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When you buy a new car that sat, or is not running..what are your first steps

Guest LuxDriver

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Guest LuxDriver

To see if it's worthy of your time and money when you're unsure of the car's mechanical situation?

Where do you start? In what order..? First check and change all fluids, belts hoses? Double check chassis for damage? Compression test engine? Every collector handles it differently.. Like to know your checklist!

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I have done many frame off restorations as well as frame on restos. If it's a freshen up and drive kind of thing, I start by draining every fluid in the car and replacing them. Then belts, hoses and tune up parts & battery. Fuel pump and carb overhaul are always due on a car that sat for a long time so I usually replace the rubber parts of the gas lines at the tank and front frame as they've hardened as well. Pop the wheels off and see what the brake cylinders look like, any leaks? replace them all. No leaks? Power bleed the whole system and see how it works.  Then give the front end a shake down and see what may be needed there.This is usually enough to get the car running and drive-able. Checking for chassis damage wouldn't play into it as I would have checked for that before I made the purchase. Like I said, I've done easy freshen ups to complete bare frame all the way up and I've never had a surprise where I missed something that really mattered on my initial inspection before purchasing.

  I'm sure everybody has their own way of doing this stuff, but this is a pretty basic and easy way to start. Which begs the question:

Have you found something interesting?


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The very first thing I do is check if the engine is locked up (seized) and if the block is cracked, before I invest any more money or time. I try to play detective and figure out why the car was parked and left to sit not running.

Brake system is a given a well as cooling system and exhaust,

Good topic to start

Edited by John348 (see edit history)
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Guest AlCapone

Get the old gas out of the tank and flush the lines. Don't even turn it over with the old gas in it as you will cause housekeeper a myriad of problems later on! Wayne

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I would do as john348 said and do a little investigating before spending any money, then depending on your plans only replace the oil in the engine and bypass the fuel tank for a test start.  No sense in getting crazy and draining off all the fluids then find out after it ran for a couple of minutes the engine has to come apart.  It will test run fine on old belts and hoses unless they have a serious visible defect.   Once you determine that everything is good then you can drop the antifreeze and change all the hoses and drain and refill the rear and tranny, etc.  

  As mentioned if it's going to be more than yard driven just plan on everything in the brake system getting torn down and rebuilt.


I would recommend buying a non contact thermometer and checking the engine temp and cylinders as well as the radiator to see how everything is functioning. 

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You didn't mention if you would be doing a pre-purchase or post-purchase inspection; however, due to the way your question is worded, I assume that you meant a pre-purchase inspection.  Let's also assume that you are unfamiliar with the car that interests you, and that the car runs.  Here is what I do:


  1. With the engine cool, look at the radiator fluid and engine lubricating oil.  Wipe the oil off of the dipstick with your fingers to check for grittiness, look at the color of the oil (is it dirty or grey-looking - grey usually indicates water in the oil), look for beads of water and give it a sniff.  A sniff check of the automatic transmission fluid and radiator coolant would also be in order.  You're looking for a 'burnt' smell in the transmission fluid and in the radiator coolant, you're looking for that 'classic' antifreeze odor (also look for contamination) of the coolant).
  2. If you can talk the seller into doing a compression check, by all means do so.  If the seller won't do it, do it yourself or pay a mechanic to do it.  This also gives you the opportunity to 'read' the spark plugs.
  3. As others have said, check all fluids, hoses and belts, and check for any fluid leaks.
  4. If possible put the car on a lift.   Check for front end play, brake system leaks or other damage.  Check the rear end fluid, and transmission fluid if a manual type of transmission.  Check for drive shaft play (worn U-joints).  Check the shock absorbers for leaks etc.  Look for rust on door bottoms, floor pans, quarter panels etc.  Look for damage or poorly repaired damage.  The list could go on and on, but it is VERY important to be able to get the prospective purchase up on a lift.  If you can't get the car up on a lift, prepare to get dirty and do the best inspection you can under the circumstances.
  5. Test drive the car!  Try to drive it both on an expressway and in traffic.  Try to drive it in traffic after the expressway test, because that will usually reveal any tendency to overheat.  Check all the usual suspects such as brakes, steering, all electrical equipment (including lights), and listen for any unusual/unexpected noises.
  6. Don't forget the 'magnet check' for excessive use of bondo in the body.
  7. Check anything that you can think of.  I'm sure I've missed several important things.

If the prospective purchase is a non-runner, check the things that the previous posters have mentioned.  If you can't get the engine to run, consider deducting the cost of an engine and transmission re-build from the asking price, and tell the seller why you are doing that.


There are so many variables when it comes to purchasing a used vehicle (classic or otherwise) that it's difficult to cover all of the pitfalls in a brief online post.  Questions such as:  how old is the vehicle, does it run, if not, how long has it been sitting, how has it been stored, does the vehicle come from a 'snow' (salted roads) state etc., etc, etc.


Check the seller's attitude.  If he/she is cooperative, it usually (but not always) means they are not hiding something.  Also check the seller's environment.  If he/she has a lot of junk (cars or otherwise) sitting out in the open and shows other signs of a casual attitude towards, maintenance, factor that into your evaluation of the vehicle.


I could go on and on about this topic, but I won't.


Good luck (that's a factor),


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If you can't get it on a lift and you are like me and old enough to fear that after crawling around under a car for awhile you may need assistance to get back up, go to the dollar store and buy a cheap mirror (9x12 or larger). Take a scrap broomstick or scrap lumber and build yourself an under car inspection mirror you can hold (Ior better yet roll) under the car and put one of those cheap HF LED lights on it. You can inspect most of the undercarriage from a standing position.

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Guest stoptheclunkerbillnow!

These procedures are written for the "field cars" or barnfinds that may have sat 20 plus years, and no one knows why it was parked. The FIRST thing to do is pull the oil dipstick. If it is rusted, or milky (like a blown head gasket), then you know a rebuild or replacement is next and you're not going any further. If everything looks okay and intact, here are the next steps:


1. Grab fan or fan belt, rock motor back and forth to see if it turns

2. If it has a clutch fan or broken/missing belt or seized water pump, put a socket on crank pulley and see if it turns. If the belt is broken or missing, don't worry about it. You won't need a functioning water pump and charging system to verify if the engine runs.

3. Pull all spark plugs. If there is dirt/ grease around the bases, scratch it loose first with an ice pick and suck it out with a shop vac. This way it will not fall in the cyls.

4. If the engine does not turn, soak the bores in auto trans fluid and penetrating oil, mix in a little Sta-bil fogging oil (comes in an aerosol can). I mix this up in one of the old oil cans with thin center spout. This way it is easy to count/meter the squeezes and know how much you're putting in. On certain V8s with difficult access, a piece of flexible tube or even a flexible drinking straw will help you hit the hole and not make a mess. It may have to sit months, so be patient.

5. If it does turn, put a little of this mixture in each cylinder. It will help build compression faster and help avoid a stuck ring. If the engine has sat less than 5 years, it may not be necessary to oil it.

6. Let it soak a while

7. Turn engine over by hand to verify it will go a full revolution. If not, it may have bent or stuck valves that prevent it turning.

8. Clean starter contacts and verify that battery cables are good. For 6 volt vehicles, research to see if it is positive or neg. ground, so you know which way to hook up the battery.

9. If it is a stick shift vehicle, before cranking it, verify that the clutch disc is not rusted to the flywheel. If there is any question, block the wheels or chain it to something solid before cranking on it. Attempt to turn it over with a twist of the key (if you have one). If not, jump the terminals with a screwdriver if access is good. If access is tight, you can easily make a jumper harness with push button switch.

10. If nothing, remove starter and bench test it. Remember there are many ways a starter can go bad - worn armature, seized bearings, bad drive, faulty solenoid, etc.

11.Once it turns over with a starter, spin it over for a few good 5 second bursts (with plugs still out). This will help build oil pressure, especially on hydraulic lifter engines. This is important. Unless hyd. lifter are adequately pumped up, it will not build enough compression to fire. It is a good idea to stick your thumb over a plug hole and see if it builds compression. If it is an OHV engine, with no compression, you can pull a valve cover or even a breather cap to see if the rocker arms move. If they don't your timing chain may be broken.

12 If the key is missing, run a hot lead from the + terminal of the coil to the + battery terminal. It's not a bad idea to put a toggle switch on this, because if you leave it hooked up a long time it will fry the coil.

13. Clean all ignition terminals. Take apart every one and look at it. If it is a 60s-70s Ford with push-on coil terminals, be careful to clean them as they were bad about corroding. Remove distributor cap. File the scum off the point contacts (this is VERY important). Next, look at where the point breaker arm lies on the distributor cam. If it is not on a flat side, turn the engine so that the breaker arm rests on a flat, not a peak.  Flip the key (or toggle) switch on. Take a thin screwdriver and move the arm away from the dist. cam, to break the point contact. A spark should "snap" when they open. If not, clean them again. If still no spark at the points, check the primary ign. system components - all wires and connections, condenser, coil, etc. Especially if rodents have been under the hood and chewing. You can look up the procedure, and test the coil with a volt/ohm meter. Or swap the coil with a known good coil. Pay attention to external resistor types, such as those used on Chrysler corp. vehicles. Most coils are marked but not always.

14. Once the points are sparking, take a pocket knife and scrape the scum off the terminals inside the dist. cap, and the tip of the rotor. Look and make sure the little spring loaded button is still inside the center of the underside of the cap. As a side note, brass terminal caps are FAR SUPERIOR to the chintzy aluminum contacts.

15. Verify that the plug wires are good. A lot of cheapo junk sets were sold, with bare steel contacts. Also there are ones out there with crummy clips that won't grip a plug or dist. cap tight enough to make good contact. Look at them carefully.

16. Get a spark tester (alligator clip type). Clean an area to clip it to. Exhaust or intake manifold bolts work great because there's usually nothing crowded around them, so access is good. You can also use a new plug. Clean a spot on the exh. manifold and hold the ground terminal to it. Turn over the engine for a few 5 second bursts, to see if it sparks. If no spark, check everything again. Make sure you remembered to put the rotor back in the dist cap.

17. Clean spark plugs and install them. if they are broken/worn/especially fouled, replace them. If they are really worn but still clean, you can gap them down. I really like using platinum plugs when they are available for the particular engine. They are good a firing through poor conditions. They will help fire through the oil mix we put in the cylinders in step 5.

18. Once spark is good, move on to fuel. Remove the air filter housing. Look in the top of the carb. If there is a lot of dust on the choke plate, grab your shop vac again and suck it off. Open the choke plate so you can suck out any dust that may have fallen inside.

19. Verify that all linkages and throttle plates move. If not, spray a little penetrating oil down inside the carb bores, AND on the portion of the throttle shaft outside of the carb. Let it soak a while before moving them.

20. If you have any doubts about the cleanliness of the inside of the carb, remove the top plate and look in the float bowl. There are commonly spider webs or other junk in there. You can grab the shop vac again, but be careful not to suck any loose parts in. Verify that the float and needle valve move freely.

21. Now you're ready for fuel. BE SURE to use ethanol free gas. Go out of your way to find it if you have to. I like mixing in a little Sta-bil additive (red liquid), and some Lucas fuel system additive. Lucas is the only oil-based fuel system additive, all the others are alcohol based. Dribble a tablespoon (or slightly more) gas into the carb bores. Move the throttle shaft once or twice to open the throttle plates and let the gas fall in. Crank the engine.

22. It should hit. If not, verify that the engine is mechanically sound and the ign. system is still giving you spark. You've eliminated the carb, since you dumped fuel straight through it.

23. If it sputter/hits/runs, fill the float bowl of the carb and put the top together. If you did not take the top of the carb off, you can fill the bowl through the vent tube.

24. Start it, let the fuel run out of the bowl. Fill the bowl again, and put a fuel line and remote tank to the carb. I like using a lawn mower tank.

25. Start it again, let it run. Once it burns out the oil in the cylinders from step 5 (you'll be able to tell this when the exhaust quits smoking), dribble a little ATF down the carb while it is running. ATF is slippery and will help lube the rings and valves to avoid sticking/damaging them.

26. After the tank runs dry, connect your new fuel line to the pump. Fill it and let it run again.

27. Now you can go on to verify other systems, belts, charging, cooling, etc.

28. If it runs good, you can try driving it. A stick shift car with no brakes can be slowed with the transmission. BE SURE you have a large unobstructed area to drive in. An automatic can be slowed with the emergency brake. BEFORE attempting to drive it, check the underside of the car to make sure everything works.

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I think one of the most important things, at least from the hobbyist standpoint, is being very familiar with the make and model you are looking at before you buy. Know your values, both in it's present condition, and the market value completed. Things like parts cost and availability, known problem areas, or issues, and so on. One of the most disappointing things would be to get what is perceived to be a great deal, only to find out you need a major part that is virtually impossible to find, or so costly it exceeds the value of your project significantly. When I go look at a car of interest to me, I'll know right off the bat, what the engine will cost me if locked up, which pieces of trim are non-existent, how many incorrect parts are on the vehicle, and about a dozen other things. The last thing you want is to have to turn it into a "resto-rod", lol!  

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Guest LuxDriver

Lots of interesting ideas, some new to me. Thanks guys basically it's I did go over it with a magnate, the that part and floors trunk floor chassis seemed good. The car turned over when battery charged and gravity fed w gas. Since its been sitting inside for years on a cement floors it felt dry inside n in trunk. I didn't dare put an old heavy car in gear, even with my foot on the brake..but will go back this week to check on more ..

I always felt if the body is straight and solid, the chassis, floors, n trunk floor..the car is original and not played with or changed, the rest you can work on. Next Id look at engine,cooling, tranny, brakes, and electrical ,etc.. Making cosmetic and mechanical needed lists as I go..

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