Disaster turned Adventure
It is the wee hours of the morning of the 20th of August, and it is only now that I have settled down well enough to reflect on the events the past four days.
While cruising at our usual mind-bending speed of 55mph down a 4-lane stretch of open road in eastern Kentucky Friday afternoon, the Jeep abruptly lost power for an interminable second and then cut back on again. At that instant, there was a huge bang followed by the continuous roar of uninhibited engine exhaust. It was obvious that unburned fuel vapors that had accumulated in the exhaust system during the power interruption had ignited explosively when the engine regained power and damaged the exhaust system components. Traffic was light, the shoulders wide and the day was bright, so we collected ourselves and pulled into the paved entrance to an abandon side road to assess the damage and ponder its cause. Sure enough, the muffler had been split down the length. The internal construction of the muffler was fully exposed – quite a scientific marvel of acoustical engineering – but not so interesting to us at that moment.
Unfortunately, the engine continued to exhibit a continuous misfire at moderate rpm; not enough to cut completely out, but sufficient to cause concern that we might struggle to make it to “civilization”. So, as cars and semi trailers blasted by, boy wonder pulled out his carefully packed emergency tool box and commenced his diagnosis of the problem. Funny how different highways are when you are standing still beside them. Presuming that the cause of the sharp power interruption was electrical in nature, I first checked for loose wires, then proceeded to replace the ignition coil and condenser – with no perceptible change in the intermittent engine stammer.
We tried to keep calm heads as I tried different remedies. The weather was mild, there were still several hours of daylight left, and no real personal harm had been done. Shortly after we began this process, a Fish and Game officer pulled up with his skiff towing SUV to see if he could be of assistance. Soon after, a member of the highway safety patrol pulled in to lend his support. It was reassuring to have these friendly folks there, but unfortunately neither had the background to assist with the technical aspects of our plight. Jean, all the while provided rock steady confidence and encouragement to me as she engaged in conversation with the gentlemen.
August 16, 2013 Recognize that butt?? – Dan attempting engine repair along KY80 shortly after the big bang
After 2 hours (in retrospect, probably only 45 minutes) of attempting various fixes, it was deemed prudent to attempt to proceed to Somerset, about 15 miles down the road, where there would be ample auto parts stores, repair shops and if needed, lodging facilities. The safety patrol officer followed us in his van as we rumbled our way west – mostly trouble free. It is amazing just how much noise a car (even one with only 72 hp) makes without a muffler.
We elected to settle in at a strip motel on the main drag where we could park the car conveniently in front of our room and continued working on the intermittent power interruption (stammer) problem. The location afforded ready access to several automobile support facilities. How hard could it be?
August 16, 2013 – Dan working on Jeep in motel parking lot – smiling at this point
The point ignition system on early Jeeps is extremely rudimentary, consisting of an ignition coil, a distributor with points, condenser, rotor and cap, ignition wires and spark plugs. Well, after bypassing the ignition switch and substituting all of the above items (with the exception of the spark plug wires which were, the very reliable copper stranded type), with new or historically proven components, engine roughness not only persisted, but got worse.
August 17, 2013 – Mike and Michael searching for lost screws as Dan attacks the fuel pump – not smiling so much
Getting a little panicky at this point. Really want to have this solved and back on the road by Saturday morning. Would then only be a day delayed in visiting my cousin and his wife in Washington, MO.
One nice thing about having an unusual vehicle is that it attracts on-lookers; incidentally, many of which, much to my pleasure, and my wife’s feigned consternation, are good-looking ladies. Well fortunately, this time the car drew the attention of a soft spoken, local fellow with a sound practical knowledge of cars and a very kind heart. After an hour of assisting me in my efforts to solve the engine roughness problem, he called in his dad, also a car nut, from his nearby home to assist. There had been a perceptible change in the symptoms that I had completely overlooked in my lather to resolve the issue. Now, instead of abruptly cutting in and out, the engine seemed starved for fuel, bogging down when the throttle was open.
Mike, the father, zeroed in on the fuel system; although, I was skeptical because I did not think that fuel starvation would have caused the abrupt misfire experienced earlier on the highway. However, I had been at it for 3 hours of semi-panicked effort at this point and was desperate for a solution. As Jean pointed out in calm, reassuring manner; let’s try to fix the problem now and worry about the theory later. So we sucked and blew on the fuel lines – no apparent obstruction there. Changed the fuel filter, even though the old one was relatively new and appeared clear. Mike, Michael (his son) and I surmised that the fuel pump must be weak, and despite upon inspection of any evidence of wear or damage to the diaphragm or check valves, decided to call it a night and have me find a replacement in the morning (Saturday). Needless to say I did not eat or sleep well that evening. Jean, in her infinite wisdom (really), had summed up the situation arranged for a rental car Friday afternoon – such a realist.
After several phone calls to the local auto parts stores early Saturday morning (“sorry sir, but our books only go back to 1980” or “station wagon, is that anything like a CJ?”, or “only have “L” head listed, are you sure it is a “F” head?”) a prince at the local CarQuest located a fuel pump for a CJ-3 on Lexington, Ky, “just 75 miles north. So, after talking to the folks in Lexington and without any real assurance that the fuel pump was the cause of our problems (the abrupt engine cut off on the highway still nagging me) we headed out on a 3-1/2 round trip to Lexington in the rental car to retrieve the replacement fuel pump. I was squirming in my seat the whole trip wondering if this tact was taking us in the right direction. What if the pump was not the problem??
We got back around 4pm Saturday and I immediately installed the new pump and guess what —no improvement. Now where to turn?? I could feel desperation building in me – for I could see us shipping our car back to NC and our whole trip going down the tubes. Worst of all, my pride would be hurt; not having the ability to weather the to be expected “adventures” during the trip. All the time Jean stood reassuringly by my side. So, I call on my knights in shining armor from the previous day and they agreed to try to come by Sunday afternoon to see what we could do. I am now starting to mentally calculate the chances of getting to Yellowstone by August 31st to meet up with our daughter’s family that are flying in from Raleigh, NC for a 3-day tour of the area together.
Not much sleep or nourishment Saturday evening. Attended Mass with Jean Sunday morning, but sadly, found no solution to the car problem in the hymnal or sermon. After church, going on a hunch from Mike that it might be bad fuel, I purchased a 1 gallon fuel can and some fuel injector hose (we had opened up the freshly rebuilt and proven carburetor; immaculate, so Mike had suggested it might be a case of contaminated fuel). Although we had not seen any evidence of dirt or water in the carburetor bowl, there really were not many alternatives left. When we arrived home with the full fuel can, there they were, Michael and Mike, pouring over the engine. What a relief that was. To test the bad fuel theory, we ran a fuel line directly from the fuel pump to the 1 gallon can of fresh fuel I had purchased and started the engine. After 2 minutes (seemed like an hour) — no improvement. Took the lid off the carburetor (now for about the third time) and siphoned the fuel out of the bowl to be sure we had purged the allegedly bad fuel. Buttoned things back up and started the engine. It is now late Sunday afternoon. It fired right up and ran very smoothly!!! We laughed and hugged (man-style). Calculating that there were probably about 5 gallons of fuel remaining in my tank, Mike and Michael generously retrieved a 5 gallon container from home into which we siphoned virtually all for the fuel from the Jeep’s tank. Mike instructed me to put the fuel conditioner, which they had purchased, in the tank ten make a couple of trips to the gas station to get some fresh fuel and then drive the Jeep to the gas station to fill it with high-test gas.
The car ran flawlessly to the gas station where I did as he instructed. On the way back to the motel, the Jeep started breaking up badly again. I managed to keep it running well enough to drive it up and back a service road attempting to “clear” any bad fuel (the blown muffler accentuating the engine misfire). In retrospect, the problem was more like the original intermittent power loss than the fuel starvation problem. No luck, and I just managed to pull into out now familiar parking spot in front of our motel room door (Jean standing there sympathetically) before the engine quit for good. Dark was approaching and I was tired, hungry and crestfallen (what is a crest anyway?), so we headed to a local restaurant for a little nourishment – don’t remember a thing. When we got back to the room Jean encouraged me to call someone who might be able to give me some fresh ideas. It is now Sunday evening around 8pm. Fortunately, fellow Antique Automobile Club of America chapter member, Ted, was willing to walk through the events of the past few days with me and offer a methodical approach to diagnosing what now appeared to be an electrical problem again – back where we started. Needless to say, not much sleep that night. About 2:30am I laid out a flow diagram combining Ted’s ideas and mine for a logical approach to solving the problem. Jean and I decided that we should once more replace the ignition coil and condenser – did I mention that we had replaced the points and inspected all wiring and insulation on Saturday? Jean, maintaining a clear head and confident attitude, suggesting we should focus on solving the problem in the most expedient, albeit less economical manner. We were running out of time and energy.
August 18, 2013 – Dan giving the Jeep repair one more try – not smiling at all
Early Monday morning I headed down to the NAPA store and purchased a new coil, condenser, set of spark plugs and analog volt meter and got back to work with as much enthusiasm as I could muster after about 15 cumulative hours of having worked on the engine over the past three days. I replaced the coil and condenser (for the second time). Started the Jeep up — the intermittent running problem persisted! After a moment of self-pity and frustration, I began re-inspection of this really simple electrical system for the umpteenth time. As I was rechecking the coil connection of the wire to the distributor – out slid the wire from the connector. The connector fastened to the coil had lost its grip on the copper strands of the wire running to the distributor. Was the wire always loose (been in use for 35 years) or did we dislodge it during all the component replacement activity?? I had checked and even by-based that wire a couple of times with no improvement – but was that when the fuel contamination problem was causing the engine roughness??? No time to ponder that now. Put a fresh connector on the end of the wire –problems solved. Drove around the motel parking lot a few times to test out the solution and decided we were ready to go. It was now 11am Monday morning.
Gave Jean a big hug – Called Mike and Michael to tell them problems (electrical and fuel contamination) solved and thanked them profusely for all for their help and support – I would never have guessed at a fuel problem on my own.
(Caution – mushy part)
With the disaster now turned into an “adventure” (although I am still recovering), I can see that the experience provided just what we were hoping to find on out trip.
- Reminded us of our shortcomings and reliance on our fellow persons
- Put life’s other little problems in prospective
- Reassured our faith in the generosity of others as evidenced by State officers, the concerned folks at the Red Roof Inn, the supportive auto parts dealers and the many on-lookers that wished us well in the city of Somerset, KY; and especially Mike, and Michael who are really responsible for us being able to turn the disaster into an adventure.
- And, most of all, it renewed and reinforced the admiration and love for my wife Jean, who reassuringly stood by me, providing support and encouragement throughout the whole “adventure”. By the way – today, August 12, 2013, is our 48th wedding anniversary. Happy Anniversary Jean. Love, Dan —ahhh