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From Deep Dark Africa: A Desperate Plea for Help

Dear Friends. We desperately need your help. I am a doctor working in Tanzania, East Africa. We moved hear 2 years ago from Boston where I did my residency at the MGH. My car is having problems and this has become a huge headache for my wife (and 2 young children) and a huge distraction for my work. I can honestly say that people may be dying from this distraction. This car has been seen by 3 different mechanics and all 3 have completely given up on it.



Our car is a 2001 Mitsubishi Pajero (equivelant to the Montero in the US), automatic transmission. It was important form Japan, used. The car was in perfect working order when I picked it up in the Dar es Salaam port and drove it across the country to Mwanza.



Currently the car only has problems when starting. It drives beautifully. When you try to start the car in the morning you have to hold the key in the start position for several seconds. It goes ra-ra-ra-ra like a normal starter and the eventually sputters (like its only firing on a few cylinders) and starts. If we drive the car around town and stop one or even twice it usually starts the same way. Sometimes it requires 2 or 3 turns of the key. The real problems start after driving the car around even more. Then, when we stop, usually in the heat of the day, the car simply refuses to start again. The starter motor will crank but the engine won?t catch despite 20-30 turns. We have tried giving it a little gas while starting but this seems to make the problem worse. Usually we just leave the car for 1-2 hours and then, when we come back, it will start again. Obviously this is not acceptable given the places that we travel with our children.



We started having problems soon after the car arrived in Mwanza. At first the car was having trouble accelerating. This trouble was diagnosed as a combination of a faulty ?accelerator link? and a clogged ?fuel filter.? Both were replaced and the car has not had any problems with acceleration since that time.



About the same time that this problem was fixed - 1 year ago - the car started having problem starting. At first the car would always start on the 2nd or 3rd try. If you turned the key, the starter would turn over appropriately and would go ra-ra-ra-ra-ra but the engine would not catch. We took this into one shop in Mwanza and they couldn?t figure out the problem. We took it to another shop in Nairobi and they couldn?t figure out the problem. Then we brought it back to Mwanza and took it to another shop and they also couldn?t figure out the problem.



Along the way the following things have been done (and none of it has helped):

The battery has been replaced.

The spark plugs have been preplaced.

The ignition was removed and cleaned.

The fuel lines were cleaned.

The starter was checked and thought to be OK.

The fuel injectors were tested and were OK.

The post-factory car alarm was disconnected.

The crank sensor was replaced.

The computer has been interrogated several times and there are no error messages.



Let us know if you have any thoughts! We are strongly considering just driving this thing into Lake Victoria.

I would guess it is the fuel pump

Start simply to see if you can narrow this down to one of two major options: spark or fuel. (The 3rd thing needed for combustion is “air” which can be a problem but not based on your description).

First, when it won’t restart do actually smell fuel - esp. if you get out of the car? You say you’ve sometimes tried giving a little gas - have you ever tried fully flooring the gas pedal while starting? If you do smell fuel when trying to start then the engine might be getting flooded. You can likely get it going by flooring the pedal while starting to clear it - ease up on the pedal as it starts. The two most likely sources of flooding would be a bad fuel pressure regulator or leaky fuel injectors. These will dump fuel into the engine while it sits.

The other fuel problem could be the opposite - not enough fuel. Stop at an auto parts store and buy a can of starter fluid. The next time it won’t start pull off the big intake tube and shoot starter fluid straight into the throttle - then try to start. If it fires up - even momentarily - then you are not getting fuel. Has anyone tested the fuel pressure? You could have a failing fuel pump. You probably do have a bad “check valve” in your fuel pump which is why it takes a bit to get it started each day (the whole fuel system drains down overnight and it takes a bit to get it all back up to pressure).

Then there is spark. While at the auto parts store also buy a spark tester. The next time it won’t start, follow the directions to hook up the spark tester and look for spark. If you have no spark then you are probably looking at bad ignition components that fail when they are “heat soaked”. e.g. like a bad ignition module or coil - something from the ignition was “removed and cleaned” but we don’t know what. Was whatever it was tested?

Anyway, these are simple ways to figure out if the problem is in the fuel or ignition system - that cuts the search in half. Try it out & post back if your mechanic still can’t get it.

I second that, until you get it fixed it may help to leave the key in the on position 20 seconds or so to let the fuel pump build up pressure before trying to start.

This is what a spark checker looks like

http://search.harborfreight.com/cpisearch/web/search.do?keyword=spark+checker&Submit=Go

Just leaving it on probably won’t work since the pump will only cycle for a couple of seconds - rather you’d need to turn the key to on (with no crank) 4 or 5 times before trying to start. It is worth a shot. But I am skeptical since if that were the only issue, it would eventually start if you kept trying anyway.

Better to actually turn the key to on and listen for a hum from somewhere behind you - the hum will be the sound of the fuel pump. If you turn the key to on and hear no hum then the fuel pump is probably not operating.

Doc, get rid of Montero and buy something that says “TOYOTA” on the back of it, like everyone else in your neighborhood drives…

Sorry, I forgot to mention the fuel pump was replaced a year ago, and there was no change in the starting problem.

It’s true. I learned this lesson too late. If I can get this car fixed I will probably sell it or trade it in for a Landcruiser.

When I turn the car on I do hear the hum.