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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

You could have gone in and asked for a matchbook. The strike pad is a great sanding tool. Unless they only sold lighters....

Intermediate Driver

This is exactly the kind of fundamental troubleshooting that people don't seem to be taught anymore (myself included).  Kudos and thank you for sharing!  I for one would love to see more articles like this. 


Whenever I try to walk a customer through a system check, I always worry that I'm insulting their intelligence by explaining basic troubleshooting steps.  But the most common reply I get is "Oh... I never thought to try that!" 


(The next most common reply is "No, it CAN'T be that." Translation: I don't want to / don't know how to check that.  Bonus tip: Any time you're SURE it CAN'T be that, IT'S THAT. And the more sure you are, the more money I'll bet that it's that.)  

Pit Crew

HA, this just happened to my 1969 Plymouth Sport Satellite convertible. Thankfully it happened in my driveway. Had my son crank the engine while I checked for spark. After hitting the points with some sandpaper and using a screwdriver to push them back and forth, it got spark. Put it all together and it started right up. Ordered a new set of points from the local parts store.

Pit Crew

My 1951 Studebaker pick-up refused to start or even fire one day.  Fortunately I was in my driveway and not stranded.  I replaced all the distributor stuff except the cap and rotor because they looked good and still no luck.  I finally gave up and had it flat bedded to my favorite mechanic's shop.  They found the problem that I would have probably never found.  The rotor shorted out to the distributor shaft.  Pretty rare I'd say.  So I told them I am abandoning the old system and had them install a Pertronix ignition.  I don't know what I was waiting for on the Studebaker as I had already installed the Pertronix on my 1954 Corvette and 1957 T-Bird.  So I'm glad to say I am now points free.


All great stories!  I didn’t hear anyone try this test.  After making sure the points open and close turn the engine to close the points, turn on the ignition, now manually open and close the points (careful you might get a shock), you should see a spark jump across the points, this will tell you the points are working and that your condenser is good. I was at a local cruise night and was leaving to go home after staying a bit later than usual.  I went to start my WW II Jeep and all I got was crank and no start.  I know there was plenty of fuel so I popped the distributor cap off and checked the points.  They looked fine.  I turned the engine to close them and performed the above procedure.  It turned out my condenser failed.  I had spare points and plenty of tools but no spare condenser.  Now I went around the parking lot asking the other guys if they had a spare condenser (didn’t care from what I would have made it work and most had already left for the night).  One guy had one still attached to a set of points from a 53 Dodge. It was a different value but it worked and I got home fine. I knew the Jeep was a bit harder to start for the past few days. I should have checked it out before leaving home.  Lesson learned! If you had a condenser from a vehicle that wouldn’t fit in your distributor you could attach the condenser wire on the outside of the distributor where it gets fed from the coil neg. wire and somehow ground the body of the condenser and your good to go!  Another thing we tend to forget with a points system, we turn the key on without running the engine.  Do this enough times and you’re sure to burn out the points (that is if they’re closed) or burn up a an ignition coil.  I love my old school points and condenser because I’m an old school guy that learned when old school was in session.   


I learned on old cars with points/condensers, you do not want to leave ignition on while engine is off,  It leads to burned contacts on the points.


I bought a blue 79 Midget that wouldn't start start for $600 in the early 90s. After the deal was done, in the guys driveway, I borrowed a jack and took the lug wrench out to wack at the starter. After a dozen or so hits the starter made some noise. A few more blows later and it spun free. The Spriget sputtered to life and I was able to drive it home. The previous owner grumbled about should have charged me more and how he could have done that, as I drove off.


One great failure to start is a stuck starter. A tap to the side of the starter while someone is starting it is enough to  fire a car up. tire irons work well.

Ever blow a radiator hose out? The near by store they don’t have one for your car? Well ask to look at their hoses and look for one in the same shape but longer. Then cut it to size. This bailed me out twice when told no hose while stranded. Both time in new cars too. 

Think and process what is wrong. Engines need fuel air and spark. Look for what is missing or failing. 

We Mcguyvered things long before he did.     


Advanced Driver

My advise: any car 20 years or older should be investigated as to what troubles that particular model encountered over the years and some spares should be carried on trips especially the parts that are known wto be subject to frequent failure but more so parts that might fail but are not stocked every where of course one cannot have everything that might go wrong but some things are good to have good example: on 30s 40s and 50s cars fuelpumps would often fail ( They were well made but the diaphragm material would just give out) and it was common to carry a spare Fuel pump ( and a few tools)