of transport, they turn CHEAP. people don't realize the saving from not having to do any sheetmetal work which is a whole lot more expensive than we charge to transport. plus when we go to pick this treasures up we more than often, have to winch them on the trailer for various reason, flat tires, froze wheels won't turn, we've even had to cut small trees and brush in front of the buildings where the cars are located. we're car guys too, headed to a treasure hunt thursday, chasing a lead on a early 70's vette been tucked away. guy bought it for his wife new who was recovering from cancer, too bad, she succumbed to that terrible disease. car was never used, supposed to have 12 miles on the clock. thats right 12 miles. plus part its only 50 miles from our place. so next time you guys and girls request a qoute for shipping, please remember that you more than likely will save on the bodywork.thanks for reading.,

  • Bruce Alexander

    I found two Corvair Spyder Coupes. 63 & 64 stored for at least 35 years. the 64 went well. had no gas in it. Brakes all needed new, new plugs & points, and it runs beautiful . Body orig. paint with a few minor rust spots. 30,000 miles. 5 Factory orig. knock off wire wheels.
    The 63 needs all brakes , can' get fuel to carb. Have decided to finish the 64 before jumping into the 63 Thanks for the tips and updates.

    • Paul Chapman

      That in my book is a real find. I've found a few "STASHES" of Corvairs, most of the time they are well past being practical to restore!. Best of luck, Let me know if you need something . Got six Corvairs and a 12x28 shed stuffed with parts. Not into corvairs to make a living, most parts are cheap or free. Get them back on the road is my goal!

  • Mike

    So your saying save on the bodywork and that makes it ok to get hosed on the transport cost?

    I've have at least a dozen cars hauled(transported) with a flatbed and never paid more than $100 bucks total (within a 100 mile radius) to have them moved.

  • Stew Wallach

    Wish mine had looked that good when I found it. It sat in a field for 44 years and was in relatively good shape rust wise after all that.

  • Ronald Nelson
    Ronald Nelson July 22, 2014 at 9:06 am

    My find was a 1958 Metropolitan. Original tires still held air! First test: compression. All cylinders at specs! But I needed to replace all wiring, as insulation was deteriorated. Also new brake lines, gas lines, etc. The wiring is the most important--don't forget to check it all.

    • Todd

      My finds were 1981 trans am and a1978 k5 ,1967 chevelle malibu sitting in back yards.With a lot of work they all live again happy building.

  • Terry

    Patience and critical reasoning will be rewarded by making a small part of history come back to life. This is what the old car industry is all about.

  • robert

    great article, i have started a 1939 packard super 8 touring sedan and would love to have found things as good as the chevy but long way to go, wish me luck and keep finding and bring them back to life... IT'S FUN

  • NewtyNewt

    I have had my 72 Nova and 56 truck for many years and never drive them. I always drain the gas and then start them to run dry. Then put on the battery tender and let them sit. Every year or so I put in gas & drive around a little. Most of my problems have been with leaky wheel cylinders from sitting. He doesn't mention the brakes in the article and maybe he got lucky. My garage is where cars go to die a quiet death!

    • Gerard Briggs

      Why go through a resto and not drive your cars. That's the fun. Driving them. Leaving them in a garage defeats the purpose in restoring them. You might have just left them in the barn.

  • James Reynolds
    James Reynolds July 23, 2014 at 9:29 am

    I would like to find another old car. I got a barn find, '50 ford 1/2 ton flathead 6, in around 1969 or 1970. Had been setting for only couple years and the gas smelled old but we jumped it off and let it idle a few minutes for 2 or 3 starts then drove it away. My father in law has a '52 chev that has set until rt. front hub has rusted to the shoes after a total rebuild. Hasn't been started in 12 or 15 years setting outside. That one will take some work because even the brake system is totally empty.. Engine is original 216 ci.

  • B. Callahan

    Loved the article and the comments, it has always been my dream to restore and old car. Maybe in my next life.

  • B Burke

    I am restoring a '71 K-20 Long bed. 28,000 original miles and I am the second owner. Will probably end up doing a frame-off restore, but want the truck as a daily driver. I will be pulling the 350 out to rebuild it, since the valves are bad. Truck has almost zero rust, but a little banged up. Should be a fun project.

  • london shields

    thanks for the info i just got a 67 fairline 500 im tryin to fixer up into a good daily driver she only has 28000 im the 2nd owner

  • Fred Timm

    1955 Nash Ambassador Super, with the Packard 320 JetFire V8 , coming out of hiding soon. Been sitting on its suspension since 1976

    • David McMeeken
      David McMeeken May 3, 2016 at 7:20 am

      Am getting ready to rescue a 1956 Hudson Hornet V8 Special from a storage building. Been there ten years, but looks like new. Hoping I can get it back on the road to enjoy it soon. Will probably need a new clutch on it as it has set for quite awhile. Wish me luck!


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