Saturday, June 2, 2012

Stuck For Over an Hour, Technically Not A Stranding

It's time to finally tell the story of the day I got the flat tire, mentioned in the previous post about my new wheels and tires. It was January 4th, and I was in a good driving streak, driving every day after finishing a big project up right before Christmas. Cue ominous harbinger of doom.

The Fuel Pump, directly behind the passenger's seat,
next to the battery. What woe will this fickle harpie work?
At the office that morning, a business acquaintance who is a classic car buff happened to be in. He was aware I had planned on commuting in the car, and guessed because it had been a cold morning that I had left the car at home.  He loves old cars, but his advice is to drive them only on joy rides on sunny spring weekends. I took some pride in disabusing him of this idea. He said "Well, you're either brave or stupid." I'll let you be the judge. I think neither, but the rest of the day would challenge my confidence.

In the afternoon, a friend coming back from a meeting brought the news that I had a flat tire. Just before this time I had discovered that one of my tires had broken spokes, so I had no spare. Luckily, I remembered that a friend in the neighborhood mentioned his car uses the same wheels as mine, and his car is a long way from needing them. A few text messages later and I'd arranged to borrow two of his wheels until I could resolve the issue permanently. I arranged for a ride home from a co-worker in my neighborhood, picked up the tires and had Shelly drive me back to swap out the flat.

The swap took just a few minutes, and we were on our way. We pulled out, Shelly following me. A few blocks away as I approached a traffic light, the car sputtered and stalled.  It was a cold night and I didn't have the choke on, so I figured it was not a big deal. The car started back up OK, and we were off again. I was a little low on gas, so I decided I'd stop for gas on the way home just in case that was related. We made it out onto the highway, and 10 minutes up to our exit and the gas station.

As I pulled into the station, I noticed the fuel pump had begun the characteristic rapid "clicking" that I learned early on can signal a lack of fuel in the tank. The gauge was not showing empty, but I figured some mis-calibration had crept back in. As the tank filled up, Shelly told me that my tail lights were out.  I'll made a mental note to investigate that later before driving at night again. It only took 9 gallons to fill up, so that meant I had 3 gallons still in the tank and the clicking shouldn't have been happening. With the tank full, it started right up, but the pump was still clicking. We pulled out and the car stuttered off and on over a few hundred yards, driving fine for 10 seconds, then losing power, then fine for a little, etc. After a few cycles like that the car stalled and I just managed to glide it over to the side of the road.

This time, it wouldn't start back up. It was acting like it was out of gas, but I knew that was impossible because I had just filled it up. I realized with some irony that I had accidentally left all my tools at home. I opened the hood and looked for obvious problems like broken wires, new leaks, cracked metal, but there was nothing. I downloaded a flashlight app for the phone since my flashlight was in the tool box. After 20 minutes of periodically trying to restart, I decided to post a call for help on an MG forum online from my phone. The first response came within 5 minutes. Shelly waited patiently for a long time while I tried out the suggestions but eventually had to go home and get our youngest to bed, so I decided to call a tow truck. They would come in an hour. The dispatcher asked what type of car they should look for, and he understood my plight - he used to own an old MG.

Over the next hour I had five different people online making suggestions and helping me pinpoint the problem.  With their help I figured out it must be a fuel supply problem, and must be happening between the tank and the pump. It was getting pretty cold for me, and the attempts to start were beginning to drain the battery, so I alternated between 5 minutes in the car out of the wind, and 5 minutes outside working to resolve the problem. I wasn't able to do much without tools, but I could observe and eliminate some possibilities. Then, at one point about 5 minutes before they were due to show up, the car started up for no particular reason. I called the tow company back and left them a message that I was taking off, and they could call me back to charge me for the trip. They never did.

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