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Archive for December, 2017

On Fixing Cars

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

My car broke down again a couple of weeks ago. It’s a 2001, so it’s at that age where things randomly start wearing out. This time, I was just getting off the freeway to go to work on Monday morning when I suddenly felt a loss of power and the Service Engine Soon light came on. I pulled into a parking lot and popped the hood to see if anything was obviously wrong, but nothing was apparent.

I started it up again and headed to work, but something was obviously not right. It was running really rough, and the car had barely any power. Climbing the hill up to campus was pretty tough. But I finally limped in to work and then called Brinestone to see if she could bring my code scanner to work. She did (love you, dear!), and I saw that it had codes for a random misfire and a camshaft position sensor error.

A little bit of research showed that my car has no camshaft position sensor—it uses a signal from the ignition control module every time the cylinder 4 spark plug fires to determine the position of the camshaft. If there’s a misfire on cylinder 4, it doesn’t send the right signal or doesn’t send it at all. Apparently the CPS code is only ever set by an ignition misfire, so the the problem had to be somewhere between the ignition control module and the spark plugs.

Luckily, I had a spare ignition control module and pair of coil packs (from my previous efforts to fix my phantom misfire), so I asked Ruth if she could bring them up to work too. She did (love you lots and lots!), along with a few tools, and I took a little break from work and swapped the parts right there in the parking lot at work.

It didn’t fix the problem.

At that point I figured it had to be the spark plugs or spark plug wires. I got the car towed home that evening (hooray for insurance that includes roadside assistance!) and decided to take the next morning off work to replace the plugs and wires. Tuesday morning, I drove the van to AutoZone, got the parts I need, and got everything changed. I drove it around the block, and voila! It ran great. No more roughness or sluggishness, and no more smell of unburnt fuel coming out of the tailpipe.

I went inside, got dressed for work, and started the car up to go to work. And suddenly it was misfiring again.

I felt like I was losing my mind. The trouble code I was getting was only ever caused by an ignition problem, and I’d just replaced the entire ignition system. I started going through the diagnostic flowchart very carefully to make sure I hadn’t missed something obvious.

The resistance on the spark plug wires looked good. The resistance on the coil packs looked good. The voltage on the wire sending the signal from the ICM to the computer looked good. The new spark plugs were gapped properly and weren’t fouled with oil or anything else that would make them misfire. I even tested the compression, and it looked good on all four cylinders. I tried it with the old ICM and coil packs back on, and the old ICM with the new coil packs, and the new ICM with the old coil packs. Nothing was working.

The only thing left was the computer. I didn’t have the proper tools to test it, so I figured I’d try to go to a junkyard on Saturday and find one. The problem is that the computer has to be from a model with the same engine and transmission options, and manual transmissions are not terribly common. I spent the rest of the week having Brinestone drive me to work or taking the van myself and hoping that I could find a compatible computer.

On Thursday, we had a little party at work, and my boss asked me how the car was doing. I told him the simplified version, and he was really surprised to learn that I was doing all of this myself. He started asking lots of questions about the kinds of things I’ve done and whether I have a lift and whether I ever take it in or do all my car repairs myself. And then he asked a question that made me pause: “Do you enjoy working on cars?”

I said that I wasn’t sure enjoy was the right word. At the moment, I was tearing my hair out, so I definitely wasn’t enjoying it. But fixing a car is definitely satisfying—there’s a big sense of accomplishment knowing that you’ve been able to fix something yourself (and knowing that you saved a bunch of money certainly helps).

My dad’s always been good at fixing cars, and he pushed me to take auto shop in high school. At the time, I had zero interest in ever learning to work on cars. I was too busy taking creative writing and art and drafting. Plus, I remember looking under the hood and thinking there was simply no way I’d ever be able to learn what all those parts were and how they worked.

It wasn’t until I bought my first halfway decent car in college (a 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with just over 100,000 miles on it) that I started learning how to do work on a car. I’d drive to my parents’ house, and my dad would patiently show me how to change my oil and brake pads and other basics. Pretty soon I was tackling things like replacing the starter and the alternator. I think the first time I really impressed my dad was when I diagnosed a problem just by looking at a wiring diagram. (The tail lights lit up when I turned on the turn signal but not when I hit the brakes, even though they used the same bulbs. I traced it to the turn signal switch in the steering column.)

Then my parents moved away, and I had to figure things out on my own (though I still often called my dad for advice). And then I crashed one of our cars and ending up buying a junker to fix it up myself in our driveway (in the snow, no less!). Being able to tear apart a junker without fear of breaking something was a great way to learn.

On Saturday I headed up to a self-service junkyard to see if I could find something to fix my weird misfire problem. As I suspected, they didn’t have any cars with compatible computers, but I grabbed another ICM while I was there. Normally I hate throwing parts at a problem, but I was running out of options, and anyway, it was only $16.50. I also snagged some floor mats while I was there, since my car doesn’t have any. They don’t quite match, but maybe I’ll dye them.

I got home, got the new ICM on and got it all put back together, and it started up just fine. I drove it for a couple of miles, and the problem seemed to be gone. It’s been running great for over a week now. All I can figure is that the old ICM that I first put on it crapped out shortly after I put it on, which is why it ran fine at first and then started misfiring again. It’s a weird coincidence, but it’s all I’ve got.

During that conversation at the work party, my boss asked if I was interested in restoring cars too. I laughed and said no, since it can be a really expensive, time-consuming hobby. And anyway, though muscle cars are fun to drive, they’re gas hogs. I’m happy with my little economy car, even at times like this.

Just a couple of days later, though, I came across this YouTube channel where some guys are putting a turbo four-cylinder and manual transmission in a minivan.

Hmm. I may need to rethink some things.

Posted by Jonathon at 4:25 pm | No Comments »