This past weekend, I found myself at a small gas station in San Antonio, Texas helping a random guy fix his junky, early 1990s Ford Explorer. After 20 minutes with no luck, he and I were about to give up, and I was about to—in a questionable move—give a random person a ride home. That’s when I had a stroke of genius involving a piece of paper.
I visited my brother in Texas this weekend to eat barbecue and go hiking, but mostly to eat barbecue. While there, my brother filled up his 2011 Toyota Corolla at a small gas station on the southeast side of San Antonio, near the glorious smokehouse we’d just used to initiate a food coma.
There were only four pumps at this gas station, one of which was occupied by a broken-down first-generation Ford Explorer. The weather was terrible, with the temperature sitting at just over 100 degrees; the Explorer owner—dripping with sweat—just kept cranking his 4.0-liter V6 over and over, with that classic, sad look in his eyes that a shitcan-owner like myself knows all too well. This guy had just run out of gas, and now the vehicle’s 4.0-liter V6 wouldn’t start without a bit of help from the go-juice.
As my brother filled up the Corolla, and this guy kept cranking his motor, I wasn’t sure what to do. On one hand, the man was the only other person at the pumps, and he was right there, just 12 or so feet from us. But at the same time, I don’t want to insult him by offering to help; he could be an experienced mechanic for all I know (his beat-up Explorer did look like a work truck, filled to the brim with all sorts of random tools and household items).
“Bad fuel pump?” I asked him, unsure if he spoke English. “No, it’s brand new,” he responded with an American accent. “I just need to get fuel from the tank into the engine,” he told me. After cranking the motor for a few minutes, he realized that fuel should have made it to the injectors by now. “I think maybe my fuel filter could be clogged,” he said—a solid thought considering there was clearly a fuel delivery issue, he had just run out of gas, and the fuel pump was new.
I asked him to prime the fuel pump as I listened from below. I couldn’t hear anything. Then again, sometimes fuel pumps are quiet, and if the guy had just replaced the pump, I reasoned, it was probably fine.
My first thought was to just bypass his fuel filter and in-tank fuel sock by running the engine from a jerry can, but the man didn’t have hose or a gas can on him, and there weren’t too many suitable hoses to steal off the SUV. So I sprayed in more starting fluid as he fired the motor. I sprayed, he cranked. The engine ran, then it died. I sprayed, he cranked. The engine ran, then it died. It went like this for 10 minutes until the battery could no longer take the load, and the engine began cranking slowly.
There was nothing more we could do, and I was stumped. In my experience, filters are rarely the culprit, and even though this man had ran out of gas, it’s not like the fuel pickup is at the bottom of the tank; only the floating debris could have gotten trapped. I wasn’t convinced it was the filter, and as he cranked the engine—even without starting fluid—I could hear an occasional “pop.” So some fuel was getting in.
Unsure what the problem was, I offered the guy a ride to his house, which he said wasn’t that far away. I know, offering a random dude a ride is a questionable decision, but I guess I empathized with him, as I’d been in the guy’s shoes many times before. In fact, a couple of years prior, a gentleman in Detroit had given me a ride to a gas station after noticing me walking along the street with a Jerry can (again, it was a questionable move to take that ride, but the guy ended up being awesome). Plus, just saying “Well, good luck then!” and driving off didn’t seem like the right thing to do.
So he put the truck in neutral, and we pushed it into a parking spot at the fuel station, as I prepared to tell my brother—with whom I hadn’t consulted, since he was in the store buying drinks—that we were going to give this random guy a lift. That’s when I had an idea.
“Pop the hood one more time for me,” I said, then realizing that there was no internal hood-release. I grabbed the hood release behind the grille, popped the flat, rectangular lid open, and removed the rubber intake from the throttle body. “Hey, do you have a piece of cardboard?” I asked. He searched through his Explorer, and produced a folded piece of paper (perhaps an entry ticket to a museum or something). “Crank the engine over one more time,” I said, covering three-quarters of the throttle body with the paper.
The starter cranked slowly, but the engine fired up almost immediately! I put the intake back over the throttle body, slammed the hood, and shook the man’s hand. After I told him what I had done, he thanked me, popped the car in gear, and took off down the road.
The paper had acted as a choke, allowing the motor to run a bit richer. Once a few cylinders had fired, I was able to remove the paper, and the engine ran on its own, nice and smoothly. As for the root cause, I’m still not entirely sure. Perhaps it was a case of heat soak or vapor-lock stemming from high ambient temperatures and/or high underhood or underbody temperatures. Or, more likely, he had an intake manifold leak.
I’ll probably never know why that Explorer was running lean, but in any case, I’ll never forget how a little folded piece of paper saved this stranded guy from having to walk home, or perhaps saved me and my brother from having our organs harvested by a random San Antonio-an.
It was total luck.