On Friday I was forced to walk some two hundred yards when our venerable Peugeot 306 threw up a variety of warning lights on the dashboard, accompanied by a loss of power. My wife was returning from a trip to visit her parents, and had almost, almost made it home when the car faltered. She told me that it wasn’t the first time that day, either.
When she visited a store, the 306 had refused to start. The engine would turn over, but wouldn’t catch. She had called her father, who lived nearby, to come to the rescue and bring expertise, but the car had decided to start before he arrived. Well, this simply would not do. We can’t have a stroppy, recalcitrant car in the fleet, so I had 48 hours to scratch my head and sort things out.
Here’s how it went down.
Anybody with Peugeot experience will tell you that the dashboard has two separate scary warning lights. One is the orange ‘check engine’ light, which can be made to come on when certain parameters are breached. If it lights you can usually live with it, nurse the car home and investigate it later.
Of more concern is the big red one at the bottom of the cluster that orders you to “STOP”. When that terrifying message illuminated on Friday, that’s exactly what my wife did IN CASE BAD THINGS HAPPENED. I was still at work at the time, and being that I work from home, I was able to take a few minutes to stroll round the corner and see what was going on. Or wasn’t, in fact. Basically, everything seemed fine. She restarted the car and drove it the two hundred yards home.
Back on the driveway I started it, stopped it, started it, stopped it and couldn’t get it to misbehave. So I asked Nicola to follow me in the Audi on a local fault-finding mission, in the hope that I would experience the failure. I drove thrice around a local housing estate… and the car behaved impeccably. Out of curiosity, I pulled over and switched the car off.
And it wouldn’t restart. Ah! Good. There’s nothing worse than trying to fix a car that doesn’t have anything wrong with it.
Once upon a time I owned a Rover 800 that used to do exactly the same thing – it would cut out and then refuse to start. The fix was to dive behind the centre console and reset the inertia switch for the fuel supply – and this was my first guess as to what had gone wrong with the 306. The symptoms were, after all, exactly the same. So I consulted the owners manual for its location… but this particular 306 doesn’t seem to have one.
With such an uncomplicated engine bay, if something isn’t where you expect to find it, there aren’t many other places to look. So I swiftly concluded that the fault lay elsewhere. This would need more investigation, so I got my portable workshop onto the driveway, ready for action.
The problem was then, on Saturday, the 306 stubbornly refused to misbehave, no matter how persuasive I was. I cranked it over and it started immediately. Absolutely fine. Left it for a few minutes and tried again – no problem. Locked the door and hid around the corner for a few minutes, and then crept up to take it by suprise… started fine. Bag over my head and cod-French accent to pretend I was somebody else…. started fine.
Drove it around a bit, parked it back on the drive and left it. Went back a few minutes later, turned the key… started fine. So I put the symptoms down as a bit more elderly car Hypochondria and left it for the day.
On Sunday, reassured by my confidence that everything would be OK, Nicola jumped in the 306 to go to work.Would. Not. Start.
How tiresome. So I gave her the keys to the Audi so she could toddle of to work, and I took a deep breath and set upon the Peugeot again.
From the symptoms I was pretty sure that we were looking at an intermittent fuel supply issue. On the basis that the car was, when it suited, running absolutely fine I overruled the idea of a blockage or fuel pump fault. This felt to me more like a fuel injector not working. I removed the cold air supply hose, extracted the air filter and gave it a good beating – it was surprisingly clean – and other attendant plastic mouldings to gain access to the throttle body and its single injector,
There was a lot of oil in there, and my suspicion was that the wiring to the injector itself could be contaminated. I unplugged it, cleaned it thoroughly with kitchen paper and switch cleaner, before plugging it back in.
When I reassembled it I was again struck by just how much oil there was on the throttle body housing.
The cold air supply and its manifold, which is attached to the throttle body, also has feed from the rocker cover. This is presumably an environmentally sound way of letting fumes from beneath the rocker cover get breathed in by the engine and burned harmlessly.
Presumably, though, there’s nothing to stray oil from going up that hose either, and this appears to be what’s been going on for the last twenty one years, largely unchecked. This explains the rather unacceptable amount of congealed oil and guck that’s plastered all over the throttle body housing.
But, oh, what’s this that’s also caked in grime?
It was at this point that I spotted a multi-plug connector all but unrecognisable under a thick coat of treacly blackness. ‘I wonder’ thought I.
I unplugged it and, sure enough, it was absolutely full of engine oil, for how long? Who knows. All I did know is that a multi-plug in such a condition is determinedly sub-optimal, so I gave it a good clean out with switch cleaner and absorbent paper, until it was as good, or better, than new.
After giving the surrounding area a cursory wipe over, I got back inside and turned the key.
A lot of winding, spinny noises but still the engine refused to start. Oh…. bugger.
Then, it suddenly occurred to me that reconnecting that multi-plug I had cleaned might be a wizard wheeze. I plugged it in, firmly.
Engine started perfectly.
I went through my earlier test routine again, only this time I tried to trick it into not starting. I approached it from a variety of angles, using subtly different techniques, and not once did it refuse to play ball. This was on Sunday and Nicola has since driven it to work and back without incident. In fact, she texted me earlier to say that ‘if anything she has a bit of spring in her step’.
No doubt that’s the placebo effect of having a working car again. But it’ll do for me.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2017)