Back From the Dead: Resurrecting That Barn Find

Story and Photos by Carl Heideman

The story always goes like this: “All we did was pull it out of the barn, put in some fresh gas and a new battery, and it started on the second try!” Sometimes, the story is even true. But most of time there’s more to it. Pulling a car out of extended storage and safely putting it back on the road is usually more involved.

Sooner or later most of us will either buy a car that’s been in extended storage or resurrect a car we put into hibernation. For car folks it’s like death and taxes—it’s gonna happen. When we pull that car from extended storage, there are usually three areas we need to address: making it run, making it safe and reliable, and cleaning all the dirt out of it.

Of these three areas, making it run is usually the easiest. Often, it does just require a battery and maybe some fresh gas. Of course, making it run and making it run well are two different things, and the latter proposition is a bit more work.

Cleaning up the car isn’t that bad, either. A trip to the local pay-’n’-spray car wash, some vacuuming, and some detail work generally get the car looking better quickly. Making it safe and reliable is the hard part.

If the car has been sitting for more than five years, the brakes, tires, fuel lines and hoses will likely be rotted from the inside out. Old fuel can turn to goo in carbs and fuel-injection systems. If the car was stored in a wet or humid location, the electrical system will likely prove troublesome. Cables and linkages don’t like getting wet, either, so sorting them out can get to be a challenge.

Nonetheless, that first trip around the block makes all the time and money worth it. Fortunately, there is a pretty straightforward way to address long-term storage issues.

Getting Started

In the shop, the car went up on jack stands for inspections of all the major systems.

In the shop, the car went up on jack stands for inspections of all the major systems.

First of all, it’s important to have some semblance of a plan. Is the car going to go right back to the street, or is a full-blown restoration in the works? For the former, it’s important to do everything right so that the car remains safe and reliable. For the latter, you’re probably just making it run, drive and stop so you can assess your restoration plans.

Either way, you need to think about what you do and don’t want to get involved with. Do you want to replace all of the belts and hoses so you won’t have to deal with them for awhile, or do you only want to replace the parts that are completely shot? Do you want to buy a new battery or just grab the used one you’ve got lying around and make it work?

Finally, consider why the car was parked. Was it just a matter of lost interest, or was there a major problem involved—a bad clutch or a rod thrown through the side of the block? Many other questions come into play, and they all come back to your initial plan and goals.

Next, clean it up. The local coin-operated car wash is generally the best place to start if you can safely get the car there. Otherwise, it’s the hose in the driveway. Wash the exterior, the engine compartment, the underside and anything else you don’t mind getting wet.

If the car’s been sitting outside, using a scrub brush helps remove the accumulated dirt, leaves, sap and other evils. Once you’ve washed it, get out the wet/dry vac and suck out anything that doesn’t belong. Don’t be surprised to find a few mouse nests. Mice like stored cars just about as much as they like cheese.

Then comes the Big Choice. If you’re the patient type, you’ll deal with all the safety and reliability items next. If, like the rest of us, you’re a little less rational, you’ll have to hear it run. If you choose to make it run, be careful. If the brakes are not working, or are working poorly, don’t even consider driving it. Even if you just start it and don’t plan to drive it, keep a fire extinguisher handy and start the car outside in case a fuel leak or other fire hazard develops.

Regardless of your decision, the next steps deal with making the car drivable, safe and reliable. Safety should come before drivability, so the brakes should come first, followed by the fuel system, the cooling system and the electrical system. Once these are done, the engine and clutch can be addressed.


The inspections revealed the need to replace most of the braking components, the hoses, the water pump and many fuel-system parts. A new battery and ignition parts were also required.

The inspections revealed the need to replace most of the braking components, the hoses, the water pump and many fuel-system parts. A new battery and ignition parts were also required.

Cars can sit for quite a long time, and the brakes may appear sound on initial inspection and use. However, it’s common for most of the braking system to fail soon after a car is put back on the road.

Often, the seals stick themselves to the metal parts surrounding them and don’t leak while the car is stored. But once they get moved again, the initial shock of being torn from their resting place combined with swelling or shrinkage from age will cause failures. Sometimes these failures are immediate; other times they may take a month or two to appear.

Inspect the front and rear brake systems. For disc brakes, inspect the rotors for rust or other damage. Next, pull the pads and inspect them and the calipers for leaks or frozen pistons. For drum brakes, inspect the drums; then move on to the wheel cylinders, shoes and seals. Carefully pull back the outer seals on the wheel cylinders to look for leakage or rust. Also, attempt to move the pistons to see if they have frozen. Look for signs of grease, oil or brake fluid; wear; and cracking on the shoes. Check that the axle seals haven’t failed.

Now move on to the brake lines. Look for leaks and excessive rust on the hard lines. Also check for pinched or collapsed lines due to accidents or poor towing. Look for leaks, cracks or swelling of the flexible lines.

Go to the master cylinder. Before doing anything else, check the fluid level. If it’s near the top, then you’ll know the system hasn’t been leaking. If it’s low, start looking for leaks. You may have already found them in your previous checks. If not, inspect the brake pedal for signs of leakage from the back of the master cylinder.

Once you’ve looked at the fluid, get in the car and step on the brakes. If they feel good, hold the pedal with light to moderate pressure for 15 to 30 seconds. It should stay firm. If it slowly creeps down, it’s probably time to rebuild or replace the master cylinder.

If the car has been sitting for more than five years, the best course is to replace just about everything. You’ve already disassembled a lot for the inspection, so going a little further and replacing everything should give you a safe and trouble-free system for years to come.

When rebuilding the brakes, start farthest from the master cylinder and work your way back. Usually, that means doing the rear brakes first, then the fronts, and finally the master cylinder.

For drum brakes, rebuild or replace the wheel cylinders, install new shoes, replace any worn hardware, clean and lube the adjusters, and replace the wheel-bearing seals and repack the bearings if possible. Turn or replace the drums. If applicable, repair, lube and adjust any problems with the hand brake.

For disc brakes, pull the pads one side at a time and pump the brake pedal enough to bring the piston (or pistons) part way out of the bore. Be careful not to bring them out so far that they pop out. Inspect the pistons for rust or other damage. If they look good, use some arc-joint pliers or a C-clamp to move the pistons back.

If they don’t want to go back, are damaged or leak, it’s time for new calipers or a rebuild. If they look okay, it’s a good idea to “exercise” the calipers by pumping the pistons out and pushing them back in several times to get them used to moving again. A little lubricant or brake fluid on the pistons makes this process work more smoothly. Turn or replace the rotors, replace the pads, and the brakes are just about done.

Now it’s time for the brake lines. Again, if the car has been sitting for more than five years, the flexible rubber lines should probably be replaced. This is a good time to consider an upgrade to braided stainless lines, which decrease compliance in the system. Any hard lines that look weak, rusty or damaged should be replaced as well.

Finally, the master cylinder should be rebuilt or replaced, and then the whole system should be refilled and bled.

Fuel System

The engine compartment was partially disassembled to replace or repair the needed parts.

The engine compartment was partially disassembled to replace or repair the needed parts.

Gas doesn’t last forever. Depending on the age of the gasoline and the formula used to make it, the gas may have turned into a sludgy varnish. It may have degraded into something that looks like gas and smells like gas, but doesn’t burn like gas. Or it may be contaminated with dirt, water or other foreign matter. If practical, drain the tank and safely dispose of the old gas. Then, the tank and fuel lines should be cleaned out.

However, often you can get away with simply replacing hoses and filters and maybe cleaning out the carb (or carbs) or injection components. You’ll be wise to replace every hose in the system. Sometimes hoses that look fine from the outside have dry-rotted on the inside, and just a few vibrations from the first test drive will start a dangerous leak.

Most cars have a fuel filter by the carb (or carbs). If possible, you may want to add one immediately after the tank, and ideally before the fuel pump. Plan on changing any filters again within about 500 miles—you’ll be amazed at how much sludge and grit they’ll pick up that quickly.

It’s usually best to pull the carbs apart and inspect them closely. It’s common for quite a bit of sludge to have settled in the float bowl, so this is a good way to get it out. You may also see evidence of varnishing on jets or needle/seat assemblies. A good cleaning and new set of gaskets can do wonders for a carb.

Electric fuel pumps are notorious for getting stuck after long slumbers. Sometimes, a few good whacks will get them working again. Other times, a new pump is the solution.

Cooling System


Corrosion, bad water-pump seals, stuck thermostats and rotten hoses are all common cooling system problems. If the system has coolant in it, and you have access to a pressure tester, you can test it for leaks before replacing components.

Otherwise, drain the coolant and dispose of it properly. Again, if the car has been sitting for more than five years, it’s a good idea to replace all the rubber parts because dry rot often sets in. Replace all the hoses, including any small bypass or heater lines.

Try spinning the water-pump pulley to see if it binds anywhere or seems corroded. If the water pump seems bad or has a leak, replace it. This is a good time for new belts, too. If the radiator looks bad or the coolant is especially rusty, you may want to drop it off at a radiator shop for further work. As long as the system is apart, it’s cheap and easy to replace the thermostat and gasket.

Electrical Issues

When it comes to electrical issues, the battery is the first place to turn because rust and dirt can keep the car from being a runner.

Make sure you’ve got a good battery. Thoroughly clean the posts and install new, high-quality terminals. Remove the ground strap bolt and clean the area with a wire brush. Then install a new bolt with a star washer to make sure that good contact is made with the ground. Remove the main terminal to the starter and clean it as well.

A good battery and clean terminals will solve many electrical problems. Finally, make sure the battery is tied down properly. An amazing number of cars have batteries flopping around in their holders, waiting to short against the body or frame and cause serious problems.

Without going into a lot of troubleshooting details, it’s common for cars to encounter numerous electrical problems after an extended storage. Most are related to corrosion, especially at grounds.

The solutions are usually a matter of cleaning grounds and contacts at switches and unions. In addition to cleaning contacts and grounds with a wire brush or sandpaper, it’s usually helpful to use a WD-40-type product as a cleaning agent and preventive measure. Often, a good shot of spray lube will fix a circuit.

The most common problems are with fuel pumps, horns, marker lights and starters. A good cleaning of the contacts, and sometimes an internal cleaning of the part itself, will often make these components work again.

We’re Getting Closer

Once back together, the engine compartment received new hoses, belts, an electronic ignition conversion, a new cap, rotor and wires, and new filters.

Once back together, the engine compartment received new hoses, belts, an electronic ignition conversion, a new cap, rotor and wires, and new filters.

All right, we’ve got brakes, fuel, coolant and electricity. Let’s make this thing go.

Before we turn to the engine, we should look at the clutch. If it’s got a hydraulic linkage, it will likely have suffered the same fate as the brakes. It’s best to rebuild or replace the components here.

Clutches can have several problems associated with long storage in addition to the hydraulic ones. First, the disc may be rusted to the flywheel. The clutch pedal will feel normal, but the clutch will not disengage. The solution, while crude, is straightforward: Once the car can be started, you’ll need to start it in gear and drive with the clutch pedal depressed. Usually, “jerking” the car around—getting on and off of the gas—will free the disc from the flywheel. Of course, you should do this on a quiet street and watch out for others.

Another common clutch problem is the result of a swelled or partially blocked hose to the hydraulic cylinder. When this happens, there is often a delayed reaction of engaging or disengaging the clutch—a very strange feeling when you drive. You let up on the pedal and a few moments later the car starts moving.

Still another common problem is slippage due to linkage bind or poor adjustment. If the clutch slips, check that there is free play at the pedal and the clutch arm. If there isn’t, an adjustment or component replacement may preclude a new clutch.

Making It Run

We’ve addressed the fuel and cooling systems, so now it’s time to consider the lubrication and ignition systems.

Drain the oil. It may come out slowly. Notice how much comes out. Sometimes there is enough sludge buildup that the engine has to be run to get the oil hot enough to drain. Nonetheless, drain it, replace it and put on a new filter.

In many ways, an engine that has been sitting for a long time should be treated just like a new one. Before starting, prelube the engine as much as possible so the oil is doing its job everywhere. Pull the spark plugs and squirt some motor oil or Marvel Mystery Oil in the cylinders.

If you can prime the oil pump (usually by removing the distributor and spinning the gear with a tool), do so. If you can’t prime the oil pump, leave the spark plugs out and use the starter to spin the engine until you get oil pressure at the gauge or the warning light goes out.

Now it’s time to look at the ignition system. If it’s a points system, you’ll be miles ahead by replacing the points and condenser or installing an electronic conversion. (Electronic ignition systems usually fare well and need little attention.) Test the vacuum advance. These commonly fail, and will cause some drivability problems. Replace the cap, rotor, and especially the plug wires. New or cleaned plugs finish the ignition.

Brakes. Clutch. Cooling. Fuel. Ignition. Time to Drive!

The car fired right up, and it was time for the first drive.

The car fired right up, and it was time for the first drive.

Make sure you’ve got your oil system primed; then try to start the engine. It’s amazing how many times an engine will start if you’ve stuck to your plan. Don’t be surprised to see a lot of smoke. There’s often a lot of crud inside that needs to get out. Run the engine at 2000 to 2500 rpm for a few minutes to warm it up.

While it’s running, check for fuel, oil and coolant leaks. You may need to fine-tune the timing or change the choke or mixture adjustments to make it run better. Don’t worry too much about the state of tune yet—just make it run okay.

Hop in and go for a drive. Keep the windows down and use your senses to make sure everything is okay. Do you hear any bad noises? Smell any burning smells? Feel any clunks or binding in the steering and suspension? Usually, it’s good to take a short drive, then return to the shop and look everything over again. Adjust anything that is obviously wrong.

You still shouldn’t worry about the tune-up. You want to get a few miles on the car before you fine-tune everything. Fifty miles is good, 100 or more is better. Remember, you’re really breaking this car in again. Take several progressively longer trips: five miles, then 10 miles, then 30 miles and so on.

Problems tend to show up quickly, and the closer you are to home during those first trips, the less you may have to walk. Start and stop the car a lot. This also helps identify and sort problems.

Once you have some miles on the car, change the oil again. Inspect the fuel filters and consider replacing them. Now it’s time for a good tune-up.

Start by checking the compression. If it’s pretty even, be happy and move on. If it’s erratic, don’t panic yet. Sometimes it can take a few hundred miles to clear all of the rust and carbon out of the valve train. If it is erratic, don’t start the tune-up until it looks better.

Now go for that final tune-up and start driving. Over the next 500 miles or so, minor things will probably pop up, but using the approach we’ve just outlined usually gives you a safe and reliable car to enjoy again.

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View comments on the CMS forums
Mike T
Mike T New Reader
11/16/18 7:20 p.m.

Great article. I bought a 1973 Beetle project car in June of 2017. Reportedly it had slept in a garage for 25 years. In July of this year I took the maiden voyage in the newly refurbished bug. A great feeling. I had some minor success in the 1980's autocrossing a Bug. It felt great to be back behind the wheel.


Mike T

EastCoastMojo Mod Squad
11/16/18 7:29 p.m.

Speaking of back from the dead,  zombie thread!

Indy-Guy UltraDork
11/16/18 7:53 p.m.

In reply to EastCoastMojo :

Whoa, from a ten year slumber.  If this thread were a car it'd be a "barn find"

eclecticalan New Reader
3/13/19 10:12 a.m.

That's my car! I just drove it to work this morning. It's hard to believe that it was revived 18 years ago now (2001 I think was when most of the work here was done). 

bryangreene3 New Reader
3/21/19 12:27 a.m.

In reply to eclecticalan :

The Beliver can belive it, no doubt. Everybody should read this.

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