Why did my car stop working?
March 29, 2013 10:15 PM   Subscribe

Why did my car stop working?

Yesterday, my 5-speed 2001 Toyota Camry with 16x,xxx miles on it just stopped working in the middle of the street. I was approaching a red light, and then when the light changed, pressing the gas pedal did not result in the desired outcome of forward motion.

All the dashboard lights came on and I couldn't turn the engine over. No smoke, no prior warning, no nothing.

It's at the shop but of course they are closed until Monday, so I won't know anything until then and I am wondering if anyone could provide any and all possible reasons for why this occurred and/or the seriousness of said reasons as far as money is concerned.

Possibly relevant information: Bought the car in December, immediately put a bunch of money into it because of some kind of sensor (not O2) and replacing the exhaust.

My last car's engine seized at a red light, but there was plenty of prior warning to that.

posted by DeltaForce to Technology (19 answers total)
Did the engine stop running when you pressed the gas? Before that? Or was it running and pressing the accelerator didn't do anything, so you turned it off? When you tried to start it, was it cranking, or no response at all?
posted by primethyme at 10:19 PM on March 29, 2013

I had a similar issue once. It turned out that the fuel line was torn or had a hole in it such that no fuel was making it to the engine. I was driving along and the car suddenly died as if there was no petrol. The gauge had me at over half full. Turned out that it was the last time I ever drove that ride because of the cost and problems with fixing it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:19 PM on March 29, 2013

The engine stopped running right before I pressed the gas, or at the same time. Definitely not the last scenario. It was just so sudden that I didn't notice until I tried to gas it. I'm pretty sure it was right before.
posted by DeltaForce at 10:22 PM on March 29, 2013

posted by KokuRyu at 11:22 PM on March 29, 2013

A friend had her truck (mid-2000's stick Toyota Tundra) randomly die going around a corner at slow speed, with very little warning. It sounds vaguely similar to your situation.

It ended up being that her oil was changed improperly and the cap wasn't replaced right, leading to her entire oil reservoir emptying onto the street as she drove. Apparently the engine has a system that detects overheating and shuts everything down if it gets to a certain point, and this is what happened. After an oil re-change (well, and a tow), the truck was fine.

She did have a little warning though; the oil light came on maybe 15 minutes before this happened. Also, it's kind of interesting to pour a quart of oil into an engine and watch it drip out onto the street 30 seconds later.
posted by Dilligas at 11:59 PM on March 29, 2013

some car owners can sense these things and some can't, but did the car give you any warning in previous days/weeks? hard starts, rough idle, etc? and a hard start could even mean it took a little longer to fire after turning the starter.

when you say you couldn't turn the engine over, does that mean when you twisted the key it cranked but didn't fire? or did it click and not even turn over at all?

compression, spark, fuel.

compression- that there is enough compression of the air/fuel mixture within the chamber that when given a spark, it ignites and is able to push the piston back down. mechanical damage such as worn or damaged rings, cylinder walls, or valves can create a leak so that the air escapes instead of igniting. this doesn't seem to be what happened.

fuel - is the fuel being delivered either in time with the cylinder's spark firing or at all. fuel pump would be the most likely culprit. otherwise if you'd had a gas leak you would have likely smelled the vapors. your engine could very well crank without fuel delivery. the starter would turn it over and it just wouldn't fire.

spark - are the electrics in the car firing the plugs. battery, a blown fuse or relay, lost communication with any number of sensors, dead alternator (you'd have noticed a dying alternator), or some other electrical problem.

they'll likely run a scan and pick up what check codes were thrown and be able to narrow it down. and really, depending on who's doing the work, it's so hard to say what the cost would be. you can throw parts at a problem, or do a very thorough diagnosis. sometimes both. hopefully it turns out to be something minor.
posted by ninjew at 12:03 AM on March 30, 2013

This exact situation has happened to me more than once.

The first time it was just a clogged fuel line and fuel filters. Obviously we can't tell all that much just from this description, and it could be something more serious, but that was a under $40 fix i did myself. Another time(on an older toyota, actually) it turned out that a piece of the cold start rapid warm-up system was fucked up, and would kill the engine when it had been driven a certain distance from being parked... but not consistently. That one boiled down to "adjust a couple things, replace nothing" but damn did it SEEM serious.

The first time, I was driving around all day and pulled up to a stop sign. When i went to actually continue on from the stop sign... instant death and i was unable to restart exactly like this. I actually went "hah, wow" when i saw your description.

Also, this might sound hilarious and embarrassing, but are you sure there was gas in the tank? my car has an(infuriating) flaky fuel gauge, which has defied being completely repaired multiple times. until i got used to what was actually "empty" on it(which is significantly above the E) i had a friend come out and help me check out what i thought was some serious fuel delivery/spark problem when it was actually just their not being enough gas in the tank despite the gauge saying it was. Now, whenever me or anyone i know encounters a problem like this, step 1 is to go get $5 of gas in a can and pour it in. I've seen even surprisingly newer cars have weird gas gauge issues. And if you haven't had the car that long, and possibly haven't run it out to "empty"(for instance the warning light coming on) it might very well be something like that.

A "car goes from running perfectly fine to dead" problem that doesn't involve any obvious signs of horrible failure like fluids pouring out, smoke, overheating, or other weird behavior beforehand like odd shuddering/rough running or noises would be something i'd generally lean on the side of it being something simple like gas not getting all the way through the fuel system or the coil pack(drives the spark plugs) dying or something, IE: fuel or spark on ninjews handy chart. Especially on cars new enough to have fancy OBD-II computers that might see something wonky and just go "hmmm, NOPE" and shut down like what dilligas described.

Regardless, i wish you the best of luck in this not being a horrible problem. If this happened to me though, i probably wouldn't be swearing that loud and would actually be pretty surprised if it turned out to be something super serious. Especially having experienced this in both cars I've owned.
posted by emptythought at 1:23 AM on March 30, 2013

There are way too many possible explanations and not nearly enough facts in evidence, making all of the above pure speculation.

Wait for your mechanic to pull the codes. We won't be able to diagnose it here.
posted by spitbull at 3:54 AM on March 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

Timing belt snapped. Hopefully the Camry does not have an interference engine. If not you are in for a $400.00 minimum. If so you can kiss the car good-bye.
posted by Gungho at 5:44 AM on March 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm seconding the timing belt snapping. I had that happen on an 1980s Corolla while going uphill...all of a sudden there was no go, no sound, nothing (except rolling backwards). Seems like the torque from hitting the gas made it snap and the engine just stopped. And it wouldn't even try to start (the starter did its thing but nothing else in the engine was turning).

I have no idea how much these cost to fix. This was a while ago and my dad was the person who replaced the engine so he did the work on the belt himself.
posted by MultiFaceted at 6:20 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ha, I was going to say "2001 Toyota sold at 160k" = "Timing belt" too. Didn't want to speculate the worst possible option, but it is a cinch.

Sorry, OP. At best it's a few hundred. At worst you just destroyed your valve train and totaled the car.
posted by spitbull at 6:50 AM on March 30, 2013

Good news: if you have the stock 2.2l engine it's not an interference motor and you didn't likely destroy it. But a sudden dead stop is probably the timing belt. It will cost $500 or so, and while you have the motor open there's 5 or so other things you should replace at that mileage, and a good mechanic will insist you do. Penny wise is pound foolish on this.
posted by spitbull at 6:58 AM on March 30, 2013

There are an awful lot of people here making absolutely wild guesses - OP it is important that you are aware that it is not possible to conclude ANY of the scenarios above based on the information supplied. So lets take a step back, people. 'The engine stopped and all the lights came on' means the engine stopped. End of. Every possible cause - electrical, fuel or mechanical - is as likely as an other.

OP: there seems to be a gap between the automotive industry definition of 'turning the engine over' and how everyday usage of that word appears:

To a mechanic, turning the engine over is when you turn the ignition key to 'start' and the engine cranks over on the starter motor (before the engine 'fires' and starts to run). When you say you can't turn the engine over do you mean it doesn't crank? Or that it doesn't fire at all (so it spins on the starter but doesn't even cough and splutter like it is trying to start)?
posted by Brockles at 7:14 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thirding the timing belt. happened to me once while in motion. I didn't even notice until the car gently rolled to a halt.
posted by Max Power at 7:20 AM on March 30, 2013

Thanks everyone. Brockles, It does try to start. Lots of spluttering.
posted by DeltaForce at 8:48 AM on March 30, 2013

Ok, so it does turn over, just doesn't start. Terminology is pretty important with the internet diagnosis because if the engine didn't even turn over (so just a click or not even that when you turned the key) when you tried it is a very different set of possibilities.

So if it is spluttering then something halfway sensible mechanically is still happening. That makes it much less likely to be timing belt related as the engine will often spin faster if that was broken (on a non interference engine) and it would generally not splutter too much (or would give the occasional pop and bang that you'd be unlikely to associate with normal starting - it sounds pretty universally 'bad' if that happens). I suspect that mechanically the engine is good, but the spark or fuel is not correct. I can't give you much more than that, unfortunately, as there are still a wide selection of possibilities left.
posted by Brockles at 9:51 AM on March 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

It could be anything. This happened to me once; turned out the oil pump had failed some miles back and the engine finally seized up.
posted by scose at 10:59 AM on March 30, 2013

Welp, it was the timing belt. Dunno if I should replace it and then find out the engine is blown. The mechanic is not sure.
posted by DeltaForce at 7:28 AM on April 1, 2013

That's odd that it was spluttering like it was trying to start then - with a car that age usually the ECU will see no cam sensor pulse (because it isn't turning) and not provide fuel or spark. In a modern engine that usually just means it free spins on cranking rather than coughing.

Do you know if it snapped completely or just skipped a tooth? If it skipped and the timing was way out (but the belt was intact) then that would explain the spluttering. Unless, I guess, there is no cam trigger on that engine... Surprising.

If it is a non-inteference engine (which the mechanic should be able to check easily) then I'd be tempted to replace the belt and see how it goes. Timing belts going can just be through age or a weak tensioner so unless anything touched inside it is likely the engine has no other damage. If it is an interference engine, then it is probably toast.

Your options are to consider a reconditioned engine versus fixing the one you have vs changing the car. All dependent on labour costs and resale value where you are, I'd have thought.
posted by Brockles at 8:58 AM on April 1, 2013

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