Rich’s Repair Ramblings #4: Starting a Barn Find


Barn finds are everywhere! They’re fascinating because they’re the fantasy of something that’s been untouched for many years, waiting to be rediscovered and brought back to life. Perhaps you saw a classified ad for a barn find; or there’s one in YOUR barn to reawaken from its slumber. Either way, starting the engine in a car which hasn’t run in decades helps verify its mechanical condition. If you get it started, you gain a better sense of how much restoration work is needed.

Here’s a list of items to bring when you arrive: a mat/creeper, flashlight, masking tape, marking pen, shop vacuum, container of fresh gasoline, empty fuel container, siphon device, carb cleaner, starting fluid, fully charged car battery, fire extinguisher, and rags. Tools should include wrenches and sockets to fit the crank pulley bolt, spark plugs, and battery terminals, plus ratchet wrenches, extensions, screwdrivers, pliers, and hammers.

Some of the essential items to bring to the barn

Before attempting to fire her up, eyeball the entire car front to rear, looking for two things: one, assurance that it hasn’t been partially disassembled while stored; and two, evidence that varmints haven’t taken their toll. There’s no point in a start attempt if the intake manifold is missing, or if critters have chewed the engine compartment wiring harness! If tires are flat or brakes are seized, worry about that later. This initial effort will focus ONLY on getting the long-dormant engine to run.

If everything looks intact, try to turn the engine over by hand. If you’re lucky, a snug fan belt might provide enough tension for you to manually move the crank. It’s more likely, though, that you’ll need a wrench on the front pulley. Find that size socket, and using your longest breaker bar, try to turn the engine. If it won’t budge, remove the spark plugs (label the plug wires for correct reassembly). Some recommend a squirt of oil in each cylinder. If it’s so stuck that it needs oil, it should sit and soak for several hours or overnight. But try it again. With the plugs out, you’re not fighting compression. You’re trying to confirm that the crankshaft, pistons and valves will move.

Don’t let the decrepit exterior dissuade you from trying to start it

Pop off the distributor cap to watch the points open and close. Clean and adjust them if necessary. Check the plugs you’ve removed and clean them. If you know this car’s engine well, you might have a correct spare set of plugs with you. In either case, install the cleaned or new plugs, and put the wires and cap back. While under the hood, check the air filter (a favorite place for squirrels to store nuts). At a minimum, shake it clean. If you have a shop vac, vacuum the air cleaner assembly. Pull the engine dipstick – is there oil in there? Don’t worry too much about its color, just make sure you have enough in the crankcase.

Turn your attention to the fuel. Old gasoline is the #1 reason why a dormant engine won’t start. Untreated gasoline has a shelf life of 6 months, so if older than that, drain it. A best case scenario is finding a tank with a drain plug. Place your empty container under it, and remove the plug. Be prepared for bad-smelling gel to drip out. Also be prepared for an environmentally safe way to dispose of it. If there’s no drain plug, you can try to siphon it out. If you’re able to drain the tank, add several gallons of fresh fuel to it. If you can’t get the old fuel out, consider a temporary way to connect your fresh fuel to a line feeding the fuel pump. It could be as simple as a fuel hose on the suction side of the pump inserted in your gas can. If the fuel filter looks grimy, consider bypassing it for now. Don’t even try starting an engine with old fuel.

If a battery is in place, we can be almost certain that it’s completely discharged, so you can’t jump it. Disconnect the terminals, clean them, and hook up the fresh battery you brought (you DID bring a 6V for this ’52 Ford, yes?). Get the polarity correct. Are there ignition keys? Good. We are close to making our attempt. A mechanically sound engine only needs air, fuel, and spark to start. If the air filter isn’t clogged, you’ll have air. You figured out a way to get fresh fuel to the pump. Spray some carb cleaner on the carb, then a little starting fluid. Turn the key to “on”. Do any electricals work? If horn or lights do, that can be verification that the wiring is OK. We’re ready. Turn the key to “start” (or push the starter button).

Engine compartment looks crusty but intact; worth a try to start it

It should crank (after all, you hand cranked it, and you have a fresh battery properly connected). If it won’t crank, you may have a wiring problem from the ignition switch to the starter, or a bad starter. If it cranks but makes no attempt to fire, have a helper pull one plug wire and hold it near ground – do you see a spark? If not, check your ignition connections (coil & distributor). If you have crank, and have spark, try a SMALL amount of gasoline into the carb. HAVE SOMEONE NEARBY WITH THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER. If it starts and stalls, there’s blockage somewhere in your fuel routing, so check that.

If you’ve got air, fuel, and spark all lined up, fingers crossed, it should start. Congratulations! Depending on the car’s overall condition, you may not want to idle the engine more than a few moments. Next, you’ll need to figure out how to drag it home. However, you successfully brought a ‘barn find’ engine back to life!


All photographs copyright © 2023 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.


2 thoughts on “Rich’s Repair Ramblings #4: Starting a Barn Find

  1. Richard
    Great article. My past is littered with days …and some nights… of coaxing a tired barn find into life. Amazing how tired and beat a vehicle can be and still start after following the steps you outline. I wish I had kept that ‘31 Model A…
    Thanks for that article.


    • Hi Galen, thank you for your comments and your own thoughtful and personal insight. Regarding that ’31 Model A, I suspect that most of us “car guys and gals” have one or vehicles we regret letting out of our hands. Where is that time machine? Best, Richard


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