How should I “wake up” a vehicle after years of storage?

November 1, 2015 | By Staff


I am sure there are several of us (raising my hand) who bought a project car that we intended to start on right away, but somehow did not, (going on 20 years) or bought a car that had been parked and left sleeping.

We have seen or heard of cars that were bought and “they just tossed in some fresh gas and a battery and started it right up.” I have to wonder if that happened and if so what harm they were potentially doing.

That being said, for people like me who did not grow up working on cars but are still learning the basics, is there a “wake up” list for cars that have been sleeping for a long time? What needs to be checked, changed and done before we try and “just crank it up.”


I have heard of, and participated in such adventures, but keep in mind that—if the car did start—you would most likely be making a big mistake. You could probably get away with just putting in clean gas and a new battery on a car that has only been sitting for a year or two, but a car that has been sitting for 20 years is another story.

The hydraulic brakes will need to be rebuilt, the tires will be hard and rotten, the fluids in the engine, transmission cooling system and differential will need to be replaced, and the grease in all of the suspension fittings will long since have hardened. Also, the engine oil may not have been changed when the car was mothballed, and the acids in it may have eaten the crankshaft bearings.

In short, you are most likely in for essentially a major servicing if you want a dependable car that is enjoyable to drive. A lot would depend on how much the car means to you, and how much time and money you want to put into it.

If the car had been carefully put in storage to begin with, the situation would not be too onerous. But if it was just driven into the garage and shut off 20 years ago, it could be a big, costly, dangerous mistake to just fill it with fuel, start it and drive it.

Yes, many of us including myself did such things in our misspent youth, but from what I remember such casually resurrected zombie cars were not dependable and didn’t last long. I suppose if you just wanted to drive over to see your girlfriend and don’t mind hitchhiking home if things go wrong, such a car could be a learning experience for you, as it was for me and others. But it quite likely could be an expensive education.