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4 tips for when your car won't start away from home

My 1969 Austin Healey Sprite has been generally reliable, starting every time I turned the key during my few months of ownership. After the third turn of the key without hearing the engine sputter to life with that signature British burble, it was clear the Healey had a problem and I was going to have to deal with it stranded at a gas station. 


In the end I managed to drive the car home. How did I avoid the tow truck? Check out these tips for how you can remedy basic trouble on a future drive.


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108 REPLIES 108
Advanced Driver

Ah yes..a can of Either! Seriously the best diagnostic tool you can have.

New Driver

Great if it's an older car and you can check the basics. However, read on and I'll tell you a real nightmare.

I was heading home from Carlisle PA from the Vettes at Carlisle this year. My good friend and I stopped in Selingsgrove PA for an ice cream at DQ. Waiting at the DU window my 04 corvette with just 28,000 miles unexpectedly just stopped. No noise, no chugging, nothing. Just stopped running. Now mind you, this car has 28,000 miles, never saw winters or even rain except for a garden hose to wash it. Sits in my climate controlled car barn next to my 41 Buick, has constant maintenance and needs absolutely nothing. If it did, it would get it pronto with no expense spared. Runs like the day it was made and never missed a beat. So now what? Pushed it from the DU window to the side parking lot and popped the hood. If you own a C5 you know there is not much room for extras, so I had a leatherman knife and a flat head and Phillips screw driver. More or less NO tools. Can't check for fuel since you need a disconnect tool for the fuel line. Spark was good and battery fine. Two hundred miles from home and screwed! No option but to call Hagerty for a flat bed to accommodate the low clearance of the car and haul it to the nearest Chev dealer. Hagerty came through and off it went. Now there's a lot more to this story, but not enough space or time. The moral is, if it's a pre computer car and a smart guy with limited knowledge should be able to make it home or at least to a good shop. But if it's a newer vehicle with all the electronic crap and fuel inj. you are most likely SOL. That's why with the exception of my C5 I would never own a newer vehicle as a possable collectables years latter. All my new DD's are all three year cars and gone. All my collectables are cars that can be maintained and repaired anywhere and parts are always available. Find a control module for a 2020 Corvette in 20 years. Good Luck!


Alright, I'm curious. What was the eventual fix on the C5?

This article has readers debating about which cars should collectors own.  Should we focus on the simple old cars with carburetors that are easy to fix on the side of the road?  Is it safe to collect more complex cars from later years?  I spent decades restoring 60's cars.  i owned and repaired them since they were just old cars and have made miraculous repairs on the side of the road during trips more than one time.


But now I'm into newer stuff.  I now drive some German cars from the late 1980's and a 1992 Taurus for interstate travel.  German cars from the late '80's are relatively simple and easy to service while being remarkably dependable when properly restored.  The Taurus has also been a great interstate traveler.  Comfortable with cruise control, air conditioning, 4 wheel disc brakes and overdrive that makes 70 mph cruising a breeze. 


These cars are not so easy to diagnose and repair at the side of the road.  The trick is to thoroughly service them in the garage before leaving home.  But cars from the '80's and 90's can offer that niche between crude, early cars and the rolling computers that we drive today.


You are right. In fact I wrote a piece about how simple fixes still exist on "modern" cars and trucks the same day this one went out!
New Driver

His article is why I live Haggerty so much.  Yes, it’s about the car.  More importantly, it’s about our relationship with the car.  Well done!


When I had my 64 MGB I to had ignition failure from trying to extend the life of a set of points. Like the author I to had no tools and back in 68 there were no cell phones to call for help. Having nothing to lose and nothing more than an old business card I pulled the card through the points several times and behold it came to life! Went directly to the parts store and bought a set of points and condenser. 


My fun car, a Ferrari 360, is notorious for having an unreliable gas gauge. For cars like this, a good question to ask oneself is "when did I get gas last?" While a seemingly ridiculously obvious thing, several folks on the FChat forum have had this exact problem. So check for obvious things as well as the impossible.


Gated Ferrari 360 Spider in Azzurro California / CremaGated Ferrari 360 Spider in Azzurro California / Crema

Advanced Driver

The Pertronix points replacement kits are well worth the money> 

Intermediate Driver

My '77 Vette left me like that.  Turned the key and nothing.  Car had always been reliable and always started.  I knew it was electrical and had to do with the start wire to the starter.  I did have a screwdriver, but I couldn't get at the starter to jump the terminals on the solenoid.


Called for the flatbed and kept trying to start it.  Still nothing.  When the flatbed showed up, I tried one more time.  And low and behold it started.


After I got home I started tracing the wires.  All was good.  I had not indication that it would be ignition switch, and the solenoid on the starter didn't seem like the problem either.


By that time I remember seeing a video about changing the two engine wiring harnessed on C3s.  They showed how they attached at the firewall and how to remove them.  (all with one hand) Knowing that the wire to the starter went through this connection I disconnected them.


Well, to my surprise, the terminals in the connector were all gummed up.  Looks like over time the sealant material they used to protect them broke down and seeped into the connectors.  It seemed that when the car was cold they made a good connection, but after the car was warmed up, the sealant would cause a poor connection.


Just goes to say... it's always something with these old cars.  And have your flatbed operator on speed dial!


Fuses first is my motto. Riding an old Harley through Indiana, it died as I pulled into a gas station. I assumed it was out of fuel (no gauge, no trip odometer). Fueled up it did not start. No spark at the plugs, found a blown ignition fuse, back on the road in minutes. 


Interesting. Shouldn't you find why the fuse blew before you go back out on the road though? If not, it's just bound to happen again--and again.

Makes me a bit concerned that I have an electronic distributor in my 76 Midget. When and if it ever fails I guess ill have to call Hagerty for that tow.

Intermediate Driver

Years ago I bought a beater 1967 MGB for $800, the best $800 I ever spent.  Although an old British roadster may have been foolish for someone with absolutely no mechanical knowledge or skill, I got seven years of pure joy out of that car before a broken gearbox ended our relationship.  To the story:


One very rainy morning I went to fire up the MG which was parked in a carport.  There was plenty of battery umph, but the engine wouldn't fire.  Without even basic knowledge of where to start I sat for a moment pondering.  I looked around at the rain and suddenly I thought "condensation in the distributor"!  So, I ran a long extension cord from the bedroom window to the carport, took off the distributor cap, and used a portable hair dryer to blow down the interior of the cap.  I then put the cap back on the distributor, got into the car and turned the key.  Vroom!  Life was good again!


Sometimes a little common sense and thinking through the problem can make up for a lack of knowledge or skill.


New Driver

Had a problem with my Corvair, 40 miles from home.  After leaving a restaurant parking lot, we got about 200 feet and the car quit...would not start!  Pushed is out of the way, into a parking spot.  Opened the "hood" and everything looked normal.  Checked spark and had lots of it.  No good way to check fuel delivery on a turbo Corvair without wrenches, but I happened to place my hand on the fuel pump.  It was very warm, no it was hot!  I suspected vapor lock, so I went back into the restaurant and got a take-out box full of ice.  Iced down the pump for about 10 minutes and the car started right up and my wife and I drove uneventfully back home.  Note to self: wives DON'T like riding in cars with any reliability problems.  I sensed that again when she politely suggested that I worked the bugs out before we left town again.  Wisely, I agreed, and the little car is getting an electric fuel pump shortly.  Problem solved.


A pack of matches where you use the striker part to sand the points. Been there and done it in Alaska at  -30 below.

Intermediate Driver

Whenever a more modern daily driver fails (not often, fortunately), I get out and open the hood.  I look at what seems like a perfectly normal engine.  Then I wonder why I opened the hood to begin with and call for a tow!

New Driver

In desperation, you can "file" points with the strike strip of a matchbook.

One time, I used my car key to scrape the points, and that gave me enough of a spark to start the engine.


The order of troubleshooting an older car is electrical, fuel and finally mechanical. This order is based on the probability of failure and ease of fixing the problem. If you reach the mechanical part, you probably have a difficult repair to do.

Intermediate Driver

Of course, no accelerator pump on SUs!


my 47 plymouth died on the way to st ignace usa car show on the side of I-75 near a sign that said "prison area, do not pick up hitchhikers". i had a nos points and condenser in it and an old coil. must be coil, right, as i had no spark.

fortunately a young lady saw me run across the interstate to the opposite lane to hitchhike back to Sault usa and get a coil, gave me a ride to get it. started right up with new, made it 200 yards. after friend towed me to ignace, i spent way too much money on a multimeter to discover the NOS condenser had died after 40 years on the shelf. now a multimeter stays in EVERY vehicle we drive

Intermediate Driver

Accelerator pump on your SU's.....ya right.  The moral to the story here is first...keep the basics of the car it tip top shape.  Points, rotor, cap wires should be routinley replaced or at least inspected.  Oil level checked before each drive, battery cable looked over while you are checking the oil as well as the general condition of the engine compartment hoses.  And at least a few basic tools in the boot...screw driver, pliers, test light ,crescent wrench and a jumper wire will get small problems solved in most cases.  Further a working knowledge of your particular vehicle is a must unless you have a bank roll of cash you are just waiting to hand over to your local garage. 

Intermediate Driver

My 84 s10 had a habit of refusing to start. Although it didn't seem flooded using a hair brush to hold the choke open worked every time. Who knew!

New Driver

This why we get married and have families. I took my wife of 32 years to another town here in Texas, for a date. The town is 65 miles away. I was driving my 1965 Buick Skylark that I have been building, rebuilding and massaging since i was 19. I was sitting at a light, minding my own business, and my 427 L88 Chevy clone dropped a valve at idle. I had to call my son to come out with the trailer to get us. He kept rubbing it that it was a Saturday night. On the way home I discovered i had towing insurance through Haggerty. It brought us closer together.


another vote for Pertronix.  Best $100 I have spewnt on my 1973 911!!!

Pit Crew


You must be of my vintage ... Book matches were great for cleaning points and/or setting, plus cleaning plugs  - BUT, I haven't seen a matchbook in decades ...


U better take some tools next time as I noticed u have an American made hose on a British car, that's bound to mess up the motoring COSMOS!


And then there are times when all your valiant efforts won't get a car running again.  In 1977 at the age of 25, a friend and I headed from our homes in North Carolina to Little Rock, Arkansas.  I was going there to look at and possibly purchase a 1975 Corvette convertible.  This was a 700-mile trek but we were excited to go.


I had recently purchased a 1969 Chevrolet Caprice coupe that had been the demonstrator for the owner of our local Chevy dealer.  And loaded it was!  427, PS, PB, PW, PDL, P Seat, P Trunk, tilt, cruise, rosewood steering wheel, fender skirts, light monitor system, hideaway headlights, Comfortron climate control, and more including the ultra-rare Liquid Tire Chain option which would squirt a chemical substance onto the rear tires to aid traction in icy/snowy weather.  This beast was a true pleasure on a trip like this.


I viewed the Corvette which had been totally mis-represented to me and declined its purchase.  We left immediately on our return trip to NC.  On the way out of Little Rock, I decided to fill up the Caprice.  That 427 loved fuel.  As we rolled up to the pump, the car cut off but just as I was at the pump.  So I fueled up before trying to start her again.  But when I did try, it was  not going to start.  This was Memorial Day weekend and it was Friday and they were packed at this station.  So my friend and I pushed the car off to the side.  Oh, by the way, a '69 Caprice is a VERY heavy car.


After trying several more times, I gave up.  I looked under the hood but saw nothing that looked wrong.  I finally asked the attendant at the service station (this was when they pumped your gas and worked on cars!) to look at it but he said they were so busy he wouldn't have time.  But he offered to call a garage near there to have them come look at it. 


The garage arrived with their tow truck.  He tried several things but never got her started.   So, he said he would need to tow it to their facility.  So, there we went.


After a while, he came into the waiting area and gave me the bad news.  My top timing gear (which was nylon) had stripped off.   So, he would need to replace the timing chain and gears to get me going.  Then he said it would be the next day before he could do it though.  So he took us to a nearby motel and we checked in for the night. 


He called the next day to say he had gotten it running (the good news).  BUT there was a problem.  When the timing gear stripped off, the valves which were open at that moment were bent by piston interference.    And so it was missing badly.  He asked how far we had to get home.  When I said 700 miles, he said there was no way it would make it that far.  Then he offered to absorb the garage bill and give me $300 cash to get home with.  I was incensed at that and absolutely refused.   By the way, my friend liked his idea, naturally.


He brought her to the motel and she was running rough!   So I paid him for his work and he wished us good luck going home.  I had that nagging feeling as we headed out that we weren't going to make it so I even decided not to turn the car off.   We drove the whole 700 miles straight through and when we stopped for gas, I left her running.  And miracle of miracles, we made the whole trip with no problems.


I ended up having a rebuild done on the 427 after that and once again she ran like new.  Oh, and my mechanic put a steel top timing gear back in there.





Sounds like you need a new condenser also.................

Intermediate Driver

This is why I've carried a little box of tools in every not-purchased-new car since about 1969.  It fits behind the seat of every one of them, including a Fiat 124 and a Goggomobil coupe, and has gotten me home almost every time.

Pit Crew

My vote for Pertronix conversion as well. My 69 XK-E had annual ignition issues... generally due to the POOR quality control of what was being sold as points, condensors and rotors. The last failure was due to a pin hole in the rotor. Initially, I did not have a good opinion of Petronix, because folks would routinely ask if I wanted to buy their E, and there was always a Pertronix that had been put in it. My mechanic guru opined that he had zero issues with them, so I gave it a try. I also put in the companion electronic coil so all would play nicely. So that was 3 years ago. Mr. E fires up, restarts, no issues. I was so heartened by that Pertronix success that I bought the setup for my old wood boat with a 1953 120HP Hercules in it. Also put in the electronic coil. Same success.  In addition to these ignition parts, I would also suggest regular spark plug and plug wire replacement. These vehicles are generally not run often and those items tend to degrade over time.


September, 2021

So, all 'good' things came to and end. Despite my hopes that Pertronix had fixed itself, the E died while driving early August. I had enough momentum to get off on a side street, call AAA and wait 3 hours for the flatbed. Enough is enough, so I researched alternative ignition systems and decided to go with a 123 distributor, wires and coil. A friend who races 1800 Volvos uses them, and what's good enough for him, was good enough for me. It's been in a month, so not much long term usage to report. From what I understand, some cars just don't like Pertronix, so be it. 


My 1955 Ford will not re start after shutting down. I believe it is vapor lock. It has electronic ignition and new battery cables. It is a 6 volt system. What can I do to remedy the vapor lock problem. It is a  ci V8


ProTip from a driver at a nationally known auction:  If you want a good price for your collector car at auction, put in a new battery, fresh gas in the tank and make sure it's tuned up.  Nothing turns off potential buyers more than seeing your car a no-start on the block.  Sounds so basic, but you wouldn't believe how often a great car is let down by this neglect.  

Intermediate Driver

I had a similar issue when starting out on a roadtrip in my 66 Datsun roadster. I was in the middle of the desert on a busy highway when the engine suddenly died.  I went through the same list of possibles and, after checking the points, came to the conclusion that the condenser had quit.  I hitchiked to a lonely, dusty old desert garage, and luckily they had a condenser that cross referenced to the Datsun.  The gas pump jockey was nice enough to drive me back to my car, where a 2 minute condenser install brought the little gem back to life.  After that, I never drove it without a spare set of points and condnser in the glove box. 


Surprisingly (or perhaps not) that car developed an appitite for condensers, including one side of the road change out where I accidentally dropped the condenser nut down into the distributor....which meant pulling the distributor by the side of the road and shaking it to dislodge the nut...I must have looked like a witchdoctor dancing around and shaking the distributor at the open hood!


Two comments: First, wet distributor (especially if you just pressure washed the motor)... WD-40. Yea the stuff is terrible, but this is the ONE place where it's a handy quick fix. Good to have a can in the trunk.

Second: I was told by a long-time (i.e. English) British auto mechanic that these small engines do NOT like to be cranked and cranked and cranked. That can work with the American V-8, but not the British 4-banger. Better to give it a short crank, then stop and wait a few seconds, then try again. If the car will start (i.e not other serious issue as mentioned in this article), then that is the best way to start them.


a dollar bill is abrasive enough to work as well. I used it on my Royal Enfield motorcycle many a time.



Interesting, but you're assuming I'm not broke! (I'll keep that in mind in the future though, for sure)
Pit Crew

When going to my new duty station I was driving from LA to Norfolk, VA in my 67 MGB.  When in visiting my mother in Denver my B just stopped on the highway.  While trying to figure it out what happened I saw on the other side of the highway a nice looking lady had a flat of which I helped to change.  When I got back to my B I discovered that the distributor popped out of position.  Lucky I had some tools and got it back in position enough to I could get it my mothers house to set the timing.  At the end I thing my B did that on purpose because remember the lady I help?  I had a date with her that night that I will never forget!


Kyle, very well done once again. I think many of us have stories like this; I learned the hard way was well leaving the house without any tools and yes, I know about the nail file scene, always in another car at home. Besides the projects going on, my two drivers have appropriate tools in the trunk in a small bag and a big AAA Membership.


Yes, electrical, fuel, or mechanical....or.... One time I backed up, started driving forward, and my TR3 stopped running.  When I walked to the trunk for tools I saw a small trail of dirt behind me.  I'd backed up into a soft mound and packed the tailpipe with dirt.  It reminded me that years earlier I backed up into a snow [plow] bank and experienced the engine quitting for the same reason.

Pit Crew

I had one that had me scratching my head... no fuel to the carb, yet the pump was working fine and I knew I had 1/2 a tank. Turns out the tank vent got clogged and my (thankfully plastic) tank was buckling in upon itself. A simple loosening of the gas cap & I was sorted for enough time to get her home.

Pit Crew

Back in the day....  When driving 1970's Chrysler products, always had a spare ballast resister in the glovebox.

New Driver

When I had an Austin Healey 3000, and then again a '67 XKE, the tool kit always included a hammer. The usual quick fix for a 'no start' was a smack on the side of the fuel had points also, always getting stuck!....Years later I bought a Honda S2000....and great cure for 'British Sports Car Blues'!!

Pit Crew

Like you mentioned, you had no tools. I have a 28 Model A with a flathead V8 and a 68 Dart GTS 340 and both cars have a tool kit. 

Nothing fancy, just a canvas tool roll packed with the basic hand tools, wrenches, pliers, screw drivers a hammer and some electrical tape, safety wire (mechanics wire) and 20’ of 14 gauge. 

it rolls up tight and stash’s easily out of the way. 

Cliff Ramsdell 


I have a 1976 TR6 that sometimes dies while driving merrily along, but re-starts immediately by turning the key.  What goes?  Mechanics have giggled wires and done all sorts of things short of standing on their heads to find the problem to no avail.  What goes?

Intermediate Driver

I had the same issue with an ‘89 Cherokee. The Cherokee had a loose wire at the starter.
Advanced Driver

Forgot to tell us this car is a Sprite.  To my knowledge, no one has ever perished by electrocution from a car's ignition.  Heart attack?  maybe.  I too have had excellent luck replacing points with Pertronix systems.  Would not hurt to clean some of the filth off the distributor before installing same.

Intermediate Driver

Before leaving on our way to a river-side picnic spot 30 miles from home in the 1971 MGB GT, I suggested we take a portion of the Old Highway that we hadn't driven. That point beyond the portion of road I'd driven many times got really bumpy, I mean 5 MPH type of bumpy. Pot-holed, pitted and re-filled asphalt for 10 miles of scenic beauty! It's called the "old Highway" for a reason. I kept thinking, 'this isn't really so great for the car'.  But, MGBs are a solid, no bolted on fenders and we proceeded with caution passing a very thick 3 ft rattlesnake. We got to the picnic spot and everything was fine, nice and relaxing. Okay, time to head back: the car wouldn't start. All of the dash / ignition lights lit up ( well okay, one orange one), but the starter would not turn. Interesting! With the ignition turned on, everything electrical worked, the headlights, interior lights wipers... huh.  "Alright, I'm pretty sure it will pop-start". The wife helped me edge the little car to the top of an asphalt road that led down to another parking area. She got in the passenger side and I gave the two beauties a few more heaves to get it coasting, hopped in, now picking up speed down the hill. The descent was long enough and steep enough so I put it in third, engaged the clutch and it fired right up! Woohoo! We drove straight home confident that I wouldn't stall it in some of the flatlands. Inspecting the engine compartment and starter at home I immediately spotted a wire having broken off of it's spade connector at the starter.. the "hot wire" I think it's called. Fortunately the broken off tip of the wire was a small stub and the wires in that harness are stiff so the wire didn't ground on any part of the car while we driving! The bumpy road was just too much for those old heat baked wires. I connected a new female spade connector and it's started perfectly for over a year.  I just recently had an overdrive tranny installed and asked the British specialist to check out all of the other wires going to the starter while the engine and tranny were out of the car. Some new wire replacements and nutted-on eyelets were his solution. Unfortunately that same mechanic - as good as a British car mechanic he is known for - apparently felt it was his privilege to remove a few of the original hard-to-find parts off my car to put on one of his or someone elses. Lesson learned.


Cool article and good diagnostic advice.  I’ve owned a 1974 TR6 since 1982.  I installed a Crane electronic ignition decades ago and never regretted it.  I do carry a set of points, condenser and rotor in the trunk as a backup kit, but have never needed it.