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Civic wouldn't start, reassembled distributor. Now ignition won't work

I have a 1991 Honda Civic DX. I am on a roadtrip and recently the car decided it would not start. The car had been running great all day running errands, parked it for 4 hours, and then when I tried to go back out it wouldn’t start.

I could hear the relay engage, and the starter motor would turn over and over, but the engine would never fire. I cranked it a bit, pulled a spark plug, and there was fresh gas on the tip… suggesting that fuel is getting to the motor.

I am thinking perhaps the distributor cap or rotor needs to be replaced. The four contacts that arc electricity from the rotor to the spark plugs were a little bit corroded and crumbling a bit… I scrubbed them with a wire brush but still nothing.

You guys think the distributor cap is a good guess?

Is the coil making spark? This is where you need to start.

If the distributor tower contacts are encrusted where it can be scraped off, tells me the first thing to do is complete secondary ignition tune-up.

Cap, rotor, wires, coil, and plugs.


I think this car has a timing belt, something to check. Hve not verified the video but looks potentially helpful.


You may be right!

But then you should ask, “Does the engine seem to turn over faster than it use to?”


Or just remove the distributor cap and hit the starter. If the belt is broken, the rotor will not turn.

Thanks guys. I find it hard to believe it would be the timing as I have not experienced any irregularities in how the engine runs. It just stopped working one day. Since there was no sputtering or misfire I am doubtful as to the spark plugs, but they are obviously old and only $2-3 to replace so it’s a why-not situation.

The coil is really worn looking, so I am going to replace the coil, cap, plugs, and rotor. Wires look pretty new… I’m gonna put that on the back burner. Will update later.

Timing belts don’t give any symptoms when they’re wearing out. One minute your engine is running fine, and the next it’s dead. If you’re lucky, it breaks when you’re at idle and you don’t do any damage. Otherwise, you’ve just caused enough damage that it’s often cheaper to swap another engine into the car.

You need to look for the lost keys where they fell, not where the light is better. You’re jumping to the conclusion that easy things like distributor, rotor, plugs, etc. are the culprits when, as others have suggested, the timing belt may have broken. The symptom you described of a sudden no-start situation is a classic indication of a broken belt. Has the timing belt ever been replaced on this car?

It costs nothing and only takes seconds to see if the rotor is moving when the engine is cranking, why would you not check that first?

@Tester‌ THANKS!!

Replaced the cap, rotor, coil, and plugs… she started right up like a champ. There is a little oil on the plugs so I probably need to replace the valve cover seals soon, but SHE LIVES!!!

For a car that I paid $1,000 to purchase, I find it hard to want to spend much.

To bypass the lock cylinder problem I just jammed some paper down in where the lock cylinder goes so that the steering wheel can’t lock out. Just going to have to use a screwdriver to actuate the ignition switch and start the car from here on out… but it works. I figure if someone wants to steal this car it wont be hard anyways, so I’m not too worried about using the screwdriver.

Glad you got your car running again. When I’ve been in that situation I usually do a spark test at the spark plugs before starting on a parts replacement job. But however you did it, you are back on the road again. That’s what matters. Best of luck.

Oh, the timing belt thing. On my Corolla at least its very easy to tell if the timing belt is broken. I can just open the oil fill cap. There’s a gear that is easy to see, driven from the camshaft pulley, and that moves only if the timing belt is not broken. You Honda may be similar, might come in handy at some point in the future.

The saga continues…

So, order of events:

The vehicle does not have any issues running. Slightly slow idle at times but the car usually restored to normal idle quickly.

One night, randomly, the car would not start. Starter motor would turn continuously but the vehicle will not start running.

Replaced distributor coil, rotor, cap, and spark plugs. Car starts up instantly better than ever.

Runs well, drives into city about 5 miles. Park car, change oil (30min).

I drove it 11 more miles down the road, and the car died randomly. I turned it off and back on at 50mph, and the car started back up but sputtered and puttered with no real power to the wheels or throttle response that I could feel.

It finally died again and I managed to roll to the side of the road in a freeway tunnel. Towed back to my starting point and it’s back to the drawing board tomorrow.

The starter motor will still turn the engine over, but it is back to not firing now.

I am planning to inspect the spark plug wires really carefully tomorrow; maybe replace them.

I know nothing about the history of the timing belt being changed. With 300k miles on it, it could be a likely culprit… but with the car’s recent coming back to life would that still make sense? Could the car work temporarily with replaced distributor cap etc.? I will attempt to check the timing belt to see if it’s in tact as well as wipe off the excess oil on the engine and see if I can find a sticker that indicates the belt has been changed.

No out-of-the-norm noises have been heard…

This may be a silly question, but will the drive turn if the timing belt is broken? any other ideas very much appreciated

The spark plug wires are not likely the cause of this problem. Intermittent stalling and/or failure to start usually involves something like a fuel pump, main relay, ignition switch, or distributor issue.

Assuming the problem is not related to the dist. itself, what I would do is verify that you have battery voltage supplied to the ignition coil when the key is in the RUN position. Hondas have been known to suffer ignition switch problems anyway even on the ones where a screwdriver is not used.
Make sure power is provided and that there is a decent spark from the plug wire, or wires.

I remembered that the dash lights all died when the car stalled. Could this be indicative of the ignition switch failing?

Yes, that can be one of the main symptoms for a failed switch. I haven’t pulled up a schematic for your particular car but generally speaking the power source from the switch for those lights is also the same one that provides power to the ignition coil and other critical areas.

Honda has a bit of a history on failed switches; even on the models not covered under a recall for them.

When I was in college, I had an '82 Honda Prelude. The car stalled out while I was on a road trip. Found out the ignition switch went bad. We managed to use a jumper wire on the switch connector to get it home, then replace the switch with a replacement from the dealer. They can and do go bad.

this morning it will turn over a few times, then it makes a Clunk noise and stops trying. I am thinking fuel pump failure, which I’m not prepared to take care of myself.

Fuel pump failure is easily diagnosed by a mechanic using a fuel pressure test. While doing that, the mechanic could do a spark test too, again a very simple test for a mechanic. If you think it might be the ignition switch, you could try removing all the keys from your key ring. Sometimes the weight of the other keys can be enough to stop the ignition switch from working. The symptom is usually you are driving down the road, you go over a bump or make a turn and the keys start swinging, which cuts off the power due to the bad ignition switch. \

Or were you the person who was using a screwdriver in the ignition slot to start the car? If so, well, you know that’s something needing to be replaced.

It sounds like at this point your battery may also be discharged from too many start attempts. This would be a good time to ask the mechanic to fully charge the battery and clean the battery connections, might as well have that done while the shop is checking the other stuff.

Edit: Re

This may be a silly question, but will the drive turn if the timing belt is broken?

Not sure what you mean by “drive turn”. But the engine won’t run if the timing belt is broken. In fact, if the timing belt is broken, attempting to start the car will do very expensive damage to the engine. I’m talking thousands of dollars of damage. The symptoms you are describing are not consistent with a timing belt failure though. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t just now failed, or is about to fail.