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1990 Geo Prizm starting problems

My 1990 Geo Prizm has an odd starting problem. It has somewhere around 120,000 miles on it. It had been running rough lately–every once in a while it would try to rattle my teeth out stopped at a traffic light–but usually not too bad. Tonight, I drove it about 5 miles on the interstate to the other side of town. No problems I ran a fairly quick errand–maybe 30 minutes. When I tried to start the car, it tried to turn over–the engine caught at least. It rumbled, rattled, and shook for a couple seconds. then the engine just died as if i had pulled the clutch out. (It’s manual and my first car, so I know what that’s like.) I tried again and repeated. I tried in gear (1st and reverse) and neutral. I turned off all of the radio, fans, etc. that might be pulling anything away from the engine or battery. I kept trying, and nothing changed. The check engine light would flash at me for the brief seconds the engine was trying to run. While on hold trying to get a tow, I tried giving it some gas while I started it. It kicked into life, but still struck me as sickly. At the first stop I made to get into traffic, it started to rattle and shake a bit, so I gave it gas and it settled down. I drove home (maybe 10 miles) dreading every stoplight but not having any other problems. I turned it off at home. A few minutes later I was curious and tried it again. I ran into the same problem, and the same solution worked. What might be wrong and how much will it hurt my pocket book?

Replace plugs and wires.Before you do this, open the hood in a dark garage and see if sparks are jumping between the wires and other places.

Are you up to date as far as maintenance suggested in the manual?

Pretty much up to date on maintenance. The car has other major issues, though (4th gear doesn’t work anymore, only one power window is reliable), so we’ve let some stuff slide. Plugs and wires were looked at in the past year or so. The problem has been difficult to replicate since the first day.

What do you mean that “Plugs and wires were looked at”? These are things that get replaced on recommended intervals (the plugs especially) in the same way that an oil or air filter gets replaced on a recommended interval. On that note how old are the fuel & air filters?

The engine needs 4 things to go: fuel, spark, air, compression. At this point there isn’t enough info to really say much about which it could be but mechanics are supposed to know how to figure this out.

Are you ever smelling fuel? The “giving it gas” part does suggest a particular kind of fuel problem - but probably not what you think - it suggests too much fuel from, for example, a leaky fuel pressure regulator. When you “give it some gas” you’re actually giving it some air which would make a difference if there was too much fuel in there.