2010-02-26
On a recent commute home from work, my engine stopped running. It didn't splutter as though it was starved for gasoline and it didn't run rough as if not all cylinders were firing, and there was plenty of electricity ( at least enough to keep my headlights bright and the Glenn Miller cassette playing ). Luckily I was already in beautiful Petaluma and much to the distain of the driver behind me, I drifted as far as I could before pulling over and trying to trouble shoot my problem.

So what would cause the engine to stop like that? A bad distributor; perhaps no electricity getting to the coil. Turning the ignition key lit up my console lights but didn't engage the starter motor and I didn't hear any clicks from the solenoid. Fine, no juice was getting to the solenoid. If no electricity is getting to the starter and the coil, the common point of failure is probably the ignition switch. But why would it fail when it did?

Hold on a second...

I need to take a moment to salute the best problem solvers that I know of: the Shade Tree Mechanic. Named so because it isn't uncommon for them to use the branch of large tree to help pull the engine out of a car. Most shade tree mechanics that I know, have limited formal education in the art of automobile repair and instead have Doctorates and Masters degrees in real world experience.

Alright, back to my car.

After walking the mile and a half back to my home and having a bite to eat, I thought it would be best to see if the headlights dimmed when I tried to start the engine. If the lights dimmed, then electricity was being diverted to the starter, and the problem may not be the ignition switch. So on my bicycle I rode, to perform the test.


Writing Software
I enjoy writing software. Sometimes I need the challenge, and almost all of the times that I write a piece of software, I actually need/want the software. When there is a problem with software, it is referred to as a bug, although some people call it a feature. In order to fix a software bug, it is necessary to determine the steps required to reproduce the bug. If the bug happens everytime a certain action is performed, it is easier to track down what is causing the bug and therefore easier to fix. If, on the other hand, the bug only happens sometimes and there is no decernable scenario that will cause the bug, then there a lot of head banging against the wall trying to find the problem. This is the worst kind of bug.

Turning the Key
With my bike parked in front of my car, I was ready to check the headlight brightness as I turned the key. Click. RRRRRRRRR RRRRR RRRRRR VROOOOM!
Damn it! The car started. If I can't reproduce the problem, how can I fix it? What was I missing? The car started after it cooled down....

The car stopped running shortly after driving in quite a bit of stop and go freeway traffic followed by normal highway speed and then slowing to in town speeds. Could it be too much heat affecting my electrical connections? Why isn't it cooling properly?

In the end, I replaced a worn fanbelt to help keep the engine cool. The ignition switch was also replaced since it could have been faulty, and my key sometimes fell out when the car was running. I also cleaned and tightened many of the electrical connections. Hopefully, this will fix the non-reproducible bug.

Perhaps I'm not properly testing the fix under similar condition? I guess I'll find out on the commute home...

Now stop reading, and try to fix something that may or may not be broken
Comments
2010-02-26 Billy:
Try testing the ignition module. When they start to fail heat affects them. They get hot and the engine dies. Let it cool down and the engine cranks right over. They can be expensive, so be sure.
2010-02-26 jezra:
My car is a 1961 Volkswagen, it doesn't have an ignition module.
2010-02-26 x1101:
I am personally surprised that you even _have_ a car.
2010-02-26 jezra:
The car certainly comes in handy when I need to leave Petaluma. (which isn't very often)
2010-03-15 oswaldkelso:
The interesting points are the car cut out whilst moving. Also it was hot. All heat issues would point away from the switch.

Are there two faults or are the inter related?

I would check the points for signs of arcing and if so replace the condenser.

Also check for good connections on the coil LT side and all earth connections including the battery to starter.

As you say the ign-switch is a suspect, On an old car ware maybe an issue also corrosion and dirt on the contacts.

I'd stick a tester, a spare contact breaker set in the car (with condenser) and give the ign-switch a good clean with WD40 and check for "slop" in it.
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