By on April 17, 2010

I’d been wondering if I’d damaged the fuel pump when I ran out of gas a couple of months ago, for the only time in my 350,000-400,000 lifetime miles. Sometimes, after coasting in gear I’d feel the Accord 5-speed subtly hesitate as I gently pressed the gas. But this morning, the engine seemed to be gasping for fuel, and the check engine light–a species which is well known to cry wolf–was blinking at me as if it really meant it. Instead of to the espresso joint, I headed to the local mechanic.

On the way I pressed the codes button on the scan gauge. It was a 304. Carol, the garage’s owner, told me that was a misfire code, and not the fuel pump. She didn’t have an opening in her schedule until tomorrow. As for the problem’s cause, she said, it could be plugs, plug wires, injectors, the fuel filter…

The last time I’d done more than change an air filter, a headlight, or a battery had been in the summer of 1993. I’d sold Bryant the ‘77 Corolla a month earlier, after I’d bought the new Saturn, and early one morning he’d limped the car over, and banged on the door. I think he wanted his $200 back. For reasons I didn’t understand, the points had always needed gapping about every 3,000 miles. So I dragged myself out of bed and gapped ‘em one last time.

I’d learned auto mechanics in Mr. Smeltzer’s class during senior year at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, 1970-71. Although I’d understood the mechanics of internal combustion before my voice had deepened, I was not gifted with a wrench. I did manage to do the tappets, to tune my‘62 Falcon, and to pack the bearings, and on the way back to Boston the following summer I’d given the car a lube and oil change in Omaha, where some gas station had graciously allowed me to use their lift and their grease without even charging me. But in another auto shop incident, I’d stripped a screw hole while inverting the transmission cantilever spring, which I was sure had been upside down. Then I’d struggled painfully with knurling a new screw hole, and widening the hole in the cantilever spring to accommodate a wider screw, and I’d shattered the relevant drill bit, and Mr. Smeltzer had sent me to the hardware store to buy a new one, an embarrassing episode.

Then there was the incident of the worn idler arm. Back in Boston, at Tufts University where I was now a student, and where my parents taught, one afternoon I failed miserably to dislodge the thing while lying cramped beneath the car. I took it to John, my Dad’s mechanic, a big, serious southerner with superb skills. He put the Falcon on a lift and whacked the thing hard, five or ten times with what I swear was a sledge hammer before it went flying, while his colleagues stood by discoursing on the need for appropriate education in order to work on cars.

After the Falcon died the following summer, I went carless for nearly a decade and a half, until I bought the Toyota in ‘85. The first time I tuned it, I lost a couple of screws down the distributor shaft. That little mishap cost me $150 about six years thence. My mechanic, Adrian, of Northeast DC (whose last name I never learned) saint that he was, had searched several junk yards to find a distributor that would fit my by then 14 year old Corolla. But I figure my skills saved me at least five or six times that over the 70,000 miles I drove that car, what with tuneups every 10k and several point gappings in between each. My skills also gave me immense satisfaction when the little 1.2-liter-that-could would sing happily after each tuneup. Oh, how I loved that sound, even if Greg, my best friend, hated that car’s noisy exuberance.

After I bought the Saturn, I hadn’t missed Zen and the Art of Beater Maintenance as much as I’d feared I would. And now, contemplating Carol’s advice, I wasn’t missing it even more as I considered my options. Nonetheless, I knew my skills might save me some tsuris. The Accord, a ‘99, has 172k. I didn’t think the injectors were bad, because I’d been using only top tier gasolines for years. I knew my plugs should still have life in them, as I’d had them changed around 100k, but I thought the plug wires might be original. (I’d bought the car with 67k.) Changing plug wires was something I could do. So off to NAPA.

New wires in hand, I opened the hood and carefully examined the old ones, remembering that I needed to change them one at a time so I would not mix them up. I saw that they were different lengths, and that I would need to use the correct wire for each connection. I lined the new wires up so that I could see their relative lengths. As I carefully replaced each old wire with a new one, I could feel the strain of my brain activating atrophied connections concerning both the conceptual (putting the wires in the right places so the cylinders would fire in order) and the physical (pushing each female part over the corresponding male part until the fit of wire to plugs and distributor was snug). I was not facile.

Now it was time to start the car. I braced myself for failure. “This engine’s probably still going to missfire,” I warned myself. But the engine was so smooth it felt new. Elated, I ran back into NAPA and told the guy behind the counter. I drove to the espresso joint and told Jamie, the barista, a 20-something woman whose multiple talents include racing cars and working on their innards. It’s really no big deal to change the spark plug wires, even after nearly two decades, but for that brief morning I felt a little of what the Red Sox must have felt in ‘04.

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25 Comments on “Adventures Under the Hood...”

  • avatar


    It is never a good idea to let a modern car run low on gas, much less run out. On my BMW, running out of gas will almost certainly decrease the life of the fuel pump significantly, if not kill it, considering that modern pumps are cooled by the fuel flow. The darn thing is under the rear seat, and a real PITA to change. Changing the fuel filter before the recommended service interval is also highly recommended, as the additional strain on the pump from a partially clogged filter will also reduce its life. I too used to do almost all of the work on my cars. My aging back, and the lack of a complete inventory of specialized tools dictates that I now take my cars to the local indy. I don’t miss having to scrape grease out from under my fingernails either. Glad your fix was an easy one.

    • 0 avatar

      At least your BMW has access to the pump through the tank top after removing the rear seat. (which isn’t too hard) Too many GM cars in the past had in-tank pumps that could only be removed by dropping the tank. Also, these pumps had the tendency to seize up instantly once run dry. It was too common for someone to run out of gas, get a push or a pull to the nearby gas station where they would fill it to the top. When it still wouldn’t start, the poor mechanic had to deal with draining and dropping the full tank to work on it. Even less fun.

    • 0 avatar

      Ah yes!! One of GM’s gifts to SAAB, as I found out only once – thank goodness! The tank is under the back seat, as in earlier SAABs. Only the fine engineers at GM value engineered the access plate in the floor OUT OF the cars. So my ’94 900 required emptying and dropping the tank to change the pump. As it was just after warranty, much hassling enabled them to split the cost. That one alone would have paid for including the access plate in all the cars they built. But no subsequent SAAB has that access (or has needed a fuel pump).

    • 0 avatar

      While the don’t-let-the-tank-run-low thing seems to make logical sense, it did not matter with my car. Back in the day I had an old K car that had a tiny 13 gallon tank. I was driving 30K miles a year then, so I was at the gas station all the time. To eek one more day out of it, I would cram the tank full and drive until I was practically on vapors. I got so good with this, that based on the fuel gauge and the trip odometer, I could tell when the gas station pump would shut off +/- 1/4 gallon. Only ran dry once. Anyway, the fuel pump made it over 190K miles before it needed replacement. Was I just lucky?

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Volvo deleted the access panels starting with the 850, and that was back when it was all under Volvo’s direct control. Once I needed to have a rubber line changed at the top of my 850’s fuel tank and I didn’t have the time to do it myself. $500! at the dealer, including the $10 part.

  • avatar

    Nice story … brings back fond memories … Thanks…

    One question to “pushing each female part over the corresponding male part until the fit of wire to plugs and distributor”, isn’t this only possible on the plug end (not distributer end) of the wire?

  • avatar


    The thing is working so well now that I’m sure the fuel pump is fine. The fuel filter on this thing is I don’t know where, and my understanding is that it’s never supposed to be changed–or I would have done it long ago.

    Robert Walter, both ends of the plug wires on this car are female.

  • avatar

    I ran a diesel out of fuel a month or so ago. Not fun getting a diesel to get running again after it runs out of diesel; different than a gas engine.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah, running out of fuel in a diesel means having to bleed the air out of the fuel lines and rail before it will start – after adding fuel. Just putting more fuel in the tank won’t work. I am a former Motor Transport Officer from the USMC that owned several motor pools with drivers and mechanics. Everything was diesel – HMMWVs, 5-tons, LVSs, etc. If any of the drivers ran out of fuel, either in garrison or in the field, it was an automatic “page 11” in their service record book. Bleeding the lines was a pain in the a**, time consuming, and potentially dangerous in a combat environment.

    • 0 avatar

      Just a trick for you Diesel guys,

      If you for some reason need to bleed the system, just spray silicone spray into the intake while somebody else cranks it. The engine will start up on the silicone spray, and while you spray for about 10 seconds, it will bleed itself through the injectors. That’s usually much easier then finding the bleeder valve.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Glad you fixed it. I DIY as much as I can. I fixed the skip in my future DIL’s CRV by replacing some exhaust valves. First time I have pulled a head in 25 yrs.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    New plug wires every 50-100k miles is a sound preventative maintenance strategy.

    Of course on more modern vehicles this is becoming a thing of the past as more and more go to coil-on-plug designs.

  • avatar

    I sold my last beater a dozen years ago and got on the lease cycle. I wish I had back all the money we spent on new car payments over that decade.

    Two years ago I bought a Toyota Avalon, with 95K for my kid’s to drive (after my son wrecked my lease.) My wife wanted to lease him an inexpensive car but I told her no new car is cheap to insure for a male teenager (who has already had one accident) and we’d have to pay to fix all the mishaps when we turned it in. She finally came around.

    The engine was sound and most everything else very good, but the suspension made horrible noises over everything. Got a shop recommendation and dropped it off to fix the noise. $900 dollars later they had replaced three quarters of the suspension bushings and while it was much quieter, it still seemes to knock and clunk a bit. They told me the shocks were fine, Avalons were supposed to be that soft.

    Lived with it for 6 months till I decided to get back into beater maintenance. Bought a set of Tokico shocks and Vogtland lowering springs and mounts and a pile of bolts and other various parts that looked like they should be replaced with the job. After some typical mishaps that happen with part time mechanics I got down to business and 10 hours later was done (with my son along for the ride.) The improvement in the cars ride was improved almost as much as our self respect.

    Every man should get personal with his cars at least once in his life. You learn a lot about yourself in the process and gain respect for both the car and the engineering that went into it. Also, you pick up great toys along the way…torque wrenches…breaker bars…

    We now have a pair of used cars and one new car that I intend to keep until it reaches the ripe old age of this Avalon. I will remain their primary mechanic as long as I am able bodied.

  • avatar

    Yup, I too had the SAAB fuel pump issue. Sold the car rather than suffer a $1000 fuel pump replacement. GM was correct, though in that few original owners would notice. They were incorrect, in that those owners usually don’t just die or move to Siberia, they buy another car, and remember stuff like this. The company would then go bankrupt if no one bought more of their cars….er, wait…..

  • avatar
    Andy D

    The Bosch main fuel pump on my first 528e was going strong at 350k miles and 20 yrs. It is under the car just behind the RR wheel. It is in a bracket along with the filter. The 528e doesnt seem to need the intank transfer pump all E 28s came with. I have learned how to fix them,so that is no longer an issue anyway. I hear the tales of money and pain dealing with more modern cars and resolve to keep my 528es running for another 20 yrs.

  • avatar

    Ironic – I’ve got a 99 CRV with 116k miles that just threw the mifire codes on all 4 cylinders last week. Car has been maintained religiously by the Honda dealer, and has had valve adjustments, timing belt, water pump, new clutch, tires and battery in the last 12 months. Now dealer tells me the whole head is shot and needs replaced – thousands of dollars. Turns out the first generation CRV engine has a soft valve defect, and Honda knows it but won’t cover it any longer. Sure wish I had an Accord instead – or it was just my spark plug wires. My CRV, which has been a nice car, is about to be junk . . . and I’m done with Honda forever.

    • 0 avatar

      @csf – it’s time to find yourself a good independent Honda mechanic. Between the dealership and Honda, I would usually give the benefit of the doubt to Honda first.

      E.g., forty years ago my father was told by the dealer that his Ford’s straight six engine needed to be replaced. The independent mechanic who was consulted for a second opinion changed the wires for $20 total as I recall, and all was well with that engine for the next 6 years.

      But when the spark plug wires failed on my Accord around 70K miles, it was an old-timer at a Honda dealership who finally diagnosed it. (And I finally learned the value of changing them _before_ they fail.)

      I wouldn’t claim to know what’s really the problem with your CRV, but I have to be skeptical of your dealer this time. Since my good friend’s CRV made it to 170K before he sold it (even after rallying it in the lower peninsula of Michigan with me behind the wheel), I have to think “they don’t all do that”.

  • avatar

    “For reasons I didn’t understand, the points had always needed gapping about every 3,000 miles.”

    Did you apply the proper grease to the cam and rubbing block? I’ve owned five vehicles with points (still have two) and always get 10-12,000 miles on a set.

  • avatar

    I didn’ thave to change the points every 3k. I just had to regap ’em. But it’s been over 17 years since I last tuned that car, and I can’t remember what grease I used

  • avatar

    I had a similar success lately with my 02 Mazda Millenia…CEL light is always on (EGR valve flow code), which after spending $$ on diagnosis but no clear concise idea of what’s exactly wrong, I’ve just lived with the light on. But lately it started flashing and the car misfiring. I changed the distributor cap and did new plugs and wires, and the issue seems to be solved (no problems for a couple of weeks now). It’s quite satisfying to feel that I have succeeded.

    Then again, now that I’ve shared my story, the damn car will probably misfire tonight.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Great article David!

    Your write-up reminds me of the work I do nearly every week.

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