Hello—intro and Troubleshooting request

Van Living Forum

Help Support Van Living Forum:

This site may earn a commission from merchant affiliate links, including eBay, Amazon, and others.


Jun 17, 2018
Reaction score
Hello, fellow travelers. I’m new here—though a long time adventurer.

Really enjoy and appreciate all the information and cameraderie here. It seems clear that a tide is turning, with people taking ownership of their time here on the planet and in doing so—providing encouragement for others to do the same. Bravo. :)

So, my question today involves a carbuerated van that won’t start.. Hoping for some friendly feedback from anyone with experience—If you have any troubleshooting ideas I’d welcome them most appreciatively!

Here are the details as I understand them, 

Bought her two weeks ago, she’s been running great—‘79 Dodge camper van. (I’ve always driven fuel-injected manual-transmission vehicles , so this is a new game for me learning this engine and automatic transmission.)

 Always starts strong, though needs to be warmed up thoroughly to idle and run smoothly. 
Yesterday, After a maiden voyage Of 70 miles from my home base, I noticed the oil pressure had dropped to near zero, so I checked it and added a quart as the dipstick showed her to be a quart low. 
The dipstick is absurdly long :) I find it’s not an easy read, but I dipped and cleaned it a couple times with same result. (The engine was warm when I checked it.)

I also added a pint of transmission fluid, based on the advice of a auto parts store employee who seemed pretty knowledgeable. ( told me transmission fluid needs to be checked with the engine running, and helped me interpret the read on the dipstick, for example.)

Every other morning since I have bought the vehicle. She has started up strong. The battery has a lot of juice and I’m certain there’s no problem with that.

After returning to my campsite last night 70 miles back down the road, I woke up this morning, had coffee and puttered a bit, then hopped in the driver’s seat and attempted to start her up...

She actually turned over at first but only very briefly then stalled out. This is very common when she’s not warm: Up till now, another attempt or two with foot carefully weighing down for the gas pedal just-so, and she’d hold idle on her own within a few minutes.

—It might be worthy to note that when she’s a little colder, the warming up process has included a single plume of blackish smoke emitting from the exhaust pipe before things ‘even out’.

So.  My first thought was a judicious spritz of starting fluid? Though I only know that from watching and learning over the years, not even sure exactly where to apply it—somewhere in the carburetor area. Don’t have any with me, though.
I’m hoping/ trying to troubleshoot this without having to hitchhike in, or bother busy friends in the town 20 miles away.  I have my Wi-Fi hotspot and Google, but the insight of a savvy traveler on this set of particulars could make all the difference.

I’m thinking:
A.  Try starter fluid first 
B. Check the spark plugs second (Concerned I would mess something up or not do this properly to get the needed information)
C. Have I possibly ‘fouled spark plugs’ by adding too much oil? 

 Thank you for reading this, if you’ve made it this far! Do you have any insight or suggestions I would love to hear them. Either way, hope your day and travels stay wonder-full.

Welcome Berta to the CRVL forums! To help you learn the ins and outs of these forums, this "Tips & Tricks" post lists some helpful information to get you started. We look forward to hearing more from you.

older Dodges are with carburetors are notorious for flooding. try this when this happens. push the gas peddle all the way to the floor and hold it there. do not let off and push it back down this will only make matters worse. while you are holding the peddle to the floor try starting it. keep cranking the engine until it starts. do not crank over 20sec. if it doesn't start in 20sec stop cranking but keep the gas peddle on the floor. wait 1 minute and crank it over again same as before. it should star after a couple of tries. what's happening is the engine is flooding(to much gas), ie, black smoke. let us know if that helps. highdesertranger
Thank you, highdesertstranger, I’m checking out the link now. Hope I’ve not committed a newcomer’s faux pas yet, fully expect I have. :)

Anyway, thank you for the welcome!
Hi ratfink56, Thanks—I realize I left that detail out. It was cranking really strong with no ignition. I let it rest for a good half an hour and tried again with the same result: strong cranking and the starter working hard, battery has plenty of juice, just no ignition.
oh yeah I moved your intro to the "Newcomers corner" I forgot to mention that. highdesertranger
Highdesertstranger, Just now saw your more detailed post about flooding. I really appreciate the step-by-step approach of your suggestion.
I think you’re very likely right, as I did give the gas pedal a customary couple of pumps before starting the first try, then again the second time and that’s when my problems began. 

Just hasn’t been a problem in the past couple weeks—though I’ve used essentially the same approach for starting. I must’ve just given that one or two extra pumps that caused her to flood. Anyway, I’ll give it a try. 

Luckily, I’m in no hurry today, and in a beautiful spot. All best!
Hmm, no—I’m at the same (or very similar) temps and elevation, near sea level, high 40’s to mid-60’s.

That said, it has been just a bit cooler and rainy off-and-on for the last couple of days, kind of wondered if that general dampness contributed to the problem, even though the engine is not directly exposed to the rain.

Haven’t yet tried to start her again. Wanted To give her time to dry out and I hope warm up a bit with the day.
If it hasn't had a tuneup in awhile, the spark plug wires may be arcing too aggravating the issue. You mentioned rain (high humidity). The spark plug wires get condensation on them.

HDR's suggestion for starting a flooded vehicle is right path to take in your situation.
What B and C said. Distributor cap, rotor and wires are all affected by moisture. If you have the doghouse off you may even hear or see arcing as the vehicle cranks.
Brian, thank you, that makes sense about possible humidity affecting starting/spark plugs. And about the tune-up—planning for an end-to-end inspection/tuneup, to happen very soon, & start getting the measure of this rig in earnest.

One thing I like about this relatively simple older engine is the possibility of learning to do some of the tuning up, light fixing and maintenance. I understand they are very durable engines, with pretty easy to find parts.
Doesn’t completely make up for the lack of fuel efficiency, but still great qualities!

Fixing to re-read highdesertstranger’s suggestion very carefully and try again here shortly.

All best.
Rat Fink 56 that’s very interesting about you mention arcing. Yesterday while driving I heard some strange kind of commotion coming from under the hood on the driver side near where the battery is mounted (at least that’s where it sounded like it was).

Everything was normal when I opened the hood and checked, and the van started and ran just fine (well, up till this morning), but for a few moments yesterday it sounded like there was a loose rope or wire flopping around energetically against the metal.  

At no point since owning the van have I seen or placed any pieces of string, wire, rope, near or into the engine compartment. Just in case though, like I said, I got out and checked under the hood.  Once I eliminated the possibility of a foreign object, it dawned on me it could be the sound of something arcing against the van under the hood..  

An alarming thought, but the van was running fine, all systems ‘go’, and the sound only went on for about less than a minute, so the odd event moved down the long list of things to look into. 

Precipitation does have a way of thickening the plot with regard to mechanical stuff. So does user error/general ignorance.  :)  I’m always working on my part of that equation.
As an older Dodge owner who moved from low elevation Los Angeles to high elevation Denver know that the carburator needs adjusting between such differrences. Just in case that 70 miles you traveled was up a very high mountain.
ratfink56 said:
Hey Berta are you up and running I hope?

Hi ratfink56–Thanks for asking! I am up and running, was going to do an update this morning, but got sidetracked.

The short answer is ‘yes’ and thanks. :) 

Longer answer..I had it all wrong.

In my original post, I mentioned there was plenty of juice in the battery and that the starter sounded strong— I /thought/ the problem was spark (lack of). In that scenario, a flooded engine made all the sense, and I’m very glad for what I learned from highdesertranger about coping w/that, and for everyone’s useful shared info there!

So I was technically correct about the battery and starter being OK, however, my battery connection was simply not sufficient to start the rig. Oy. At least it motivated me to finally register for an account on the site. :) 

Thought I had dealt with enough funky rigs over the years to know: With starting issues, always always make triple certain the battery is 100% properly connected!  The battery was connected enough to turn over, but lacked the voltage to start vehicle. 

Guess how I figured this out… :)  By calling my earnest helper daughter, who mentioned, between references to bendixes that plans to come rescue me, that sometimes a battery can be connected enough to activate the starter, but not start the vehicle... Wedged some tinfoil between terminal and post, and voilà: ignition. 
Oy oy oy.

Spent the afternoon installing shiny new terminal ends, cleaning the battery posts, and securing any number of ancient mystery wires hanging about in the area of the battery, to be sleuthed out sooner than later. Perhaps the source of the odd noises mentioned previously.

Want to thank everyone who weighed in in my time of need. Your kindness and insight are appreciated!

And thanks again for checking in, ratfink56. All best!
It is not necessarily a flooded engine, although a possibility. Carburated engines need a choke and all my Dodges had problems with the choke. Too much or usually not enough. If you find the shot of starter fluid allows the engine to start right up, even if it then stalls, your choke may not be working properly. On my present '86 Dodge I need to pump the sht out of the gas pedal to finally get it started. My plan is to readjust the choke the next time the dog house is open. It is very easy to change spark plugs on those old Dodge V8s. I take my passenger seat out (4 nuts) to make it easier to remove the dog house. All the plugs are right there.
First! Disconnect the negative battery terminal. Then the positive. B very careful removing the terminals so you don't break the battery case. There are special terminal brushes, but you can even use a pocket knife to scrape the post and terminal eyes to shinny metal. Replace the positive terminal on the post and use two end wrenches to tighten the clamping bolt. Don't brake the battery case. Last! replace the negative cable.
Great news! I got worried when you went silent.

I am very impressed with the way you handled the situation. Middle of nowhere and broke down. No hysterics, no drama, no frantic pleas for help. Just calm acceptance of your plight, a plan to hopefully fix it and the realization that it wasn't the end of the world.

Please share more of your adventures. Hopefully all happier ones. Safe travels, Terry