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The perils of automotive diagnostics and repair

Monday, January 1, 2018 - 09:00
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The Xterra

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The 2001 Xterra came to us with the concern that it had quit in a parking lot and failed to start, and somebody’s offhand diagnosis was that it had jumped time. This is a dicey situation, because that one isn’t a free-spinner, but even on interference engines, a timing belt can slip enough to stop the engine without valves kissing pistons. Had that happened on this one? I asked her if she had tried to re-start it (of course she had), but she told me she had only tried once and was hoping there was no damage. We didn’t want to do a lot of engine spinning on this one in the bay for fear of possibly making a simple no-start into something worse, so we checked the timing marks first.

On this one you can pull the upper part of the timing cover, slowly turn the engine with a breaker bar (feeling for interference) until the cam gear marks line up, and then check the crank pulley for zero alignment. Well, when we did that, we found that the Xterra had NOT jumped time. We did decide to do a timing belt and a water pump while we were there, so we bought the kit, and when we got the bottom part of the timing cover off, we found that the front crank seal was leaking – no surprise on a high miler like this one.

This Xterra was right in time, but we put a new water pump, tensioner, timing belt, and front crank seal in. That seal was easy to remove but hard to re-install because the step the seal lip rides on has such a sharp leading edge – so I manufactured a seal protector to get it on there

Putting the new crank seal in was something of a demanding process – we tried a few tricks, all of which unseated the garter spring and tried to roll the lip. I kept thinking of transmission seal protectors and how I could fabricate one for this job. Finally, I fetched a soft red plastic hole plug that had been protecting one of the ports on the 2011 HHR’s replacement engine and modified the plug with my pocketknife, making a seal protector for the Xterra front crank seal that worked so well I should have patented it.

The actual cause for the customer’s concern was deep in the distributor – it’d spark and then it wouldn’t and vice versa. We didn’t want to take a chance on that kind of “maybe,” so this one also got a brand new one.

At the end of that job, we found the real reason for that no-start. The spark coming out of that distributor was a come-and-go event. We got no spark from the towers, and so, with the cap off, we checked it at the coil. On the first spin, there was no spark – on the second spin, spark was popping there, and so we reinstalled the cap and the engine fired up and ran like new.

Unwilling to trust that come-and-go spark, we replaced the distributor with a reman unit. Now she has a new timing belt, crank seal, water pump and distributor.  Maybe that Xterra will be good for a while.

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