Barn Finds: Tips to preparing a project vehicle for the road

While some collectors do buy vehicles from auctions, many vintage vehicles come directly from private sources. We become aware of them through classified ads in this magazine or other publications, by word of mouth and on eBay or other Internet sites. Sometimes, we simply spot a vehicle in someone’s barn or out in a field, often when we’re not looking for one. These are generically called “barn finds.”

Basic Check List

There are only a few basic things that need to be checked to determine if there’s at least a chance that a barn find can be started and driven.

  • No vehicle is going anywhere if its engine is seized. If one has jumper cables, try the starter on vehicles with 6- or 12-volt electrical systems to see if the engine is free. For vehicles with 24-volt systems, 12 volts may not be enough to turn an engine that’s been sitting for years.
  • If the spark plugs are located in wells, such as on most L-head engines, clean out all the dirt and debris so it doesn’t fall into the cylinders before removing the spark plugs.
  • For the moment, make sure that the brake and clutch pedals are operational and still equipped with return springs.
  • Also check for an accelerator linkage return spring, along with a spring or springs for the parking brake system if springs are used. If any of these are missing or badly rusted so they may break, buy new ones before you return.
  • A simple way to check if the clutch disk is stuck is to put the transmission and transfer case (if equipped) in gear, push the clutch pedal down —then turn then engine over by hand or with the starter.

Ready to Roll?

It would be wise at this time to fill the vehicle’s radiator with water. After filling the cooling system, you should also be able to spot leaking soft plugs or external cracks in the engine block. Various products, such as K.W. Block Sealer, can temporarily seal engine block cracks, although you will probably have to get another engine, or at least a block, later.

The condition of a vehicle’s tires is of obvious importance if one hopes to drive it for any distance. Even if the tires still hold air, check them carefully for deep cuts, serious weathering and age cracks. It’s smart to have at least one good spare.

Look Over the Engine

After checking the condition of the tires and making appropriate plans in that department, examine the engine again to make sure that everything it needs to start up and run is present and accounted for.

  • Does it have all its spark plugs and are they intact with no breaks? What about the spark plug wires, distributor cap, rotor and ignition coil? Has that pre-mid-1950s vehicle been converted from 6 to 12 volts?
  • You may also want to buy a new coil, spark plugs and wires.
  • Check that the vehicle has battery cables.
  • Also check the radiator hoses and fan belts.

A Few Other Areas to Examine

Other things to check are:

  • Flexible brake lines
  • Fuel system hoses and lines to the oil filter and oil pressure gauge.
  • Look at the air or vacuum hoses.
  • Check the choke cable to see if it’s rusted solid.
  • Check the throttle cable, if the vehicle has a hand throttle. Hand throttles are handy, no pun intended.
  • Check that the vehicle still has an exhaust system, including a muffler.
  • Check that the fuel tank hasn’t rusted out. If it’s still partly full of ancient fuel, you may have to bring back suitable containers in which to dispose of it.
  • The same applies to the engine oil, which you will want to change before trying to drive the vehicle home.
  • You may also want to remove and clean the oil pan, and will probably need a new gasket.
  • Also make note of the oil filter type.

What Will You Need To Start It?

  • A good tool set and any parts you’ve decided you need
  • Good battery of the proper size and voltage.
  • A suitable towing chain or rope
  • A chase vehicle that’s large and powerful enough to tow your new treasure if it breaks down.
  • Jumper cables, Extra primary wire, Electrical tape, Containers of fuel and water, and at least a quart of brake fluid
  • For the engines of most vintage vehicles, buy the cheapest 30-weight oil you can find, as well as several quarts more than that particular engine takes.
  • Bring at least 10 feet of either 5/16- or 3/8-inch fuel hose with appropriate clamps, plus one or two in-line fuel filters.
  • It’s also possible that the fuel pump won’t work or may fail on the road and you may have to rig up a gravity feed with a jerry can.
  • Bring rolls of bailing wire and duct tape.
  • Gasket paper might also come in handy along with gasket sealer, although you can use just about any kind of thick paper to make a gasket.
  • Be sure to bring an oil squirt can for linkages, choke cables, etc.
  • Bring a grease gun, several tubes of grease and enough gear oil for a complete change in the vehicle’s transmission, transfer case and differentials. A suitable gear oil is 90 weight.
  • As far as legality, some states issue or sell permits to drive an unlicensed vehicle from one place of storage to another. Expect to meet the law, so be smart about licensing a vehicle.
  • What about insurance? Check with your agent or company. Buying liability coverage could be well worth the expense if your barn find’s brakes fail and you rear-end a brand-new Ferrari.

Time to Move

  • Put the transmission in neutral, get underneath the vehicle and try to turn the engine. If it moves even a little, keep rocking it from one direction to the other with your screwdriver or bar. Turn it over a few more times, then hook up the battery and turn it over a dozen times with the starter to blow the brake fluid out of the cylinders and loosen things up. Clean and replace the spark plugs or install new ones after checking for the correct gap.
  • Next, examine the exhaust system. That old engine is going to blow a lot of red-hot rust flakes out of the pipe. If the vehicle is sitting in a field of dry grass, it would be wise to ascertain where the exhaust is going to come out and clear the area of flammables.
  • Just prior to startup, pour a thimbleful of gas down the carburetor. Beware that if the engine backfires, it may blow flame from the carburetor throat. When the engine starts, do not rev it any higher than is necessary to keep it running.
  • If you do have oil pressure, check the water level in the radiator and top it off if necessary. Also look for bubbles in the radiator which could indicate a leaking head gasket. If everything seems okay, let the engine warm up. Check that the temperature gauge is working. If so, it should start rising.
  • If the engine temperature stabilizes in a normal range (usually somewhere between 160 and 190 degrees, or midway up the gauge dial) try to shift into gear. Shift into first or reverse and, even if the tires are flat or sunk in the dirt, check if the vehicle tries to move. Also be sure that the transfer case is in gear.
  • If the clutch does work and the vehicle seems to want to move, or if you’re going to try to tow the vehicle to free the clutch, then now is the time to attend to the tires.
  • If you’re working in a flat area, you probably won’t need the service brakes yet. However, if you’re on a hillside, you’ll want to get the brakes working as soon as the tires are fit to roll.

Drive It Out Of the Bush

You should now be able to drive the vehicle clear of the poison ivy or jumping cactus.

Once on the road, take it slow and easy. Gear down on upgrades and don’t lug or high-rev the engine. Stop to check the tires and wheel bearings frequently (put your hand on the wheel hubs to see if they’re getting hot). Keep a close watch on the engine temperature and oil pressure gauges and, of course, listen for knocks, rattles or any other ominous sounds coming from the engine or drive train. Even if you get home without problems, you’ll still have an interesting tale to tell, which will probably help other enthusiasts if they stumble across a barn find.

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