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Kyle
Moderator

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.

 

Read the full story on Hagerty.com: https://www.hagerty.com/media/maintenance-and-tech/3-tips-for-when-your-car-wont-start-away-from-hom...

108 REPLIES 108
spoom
Technician

Well written, and I'm sure very helpful, but would you please stop using the word hack to describe something as mundane as cleaning the points on a distributor? You didn't thwart the time-lock of a Vegas casino's safe. Would you describe as a "hack", the act of spinning an oil filter counterclockwise to remove it? Has our society become so inept that getting in the mail, preparing a toaster waffle, or any other act of competency gets called a hack?

Jediscuba
New Driver

Normal maintenance would have precluded this problem completely
Kyle
Moderator

I think we have different definitions of hack. The way I use hack is less about the art of doing something that has never been done, and more for accomplishing a task the right way with the wrong tools or method.
spoom
Technician

I understood, Kyle, I guess it just pushes one of my buttons seeing what is now considered a hack, compared to my robot programming days. Now I see millennials excitedly sharing how their pencil lead broke, but there's a neat hack where they scraped it in this thingy by cranking a revolving little handle... 😉
bspaulding
New Driver

the book of matches has a file ( the striker) AND the cardboard can be used to reset the points, and for you old Ford guys a thin dime works too...

TA1199
Passenger

It sucks that the gas station didn't have a convince store that sold one of those travel manicure sets that has a mini nail file in it.

jaysalserVW
Detailer

Good diagnosing, Kyle.  BTW--what your Fiancee brought to you was NOT a "nail file"--she brought you an "emery board".  There's a distinct difference--ask her!  LOL

PeterPentz
New Driver

I have owned my Cooper S for close on 50 years now, and it generally runs like a top. 

Recently though it did something very peculiar. Buzzing along happily on way to running an errand it just suddenly went on 2 cylinders, and then cut out altogether. I phoned my son to come and fetch me, and while waiting I tried to start it, and it fired up immediately. My son followed me the 5 miles to home, and it repeated the problem twice I limped home.

It was clearly an ignition problem, but the points were fine, no tracking the cap etc.

Then I found it. There was a clear line of tracking from the tip of the rotor to the shaft, and this was a new recently fitted rotor !  Under a magnifying glass you could see a hair line crack where it was tracking. Replacing it with a 40 + year old rotor and it is back to its old reliable self again.

I did some investigation on the net, and found out that this was a frequent occurrence with new replacement rotors sourced out of India. Cheap junk !

jaysalserVW
Detailer

Does no one know that electronic ignitions eventually go bad?  I keep hearing--"Install an electronic ignition and you are done!"  (electronic ignitions range from very poor quality to very good)  I am happy to report that in over 43 years of driving vintage vehicles, I NEVER have had the old tried and true ignition points to go bad and leave me stranded.  But, I've seen electronic ignitions to leave users stranded.  I know that I'm going to get pounded for saying this, but, hey--it is worth it!  At 82 years of age, and still driving my vintage cars, I am going to die a happy ignition points user.  LOL

speedzter
Passenger

Had a 71 Midget.  Snow under the car would pull the wire to the fuel pump.

Bokeoyaji
Intermediate Driver

Back in mid 80's, I ran into an issue away from home at night.  Though my story is not as impressive, having a premonition helped.

 

On my '69 Mustang, I had an electronic ignition conversion done on it.  But those were still somewhat new at the time and I didn't quite trust them, so I kept all the parts needed to convert back to points, in the trunk.

 

Sure enough, within about a year or two, I was driving back home from night of cruising at a neighboring town, the engine just quit.  I had a hunch that it was the ignition and it was.  Luckily, I was prepared and within 15 minutes, I was on my way.

 

It turned out that, that ignition module was defective.  I bought another unit and it's still working fine 30 years later.  But then, those 30 years, I have not driven it much like I used to.

Olexsy
Pit Crew

Like your car and the article. As a person experienced with these vehicle that has owned and worked on the 1275 engine and its variants in MG's, Austin Healey and Austin MIni Cooper I have found that it is simple and generally if it does not start or run properly the problem is also pretty simple to solve if you take the time to think about it. The tools to fix these cars are also generally also pretty simple i.e. a nail file in your instance. But you have to have them on hand when you are on the side of the road. I always carry a simple tool roll. Phillips and flat head screw drivers, pair of pliers, adjustable wrench, small piece of emery cloth, roll of tape and a rag. The tools do not have to be good tools just good enough. Garage sales, bargain table at the hardware or parts store are good sources.

My car on the side of the road story also involved a British car a '67 Jag XKE. When I parked it in the driveway of my home it was running great. A few hours later when I went to start it cranked fine but no fire, nothing not even a pop. I could hear the electric fuel pump run and slow as pressure built up. Opened the bonnet and did smell fuel but not like a flooding situation. SU carbs are pretty simple and the throttle linkage worked fine. Checked the coil, distributer and wiring everything looked good.  Started to do the "spark test" . I went to pull the number one spark plug wire and happened to look down and see water pooled around the bottom of the plug. It turned out that a rain shower had taken place and the car was parked on a slope in the drive that allowed water to flow through those beautiful louvers in the hood right on to the spark plugs located in the well between the cam towers. Shorted the plugs. Fortunately I was home and had access to a vacuum which reversed to blow the water out and dry things. Started just fine after that.

Sportington
Pit Crew

In a pinch, you can use the ignition key to score the contacts.

Corvettebaggs
Intermediate Driver

To answer the girlfriend's rescue look I would have told her, you're on your own with the renovation projects, I got a ride to fix.

P1800Bob
Passenger

First of all the little blue car is not a Healey - it's an MG.  And disregard the note about pumping the throttle to see if gas is squirting into the carb - no such thing on an SU carb.

czmx
Pit Crew

A folded dollar bill or business card will usually do the trick.

Jediscuba
New Driver

Normal maintenance would have precluded this from ever happening

RogerWKnight
New Driver

I keep a spare set of points for my Pontiac 326 engine in my glove box and have since I was stranded in Vantage, Washington by a cheap set of points.  Now I buy the good sets that cost about $20 and have the capacitor built in and not installed separately.

Kinch
Passenger

Thanks for the tips. 
just to set the record straight, the car in the photos is not an Austin Healey. It is an Austin Healey Sprite.   Austin Healey are completely different automobiles. 
your article is helpfull, but a Sprite is not an Austin Healey. The folks who read this can be misled into think that car is an Austin Healey. I have owned one for 25 years and worked on British car for 58 years. 
Tom 

Kyle
Moderator

I'm curious what you mean when you say it is not an Austin Healey.
4wheel2wheel
Pit Crew

Put a dap of dielectric grease in each plug wire and ignition coil port on the distributor cap. Also a bead all around the base of the distributor cap where it mates to the distributor body. This to prevent moisture infiltration. Don't forget each plug wire to spark plug too. A can of engine starting fluid is a must because if there is any spark to be found in the secondary ignition system that will find it for sure. Look around the engine bay wire harness and thoroughly clean all grounding points. I have seen many instances of poor grounds shutting down a car.

 

 

 

RSHMottoGuzzi
Pit Crew

Very well written, interesting and learning.  In addition, I found it funny!  Good advise on young people who really don't know what to do?  Most cars today have no points or distributor cap that has access.  One other thing you can do is when your car is flooded or not getting gas take off air cleaner and prime carb with fuel.  This usually will get the car started and that will charge your battery!

MikeAC
Passenger

I have a variation of this story. My older brother bought a 5yo Triumph TR-3 which was epic cool at the time. When Saturday date night rolled around whilst brother was in the shower I wound sneak out and put a matchbook cover between the points.

I'd wait for the inevitable, "Mom, I have a date buy my car won't start, can I use yours?"

I'd chime in with, "What am I supposed to do since I was going to borrow moms car".

After some back and forth I'd cave with, "Alright you can use mom's car but if I can get the TR-3 started ..."

You can see where this is going.

BTW: TR-3s still had the hole in the grill and a crank for dead battery starting.

Allan
Passenger

It’s easy to say should have could have when looking back. I enjoyed your story. It seems that your a good thinker and and a little wiser for next time, and there will be a next time. Even with a well equipped tool box its amazing that whats needed will be missing. Just two days ago I had to call my wife to bring me a small adjustable wrench that was on my work bench. The problem was remedied enough to get me the 20 kilometres back home. I purchased my TR6 brand new and have had 47 years of driving enjoyment and at least 47 head scratching events. Many of both have given me awesome memories.

 Enjoy your driving experiences!

wag4513
Passenger

I had a problem like this many years ago.  You can use a dollar bill (or other bill) to polish the points.  It worked for me.  Also I have found that adding water to the battery to bring it to the full level, not over filled will give it a little extra power.

dj37
Passenger

Many years ago I drove my '67 corvette, equipped with a Vertex magneto, to work.  It ran fine as always.  After work, even though it cranked fine it wouldn't hit a lick.  Investigating showed that it had air, gas, compression and spark.  Turns out the mechanical advance had stuck advanced, altering the timing enough that it wouldn't light.  I retarded the mag to get it home.  Had me going for a bit!

czmx
Pit Crew

A folded dollar bill or business card will usually do the trick.

RKOWSKI
Passenger

Interesting story Kyle, but you must not have been a Boy Scout or know the meaning of "Be Prepared".   A small bag of tools kept stashed somewhere in the MG would have been all you needed for any kind of emergency situation. 

Kyle
Moderator

Never made it past Cub Scouts, my local troop wasn’t very welcoming back then. Luckily, I’ve learned certain values in other ways over the years. I know driving without tools is not the smartest, but hardly a terrible thing.
patgarity
Intermediate Driver

Kyle, carry a spare condenser as there has been a lot of hinky ones produced. Get a rotor that doesn’t have a rivet. They often crack and allow the spark from the coil to the distributor to go straight through the rotor to the shaft of the distributor. Spare points and the tools to fit them is a good idea. SUs don’t “flood” unless there is a float problem. If you pump the “gas” it just wiggles the throttle shafts.

(25 years experience wrenching on British cars, ASE triple Master, etc. etc.)

Enjoy!

02-orignal-ownr
Detailer

I once rescued a damsel in distress whose (pre GM) SAAB had stalled--in the left turn lane, on a cold rainy night.  No spark situation caused by points that had completely closed up.  Reset 'em with a screwdriver and a business card, which happened to be just the right thickness...Off she went--and probably made it all the way home.

 

 

bridanne
Navigator

When I drove my old points cars I learned the hard way to keep in the trunk a set of points, a screwdriver and a gap gauge.  Yes I saved many a friend with my tools in the trunk to help their trouble with their points.                               Bridget from E. Wash

Teuffelhunden
Pit Crew

In high school, you never found me driving my baja bug without a small tool box of tools with an ohm meter plus... the points, cap, rotor, generator belt, and longest spark plug wire from previous maintenance. In addition, emery cloth, fuses, sections of wire, electrical tape, JB WELD, tire plug kit, length of fuel hose, couple of clamps, and anything else I may think I'd need. MOST importantly, two $50 dollar bills tucked away in my wallet which I never touch unless there is an emergency. I may sound crazy but it helped me out of many jams and I helped others I met along the way. I still do the same with all my cars and trucks today. In my trucks, I keep a 2-liter bottle of water between both fender wells and the grill. May sound crazy, but I always got home.

jtw37
New Driver

I love my Pertronix, BUT electronics are electronics and they do stop working when it is most inconvenient. So I never leave home without a set of points and condenser. My Pertronix has been working for about 15 years, or so.  Now watch it stop working.

Waterboy1KHY80
Intermediate Driver

This reminds me of two years ago summer, wife and her 77 TA stranded on the other side of town (naturally) I received a freaked out call of help!, with no crank / no start situation.

Being GM and the whole car having been completely renewed stem to stern only 6 years earlier, I surmised the "hammer tap" on the solenoid. Sure enough, climbed under, tapped, and poof car started.  Told her don't shut it off.

Upon inspection later that week, I found there was ZERO lubrication on either end / bushing of the motor, I cleaned, lightly greased each with Amsoil grease, and it has been spinning happily and Unabashed sense. 

Wild to have a brand new AC Delco starter come like that, but now I know she is safe to drive this beauty anywhere.  Dave

gordon
New Driver

Great article (with or without the hack!!) but I just love that so many Americans love old British cars. We have an excuse in Australia - we only cut our formal ties to Britain 120 years ago and we were still manufacturing British cars in the 70s (alongside US, Japanese & German cars). I could ask what’s your excuse except that you probably Just love them too, their foibles notwithstanding. I’ll now carry that box of matches in my Triumph!

willyb
Passenger

In the old days there was always book of matches . I still have one or two in my tool box.

DASAUTO
Passenger

The state of that engine bay, distributor and the location of that in-line fuel filter, 

tells it all.

Tinkerah
Technician

The most versatile tool you can pack in your vintage car: a charged cell phone.

goatwgn
Passenger

I would get rid of that plastic fuel filter as soon as possible too. I have seen those crack and leak fuel. Neat idea, so you can see the fuel flow, but when they dry out from heat, things like that can happen.

Scottie
Passenger

What you used was an emery board, not a file!

GDokk52
Passenger

When I was young (a few years ago) in the mid 60’s, my cousin bought a used British car, about 56 or 57. The car had a habit of taking a long time to start using the starter (20-30 revolutions). We noticed that the car had a hole below the radiator. Be young and inquisitive, we also found that the tire jack’s long rod for lifting the car up fit in the hole and engaged a fitting on the front of the engine. We tried it out and found that it could be used to start the engine.  

The interesting thing was, that it would start the engine with 1/2 a rotation. 

I surmised (after brief thought and my extensive mechanical experience 2 or 3 years) that the starter motor was pulling most of the juice, leaving not enough for the spark system. 

It might be a common property of late 50’s British cars, and, if your car has the “crank” opening, it may be something to try. 

We got into the habit of using the crank feature more and more. It was quick, and garnered attention from our friends.

irphil
Pit Crew

I have started more than one car by putting a spare key in to the space where the battery connects to the post...and twisting the key.  That makes the contact better.  Then have someone crank it while  twisting the key.  

cestor01
Intermediate Driver

I know this is sacrilege, but how about installing an electronic ignition? If you feel the need to reinstall the points system for shows or something, it isn't that hard to do, just save the old ignition and swap it back, then reinstall the electronic ignition after the show. Really, it is the best thing I have ever done. Someone suggested "regular maintenance", but points get fouled easily, which is why we used to do tune ups every 5000 miles. If you drive yours anywhere near the way I drive mine, that is a lot of work and can get past you easily to fouled points.

Kyle
Moderator

Electronic ignition is something I am considering. The car is getting a whole host of other work so that is just piling on at this point. At least it's not a big task to do!
Spookyfixer
New Driver

Thanks Kyle for the walk down memory lane. I purchased my 69' Sprite new after returning from Vietnam. My first breakdown was on RT. 66 outside Albuquerque and I realized how quirky this car could be. The most fun car I've ever owned and the the biggest PIA car.

avideo
Intermediate Driver

How about installing an electronic ignition system? Lots of retro-fit kits available. Even a mostly non-mechanic like me can install one. Both of my classic cars - a 1966 Corvette Convertible and a 1969 Shelby GT350 Fastback have electronic ignition. 

Ski
New Driver

Buy and drive an"old modern car" anything built after 1985 with Fuel injection.  After years of breaking down with a carb car, I finally got smart.  Trust me on this one boys.

Tsaxman
Detailer

I had a Shelby Mustang with a 428 V8. The heat from that thing would overwhelm the starter motor, and it simply wouldn't work until it cooled off. Ford later installed a heat shield but not for my year. So I learned to shield it with aluminum foil.
 
In college, I owned a Vega. On dates, I had to park it under a street light, so I could arc the starter solenoid with a screwdriver. Those were fun and exciting times.

Runninghorse
Passenger

After reading and fully sympathizing having been there.  You really didn't have to call for a nail file.  All you needed was a match book, and use the strike pad.  Granted it could have been just as difficult to find a match book as a nail file these days. But fifty years of German and British (@#*& Bosch and Lucus) my father taught me early. Set the points with the cover, clean with the striker. Adjust ignition with a test light.

Never throw out your old points.

I've done many a roadside fix with my knife and whatever was in bottom of glove box or underseat.

Alex