How to Start a Car That Has Been Kept in Storage

Car engine jump start between two vehicles
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Cars that have been resting peacefully for a long period of time don't take kindly to an abrupt wake-up call. They will be as nasty as a grizzly bear prematurely jolted out of hibernation and you will pay the price of their wrath. 

Curb your excitement of getting behind the wheel of your sleeping beauty and follow these steps to get a happy ending.

Whether a car has been sitting for three months or three years, certain steps must be taken before you can just fire it up and head down the road, especially if you want to ensure many happy motoring experiences with it.

One of the best places to view what’s been going on with your car while in storage is to look at the floor beneath it. Leakage from the coolant system could mean a bad gasket, a corroded radiator fitting, a rotted hose, or compromised water-pump seals. Also check for leaks in the power-steering system, engine, transmission, rear axle and brakes.

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Replacing Fluids

Washer fluid filling
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Depending on how long the car has been sitting will determine what fluids should be drained and replaced. Barn finds that have been sitting for years would require all fluids throughout to be drained, bleed and systems flushed before refill.

But if the car has only been in hibernation during the winter months, we would suggest:

Check all other fluid levels to make sure they are filled to the required levels and fill your tires with plenty of air.

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Checking the Battery

Hopefully when the car was parked and stored, its battery was disconnected, removed and placed on a shelf away from moisture. Then all you would have to do is give it a good charge, clean the battery posts and terminals with a baking soda and water solution, and reinstall.

Unfortunately, if the car has been sitting for many years with the battery left in place, you will have a bigger job on your hands. Consider buying a new battery and installing it with new cables. Battery cables lose their effectiveness over time, and as the copper in the cable ages, it loses its conductive properties.

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Getting Ready for Ignition

If the car has been sitting for over 90 days, you should remove the spark plugs and add some form of lubricant into the cylinders, like Marvel Mystery Oil, before these parts start moving or to free up any stuck piston rings.

Your spark plugs fire in a specific order so you should label each plug wire before removing them. Be advised, new plug wires can be expensive so make sure you pull them out by grasping them at a point that’s closest to the engine. Inspect the car’s spark plugs and replace them if they look corroded, white or oily.

With the spark plugs removed, turn the engine over with the key several times to let the oil you put into the cylinders lubricate the cylinder walls and to prime the oil and fuel pumps prior to ignition. You should keep cranking the engine until the oil pressure gauge reads normal or your oil pressure light goes out before returning the spark plugs and leads back to their correct position.

Since you’ve removed all the old gasoline, you’ll need to remove the air filter cover and liberally spray some engine starter fluid into the mouth of the carburetors for the best chance of a start when you turn the key.

With a couple of pumps of the gas pedal and giving it a little choke, you’re sleeping machine should come to life.

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Before You Leave the Garage

Once the car starts, don’t rev the engine; just let it idle and warm up. With the car running you should return the air filter cover, check the transmission fluid level and look underneath the car for leaking fluids.

But don’t take it out for a trip around the block just yet. By now your clothes and hands have gotten a bit greasy. Turn off the engine and get a little dirtier by checking all the hoses for dry rot and look for belts that are cracked or in need of tightening.

Give the suspension a good lube job and look for worn or loose ball joints, deteriorated bushings, rusted shafts, leaks at the shocks, and missing or broken bumpstops.

Thorough check of the brakes should be done before you leave your driveway. Your inspection should include the friction linings, drums and rotors. Calipers and wheel cylinders are subject to corrosion, as well as leakage. With the car up on ​a jack, rotate each wheel by hand with someone working the pedal. Each wheel should brake solidly and release cleanly.

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You Are Ready to Roll

A 20-minute trip close to home will loosen everything up and evaporate all the moisture in the exhaust and in the engine. It will also give you a chance to listen for any rattles and engine misses while keeping an eye on the car's gauges for abnormal engine temperatures, battery charging and oil pressure.

Once you get home, make a list of what you uncovered on the trip; knocking engine, brakes pulling to one side, stiff steering, etc. Also, re-check your fluids and look for any new leaks that the “loosening up” ride could have created.

After you have made all the corrections the car would need to safely go on a longer run outside the proximity of a good push home, don’t forget to check your running lights. With an assistant, activate turn signals, headlights, brake lights and high beams to ensure they are functional.

This may seem like a lot of work just to get a car running, but if you want the engine to give you years of hassle-free service, a little elbow grease now can save a big headache later.