How to spring clean your car after winter storage

It’s spring! It’s spring! The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, everyone has allergies, and it is time to get your car back in the regular driving rotation. Of course, you kept it on blocks in a climate-controlled garage under a heavy-duty cover, on a trickle charger, full of fuel stabilizer, and it was in perfect running condition before you tucked it away for winter, right? All you have to do is roll up the cover, fire it up and drive off.

What’s that? You might have missed one or two things while packing your car away in between holiday planning? It’s ok, we’re here to go through the basics of waking your car up no matter how you left it for the winter. Let’s get started.

1. The pre-flight walkaround

removing a car cover
Brandan Gillogly

Pull off the cover, checking as you do for any sign of small animal activity like chew holes, food caches, or droppings.

Do a circle around the car, looking underneath for drips or debris, taking note of the tire condition, and generally reacquainting yourself. Maybe give your car a little pat, you’re going to have so much fun together this year.

Things to note:

  • Are there any unusual fluids under the car? Where, and what substance?
  • Do you smell fuel or coolant?
  • Are there any piles of dirt or shells that might indicate a bird or rodent has moved in?
  • Is there air in the tires? Check for any cracking on the sidewalls.
  • Are the windshield wipers still pliable?
  • How does the paint look? Any cracks, scratches, or thin spots?
  • How does the brightwork look? Any hazing or tarnish?
  • How does the interior look? Any signs of animals or water damage?

2. Under the hood

dirty engine bay
Brandan Gillogly
test your belt tension
Brandan Gillogly

radiator cap
Brandan Gillogly
before taking your car out of storage make sure to check your battery
Brandan Gillogly

Get a peek at the engine. During periods of disuse, rubber, cork, and plastic have an unfortunate habit of shrinking up and ceasing to do their jobs. Take a close look at the hoses, belts, and gaskets. Check fluid levels for coolant, engine oil, brake fluid, transmission—you’ll want to do the final check for automatic transmission fluid when warm, but it’s good to know there’s something in there before you fire up the car. Look for spiderwebs and mouse nests, especially in and around the intake. Removing spiderwebs from carburetor orifices is a task best avoided by catching them before they get sucked in.

Things to note:

  • Is there noticeable fluid seepage at carb, intake, heads, master cylinder or water pump?
  • Are belts fraying, cracked, or loose?
  • Are fuel hoses hard or cracked?
  • Are radiator hoses leaking or rotten?
  • Any sign of animal life in or around the engine bay?
  • Is the battery showing signs of corrosion or leaking? Does it show at least 12.6V on a multimeter?

Start it up

turning the key in a classic
Will Mederski

Assuming your previous inspections have shown no problems, you’re ready for the best part, starting it up and going for a drive. Do this outdoors, or make sure you have proper ventilation in your garage.

If you have a mechanical fuel pump and carburetor, prime the carb with a small amount of gas in the vent tubes to save you from a lot of cranking. Cars with electric fuel pumps won’t need this step.

“If you’re concerned about starting a dry engine, take the coil wire off and crank it to build oil pressure,” suggests Aron Cranford, owner of Ace’d Auto Worx in Ventura, California. He also mentions removing the spark plugs and spraying a light oil into the cylinders to lubricate the rings as they first move inside the combustion chambers. “When we pickle race cars for the winter, we usually spray Marvel Mystery Oil in the holes.”

Once you’re running, look for leaks. Watch the temp gauge. Feel the radiator hose to see if the thermostat is opening. Carefully put the car in gear and check the brakes.

If you’re having starting or drivability problems, don’t panic, and don’t start turning idle mixture screws or rush to order a new cam. While cars don’t tend to fix themselves while in hibernation, they also don’t tend to go out of spec or flatten cams. “Fuel problems are usually in the rubber parts,” says Cranford. “Look at accelerator pumps, hoses, and filters first. Starting issues can be a partially dead battery, or a bad ground.”

drive your classic car
Sabrina Hyde

Things to note:

  • Brakes and clutches can get sticky when sitting, they may feel or sound unusual for the first drive. Pay attention, if things don’t smooth out, you may need to do some maintenance.
  • Don’t let a cheap part like a fuel filter, thermostat, or hose clamp cause expensive damage. Pay attention to gauges, smells, and drips during your test drive.
  • Tires can flatspot during sitting. Usually a bit of driving to warm the rubber will get everything back in shape. If you notice a vibration that doesn’t go away, check the tires before you pull a driveshaft or wheel.
  • Do all your lights and turn signals work? Find out now, before you’re leaving a nighttime meet-up.
  • Was your battery disconnected for the winter? Reset clocks and memory seats if you have those fancy features.

Clean it up

Wiping down a car
Jay Leno’s Garage
cleaning the front windshield
Jay Leno’s Garage

In our fantasy world with the air-tight garage and the dust-free bubble, pulling the car cover off would reveal a sparkling-clean car needing nothing more than a quick brush-off to be show-ready. “Not too many people have that set-up,” says Chris Walters of Jay Leno’s Garage—which does have that setup. Even so, Walters knows a lot about getting a classic car cleaned up.  “We don’t have to put cars away for the winter, but we do get them back from whatever Leno was in the mood for, like trips to the dry lakes, so we know about cleaning a dirty car.”

Walters repeats the advice to use the walkaround to check for leaks and basic maintenance, as well as gauging the level of cleaning the car will need. Check for possible leaks in the window seals, open scoops in the hood, and new cracks or damaged paint. “You have options for how much water and soap to use on the car,” says Walters. “The latest rage in detailing is a foam gun, because it floats all the dirt off the paint, and prevents scratches, but if you want to use the bucket and mitt method, that’s fine too, just watch that you aren’t dragging dirt along a dry painted surface.”

Hopefully your interior will just need a light vacuuming, and maybe a bit of leather or vinyl conditioner on the seats before you settle in. “A lot of times when cars sit they get that foggy buildup on the inside of the glass,” says Walters. “It can be oily and difficult to remove and can require multiple cloths.” He recommends microfibers for all car care, with different levels of pile plushness for different surfaces.

detailing a leather seat
Jay Leno’s Garage
cleaning a leather seat
Jay Leno’s Garage

Follow your wash with a wax and you should be ready to hit the road.

Things to note:

  • With the popularity of patina and barn-find cars in mind, not all surfaces are sturdy enough for a heavy water wash. Walters suggests washing thin or damaged paint one panel at a time, to avoid having water soak into the cracks. A rep from Meguiar’s Car Care Products adds that for moderately dirty surfaces where water is a concern, quick detailers and waterless washes are the best bet for protecting the fragile paint. “Stay away from compound polishes on thin paint,” he says. “At a certain point, there’s nothing to polish, you’re just removing material.”
  • As tempting as it can be to swipe every surface with a towel and some dish soap in water and get driving, it’s important to use different materials for different parts of the car (also, never use dish soap). Both the detailers we spoke with emphasized the importance of keeping the wheel cleaning separate from the body and windows, and both suggested a soft-bristle brush with a PH-neutral wheel cleaner as the best way to remove brake dust and road grime.
  • Before you grab the hose, check that the heater vents are clear of leaves and animal or insect nests.
  • For older classics with chrome, brass, or copper brightwork, look for any pitting, rust, or discoloration, and address that with a metal polish specific to the component.
  • Newer classics may have faded plastic trim. There are various conditioners and dyes that can bring back the color and shine.

In the end, starting a car after a long break is similar to what you’d do with a new Craigslist or auction acquisition. Assess, Address, then Impress. Here’s hoping you and your car have a lovely driving season this year.

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