Waking Up from Hibernation

Waking Up from Hibernation

Returning a stored older vehicle back into service

Sooner or later, chances are that the "classic car" bug will bite, and you may succumb to the allure of owning an older car. Yet often the "classic" in question is not a fully restored and sorted-out "turnkey" vehicle. More likely, it was somebody's faithful daily driver for years, now shelved in favor of a late-model vehicle or simply retired (along with that "somebody's" driving privilege). In other cases, perhaps the vehicle was parked with a promise of restoration that wasn't fulfilled, and is now just taking up space-and you want to make a deal on this neglected conveyance.

Getting Started, Literally

Whatever the scenario, you're now the owner of a tired-looking vehicle that has been sitting idle for several years. How do you wake it up from hibernation without it turning into a bear? Well, before you hook up the jumper cables and go for a road test, consider taking a systematic approach to starting the engine, and then determining the vehicle's roadworthiness, all in order to avoid causing undue damage or compromising safety. This approach will require some self-control when faced with the excitement of experiencing a "classic" vehicle. So, here's the drill:

BEFORE STARTING THE ENGINE-Check all fluid levels and conditions-and we mean ALL. This procedure includes engine oil, engine coolant, automatic transmission fluid, brake (and clutch, if applicable) fluid, battery electrolyte (if caps are removable), manual transmission, rear differential oil, and even the fuel in the fuel tank (access under vehicle).

Although it's recommended to change all of these fluids (except battery electrolyte) before either starting or driving the vehicle, checking the fluid's condition can alert you to problems before starting the engine, or driving the vehicle, thus helping to avoid potentially costly damage. If, for instance, the coolant level is very low, and the engine oil level is very high, an internal coolant leak might be suspected, and necessary tests can be performed before firing up the engine with new fluids. After all, even new coolant is a poor lubricant for the engine's moving parts (except for the water pump). So why waste money on new fluids that are going to immediately be ruined? In any event, all low fluid levels should be investigated thoroughly.

Dark, sludgy brake/clutch fluid might indicate moisture, or other contamination, and will alert you to a potential/imminent system component failure (although this does not have to be addressed until the vehicle is otherwise ready for the road). The same is true for manual transmission and rear differential oils. Weak electrolyte readings (tested with a battery hydrometer) will alert you to the need of either charging or replacing (the better alternative of the two) the battery before starting. Simply jump starting a weak battery may get the engine started, but will definitely over-stress the alternator, as the charging system is not designed to compensate for a seriously weak battery-although it will try.

Poor, Old Fuel

Draining the old fuel out of the tank is recommended (most older vehicles actually have a drain plug on the bottom of the tank) because very old fuel loses its volatility (meaning it is less likely to fire). Also, check for contamination to avoid passing debris throughout the fuel system and into the carburetor. If water contamination is present, being heavier than gasoline, it will be the first thing to come out of the tank, once the drain plug is removed. In a light-colored drain pan, it will appear as a clear, shapeless glob at the bottom of the pan. Usually, just the fuel drain-and-fill procedure, along with some inexpensive water-dispersing additive, will be all that is needed to correct this condition. It will have a brownish color if rust has begun to occur, and at that point, it may be best to remove the tank and have it professionally cleaned.

How could large quantities of water actually get into a seemingly closed fuel system, you may ask? Many older vehicles, especially those oriented to style and/or sport, had rather unusual fuel fill "interfaces," which required periodic maintenance (mostly debris removal) to prevent rain or wash water from freely entering the tank. The '67 Volvo P1800 shown here had-get this-nearly FIVE gallons of water in the tank due to a blocked "well drain" tube. Before doing any fuel tank draining or service, make sure that you're in a well-ventilated area (preferably outside), and well away from any sources of ignition. Wearing protective gloves is recommended, also.

All hoses, especially those for the cooling and fuel systems, should be inspected for damage and replaced as needed. Dry rot, evidenced by parallel cracks, is especially common to fuel hoses, while internal "striations"-weak points within-are common to coolant hoses. These weak points in the coolant hoses can be found by grasping the hose as illustrated.

Inspect all belts for proper tension, wear, and dry rot, and replace as needed. It's also a good idea, while the coolant has been drained from the engine, to replace the thermostat if the vehicle has been laid up for more than a few years.

Making Contact

Ignition contact points (if so equipped) should be checked for free movement, properly gapped, and the actuating cam/rubbing block lubricated. Spark plugs should be removed and inspected. If they are not physically worn, and look good otherwise, they can be returned to service. Save this procedure for last, after all else has been inspected and corrected, so you can then spin over the engine (by the starter) with the spark plugs removed in order to "prime" the block's oiling system. NOW the engine is ready to be started.

BEFORE DRIVING THE VEHICLE-Make sure that any issues or problems that have occurred after initial startup have been addressed and corrected. Steering, braking and suspension systems must be fully inspected and brought up to a safe and fully functional condition, and tires must be inspected for wear and dry-rot. Even when the tread looks good, if the tire sidewalls are dry-rotted, the tire must be considered unsafe and replaced.

It's best if all the instrumentation, lighting, and signals are working on the vehicle before driving (essential if the car is to be driven at night). Don't neglect the horn's operation, either, as typically it can come in handy when you least expect it! Well, this start-up procedure is a bit more involved than just a jump-and-drive but, chances are, a lot of costly grief can be avoided by being systematic and thorough in checking out a vehicle that's coming out of hibernation.

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