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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.

 

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...

Replies (94)

Replies (94)

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.

 

Pit Crew

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?

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

Pit Crew

The Pertronix points replacement kits are well worth the money> 

Pit Crew

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

Passenger

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...

New Driver

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.

Intermediate Driver

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.

Passenger

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.

New Driver

@wingman55

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 ...

Pit Crew

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.

Passenger

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

 

Passenger

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

Passenger

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. 

Passenger

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.)  

New Driver

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.

Passenger

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.

New Driver

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

New Driver

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

New Driver

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.

Pit Crew

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.

Pit Crew

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 !

New Driver

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.

Passenger

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.

Navigator

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.

Passenger

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 

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 pump...it had points also, always getting stuck!....Years later I bought a Honda S2000....and great cure for 'British Sports Car Blues'!!

New Driver

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

New Driver

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!

Passenger

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.  

Passenger