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Cars Behaving Badly
June 21, 2012 5:31 AM   Subscribe

What's wrong with my car? I have a 1996 Ford Explorer and I think I may have killed it last night. After a long hot drive back from the beach in traffic with a little kayak on the roof (relevant in case I overheated something maybe), I stopped to drop off friends at their apt., and when I went to restart it it made a funny choppy noise. I tried to turn it off but it wouldn't turn off completely, even after fully removing the key from the ignition. Smokey details inside...

I revved the engine a few times and something "took" and it sounded normal so I drove it back to my neighborhood and parked. After parking and turning off, I tried to restart it, and the ignition just clicked, and smoke started pouring out from under the hood. It smelled electrical/mechanical in nature.
Hoping it was just the heat, I just went to try and start it again this morning, and the same thing...ignition just clicking and immediate smoke coming from under the hood.
I love this car. I've had it for a long time and it's my dog transporting, home depot carting, beach going, country mountain road climbing, maneuvering through a blizzard driving buddy.
Any idea what this could be and what I should expect from the mechanic?
I had the starter replaced a few weeks ago and no other issues since then.
posted by newpotato to Home & Garden (16 answers total)
 
You've got a short somewhere in the starter circuit. The car's not necessarily dead in any permanent sense, but trying to start or drive it right now is dangerous because a wire is heating up hot enough to burn off its insulation. It could easily ignite other nearby materials, cause a fire, or destroy enough nearby wiring to make it not worth fixing. Stop trying to start it. Have it towed to the garage. My guess is the problem will be visually obvious to the mechanic.
posted by jon1270 at 5:41 AM on June 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


I have no idea what that is, other than 'VERY BAD'.

Do not try to start this again at all. Smoke coming from the car is very bad and this is how car fires start. You likely have a serious electrical short somewhere, although whether this is cause or effect is hard to tell.

Get it towed to a mechanic promptly, and do NOT let them try and start it until they've looked at it Especially if it is a tow driver - stress that it shouldn't be started and warn that smoke poured out of it.
posted by Brockles at 5:41 AM on June 21, 2012


I had the starter replaced a few weeks ago and no other issues since then.

I'd call the place that replaced the starter and ask them to tow it back to their place for you so they can make sure that this new problem is not due to their work.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:58 AM on June 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, what do you mean by, I tried to turn it off but it wouldn't turn off completely, even after fully removing the key from the ignition? Is it that the engine kept running, or just that some lights on the dash stayed lit?

I have a theory that the mechanic who installed the starter might've positioned the cable between the solenoid and the starter incorrectly so that it rubbed up against something like the engine block, wore through the insulation over the last few weeks, and finally shorted out. That would explain the clicking, the smoke and the refusal to start, but if the truck kept running after you shut it off then I don't have a neat explanation for that.
posted by jon1270 at 6:01 AM on June 21, 2012 [7 favorites]


jon1270's theory has happened to me more than once on my old car. It wasn't terribly expensive to fix, so don't fear.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 6:19 AM on June 21, 2012


The engine continuing to run was what is called "dieseling", the engine was hot enough that the spark wasn't necessary to ignite the fuel, it just keeps running, even with the key off. (at least, that's what happened in the old days of simpler cars, does that still happen?) I suspect two different problems here.. the "running on" and the "smoke/won't start" issue.
posted by HuronBob at 6:31 AM on June 21, 2012


I have a theory that the mechanic who installed the starter might've positioned the cable between the solenoid and the starter incorrectly

I'd agree, with a caveat. I'm not sure if that is what caused the short, or if the short occurred from some other cause. It may be relatively cheap as long as the smoke and heat damage is purely on the starter wiring and this hasn't spread to any wiring tied to it in some way. It may be as simple as Jon says but the running on is the only thing that makes me cautious as it may be that it has shorted through to the main loom and is powering the car through that. Too risky to assume it is simple, from where I sit.
posted by Brockles at 6:31 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I tried to turn it off but it wouldn't turn off completely, even after fully removing the key from the ignition?

Not sure if it is related, but a roommate of mine used to have a Mazda badged Explorer-clone of about the same vintage, and you could yank the key out of the ignition while it was running (without turning it at all) and the car would continue running until you returned the key to the ignition and actually turned it to the off position. It ran perfectly well like that for years.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:40 AM on June 21, 2012


Parenthetical, but once you've got it fixed, you should drop 20 bucks on a small fire extinguisher, for peace of mind. Car fires are distressingly common.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:42 AM on June 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'd call the place that replaced the starter and ask them to tow it back to their place
I would do this except it's four hundred miles away in my mom's hometown.

Also, what do you mean by, I tried to turn it off but it wouldn't turn off completely, even after fully removing the key from the ignition?

The engine kept running, but not fully...kind of choppy if that makes any sense, like I don't think it would have moved if I had put it into drive and pressed the accelerator. When I did press the gas enough to kind of kick start it, it drove normally.

Parenthetical, but once you've got it fixed, you should drop 20 bucks on a small fire extinguisher, for peace of mind. Car fires are distressingly common.

This is a good idea. I already have the emergency seat belt cutting, window breaking hammer if I go under water, a back up charger if the battery dies, and a flat tire sealant with air pump in case I get a flat, so I might as well be prepared for fire, too.

Thanks all, it's getting towed to a local shop (courtesy of AAA). Hopefully the damage is minimal.
posted by newpotato at 8:57 AM on June 21, 2012


Tying this in with the "starter is the problem" theories I've seen here:

The engine kept running, but not fully...kind of choppy if that makes any sense, like I don't think it would have moved if I had put it into drive and pressed the accelerator. When I did press the gas enough to kind of kick start it, it drove normally.

Dieseling is one potential culprit here but I'd venture to say that there could also be something glitchy, like a short or something mechanically not sound, with your starter/solenoid that may have caused it to remain engaged after the engine caught hold. Then when you rev'ed it, it cleared things up somehow.

I'm curious as to what a pro like Brockles or someone else has to say about my thoughts but, based upon my recent experiences with our '62 Beetle (which, admittedly, may not really apply), funny things can happen where the starter/solenoid engages the flywheel. In my case it's leading me to install a hardstart relay, in your case it sounds like a short is melting/burning something, and how!
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:13 AM on June 21, 2012


My car kept running without the key in it, even so as to be driveable.

It was the starter..
posted by vitabellosi at 9:27 AM on June 21, 2012


Help us refine our diagnostic algorithms; post back with the diagnosis.
posted by jon1270 at 10:06 AM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Okay,
Car still in the shop, diagnosis as yet unknown, will find out tomorrow.
posted by newpotato at 4:24 PM on June 21, 2012


It turns out that the starter that was put in a few weeks ago was poorly rebuilt wherever it is that they rebuild them before they turnaround and sell them to car mechanics. It was sending out too much amperage and this fried the wires.
So another new starter and a new unfried electrical line and about $300 later my car is golden again.
Thanks for your insights!
posted by newpotato at 4:38 PM on June 22, 2012


I'm hoping that it wasn't your $300. The shop should cover it if they put in a faulty part.
posted by Big_B at 6:58 PM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


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