Old FordDear Ole Mechanic;

I found an old car in a barn that I would really like to restore.  The owner and I have just about reached an agreement, so I think that  I will get it.  My question is what do I look out for and where do I start fixing?

Young But Old Car Crazy


Dear Young Crazy;

Yes, you may be crazy, but old cars are a part of our history and should be preserved--if for no other reason than to keep us from repeating our mistakes.

I must tell you right up front that no matter how much you think it will cost to “get it fixed up,” it will cost two to four times that much.  It will also take from two to four times as long to complete as you think it will take.  Those are the two primary reasons that many “fix up” projects are never completed.

Now that I've made the cost and time concerns clear, I will give you some guidelines.  First, look at your skills and what you can do.  Are you good at mechanics?  Can you repair a generator, starter and electrical wiring?  How about body and glass work?  Are you any good at upholstery and trim work?  Do you paint?  Don't be afraid to admit that you need help, and when you do need help, ask for it before you break something that may be near impossible to replace.

Now for the car.  Before you buy it, look hard at the basics like the engine, transmission, rear axle, frame, body and interior.  First check the engine and head for cracks.  Sometimes an external crack can be repaired, but if the crack extends to the inside of the engine, then it may not be repairable.  Also, realize that some older engines were prone to internal cracking--especially if it was overheated at some time--and a replacement engine may not be available at any price, because of the cracking problem.  The same inspection for cracks should also be done on the transmission and rear axle.  Next, check to see if the engine is frozen up.  Can it be turned over by hand?  If it turns over, then consider yourself lucky.  If it won't turn over, don't force it, because the part you could destroy may not be available. 

Next look at the frame for obvious bends, cracks, breaks or rust.  Rust is not normally a problem here in this part of the country, but it sure could be if the car spent some time along the Gulf Coast.

Now, look at the body.  If the metal is solid, dents can be pounded out with normal body-working tools and skills.  Bullet holes are not that hard to repair if you can get to both sides of the hole.  Rust damage can also be repaired if the rust has not made the metal too thin.  Missing body parts can be a real problem for some cars.  For example, the fenders for a Model A Ford are being reproduced in both metal and fiberglass, but I have not seen any reproduction fenders for a Terraplane or a Studebaker.  You will want to check on the availability of reproduction and NOS (New Old Stock) parts for the car before you buy it. 

Old BuickFinally, the interior.  The key here is missing parts.  An old seat can be rebuilt and reupholstered, but if you don't have a seat to start with, that's a problem.  Usually the hardest things to replace are those things that  get broken in the normal course of wear and tear--like knobs and window crank-handles.

Normally, I would not suggest trying to start an old car that has been stored in a barn for a long while until the oil has been changed, old gas drained and replaced and the wiring checked over.  The one exception to this is if the owner willing start it before you buy it.  If the seller messes it up before you buy it, then you don't have an obligation to buy it. 

I've found old vehicles that owners have maintained by starting them a time or two every year while they were stored.  Those are rare.  If what you have found is one of these rare running cars that can be driven, then consider yourself lucky, but don't think that you can just drive it.  Old tires, belts, hoses, brake fluid, coolant, engine oil, transmission grease and rear axle lube should all be replaced.  Also, only short drives should be planned until you get thoroughly comfortable with the car and find out why it was parked in the barn.  After those short drives, you should check for leaking seals, because storage may have caused them to harden and as you drive, they may crack and need to be replaced.

One final thing to check before you buy the car is the paperwork.  While a missing title is not impossible to overcome, it can be a expensive and a real hassle .  After that is all done, then there is one more piece of paper to get and that is a service manual for  the car.  It can be an original or a  reproduction, but you will need it.

Herr Professor Nuzanbolts