CarTalk.com Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

No power steering, power brakes or acceleration

My car is a 1985 Pontiac Firebird

So I was drive around 45mph when I noticed that the accelerator stopped responding, it didn’t make any obvious noises. I hadn’t run out of gas and the engine was still running. I started pulling over to the side of the road and noticed that the power steering and the power brakes were no longer working. I got it to the side of the road and shut the engine off, I waited a minute and tried to start it again, the engine turned over but wouldn’t start. I tried this a few more times with the same result.

I can’t afford to take it to a mechanic so I need to figure out what’s wrong and try to fix it myself. The car has a slow oil leak. As recently as a few months ago I replaced the battery and had to replace the alternator, since then it has been running fine. I checked the belts and all of them are still there, a friend of mine told me to wiggle the pulleys and make sure they were all tight, I did so and found nothing wrong with them and none of the belts are loose. Does anyone know what could cause all of these things to go wrong at once?

You engine died. The engine was still “running” only in that the crankshaft was still turning, being driven through the drivetrain by the inertia of the car.

As with all dead engines, start with the basics: fuel and spark. You have a carburator in that car, so if you prop the choke open, look down the hole with a flashlight, and manually activate the throttle, you should see fuel spray into the veturi. If you don’t, than your fuel supply has discontinued due to a dead fuel pump or whatever. If you do, than you’ve probably lost spark.

You have a distributor based system, and if you have fuel than you should start with the distributor. Check to see if when you try to start the engine and the crankshaft is turning the rotor also turns. If not, you may have a popped timing chain. Post back if that’s the case and we’ll walk you further down that path. If the rotors is turning, and the distributor appears to be physically okay, post and we’ll go from there.

Mountainbike is correct.
While the OP thinks that the engine was still running, in fact it had stalled or otherwise stopped running. The lack of both PS & PB proves this point.

Mountainbike has given you a very good verbal flow chart to begin diagnosing the problem.
Just bear in mind that the ultimate fix may require a professional mechanic.

To check for spark, buy this gadget from HarborFreight:


(Most autopart stores sell things very much like this)

Unplug one of the spark plugs and plug this thing in series. Have someone crank the engine while you watch the gadget. If you see flashes, it is getting spark (timing may not be right, though).
If so, open the air filter and spray some starter fluid into the opening, right into the carb. Try to start it.
If it wants to start, you have a fuel delivery problem of sorts.

One good thing, when an engine that has been running reasonably well simply stops running all of a sudden, it is usually something obvious. I’ve had this happen to me from time to time over the years. In my cases it was: a bad fuel pump relay, a bad fuel pump, bad battery connections, water in the gasoline, a sand-clogged fuel injection system (from dirty gasoline), a carb inlet needle valve sticking, a cracked ignition coil, and water on the ignition wires.

If the engine “turned over” when you attempted to restart it the battery and charging system are apparently OK. Is the V8 in that car? If so the most common cause for suddenly going dead is the module failing.

And it often fails due to high resistance in the plug wires and/or a hole burned through the rotor.

The 4 cylinder and V6 models have similar modules with similar failure rates but fuel injection compounds the struggle to diagnose them.

Well, guys, if the engine died but was still turning in that the crankshaft was still turning, the power steering and brakes would be OK/