From the Captain Obvious files: Clean up your wiring mess before going anywhere!

Bmachine

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I had a bit of an eye-opening experience yesterday.

The previous owner of my car had been messing with the wiring under the dash in the 80s custom stereo craze. Then my car was converted from auto to manual resulting in more changes to the factory wiring. As a result there were several wires under my dash which were disconnected. Also the warning flasher relay was dangling, unattached. But, as always with an old car, there were so many other issues to deal with that this one got pushed to the back burner. Big mistake.

Yesterday I had to drive it from Los Angeles to north of San Francisco. About 9 hours drive. For the most part, everything everything went well. But at some point while stuck in the Friday afternoon SF Bay area rush-hour traffic, as I pressed on the clutch, I noticed the pedal wasn’t going all the way to the floor. Immediately I noticed it was because of the damn flasher relay which had gotten out and was stuck behind the pedal. Worried that it might get caught under the brake pedal, I quickly opened the hood release door so I could try and shove that relay in there so it would stay out of the way. But all of a sudden, the car completely dies! I tried to restart it, it was cranking fine but the motor wouldn’t fire. Emergency, emergency, emergency! I am now stopped in the middle of the freeway with 1 million cars all around me. I turn the flashers on and try to crank it again. Nothing is firing. So I reach for my AAA card and call them while people are honking behind and flying by on each side of me. Then AAA tells me that I’ve already used my four emergency calls this year and they need to bill me $100 to tow. Baffled, I tried to think of how that would be possible and realized that my son had had a few issues with his car and I had called AAA for that. Just for battery charges and that sort of thing, no towing. But evidently each of those counts against you. So here I am, stopped on the freeway and the guy wants me to give him a credit card number to which to bill the tow. I’m telling him to get his butt in gear and send a tow ASAP because I’m in a dangerous situation. But nothing doing. He has to get that credit card number. So I gave it to him and then he says OK we will contact you when we find a towing company. In the meantime we will notify the CHP ( California Highway patrol) to let them know. At that point, I was genuinely concerned that someone might rear end me at any moment. I felt like a sitting duck on opening day of hunting season. A most unpleasant feeling.

10 minutes later I get a callback. AAA says “oh your membership is through AAA Southern California but you are now in Northern California so we can’t help you anymore”. What??? I’m going a little frantic at this point because people are screaming at me from behind and flying past me on the side. But nothing doing. They tell me “If you want we can give you the phone number of a local tow company”. No amount of explaining to them that I could be rear ended at high speed any second helped. So I hang up the phone and called sfDon who was about 30 miles away. Together we try to figure out what could’ve caused the problem. But it’s too dangerous to get out of the car to go under the dash because of the traffic. Fortunately, soon after that, I see a CHP car arrive behind me. Even more fortunately, he kindly offers to block the traffic lanes so we can push the car by hand instead of him using his bumpers to push my car with his. With those flimsy early bumpers, that would almost guarantee that my brand new rear tail panel which was installed just last week would get all banged up. This guy was a real guardian angel!

OK, we got it off to the side of the freeway . He offers to call one of the CHP authorized tow companies to come and get me. Great!. While we wait, I tell him that I might want to look under the dash and see if I can figure out what happened. So he puts his car behind mine with his emergency lights on so I can open the drivers door and crawl under there. I get Don back on the phone. After evaluating the symptoms, he tells me to follow the green wire from the ignition switch to the fuse box. I do and it seems securely fastened. But then I notice that the fuse connected to the green wire, which is fuse 8 in my 74, is blown! Fortunately, I had purchased some extra fuses before the trip. So I replace the fuse and sure enough… the car starts right up!

I run back to the CHP guy and tell him that I got it fixed. And he kindly offers to call off the tow truck. A few minutes later, I am back on my way!

Needless to say, this was a bit of a harrowing experience. What probably happened is that, when I was fumbling down there to get the flasher relay out of the way while still trying to keep an eye on the road, one of the dangling wires must have shorted something which caused that fuse to blow. And that fuse kills the ignition which kills the whole car.

Moral of the story:

One. Even if the car seems to run fine, never leave any wires or relays hanging. At the very least, insulate all of them and tie wrap them securely out of the way.

Two. Always make sure your emergency flashers work brightly and, even better would be to have the emergency triangle like we are supposed to have in Europe. Even if you can’t get out of the car, if you can reach it from inside you might be able to put it on the roof.

Three: Check your AAA (or whatever road assistance you have) status before going on any long trip.

Four: Always carry spare fuses.

Five: Always carry a few phone numbers from helpful forum members on the way who can help you in a pinch.

Six: Never try to fix something in the car while you’re driving!

Among the bad luck of this happening in the first place, I was really lucky on several counts. This could have ended much worse.
You learn a little every day...

Last but not least, I couldn’t thank our buddy sfDon enough for his help. Without him it could have been a far different outcome.

Flying down the freeway at... 0 mph.
IMG_5491.JPG
 
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jmackro

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Bo:

We've all been there before (though perhaps not in the middle of Hwy 880 on a Friday afternoon!). Glad you and your coupe escaped unscathed. Assume you've made it home by now.
 
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dang

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Man, I got enough anxiety just reading your story. Wow! Glad it worked out and thanks for sharing.
 

Honolulu

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Glad you got it sorted, even better that another member was able to help solve the problem.

We've all had "oh sh*t I'm stuck where I don't want to be!" moments. Mine was a month back. I don't carry a cell phone. Had to walk a mile and a half back home, 600 vertical feet, in business attire. Humidity about 9,000 and rising. Frequent stops. Don't want to think of people who tooted their horns 'cuz then recognize me, but didn't stop.
 

gazzol

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Glad you got sorted and without incident although I can imagine how scarey that was to be stuck in the middle of the road like that.
It is inevitable with the age of our cars that the wiring has been patched up and bodged time and time again, my car is exactly one of those, with scotch locks and insulation tape all over the place my heart sinks every time I look under the dash, so inevitably like yourself I try and forget about it. I have said many times that I would like to rip the lot out and start again but it gets put to the back of the que because unlike running faults, body work, brakes or suspension the results aren't tangable. Right then where's my to do list?
 

Ohmess

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Sorting through the wiring on my car was actually one of the first things I did after I acquired my car. The high school drop out who installed the prior owner's stereo spliced into the fuse 1 circuit, pulled the 5 amp fuse and installed a 40 amp fuse in its place. When the owner then cranked up the stereo, she melted the fuse block, tail light assembly, and a handful of wires in the left side wiring circuit.
 

Gary Knox

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Bo,

I have shared your pain! Hot summer day, going to a Phillies game on I-95 on a Sunday noon 2 years ago. Haven't driven the SL55 AMG for a few weeks, so we take it. About 3 miles from the ball park, the engine spurts twice in about 2 seconds and DIES. I'm in middle of 5 lanes. No engine power, no power steering and I am slowing QUICKLY from the traffic average of 75 mph. Flashers on instantly and for some reason the traffic in the two right lanes has moderate openings. No choice but to try to get through the slim 'hole'. I get to the shoulder just as a semi flies by at ~70. Wait two hours for AAA (first guy couldn't find us, even though we'd given exact mile marker location). Long story short - after flat bed 35 miles home, replace the crank position sensor - no joy - flat bed to MB dealer. Electric fuel pump had 'expired (55K miles and 14 years)'. $1.5K to replace it (differential has to be removed for access. There is no advance warning when an electric fuel pump chugs for the last time!!

We are both SOOOOO VERY FORTUNATE, as the results could have been terrible for both cars and those within them.

Glad it turned out so well for you, and your 'list' is perfect.

Gary
 

Ohmess

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Bo,

I have shared your pain! Hot summer day, going to a Phillies game on I-95 on a Sunday noon 2 years ago. Haven't driven the SL55 AMG for a few weeks, so we take it. About 3 miles from the ball park, the engine spurts twice in about 2 seconds and DIES. I'm in middle of 5 lanes. No engine power, no power steering and I am slowing QUICKLY from the traffic average of 75 mph. Flashers on instantly and for some reason the traffic in the two right lanes has moderate openings. No choice but to try to get through the slim 'hole'. I get to the shoulder just as a semi flies by at ~70. Wait two hours for AAA (first guy couldn't find us, even though we'd given exact mile marker location). Long story short - after flat bed 35 miles home, replace the crank position sensor - no joy - flat bed to MB dealer. Electric fuel pump had 'expired (55K miles and 14 years)'. $1.5K to replace it (differential has to be removed for access. There is no advance warning when an electric fuel pump chugs for the last time!!

We are both SOOOOO VERY FORTUNATE, as the results could have been terrible for both cars and those within them.

Glad it turned out so well for you, and your 'list' is perfect.

Gary
Yeah, electric fuel pumps do not telegraph when they are going to die. When I installed my electric fuel pump as part of the triple Weber conversion, I bought a spare pump and wired the car with a connector that allows a quick change. The entire setup is designed so that I can change the pump without needing to lift the car using only a 10mm wrench, a screwdriver and a vice grips to temporarily stop the fuel flow.
 

Stevehose

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I also carry a spare pump under the spare tire but I need to do what you did in order to make a roadside swap quick and easy. Did you use snap on connect fuel lines like on boats?

Yeah, electric fuel pumps do not telegraph when they are going to die. When I installed my electric fuel pump as part of the triple Weber conversion, I bought a spare pump and wired the car with a connector that allows a quick change. The entire setup is designed so that I can change the pump without needing to lift the car using only a 10mm wrench, a screwdriver and a vice grips to temporarily stop the fuel flow.
 

Bmachine

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Thanks for all the commiserations! These hobbies require not only time, money and highly tuned hiding skills from your spouse but also sometimes nerves of steel and possibly a really good insurance policy... for both car and owner!

PS: Yes I did make it home OK after a 13.5 hour day. Thank you.
 

autokunst

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Hey Bo,
I just found this post. So glad you threaded the needle and navigated to a safe and "back on the road" solution. Very good lessons shared! That must have been treacherous with all of that traffic racing up behind you. Glad you are okay.
 

Ohmess

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I also carry a spare pump under the spare tire but I need to do what you did in order to make a roadside swap quick and easy. Did you use snap on connect fuel lines like on boats?
I wish I had though of that. No, I just have fuel lines to the pump with hose clamps.
 

Luis A.

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I had something similar happen with the front and rear fog light switch (the one around your left knee) wiring.

I was pulling out of a roadside parallel parking spot halfway into a ditch (at Elkhart Lake) and trying to pull out fast and madly turning the wheel and massaging the clutch I felt something snap as I turned the wheel and at the clutch as I depressed it. I had just finished some AC work and had removed the bottom console piece where those switches mount and was apparently quite sloppy with my wire routing as the whole thing wrapped itself around the steering column u-joint and the upper clutch pedal. It didn't stop clutch or wheel motion but I could feel I was pulling and stepping on a whole bunch of stuff down there. The wires were easily ripped off the switches and also pulled strongly on the main headlight switch killing the instrument lighting for the trip home. Quite a mess.
 

shanon

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Been there.
My solution...If you want 50yr old car to work properly....rewire the entire car from to get go....

50yr old wiring harnesses are that....50yrs old and WILL let ya down when THEY decide. Wires becomes brittle and crack...then short and leave ya hanging...

Just do it if ya really wanna use it......
 

Wes

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Food for thought.
I had a similar issue once but it was on my boat with with my young son as it got dark and the wind was coming up.
Not a nice feeling..
 

Bwana

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Awesome photograph! Really shows your situation when you stop and think about it for a minute. Glad you made it out safely
 
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