This Corvette question comes from Jo Ann who inherited a 1981 Corvette.
I am inheriting my brother’s 1981 Corvette and it has been sitting in the driveway for over 5 years. It needs a lot of body work and a new passenger seat. The tires are slightly flat and are probably dry-rotted. We have not tried to start it up yet. Before we do, what advice can you give me before we try to start it up?
This is one of the most commonly asked questions in the restoration hobby. The real answer depends on your intentions for the Corvette. However, whether you are looking to make it a nice driver or a show winner, these initial steps will help you start the car and determine what you have to work with. All of this assumes the Corvette wasn’t parked for some serious motor issue, if you are unsure follow these steps until you hit a snag or need additional help.
We would begin by removing all of the spark plugs (remember to mark the wires so you get the firing order correct later) and pouring a table spoon or so of Marvel Mystery oil, motor oil, PB Blaster or any penetrent into each cylinder through the plug holes. Let this sit for a couple of days before you begin to rotate the motor.
Before reinstalling the plugs, try and spin the motor over by hand. If the motor does not turn by hand, remove the V-belts to check for a frozen accessory (Power Steering pump, AC Compressor etc.). If it still doesn’t turn over you may have a serious internal issue requiring professional help. If it does spin freely, replace the battery and try using the key to engage the starter to turn over the motor. If this works, great; if not then you need to begin diagnosing the Corvette’s starter system. For the purposes of this article we’ll assume the starter motor works. At this point you could reinstall the plugs or you could perform a compression check, which we recommend. Again, if the compression check reveals nothing out of the ordinary, proceed as follows. If not, more diagnosing is in order to determine what the problem is.
Before trying to start the engine, change the motor oil and filter, check that the throttle works properly (from the pedal to the carburetor, all of it, you don’t want to start a car and immediately rev it to the moon). You can check that there is coolant in the radiator, but plan on replacing it in the very near future. For now we are focusing on the start-up, once we get past that then draining and changing the coolant and checking the condition of the hoses and radiator will be a priority. If it turns out there are problems with the motor there is no need to spend money on these items now.
We would disconnect and block off the fuel line from the tank to the fuel pump, at the pump. Whatever is in the tank is not worth pumping through the car and into the carburetor. An old lawn mower gas can, rigged and hung from a coat hanger and piped directly to the carburetor will work just fine for now. Gravity pressure is more than sufficient. Be Careful and have a fire extinguisher ready. If you are not confident in this then you may need to consult a professional.
Go ahead and install a new set of spark plugs, and reconnect the spark plug wires in the correct order. At this point you are ready to try and start the engine. Get a fire extinguisher ready. If everything is in order when you turn the key you will be greeted by the sounds and smells of an American V8 burning off years of debris and waking from its slumber. Be prepared for a lot of exhaust smoke from the oil you poured in a few days ago, this is normal. If you have not addressed the cooling system do not let the motor run for more than 10-20 seconds without turning it off and letting it cool down for 15-20 minutes. You could even add water now and see what leaks develop. Make a note of these leaks, as they will be addressed in the future.
On the other hand the car may not start, at which point further investigation is in order. You will need to check the ignition system for spark at the plugs, and make sure the distributor is timed properly. Again, you need to be careful, and possibly enlist the help of a friend or neighbor with the knowledge if you are in doubt. If the ignition checks out but the car still does not run then you may need to check, rebuild or replace your Corvette’s carburetor. Again, seek local help if in doubt.
At this point you could move in many different directions to get this Corvette back on the road and driving. Some folks would pull the entire car apart and do a complete restoration. Most people tend to perform what could be termed a “rolling restoration” wherein you go through the individual systems (Brakes, Suspension, Steering, Fuel, Cooling, Electrical, Exhaust etc.) on the car and in a logical order. Safety items first (brakes, steering, tires, fuel system) then drive-ability and reliability (suspension, exhaust, electrical, vacuum hoses, engine cooling) and lastly cosmetics and body work (interior, stereo, paint, wheels, accessories). Of course there will be many times where it is better to combine a couple more of these systems and jobs together to save time. How you go about it is up to you, though there has been plenty written and we do offer numerous Corvette Restoration Books and Manuals which will be invaluable along the way.
Before using the car regularly you should think seriously about replacing the tires, you should bleed the brakes until the fluid is clean, drain and change the fuel and change the fuel filter, check the transmission and differential fluids, make sure there are no overheating issues, and generally keep an eye on things, taking notes of weird noises, feelings, smells, and so on.
Good luck to you all, bringing a Corvette back to life can be a very satisfying and somewhat addictive endeavor. It can also be fraught with pitfalls and frustration. Remember that there is no pleasure without effort.
By Tom Richardson – Zip Sales Representative