Please help my wounded Civic.
September 28, 2005 6:32 AM   Subscribe

I have a 1991 Honda Civic DX hatchback with ~125k miles on it. It runs like a champ, except when it doesn't start....

Please forgive me, as I don't know too much about cars.

Two weeks before I bought it, the owner rear-ended someone. The hood is a bit smashed at the nose, which in turn caused the top of the hood (closest to the windshield) to pop up and not latch properly. There's a small crack-opening on both sides of the hood, as well as near the windshield. The point is: there's not a good seal protecting the elements from entering my engine compartment.

Every once in a while I'll try to start her up and the engine cranks, but doesn't turn over. Everything sounds completely normal when trying to start it, except I don't get the satisfying roar of the engine followed by the quiet idle.

The odd thing is, just about every time it hasn't started, it's usually just after we've had a big rain. I can go out in the morning, try to start it up and get nothing. If I wait a few non-raining hours, it seems to start up just fine (as if something has since dried off.)

Forgive my ignorance, but could water be getting under my hood and "flooding" my engine, or making some belts wet that cause my car not to start?

Here are a few pictures of the car and said damage, if it helps: 1, 2 (warning: obvious self-link, small JPGs)

Im trying to obtain as much free information/advice without taking it to a mechanic, as I've only paid $900 for the entire car itself.
posted by nitsuj to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total)
Try the honda-tech board. You can probably get some good answers to your EF issues.
posted by kuperman at 6:36 AM on September 28, 2005

When was the last time the car had a tune-up? Inability to start after rain is often symptomatic of condensation fouling up the ignition system. A good smack to the front end could have created a hairline fracture in the distributor cap that's allowing moisture in, for instance.

Replacing all of the components of your ignition system (distributor cap and rotor, spark plugs, plug wires, etc.) is a part of regular maintenance, and a good first (and relatively inexpensive) project, if you're interested in learning more about cars.

If you do replace it all and still find the car won't start, you might have a condensation-related short in the fuel pump(s). I'm not familiar with the fuel delivery system of Civics, so that would be a job for the Haynes Manual.

Oh, and as Kuperman says, check out message boards and car forums. Lots of helpful advice, and most have searchable archives.

Good luck!
posted by saladin at 6:50 AM on September 28, 2005

Nitsuj, I have the same exact car and I had the same exact problem. The answer is one of two things: 1) You need new ignition wires and coils or 2) You need a new distributor (not just a cap, an entire new distributor). In my case, I needed both. The first is relatively inexpensive, the second will run you a few hundred dollars. Basically what is happening is that the wires are corroded or can no longer hold a seal at the connection and so after a rain moisture gets into the wires or coils and makes it impossible for them to generate a spark.

I would suggest not trying to change the ignition wires/coils yourself as you are saying you are not mechanically inclined and there are issues of electricity that may not be good for your health if you are not careful. Go ahead and take it to a mechanice.
posted by spicynuts at 6:52 AM on September 28, 2005

Response by poster: So is it safe to say that replacing the hood wouldn't really do much?
posted by nitsuj at 6:54 AM on September 28, 2005

Actually replacing the distributor is relatively easy (on a '89 Civic at least as I replaced mine twice.) Should be under fifty at a NAPA of AC Delco. Buying a Haynes manual is a must.
posted by Dr_Octavius at 7:00 AM on September 28, 2005

Make it rain. Here are some ideas, except given the description of the problem I'd start by spraying the distributor cap rather than the spark plugs. That is, with the car off, spray the distributor cap and try to start it. If it starts, turn it off, try to spray something else and start it. When you find something that you can spray and cause the car not to start, replace it. :)

There are also some "damp start" or "wet start" spray aerosols available at auto parts stores that will help dry out wet ignition systems and/or form a plastic coating over ignition components that need to keep water out.
posted by jellicle at 7:01 AM on September 28, 2005

The hood is not the problem. Condensation forms when its damp outside - remember the engine compartment is not sealed from the bottom! I wouldn't worry about the hood, except for aesthetic and "will-it-fly-open-while-I'm-driving" reasons.
posted by jellicle at 7:04 AM on September 28, 2005

Yep - get a can of WD40 or CRC556 which are basically lubricants that by their nature are water dispensing agents.

You'll need to release the distributor cap (it's usually towards the front of the engine and will have 5 leads coming out of it - 4 of which will connect to your spark plugs, the other to your coil) - give it a light spray (under the cap) and put it back on.

If your distributor cap was cracked you're likely to experience rough idling as well - maybe inconsistently.

Remember - your engine compartment isn't a sealed unit - water invariably gets on your motor from driving on wet roads and condensation occurs with excessive humidity as well - take it to a mechanic and explain the problem and they'll fix it easily (and relatively cheaply).
posted by strawberryviagra at 7:14 AM on September 28, 2005

I've got to learn to type faster - what jellicle said.
posted by strawberryviagra at 7:15 AM on September 28, 2005

Like spicynuts I had the exact same car and same problem. It was both the ignition wires and distributor cap for me, too.
posted by gaspode at 7:19 AM on September 28, 2005

I used to drive that car! If you haven't gotten the car a tune up, I'd do it. It's fairly easy on Civics, but will require some tools and some time, so you'll need to figure out if you have both before you start in. Don't worry about the hood, it's a non-issue as others have said and replacing it if you don't NEED to do it to pass inspection is money wasted.

In my opinion chances are high you have a distributor cap with a crack, fouled/old plugs, or aged plug wires. Get yourself a Haynes manual [or examine one at the library to see if you're up to the job] and check out what the job looks like. Dealing with this sort of job is mostly "tab A slot B" sort of things, so it's unlikely you could screw things up more unless you start getting involved with other electrical parts, just heed the warnings in the manual.
posted by jessamyn at 7:36 AM on September 28, 2005

Actually replacing the distributor is relatively easy (on a '89 Civic at least as I replaced mine twice.) Should be under fifty at a NAPA of AC Delco. Buying a Haynes manual is a must.

I find this hard to believe. Are you sure you aren't referring to the distributor CAP, which is just a part of the actual entire distributor and does usually cost about 50 bucks? Here is a link to some common prices for entire distributors. They are all in the 175 to 250 dollar range, so with labor would run a few hundred to replace at a mechanic. Also, they don't look all the easy to do on your own.
posted by spicynuts at 7:47 AM on September 28, 2005

I have a 1998 civic and from time to time it has a hard time starting, especially if i don't drive it for a couple of days.. Before you go spend too much $$ on anything try this (my honda technician friend told me). turn the ignition on but don't start the car. wait about 10-15 seconds for the fuel pump to get some fuel to the engine and then start the car.

i do that whenever i let the car standing for more than a couple of days (sun, rain or snow) and it starts up with no problems. Apparently what happens (in my case anyway) is that the fuel in the line evaporates therefore making it difficult or impossible to start the car.
posted by eatcake at 9:19 AM on September 28, 2005

spicynuts: Right and right. It was the distriutor cap I replaced (as I remember it was basically a plastic molded part and a contact flywheel.)
posted by Dr_Octavius at 10:28 AM on September 28, 2005

If you decide to do it yourself (which is rather easy), take note of which wires plug in where. They are often numbered and of varying sizes [manuals recommend replacing one at a time for obvious reasons]. Also, make note of the shape of your dist. cap before going to buy one. Twice in the decade I owned my '89 accord I had to return a dist. cap that was the incorrect shape. (despite the fact that the computer said it was the right cap)

If you're going to replace the cap and wires, you might want to also replace the spark plugs. Careful not to eff up the threading.

I'd also recommend the Haynes Manual.
posted by shoepal at 11:49 AM on September 28, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks, you all have been wonderful. I love you all.
posted by nitsuj at 12:33 PM on September 28, 2005

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