Rough Starts/a couple of hiccups but runs and idles fine

I have a 1999 Ford Escort SE wagon with 112k miles on it. Last week when leaving work my car started very rough. This was unusual so I killed and restarted the car about three times before letting it run it’s course (~30 seconds), after which the car ran fine. About a week later on my way to work the car seemed to ‘sputter’ (for lack of a better word) when I pushed down on the petal looking for some power on two separate occasions. On each side of the sputters the car seemed to respond fine, but when it did sputter there was a severe lack of power. I got to and from work just fine, but while letting the car idle in the parking spot of my apartment for a minute before shutting off the engine the check engine light finally came on. The following morning the car again started rough (as if it were misfiring/running on 3 of 4 cylinders) and this time it took a good minute before smoothing out. However, after the car smoothed out I experienced no issues on the way to work, no sputtering, no loss of power, nothing. Doing some initial online research I feel that the problem may be one (or more) of the following:

-Fuel pump
-vacuum lines
-O2 Sensor
-Spark plugs (they are original)
-Fuel Filter (it is actually past due for replacement)

I plan on getting this checked out ASAP, but that still may be 2ish weeks away with my schedule. Some similar reports say that I may be having a ‘lean mixture’ issue (not getting enough fuel), but I haven’t had the time to check the code. My question is, how “safe” is it to continue driving my car with the current situation? Is it at a super high risk of failure/random stalling during rush hour? Will it cause any damage to the engine if there is a cylinder misfire upon start up? Any idea on rough cost estimates? (I’m guessing between $100-500). If anyone has either experienced and fixed, or have seen this type of symptoms in other vehicles, or just has general input into the issue it would be much appreciated. I was also wondering if the car would be reasonably reliable to drive on a ~400 mile road trip on an upcoming weekend, but I am making plans as if it is not.

Additional Details:
-Tried charging the fuel lines (car to ‘ON’ then ‘OFF’ position 3-4 times), had no effect on the morning start-up
-Commute to/from work is about 20 miles

If your fuel filter hasn’t ever been replaced, I’d start there.
Cap, wires, etc replacement could also be due. It is hard to diagnose a car with those components being questionable.

Has the check engine light done any flashing?

At this point I would not take the car on a long drive. I would also not wait. Whatever your “schedule” is it can end up costing you this engine.

Given that your spark plugs are original I’ll assume that none of your maintenance is up to date. You should immediately get new plugs & wires, new fuel & air filters. If you know anyone with a clue and some basic tools the plugs & wires & air filter can all be changed within the space of an hour or less. The only hitch could be that they’ve been in there too long & could be a problem coming out.

Someone should also get a fuel pressure gauge on it.

I wouldn’t do anything else until those things are done and I would drive it as little as possible. Once you figure out this issue, then worry about your timing belt.

Have you heard any strange noises, by chance?

-There has been no ‘flashing’ of the check engine light. It came on and has been on since (it came on less than 24 hours ago)
-I have been driving with the radio OFF specifically to listen to strange noises, but haven’t really heard much. The only ‘strange’/unusual noise I can comment on is a noise under moderate acceleration that sounds like an exhaust leak. However it’s not always there there, for instance I did not hear it this morning on the way to work. Furthermore when sitting parked the car does start to smell pretty ‘fumy’ of exhaust in the interior, which is why I’d like to think it is an exhaust leak that I hear, but I could be drastically wrong.

Thanks for the input so far. Besides the fuel filter (replaced at ~55k, and perhaps the PCV, I’ve tried to stay/follow the maintenance guide that came with the vehicle. I won’t lie, the past probably 35k miles I have been a bit more neglectful towards the car since I was a very poor college student, but I always stayed on top of oil/transmission fluid changes, and I did do a radiator/fluid flush about 35k miles ago. Now that I have the money though I will be getting everything settled. I plan on taking my car in or doing this stuff myself on Monday, but do have to drive ~60 miles until then.

Ok, so I got the fuel filter, spark plug, and wires all changed out. The mechanic said that the code from the Check engine light was p1506, or high engine idle. His notes said that the engine idles at 1000+ rpm for more than 1.5 minutes. He ran some cleaner through the IAC and reset the code and told me to inform him if it returned. It did. I also did forget to have him replace the PCV valve, which is original. He said that the IAC likely needs to be replaced, but is there a chance that the PCV valve is to blame? I’ll plan on replacing that myself assuming it is in an easy to reach/work on location.

You mentioned the “tune up” items but not whether or not the hiccups have gone away or changed at all. So did any of this maintenance work improve how the car is running?

Obviously it seems that you still have an idle issue, but if the hiccups are gone that may lead in different directions.

If its still sputtering, and you have this high idle code the IAC valve could be the culprit. Its a little motor that opens a passage for air to get into the engine when it idles. When you step on the throttle, your foot opening the throttle takes over for air intake. Come off the throttle & the IAC is supposed to kick back into action. If the IAC is sticky/sluggish it can give you the stutter on take off & poor running at start. I’m not sure what it means to say that he “ran some cleaner through it” - the IAC has to be removed to clean it so hopefully that’s what was done.

Another thing to do is temporarily disable your EGR valve. From the front of the car look up behind where the big black air intake snorkel connects to the engine. (Where it connects is the throttle body, btw, and your IAC is mounted on top). Behind the TB is a flying saucer looking thing with a small vacuum tube connected to the top of it. You can take that off, plug it with a golf tee (perfect size) and cap the little port on the valve with something. If this ends your hiccups/sputters then you need to have the EGR system (not only the valve!) evaluated. Do not drive around long term like that - this is just an easy diagnostic. It will set an error code for the EGR system and will likely make your engine ping after a while which is bad. So this is short term/temporary/diagnostic.

The PCV valve is not likely involved at all but you can buy on for a few bucks and change it in about 2 minutes. Again, up above the throttle body find a black tube - maybe 3/4" in diameter that connects with an elbow to the top of the intake and runs pretty much straight in line toward the front of the car. Pull out the end of the tube at the front of the car - just behind the cooling fan. The PCV valve is at that end of the tube. Pull out the old valve (it can be stuck pretty well if its old - twist & pull) & pop in the new on. That’s all there is to that.

Thanks cigroller for your input so far. To clarify the car does indeed run smoother after the mentioned items were changed. I have not experienced any other sputtering/“hiccups” or rough starts yet since I have gotten the parts changed, but am giving it a few more days before considering that issue resolved. I have however experienced what seems like better, more even acceleration, which likely due to the new plugs as the mechanic said one of the old ones did look pretty bad.

The only reason I mention the PCV valve is because according to the maintenance guide, it should have been replaced twice by now, and I have never done it. It seemed as if on other forums people said that the PCV valve, and possibly the tubes around it (cracks) could have contributed. Some have said they replaced the IAC, but it only somewhat helped, but when they also did the PCV valve the two in conjunction really helped. I don’t know if there is any possible truth to that, or if these two systems at all correlate with each other, but I figured it was worth asking. Thank you for the description of where the valve is actually located. I’ve been hunting for it’s location online with moderate success as my Chilton book is 60 miles away in storage. To be honest i was kinda hoping the PCV valve may be a contributor since it is a $5 part where as the IAC is a $130 part.

Thanks again, I’ll keep you posted.

Actually, now that you mention it there’s an elbow at the top of the PCV feed line where it connects to the intake that does tend to create an issue. The rest of that OEM line is hard plastic & not all that prone to be a problem unless it was abused. When I put it at the bottom of the list I was thinking of the valve itself, but any problem with the line could easily create a high idle issue from a vacuum leak. You should replace the valve anyway & if you decide to replace its vacuum line I wouldn’t drive myself crazy looking for exact match OEM parts. I’d just bring the whole thing into an auto parts store & make one up out of generic bits & pieces that work. Chances are you’d only be looking for a but of rubber elbow anyway - and anything about the right size & shape will do fine.

I’ll look into doing that this upcoming Monday. In other news, the Check Engine Light turned off yesterday on my way home from work. I doubt I’m in the “All clear”, but maybe in “remission”? Should I still consider replacing the IAC valve, or just leave it for now and see if the problem rears its head again? Also, I’m considering getting a cheap pocket code reader, something like the Actron CP9125 PocketScan Code Reader. Do you think this would be a good investment? I figure my car is getting to the age where I may have little codes popping up every now and then, and it would be nice to be able to self diagnose and then take action, rather than having to plan on taking it in somewhere to do that for me. What would you suggest?

I wouldn’t replace the IAC valve as, while mechanics replace them, they usually just need cleaning. Since that was done and you replaced the parts that are normally associated with a car being able to properly run, you may very well have solved your problem.

A simple code reader is a very good investment.

If you have a laptop you can buy a cord that will turn it into a code reader & basic scantool. There are free softwares available to drive things. It would give more bang for the buck, though the laptop in the car isn’t as convenient as a pocket sized reader.

Like RemcoW I wouldn’t replace the IAC unless I knew I HAD too.

So I did clean my IAC valve, as well as I changed out my PCV valve and everything seemed fine for about 60 or so miles. Then the car started really struggling (really low idle) at stoplights/stops and what not. The car did die once while at a stop, but started right back up so I figured it was time for a new IAC. Maybe I was right, but maybe I was wrong. On the way to work today I was about 1/2 to work when the car started losing power, sounded “off”/felt rough, and the check engine light started flashing shortly there after. I quickly exited the freeway and got to a safe spot. Between getting off the freeway and finding a safe spot to pull over the check engine light stopped blinking and remained OFF. The car also seemed to return to a normal feeling/sounding condition. I DID take the side roads and slowly and cautiously made my way to work, an additional eight miles. During that time the car seemed to respond fine. I was light on the accelerator and made sure not to “gas it” though.

What does the flashing check engine light mean/any ideas on what might be up? Could it be something really serious, or could it be signs that my timing belt just needs replacing (car has 113k, was planning on doing it at 120k per maintenance guide).


A flashing check engine light is a serious misfire. This can happen for many reasons - problems with spark, fuel, air, or compression.

I am going to toss something out there to have on the table. Do some internet searching on dropped valve seats in Ford Escorts. If you like this car, then read and be frightened. If it was me and I liked this car and was willing to spend some money to keep it rolling I would drive it as little as possible until you’ve had a shop check it out. A good shop will have a scanner capable of pulling the error codes that were set. You should also have someone who knows what they are doing check the compression and put a vacuum gauge on it to look for anything that looks even a little like a compression and/or valve issue.

You should hope that your problem is very routine - like a failing fuel injector or fuel pump or something. But the valve seat issue is very real and very unpredictable (don’t ask me how I know). If it happens to be your issue and one fails it immediately destroys the engine. Replacement heads for these cars are available & fairly cheap if that’s what it comes to.

Don’t jump the gun on that or anything. Its just a possibility - but one I wish someone had mentioned to me several years back when my Escort starting having weird and inexplicable, randomly occurring misfires…and then grenaded.

I actually have read about the valve seat issue. Most of the time it doesn’t happen for another 30k miles for this car/year. I’m not ruling it out though. I’m going to have the car towed to my mechanics within the next couple of days, while driving around in a rental. I’ll have them look at the mentioned suggestions just to see how much I may be tempting fate.

I do like this car dearly, but I realize its life may be coming to an end and I can luckily afford a new car if repairs cost over $750 for the current issue (that’s the $ limit I’ve put in place). My only thoughts are, do I fix the car and drive it to the ground, or fix the car and sell it while it still runs??