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Hell is an Unprimed Oil Pump, Episode 2

Tim Odell November 15, 2012 Project Cars, Wrenching Tips 33 Comments

Why there's no oil pressure

Yesterday I chronicled my descent into madness, driven by what should’ve been a simple unbolt-reseal-re-bolt job. Today we’re cover my (partial) climb out of that pit of despair.

On my lunch hour, I roll by AutoZone to get a loaner oil pump priming tool and a new starter bump switch. I wait in line for 20 minutes because that’s apparently how long it take 3 AutoZoners (their term, not mine) to deal with the 4 people in front of me in line. My AutoZoner doesn’t know what an oil pump priming tool is, so I have to point it out to him on the poster to find the part number. It takes him 4 tries to enter my phone number for my rewards card (I spend a lot of money there). Also, apparently they no longer sell starter bump switches because people use them to steal cars. Instead, I buy a starter switch button and a length of wire with two large alligator clips on it. Good to know they have well thought out policies like that.

Back in the garage, I bump the motor over to TDC-ish by shorting one of the wires to the battery terminal (because the switch I just bought is bad, thanks AutoZone!). I’m actually pretty proud of my clever sight-line marking system for lining up the distributor rotor: when the contact’s between the mark on the hose and the motor, it’s in place. I put another mark for the the base and yank it out.


As the distributor comes out, I hear the dreaded tinkle of a small piece of metal falling. Flipping it over confirms my fears: the oil pump drive shaft has sheared off and fallen into the timing cover. Looks like it’s time to break out the magnetic fishing tools and go shopping for a replacement distributor.

Why there's no oil pressure

…and that’s where we sit as of today. Oddly enough, even though this just got more expensive, I’m more at peace. I’ve got my head wrapped around the problem and know how to fix it, no longer wondering why it’s not working. I’ve got a used Buick HEI distributor on its way for $50 and fishing out the busted tab might require me to get creative with some wire and magnets. I need to use the priming tool to make sure the oil pump gears aren’t bound up too tight. These things are all solvable problems.

A few takeaways from this whole episode, if I may:

  • Despite previously recommending them as my chain-store of choice, AutoZone’s really been letting my down lately. On this latest trip, if my cell phone wasn’t dying, I would’ve called the store from the back of the line, as they tell in-store customers to wait while they answer the phone. Bad service is one thing, but this also marked yet another round of them not having what I needed.
  • When you’ve got a mind-boggling problem going on, try to keep working on as frequently as possible. It’s frustrating, but you don’t want to be the guy selling a car with “Was running before I took [some part] off two years ago, needs to be re-assembled” in the ad. Also, it’s harder to forget things like whether or not you put oil in something or torqued all the bolts.
  • With every Buick-specific failure mode and parts shopping adventure I grow more sympathetic to anyone who’s ever “just dropped in a Chevy small block” (or big block for that matter). Someone needs to explain to me why it’s nobler to keep a thirsty, mediocre motor making mediocre power in place when it’s already a GM transplant to begin with.

Anyway, that (sort of) concludes my latest wrenching saga. Given that I was supposed to finish these fixes two weeks ago and start working on some house remodeling, it’s definitely triggered a round of dialog with The Missus about whether the wiser course is to get out from under this cursed 4×4 or just sack up and keep fixing it as needed (she usually favors the latter). Stay tuned.

  • "Someone needs to explain to me why it’s nobler to keep a thirsty, mediocre motor making mediocre power in place when it’s already a GM transplant to begin with."

    I can't. Go ahead and swap in a Buick 340.

    • I do have the advantage of the BOPC pattern transmission, giving me a plethora of (non-Chevy) swap options that'd be pretty easy.

      I'd almost certainly go Cadillac 472 or 500.

  • dukeisduke

    I avoid AutoDrone for real parts, as they seem to source a lot of cheap Chinese stuff (ValuCraft parts). I stick with O'Reilly, or a couple of independent stores. I was helping a friend work on his son-in-law's aged Honda Civic coupe (the kid's in grad school, and can't a afford a new car), and he bought a ValuCraft coil for it. It practically had to be hammered in to the distributor cap, and the screws didn't want to line up without some finagling. What a piece of crap that thing was.

  • I remember trying to replace some electrical doo-dad on the bottom of the distributor on the 4.9L I-6 in my old F-150 in a vain attempt to get the check engine light to go off. In the process of removing he distributor and bolting it back down I got some sort of washer.cam nut. or whatever on upside down. The distributor held in place just fine, nice and tight. But it wasn't bolted all the way down and failed to engage the oil pump drive shaft. I drove it for around the block for couple of miles with no oil pressure and ended up having it towed to a garage. It is nice to have towing insurance on old vehicles. I drove the truck for another year or so it seemed no worse the wear.

  • Also, some further info after the comments in yesterday's post:
    1) The factory service manual (and Buick V8 community) specified procedure is vaseline in the pump, seal it up and crank it. This worked just find when I did it a year ago.

    2) Yes, there is a Buick-specific priming tool available. That requires me to spend $30 then wait 5 days for it to arrive. Have no foreseeable use for such a tool, so I'm not too motivated to buy one when I can just do the vaseline + crank procedure. Even with the tool, you still need to put vaseline in there or it'll just spin in air.

    3) "Cut up an old distributor"…makes a lot of sense if you have an old distributor. Not a lot of spare Buick distributors lying around my garage (kinda gets back to my Chevy motor comment). I'd buy the specific tool from TA performance before I'd go to the junkyard to get a distributor.

    Apparently my key problem here is gear end clearance versus the plate. Too little (or zero) clearance and the gears bind and do things like break the distributor tab. I'll be double-checking that before reassembly and cranking, but will hold off to do it as one job.

    • krwright

      You've nailed it with that last bit. I learned that through sad experience. Years ago, my '81 Buick Regal with the 3.8 already had the spacer plate and long gears, and I was trying to fix a fairly bad leak – like you, I got smart and tried to just use sealer, which resulted in a broken tooth on the distributor, and a chipped tooth on the cam. I got a salvage yard dizzy and built a priming tool from the one with the broken drive gear, and used the proper gasket(s) the second time around. Unfortunately, the damaged tooth on the cam was too far gone and ate the second distributor. I just sold the car at that point. Didn't have the time or interest to swap a cam in a high mileage smog-laden engine. Kinda wish I'd have kept it now – rear drive G-body in reasonable shape…

  • danleym

    I used to work at Autozone (so I used to be an Autozoner, man how I hated that stupid term). We were told to not just answer the phone and put people on hold right away, but find out what they need, even if you're with a customer. Which is all well and good if they need to know what time you close. Not so good when they go into a long detailed explanation of what's wrong and how their wife is getting really angry because they can't take their dog to the vet because he can't figure out how to install the distributor cap he just bought. I always thought it was an absolutely stupid policy, and I got in trouble a few times for not following it for the sake of helping the customer who was actually in the store spending money. Dumb.

    I went in there the other day to buy an oil filter, and they've taken all the books down. Now you have to go use the computer to look up oil filters and air filters. Also dumb.

    I still tend to go there more than anywhere else, but that's only because they have the best rewards program of any type of store I've ever been to. $20 for free every 5 trips? Yes, thank you very much.

    • When I was next in line, this was the scene:
      AZer 1: dealing with some 5 person family taking 10+ minutes to decide which brake parts they needed/could afford for some car. Back and forth forever, much debate. I'm sympathetic that money's tight and admiring the DIY commitment, but please just make the call and get on with it.

      AZer 2: On the phone with a customer, having walked all the way across the store on a 20' cord, answering the question "do you have fuel tank cleaner?" She's there reading every single fuel system or other product that's on the shelf, telling him what they do, providing advice, etc. At some point it's gotta be like "look, just come in".

      AZer 3: Has disappeared into the back, looking for an intake manifold. Why finding an intake manifold for someone who's not here is more important than dealing with a long line is baffling to me.

      +1 on the rewards program, though. Nothing makes me happier than "you have a _____ reward credit, would you like to use it?".

      • danleym

        Here's what was probably going on with AZer #3- he was probably on the phone with someone from another store, who was either getting ready to send someone over for that part, or the store was getting ready to transfer the part. Policy was that in either of those situations you had to go and actually have the part in your hand, you couldn't trust the computer inventory because too many times it was wrong and then you have someone who drove out of their way to get a part that wasn't actually there. The idea makes sense, but in practice it results in frustrated customers waiting in the store wondering why you keep talking on the phone and then disappearing instead of helping them.

        Your scene sounds pretty normal, sadly. The problem with that store really is upper level management and policies- even if those 3 dudes (2 dudes/1 girl?) were the most competent parts jockeys ever, they're hamstrung by dumb policies and the threat of getting in trouble if they break those policies, even when it makes sense to. We would get the occasional "test call"- someone from corporate calling for the purpose of evaluating how we handled phone calls. Had that girl on the phone ever said "look, just come in" and it was one of those phone calls, she would have been in a heap of trouble the next day. Again, stupid.

        Of course, none of that knowledge of what's going on makes the situation any less frustrating.

        As I'm writing this, I realize I probably sound like I'm being really defensive of the parts dudes. I'm not really, but after having worked there and dealing with some of the dumb management crap that kept us from doing our job well, I tend to cut the employees in the store some slack for that stuff. Not knowing your parts or tools, that's something else entirely.

        The other main problem is their piss poor wages. Even as a manager (I was), it was barely above minimum wages. Maximum yearly raises were capped at a quarter. If you bust your ass for 3 or 4 years, you could get your own store, at which point you'd be making $35k a year and on salary, so you're probably working 50-60 hours. So no one worth anything stays on, and you end up with very few people that have worked with the company for long enough to really know the place inside and out. I enjoyed the day to day of working there, but everything else about the place kept it from being any sort of long term option.

        • Oh yeah, I generally sympathize with most retail employees. For all the reasons you cite, there's no incentive (or even opportunity) for them to do a good job.

          I worked at a Goodyear shop for 3 summers and 2 winter breaks. While it was a corporate store, they gave the managers way more leeway, as well as opportunity and incentive to make lots of cash. Despite having 6 bays (2 tire, 3 mechanic, 1 alignment) and like 12 parking spots in a mediocre location, we did more business than the next 3 stores in the region combined.

          Our store manager was in a ridiculous sweet spot, collecting bonuses on top of bonuses for how well we did. People tried to hire him away for corporate management positions and he always turned them down. Hell, after like 5 years there Goodyear gives you stock options, after ~20 you're on the paid retirement plan.

        • Ok, one other AZ-specific question:
          The whole time I was there, they seemed to be playing some kind of round-robin with the computer/register terminals. No matter what, whenever someone walked up to a terminal, they ended up needing someone else to enter their password.

          I'm guessing once someone logs in, the terminal never logs them out?
          …and that no one else can log in until the first person logs out?

          • danleym

            There's a bunch of different things that require a second password (like returns or certain special orders), so that two peoples names are attached to it (making sure there's no funny business with the employees). Some of it has to be a manager, some just has to be another employee. I don't know why it would happen every time, though, unless they've changed something since I've been there. We were never assigned a parts computer, nor was there any logging in unless you were selling/returning/ordering something, and then as soon as the transaction was over you were automatically logged out. The actual registers were assigned, but there was usually only one person per register, so there was almost never anyone in the way there.

        • I would think they would assign one person to staff the phone and the others would be free to sell parts. But I just sell trailers so what do I know?

  • JayP2112

    Autozone is within bike riding distance from the house. Another mile up is ORielly and NAPA so I am covered.

    Autozone depends on the shop. The one close, the old guy knows his stuff but good luck catching him without a customer or even at work. Sometimes they have a a few gals working there which means THEY KNOW THEIR MARKET. So there.

  • racer139

    Hacking up an old distributor was just a "if you couldnt get the tool" deal. 50 dollars for a used one that you can make thepriming tool from wouldnt be too bad. If they where easy to come by.

    • racer139

      Also good luck withe the chunk that you have to remove.

  • buzzboy7

    I love my FLAPS. Napa was next to my house for something like 25 years(just moved to a nicer building 1/4 mile away). Small town but Napa still sees a lot of business. The guys who work there are experienced and have worked there for years. Often you get the owner helping you, who's had the franchise since the beginning. It's nice to go in and explain your silly problem and have somebody actually help you with it. Plus there is a book called "Hard to Find Parts." Best book ever, and the place where you find PCV valve grommets.

    • jeepjeff

      Lee Auto Supply (NAPA) in Alameda is a lot like that. They've always known what I need when I'm not completely sure. When I needed grease for putting the valve train back together but didn't know anything more than "moly grease" from my Chilton, the gentleman helping me said, "don't know about moly, but this is the stuff I've always used" and handed me a tube of motor assembly grease. It worked great.

      They came on Ms. Martin's recommendation, and she was totally right. Best auto parts store near me. If you halfway know what you're doing, they're invaluable.

      I never bother with the O'Reilly down the street. The nearest Autozone isn't any closer than Lee, and the posts on here aren't exactly a shining endorsement…

  • The oil pump drive shaft sheered off? Again, my only experience is with Windsor Fords, but on those the shaft is a separate piece. It still sucks if the shaft comes up with the distributor and falls into the engine, but it doesn't mean it's broken.

    Harbor Freight sells inline starter switches.

    Vatozone is the closest auto parts store to me, so I go there most often and several times have been disappointed with their service and lack of knowledge. However the last two times I went there, I must have lucked out because I got knowledgeable counter people who understood what I needed and got me out of there pretty quickly. Way better than the O'Reilly's down the street. Plus I've gotten about $60 back thanks to their rewards program.

    • Inside the bottom of the distributor is a flat-head blade tab thing that engages that slot on the oil pump drive.

      Said tab broke off.

      • Ah, gotcha. Sucks.

        • I'm considering cross-drilling it and pounding a roll pin through.

          …since I already have a used replacement on the way, I might do that to make a priming tool out of it.

  • schigleymischke

    Riddle me this about AutoZone, why do I have to wait in one line to have a guy look up the part and find it for me and then wait in another line for a guy to take my money?

  • PilotMan

    Thanks for the heads up on all of this, I think the 383 in my '63 Olds 88 is quite similar.

    I'll never be able to swap another motor into that car without some major work. The engine has a center front mount and two side mounts off the transmission bell housing. It's quite different.
    I figure I'll eventually go with a 700r4 with a modified bell housing, the old 383 could be woken up with a cam and a sweet tri-power manifold.

  • gearz1

    Good Luck with this one.

  • schigleymischke

    While we're discussing AutoZone, have you ever checked their stock price? Closed today at 372.78, been as high as 400 in the past year. The other autoparts stores are similar. Whatever they're doing is working.

  • R.L. Elliott

    The trouble w/ some of the people behind the counter, is that THEY DON'T NECESSARILY KNOW CARS! They know how to type a year /make/ model into the computer, and then can parrot what the computer tells them. I once had a counter person trying to tell me that my 1970 Dodge Charger was a front wheel drive car!! Another tried to sell me an incorrect master cylinder, even though I was telling him that this is NOT what is on my car. An old guy that worked there came from the back, asked me what year/model/make, when I told him, he immediately said, "Oh, you need a BD4739, let me go back and see if we've got it in stock"! And they did!! 🙂 Unfortunately, knowledgeable people seem to not be appreciated, and don't stick around long.

  • NothingHappens

    +1 for their "no bump switch" policy http://www.autozone.com/autozone/accessories/Pain

    Oh wait….

  • Scoutdude

    The gasket between the gears and the plate is set by the thickness of the gasket so you need a proper gasket. A hand cut gasket likely won't be the right thickness and sealer/gasket dressing should not be used either by itself or in addition to the gasket.

    The drive tang on the distributor likely broke because of the use of a sealer instead of the specific thickness gasket which prevented the gears from having the clearance to turn.

    • That's my theory too. I snapped it on the first attempt with just the sealer.

  • Asus Rider

    I knew what you would have been talking about…………Hell, in the trunk of my car I got a Remote Starter Switch, A Timing Light and a Dwell Meter. The auto zone in town is the same way, they just hire whatever comes though the door.

    People now a days are clueless when it comes to older cars and the old parts guy are either retiring,fed up and quit or sadly die.

    Me and my friend know old cars, I know GM and he knows Fords and work at an advance auto parts together, he's stepping down from his position because he wants to have a life and so do I. I'm too young to have back issues, knee pains or wrist issues. I want to fix my own cars that I've been putting off because of working 40 hours and then overtime, since advance right now is on a hiring freeze and can't afford to hire, but yet me, him and the other workers can work overtime that could be used to hire at least a part timer to help out?

    Stupid, Absolute Stupidity

  • In case anyone's coming back to check on this, I finally got it running (2 weeks after this post).

    Had to re-pack it yet again, but finally got it back in action with a new distributor. Never did get that little tab out of the timing cover…pretty much assuming it dropped down in to the oil pan.