Replacing clutch cylinders and wheel bearing results in distributor problem(?)

Today I went to pick up my car from a mechanic after having some work done, and the engine would not start. I had taken it in for some work on my car’s clutch hydraulics and a wheel bearing, went to the garage to pick up the car today, and could not start the engine there. Now it seems there is a problem with the distributor.

This is a 1988 Chevrolet Nova, 4-cylinder 1.6 L engine, manual transmission.

There were three tasks on the to-do list:

1. There was a roaring noise from the front-leftish area which I guessed was due to the left-front wheel bearing. The mechanic confirmed the left-front wheel bearing needed replacing, so I had that work done.

2. The clutch fluid level was down somewhat from last year. Last year I had also noticed the level had dropped from the previous time I had checked it. When I took the car in yesterday, the mechanic and I observed a bit of leaked fluid under the clutch pedal. The mechanic confirmed the master cylinder was leaking. I had them replace the clutch master and slave cylinders, bleed the system, etc.

3. I also had the mechanic check the engine timing to follow-up work done last year to replace the distributor. In May 2009 the timing was wrong due to the old distributor’s mechanical advance not functioning, so I had the distributor replaced. See the following thread for a discussion about that:


In May 2009 I purchased a used distributor that came from a 1987 Chevrolet Nova. The mechanic installed it, and engine ran fine from then until today.

I took the car to the mechanic yesterday. Yesterday they checked the timing (which was exactly correct) and they diagnosed the wheel bearing and clutch cylinders. This morning they did the repair work (Thursday, August 12, 2010).

The head mechanic called me at 11:46 AM today and said the work was done. He said everything went fine with the work. When I went to the garage to pick up the car, after paying the bill I went to start the car. The starter motor worked fine, but the engine would not start. One of the mechanics checked the spark plugs. They were not dripping with gas or anything like that. He checked whether the distributor was putting out spark, and it was not. The distributor was hot when the ignition was on. They think the coil might be shorted. The mechanic says he moved the car earlier today, around the time he called me (a bit before noon). There was no problem starting the engine then.

When I was there it was a little before the garage’s closing time, so we do not end up with a clear conclusion about this problem. I ended up having to leave the car there for the weekend as they are not open on Fridays.

As far as I know, the only work that would have been done around the distributor was to check the timing yesterday.

So I don’t get it. Any ideas how I ended up possibly with a new problem with the distributor after the mechanic finished replacing a wheel bearing and clutch master and slave cylinders, and checking the timing? The head mechanic seemed appropriately flabbergasted, and I certainly am as well (in addition to being inconvenienced / annoyed / whatnot).

I really doubt this has anything to do with a wheel bearing replacement. If your Nova normally requires that you depress the clutch pedal before it will start that could be your problem if they disconnected and failed to reconnect the clutch interlock when they changed the clutch parts. OTOH if that was the case, it’s not likely the starter would engage and the engine would crank.

The timing is a likely suspect. Failing to tighten a hold down screw or something along those lines. It seems the way for them to get this fixed is to have a full day ahead of them and a weekend behind them to consider the basic tests to a starting circuit in order to isolate it. Guessing at things like bad coil, IMO isn’t a great way to find a solution. It just sells parts unless they first prove that the coil is bad . Good luck.

This is a 22 year old car. I have one. At this age, anything can break at any time. And, you replaced a 22 year old broken distributor with a 23 year old distributor. Nothing lasts forever, and most of these parts were not designed to last 22 or 23 years. It’s most likely coincidental.

Not trying to sound condescending, but get used to it. Trust me, other stuff will also start to break. This car wasn’t built with the best of care, either. It was designed as a cheap, disposable car to sell with little profit to lower the fleet fuel efficiency standards. Chevy needed to sell this car to be able to sell trucks that are much more profitable.

I also have an 18 year old car that had a distributor problem. The magnetic pick-up coil that tells the ignition module when to fire had decided to puke. I found all the copper windings for the magnetic pick-up wrapped around the rotor. Couple that with the built-in coil having a large crack in the housing, and I went shopping for a re-manufactured distributor. The re-man distributor was less than purchasing the coil and magnetic pick-up separately. And less labor, since a new coil and magnetic pick-up were already installed.

In fact, I am used to maintaining and repairing this 22-year old car. Replacing the distributor last year seemed quite reasonable given its age, as did replacing the wheel bearing and clutch cylinders this year. But having another distributor go bad at a mechanic’s shop between 11:45 AM when it worked and 5:15 PM when it didn’t seems very odd.

You need to identify what part of the distributor is causing the problem, maladjusted timing will not prevent the engine from starting unless the timing is extremly incorrect and you would be seeing/hearing symptons of this.

There was no spark, so no timing to speak of with this new problem. Just a hot-to-the-touch distributor when the ignition was turned on. (The starter motor ran, though.)

Regarding someone’s earlier post, the clutch pedal does need to be depressed to start the engine. The starter engine did engage, so it does not look like an issue related to the clutch work.

What do you mean, “hot distributor”? Did it literally heat up when you turned the ignition on? If so, this is not normal.

I just checked for the distributor at This is the exact same distributor I replaced in my 1992 Toyota Celica. This distributor has two magnetic pick-ups and the coil is built in. You could replace the coil and pick-ups, but a reman would be cheaper. A junkyard part is likely going to be 20 years old or better and will probably crap out on you again when you least expect it. Just like this one.

Well then you have answered your own question, if the only involvement the shop had with the distributor was a timing check and now the problem is no spark, the shop is off the hook.

Not necessarily. Work in one area can introduce new problems in others. The odds are low that a distributor fails independently within a few hours of other work being done when it had run fine for 15 months.

For an example of a system failure NOT being independent of other work done on a car, in December 2005 I had lots of work done on my car: replace the timing belt, CV boots, adjust the timing, valve clearances, and lots more. In July 2006 I discovered the air conditioning did not work. I took the car to the garage where the major work had been done, and they said the refrigerant had leaked out, the system was contaminated and needed to be replaced or upgraded because my car uses older, unavailable refrigerant. In other words, solving the air conditioning problem would involve major work. However, a couple things the mechanic said about the state of the air conditioning system and the nature of the contamination did not quite jibe. I took the car to another mechanic to check the air conditioning for a second opinion and for some other work. This other mechanic did the work, including fixing the air conditioning. The AC problem was simply that one of the electrical wires to the AC system was unplugged and wedged between two other parts. The solution was to free the wire and plug it in, resulting in the AC working perfectly to present day, a quick and cheap repair.

In summary: (1) The mechanic who said the refrigerant had discharged, the system was contaminated, and needed to be replaced, etc. clearly screwed up. But how did the AC electrical wire get unplugged and tightly pinned between two other parts when no work had been done on the AC system? (2) The problem probably was created during the work in the engine compartment in December 2005. I was not aware of the problem because I neglected to try the AC until July. But the AC problem very likely was correlated (that is, due to a mistake) with the earlier work that did not involve the AC system: a wire got inadvertently yanked and pinned elsewhere during other work in the engine compartment.

Can you present a scenario at any level of believability (you have alot of room here) as too what they could have done to damage the internal components of your distributor (and that is assuming that these components are the cause of no spark)

You going too have to come up with some chain of eventshere.

No, I posted my original question in this topic to see if others have any idea how this would arise. See the first message above.

It is possible that the problem is a bad distributor cap or rotor. If it is cracked or compromised and letting the spark find an easier path to ground, then spark will never get to the plugs. But, if the coil or magnetic pick-ups test bad, then that is that. These can be tested before just going out and replacing stuff. All it takes is a multimeter.

Not even a far fetched almost impossible type theory? surely you can “brainstorm” a bit and come up with something, aliens, a mouse, put something out there.

I got it, I got it !!! The theory is “Where there’s smoke…there’s salmon” (as we used to say in my old neighborhood). Hence the distributor theory. 0/:>)

In my original message I described the mechanic’s quick check of the distributor, and he did not observe it producing a spark. That is how the “distributor theory” for the car’s failure to start arose.

As for crazy and/or nearly-impossible hypotheses, one for now is that the car is nearly out of gas. When I dropped it off, the tank was about half-full or a bit more. So the mechanics could have idled it for some ridiculous amount of time while doing the work. Or someone could have siphoned the tank at some point, as the car was there overnight. While the car was inside getting worked on, there was just enough liquid gasoline in the tank to start and move the car outside. After several hours in the sun, the gas in the tank evaporated so there was not enough liquid gas for me to start the car. The distributor is actually fine and the mechanic who checked it performed his test incorrectly.

Or a mechanic dropped a heavy object on the distributor cap while working in the engine compartment. Or there was some sort of mess-up in reconnecting the vacuum tubes after checking the timing.

I leave these hypotheses a bit vague because any number of things can be messed up while rummaging around in the engine compartment. See my message above about how the air conditioning in the car was disabled as a consequence of other work done on the car – a causal relationship, not coincidence, though one would not expect any relationship between the problem and the cause.

You have moved backwards now, what I mean is, now we are back to the “is it fuel or spark related”? this must be accuratly determined beyond any doubt.

The vacuum line idea can be ruled out (vacuum line errors do not inhibit spark) and a visual inspection can rule in or out the heavy object getting dropped.

I certainly would gas it up (not full by any means, 5 gallons ought to do it).

In reality the reasons why are car wont start are not so numerous.

There’s really no reason to assume this is a timing issue, most cars will at least attempt to run with the timing set at any point. Also, they said spark was absent. As for the clutch suggestion, the neutral safety switch disengages the starter relay when the pedal is not depressed, not the ignition (some starters are strong enough to hit the car parked a couple feet behind yours if it’s in reverse. Don’t anyone tell me otherwise, a co-worker of mine found this out when he used the remote start to find a car in the lot and some jackass had overridden the NSS to put remote start on a manual, saw it first hand…)

As for the real culprit, I would first check the condition of the cap and rotor, and probably replace them anyway, as they are parts that have a normal replacement interval, and could likely use it anyway. If that’s not the culprit, a coil is pretty likely at this age, and could be misbehaving as a result of the heat it experienced after the car was turned off and sitting for a while. Most people don’t realize this, but under normal operating conditions, the most heat seen between the radiator and firewall happens when the engine is just turned off and all that energy that’s dissipated by coolant and moving air while the engine’s running just radiates in the still metal and air, and the coil could be responding to that heat now, where it wouldn’t be noticed if the car was cold or had just run several minutes prior. If this is the case, it’s likely to only get worse. See if it starts when it’s been sitting for several hours. If it starts, I’d go with coil.

The head mechanic tells me the ignition coil is bad and needs to be replaced. Your hypothesis seems the most plausible: an unusual amount of heat due to lots of idling for the other work, followed by the car sitting in the sun for several hours leading to a flaky part failing and damaging the coil when someone tried to start the car.

So I am going to put on the to-do list for the next little while the replacement of the cap, rotor, spark plugs, and wires. I have all of these checked from time to time, but all are old enough for it to be reasonable to replace them.