In a previous article, I wrote about acquiring a proper getaway vehicle and how to do it without losing money. Today, we are going to discuss roadside emergencies and how to keep that vehicle running.
We’ve all felt the sputter of a dying engine, usually far from home, on a rainy night. The normal reaction is to pull over and at least try to find the problem, rather than call for a tow truck. But 95 per cent of all breakdowns occur in the upper half of the engine, where fuel and air meet, so that’s where roadside troubleshooting begins.
For an engine to run, it has to have just three things: Air, Fuel, and Spark. If anyone of these is interfered with, so is the power flow. When the family chariot starts to act like Aunt Agatha’s old Studebaker, it’s time to start analyzing symptoms.
If the power loss was gradual, over a few minutes or an hour, the problem is usually in the fuel system when the filters finally finished clogging up. The ignition system, on the other hand, doesn’t generate crud as fast as the carburetor and filters. So, if the loss of power was so gradual that it sneaked up on you, look around in the distributor and high tension wiring. A sudden cutoff, just as if the key was turned, almost certainly means the failure is electrical.
If the engine is running at all, there are several tests that you can perform; and the basic rule is: Try the obvious things first. Many times, the problem is as simple as a clogged air filter, and the engine will pick up RPMs as soon as the air cleaner is lifted off. It’ you can’t see through the paper screen when you hold it up to the sun, (or headlights), that’s your problem.
Next, making sure that the car isn’t in gear, reach in, grab the throttle linkage, and give it a sharp push, gunning the engine. This creates an artificial load, equivalent to low cruising speed. If the engine still staggers, you now have to decide whether the problem is fuel or electricity. There is a fine dividing line here, and too much fuel can give the same symptoms as too little electricity.
Reach out with a screwdriver handle, or a stick from the side of the road, and give the float bowl a few raps, close to the area where the fuel line enters it, and see if that straightens it up. If this cures the problem, you stop at the next station for a fuel filter and a can of carburetor-cleaning fuel additive.
That didn’t work?
Okay, back under the hood you go. If that sucker runs at all, it’s got some fuel and some electricity, but not enough to get you home. We are now still suspecting fuel, so cut the engine off and, looking down the carburettor throat, stroke the throttle one or two times. You should see a thin stream of fuel shoot into each primary barrel of the carburettor.
No fuel means a blockage someplace, so disconnect the fuel line at the carburettor (If there’s a large bulge in the carb body, right where the fuel line enters it, there’s a filter in there, and it’s probably plugged).
Now, making sure the fuel can’t fall on something hot, crank the engine. There should be strong spurts of gasoline, not driblets. If no fuel comes out, you’ve found the problem. But what can you do about it?
Roadside Emergencies – Loss Of Mileage
Follow the fuel line down to the pump, looking for a cracked or pinched line, or a plugged filter. If you find a tiny leak between the fuel pump and the carburettor, this probably explains the mysterious loss of mileage that’s been mystifying you. If the line is damaged, you can always find some extra tubing on the pollution control gear. The hoses on the charcoal canister are good for this, as their removal won’t send panic signals to the on-board computer.
At this point, check the lines between the pump and the tank, as a leak here will de-prime the pump and stop the flow. Frequently, the problem is no more than a loose-fitting. If, after trying all else, the bugbear is the pump itself, you’re going to have to get creative.
The original auto fuel systems were all gravity flow, and, for most engines, that system will still work. You’ll have to find a length of hose, such as the long run from the charcoal canister to the tank. If you take this line, leave enough on the tank end to direct fumes clear of the car body.
Find a one- or two-gallon container; a large thermos or soft drink bottle will do (In an emergency, I once used the wind-shield fluid holder as an ersatz tank). Siphon fuel into the container, and then tie it on top of the vehicle; get a gravity flow started—and you’re on your way.
Some carbs are resistant to gravity flow, and you may have to pressurize the tank. The access point is the overflow line at the fill-neck (I used a bicycle pump to pressurize the tank of a Corvair for most of the length of Illinois—in January; it’s better to carry spare parts). There’s also pressure available in your spare tire, but you can’t use the whole 30 pounds. Just give the tank a shot and go till she starts to sputter again.
If the carburettor test shows the presence of fuel, you may have too much of a good thing. Go to the rear of the car and look carefully into the tailpipe. It should be coated with a fine, pearly white lining. A fluffy dead-black deposit means that the carb is running way too rich and that the entire engine, including the spark plugs, is coated with energy-robbing soot.
Your toolbox is in the garage, and you don’t have a plug wrench… You are going to have to get tricky and clean the plugs in place.
First, shut the engine off and loosen the plug wires at the distributor; then, create an insulated wire puller from a green stick. With the motor running, lift the wires, one by one, out of their sockets, just slightly. What you are doing is forcing the ignition system to make a hotter spark to jump the gap. In doing so, it feeds the hot spark to the plug, and the deposits burn off. The engine will run roughly as hell until over half its plugs are clean.
If you eliminate the fuel system totally and have to focus on the ignition system, check number one is the spark itself; and you’ll need some shade in order to analyze the flame. Disconnect one of the wires at the plug end, and peel back the boot. Then, with the engine running, hold the tip next to the block, (if you don’t use the insulated stick, modern ignitions can stop your Pacemaker), and look at the spark. The electrical flame should be bright blue and at least half an inch long. A short, reddish spark means weak ignition, and some checking around.
The one item that no one, including many mechanics, ever checks is the wires themselves. If there are cracks showing on the insulation outside, you can be fairly sure that the carbon conductors inside are breaking down, too. A good trick is to take a cheap transistor radio and tune it between stations; then, moving it over the wiring, use it as a stethoscope to find leaks.
If the trouble began at night, gunning the engine should show a pretty display of blue sparks all over the high tension harness. If wiring is your problem, a spray can of ignition waterproofing restore enough insulation to get you back to civilization. Another cure is to carefully lift all wiring clear of metal, and support it with wood or rubber, depending on what’s available. A new set, made of house wire and garden hose, has been known to work . . . it got one farmer to town.
Moving back up the chain of ignition parts, again, shut off the engine, and remove the central wire from the distributor. Now, turn the engine over (it won’t start), and check that wire for spark. This is the weakest link in the chain, and if the spark is bright going into the distributor, but weak going out, you’ve found the problem.
Remove the cap and begin looking around in there. Check the rotor tip for burn marks or corrosion. That particular item, by the way, takes four to eight times the wear of the plugs and should be changed as often as they are. The rotor can be cleaned by scraping with a knife blade, on a stone, or with your lady friend’s emery board. The same treatment will work for the contacts inside the cap. When cleaning the contacts, look for carbon tracks between them, and for a crack in the cap, as all of these can cause missing.
While you’re in there, look around for excess crud in the distributor body; this is a sign that it’s leaking fumes from the crankcase and should be replaced. Try to wiggle the shaft, too, as a worn bearing, here, can cause rough operation.
If the spark coming out of the coil, or “brain,” is weak, YOU ARE IN TROUBLE!
That little bundle of transistors needs good ground to work, and your only chance of a fix is to check for corrosion—all the while consulting your personal connection with the spirit world. The coil and brain are not field-repairable and should be at the top of your list of onboard spares.
Roadside Emergencies – Battery
If the motor won’t even crank, your attention is automatically drawn to the battery and, here, some clarification is necessary.
Modern batteries, alternators, and ignition systems were all designed to work together. The battery is designed to release high amperage quickly, in order to turn today’s high compression engines. It is not expected to crank for minutes on end; that is supposed to have been eliminated by hot electronic ignitions.
The battery also depends on the ability of the alternator to produce massive amounts of juice to replace the starting current. Today’s starting battery is not a deep discharge unit. This internal construction of the battery has been altered, both chemically and mechanically, to meet modern conditions; and take advantage of better technology. And some of those alterations can get you in deep trouble.
The so-called zero-maintenance battery is just that-99 percent of the time. You’ve probably noticed that they have almost NO venting. That’s because, in normal use, they don’t generate anywhere near the amount of explosive hydrogen as older designs. If they are abused, however, by being run down and then “jumped,” they will require as much service as the older batteries. THEY WILL ALSO EXPLODE! When jump-starting, disconnect the cables from the hot battery first—it won’t be surrounded by a cloud of hydrogen.
When one of the smooth-top, maintenance-free batteries goes dead, it’s probably out of water. But, how do you get into it? Look very carefully at that smooth top, right where the trade name is marked, and you’ll notice a fine slot usually located around the logo. Slip a knife blade in at one end, and lift gently. Keep lifting, and the whole logo will come off, and six normal battery caps with it. If one of the cells is dry, fill it with distilled water, and drive off.
Discoloured water and a habit of running dry in any individual cell, is an indication of impending death in that cell. If it croaks when you’re out in the sticks, or at some remote national park, the only cure is to give it quick flushing. For this, you’ll need an acid-proof, plastic container (a non-styrofoam ice chest will do), and a source of running water.
Working cautiously, dump all the acid out of the battery into the pan. Now, take the casing and, either with a hose or by submerging it in a stream, successively fill it with water and dump it out. What you’re doing is washing out the sediment that shorted out the plates of the dead cells. Carefully pour the acid back in, and this will leave you with a temporarily resurrected battery that will at least get you home.
The battery is the heart of the electrical system, but it depends on a network of wires to distribute its energy throughout the vehicle, and, again, dirt is the enemy. There are only 12 volts to work with, and each bad connection can cost you one of them.
If you turn the key, and are rewarded with “click-click,” or dead silence, check the terminals on the battery. Sometimes the car can be started by merely twisting the clamps to break the corrosion. Most of the time, however, you’ll have to remove the clamps and clean them.
The one battery connection that no one ever seems to remember to check is the negative cable to ground, somewhere on the block. It, like the positive cable, transmits heavy amperage, so a blockage here will cause a heat buildup. In fact, by moving your hands over the wires, you can detect bad sections by the presence of excess heat.
Related reading: How To Revive A Dead Car Battery With Aspirin Or Epsom Salt
Many times, a failure to start is caused by the signal from the key switch simply not reaching the starter, and all that’s needed is to locate the battery “Pos” wire on the starter; and, using it as a source of electrical energy, energize the starter directly. The principle is to use a short, heavy section of wire to feed power from the cable to the drive solenoid.
Starters vary from company to company, but you will find just two basic hookups in common use. Most GM and Chrysler units have the solenoid right on top of the starter itself, and sometimes, all that’s needed is a good sharp rap, travelling from front to rear, to “wake them up.”
Ford and AMC use a separate relay on the fender well to energize their starters, and it’s a lot easier to get at when it malfunctions.
CAUTION: If your vehicle has an on-board computer, check with the manufacturer to find out if stray surges of amperage can damage it. The best all-round bet is to get the manual for your car and carry it in the toolbox.
Roadside Emergencies – Overheating
The last of the most common roadside catastrophes is sudden overheating due to a clogged radiator, leaking core, or a loss of air. Your automatic reaction to overheating should be, oddly enough, to turn on the passenger heater. It’s a source of heat to you, but to the engine, it is a little radiator—and every little bit helps.
Now, with the engine idling, pour water on the radiator only, because cold water poured directly on the engine can crack the block. If the problem is a collapsed hose, you can cut the bad layer out and limp home.
If the core is leaking, almost anything that can absorb water and swell will help seal it—rolled oats, for instance, if you’re anywhere near a store. Another unlikely candidate is plain, old black pepper from your picnic basket. And even egg white, poured slowly into the filler neck will “cook” on its way out, plugging the leak. Many modern autos have a battery-powered fan, and if this has lost the signal from the “brain,” it can be powered directly from the battery “Pos” terminal.
While the foregoing tricks and emergency fixes will get you home, the best bet is prevention in the first place: and that means two things: maintenance and knowledge. Obtain a copy of your car’s technical manual and do your homework, and you’ll have eliminated the emergency before it can happen.
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