Why you shouldn’t cold-start a long-dead car

HED: Why you shouldn’t cold-start a long-dead car

SUM: It may be dramatic, but if you care about the car, take precautions.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.hagerty.com/articles-videos/articles/2019/04/08/dont-cold-start-a-long-dead-car

Thanks, Rob! I just bought a 55 Chevy Del Ray that was in storage for the past 27 years. Amazingly, no evidence of rodents. Before purchase, I sprayed oil in the cylinders and checked compression. Two at zero, assuming some stuck valves. Will be an adventure, and this article is a big help!

When getting ready to start, after all else is finished, pull the distributor, put a sawed off screw driver in a drill, insert it in place of the distributor shaft and spin it for a minute to pump oil through the engine including the bearings and valve train. As to cleaning the tank, fill with water, drain and repeat, drain and put a few pounds of clean pea gravel in the tank and shake for as long it takes to break all the rust free, empty, drain and dry. Then use the RedKote.

I have resurrected a number of Bentley and Rolls-Royce cars over the years. Would like to add some suggestions:

I remove all the spark plugs and fill the cylinders with a mixture of Marvel Mystery Oil and ATF. Let it soak for at least a week. You can also watch which cylinders drain fastest - they may have a ring or cylinder issue, or maybe the rings are just more stuck in their grooves. But all the Marvel Mystery Oil and ATF will find it’s way to the crankcase so my next step is drain the oil. But I don’t just pour new oil in. On the ancient crocks I work on, oil flows from the pump to an external canister filter then by another external line to the engine itself where the galleries distribute it to the crankshaft, timing gears, valve train etc. So I have adapted an ordinary garden sprayer that I fill with the proper amount of new oil (10 quarts for an old Bentley) and shoot some into the line from the oil pump - this ensures the pump is primed and not dry. The remainder I pump into the engine via the oil filter (which I also changed). This ensures all of the internal galleries are charged with oil, and hopefully oil has made its way to the bearing surfaces as well. I find that these awakened engines frequently smoke terribly and have poor compression until they have undergone a number of heat up cool down cycles which seems to be part of the process by which the rings free up and seal again

Using gravel or metal chain to free rust on the inside of a fuel tank has a peril - that is the gas tank level sending unit. Most of those units have intake tubes and/or floats on extended arms and are relatively fragile. An over exuberant mechanical scrubbing could damage these items. If possible, remove the tank and then the sending unit. This will also facilitate a visual inspection of the tank inner wall.

After you have done all of the above, remove the spark plugs and the full flow oil filter, if so equipped. Then, spin the engine with the starter until oil spits out of the oil filter mount. Replace the oil filter and continue spinning the engine until an oil pressure reading on a mechanical gauge registers for a minute or so. Stop spinning if starter motor appears to be getting hot and allow it to cool. After you have distributed oil through the entire engine, replace spark plugs and start engine. Removing the oil filter will allow the oil pump to prime much easier. If engine does not have a full flow filter, proceed with the rest of the steps.

Every time you one of those barn find videos full of dusty old performance cars - always with some disheveled looking owner who refuses to sell any of them - remember this article. The longer those wonderful classics sit around gathering dust, the more damage is done. Hoarders of the automotive community, for Pete’s sake, if you can’t store it properly and you ain’t using it, learn to let go & sell it while you can.

Thank you for this article. Many times I’ve seen people start up long stored cars without making sure all is clean and clear. When I found my 35 Pontiac, some 64 yrs in storage we did all you said in the article but more. We rebuilt the fuel pump, carburetor, new points, changed all the fluids and just went over every inch of the motor and ignition. Then we hooked a gas bladder to it and that way ensured no debris from the tank was sucked up. That was a great save because later we found the fuel tank was full of rust and bits of rusted metal had dropped into it. Slowing it down to get a car started is worth it. And before doing anything, turn the motor by hand to ensure it isn’t frozen or seized. If it is, stop there. You’re going to have to take it apart before you will be able to start it. Happy Cruising!

Good article. I could never understand people who would just kick over an old motorcycle or crank an old motor that had been standing neglected for a long time. I exercise patience, I remove spark plugs & lubricate cylinders & let it stand overnight before attempting to move pistons in cylinders. I disconnect the fuel supply line & provide fresh fuel with a fuel bottle designed for motorcycle maintenance. Drain the oil, you may find water or coolant in the crankcase. Make sure that coolant level is up. Cleaning gas tanks is another subject. Properly dispose of old fuel, there should be a hazardous waste facility in your area that will accept it.

We take over a fair number of cars that have been sitting - mostly we don’t know for how long. We’ve resorted to draining and dropping the gas tank to clean it, blowing out the lines and changing fuel filters before we do anything. Bad gas can be blamed for a lot of intermittent running problems.

Excellent advice. Only thing I would add is that, at least here in the Northern California Bay Area, it is virtually impossible to find a place that will boil out a gas tank. Too many enviromental regulations.

All helpful info. I’ve found 1 engine gets a pass to some of this. The Model A. Yup, Henry’s Lady with some of the grandest metallurgy in the industry, EVER. Other than clean oil and a wisp of lube down the cylinders (and along the valves) even the most seasoned “field veterans” seem to always come back to life, sometimes with a vengeance. Do I recommend it? No, it’s not for uninitiated or the faint of heart (wallet?), but the venerable Model A as always seemed ready to serve with little effort and not much more than farmer’s “horse sense”. Who’s with me?

40 years ago I worked at a foreign car shop, and there was an XK-140 that looked as though it had sat in the woods for more many years (that’s because it had). The owner had to cut down trees to get it out!

Needless to say, the motor was frozen. The boss told me to pull the plugs and shoot some penetrating oil into the cylinders several times a week. After a few weeks I put it into 4th, sat on the bumper with my feet on the wall, and rocked it.

The rocking went on for weeks until it suddenly broke free. I changed the oil, flushed the tank, replaced the rubber fuel lines, did a quicky gasket-change rebuild of the SUs, flushed the cooling system and put in new antifreeze (surprisingly the cooling system was still intact and the coolant looked good). Before replacing the plugs I cranked the engine till it registered oil pressure. It started right up—and smoked enough to kill ever mosquito for miles. But as Rob points out, after a few more startups, the smoking settled down to normal vintage British levels.

Wow not one mention of Safety First. All of u failed. First disconnect th negative battery cable at th battery then th positive. A faulty ignition switch in th on position n u could loose some fingers, not to mention FIRES! Have an extiguisher at hand. All this talk of fuel n No mention of spark + fuel WAM instant inferno. Always disconnect th battery First. Rotating an engine by hand or wrench with th battery connected is NEVER a good idea. Always chock a wheel with a rock or block so vehicle that starts will not get away from u. Wow Safety First.

Wow! That’s quite a response, and no doubt with a good reminder, if not far too alarming. Safety is always paramount to most folks. The ones that aren’t concerned with safety probably won’t be following this article based on moving slowly and methodically. But to assume “all of you failed” due to the article or commenters not raising flags about the obvious is making you look holier-than-thou.

Fire extinguishers were mentioned. Inferno!? Not likely, though a fire could start. Although the scenario you described “could” be possible, it isn’t likely under the terms of this article.
Please turn down the volume on your alarms. You made a good suggestion, even if very obvious. A simple reminder is usually welcome, but the harsh judgements from your reply will just put people off, and then your effectiveness is gone.

Woody Allen movies have so many great lines: I’m sure your article referred to Woody and Diane Keaton in a movie queue with Marshall McLuhan but I would suggest a more relevant scene from ‘Sleeper’ : finding a dust covered 200 year old VW in a cave and having it immediately start for them…“They really built these things didn’t they?”

Any good old farm boy would know and agree with all of this, but there are not too many of us left. All my “old toys” get started and used on a regular basis (even the unlicensed ones that I sneak down the road) and those runs keep them in shape as well as me. When I stop running around, I am sure I will seize up and quit also

Opps, thanks 4 th input. My intention was not holier than thou. Sorry. trying to remind of safety. didn’t realize my alarms were so loud. Will tone it down in future.


Might make sense to use water instead of coolant initially - in case of leaks, you won’t dump antifreeze and $$$.

The step of lubricaing the cylinder walls by spraying lubricant in the spark plug holes should precede the step of rotating the engine with a wrench on the crankshaft pulley or using the fan or alternator to rotate the engine, as even the single rotation dry can scour the cylinder walls and cause a ring to hang up. Lubricating first can ensure that the cylinders are not dry and can make rotating the engine by hand slightly easier as well.