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4 miles, then dead

I have the best possible type of problem - a reproducible error. Here’s the data:

I have a 1994 Toyota Camry with 262K on the car, about 180K on a repplacement OEM Toyota engine. I also drive a motorcycle every day, so the Camry sits for weeks at a time without use. I think prior to the problem surfacing, it may have been more than a month since it was driven anywhere. It’s still a great car, but the bike is more fun.

It was cold and rainy last week, so I thought it would be a good day to take the Camry to work. As she always does, she started right up without hesitation. I left the house, and got about 4 miles before pulling into a gas station to check the tire pressure. As I entered the station parking lot, the car just shut off. Dead. I thought maybe it had just idled too low, and I tried restarting (several times). No luck. Pushed it into a parking space and walked home. Took the day off. Later that evening, we took the other car over to try and tow it the short distance home, but it started right up again, and I was able to drive it home without incident.

So this morning, I think maybe that was a fluke and tried driving it to work again. I made it about the same distance, and it died again. I had a fully charged laptop with me, so I just sat there and worked for about an hour, and sure enough, she started right up again. I headed home, but she died again, just about 0.1 mile from home. Did some more work; and 45 minutes later, I started her up and went the last 0.1.

So clearly there is a finite and predictable distance/time it will run. The electrical system seems strong, and my suspicions are strongly on the fuel system.

What could be causing this? Inasmuch as the car sits for long periods, I’ve considered condensation in the tank, but would that manifest itself in this way?

Other theories?


Maybe a clogged fuel filter? Gas gets through, but very slowly. When you park it the residual pressure in the system pushes enough through to get started but it only lasts a short time. Really, that’s just a guess.

It helps to have an old spark plug. It does not have to be one that fits your car, any plug will do. When it quits on you, pull one spark plug wire and plug in the old plug. Lay the plug on a metal surface and crank the engine and see if there is a spark at the plug tip.

If there is a spark, then the issue is fuel related. No spark is an ignition system problem. If ignition system related, could be the coil or the ignitor or the center shaft bushing in the distributor, or maybe some other that I haven’t listed.

Good idea to eliminate the battery & connections first. When this happens, is there any dimming at all of the dash board lights and dome light? If you turn the headlights on after the engine stops, are they bright as they usually are?

I had a problem like this w/my Corolla one time. A cold winter night, first cold day of the season, pulled into a gas station, and when ready to go, the car wouldn’t start. "Wouldn’t even crank. And it was raining cats and dogs of course. No indication before that for months and months of any problem at all. Ran like a top. I did notice one thing though. When I tried to crank it, the dashboard lights would dim and almost go out. I popped the hood, and the battery connection was loose. I tightened it up and lo and behold the car started right up and away home I went. Wishing you that it turns out to be something simple like that. You may need to do a fuel pressure test, or at least see if you can tell if the fuel pump is running.

I think your"feeling" is wrong, but here is how to find out. Put a can of starting fluid (ether) in the car. The next time it doesn’t start, spray a 3-4 second shot of ether into the intake or air cleaner and try to start it. If it starts and runs briefly you know it is a fuel problem. If not, it is electrical. In the old days, before electronics your symptoms would indicate a bad coil, but these days there are many electrical components that can fail due to heat.

I replaced the fuel filter, the ignition coil, and the rotor. Sadly, none of this seems to be solution. The symptoms remain the same. 4 miles, then dead. And when I say 4 miles, I mean almost exactly. Today, after replacing the coil, it started and seemed to be running great. I took it for a ride to the gas station and filled up (Ah, optimism.) The SOB wouldn’t start to come home. Got a tow, but it started not long after beginning the tow.

Disconnected the tow and drove home. Made it exactly to the end of the driveway and it died. The common distance is almost uncanny, but I gotta think there’s a clue there.

I’ve heard from others here that a bad crank angle sensor can be temp dependent. If the engine is dying at a somewhat repeatable point in engine warmup, as seems to be the case, that could be your culprit.

You have been given a couple different troubleshooting procedures, have you tried any of them, or would you rather just have a list of parts to throw at this problem until something fixes it?

Fuel pump? The fuel pump on my wife’s 1991 Ford Taurus would run for about an hour, then stop.

Ed B.