Car won't start, Mechanic fixed it twice, except it's not fixed

I have just had my new-to-me little 1991 Ford Festiva go cart towed for the 3rd time in as many months! I am out of free tows with triple A, and at my wits end with this problem. The car had one previous owner, who used it as a tow vehicle behind his RV. It has 99,000 original miles and is in excellent shape… except that it randomly refuses to start. The original owner donated it and it was sold at auction, and I bought it from the guy who bought it at auction. He said he did nothing but have it detailed and smogged.

When I test drove it, everything checked out well, but I forgot to test the clutch (you know, try and start from stop in 3rd gear and see how the clutch responds) so I turned around and got back in the car to do that, and it would not turn over. Nothing at all. I figured it was probably the battery, alternator or some combination, and it made for a great bargaining chip in my negotiations. I bought the car, called Triple A and had it towed directly to my mechanic of 10 years.

He spent 2 hours (and by the way, the going rate for mechanics here on the west coast is $95-$100 an hour) and he could not find a problem, it started perfectly for him, the battery and alternator both checked out, nothing. He ended up taking two little lead battery connector covers off and sent me on my way.

All is well, until the timing belt jumps a few teeth and I have it towed to him again. He fixes it, sends me on my way.

Less than 48 hours later, at the end of running a bunch of errands, it again refuses to start, or even turn over. I call my mechanic, he offers to come to my house, but then I get in and try it, and it starts just fine. I cancel the house call, and tell him i will bring it in the next day, assuming it starts. It starts, I take it in, he finds some sort of ancient relay interrupter that has broken and been rigged, so he builds a new one from scratch, sends my on my way.

Jump ahead 3 weeks (during which time it worked perfectly) to yesterday, when it again, after running fine for a couple of errands, refused to start or turn over. I could not get my mechanic to answer his shop phone or cell phone, and finally decided to have it towed to a new mechanic who is much closer to my house. While waiting for the tow truck, I tried several times to restart the car, but no joy.

Now, I should say that my mechanic of 10 years is very well regarded, has served me and my car needs very well for 10 years, he even teaches at the local high school and community college, and he has a soft spot for these little old Fords. I feel a little bad taking it to a new mechanic, but I am at my wits end, his shop is NOT convenient to get to, and he has had a LOT of time with his head in the engine - it’s a freaking go cart - how hard can this be???

Do you have any ideas, and am I being unreasonable in thinking that a fresh pair of eyes might have a better chance of catching the problem?

You’re not being unreasonable at all.

I have some thoughts, but would like to know if there’s any sound at all when you try to start it. If it’s clicking under the hood, you probably need a new starter motor assembly. If there’s no sound whatsoever, you may need a new starter relay or even an ignition cylinder (the keyhole thing). There are ways of diagnosing the cause definitively, but they need a hands-on look-see with a multimeter.

Thank you for your reply! There is no sound at all - not even clicking. There is juice - to the radio, seat belt etc. The car is a standard transmission - not an automatic, and the new mechanic (who won’t get to it until Monday or Tuesday) indicated there was some sort of clutch switch that might be the problem. I have to believe that my other mechanic would have used a multimeter in his original diagnostics. Could it be totally idiopathic - meaning that when he checked it originally it was fine, but in the intervening 2 months, something he originally checked has crapped out?

sure, it could be. Sometimes things just die long before their time. The new mechanic is right, it could be the clutch switch. That’s actually not terribly uncommon.

It could also be goofy wiring. Sometimes RVers wire the cars themselves for the brake lights/etc that you need hooked up when towing behind an RV. It’s not uncommon for someone to think he’s good at wiring, and then botch the job.

It could also be as tsm said, a starter relay or ignition cylinder issue.

It seems like everyone but you can start it. When it won’t start for you are you sure you are putting the clutch pedal all the way to the floor?

I think that you bought a 20 year old car from somebody else who bought it at an auction. And because of that I think it odd to lay this on your mechanic. This is especially odd because intermittent problems are very hard to track down - when its working its working and you can check it as often as you like and get nowhere. Your clutch switch could be working one minute and not the next and then start working again. You also need to realize that all of what you listed is not even all the same problem. The no crank and jumped timing belt are not. As for the no crank you could actually be having completely different failures.

With that said, if there is another mechanic whose shop is closer and you want someone to take a second look there is nothing wrong with that. But I would not make any judgments about your regular mechanic based on any of this. Don’t fool yourself about how complicated problems with this 20 year old “freaking go kart” can be.

Actually - I’ve started it many times - and yes I understand about the clutch. It’s just that until this time, it wouldn’t not start for anyone else.

Fair enough - I actually don’t want to hold this against my regular mechanic - as I’ve said - he has done a great job for 10 years. But… I do need to get the problem figured out, and if it that means more ‘let’s try this and see if it works’ I need for it to be way more convenient to schlep back to the mechanic if it doesn’t work.

Well, the car started right up for the new mechanic after sitting all weekend, and they could not recreate the ‘not starting’ problem. After discussing possible causes, we decided to go ahead and replace the starter. Drove it home the day before yesterday. Drove it to and from work on Thursday and today, ran a few errands, came home for an hour and then ran to the local tool lending library. When I went back out to the car, it wouldn’t start! This time, there was also no juice to the radio, or the automatic seat belts, though the headlights worked. I parked it on the street and went back to try it again a couple hours later, but still nothing - no click, no turnover, no juice to the radio/seatbelts. I’ll try again tomorrow, and plan to tow it back to the new mechanic on Monday, but honestly, I’m starting to wonder if the thing is possessed. Any more suggestions?

Your car has a lockout switch that prevents starting unless the clutch pedal is depressed. Since when the car doesn;t start it apparently isn’t getting any juice whatsoever to the starter, I’m wondering if that switch or the relay it enables has become intermittant. Is this the same “ancient relay interrupter that has been broken and rigged” that you alluded to?

I don’t think it is, but I will ask the new mechanic to check it out. But, even if it was, my regular mechanic rebuilt it with a fuse, so we would be able to tell if it was not working, as I understand it. Also, I think there is more to it than that, since it has now progressed to involving the radio and the automatic seat belts.

Going from your statements about the intermittent trouble I think you should have the clutch safety switch replaced. A faulty condition of that switch would cause the exact trouble you describe except for lack of power to other things. There may be a couple of things going on electrically or the trouble may just be with the ignition switch. Trouble there could explain both symptoms you described.

To help you get the car started you could ask your mechanic to install a temporary remote starter switch to the starter solenoid. That would allow you to get the engine started at least until the trouble is found. The wiring circuit between the battery and the starter solenoid needs to be throughly checked out for signs of trouble. Tapping lightly on suspected trouble areas with a screwdriver handle may show up the trouble.

I am more skeptical of the new mechanic than the old at this point. Given the symptoms you gave - intermittent problem or not - I would never have replaced the starter as the guess of that was happening. The symptoms don’t fit.

Well, in his defense, the only symptoms up til now was that it would not start, or turn over. The involvement of the seat belts and the radio is new. He didn’t push to replace the starter, but he did say that when they start to fail, it can be intermittent. i have accepted that because the problem could not be reproduced, there is a certain amount of ‘process of elimination’ that is going to be involved… so now we know that it’s not the starter. But - I am also having an ongoing conversation with my regular mechanic - it’ as become the group project/puzzle car. The new mechanic is just blocks from my house, and the regular mechanic is about 5 miles… so at this point who works on it is a matter of logistics, more than anything else.

Thanks very much for the suggestions Cougar - the clutch switch had been mentioned by the new/current mechanic as a possibility. I will take your suggestions with me on Monday when i go back to the mechanic.

You’re welcome for the help. The only thing is that a new clutch may explain the starting issue but it doesn’t explain the lack of power to the other areas you mentioned, but a bad ignition switch could explain both symtoms. Like I mentioned earlier you may have two problems going on.

As a note about the starter replacement. If the starter has never been replaced before having this one installed, it wasn’t a total waste at least on a car that old.

Ok - Have added these notes. Regarding the starter - that was pretty much our logic too!

Thanks again!

Is it possible that there is also a switch in the steering column? I’ve seen that with a relative’s Honda, albeit an automatic transmission. I guess the logic is they want to make sure someone has their hand on the wheel.

I think the closest anyone has gotten tot his problem is the ignition switch. The power for the radio goes through the ignition switch, but the headlights do not. But that does not necessarily mean that it is the ignition switch.

The electrical system of any car is like a tree. The battery is the trunk, the alternator and regulator form the roots. The load forms the branches. One thing that will help find the problem is to determine everything that works when this condition emerges, and everything that does not work. Take good notes and test everything electrical.

With this information, the mechanic can look for the branch that is affected. It will be where all those circuits come together. It could turn out to be the ignition switch, or a relay with hit or miss contacts or even a fuse that has a hairline crack or corroded connection. It could also be a corroded ground contact from the hit or miss relay. Getting the information can help confine the troubleshooting to a small area, saving you money and increasing the odds of a permanent fix.

Thanks very much for you reply Keith - I’ve added your post to my notes for Monday’s meeting with my mechanic!