Starting a car with ether


Dear Tom and Ray,

I love your show, but never thought I?d be writing to you for help, which I dearly need.

Here is my problem: My wife and I own a 1992 Chevrolet Lumina sedan (Lucy) which we love. It is the most dependable car we have ever owned. It currently has 206,702 miles on it, and I was hoping to see it reach 250,000. The car has never let us down, until recently. Several weeks ago, the temperature dipped to 20 below with 40 below wind chills (normal for this part of the country). We live in North Dakota (otherwise known as the Great White North) where it gets stupidly cold in the winter. I am not from ND, so my aversion to 30 below temperatures truly baffles the locals, but I think their neurons suffer from frostbite and are no longer affected by the extreme temperatures. I digress. As sometimes happens when it?s bitterly cold, Lucy would not start. Normally, if I jump her or wait for the temperature to rise, she will start immediately. On this morning, I needed to get to work and then drive to the airport to catch a flight. I asked my neighbor if her husband was home, hoping he could help me jump the car, but he had already left for work. This created a problem, as my wife had our other vehicle, so I had nothing to jump the car with. I went into the house to make alternate transportation arrangements and get my work together.

While I was in the house, unbeknownst to me, my neighbor sent her middle-aged son to help start the car (I?ll call him Bob.). At one point I did look out the window and saw Bob bending over the engine, but before I could go out to talk with him, he abruptly left and never returned. I later learned that rather than attempting to simply jump the car, he poured ether into the engine. Now the car will not start at all, which has never happened before, even when I must jump it or charge the battery. For awhile there was a horrible aroma of ether wafting from under the hood. If his goal of pouring ether into the engine was to put Lucy to sleep, he certainly succeeded.

Please help! I am absolutely convinced without a doubt that Bob has damaged the engine, though he?ll never admit it. Everyone around here tells me the car is just old. I disagree! Lucy ran fine before being overcome with poisonous fumes. Please tell me what the ether has done to the engine and what I can do to get the car running again. I am desperate. I also want to know why in the heck Bob poured ether into the engine in the first place. What was he thinking?!

Thank you very much.


Jeremiah Kauffman

Minot, North Dakota


I am takeing that what you call ether is starting fluid. If to much is used then it will clean all the oil from your cylinder walls and you won’t have compression. You can try to remove all your spark plugs and squirt a little motor oil in each cylinder then crank engine over to remove excess oil out of the cyliders without the plugs in. I will warn you if you put to much oil in the cylinders when you crank it over you will have oil everywheres if you don’t put a rag over each sparkplug hole.

I would also install new sparkplugs.


Don’t panic over the ether. Bob did not pour it into the engine, he added it to the air intake. That means it will not enter the engine except in vapor form, and even then it is forced out on each exhaust cycle. So you do not have puddles of liquid ether lying about inside your engine. Even if you did it would simply act like gasoline. There is no damage to your engine. Ether in this sense is harmless.

You are still faced with a starting problem. Well, you had the problem before Bob showed up. And such problems worsen with time. I don’t know the maintenance history of your vehicle. Maybe it was overdue for fresh spark plugs or other ignition parts. Even so, one warm day you will crank the engine and it will fire right up. Be patient. When that happens bring Lucy to a mechanic for a checkup.


I don’t know what adverse effects eithier will have on a gas engine but I have seen it cause a diesel (Detroit Diesel 6-71) engine to “run away”. The RPM’s accelerate at an uncontrolled rate and the engine explodes.


You really do not want to use ether in a diesel engine.


I agree with Skypilot because I’ve seen several vehicles that suffered from the cylinder walls being enthusiastically washed down with ether followed by refusing to start.
Spark plugs out, squirt of oil in, and never allow Bob or ether around the car again.


If it runs again, install an engine heater. Plugged in for forty-five minutes, it will insure that the engine will start. In the cold, start the car before the other one leaves. I used to drive the car at 11:30 at night to help it start in the morning. Usually, ether will foul the plugs and cause you to work outside or wait for warmer weather.


I was stationed in North Dakota for three years. Excellent description.

Odds are Bob simply sprayed enough ether into the snorkle to wet the plugs down. I’ve seen it happen. Although ether is aeromatic, it simply wets everything in a closed cylinder. I’d suggest you get the vehicle towed to a shop, let it get warmed up and get some new plugs, change the oil and filter, and then start over. Perhaps at that point you can have an engine heater installed, and have the battery checked to see if it needs replacement.




Years back, when I worked with Cat-powered air compressors, it was common practice to use ether “bombs” (egg-shaped plastic vails of ether) in an ether injector mounted on the engine to start it on cold mornings. So unless the diesel manufacturers have changed something in the design, ether should not harm the engine. Of course the Cat would howl like a banshee when she fired.


you need to find out EXACTLY what “bob” poured into the intake.

you DON’T “pour” ether into anything. ether is sprayed.

if you actually saw him pouring something into your car you need to find out what it was.

also you should ask him what he did after he “poured” “it” into the car, did he crank it? did he “pour it” into the intake?

getting back to the OP, was the original problem a dead battery? was the car not cranking, or did it crank over, but not catch (start)?


I definitely would not try it on a automotive diesel, especially an indirect injection engine with glow plugs. The ether can/will detonate much too early during the compression stroke, significant ugliness may result.


I can see some of you have never worked around heavy duty diesel engines in sub zero weather.

There IS a right way and a wrong way to use starting fluid. (commonly called ‘ether’)

The majority (if not ALL) diesels have glow plugs (or pre-heaters) that are supposed to be used prior to engine cranking.

If that doesn’t work, THEN consider using the starting fluid.

The engine MUST be cranking (turning over) BEFORE the starting fluid is applied SPARINGLY.

Not used correctly it won’t be long before that engine will have to be rebuilt.

During the 15 years I spent working in a heavy construction rental house, (Large portable air compressors, bulldozers, crawler backhoes, etc.) we had no less than 30 engines fried because customers went nuts with starting fluid.

It was written (and brought to their attention before signing) into the rental contract that the customer was responsible for any damage done to the unit (like all rental agreements).

A lot of emphasis was put on the use of starting fluid.

Another thing that was there to be used in cold weather was a block heater. All the customer had to do was plug it in to an operative electrical outlet (with or without a timer).

The majority of new job sites have temporary hydro supplied to them so there’s no excuse not to plug 'em in.

The cost of a block heater pays for itself over and over for the life of the engine, properly maintained that is.

Too much starting fluid and no cranking before application WILL guarantee cylinders popping with no oil.

FWIW, starting fluid comes in a spray can (aerosol) but usually ‘squirts’ the fluid out.


Always use ether sparingly. As you crank the engine, have your ‘helper’ just give a short burst (like half a second or just a little more) from the spray can into the air intake of the air intake system. If it’s fuel injected, remove the air filter and short-burst directly into the air horn of the injector set-up or into the top of the TBI (throttle body injector). If it fires, but doesn’t stay running, try another short burst. It’ll eventually stay running. If you use too much ether, it could burn or explode a hole in the top of a piston. Ether is a highly volatile solvent and WILL strip the cylinder walls of oil. I’ve seen holes in pistons twice in over 50 years of “monkeying around” cars. Caused by excess ether.If he actually POURED something in, then it’s anybody’s guess what was ‘poured’ in. Once you get it started, after pulling the plugs and at least cleaning and re-gapping them, then put about a teaspoon or two of the motor oil that you regularly use into each cylinder. An eye dropper or veterinary syringe works as does a recycled bearing oil plastic bottle. Put the plugs back in. Start the engine but don’t crank it for more than about 15 seconds or you can overheat the starter motor. After you get it going, park it in a dark place at night. Start it up again after raising the hood. Look for ‘sparklies’ along the plug wires and the spark plug wire boots at each end of the wires. If you see sparklies, plan on installing new spark plug wires. While you’re at it, check the rest of the tune-up. Check for moisture at the coils, etc. If you find any moisture, use carb. cleaner or brake cleaner to dissipate the moisture then wipe down the parts with a lint-free rag. Button everything back up. Should run as before your challenge reared its ugly head.


Bob and the ether are just coincidences to the problem of not starting. The engine wouldn’t start before they arrived on the scene.
Have you checked for spark? Let a good shop troubleshoot it. It may be a problem which is NOT a continuation of the old difficult to start problem.


Kit, normally I’d agree, but having lived in North Dakota and started cars many times in prolonged -30 degree (and colder) temperature spells, it’s common to have a hard time getting them started. Even with everything in good order. Engione heaters make a big difference, but without one all bets are off.

It may be a coincidence, but up there it may be just a regular winter and any given car.