Hard start - running rough - backfires on start


1987 Olds Cutlass Ciera

3.8L V-6 fuel-injected engine

auto trans

151,000 miles

Recently had water pump fail and dump coolant. Don’t know how far Dad drove it that way or how hot engine got before he got home. He didn’t notice anything. I spotted the coolant on the drive under the car. Replaced the water pump.

(Several months prior to that, replaced the entire exhaust system from the cat back.)

Since the water pump incident, the engine has been harder than ever to start when the engine is cold. Turns over fine, acts like it’s racing and immediately dies within a second or two. Takes two to four tries before it runs long enough to be able to goose the gas and really race the engine in park (not a good thing on a cold engine I know!!!) which is the only way to keep it from dying. Seems to quiet down and run better once it backfires.

However, it still runs very rough and seems to have lost a lot of the instant acceleration it always has had on demand, if needed. I notice the lose of power most at lower speeds.

Doesn’t have major trouble re-starting on a warmed up engine, like at the grocery store, but still not a clean, easy start.

Note: increasing problems with hard starts and rough running has been an ongoing issue for several years that mechanics at 3 dealerships and the indy mechanic I began going to have not been able to cure, despite tune-ups, etc. It’s one of the major reasons I bought a new car as my main transportation.

Despite all this, it passed emissions inspection yesterday with the following readings. Standard Units is what it’s measured against (I was told) and Readings is what the actual emissions were when tested running on a dynometer.

HC Hydrocarbons:

Standard Unit: 0.8000 grams/mile

Reading: 0.1321

CO Carbon Monoxide:

Standard Unit: 15.0000 grams/mile

Reading: 1.2447

NOx Oxides of Nitrogen:

Standard Unit: 2.0000 grams/mile

Reading: 0.1510

CO2 Carbon Dioxide:

grams/mile - no standard measure

Reading: 119.8085

Am having the safety inspection done day after tomorrow. Anything I should particularly ask to have checked at the same time???

Assuming the engine may have run too hot, too long without coolant when the water pump failed and that damage from that is beginning to show up? As in, does this sound like a roasted motor???!!!




I should add, I did thoroughly wash the coolant off the drive so no animals would lick it and be poisoned!



Sometimes, if certain conditions aren’t on the scan charts which the mechanics have to perform a scan, some things just aren’t checked ++ A “problem child” I recently had (a 1990 Pontiac Grand Prix LE 3.1L), the ECM (engine computer) was energising the EGR valve to open during engine start and idle. This is equivalent to a big vacuum leak. BAD. The engine wouldn’t start. It fired for one, or two, seconds and then died…again, and again. I pulled the power fuse for the EGR valve/ Purge valve [under the hood, passenger’s side, marked IGN fuse (because it comes FROM the ignition switch)]. It started and idled. +++ Also, check the fuel pressure WITH the the transmission in DRIVE and engine RPM at 2500. This is to see if the fuel pump can maintain fuel pressure with the engine under load.+++ The TPS (Throttle Position Sensor) needs to be checked THROUGH it’s range of movement-- from idle to full throttle position (engine off). You can take resistance readings or voltage readings, or both. As the throttle is moved, slowly and smoothly, the ohms or volts should increase, or decrease smoothly. I think that this step is often skipped. Get more information on some of the things which can go wrong on a fuel delivery system from this web site: www.carterfueldelivery.com/fuelpumps. Click on TEC Bulletins; For Consumers & DIYers; Training & Services For Technicians. Lastly, the ECM (computer) could be defective.


Thank you. I’ll keep these in mind when talking with the mechanic.

Actually, the diagnosis may have just gotten easier. Had to move the car to the other side of the drive this evening and when trying to start it, it would surge hard with high revs and then almost die with practically no revs at all, like I was playing with the gas, when I had my foot on the brake and the car still in park, finally dying. Then it died while actually in gear. BUT…the Service Engine Soon light came on, which means there should be some codes in the computer, such as they are on this old a car! Never, ever before, in several years of similar problems this bad and worse, has that light come one time nor has there ever been any codes to read.



I think that the time has come to decide whether to keep it or write it off. It seems like a bad idea just to keep it hanging around. Although it seems like a car with 150,000 can run longer, it has an extensive history of unfixable problems. You have to ask yourself when the time should come. If there are no definite criteria, you will never know when the time has come.


I couldn’t agree more, Pleasedodgevan, and have believed it way past time to say good-bye to the buggy for a good three years. However, my aging widowed father, with whom I live and care for, has adamantly wanted me to keep the car and I’ve been trying not to pick a big fight.

When I bought the new Impala seven months ago, just so I’d have transportation that is ALWAYS reliable, he asked me to keep the old buggy for him to drive what very, very little he is still driving, as his even older car has a transmission that is leaking like a sieve and too expensive to repair.

I’ve been campaigning to have him stop driving, as I don’t believe he is up to truly safe driving anymore, and for both old cars to go away and him to turn in his license. I provide most of his transportation these days as it is, with him the passenger in the new car I drive.

I’m actually hoping that whatever is wrong is so darned expensive that even he thinks it is too much to spend on a car he drives maybe once a week at most, and then no more than two to five miles total.

He isn’t going to spend what it takes to fix the tranny on his car, having been quoted $1,000 to $1,200 which a 1983 Olds 88 with 256,000 isn’t worth putting that kind of money into.

And I’m certainly not going to spend huge bucks again my old 1987 Olds Ciera. When the water pump went out on it several months ago, I wouldn’t spend the money to fix it but he chose to so he could still drive it.

If it comes down to it, I’m the legal owner of the car and always have been since I bought it new 20 years ago, so I may just up and dump it. Then he has no choice but restrict his driving even more if he has to pour two bottles of tranny fluid in the trans of his car every time he wants to fire it up and I’ve got the only keys to the new car.

Sorry to rant, I’m just at my wits end trying to get my Dad off the road before he hurts someone or himself. The man’s pride and sense of independence are tough to go up against and I certainly don’t enjoy robbing him of either.

In short, though, your advice to quit trying to keep the Brat Buggy going is appreciated, valued, and agreed with. You and others here on the board have been very helpful over the months with information and education that helped in my hunt for the new car and understanding just how bad things are with the old car. It’s a real shame, too, as it was always such a COMFORTABLE car to drive.



I would think if the overheating was bad enough to cook some piston rings that this would lead to higher oil consumption and the hydrocarbon readings would be a lot higher than what you show.

What about the fuel pump and filter? With a 150k+ miles has it ever been changed?
That’s kind of what I’m leaning toward unless it has been done in the recent past.


Hi OK4450.

Yes, it is actually on it’s 3rd fuel pump, the most recent one put in about 3 or 4 years ago. The original went out in the first 2 years, while under warranty and the 2nd one went out about 3 or 4 yrs ago.

It’s also had 2 new EGR (or is it ERG?) in less than the last 3 years, the most recent less than 5,000 miles ago. The computer has been replaced twice, it’s had a tune-up, new fuel filter, new gas float, all sorts of things w/in the past 10,000 miles, to no avail. Also had to have a rebuilt alternator and that took two tries to get a good one.

One odd thing, apparently the ohms on the firing (I can’t remember the exact proper terms) tend to be on the high side of what the specs call for, no matter what adjustments have been made.



Update: Had to have it towed to the shop this morning.

Turned out to be the Mass Air Flow Sensor.

Good news, since the same shop put this in new less than a year ago, it was under warranty and cost me nothing. Otherwise it would have totalled $62 for the part and $110 for labor.

Boy, did I get lucky!



Update: Had to have it towed to the shop this morning.

Turned out to be the Mass Air Flow Sensor.

Good news, since the same shop put this in new less than a year ago, it was under warranty and cost me nothing. Otherwise it would have totalled $62 for the part and $110 for labor.

Boy, did I get lucky!



Ooops. Apologies for the double post. Not sure why it did that.


I’m glad you got a diagnosis on the Ciera. I wanted to suggest a vacuum leak from the brake power booster for the idle surge; but, the MAF seems to be the culprit. IF the idle surges again, disconnect the vacuum hose going to the brake booster and plug the engine end of the hose. With the engine running, step on the brake. If the idle surges, you’ve found a cause. +++ On the Pa side, artful persuasion might be the best course of action.