Car trouble of an electrical variety
June 6, 2014 3:39 PM   Subscribe

I have a 1998 Oldsmobile 88 LS. She's got around 130K miles on her. She is old and has had a fair share of trouble. On the way home today it started giving random "misses" and I lost power to the car. Many Details inside. (Bonus question:credit approval)

Disclaimer: I am not a car person. What I do know I gleaned from my dad growing up. That being said.

The "misfires" seemed to occurs when shifting from 2k RPMs and 3K. This was primarily on the interstate traveling at around 70mph. I call them misfires but they really felt like the car was losing power for just a second or two. This car has had misfires before(details below) and this felt different from the normal miss.

After about 10 minutes on the interstate I got off and traveled down the road at about 30 miles per hour. After about 5 minutes on the road (with a few more misses) the car missed slightly and I lost my power steering. I turned the car into a parking lot, tightened the positive/negative terminals on the battery with a wrench and started it back up.

After a 30seconds to a minute of driving I lost power steering again and all acceleration power. I pulled over into a stretch of parking again and topped off my oil(details on that below). Started car again and was able to drive with no issues for another 5-8 minutes to home.

A few notes on the car's past issues and my future plans.
Shes had regular misses before about 3 years ago. It got bad enough that she couldn't get up steep hills. We finally got some error codes to go by and found some of the spark plug.ignition system was bad. We replaced two of the three spark plug control nodes, the computer board underneath those and the spark plugs/spark plug wires. This cleared up the misses.

She has a slow oil leak and I top it off about every 3 weeks (hence the oil top off above). I realize that makes ZERO sense for the problem she has but what can I say, I was desperate.

Also there is a terminal connection issue on the battery, every few months I have to tighten the nuts on them or the car wont start at all.

I am prepared and ready to get rid of her. I've basically been riding it out (pun intended) until she needed major repair. (I've been driving coworkers nuts by continuing to tell them I was getting a new car soon. It's been 3 years)

I plan to replace the 3rd spark plug control module that was never replaced years ago. It is only a 30 dollar part and I can do the repair myself in less than 10 minutes.

However, if anyone can tell me what else might be the culprit? I'd like to keep the car running in at least acceptable condition for use if possible for cheap.

Bonus question: I have very crappy credit, but have about 3k as a down payment. For a moderately priced car, will they approve me? (imagine the worst credit possible)
posted by Twain Device to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total)
First, you might as well replace that 3rd module and see if that helps since a similar item has helped before.

When was the gas filter last replaced? A clogged up filter will cause the engine to stumble, sporadically at first.
posted by artdrectr at 3:53 PM on June 6, 2014

Response by poster: Gas filter was replaced around 4 years ago. Maybe a little more. I'll be the first to admit I've not done much routine maintenance on this car. Since I got it, I've basically been "riding it till it dies" SO I"ve no one to blame but myself here really.
posted by Twain Device at 3:57 PM on June 6, 2014

Best answer: It could be a number of things. Bad fuel filter at the top of the list, as it is usually easy and cheap to change. Could also be a weak fuel pump. This can be checked but is best left to a professional or knowledgeable amateur as gas is, well gas, and can explode if handled carelessly.

Is there a check engine light on? if so you need to get a code reader or get the code read and Google that code for you car (IE P00350 98 olds...). If so this can give you some idea what needs fixing.

If not, you need a multimeter to start checking ignition stuff (this is all the stuff that makes the spark plug go spark at the right moment). The haynes or chilton manual for the car can walk you through the trouble shooting process. If it is something in the ignition system, chances are it will be easy to fix (a matter of replacing parts), not too expensive (usually low hundreds of dollars at the most) and something you can do with a bare minimum of tools, good manual and the internet to help you.

However at the end of the day, you will still have an almost 20 year old GM car that wasn't the best car GM ever made to begin with.

I just did a 'tune up' on a first generation CRV that had a bad ignition coil (this part takes the 12v alternator current and steps it up to 80,000 volt required to fire the spark plugs) that caused it to dye suddenly and not start at all. Replacing the coil and everything else that was a normal wear part took about 200 and an afternoon (2 hours). And that car has 225k miles on it and runs very strong. It cost 5k three years ago and hasn't required anything beyond oil and tires since then.

So my recommendation is buy a first gen CRV (this is my default 'I need a cheap car that runs good, reliable, cheap to insure, easy and cheap to repair and can do everything'). 3k will mean a 50% down payment on a low mileage one and with that just about anyone will give you a loan for the remaining 50%. If you don't want a SUV looking vehicle get similar period Honda Civic (97-2002) for about the same money.

Secret bonus on these vehicles-the rear floor covering converts to a picnic table-really. Its pretty cool.
posted by bartonlong at 4:47 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There was no check engine light, but after replacing the coil, I may run it down to Autozone (I'll be taking the wife's car tonight) just to see if they can see anything.

It's funny you mention it, I'll probably be getting an older Honda Civic. My first car as a teenager was the family Accord, and I miss that car something fierce.
posted by Twain Device at 4:53 PM on June 6, 2014

Response by poster: (additionally, I'm really not fond of this car. I will be glad to see it go, but was trying to buy as much time as possible with it. I'd like to do something special with it such as donate it to Mythbusters but that is an AskMe for another day)
posted by Twain Device at 4:57 PM on June 6, 2014

These aren't 'misfires' this is the engine stopping momentarily (or longer), basically. That's why the power steering is going (because the engine isn't driving it any more). It is either losing spark or fuel.

After a 30seconds to a minute of driving I lost power steering again and all acceleration power. I pulled over into a stretch of parking again and topped off my oil(details on that below). Started car again and was able to drive with no issues for another 5-8 minutes to home.

My guess from this (and the fact it is linked in some way to rpm and hence fuel flow) is it is running out of fuel - either through an iffy fuel pump connection or a blocked up fuel filter or crap in the tank blocking the outlet (or even a hose collapsing internally). Fuel starvation, but also could be linked to weak spark.

I'd change the fuel filter initially and then move onto the spark box (no idea why you changed two of three and so much other stuff. Start fresh if you're already changing stuff).

Then look at the fuel pump itself and flushing the lines. It will be a diagnostic process, unfortunately.
posted by Brockles at 5:26 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My first guess, before reading very far, was coil packs or the ignition module, but you said you changed most of those years ago. Still might be any of those, really. (and I understand only changing two of the three coil packs - I replaced aftermarket coil packs multiple times while one OE pack was fine.)

However, the dying at not-idle makes me think fuel filter or pump. I'd replace the filter - messy, but easy - first, and check the fuel pump relay before I dug into the tank for the fuel pump itself. Pull the filter, and blow through it - there should be almost no resistance.
posted by notsnot at 7:21 PM on June 6, 2014

I would suggest that you remember that many of these "newer" fuel injected cars have multiple fuel filters all over the place. Might not be the case in your situation, but it just might be, in which case it's an inexpensive fix.

Also could be a bad O2 sensor somewhere, although that would almost certainly throw an error code.

Best of luck!
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:25 PM on June 6, 2014

An 02 sensor would be very unlikely to cause the car to stop running. Also, it would throw a code before it did anything at all noticeable to the driver.
posted by Brockles at 8:22 AM on June 7, 2014

Another secondary fuel filter is quite often in the line between the gas tank and the engine, usually next to the quarter panel (under the car near the passenger center post for the doors). Not sure if that applies to your model/make. Just a thought, because it does sound like a problem with an intermittent connection. The other thing you could do is look at all the wiring connections where they plug together. They are supposed to be sealed but these seals break down over time and corrosion results.
posted by ptm at 9:31 AM on June 7, 2014

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