1987 Mazda 323 lurches and dies

1987 323 Mazda, manual transmission. Recently replaced motor and transmission and air conditioner, all used. Prior to replacement vehicle burned oil and was leaking transmission fluid and air conditioner wasn’t working. Air conditioner was leaking and mechanic fixed the leak. First time I started it after that, there were a few big puffs of white smoke. Drove it about a week. Putting it in first was a little rough (but that was a problem with the transmission we used for replacement from another old car of ours we junked). but no other problems. Then we noticed it was leaking quite a bit of antifreeze and we could see it leaking onto the engine. We were putting antifreeze in it everyday.

I drive around 80 miles a day. After about a week, I had been driving it about 40 miles that day, I backed it into a driveway to turn around and when I put it in first, it was jerking and lurching. Drove it a carlength and it died. No check engine light. No overheating. Started it again and it bucked a few times while driving another carlength and died again. Then would start and die, start and die, start and die. No movement. Called the tow truck and took it to the mechanic. He said it was the fuel pump and fuel filter and replaced both those. He also fixed the antifreeze leak which was a loose clamp.

The next morning I drove it, it still lurched a couple times and a couple puffs of white smoke. Then I drove it about 10 miles, no problem. Parked it for about 2 hours and started it again. No problem initially, but then when I got to first stop sign in about a block, it lurched a bit. Next stop sign, another lurch. Then on the interstate a couple more small lurches, but not bad. After 10 miles I cruised to a stop and put it in neutral (to leave the engine on) and it died. No check engine light. Just the charge light came on. I had been playing the radio and radio was fine.

I started it again and drove straight to mechanic (about 2 miles). It lurched and bucked some along the way, but no white smoke. He replaced distributor but he said it didn’t help. He said it was worse than before. He sounded so depressed. We feel so bad for him.

So do you guys have any ideas at all? I would really appreciate it. I’ve looked at some similar problems on the net and here’s what I found:

ground wire from the battery to the body and from engine to frame
EGR valve
Crankshaft position sensor
powertrain control module (I don’t even know if this car has one of those)
idle air control

I don’t know if mechanic has looked at any of the above. Thank you for your help.

What shape was this replacement motor in prior to installation.
Was there a compression test done on the replacement prior to putting it in the car.

The motor may be in as bad of shape as the tranny was that you put in.


Hey thanks for answering.

The motor was in decent shape. It probably had about 100,000. We got it used when it had 50,000 on it. It was running fine in the car we junked (only junked it cause it rusted out on the rail). I doubt he did a compression test since that car was working fine before we switched the motor out. I drive about 500 miles a week and didn’t have any problem. It burned a little oil, but nothing bad, about 1/2 a quart every month or so.

The part that bothers me is, Then we noticed it was leaking quite a bit of antifreeze and we could see it leaking onto the engine. We were putting antifreeze in it everyday.

This engine may be done?


The antifreeze bothered us too. That’s why we were constantly checking it and adding more as necessary. It just seemed to need more and more. Since it turned out to be a loose clamp. Looks like maybe they didn’t have it tightened when they switched the engine out. It never overheated. I watch those gauges like a hawk. You have to when you’re driving a car that old.

What are you thinking the problem is? A blown head gasket? We asked the mechanic about that more than once and he kept saying he didn’t think so. He thinks the lurching and dying is an electrical problem.

Thanks for answering. I appreciate your input.

I never assume an engine is “done” until I know why it’s not operating properly.

I’d suggest starting with the basics. Clarity and noncontamination of fluids, compression, spark, integrity and reliability of spark, fuel pressure, reliable injector operation. Since the same sensors that regulate spark regulate the injectors, if you have reliable spark but the injectors aren’t firing reliably, you can suspect that you either have a fuel feeding problem (think: open lines and fuel regulator) or the injectors themselves have become unreliable (plugged?)

With respect to your mechanic, I’m left wondering of perhaps a more skilled diagnostician would be better able to find the problem.

The cause of the white smoke out the tailpipe needs to be determined. If you have coolant entering the cylinders, it won’t matter what else you do, you won’t be able to get a smooth running engine until that is fixed. When coolant has a path into the cylinder, then exhaust gas usually has the same path into the coolant. There are inexpensive chemical tests on the coolant that can be done to determine if exhaust gas is getting into the coolant.

It’s possible coolant can get into the engine via the intake manifold too. On some engines anyway. That might not show up with the test above, but a pressure test of the cooling system would.

the same mountainbike, I agree completely with your approach. And yes, it does feel more like a fuel input problem rather than electrical.

After he mentioned the distributor, I really thought he might have it with that one. The roughness did feel like something might be “missing”, but since he replaced that and now says it’s worse than ever, that certainly wasn’t the problem.

GeorgeSanJose…absolutely agree about the white smoke. When I started it at the mechanic’s to take it home and it blew all that white smoke (twice), it really gave me a start. And then it didn’t do it again and I thought, ok, it was just blowing something out from then replacing the engine.

We’ll ask him tomorrow whether he has done a pressure test on the cooling system. Wish me luck! I’m so used to working with this car. I really want it fixed if possible. Thanks for your help.

The good news is that all of these things can and should be checked with pretty basic diagnostic equipment. But it takes someone knowledgeable in diagnostics.

Keep us updated. We do care.

If you mechanic has an emissions sniffer, he can see if it is smelling any hydrocarbons coming out of the radiator filler hole. That would indicate exhaust gas is getting into the coolant.

To all, thank you so much for the advice. My husband will take it to the mechanic today and see if it helps him. I so dearly love this car for my job. I hope it can be fixed! Thank you for caring. It truly represents the spirit of CarTalk.

Let us know what the outcome is.

Here’s the update so far:

Mechanic decided that the new distributor he got wasn’t any good. He got a different one and the car now starts and runs without lurching (at least for the couple of blocks it took me to get it home).

We had a problem before that the front windshield defrost wouldn’t work very well. (It would fog up and wouldn’t clear). Mechanic thought it was a clogged vent so we took the vent off the old car to put in this one. Now today (after he fixed the distributor), he said the problem is a leak in the heater core. So now we will be replacing the heater core as well as the vent. He said that was where all the antifreeze was going (onto the floorboard of the driver’s side).

Hopefully that will be all the repairs for a while. Thanks for all your input. I’ll let you guys know if anything else happens.

Thank you sincerely for the feedback. We so rarely hear back that it’s a distinct pleasure to hear the results.

Happy motoring.

Wow not hearing back for the end of the story would be like having the last chapter ripped out of a mystery novel! LOL I was listening so closely to CarTalk on Saturday about a fuel pump that I missed my exit and had to go 3 miles before I could turn back.

Picked up the car today with the “new” used vent and new heater core. Drove well for the 2 blocks to my house. No white smoke, no lurching, no dying. Tomorrow will be the real test since I am working and look forward to a long day. With all the different parts, I’m hoping to have an “event-free” day. If I don’t I’ll be here again, trying to figure out what went wrong this time,

Thanks for the info and good luck!