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So you’ve dug into your garage, thrown away the stacks of outdated automotive magazines, found the dusty carcass of your old car, and decided it’s time to revive your baby? An excellent thought as now’s the perfect time to start a long-dead car.
Sitting cars can suffer from a variety of maladies, including stale gas, bad starter motors, seized engines, dead batteries, and corroded hoses, among a plethora of other things that can be affected by time and the environment. However, there are a handful of common issues that are often the culprit in a car not starting after it’s sat.
And though it can seem like a challenging endeavor—and indeed, it can be given certain circumstances, with a little gumption, and a dose of internet help from your favorite team at The Drive, you can get your baby back out onto the road in no time.
Ready to start diagnosing? We promise you don’t need an 8-year medical degree.
How To Start a Car That’s Been Sitting Basics
Estimated Time Needed: A couple of minutes to a lifetime of repair and replacement.
Skill Level: Beginner to Garage God.
Vehicle System: Electrical, engine, fuel system.
Although jump-starting your car is pretty straightforward, it’s important to remember fiddling around with your car’s electrical and fuel systems can be dangerous. Electricity causes shocks, and batteries can emit harmful vapors. And any time you’re working around gasoline, you should take extra precaution. Here’s what you’ll need to ensure you stay safe.
Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won’t need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)
You’ll need a flat surface such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking. If you’re in a garage, open the door to let in as much fresh air as possible. If you’re using the street, check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes because we ain’t getting your car out of the impound yard.
Everything You’ll Need To Start A Car That’s Been Sitting
We’re not psychic, and we aren’t snooping through your toolbox or garage, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to get the job done.
For Oil Pressure Testing
For Fuel Testing
- Fuel siphon pump
- Clear container
- Container for old gasoline
- New gasoline
For Changing Battery
- New battery
- Screwdriver or wrench
For Changing Your Starter Motor
- New starter motor
- Screwdriver set
- Wrench set
- Car jack
- Jack stands
- Wheel chocks
Here’s How To Start A Car That’s Been Sitting
Because there are so many possible reasons your car won’t start after sitting for a year, The Drive’s informational team went through the trouble of determining five of the most common reasons why there’s no joy when you crank the starter.
They range from super simple fixes to, “Oh god, what have I gotten into?” Don’t worry, we’ll start off easy and work our way to those headache-inducers.
Let’s do this!
How To Jump-Start a Car
The easiest first step to starting a car that’s been sitting for a year is trying to jump-start it. After a long time sitting, a battery will lose its charge and you’ll be left with no juice to power the car. Start here when you’re attempting your resurrection.
- Replace the car’s fluids; oil, coolant, and trans fluid.
- Make sure the car with the live battery is NOT running.
- Connect the red clamp of your jumper cable to the positive terminal of the dead car’s battery. It will have a red cover or a “+” symbol on it.
- Attach the opposite red clamp to the live car battery’s positive terminal.
- Connect the black clamp to the negative terminal of the live car’s battery. It will have a black cover or a “-” symbol on it.
- On the dead-battery car, connect the other black clamp to an unpainted, grounded-metal part or surface on the dead car, such as the vehicle’s frame.
- Start the live-battery car.
- Let it run for a few minutes as this will start to recharge the dead battery.
- Start the dead-battery car.
- If the engine doesn’t start, keep the other car running for a few more minutes and try again.
- Remove the clamps in reverse order; black clamp from the grounded surface, black clamp from the good battery’s negative post, red clamp from the dead battery, red clamp from the good battery.
Read More Here: How To Jump-Start a Car
How to Change a Car Battery
An old battery is the second-easiest possibility of why your car won’t start after it’s been sitting for a year. Here’s how to replace it.
- Replace the car’s fluids; oil, coolant, and trans fluid.
- Pop the car’s hood to access the car’s battery.
- Remove the old battery by removing the negative cable from the negative terminal—the one with the minus sign. Depending on the design of the battery, you may need a wrench to loosen the cable-free.
- Remove the positive cable from the positive terminal—the one with the plus sign. If you are using a tool like a wrench, make sure the metal doesn’t contact the terminal as it will spark.
- Loosen the battery hold-down, connectors, and/or fasteners that secure the battery in place.
- Lift the battery out. The weight of the battery may be over 50 pounds, so get some help if necessary. Put the battery to the side in a safe spot.
- Using a skinny wire brush and some water or baking soda, clean the clamps before you add the new battery. Try to remove any corrosion, dirt, or debris from the clamps. You can also clean the battery terminals from any build-up issues.
- Put the new battery into the holder.
- Secure the battery.
- Reconnect the positive terminal.
- Reconnect the negative terminal.
- Test the car. You can try to crank up the engine or turn on the electronics. If everything powers up, the battery is properly installed, and you’re ready to get going.
Read More Here: How To Change a Car Battery.
How To Test Your Oil Pressure
During your car’s hibernation, the oil system could’ve leaked out some of that vital fluid and caused a drop in pressure, which could lead to a seized engine. Here’s how to test your oil pressure.
- For better clearance, lift up the front end of your vehicle, if needed.
- Locate the engine oil pressure sender near the oil sump on the engine block. Check your car’s repair manual if you are unsure where it is.
- Place an oil drain pan underneath the engine to catch oil spillage.
- Remove the electrical connector from the oil pressure sender.
- Remove the oil pressure sender from the engine block using the proper socket (usually 1 1/16”).
- Follow the attachment instructions for your oil pressure kit and mount the tester.
- Check the engine oil level to make sure it’s properly filled. Top off as needed.
- Let the engine idle for five minutes or until it reaches operating temperature.
- Using your car’s owner’s manual, find at what RPM is required to perform the oil pressure test.
- Using your car’s owner’s manual or repair guide, find the oil pressure range for a given RPM (e.g., 40-70 lbs @ 3000).
- Have your helper maintain the engine indicated RPM, as directed by the test kit instructions.
- Take the oil pressure readings and write them down.
- Turn off the engine and let cool.
- Remove oil pressure tester.
- Reinstall oil pressure sender.
- Reinstall oil pressure sender electrical connector.
- Lower the vehicle.
- Top off oil to ensure proper level.
Read More Here: How To Test Your Oil Pressure
How To Check If Your Gasoline Is Bad
Just like milk, gasoline can go bad if you’ve left it for too long. Modern ethanol-based gasoline has a shelf-life of about six months, though stabilizers could extend its life. But excising the bad gasoline from your car’s tank takes a little more than just funneling it down the drain, so let’s see if it’s bad first. Here’s how to check if your gasoline is bad.
- Using a fuel transfer pump, slide the pump’s hose into the gas tank’s input opening behind the filler cap.
- Pump a small amount of the gasoline out of the car and into a clear container.
- Let the gasoline sit for approximately five minutes so it can settle.
- If the pumped-out gasoline separates into discernible layers or contains particulates, your gas is old and bad.
- Remove as much as possible using the pump.
- Replace it with new gasoline.
- You’ll likely have to crank the engine a few times to work the remaining bad gasoline through the system.
- Dispose of the bad gasoline properly so it doesn’t negatively impact the environment. Most local auto parts stores will dispose of your old fluids for free.
How To Change Your Starter Motor
We’ve all heard the dreaded “click, click, click, click” that occurs when you turn the key and nothing happens. Something is wrong with the car’s electrical system, and after replacing the battery, or attempting to jump-start the car, you’ve determined it’s likely your starter motor.
It’s important to note that manufacturers often have different starter motor locations. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions here, so you’ll have to do a little investigative homework to determine the location and what you need to do to replace it. Here’s a brief and general explanation of how to replace your starter motor.
- Disconnect the battery terminals.
- For better clearance, lift up the front end of your vehicle.
- Locate the engine’s starter motor using your dusty manual or a quick Google search.
- Remove any parts necessary to access the starter motor.
- Disconnect any connections running to the starter motor.
- Remove the starter.
- Replace the old starter with the new unit.
- Reconnect any connections to the new starter you removed from the old starter.
- Replace any parts you had to remove to access the starter.
- Lower the vehicle.
- Reconnect the battery terminals.
- Crank the engine.
- It may not fire right away, so give it a few tries.
Pro Tips to To Start Your Car That’s Been Sitting
For this job, we asked our friend Tom Stahler at ClassicCars.com to give us their top tips on what to do when your car has been sitting for a year. You’re gonna want to pay attention.
- The very first thing I look to see is if the engine turns. That is done with a breaker bar and socket on the crankshaft pulley. If it turns, the engine has a fighting chance.
- If the car has sat a long time, all the fluids need to be flushed and replaced along with hoses, seals and gaskets which most likely have dried up and become brittle. The gas tank most likely will be laminated on the inside if it contains old gas and would either need replacement, heavy-duty cleaning or sandblasting. It’s usually easier to replace it.
- An inspection of electrical systems is important too as wiring can become brittle and eroded. Animals such as rats sometimes make nests in engine bays and tend to chew on the wires. We saw that alot on running cars parked outside in California. So a battery can be hooked up to see if the car’s electrical system responds. But DO NOT try to start the car until at a minimum the fluids are changed.
How Much Does It Cost To Start Your Car That’s Been Sitting
Honestly, it depends. Most of the fixes above are low-cost, as they’re fairly easy DIY jobs and don’t require tools that are super specialized. But when you’ve let a car sit for that long, hoses, fluids, and gaskets can all go bad and lead to an ever-expanding bill. For the above fixes, you’re looking at around $20 to $150. Others could cost several thousands of dollars.
Life Hacks To Start Your Car That’s Been Sitting
Since you may not have access to the right tools, or have a friend you can bum a wrench off of, we also compiled a list of our best hacks to make your life easier and drain your pocket less.