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Putting time and money into older vehicles

An old car is worth what the owner will spend on it.
Thursday, October 1, 2009 - 00:00

An old car is worth what the owner will spend on it.

Motor Age Garage 1991 Ford Ranger clunkers oil leakes no oil in engine engine oil fixing vehicle repair shop training technician training automotive aftermarket

My spare ride is a 1980 model Ford pickup with a 300 straight six. While I enjoy tinkering with cars and trucks at work with my students, having to fix one of my own when it breaks is like having to repair the lawn mower when it's time to cut the grass. Because I don't use foul language, my one-word definition for those rotten circumstances is always something innocuous like "annoying," "bummer," etc.

A year ago, I wrote about my experience at a local parts store when my old Ford's Duraspark ignition module gave out. I got two faulty boxes off the shelf, endured a railing accusation of shotgun troubleshooting by the parts counter guy and then had to limp to a different store to get a good module.

Well, this time around on the same truck, my carburetor had commenced to flood and needed some attention, so I bought a kit and a float and worked my way through reconditioning that little Carter atomizer.

I've built a zillion carburetors over the course of my career (more or less), and so I was in my comfort zone here — what could go wrong? Well, I used the measuring gauge that came with the kit and meticulously set the float level to the spec laid out on the instruction sheet. When the job was done, I drove the truck on weekends for about a month or so without incident.

A friend called to tell me his nephew's 1992 Cavalier had gone belly up at a local credit union. I don't moonlight, but this guy is my No. 1 lunch partner, so I was committed.

The Cavalier had a bird's nest with four eggs in it behind the headlight (no joke), had fuel but no spark and the No. 1 spark plug wire was burned out, a condition that creates a nasty voltage spike back into the ignition coil's primary circuit drivers that just about always destroys the breaker box on cars like this.

I wasn't going to work in 100 degree heat in the credit union parking lot on the busiest day of the week, so we fetched my '80 model Ford truck, dropped by the parts store, picked up an ignition module, spark plugs, wires and a crank sensor for the 2.2L Cavalier.

Things were going well until my pickup started flooding so badly en route to the Cavalier that it wet the spark plugs and put us down on the city bypass in heavy traffic.

I'd had a comeback on my own vehicle, which was kind of revolting on one hand and embarrassing on the other. We risked life and limb to push the old truck off the road and called another friend who runs a tire shop. He sent one of his guys to give us a ride back to my house, where we fired up my 2001 Cherokee and used it to drag the pickup back to my house before retrieving the Cavalier.

Resolving Problems

With the Cavalier on the lift, we got rid of the bird's nest, replaced the used-up spark plugs, burned out ignition cables, dead module and questionable crank sensor, and got the Cavalier going that afternoon. The repairs cost about $400 in all, and this Cavalier was back in the wind.

At home, I removed the carburetor air horn on my pickup to find the reservoir was obviously overfull. After examining the needle and seat, and then checking the float for buoyancy, I determined to lower the float level just a bit, a maneuver which rewarded me with success.

The '87 Cutlass

An elderly lady I knew from my childhood owns a 1987 Cutlass Ciera that she has driven since it was brand new. Hers was a classic example of rolling entropy. Once when it had stalled in town, she attempted to have it repaired at a nearby shop, but all they did was replace the fuel filter. After their repairs, she drove away only to notice a really bad fuel leak near the left rear tire later that day, and so she called the shop. They sent a wrecker, and charged her for it and to repair the fuel leak they created.

Her complaint when she came to me was that it ran rough, had a bad vibration and would sometimes stall while driving. She wasn't kidding. It idled rough, skipped and when it was in the wind, your teeth would chatter due to a nasty tire vibration. I didn't experience the stalling concern, but there were foundational maintenance issues that needed to be addressed.

A visual inspection revealed good fuel pressure, two burned out plug wires and a set of used-up plugs like we had seen on the Cavalier. This 3.8L was equipped with the antiquated Magnavox distributorless ignition system.

With the plugs and wires replaced, the engine still idled rough, and the intake manifold was kind of hot to the touch as if EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) were flowing, an idea that gained credibility when I saw engine vacuum running at about 15 inches. But there was no vacuum being delivered to the EGR valve, and when we removed the valve and checked it physically, it wasn't leaking.

For the road vibration, I called and told the owner she needed two tires, and she gave us the OK. The car drove a lot better, but it still wasn't right. Connecting the Nemisys scan tool, we found no stored diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) and nothing particularly interesting in the datastream, but I noticed the conspicuous absence of the cam and crank signals in the parameter identification (PID) list. It was time to break out the O-scope.

With the scope tracing the cam and crank sensors, Bert, one of the tech students, found no cam signal pulse at all, even though we had good voltage and signal return at the sensor connector. We found that the wires leading to the cam sensor connector had lost their insulation, and so I had Bert cut out the bare leads, replacing them with new wire, soldering and shrink tubing the connections.

Another scope trace was no better, so a cam sensor became the next order of business. The new sensor produced a healthy trace, cooled the manifold and smoothed the idle. Vacuum was only slightly higher than when we originally checked it, but the timing chain was probably stretched enough to account for that.

It was a good running car, or so we thought. On what we believed would be our final test drive, we made a U-turn and experienced the customer's primary concern. The Olds began backfiring and bucking, but we managed to make it back to the shop with the car running normally by the time we arrived.

With an old fashioned timing light in the passenger compartment but connected to one of the spark plug wires under the hood, we drove the Cutlass until it started those bucking and jerking shenanigans again and we noticed that the spark (as indicated by the timing light strobe) was smooth when the engine was running well and was sporadic with the engine misfiring. It was now clear to me that the used-up plugs and failed spark plug wires had damaged the ignition module — the same burned-out-wire syndrome that had rendered a no-start on the Cavalier. With the module replaced, the Cutlass ran showroom smooth.

Her bill came to almost $500, but was the car worth it? To an elderly widow on a fixed income who couldn't afford a new car, coming up with a few hundred was a walk in the park.

The '91 Ranger

I saw this little red pickup sitting beside the road for sale and told a friend about it. He bought it for his nephew, who basically drove the "free" truck into the ground. The engine had been run without oil, and the catastrophic failure when things came undone had been violent enough to breach that stamped steel oil pan from the inside with the force of an armor-piercing bullet.

The truck sat and gathered spider webs for a while before he dragged it to the college, and I found a used engine for $300 at a local salvage yard. These 3.0L engines are pretty common and don't fail all that much, so they don't cost that much to replace if you can find a used one.

Because this engine was so cheap to begin with, I had Frank, another tech student, snatch the oil pan looking for sludge (it was clean) and replace the timing chain, water pump, rear main seal and all the expansion plugs. He made the necessary modifications to convert it from an '89 Aerostar engine to a '91 Ranger. The upper manifold and one of the exhaust manifolds had to be replaced, along with the distributor. It got new spark plugs, oil and filter, fan, and it sounded really good when we started it (and with no MIL light). But the Ranger's bill had inched its way up to about $1,100.

The customer wanted the A/C fixed, and Frank's initial investigation revealed that the liquid line had separated from the condenser. The first one we got didn't fit, and we had to pick the replacement part from a lineup of catalogue illustrations. After $137, we had one that would fit, but the compressor didn't turn much before it locked up.

A $168 rebuilt compressor, a new accumulator and orifice tube, a good flushing of the lines and evaporator, and the A/C was sweating the suction line all the way to the evaporator with frosty cold, but the air from the registers was warm. The blend door cable was broken, and with the cable replacement to cool the cab, the bill on the Ranger ran up to more than $1,800. Is the truck worth it? It was to the owner!


Some older cars become clunkers because the customers don't want to spend money to keep them maintained. Some folks don't mind spending the money, but aren't vehicle-savvy enough to recognize a concern early. Any car that has been good enough to carry its owner 200,000 miles with minimal maintenance has every right to expect something in return. Sometimes it gets a new lease on life, sometimes it gets crushed. The customer makes the call.

Richard McCuistian is an ASE-certified Master Auto Technician and was a professional mechanic for more than 25 years. Richard is now an auto mechanics instructor at LBW Community College/MacArthur Campus in Opp, Ala. E-mail Richard at

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