It’s not starting: I’m sensing a problem with the car’s sensors

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

The car won’t start.

It is an older model, but a good car and not too old in my book. It just turned 20 – years that is.

I expect things to go wrong with a car that old, and I know how to take care of its problems. But it is inconvenient when it does not start. It’s hard to go anywhere like that.

I have written in columns before that I like older cars, even older than this one. The 1997 and later models have those computer boards that mechanics plug into to find out what’s wrong. The ones made before 1996 don’t have them.

It does make it easier to diagnose a problem by just plugging a scanner into the car’s computer and let it tell you what’s wrong. I have one of those gadgets. They come in handy.

But why doesn’t it start? It has a new distributor, new battery, new starter. I’d bet it’s the fuel pump. That would take a little work to fix, since it is inside the fuel tank.

I never liked that car manufacturers started putting fuel pumps in the fuel tanks. Many years ago I replaced one in a Chevrolet Vega by unbolting it and undoing two fuel lines. It was easy to reach, right next to the engine, and replacing it only took a few minutes.

Now it’s a little harder, and it costs extra mechanic hours to get to it.

The car refusing to start is a Honda Civic with 350,000 miles on it, but it has a remanufactured engine. The engine replacement was not the car’s fault. A family member decided a few years ago to drive it without oil. That’s not a good idea I found a good deal on a rebuilt engine and had the melted one replaced.

Older cars have to be watched carefully. They’re not for everyone. That’s why I got a new one for the wife. She likes those new, low-mileage vehicles – says they are more reliable, which I could dispute, but won’t.

Still, it’s not starting, so I left it where it was overnight. When I returned the next day and tried to start it again before I called a tow truck , it fired right up. Go figure.

I drove it to the repair shop, counting my lucky stars, since I just saved the towing fee.

Maybe it fixed itself, I thought. Maybe it’s not going to cost anything. It was just a little whatever it was, and now it’s good again. I drove to the repair shop anyway, where I parked it and shut it off.

Then I tried to start it again. It’s a good thing I drove it to the shop.

What was it, I asked the mechanic when I picked the car up a few days later. They had trouble locating a part, or it would have been ready the next day.

“The coolant temperature sensor was bad,” he said. “It was sensing that the car was overheating and would not let it start.”

I never would have guessed it.

Why do cars need coolant temperature sensors, anyway? In the old days we knew the car was overheating and stopped to put more water in the radiator. We didn’t need a sensor. The temperature gauge told us that much.

“So, if I shut it off, it will start back up now?” I asked.

“Everytime,” came the reply.

It started right up. But the confidence level in the car has to be rebuilt to pre-breakdown levels. It’s a psychological thing. I parked it in the driveway and shut it off. Then I turned it on again. Just like new.
That little sensor malfunction cost a few dollars though.

Sometimes I think car manufacturers put all these sensors in cars, even in older ones like my Honda, so that they can fail and be replaced. Maybe I should get a car without all these modern gadgets.

Wonder what happened to my 1968 Buick Skylark? I should never have traded it in.