It was a nice Sunday morning and I had made arrangements with my fishing buddy, Bruce, to meet him and his son, Greg, bright and early at his house. We grabbed a few cups of coffee and some muffins at the local store and headed over to his boat which was tied up in a little cove in Pultneyville, NY.
Now I should have worried a bit when Bruce announced that this was the maiden voyage of the season. He told me that he had spent the big buck to have the boat de-winterized by a marina in Sodus where he had bought the boat last year. After all who wants to risk doing it yourself when you can have the professionals do the job right and have no risk of encountering any problems when out on the big lake, Ontario.
So down went the canvas and on went the blower. After a minute or so the engine was fired up. It seemed to idle a bit rough for an engine that had just been tuned up by the pros but it had sat idle all winter so I dismissed it thinking that we would blow out the carbon when we cleared the harbor.
All I could think of was those huge steelhead and brown trout along with the salmon just waiting to taste the steel hooks dangling behind those flashy colored lures. As we idled out the channel the engine seemed to be loping a bit more that I would have liked. Perhaps we had picked up some weeds as we left the dock. Bruce looked left and right and seeing that there was no traffic on the lake he put the pedal to the metal, so to speak. The engine came to life for about three milliseconds and then backfired and sputtered and backfired some more. Bruce pulled it back to an idle and looked at me as if to say, 'What should I do now, Misterfixit?"
"Maybe it is just not warmed up enough", the words sort of stumbled out of Bruce's mouth but I could tell he was about as worried as I was that somehow those steel head were going to have to wait for a while.
"Can't be anything wrong with the engine, after all I just spent over a hundred dollars for a tune-up!"
He raised the throttle slowly this time and for a minute I could feel that coho fighting on the line, but it didn't last long. The engine backfired three more times and wouldn't get over a few hundred RPM.
Discretion being the better part of valor we decided to turn back and idle into the harbor.
Bruce got on the radio and called his other son, Jeff, who by now had been fishing out of Sodus on his own boat for at least an hour. He told Jeff about our plight and got no sympathy from him! Jeff always did like to kid his father about who had the better boat and he took the full advantage of the opportunity this time with no thought of how disappointed we really were. After a few minutes of jesting Jeff decided to come in to lend a hand.
Meanwhile we pulled back into the dock and tied it off. I lifted the engine cover and stared at a spotless engine so clean you could eat salmon off it! If only we could get out there and catch a few!
I asked Bruce just what was done to the engine by the "professionals" in Sodus. He told me they put in new spark plugs, a new distributor cap and rotor and changed the gas filter. It occurred to me that we might be fishing sooner than we thought if my idea was right. I asked Bruce for the engine manual and looked for the firing order. I mean, if they replaced the distributor cap they might well have reversed a few wires when putting them back into the new cap. It took a few minutes for me to trace each of the eight spark plug wires back to the cap. 1 . . . .2 . . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . . . 6 . . . . .7 . . . . 8. Sorry Bruce, but it's right.
Jeff pulled in as I was doing more diagnostics. By now I had determined that there was no spark at the number 2 spark plug. Perhaps that wire was the culprit! As I continued my diagnosis I found that there was no spark at the number 3 sparkplug as well. When I looked for spark at the distributor cap towers for the corresponding wires I found no spark there as well. I asked Bruce where the old cap was - not too likely but no spark at the two towers and a really fat spark at all others led me to believe that the cap was faulty. What else could it be?? He told me it was back at his house on the workbench in his garage.
By now Jeff was getting a bit anxious to go back out after some big ones and offered to take Bruce, Greg and me with him and the other guy he had with him. I looked at the size of his boat and you know what they say that size doesn't make a difference? Well in this case it did. I told Bruce and Greg to go out and catch a biggun for me - I was going to stay at the dock and figure this thing out if it killed me! I snatched the keys from the boat ignition and headed to my truck with Bruce et al yelling at me to come back and forget the damn distributor and go fishing for the rest of the morning. But Bruce has known me for at least twenty years and knew that the problem was bugging me. I had to find out what was wrong!!
Twenty minutes later I was back at the boat with the old distributor cap but looking at the structure of it there was virtually no way the new one could have failed on two towers! I had to swap it with the new one just to prove the point that the cap wasn't the problem. Sure enough I was right - both caps caused the same problem, backfiring and no spark on two of the cylinders, #2 and #3.
So, let's recap and see where I was at that point. I knew that the engine ran on all eight cylinders the day Bruce took it out of the water last year - I was with him. I knew that the "professionals" had replaced the spark plugs, the distributor cap and the rotor and the gas filter. I had ruled out the gas filter and the cap so the only other thing they had touched was the rotor and what could fail with a rotor that caused two cylinders to lose spark? Nothing! It just didn't make any sense. There was nothing broken and yet the engine ran like a piece of crap!!
Back to basics here - the two towers that had no spark were 180 degrees opposite from each other on the cap. This distributor has no points and condenser like the old ones. It has a hall effect sensor which consists of a magnet and a small pick-up coil in very close proximity - about a 20 thousands of an inch gap between them. There is a piece of sheet metal attached to the distributor shaft that looks sort of like a jar cap with slots cut in it to make eight tabs that can sweep through the gap in the distributor to interrupt the magnetic field and cause a spark at the coil. I stared at the rotor for quite a while wondering what could possibly be wrong with it. I tried to remove it but it was held firmly in place so I just pondered it. I had by now figured out how to engage the starter motor at the engine and was tapping the starter to observe the sheet metal passing thorough the gap. Perhaps two of the tabs opposite each other were bent by the professionals when they installed the rotor. I tapped the starter once again and watched as the tab for the number two tower passed the gap. Looked just fine to me. It didn't rub on either side of the gap. I tapped the starter and watched as the number three tab was about to pass the gap when I noticed something strange. The rotor was pointing directly at the number three tower in the distributor but the sheet metal tab was not even close to entering the gap. I spun the engine one more time and watched as the rotor approached number two. Again I saw that the tab was no where near close to the sensor. One more tap of the starter and the rotor swung towards the next tower, #7. Only thing was that the sheet metal tab entered the gap on schedule for that one! I stared at the sheet metal tabs for a long time. The answer had to be there but I just couldn't see it. Then I started numbering each tab to make sure that I was watching the correct tab each time. I marked The tab for #1, with a marker pen, then #2, #3, #4, #5 #6 . . . Wait a minute here! Where are the tabs for #7 and #8? There weren't any. A quick count and I verified that I was working on an 8 cylinder motor, eighth plugs, eight wires, eight towers on the cap but only six sheet metal tabs on the rotor!! Voila! That's it!! The professional who replaced only four components had mistakenly installed a rotor for a six cylinder engine!!
I got on the marine radio and called to Bruce and the crew. By now they were fishing up to Sodus Bay. I told them what I had found and requested that they stop by and talk to Arney at the marina and politely request a new rotor only this time make sure that there are EIGHT tabs on it!
The moral to this story is that just because a "professional" has worked on your vehicle, be it a boat or a car or a washing machine, and there is still a problem with it don't assume that he didn't screw up something! Check the obvious first. Of course if I had the old rotor I probably would have seen the visual difference between the two rotors and might have swapped the old part with the new as I did with the cap - live and learn!!
The next day Bruce called me and told me that he had the new rotor so we packed up a few beers, a bottle of Chivas and headed down to the boat. It took all of five minutes to remove the six cylinder rotor and replace it with the correct one. The engine started up and ran like a top. It was late so we decided not to go out and wash some lures - we just sat on a picnic bench and sipped some Chivas and watched the sun set. Maybe next week we'll go out and harvest some of those salmon on a boat that's running on all eight!!
Message me at BobHewitt@Misterfixit.com
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