Car runs but won't start (!)

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A few months ago, my '85 Ford Escort, 43,000 miles, started making a funny noise under the hood. It's probably the bearings on the timing-belt tensioner pulley; however, I didn't have time to work on it at that time and so the car has just sat around for several months. Recently I found I had enough time in my schedule to think about fixing the car. So, I went out to start it up to try to track down the noise.

It seems as though the gas evaporated out of my tank during the time the car sat unused. So, I got a gas can and filled up the tank with about eight gallons of gas. I'm not sure if this is related to the problem at hand or not, but even with eight gallons in my thirteen gallon tank, the fuel indicator still won't move or show anything above "E" when I turn on the ignition.

Anyway, I try to start the car, pump the gas a couple of times, and the engine begins to run. In fact it sounds like it IS running, so I release the key and the starter disengages. Immediately thereafter, the engine dies.

I can hear that the engine is "running" the whole time I have the starter turned on. If I run the starter and give it a lot of gas, I can hear the engine rev up just like it would from a normal idle. It runs smoothly, in time, etc. But, it won't keep running after I release the key and the starter disengages.

So what could the problem be in this case? Why would the engine run fine while being turned by the starter, but die as soon as that external momentum is turned off?

All replies are appreciated.

Thanks in advance,


posted by  MatthewHSE

First of all, your title makes ZERO sense. There is no way a car "will run but not start." It started in order to qualify as running. What you just finished decribing is that the car WILL start but will not continue running once the key is turned from the "start" position back to "run." Now that we are straight with that:

Basically, from your description and IF, infact, the engine is running fine while you are holding the key at the start position, aside from possible starter damage and possible ignition wiring overheat are more than likely looking at a malfunction in the ignition switch or wiring to where the "run" position is not making continuity but the "start" position is.

Unless there is an endemic problem with these cars that I am unaware of or some other electrical phenomena that can occur, that is my best guess with the information you have provided.

How long did the car set to where you think the gas evaporated from the tank? This is NOT typically likely. Also, are you SURE the engine is "running" with the key in the start position and not just speeding up a little with the starter as you give it gas? If the answer to that is YES, then go based off what I said above....let us know! :thumbs:

posted by  cmeseadoin

Hey, thanks for the quick reply!

Okay, I can buy that, made sense to me at the time but what you say makes more sense. Thanks for making the distinction.

That may be a big "if," since I can't try to start the car and be outside to observe at the same time. Based on the sound, the engine is running okay while I'm turning the starter.

Right, that's why I didn't do this for more than a second or two at a time.

I hadn't thought of that. How would I test that? Actually I don't think this can be the case, since it sounds like the car "tries" to run even after I release the starter, but maybe can't get enough gas or something.

It probably sat for eight or ten months, in hindsight this is probably one of the worst things I could have done. There was less than 1/4 tank of gas that disappeared during that time. (Another mistake, after reading around I realize I never should have let the tank get that low.)

It's hard to tell, but it certainly sounds like it's running. I could be wrong, but I know that car pretty well and can normally recognize from the sound what's going on.

Another idea I had was that perhaps a float or something is stuck somewhere. If gas in the lines evaporated, it would have left sticky varnish here and there, probably everywhere. If it got too bad, I can imagine that some things would just stop working. Evidence of that could be that, while my car should currently be showing about 1/2 tank of gas, it shows none and the fuel gauge needle won't even move when I turn on the ignition. Could be a stuck float in the tank, and if that could be stuck, I imagine other parts could be stuck as well. How could I check to see if that's the case?

Thanks again for your prompt reply - I really appreciate it!

posted by  MatthewHSE

Hey there,
Well, close to ten months huh? That could DEF. be an issue and if you only left 1/4 tank of gas in the car, I bet you have DEF. got some issues as a result of that. Gasoline can gel up in as little as 4-6 months in the right conditions...or close to it. If that is the case, fuel sending units may be gelled up and the guage on the dash may not be working either as you indicate. The thing that I am stuck on is this business to where the engine runs when holding the key but dies thereafter. On second thought with the new info you gave me, I am thinking that the engine may be "half-running" because it might be getting a TAD bit of fuel, but then once the starter is no longer helping it to spin over, she can't do it on her own.

Honestly, with all of what you have told me, I would drop the tank and see what you are dealing with. I bet you have a gummed up tank, possible lines, and filter. I have a buddy with an '85 escort and I cannot remember if ford was using a carb. on those still or if they'd just gone to the Throttle Body Injection system they came out with around that time. I am 98% sure it is a carburator. You need to check the whole fuel system .

Here's a very simple way to COMPLETELY route out the tank, lines and filter as an excellent diagnostic test that I did in my work on a 1968 Chrysler 300 440 V-8 convertible I was troubleshooting. Purchase a 5 gallon marine gas tank and fill her up. Set it in the passenger floorboard. Pop off the rubber incoming supply line to the fuel pump. Whatever diameter that is, purchase about 10-16 feet (depending on the distance you have to travel) of that diameter fuel supply line from an auto parts store and run it from the tank to the fuel pump incoming side. You may nned a connector for the tank but they can be purchased at boater's world or somewhere similar. You are now circumnavigating the entire tank, existing lines and filter. If the problem is from the filter back to the tank, you will have just temp. routed around it. See if she runs.....if so, you have to find the problem. Drop the tank, check all lines and blow it all out really well. (WARNING: you have 5 or so gallons of flamable liquid in the passenger area, DO NOT drive the car for any other reason than test driving in a LOW population dense traffic situation....that is a bomb in the passenger seat. ) This definitly works. It did for me.

Another thing you can do is spray some starting fluid or wd-40 into the intake/carb as the car is now and then fire it and see if it fire then cuts off. I dont think you have an ignition problem, I think it is fuel. I bet you're gummed up somewhere. That would explain the gas tank and sending unit as well as dash guage anomalies. Let me know what you find and if you have any more questions. It time for you to get a little genious! :-)

posted by  cmeseadoin

what nice postage there....

posted by  Ki2AY

Why thank you, I have quite a few :hi:

posted by  cmeseadoin

Okay, thanks for the extra advice. I had a mechanic friend of my grandfather come over to look at my car. He's a master mechanic with every certification currently possible for a mechanic to have. He did a basic check of the fuel system by watching down into the carburator for a stream of gas when he pulled the throttle linkage. Based on the amount of fuel that squirted into the carburator, he said the fuel system was in perfect or near-perfect condition, despite the long time during which the car sat unused.

He advised us to replace the electronic module on the distributor. We took the old one off, had it tested, and it tested bad. So we bought a new one, which tested good, put it on the car, and still had the same problem. We could hear it firing and trying to run as long as the starter was engaged, but as soon as we would release the key from "START" to "RUN," the engine would die.

Earlier in this thread, it was suggested that the ignition switch might be bad. That's also what a local automotive store suggested. But, this master mechanic doesn't seem to think that's likely. Notwithstanding, I think I'm going to try replacing the switch to see what happens.

I think I mentioned before that the fuel gauge always used to sit at "E" while the ignition was off, but move up to the proper fuel level when the ignition was turned on. Currently, however, the fuel gauge doesn't do anything. Seems to me this could be another indicator of the ignition switch being bad; is that an accurate deduction?

Thanks again for all your help,


posted by  MatthewHSE

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