Mechanic filter: 1993 Honda del Sol sometimes starting and sometime not
February 5, 2013 1:58 PM   Subscribe

About six weeks I purchased a 5-speed 1993 Honda del Sol Si. Overall, I'm very pleased with the transaction. It's in great shape and runs very nicely. However, ever since a few days after I bought it, I've had a very frustrating recurring problem.

Sometimes the car starts up fine without a problem. Other times, and this is always when the car had been off for quite some time (such as overnight), the engine will crank but it won't completely turn over. It sounds like it's just about to fire up, but it won't. If I wait long enough and come back to it, it will start without a hitch.

So far three mechanics have looked at it. The first two had the car for a combined three weeks, but they said they couldn't figure anything out because the car never *not* started for them. The third mechanic told me it was a faulty ignition switch and promptly replaced it, sticking me with a $750 repair bill last week.

Yet I am still experiencing the same problem. Obviously I will be taking the car back to the mechanic, but I would like others' opinions on what the problem could be before I do. I love the car, but I am approaching my wits' end with this mystery problem.

Here are some other details: If I get the car started once for the day, it ALWAYS starts up for the rest of the day without a problem. Sometimes if it's not starting and I play around with it for a bit, it will start. (This morning I ejected the radio receiver, turned the key to the on position, turned on the A/C for about a minute, and then tried to start -- it started up immediately.)

Someone told me it could be a distributor problem. What are other possible sources of this? My hunch is that it's something electrical-related. Could it be some sort of computer/fuse issue? We know for sure it's NOT the starter.

Any help, suggestions, ideas, commentary, and advice would be greatly appreciated!
posted by fignewton to Technology (26 answers total)
Condensation in the fuel line or gas tank?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:06 PM on February 5, 2013

I just bought a '95 Del Sol a couple of weeks ago and the exact thing happened to me.

It was the battery. The car had been in storage a while and the battery had very low charge (and it's cold), and I hadn't driven it for a few days. Got a jump, went and did a bunch of driving (several hours). Problem hasn't come back.
posted by porpoise at 2:13 PM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's interesting that it doesn't happen for your mechanics — where do you park it overnight? Generally, what could be different about a mechanic's shop than wherever you park it?
posted by danielparks at 2:13 PM on February 5, 2013

Next time it does it, climb under the car and tap on the starter with a hammer while someone else tries to start it. Could be the starter is going.
posted by PSB at 2:13 PM on February 5, 2013

Have the battery checked.
posted by fifilaru at 2:32 PM on February 5, 2013

Response by poster: I don't think it's the battery. When this problem occurs, "jumping" the battery doesn't do anything to resolve the problem. However, I will go get the battery checked just to make sure. PSB, the only difference I can think is that I park the car outside, while the car is in the mechanics' shops indoors. And Ruthless Bunny, I don't think it's condensation in the fuel/gas line, because this problems happens regardless of the amount of fuel in the tank. (A fuel tank of gas is very likely to accumulate an inhibitive amount of condensation.)
posted by fignewton at 2:37 PM on February 5, 2013

Other times, and this is always when the car had been off for quite some time (such as overnight), the engine will crank but it won't completely turn over. It sounds like it's just about to fire up, but it won't.

I'm unclear what you're describing here. An engine that "won't completely turn over" sounds to me like one where the starter motor has cut out (i.e., you might get a low whining sound, but there's no sound of the engine actually cranking. That would totally eliminate issues like the fuel line and so forth.

But you also say "it sounds like it's just about to fire up"--but that suggests it is turning over, it's just not catching. That would eliminate battery problems and starter motor problems and make fuel or spark problems seem more likely. to clarify?
posted by yoink at 2:44 PM on February 5, 2013

If I understand what you're saying (the starter motor is turning the engine over at a normal rpm, but you're getting no ignition), and it happens when you park outside but not when it's been parked inside, and it will sometimes not start, then start later, I would take a look at ignition wiring, plug wires, etc. A moisture problem perhaps?
posted by HuronBob at 3:14 PM on February 5, 2013

Response by poster: Yoink, I apologize for the lack of clarity concerning my inappropriate usage of terminology. I put the key in the ignition, and turn it. It sounds as if it is about to fire up (it turns over?), but it doesn't catch completely. I can keep turning the ignition as long as I want and get the same wrr-wrr-wrr sound, but it won't fire up.
posted by fignewton at 3:28 PM on February 5, 2013

Hey, no need to apologize--just seeking clarity. So it's cranking fine, but not catching. That means it's not the starter motor and its not the battery. That suggests to my not-at-all-expert understanding that there's something wrong either with the fuel or the spark. Does it ever half-catch (cough, sputter, chug-chug, stall--that sort of thing?) or is it simply all dead or all go? If the latter, I'd be more inclined to think electrical/spark related (some kind of moisture-induced short?) than fuel-line related but, again, I am definitely an amateur here.
posted by yoink at 3:33 PM on February 5, 2013

Response by poster: Actually, sometimes it does catch and then die immediately out. Once or twice it started fine, and I let it warm up by idling for a little while, and it died out about a minute later for no apparent reason. Usually, though, once it starts up, it is fine.
posted by fignewton at 3:44 PM on February 5, 2013

What you're describing sounds almost exactly like a failing main relay. Although a main relay failure is generally a hot weather problem, if it's been iffy for a while, it could conceivably fail to operate when it's too cold also.

Try turning the key to run, but not all the way forward to start it. You should hear a click from the main relay and then a whirr for a few seconds as the fuel pump pressurizes the fuel line. If you do, your car should start when you turn the key the rest of the way. If you hear those sounds and it doesn't start, the problem isn't the main relay. If you don't hear those sounds and it doesn't start, it probably is.
posted by wierdo at 3:45 PM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I like weirdo's suggestion -- I'm not familiar with this particular car, but I've had very similar problems in other old cars with fuel pump relays.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:49 PM on February 5, 2013

Do the bouts of non starting correlate with moist weather? Not necessarily raining, but days of high humidity/dew points? Then you need new ignition cables and a cap and rotor.

This is quite likely the problem, considering the mechanics can't replicate it when parked inside.

If you find a day where it won't start, pull the distributor cap off. You'll probably see condensation inside of it.
posted by gjc at 4:13 PM on February 5, 2013

1) Cracked distributor which gets moisture / frost in it and is dried / thawed by the first starting attempt which is why the second works;

2) This car is fuel injected - one or more leaking injectors could let enough fuel into 1 or more cylinders to foul the plug. Your first starting attempt moves enough air/atomized gas through the cylinder(s) affected to clean the plug enough to allow it to arc;

In that order.
posted by BrooksCooper at 4:40 PM on February 5, 2013

I hate to say this but I had a '97 del Sol VTEC that did the exact same thing since I bought it new. It was a rare occurrence so I was never able to get it diagnosed. Since waiting a while fixed the issue, I always assumed it was a flooded engine.

Before anyone asks, no, I was not touching the gas pedal.
posted by chairface at 4:55 PM on February 5, 2013

I am going to side with gjc and brookscooper on this one. This period of Honda's are also known for bad relays so the fuel pump relay is also a possibility. The good news is all of these parts are cheap and pretty easy to replace. Enough so that just doing them is probably worth it to see if the problem is fixed. Especially if the wires/cap/rotor are all original (the relay is almost certainly original) and you should be able to find a great how to online somewhere for changing all of these. You can even get the parts through amazon or I would only pursue with a mechanic if you do all these things and the problem persists. At that point it is most likely a fuel injector problem and you probably should get that done by a mechanic. As another suggestion that might help but probably isn't related to this problem directly is to change out the O2 sensors-they aren't too expensive on this kind of Honda, not to hard to change (find a how to guide on an enthusiast web forum). The drivability and fuel mileage has always gone up for every car with more the 50k on it when I have changed out these sensors (they are part of the emissions control and have a lot to do with how much fuel is injected compared to how much air is coming into the engine).
posted by bartonlong at 4:56 PM on February 5, 2013

Cracked cap/ignition wire is a very good possibility. I had a similar problem once with a cracked coil wire boot and it drove me batty trying to find it.

If it is a fuel relay turning the car off and on a few times should clear up the problem in the short term so that is something you can try instead of waiting.

If it's a leaky injector holding the accelerator to the floor while cranking should allow you to start the car (flooring the accelerator while cranking disables the injectors clearing the flood).

PS: Unless you had something else done $750 to replace an ignition switch is completely ridiculous. If they only changed the switch I wouldn't use that shop again.
posted by Mitheral at 5:52 PM on February 5, 2013

Sometimes if it's not starting and I play around with it for a bit, it will start.

This alone suggests that it may be your ECU (computer). If your mechs have not done it already, get this thing coded...get the computer read-out of your fault codes. Auto Zone will loan you the device and tell you how to do it. Write 'em down and look 'em up on the internet.

My second guess is your ignition module...computerized little part of your distributor. It usually fails a little differently though-engine shut down while driving eventually degrading to occasional failure to start.

This is a Honda forum thread about resetting the ECU, which I would definitely try.

Good luck!
posted by snsranch at 6:05 PM on February 5, 2013

My 94 does this, occasionally. My 1990 CRX did, too. Usually, taking the distributor off and filing the crud off the contacts would do the trick.

This generally happened in humid weather; the CRX did it exclusively in the summer.
posted by notsnot at 8:30 PM on February 5, 2013

wierdo's suggestion of turning the key to accessory and waiting maybe 10-15 seconds for the fuel pump to pressurize is standard operating procedure for my '98 Jeep Grand Cherokee, which had/has the same problem you are experiencing.

Also, you got ripped off at the shop. $750 for an ignition switch? Outrageous.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 9:06 AM on February 6, 2013

If the symptom is that the car cranks strongly, but the engine doesn't catch, this is extremely common in Civics of that era, and is almost certainly the Main Relay. Often this is intermittent, and may depend on the temperature of the car too. This is because the problem is usually a cracked solder joint, which is sensitive to thermal expansion/contraction

I had to do this on my '92 Civic, and a couple of my friends did too. Luckily, it's cheap and easy enough that you can even do it yourself. Here's a video:

The actual part is near your left knee as you sit in the driver's seat.
posted by cameldrv at 2:35 AM on February 7, 2013

Response by poster: Update: weirdo's suggestion was spot-on. The car will start up if I turn the key to the on position without cranking it. I hear a click and whirr. After that I turn it all the way to crank and it has been firing up no problem. I must admit, I haven't actually addressed the issue yet. (I've had a lot of things going on right now.) ...Now a new issue is developing. Sometimes once I start it for the first time that day and get going, after about a minute or so of driving, the engine sputters off while in motion. About three times the past five days I've had to pull over and restart the car by following the same above procedure. It usually then comes right back on and doesn't give me any more problems. Is this still related to the main relay? As soon as I get time (probably this weekend) I'm gonna check out all the resources you guys have supplied me with. Thanks so much for all the help and advice, everyone.
posted by fignewton at 10:44 PM on February 13, 2013

Yeah its the relay and maybe a fuel pump as well, but probably just the relay. I am pretty sure Honda uses the same on for several different cars and different applications in the same car. I bet you can get them cheap at or even Amazon.
posted by bartonlong at 11:03 PM on February 13, 2013

cameldrv's video explains exactly how to fix it. Mine had a gray cover instead of black, but it's otherwise the same. It sounds like yours is far gone enough that the fix won't fix it permanently, though. You'll have to get a new one at some point. The part number is 39400-S10-003. I like Majestic Honda, but there are several other retailers on the internet who can also sell you one for under $50.
posted by wierdo at 1:51 PM on February 14, 2013

Response by poster: It was a combination of a bad ignition coil and ignition control module. Problem fixed!
posted by fignewton at 8:56 AM on March 15, 2013

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