Gearhead Diary: Ran when parked

PHOTO BY MATT BARTMANN My old Cadillac “ran when parked” before I bought it.

Matt Bartmann

A few years back, I was offered a 1960 Cadillac. What kind of work was it going to need, I asked the seller. “Nothin’ to it,” he said. “I parked it there in that field just a couple years ago.”

Ran when parked! My favorite phrase.

So I bought it. Then I opened the hood. Turned out, all the spark plug wires were missing, along with some hoses and the exhaust system. We won’t even mention the mouse nests.

After figuring out the wires and cobbling together an exhaust system, sure enough, it started right up, and I drove it away in a cloud of smoke and steam.

You’d think I’d know by now that “ran when parked” really means “needs work.” Still, it always makes me think, “Gee, a runner! Can’t be much wrong with it!”

“Why did you park it?” I’d ask.

“Oh, it developed a little ticking noise in the engine.” Interpretation: blown engine. Fine. Not a deal breaker in my book.

Or maybe the reason for parking sounded even more innocent. “The left front tire went flat, and I just didn’t need the car.” Or, “The plates expired, and I didn’t want to pay for the renewal.”

Sounds valid to me! Hey, they ran when parked!

Sometimes the seller was absolutely right, and I’d just replace the battery, say, and it would start right up and go down the road. Maybe air up the tires. Easy stuff, and everybody was happy. I, the buyer, got a cheap car, and the seller was glad to see it go away.

Old Hoover needed work after being “parked” and needs work again.

But that’s usually the exception. I learned fast to take “ran when parked” with a grain of salt. And, of course, it doesn’t apply only to cars and trucks. I’ve bought generators, computers, vacuum cleaners (yeah, I used to collect vacuum cleaners)—pretty much anything that can break. All of which were working when their owners retired them, or so they assured me.

Whether it’s a vacuum cleaner or a pickup truck, “ran when parked” usually means “needs work.” In the case of cars, sometimes a lot of work.

And it doesn’t mean the vehicle hasn’t been touched since it was parked. Though running when it was parked, the car might have been used as a donor. Open the hood or look underneath, and you’d realize that there were parts missing. Parts absolutely needed for the car to move under its own power.

Or maybe it’s had too long of a rest. Parts often fail simply due to non-use. Hydraulic seals in the brakes leak, gaskets dry out, engines seize due to rust.

I once bought a BMW at a garage sale. My dream car in high school! Finally I’d found one! It had been sitting beside the owner’s house since being involved in a minor accident, 10 years or so before. But hey, it ran when it was parked!

Uh oh. Those 10 years of rest had allowed rust to cause the pistons to become one with their cylinders, and the engine was seized up tight.

I dragged the car home on the end of a rope. It only took two weeks of tearing down the engine and beating on the pistons with a big hammer to get that motor freed up and running well enough to temporarily satisfy the dream of owning such a car. Although the cloud of smoke was rather embarrassing.

Even my own cars fall victim to the “ran when parked” reassurance. I know I drove them to where they are parked, but I don’t remember exactly what issues they had at that time. Nor what parts I may have taken off for one reason or other.

But, hey, how bad could they be? I drove every one of them to their current resting places.

Pretty bad, it turns out. I’ve been resurrecting a couple of them lately. Sure, they ran when parked, but upon looking under the hood, I began to remember that I’d taken the brake master cylinder out to use in a different car. Or that the clutch cable had broken. Or, oops, forgot that I’d removed the carburetors.

Yep. “Ran when parked” means “needs work.”

I do still have one of my fancy vacuum cleaners. I remember buying it for $2. “It’s been in the closet since I bought a new Kirby in 1975,” is what I was told.

I fixed up that 1927 Hoover, and used it for many years. Now it’s parked in my closet. And it needs work. Even though it was running when I parked it in 2007.


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