Cary's Garage: Bringing an Engine Back From the Dead

Cary Hubbard
by Cary Hubbard


I was wondering if you had any good tips and tricks for bringing an old car back to life that’s been sitting for a long time. I’ve read and heard different things, but I want your advice on what you have ever done.



Greetings Tom,

I have a lot of experience in bringing around old cars that have been sitting in either fields or barns, so this is a good question that I can provide some input on. All of this is stuff I have done with decent success and remember you are never guaranteed that it will get running and that there are so, so many things that must be sorted, but this will at least be a decent guide.

First thing: Don’t ever just throw a battery in it and crank the engine, it’s best to “fog” the engine (aka lube it up well) before anything. What I like to do is pull the fuel inlet to the engine as you are going to have to sort out the fuel system down the road and it’s best if you get it running to start off running it on an external fuel source.

Pull the plugs on the engine, first off. I like to use Mystery Oil and ATF mixed and pour it into each cylinder. It’s best to let it sit for a period and get nice and soaked in. While that is soaking, I like to pull the valve covers to look and add some lubrication to the top end. I like to use engine oil and just cover the rockers, springs, and pushrods, don’t go too crazy just make sure it's all oiled up.

After the engine has been sitting with the cylinders filled it’s time to turn the engine over by hand, this will usually make a mess so be aware of that. Sometimes it’s best to suck out the mix from the cylinders to keep it a bit on the cleaner side. I like to spin the engine a little bit in each direction first, after that just turn it over several times and see how it feels. This is a good time to see if anything is binding or hanging up that might be causing any issues. Before you crank it over with a battery, I like to drain the oil and fill it up with fresh oil and if you can prime the oil pump, do so. For some engines, you can just pull the distributor and use a priming tool or a cut-down old distributor shaft. If you can’t do that you can crank over the engine without the plugs in the heads to build oil pressure. Do that several times and make sure it spins over decently and you get oil going to the cylinder head(s). If you still have a valve cover off, that’s an easy way to see if it's oiling.

After that throw some plugs in the engine and crank it over again and listen for compression as it cranks, in general, that will give you a quick idea of the health of the engine. You can also do a full compression test if you want to go through the effort but remember having oil in the cylinders can give you higher than normal readings.

Go through the paces of checking the ignition system and feed the fuel system externally. You can pour a little bit of fuel down the intake, but I would be careful pouring too much down there, it would be best to try and get the fuel system feeding the engine.

From there it should fire up if everything is in decent working order. Like I said before there will be plenty of other things to sort out like brakes, fluids, probably wiring if it’s cracked, water pump might be locked up or leaking badly. And if the engine won’t budge or is locked plumb up that takes quite a bit more effort.

For me, that’s a pretty easy way to get an engine brought back around after sitting for a long time. It has worked well for me after many years and plenty of revivals.

Best of luck!

Please email me any questions or ideas.

[Image: Wasan Tita/]

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Cary Hubbard
Cary Hubbard

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2 of 5 comments
  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on Jan 06, 2023

    Nice writeup.

  • Mike Beranek Mike Beranek on Jan 09, 2023

    Watch Derek Bieri's TV show on Motor Trend, Roadworthy Rescues. He pulls complete hulks out of the weeds and gets them running on-site. Of course, he does this to old-style, carb-and-points cars that are easier to resurrect. It gets a lot harder if you have to figure out powertrain control modules and fuel injection.

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