restoration series number 1: MV zombies

By: Steve Turchet

Two questions that MV owners most often hear (besides, “is it hard to get parts for?”) is where and how they found and bought their vehicles. As most military vehicle enthusiasts know, the general public usually assumes that “Army trucks” are purchased at official government auctions where brand new WWII Jeeps still in crates go for $50 each…except you have to buy 200 at a time. However, those who have been in the hobby for a few years probably have much more interesting tales to tell about how and where they acquired their vehicles rather than simply being the highest bidder at an auction. Usually coupled with these stories are amusing or adventurous tales about how we got our new treasures home.

    While many MVers do buy their vehicles from genuine government surplus dealers, and some actually purchase them at government auctions, most military vehicles end up in hobbyist hands from private sources. The network for finding retired MVs includes ads in this magazine or other publications, eBay or other Internet sites, or through classified ads in local papers. Sometimes, one simply spots a big olive-drab beast in somebody’s suburban driveway or sitting in a country field. Many of these vehicles are purchased in at least towable, if not actually drive-away condition.


    Still, there is another category of private-party MV buying that’s a source of often funny, sometimes horrific, and usually fascinating adventure stories. These are the tales of those brave and determined individuals who, generally by accident, stumble upon some rusty old MV zombie half-hidden by weeds in a cow pasture, buried under blackberry vines beside a farmer’s barn, or back in the woods with a young tree growing up between the front bumper and the radiator grille. There are countless variations on this theme, but the adventure usually begins after the vehicle has been purchased… and often for a very reasonable price after its owner finally decides that his son is never really going to build a monster truck out of it.

    The MV’s proud new owner is then usually assured by the farmer/rancher/miner/logger that, “she was runnin’ when we parked her fifteen years ago.” There often follows a bit of head scratching, then the former owner adds: “I can’t quite recollect just why we parked her, but it wasn’t nothin’ serious.”

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    What often happens next is the new owner gets an olive-drab glow of lunacy in his or her eyes and decides that instead of doing the sane and sensible thing—renting or borrowing a tow bar or trailer to transport their vintage treasure—they are going to resurrect “Old Betsy” on the spot and drive her home!

    Personally, I have done many nutty things in the past with no excuse except that they seemed like good ideas at the time, including charming some rusty old military vehicle back to life and driving it home.

    However, in most cases there’s really no logical reason to attempt a field resurrection. Invariably, the folks who have done so (myself included) often chuckle at this point in their tale and say something like, “if I’d had any sense, I would have towed or trailered it home!”

    But, just look in their eyes when they say this! Silly as it may sound to those who have never “been there and done that,” there’s just some indescribable feeling of accomplishment involved in such an adventure, of seeing some battered, old “army truck” tearing itself free from decades of ivy or kudzu.

Some vehicles clearly won’t run without serious work—but nevertheless warrant serious
consideration, either because of their potential, or as possible parts donors. Whether you
 are considering a vehicle as a driver, restoration project, or parts source, it is
 important to keep your own skills in mind.


    This article will cover some of the most common problems a person might encounter when trying to raise an MV zombie from its grave in a field, forest or barn. I have always loved coaxing a rusty old machine back to life and sputtering off into the sunset under its own smoke-belching power. While every situation has been a little different, I’ve also found that there are many similarities. The same mistakes are usually made, no matter what type of vehicle one is trying to awaken, or where it happens to be located. A lot of time is often wasted by not taking things in a logical order when it comes to inspecting the vehicle, getting it started, and then making it mobile. In some cases the vehicle simply can’t be started or driven, and the sooner you discover this—preferably on the same day you make your purchase instead of when you return a week or so later with tools and equipment—the less time you will waste on trying to do the impossible.

    For example, a guy once told me that he spent a full day dismounting all ten wheels on a CCKW, hauling them two at a time in his little SUV to the nearest town to air them up, only to discover around sunset that the truck’s engine was frozen solid! Someone else told me a tale of a long day spent firing up an I.H.C. M-2-4, finally getting the engine to run just right, then discovering that the vehicle was missing its transfer-case!

    The reason why little embarrassments like these occur is because people often don’t take the time to thoroughly check out a vehicle before they decide it could be driven home. Usually, it’s not that its former owner lied when he said that the vehicle was running when parked, but rather that, over time, important details such as the removal of parts for other uses are simply forgotten. Then too, parts may have been “borrowed” by other people without the owner’s knowledge.

    Another factor is that most folks who stumble upon MVs in the wild do so by accident. Often they are far from home and must return to their jobs the next day, so they don’t have time to do a complete inspection of the vehicle before leaving. There’s an old saying that applies in cases like these: “If you don’t have the time to do it right, when will you have the time to do it over?”


    Actually, there are only few basic things that need to be checked to determine if there’s a chance that the vehicle can be started and driven. Even if it means getting your Sunday clothes grubby, or arriving home a few hours later than you would have liked, the savings in disappointment, frustration and lost time later is well worth a little dirt and delay.

Regardless of your skills, if you have visions of putting your new purchase back on the
road, these old trucks are sometimes subjected to mortal wounds. In this instance, someone
has torched off the front of the truck’s frame. This is a problem that is beyond the safe
salvation by all but the most skilled and sophisticated shops.

1. Is the engine free?
    First and foremost, it should be obvious that no vehicle is going anywhere under its own power if the engine is seized up. If you have jumper cables, it’s a simple matter to try the starter on six and twelve volt vehicles to see if the engine will turn over.

    For MVs with 24-volt electrical systems, 12 volts may not be enough to turn a motor that has been sitting for a long time. However, on most vehicles you can generally put the transmission in neutral, grab the fan, push down on the fan-belt with one hand to keep it tight, and turn the engine enough to see if it’s free. Any movement at all means there’s hope that it can be started. A hefty screwdriver or small pry bar on the flywheel teeth will also serve to turn the engine if the fan method fails or can’t be used.

    There are ways to break an engine free in the field if—as is often the case—the piston rings are just lightly rusted to the cylinder walls. I’ve had about a fifty-fifty success rate of freeing frozen motors in the field, so you may want to consider towing/trailering options if the vehicle’s engine is indeed stuck.

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    On the other hand, if you find that the engine can be turned over, and you trust the former owner’s recollections that it was running when the vehicle was parked, then make sure that all the major and minor components required for self-propelled mobility are still present and connected to each other. Besides the large and obvious—does the vehicle still have its transmission, transfer case, drive shafts, internal axle shafts, differential third-members, and steering system—check to see that the transmission and transfer case levers aren’t rusted solid, and that the steering wheel tries to turn the front wheels, even if the tires are flat or sunk deep in the ground.

2. Check clutch and brakes.
    The vehicle’s service brakes probably won’t work, but hopefully that is only due to the loss of brake fluid. Make sure that the brake and clutch pedals are free and still equipped with return springs. Small springs like these, by the way, are some of the many items that often disappear from a vehicle over the years. Be sure to check for an accelerator linkage return spring, along with a spring (or springs) for the parking brake system, if such springs are used. If any of these springs are missing, or badly rusted so they may break, take measurements and buy new ones before you return.

    Even if the clutch pedal is free, it is possible that the clutch disk is rusted to the flywheel and/or pressure plate. Many people don’t discover this until after they get the engine running. Then they find that the transmission makes unpleasant noises every time they try to put it in gear. A simple way to check if the clutch disk is stuck is to put the transmission and transfer case in gear, push the clutch pedal down (either have someone hold it down, or block it down with a stick if you’re working alone), then turn then engine over by hand or with the starter. If the clutch has released, you’ll be able to turn the engine. If not, either the engine won’t turn, or it will try to move the vehicle when turned over.

Some engine problems are apparent even before trying to start the engine. This LDT-465
threw a rod after an enthusiast tried to get more power by turning up the fuel delivery rate.
Such damage, while catastrophic to this engine, does not render it worthless, as there are
still several salvageable components

3. Radiator and cooling system.
    Once you have ascertained that the engine will turn over and the vehicle has all of its vital mobility components, don’t dust off your hands and walk away yet planning to return and drive the beast home next Saturday after a “few hours of tinkering.” If you leave now in this frame of mind, you may end up spending most of next Saturday amusing the clerks at the nearest auto parts store … which might be many miles away from where your new treasure is buried!

    It would be wise at this time to fill the vehicle’s radiator with water and see if it stays full. A leaky or damaged radiator, or rotten or missing radiator hoses should be instantly apparent as soon as you add water. After filling the cooling system, you should also be able to spot leaking soft plugs or external cracks in the engine block caused by water freezing during the winter.

    Freeze cracks in an engine block are almost always located at the bottom of the water jacket and run horizontally. If such cracks are discovered, they are not necessarily a reason to throw up your hands and abandon your field resurrection project. Various products, such as K.W. Block Sealer, can temporarily seal engine block cracks—even major ones—allowing you to be able to drive the vehicle home. I drove a 1947 GMC with a 248 engine for several years and many thousands of miles with such a product in the cooling system to seal a very large freeze crack.

    Most cracks can be permanently repaired by a competent engine shop. In the case of many common MVs, such as WWII Dodges and General Motors vehicles, replacement engine blocks are easily and cheaply found.

Similarly, some body problems are readily visible, like the severe rust on the bed of this vehicle.
 The impact of such damage on the value of the truck is largely dependent on what type of
truck it is—for a common vehicle, this could be a deal breaker—for a rarity like
 this V17A/MTQ—it’s just another bump in the road.

    Internal cracks in the engine block or cylinder head are harder to find in the field because they leak into the cylinders or oil pan. Unless you expect freezing temperatures in your absence, leave the cooling system full of water and check the oil level on the dipstick. If, after you return in a week or so, the radiator is low and there’s been a significant rise in the oil level, you probably either have a leaking head gasket or an internal crack (or cracks) in the block and/or cylinder head. A block sealer product may still enable you to drive the vehicle home, or you may want to consider trailering/towing options.

4. Tires.
    The condition of the vehicle’s tires is of obvious importance if you hope to drive it for any distance. In many cases when a vehicle has been sitting for a long time, one or more of the tires will be flat, and there is seldom a spare. Even if the tires still hold air, check them carefully for deep cuts, serious weathering, and age cracks. One may often be fooled when dealing with ancient tires…tires that are completely flat and/or look as if they couldn’t roll ten feet without falling to pieces will sometimes hold up just fine. On the other hand, tires that look good will sometimes disintegrate a mile down the road. It is always a smart idea to have at least one good spare, if not two. I have found that even rotten old tires with nylon cord tend to hold together, while good-looking old tires with rayon cord may quickly fall apart. It should say somewhere on the tire if it has rayon or nylon cord. Most WWII-vintage MVs had rayon cord tires: beware of them!

    Larger MVs with dual rear wheels give you a margin of safety because you can dismount one of the duals if it fails, or use it as a spare for a front wheel. On four-footed vehicles, it would be wise to buy or borrow at least one spare wheel and tire before you try to drive it home. If one or more of the tires is completely flat, check to make sure it has a valve core…these often are “borrowed” over the years from vehicles that are sitting.

    There are inexpensive electric tire pumps available at most auto parts stores, along with “canned” tire inflators. I would never leave home in any vehicle without one or both aboard. I have an old-fashioned tire pump in my 1965 Nissan Patrol that works off a spark plug port, as well as a 12-volt electric pump. Both units have saved me a lot of time, trouble and expense while on the road or out in the bush. Besides being able to make tire repairs in the field, and helping fellow travelers along the way, having a tire pump aboard can be handy in situations where you have to deflate your vehicle’s tires for additional traction or flotation. If your “new” vehicle’s tires are flat or low, and there is no on-site air available, you may want to invest in an inexpensive electric pump instead of dismounting the wheels and hauling them “into town.” A pump may also save you time and trouble if a tire goes flat when driving the vehicle home.

5. In-the-field “tune-up.”
    After checking the condition of the tires and making appropriate plans in that department, examine the engine again to make sure that everything it needs to start up and run is present. Does it have all its spark plugs, and are they intact, none broken or cracked? What about the spark plug wires, distributor cap, rotor, and ignition coil? Has that WWII Jeep, Dodge WC, or Chevrolet G506 been converted from six to twelve volts? Or, has that M38, M37, or M715 been converted from twenty-four to twelve volts?

    It would be a good idea to write down the distributor number or take note of its make and model and bring back new tune-up parts. Even better, remove any ignition system component that looks questionable, such as the points, condenser, rotor, cap, coil, or spark plugs, and take them to an auto parts store to get new replacements.

Likewise, check the radiator hoses and fan belts. Even if the hoses didn’t leak when you filled the cooling system, you may want to replace them before taking to the road. Old hoses are like old tires—there is really no accurate way to judge how long they might hold together. The same applies to badly aged fan and accessory drive belts. You will have to replace them anyway, so why not now when you need them the most?

6. A few other areas to check.
    Other things to check are the flexible brake lines, fuel hoses, and the lines to the oil filter and oil pressure gauge. Ditto for air or vacuum lines. Check the choke cable to make sure it isn’t rusted solid. You will probably need a working choke when you return to start the vehicle. If you don’t think the cable can be freed, then take measurements now for a replacement. Likewise, check the throttle cable, if the vehicle has a hand throttle. Hand throttles are handy to have (no pun intended!).

    It would also be smart to see if the vehicle still has an exhaust system, including a muffler. Check to see that the fuel tank hasn’t rusted out. If it is still partly full of ancient fuel, you may have to bring back suitable containers in which to dispose of it. The same applies to the engine oil, which you will want to change before trying to drive the vehicle home. You might also want to make note of the oil filter type.

    Even if the sun is setting, or your family is waiting impatiently in the car, you can usually perform all these inspections in an hour or so. You might be very glad you did!


    After the preliminary inspection you will have a good idea what you will need to bring for your second visit to the “dead” vehicle. Besides the obvious—a tool set and any parts you’ve decided you need, including a spare tire and air pump—you should have a good battery (or batteries) of the proper voltage. You should have a suitable towing chain or rope, and hopefully a “chase vehicle” that is large and powerful enough to tow your new treasure if necessary. You should have jumper cables, extra primary wire, electrical tape, and containers of fuel and water…along with containers to hold the old fuel and oil if needed. Bring at least a quart of cheap brake fluid. Those are the basics.

1. Oil.
    Based on my own experience, here are some other things to consider: First, I would never attempt to drive a vehicle that had been sitting for years with the oil that is now in the crankcase. Engine oil and gear oil lose their lubricating qualities over time. The oil is also likely to be contaminated with water from condensation. For the engines of most vintage MVs, buy the cheapest 30-weight you can find, and buy several quarts more than that particular engine takes.

    The reason I advise using the cheapest oil is that you don’t really know if the engine will start and run yet, or what condition it might be in. There is no point in spending extra money for top-quality oil for an engine that may not start, or which might have a loose rod or other serious problem. I used to advise non-detergent oil in cases like this, but that is becoming hard to find these days. While the vehicle’s former owner may have used non-detergent oil, and you may have heard that detergent oil will “break loose” all the sludge and goo inside the engine and plug everything up, be assured that this doesn’t happen instantly. Just driving the vehicle home with detergent oil should do no harm. I advise bringing several extra quarts because the engine may be a serious oil-burner, or you may break an oil line along the way. If you made note of the oil filter type, you should also have a new filter element.

2. Fuel line.
    Bring at least ten feet of either 5/16″ or 3/8″ inch fuel hose with appropriate clamps, and one or two inexpensive in-line fuel filters. It is probable that you may have to bypass parts of the fuel system between the tank and the fuel pump and/or the fuel pump and carburetor. It is also possible that the fuel pump might not work, or may fail on the road. If so, you may have to rig up a gravity feed with a jerry can. Even if the vehicle’s fuel system is fully operational, it would be a smart idea to install an in-line filter somewhere.

For most MV’s, multicolored coated wiring like this is a sign that the original wiring has been
 added to, or replaced. Though perhaps functional, for a purist desiring a restored vehicle, this is
a sign of work to come. While replacement wiring harnesses are not horribly expensive, replacing
a harness can be a laborious task, especially for larger, more sophisticated vehicles.

3. Quick fixers.
    Also bring rolls of bailing wire and duct tape…you never know what will have to be wired up or taped together. You can also make hose clamps from the wire if necessary. Gasket paper might also come in handy, along with gasket sealer, though you can use just about any kind of thick paper to make an emergency gasket. Bring an oil squirt can for linkages, choke cables, etc. Unless you have only a few miles to travel—say, less than ten—bring a grease gun, several tubes of inexpensive chassis grease, and enough gear oil for a complete change in the vehicle’s transmission, transfer case, and differentials. 90-weight gear oil is suitable for these situations, even though the spur-gear transmissions of some older MVs should have
140 weight oil for normal use.

4. Permit/license/insurance.
    Depending upon the type of vehicle, its condition and location, and the distance and terrain it has to travel, other items should come to your mind. As far as legality goes, some states issue or sell “One Trip Permits” to drive an unlicensed vehicle from one place of storage to another.

    Unless your proposed trip is to be made on rural back roads or across the open desert, it would be smart to plan on meeting a cop!

    What about insurance? Some policies cover the acquisition of a new vehicle for a limited time. Others do not. It would be wise to check with your agent or company. Having liability coverage could be well worth the expense if your zombie’s brakes fail and you rear-end someone’s brand new Land Rover Disco! If possible, plan to make your journey by daylight. On-the-road repairs can be difficult and time consuming—much more so at night!