Why "Ran When Parked" Isn't a Selling Point for Used Cars

The cost of getting a not working car back on the road can sometimes exceed its value.

Old blue Jeep M38 parked in a shed with old junkRonan Glon

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For car collectors, cracking open an old barn and finding a classic that's been sleeping for decades is like entering the gates of heaven. In theory, a car that's spent most of its life off the road should be a time capsule and bringing it back to life will be a rewarding undertaking. But it's a process that can require a lot of time and money, so it's important to know what you're getting into before you dive in. 

What Does "Ran When Parked" Mean?

The phrase "ran when parked" regularly appears in ads for cars that have sat unused. It implies that the car was in running condition when it was taken off the road, but it doesn't mean much without some context. Was it parked two or 20 years ago? Did it run well, or did it hobble home? How and where was it stored?

Answering these questions will give you a more accurate idea of the type of project you're taking on. If the seller doesn't know, look for clues such as registration stickers on the windshield or license plate and service records or insurance slips in the glovebox. Scope out anything that's broken, missing, or otherwise amiss on, in, and under the car. 

Mechanical and Electrical Damage

One of the worst-case scenarios with a "ran when parked" car is a seized engine. Rust can fuse the pistons to the cylinders when an engine sits for a long time. Unseizing an engine is possible, but it's a delicate process that can cause internal damage that will require a rebuild or an engine swap to repair.

Many parts deteriorate when a car sits, including various lines, seals, and gaskets. If a car has been sitting for several years, it's safe to assume that nearly everything made of rubber will need to be replaced. Beyond obvious items such as tires and brake lines, your to-do list could include parts such as the timing belt (if the engine has one), master cylinder, and shift-linkage bushings. Don't be fooled by low mileage vehicles. Wear-and-tear parts will need replacement even if a car was parked with zero miles.

Rodents ruin what time doesn't. From a mouse's perspective, a long-parked car is a warm place to sleep and a supply of chewing materials. Droppings and carcasses scattered in the footwells are a hint that parts of the electrical system and the foam in the seats, among other items, could require repairs. 

Body and Interior Damage

Sleeping cars fare better in a barn than in a field. Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight fades the paint (sometimes unevenly), damages the upholstery and the dashboard, and dries the seals that keep water out. In turn, rainwater can accumulate in the footwells, doors, and trunk and cause rust, mold, or both. Being covered is no guarantee either. Non-breathable covers can trap humidity and allow rust to form.

Being stored on an unpaved surface compounds these problems. Humidity attacks the underbody as the car sinks into the ground over time. Nearly all of these problems can be fixed, but the cost of putting a not running car back on the road can quickly exceed its market value, especially if you aren't able to do most of the work yourself.

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Ronan Glon
Ronan Glon is an American journalist and automotive historian based in France. He enjoys working on old cars and spending time outdoors seeking out his next project car.