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While many of us in the old car hobby dream of stumbling across a dusty but otherwise all-original vehicle in a barn, it’s a very rare occurrence.
A question that many vintage vehicle owners are often asked about their vehicles (besides “is it hard to find parts for?” and “what is it worth?”) is where they found it. While some collectors do buy vehicles from auctions, many vintage vehicles come directly from private sources. Just about any barn find is able to be transported in a trailer, and many are towable, while a few can actually be driven home. While every situation has been a little different, there are also similarities, especially in the stories of others who’ve driven barn finds home, or tried. Check that the parking brake is operational and that its band or shoes haven’t rusted in place.
For example, a guy once told me he spent an entire day dismounting all 10 wheels of a barn find M35 military vehicle, hauling them two at a time in his SUV to the nearest town to air them up, only to discover at sunset that the truck’s engine was seized. The reason why embarrassments like these occur is because people don’t take the time to thoroughly check out a vehicle before they decide they could drive it home. 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. 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. Even if it seems to be stuck, there are ways to break an engine free if its piston rings are just lightly rusted to the cylinder walls, as is sometimes the case.
Besides the large and obvious parts (transmission, drive shaft and steering system), check that the steering wheel at least tries to turn the front wheels, even if the tires are flat or sunk in the ground. Write down the distributor number or take note of its make and model and bring back new tune-up parts. Now you have ascertained that the engine will at least turn over, the clutch is free, the brakes function and the vehicle has all its mobility components. Internal cracks in an engine block or cylinder head are harder to find because they leak into the cylinders or oil pan. The condition of a vehicle’s tires is of obvious importance if one hopes to drive it for any distance. On the other hand, tires that look very good will sometimes disintegrate in less than a mile. Large vehicles with dual rear wheels give a margin of safety, because you can dismount one of the duals if it fails or use it as a spare for a front wheel.
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. For vehicles with air brakes, one would naturally check the compressor, air tanks and the entire system for leaky lines or fittings.
Other things to check are flexible brake lines, fuel system hoses and lines to the oil filter and oil pressure gauge. Besides a good tool set and any parts you’ve decided you need, you should have a good battery of the proper size and voltage. Here are some other things to consider: it isn’t wise to attempt to drive a vehicle that’s been sitting for years with the oil that is now in its crankcase. Depending upon the type of vehicle, its condition, location and the distance and terrain it has to travel, other items should come to your mind.
You’ve arrived in the morning with all the stuff you think you’ll need, including a helpful and enthusiastic companion, someone I’ve seldom had since my sons grew up. If it was free to begin with and hasn’t acquired another gallon of “oil” since you filled the radiator, you can skip the next paragraph. With the cylinders full of brake fluid, put the transmission in neutral, get underneath the vehicle and try to turn the engine. Obviously, we don’t have the space in this article to go into detail about checking out the fuel and ignition systems step by step. About all I can add in regard to your present situation is to check the carburetor to make sure it isn’t heavily varnished or badly corroded inside, and the float and needle valve are free and operational. When you have a spark at the spark plugs and clean, fresh fuel being delivered to the carburetor, you’re just about ready to attempt a start up. If the reason the vehicle was parked was a loose connecting rod or a broken piston, you’ll find that out soon enough without blowing it out through the block and destroying your chance of rebuilding the engine by over-revving. If you do have oil pressure, check the water level in the radiator and top it off if necessary. 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. 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.
Check the levels in the transmission and differential and add new oil if necessary, or change it if you came prepared to do so. Battling BARE is a group of military and veteran spouses who are increasing awareness about living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I've been reading in the news lately about how good you've gotten at tricking the military into believing you aren't real and I gotta say, I'm impressed. As most enthusiasts know, the general public usually assumes that most old cars were bought at a televised auction.
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.
However, sometimes what is towable or “trailerable” (and maybe should be) is transformed into drivable. The same mistakes are often made and a lot of time is often wasted by not doing things in a logical order when it comes to inspecting a barn find, getting it started and making it mobile.
Someone else told me of a day spent firing up an old 4×4 truck only to discover it was missing its transfer case. Usually, the vehicle’s former owner was telling the truth and the vehicle had been running when parked, but parts were removed through the years and this had been forgotten. First, it should be obvious that no vehicle is going anywhere under its own power if its engine is seized.
The vehicle’s service brakes probably won’t work, but hopefully that’s only due to loss of brake fluid.
Even better, remove the distributor after marking its position and take it home to clean and tune-up before you return.
But don’t dust off your hands and walk away yet, planning to return and drive your barn find home next Saturday after a few hours of tinkering. A leaky or damaged radiator, or rotten or missing radiator hoses, should be instantly apparent.

Unless you expect freezing temperatures, leave the cooling system full of water and check the oil level on the dipstick. In many cases, when a vehicle has been sitting for years, one or more of its tires will be flat and there is seldom a spare.
Even if the hoses didn’t leak when you filled the cooling system, you may want to replace them before taking to the road.
Vintage air brake systems often have a separate unloader valve (or “governor”) which may have to be unstuck for the system to build up pressure.
You should have a suitable towing chain or rope, and hopefully a chase vehicle that’s large and powerful enough to tow your new treasure if it breaks down.
As far as legality, some states issue or sell permits to drive an unlicensed vehicle from one place of storage to another. Sometimes it can be broken loose by shutting off the engine, shifting into high gear and holding the clutch pedal down while trying to restart the engine.
There sits your barn find, although maybe not actually in a barn, looking twice as battered and rusty as you remember.
Of all the preparations ever advised to free up frozen engines, I have found that ordinary brake fluid works best. If it moves even a little, keep rocking it from one direction to the other with your screwdriver or bar. Use your oil squirt can to lubricate all the carburetor, accelerator, choke and throttle linkages and make sure the return spring closes the carburetor butterfly, because you don’t want the engine to rev out of control. I once had a World War II-era half-ton Dodge pickup set what was left of its bed-boards on fire because of hot rust flakes blown out the exhaust pipe. As soon as the engine can be idled without your attention at the carburetor, hop into the cab and make sure there is oil pressure indicated by the gauge. Some vehicle cooling systems can’t be filled all the way if the engine isn’t running or the thermostat isn’t open.
You haven’t wasted time on them, because you’ve done things in a logical order by first getting the engine started and then finding out if the vehicle will move. However, if you’re on a hillside, you’ll want to get the brakes working as soon as the tires are fit to roll. Use your grease gun to lube all drivetrain, steering system, chassis and suspension fittings.
However, those of us in the hobby often have much more interesting tales to tell about how and where we acquired our vehicles, along with amusing or adventurous stories about how we got our treasures home.
Sometimes, we simply spot a vehicle in someone’s barn or out in a field, often when we’re not looking for one. I have done this many times, often in the desert or bush, and usually because I had to because I lacked the equipment to trailer or tow a vehicle or the funds to have it trailed or towed. In some cases, a vehicle simply can’t be driven — or shouldn’t be — and the sooner one learns this (preferably on the same day one makes the purchase), the less time will be wasted trying to do the impossible.
If one has jumper cables, it’s a simple matter to try the starter on vehicles with 6- or 12-volt electrical systems to see if the engine is free. On the other hand, if a vehicle’s engine can be turned over, the next step is to make sure that all the major and minor components required for self-propelled mobility are still present and connected to each other.
For the moment, make sure that the brake and clutch pedals are operational and still equipped with return springs. 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 — either have someone hold it down or block it down with a stick if working alone — then turn then engine over by hand or with the starter.
After filling the cooling system, you should also be able to spot leaking soft plugs or external cracks in the engine block. Even if the tires still hold air, check them carefully for deep cuts, serious weathering and age cracks. I’ve found that even rotten old tires with nylon cord tend to hold together, at least at low speeds over short distances, while good-looking tires with rayon cord may quickly fall apart. If one or more tires are completely flat, check for missing valve cores, another item often missing on barn finds.
Old hoses are like old tires; there is no reliable way to judge how long they might hold together.
If it’s still partly full of ancient fuel, you may have to bring back suitable containers in which to dispose of it.
You should have jumper cables, extra primary wire, electrical tape and containers of fuel and water.
For the engines of most vintage vehicles, buy the cheapest 30-weight you can find, as well as several quarts more than that particular engine takes. 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. If that doesn’t work, try having your companion hold the clutch pedal down (or block it down with a stick) then get under the vehicle to see if you can loosen the disk with a broad-bladed screwdriver or large knife.
You might as well get down with the fact that, no matter what its former owner said, there was probably a reason why it was parked and you’ll either discover it now or when you try to drive it.
If the spark plus 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.
Chances are good that it will gradually turn a little farther in each direction until finally you get a complete revolution.
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.
It makes an amusing story now, but at the time, it wasn’t funny to be driving a vehicle with a bonfire in back. Shift into first or reverse and, even if the tires are flat or sunk in the dirt, check if the vehicle tries to move. I have driven many old vehicles home with only the parking brake to stop them, but that was back in my careless days and I don’t recommend you do the same. You may want to remove and clean the oil pan now, but you shouldn’t have to change the oil again. Stop to check the tires and wheel bearings frequently (put your hand on the wheel hubs to see if they’re getting hot).
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However, for many people, there’s really no necessity to try to drive home a barn find, but there’s usually no necessity to climb a mountain, either.
For vehicles with 24-volt systems, 12 volts may not be enough to turn an engine that’s been sitting for years.

Small parts such as return springs are some of the common items often missing from a barn find.
Freeze cracks in an engine block are almost always located at the bottom of the water jacket and run horizontally.
A block sealer product may still enable you to drive the vehicle home, although you may want to put more consideration into towing options. There are inexpensive electric tire pumps available at most auto parts stores, which may save the trouble of dismounting wheels and hauling them into town for air. The same applies to the engine oil, which you will want to change before trying to drive the vehicle home. The reason for using cheap oil is you don’t yet know if the engine will start or what condition it might be in, so there’s no point in buying top-quality oil.
Or the vehicle’s fuel tank may leak and you’ll have to use the jerry can connected to the fuel pump. Buying liability coverage could be well worth the expense if your barn find’s brakes fail and you rear-end a brand-new Ferrari. No doubt your new treasure would look more impressive with air in all of its tires and the weeds or cactus cleared away, but the first thing you should get to is the heart of the matter: will the engine run? A stout screwdriver or pry bar applied to the flywheel teeth has more turning force than most starters, and trying to turn a stuck engine with the starter may damage the starter. 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. Hopefully, you can get the vehicle’s service brakes working by simply adding new fluid and bleeding them. 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. We believe these letters offer a stark and unique insight into a growing American epidemic. However, on most vehicles, one can put the transmission in neutral, grab the fan, push down on the fan-belt with one hand to keep it tight, and turn the engine enough to see if it’s free. Also check for an accelerator linkage return spring, along with a spring or springs for the parking brake system if springs are used. If cracks are discovered, they are not necessarily a reason to abandon your field resurrection. Just like spark plugs and ignition components, you’ll have to replace them anyway, so why not do it now? Even if the fuel system is operational, it would be wise to install an in-line filter and pack a spare fuel pump.
Beware that the brake fluid will spout or spray from the spark plug holes; don’t let it get in your eyes and be sure to warn your companion.
A line could be broken to the gauge or oil filter, or an oil gallery fitting or plug may be missing and oil is spurting out somewhere.
If the vehicle’s headlamps and brake lamps work, so much the better, but I don’t suggest traveling after dark.
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. A hefty screwdriver or small pry bar on the flywheel teeth will also serve to turn the engine. If any of these are missing or badly rusted so they may break, buy new ones before you return. The oil has long since drained out of all the bearings and internal parts and you want to give the engine plenty of gentle time to pick up and circulate the new oil. If you suspect the gauge itself is bad, loosen a fitting somewhere on its supply line (or the sender unit if the gauge is electric) and restart the engine.
If not, sometimes a few light taps with a screwdriver on the voltage regulator will make it start charging.
If sunset is near, it might be smart to come back another day, rather than risk a journey at night. If it’s free, and one trusts the former owner’s word that it was indeed running when parked, there is usually a good chance it can be started.
Block Sealer, can temporarily seal engine block cracks, even major ones, and you may still be able to drive the vehicle home, although you will probably have to get another engine, or at least a block, later. You can usually perform all these inspections in an hour or two, and you may be very glad you did. 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. If oil squirts out, then you know there is pressure in the engine and the gauge just doesn’t work. I heard sometimes you could be two places at once- physically in one place but mentally elsewhere.
You have even stooped so low as to bring my children into your little shenanigans and that is just crossing the line. 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.
However, if it keeps on rising and the radiator begins to boil, the thermostat is probably stuck and you will have to remove or replace it to drive the vehicle home. If that procedure doesn’t work or can’t be attempted because you can’t reach the clutch disk, about the only other thing that can be done in the field is to tow the vehicle a few hundred feet with the transmission in high gear and the clutch pedal held down.
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