By on July 22, 2010

Ron writes:

1991 Honda civic, built 7/90 in Japan: Been a great car. Occasionally, won’t start. You crank it, it almost seems to want to start, then you get the check engine light and you can crank it forever and no good. Wait 2 minutes, or longer, and it starts right up. Sometimes you have to wait an hour though. Then it will just start fine, like it never had a problem.

Does not seem to be:

– computer (but did replace it, shop diag said it was bad, problem went away for over a year … and came back)

– injectors (at least according to shop manual diag procedure)

– filter (replaced)

– fuel pump

– phase of moon (kidding)

I do get a check engine light but it’s a pretty useless 8-bit car computer, I don’t even recall the flashing-lights-error-code any more, seemed to indicate it was not getting fuel. But I can hear the fuel pump spin up when I turn on the ignition. Most commonly happens when it’s a not-so-warm day, you drive it, it doesn’t really get that hot, the weather starts to get warm, you stop it, and … it may not want to start again. Moisture? More than anything it’s acting like vapor lock in the old days.

Any suggestions (other than “sell it” — I like this car and its big greenhouse). I have a 2007 fit, which I love, but evidently the newer fits are not so tight — they’re less of a go-cart than in former days. :-(

I did have a problem like this once that was paint floating around in a carb float bowl, but how could this relate to today’s cars :-)

Sajeev Answers:

First suggestion?  Get some total recall on that flashing error light: the code is absolutely necessary in this case.  Your mechanic replaced the computer, which is almost always akin to burning a pile of cash on the floor.  Unless they show you a fully executed diagnostic tree that led to that conclusion, I’d avoid that place like a bad rash.

The code is helpful, but two things can also be checked in the meantime:  fuel pressure and strength of spark.  Since I don’t get paid the big bucks to surf the Civic forums on your behalf, find a way to hook a fuel pressure gauge to the fuel system, note the readings when cold and hot.  Then compare them to the factory specified fuel pressure, which can be anywhere from 10-40psi.

Now let’s talk spark: sometimes you can pull a plug, reconnect it to the wire, fire up the car and test for weak spark.  Other times, checking the specs (with a voltmeter) of the coil is necessary.

So what’s my final verdict?  Bad ignition coil: I suspect it can’t take the heat.

Bonus!  A Piston Slap Nugget of Wisdom:

Don’t bother getting a hotter aftermarket unit in a red or yellow container, the stock stuff is normally good enough for even modest engine upgrades.  In my time with 5.0 Mustangs, the stock coil was good for 450-ish horsepower, easy.  So always spend your money wisely. Unless you enjoy buying fancy parts with cool stickers you can slap on your ride.  In that case, go on wit ‘yo bad self.

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24 Comments on “Piston Slap: Total Re-coil?...”

  • avatar

    I had a 1990 CRX, and this sort of sounds like the problem it was having before the “igniter recall” fixed it. Intermittently, you would try to start it, it would crank over, but not fire. Let it set 5 minutes, and it was fine.

    Google turns up this:

    The igniter is in the distributor. Many people confuse the coil for the the igniter. The coil is large and is near the top of the distributor, held in by 4 phillips screws. The igniter is at the bottom of the distributor, held in by combo bolts/screws (hint: use a socket to avoid strippage). You have to pull it out and examine it.

    The bad igniter will be black in color, and say “OKI” on it.

    The good igniter is brown, and says “NEC” on it.

  • avatar

    Classic symptoms of a main relay going bad – except for the fact that you can hear the fuel pump prime and it still doesn’t start. The main relay (fuel pump / ECU relay) is under the dash on the left side, directly behind the hood release handle. Listen for a couple of clicks from that area when you turn the key on, but before you crank it.

    • 0 avatar

      I second this. Late 80’s and early/mid 90’s Hondas are known for this. When the relay is hot (hot day, car parked in the sun, car was running not long ago) the relay doesn’t work, but when it cools down it’s fine. It’s not an expensive part and it’s fairly easy to replace.

    • 0 avatar

      I third it! I had a 1991 Honda Accord, was really flaky when the weather got hot. I got suspicious when I could get it to fire with a starting fluid sprayed into the intake and I could hear the mysterious “click”. Turned out it was the relay…I believe it was a $90 fix.

  • avatar

    Excellent information from an actual owner. This is why Piston Slap totally rocks.

    So I also vote for the igniter, too.

  • avatar

    Get your troublecodes there, for the OBD I computer :)

    • 0 avatar

      1991 Civic were pre OBD1. You do not have an OBD port you can plug into. Pull up the passenger carpet and take off the ECU floor plate. You can then look through a window on the ecu and count the # of times the light flashes.

      Aside from that you have either one of the 2 problems – bad ignitor in the distributor or your main relay has cracked solder joints (located under the drivers side dash about 2 inches long and 1 inch wide). You can take it out and resolder the joints (check this link – or just buy a new one. I always keep a spare in my ’89 Civic.

  • avatar

    Oh man, I am at this very moment struggling with this very problem with my 1999 Accord, and replacing the main relay (as some suggested) didn’t help any, and replacing the fuel pump only resolved the issue briefly. I also had the same problem with my 93 Civic. Any advice would be greatly appreciated, because it’s driving me up the frigging wall.

  • avatar

    Two very important things to clear up.

    1) Are you saying that this happens when the temperature in car is warm to hot or just after the engine has warmed up?

    2) When you say that you can hear the fuel pump spin up, do yu mean when it doesn’t want to start, you can turn the key to the run position (not all the way to start) and hear the pump running?

    If the non-start situation is related to air temperature and you don’t hear the fuel pump run when the car doesn’t want to start, then the fuel pump relay could be the problem. It was a common problem in 90’s Honda cars. Just another possiblity.

  • avatar

    My 91 CRX DX had a similair problem. It turned out to be the Throttle position sensor in my 91 CRX and have been told it is common with the D series engines. It sucks too because you can get a replace TPS from honda-you have to buy the whole manifold it is attached to. I got one from a junkyard and tuned it myself with a multimeter-but it sucks. But you have to count the number of flashes on the computer and go from their. There are lots of sights with the error codes listed and where to look in car to see the flashes. These computers never go bad unless you fry them somehow.

  • avatar
    Philip Lane

    I had a similar problem with a 1987 Buick Century equipped with a 3.8 V6. Occasionally, the car would not start, usually when the engine was warm. The problem later expanded, and the car would shut off while driving. It was throwing a crankshaft position sensor often just before it would shut off. I was utterly gobsmacked, because the car would sometimes run 200 miles without a hiccup, and sometimes wouldn’t get me out of my apartment parking lot.

    With experience, I learned that the car would often start if I jiggled the connector at the ignition module. After a quarter of a million miles, the pins in the connector had flattened, and many of them were not making connection. I bent the wires back into position with a small screwdriver, and the problem has been nonexistent for nearly two years.

    In this case, though, I’d listen to a fellow owner. I’m in the igniter camp.

    • 0 avatar

      I too, had a similar problem with a 1995 Dodge Dakota with 3.9 V6. Same deal, bad crank position sensor. Same amazement, you could drive the truck all day hundreds of miles and then poof! No go.

      Ahh the wonders of modern electronics.

  • avatar

    I had a 1991 Honda CRX Si, had the same issue twice and it was the ignitor in the distributer. The first time was with the original D16A6 engine, the second with my swapped B17A. It is a known defective part. If you decide to do this fix, you might as well replace the coil and maybe even the cap and rotor while you’ve got it open.

  • avatar

    What 4x4Klein said.

    This happened to my 89 Civic SI. Finally traced it to the fuel pump relay.

  • avatar

    “I had a 1990 CRX … sounds like the problem it was having”
    “I had the same problem with my ‘91 CRX years ago.”
    “Oh man, I am at this very moment struggling with this very problem with my 1999 Accord”
    “My 91 CRX DX had a similar problem.”
    “I had a 1991 Honda CRX Si”

    Hondas have problems, I’m amazed.

  • avatar

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say coolant temperature sensor. You could either throw a new one in if it is cheap, or test the one you have with a pot of water and a multi-meter that can test resistance. The service manual would have the specs.

    I say this because coolant temp sensor can go bad and make your car think that the motor is colder than it is, but not be so out of spec as to throw a code. When you start the car truly cold, the coolant temp sensor could say read “-10 deg F” or whatever and you get a rich mixture and everything is fine until the car warms up. Of course it will keep running fine as you drive it that way, even running rich because the temp sensor is telling the ECU you aren’t warmed up when you are.

    When you shut the car down hot, and come back to drive it again, the coolant temp sensor could be giving the ECU a temp reading of say “15 deg F” at which point the ECU goes into the usual cold start mode, flooding the motor with fuel as is needed during a cold start, but preventing it from starting as the motor is actually warm. It wants to start, you keep cranking and flooding it more. If you walk away for a bit the fuel dissipates enough to give you another try at starting it before it floods again, or the motor cools enough the extra cold enrichment is OK to get it started.

    Not until the coolant temp sensor reads something crazy like “-115 deg F” would the ECU know that it is bad and set a code.

    There is another way you might confirm this, though I am not absolutely sure with a Honda. Next time it happens, try starting it with the gas pedal floored. Lots of older fuel-injected cars had a “flood mode” when you put the pedal to the metal during starting, it shuts off the injectors. It is a hold over from the carbureted days as that was the way to clear a flood. I’m not sure Hondas do it but worth a try.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a Fiat Palio 1.6 16v 1995 and around 2004-2005, the car became rather famous for this problem, too. At least I had a mechanic who was honest and said he didn’t know what to do, but that it was surely not the pump or the coils. Internet forums were filled with guys complaining how mwchanics had ripped them off, by changing such parts only to have the problem return. And the cases on-line in Brazil, and my case, were specifically like yours (nothing about suddenly dying when once on its way). Mainly on “hot” starts only rarely on “cold” starts and intermitent and gradually worse over time. I started praying whenever I had to go out in the car that the problem wouldn’t come up. Once, even, on a road trip, there was construction ahead and the road was shut down for an hour but i kept the car running as I was unsure if the car would start up again!

      But, one day I had a battery go down on me. I went to a mechanic closer to home, and as he was driving me to my car I related my problem. He said could he take a look? I had him re-charge the battery and we went back to his shop. He ran the car on his computer analyser and no defects came up. He then said he knew what it was. The coolant temperature sensor. I said WTF? My old mechanic never mentioned this nor does the internet. He said ok, I’ll change it for you you run the car a couple of days and if it solves your problem, come back here and pay me.

      Car ran fine after that for a year, when I decided to sell it. The problem, never, ever came back again. Of course I went back to this mechanic and I remember it cost something like 15 reais. Give or take about 7 dollars.

      I’ll bet you 7 dollars that’s your problem!

  • avatar

    In my constant experimentations with my Cadillac, I “updated” the coil in my car with an aftermarket “super coil,” to try and eek out a little extra omph out of the beast. Four months later that same part left me stranded in small town USA in the middle of an ice storm and a lot of $$$ in towing back to my house. Too bad I lived way outside of roadside assistance range. To boot, two mechanics tried to fix it and could not figure out for the life of them what could be the problem. A coil from some automotive carion at the bone yard did the trick.

  • avatar

    I’m firmly in the igniter camp. Our 1992 Accord started being quite fussy about when it would or wouldn’t start, and the igniter was the cause. It sounds like Civics of the era are similarly configured.

  • avatar

    I’d like to thank all of you for the excellent suggestions.

    I did yank the main relay, found 3 bad solder joints, and redid them all. Still, I doubt that was the problem, and after more looking around I’m voting the coil. But I want to see it fail again after all the trouble of reworking the main relay. If the problem comes back, and the coil does not do it, I’ll go for the coolant sensor and then the crank sensor and then the TPS and then the new car dealer.

    In response to one note:
    1) Are you saying that this happens when the temperature in car is warm to hot or just after the engine has warmed up?

    You drive, say, 10 minutes, stop the car, won’t restart. It’s always quite warmed up by that point.

    2) When you say that you can hear the fuel pump spin up, do yu mean when it doesn’t want to start, you can turn the key to the run position (not all the way to start) and hear the pump running?

    I can hear the pump running. It’s a very characteristic noise in this car.

    It’s a bit hard to hear at first because the seat belt motor of course engages and drowns out the fuel pump noise (this is once you’ve been caught after four months of perfect behavior, and have stopped listening each time you start the car). So you let the seatbelt do its thing, turn off the key, and listen again:
    1. move key to run. Listen and you can hear the fuel pump run and stop, which I assume means it is up to pressure
    2. Sometimes, if memory serves, and at my age it may not, you immediately get a check engine light. But that was very rare and usually only after a failed start. (no real good codes thrown after these events … it’s just an 8-bit micro in that engine computer!)
    3. If not, turn key to crank, and in 10 seconds or so, you get a check engine light.

    I did try the ‘floor it and crank’ trick, being an old carburetor guy, although I knew it would not work …

    It also acted like vapor lock (did I mention I used to own VWs? The early 60s ones would get vapor lock in the fuel pump sometimes … you’d grab the screwdriver and loosen the fuel pump cap and spill gas all over the engine … ah the old days. Usually it didn’t catch on fire). I would in a moment of desperation pop the gas cap and vent the system. And, sometimes, after 2 mins, it would start.

    It’s not an obvious one. It’s been a good engine since I redid the main relay solder joints.


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