97 Ford Escort Manual - jumpy acceleration

Good Morning CarTalk community! My Ford Escort and its 5speed at 137000mi is still a beast…until about 4 days ago. I was driving it out of the parking lot slowly in second as I normally do when the engine is cold, to warm it up. When I pressed the accelerator to move toward the street (same thing I’ve been doing for years), all of a sudden the car lunged and jumped as if it wasn’t moving or didn’t have enough gas already, had to clutch to keep the car from stalling.

Ever since that freak occurrence the car has had a weird acceleration: for example, I am waiting at the light, green, go to first, car accelarating normally, but go to second and then it gets to about half of the speed’s capacity (middle range rpm) and the accelerator fades and the engine starts making the same feel as when it almost stalled (it loses power and starts to jump a bit). Pushing more gas doesn’t change the feeling until you get to the upper capacity of the speed (high rmps) at which point its moving along like it always has. This happens in every speed at the middle rmps. However, the idle gas is perfect and giving the car gas when it is not in gear shows no signs of problems!?

Probably unrelated: changed spark plugs 2 weeks ago, did not change wires; new air filter with recent oil change.

Please help! This car has been a perfect workhorse for years with no major issues. This acceleration is making it very problematic and worrisome to drive to work, as at times it feels like it might stall during those mid range rmps.

Why did you only change 2 spark plugs? How old are the wires? When was the fuel filter changed last?

Is the check engine light on? If so, go to a chain auto parts store such as Autozone and have the codes read. Then post the codes up here (actual codes in the form of P with 4 numbers such as P0123).

No, I changed all 4 spark plugs, 2 weeks ago. The wires are from the last time I replaced the sparks, probably around 35000mi ago. I don’t believe that the fuel filter has ever been changed.

Yes, but it has been on for quite some time, it is the classic “p1443.” However, I will check to see if any others have been registered in the meantime.

Sorry - I did misread the post about the spark plugs.

I would go ahead & replace the fuel filter (even though the manual doesn’t included it anywhere as recommended maintenance - weird).

Chances are that you now do have more than the P1443 code at this point. Have it scanned & post the codes. Cross your fingers that it isn’t a cyl 4 misfire. The light hasn’t been flashing at you has it?

I would also say that you should fix the evap problem - at the very least having the light on for that keeps you from knowing that it is on for other things.

Thank you for the suggestions, I will do that tonight after work and will post any new codes.

Thankfully the light hasn’t been flashing at me…yet. Hopefully it won’t, cyl 4 misfire sounds ominous enough as it is.

No other codes are listed.

Since this only happens when in gear, could this have anything to do with the tranny and/or clutch? The clutch was replaced about 60,000mi ago, since the clutch uses break fluid, and there’s plenty of that, it’s probably not a fluid issue. Thoughts?

Make sure all the plug wires and connectors near where you were working are firmly in place.
I’ve seen before a loose connector that acted up only when the engine was twisting from acceleration, slightly tugging a harness.

As a middle range of rpm problem its incredibly unlikely to have anything to do with the clutch or tranny.

If it isn’t bad enough yet to throw a code of some kind then it becomes a big guessing game.

As circuitsmith said, start with the basics and check all of the electrical connections related to the spark plugs/ignition and anyplace you’ve been under the hood lately.

Also do make sure to replace the fuel filter and have the fuel pressure checked - including a load test.

The ignition coils in these cars are known for going bad - if it is still the original coil, 137K is pretty good. I also have a '97 (auto trans/wagon) and the coil first showed itself bad with a sputter/hesitation at very low throttle. The coil can be tested, though a new coil can also be had for around $50 and installs with one 8mm socket driver and all of about 10 minutes of time.

If you want to know why I mentioned the cylinder 4 misfire (which I still wouldn’t rule out) just do some internet searches on things related to Escorts dropping valve seats. It is often an engine wrecker, and often first shows itself (if it gives any warning at all!) with severe random & intermittent misfires. It seems most commonly to be cylinder 4.

Thank you both very much! It turns out a quick 20 bucks for new plug wire set restored the car to its former amazing-ness. i’m definitely glad it was not the cylinder 4 misfire, that would have been terrible! i will be changing the fuel filter over the weekend. Your suggestions were spot on and very helpful. God bless!

It is my unfortunate duty to bring this thread back to life. The escort was running like new for the past couple of days, I thought the trouble had past. Last night I took the car from Chicago to DeKalb, about 70mi one way, and everything was running smooth and perfect, aside from the rain and puddles everywhere. On my way back, so this is after about 100mi, I think I notice that little hesitation. Sure enough, a minute later the car is stuttering and misfiring again, this time worse than before. I decide to pull over to check the cables. To my surprise, as I passed my hand over the spark plug wire to cylinder 1, I felt electric discharge on the tips of my fingers!

I put in one of the old cables (I still had them sitting in my car), that seemed to lower the frequency of the misfires, but a couple more miles down the road, the car is intermittently shaking when the service engine light starts flashing at me. It was already lit from an unrelated code (evap emission control), it flashes about 5 to 7 times and then remains on.

What is going on??? I’m going back to Autozone to get a replacement set of wires, I know I’m not supposed to be feeling a tingling in my fingers from the wires, but why all of a sudden when it was running perfectly. I will check the code, hopefully something is posted. I have narrowed the problem down to cylinder 1, at least I know that much for now. Could it be the spark plug itself in that cylinder?

This is very stressful…

Did you test the other plug wires for tingling at the time?
If you had a substantial part of the spark energy coming through the wires you’d get more of a bite than a tingle.
A light show in the dark too.

Would be helpful to see if #1 plug looks different from the others.

Did you use OEM (Motorcraft) plugs or something else?

The wires are Duralast, those are the wires I buy for both of my cars.

Not the wires…the plugs. What kind of plugs?

I’m sorry, completely misread your post. Yes, Motorcraft Platinum.

There was substantial bite around only that wire to cylinder 1, though no light show. I was going to check my plugs today, seems prudent.