Hooniverse Asks: What was your biggest automotive false alarm?

I was replacing oil cooler hoses on my AW11 Toyota MR2 this weekend. They were original, and after 31 years near hot exhaust and in a hot engine bay, they had started to leak. The job’s a bit fussy and requires that you’re flexible enough to shove your head in your own ass, but it’s doable. So I doable’d it.
However, I had a moment of terror when I started it up. Staring at the oil pressure gauge, it read zero at first. “The lines are just empty,” I told myself. “Give it a second.”
So I did. Then a second more. Then a second more. Terrified, I shut it down.

I scooted behind the car to check for a huge puddle on the floor.
Then checked the oil level.
The engine sounded like it was getting oil, right? Surely the pump’s not having a problem lifting the oil out of the pan.
I tried a brief start just a couple more times. It continued to sound OK but I began to question my ears. I scrutinized every little tap from the chatty four-pot engine at cold idle. I even went so far as to slightly loosen the oil filter, and then the oil cooler return hose, just to see if they were getting oil.
They were.
Finally, I looked up the location of the oil pressure sending unit and learned that it was exactly in that super-fiddly and tight spot where the upper oil cooler hose attaches to the engine. I had accidentally pulled the wire loose. Quick reconnect and restart—voilà!—got my gauge back. The oil pressure is dead perfect. I felt like an idiot, but thankfully, my pride was the only thing damaged.
Now we ask you: What was your biggest automotive false alarm?
We’re looking for stories of harmless mistakes here, not actual failures. A story that led you down a rabbit hole of troubleshooting for hours only to discover a simple, stupid operator error.
Don’t be ashamed. Let it out. We’re all friends here.
[Photo copyright 2017 Alan Cesar | Hooniverse]

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52 responses to “Hooniverse Asks: What was your biggest automotive false alarm?”

  1. P161911 Avatar

    Hooniverse asks is back!!!
    Two for me. First on my 1987 E30 BMW, had an issue with overheating. Replaced the water pump. Still overheating. Replaced the thermostat. Still overheating. Replaced the radiator. Still overheating. FINALLY realized that I could stop the fan with a couple of pieces of rolled up paper. Replaced the fan clutch. No more overheating.
    Second one was on my old 1988 F-150 with the 4.9L I-6. Had to replace something on the distributor that involved removing the distributor. Put it all back together and started it up. No oil pressure! Drove it about a mile around the block/neighborhood. No oil pressure and a ticking noise. Had it towed to a professional garage. I had reinstalled the distributor, which had the gear that drives the oil pump improperly and it wasn’t engaging the oil pump. Never did have any problems out of the 4.9L due to running with no oil.

  2. GTXcellent Avatar

    Huzzah! Hooniverse Asks!
    My biggest oops, that was a really close call, is almost identical to P161911’s – although mine was an ’88 Silverado.
    I got the truck for peanuts because the oil looked like chocolate milk. Since the truck had close to 200k on it, I didn’t even bother diagnosing – my local parts place had a machine shop on site, and just so happened to have a complete, rebuilt long block for $600. My Dad and a couple of buddies, a few long nights, and I had a brand new 5.7, ready to turn the key. Started her up…..hmmmm…..that’s a lot of chatter on the top end…….open the oil fill…..NO OIL. Talked to Bob, the machinist – turns out on that motor, there’s an extension rod from the distributor to the oil pump, and I hadn’t gotten the rod seated correctly.
    I’ll also add that in reality, I’m a pretty lousy mechanic, and it seems like every project I undertake has a moment or two.

  3. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    Suspected head gasket failure on my A4 1.8T.
    Symptom – lots of oil getting into the coolant. Horrible emulsified goop in the header tank. I needed to change the cambelt anyway, so I stripped the front end off as per usual procedure for that particular task.
    When the coolant was all out it looked more like spray cheese than antifreeze, so I removed almost all of the cooling system apart from the heater matrix, which I flushed like my life depended on it.
    Fortunately, I noticed that the heat-exchanger for the oil filter (which I wasn’t really aware of existing) had corroded badly, and was no longer able to keep water and oil separate. I desparately hoped that this might have created the icky goop, rather than a defective head gasket. So I rebuilt the cooling system with new pipes, a new oil-cooler, new thermostat, water pump and radiator, changed the cam-belt and put the car back together – and it’s been right as rain ever since.

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      German cars and their “service positions.” Ugh.

      1. nanoop Avatar

        Still beats the classic Italians’ requirements for 12 fingers with four joints each.

        1. Alan Cesar Avatar
          Alan Cesar

          Also known as the “Italian hand job.”

          1. nanoop Avatar

            I’m at work, I won’t google that.

        2. P161911 Avatar

          Still convinced that the ideal mechanic is a T-1000. Just use our liquid metal hands to make a wrench.

    2. nanoop Avatar

      The, oil/coolant heat exchanger is a classic failure on 944 Porsches, if of any condolence.

      1. outback_ute Avatar

        And more recent cars too. My father had the transmission/engine coolant heat exchanger go on his FPV F6 (4.0 I6 turbo), and once coolant gets into the ZF 6-speed it can destroy the mechatronics controller and break down friction materials. Happily Ford/FPV came to the party even though the car was a little out of warranty – just what is the maintenance requirement on a heat exchanger, and should it last more than 3-4 years?

        1. nanoop Avatar

          In the workshop manual of the 944, there is no maintenance activity mentioned. There is a page about what to do when they fail (clean out the circuits, upgrade housing, gasket, over pressure relief valve if applicable etc.), though…
          Today, such a part should last as long as the maximum warranty plan may last, plus one year and one day, so the customer can’t honestly expect goodwill – I’m slightly cynical here, but I do expect a warranty plan to be aligned with engineering specs.

          1. outback_ute Avatar

            It was a rhetorical question, there isn’t much you can do for a non-moving part other than change coolant on schedule to avoid corrosion. I think in this case it was internal failure of the H/X because of vibration (not much, it is bolted to the engine block) and was a common issue. Was within your warranty plus a year! Not super easy to get past in the aftermarket because the ZF trans is sensitive to back pressure in the cooler from memory.

  4. discontinuuity Avatar

    I’ve done that same repair on my AW11, and it’s a real pain in the ass. At least now it doesn’t leak oil (as much).

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      It wasn’t until I was near the end of the job, fiddling with this oil pressure wire, that I realized that removing the distributor would’ve probably made the job a lot easier. I did the entire upper portion of that job without ever laying eyes on the hose connection. It was 100-percent done by feel.

  5. Alff Avatar

    Are you getting royalties for any incremental sales of that book?

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar


    2. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      Depends. Are you buyin’?

  6. mdharrell Avatar

    When the 292 Y-block in my first car, a ’59 Ford sedan, began showing signs of being seriously worn out, my father and I decided the best course would be to rebuild a different engine so I could keep driving the car until we were ready to perform the swap. We got another 292, one out of a pickup truck, tore it down, then sent the appropriate bits and pieces (such as the block) off to the machine shop.
    After spending what at the time seemed like an enormous amount of money on machine work (I was, and remain, a cheapskate, but at least these days I have a greater respect for machining), we got everything back and put the engine together. We ended up needing to pull the old engine out of the car a bit ahead of schedule anyway, as some of the pieces were different between the two, most noticeably the oil pan and the corresponding oil pickup. The truck pan was very much not the same shape and wouldn’t have fit, given the location of one of the car’s cross-members. Still, all seemed well.
    With the new engine installed in the car, it was time to add the last few items such as the oil dipstick tube. However, upon inspection (which, I know, we should have done earlier), there was no hole in the block for the tube. No! They weren’t compatible blocks after all! Disaster! The corresponding hole in the truck block was in what was now a completely unusable location! Doom! Now what?!?
    Upon even closer inspection (which, I know, we should have done earlier), both blocks had two holes, one of which in each case was sealed by a tiny little core plug. Simply moving the plug to the other hole converted the new block from “truck” to “car.” Crisis averted.

    1. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      And frugality reconfirmed?

    2. 0A5599 Avatar

      I imagine that as a teenager you had not yet developed the skills to kludge something together, but there is a far better solution. Break off one of the wheels. In the eyes of the law, the car becomes a motorcycle when it’s transformed into a trike. Then you don’t need a car-specific engine block.

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        It’s not a complete solution. I’ve had trouble with incorrect holes in that engine as well.

  7. Borkwagen Avatar

    Changed the oil on my AW11. Drove around for a bit. Guy honked at me and pointed at smoke coming out from under the engine lid. Panicked and pulled over. Found I forgot to put the oil cap on. Not the first time I’d made this mistake, too, though that was with a SW20.

    1. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      Oh god. Some years back I had a stretch where I kept forgetting to do this in various cars. I think I did it probably three or four times in as many months. Thankfully I haven’t done it since.

    2. salguod Avatar

      My daughter recently did this. Filled her oil just before a trip (good job!) and failed to put the cap on. This was in Columbus Ohio and she figured it out when it started smoking from under hood. In New Jersey. There was oil everywhere and it ended up taking 3 quarts.

    3. Troggy Avatar

      I had a mechanic do that to me once. Fortunately I had popped the bonnet just for a quick look before I left the workshop and saw it sitting on top of the engine before I drove away.

  8. Harry Callahan Avatar
    Harry Callahan

    Most of my alarms weren’t false. Cue sad violin music now…..

  9. salguod Avatar

    I’m sure I have many, but I can’t remember most of them. However, in high school my Camaro wouldn’t start and as I recall it sat for about a week while I tried to figure it out. I don’t think recall everything I tried, but I’m sure I had the battery and alternator checked. Eventually I discovered that when I replaced the negative battery cable, there were two threaded holes in the block in the flange where it attached. I had used the wrong one. It was a blind hole that allowed the bolt to get tight but not actually clamp the cable. Moved it to the through hole and all was good.

  10. Shawn Avatar

    Being a mechanic for twenty years I’ve got quiet a few stories I could tell. But as far as screwing up without actually doing any damage, when I was just getting started as a mechanic I once spent about 3 hours chasing an electrical problem simply because I didn’t put the fuse back into the right spot of a fuse box. I also know a guy who put a clutch disc in backwards too lol

    1. nanoop Avatar

      “Being a mechanic for twenty years I’ve got quiet a few stories I could tell. ”
      You’re most welcome to share some more stories, if you want to!

    2. Troggy Avatar

      Yes, please share more!
      I’ve seen a similar electrical problem on a yacht we had chartered. The guy showing me around all of the systems pulled a fuse to check it and pushed the wires out of the back of the fuse block when he reinserted it. It meant that the head (toilet) wouldn’t flush. And no head meant we weren’t going anywhere until it was fixed.
      Two guys took hours looking into it, and I was getting frustrated at not going anywhere. When they took a break I poked my head into the compartment where the fuses were, and spotted two wires dangling loose, and realised what had happened.
      The two boof-heads came back and I told them what I had found. We were lucky to get going on that day.

    3. outback_ute Avatar

      Didn’t pay enough attention to spacers on a modified clutch install, and the engine was in the car for 5 minutes before pulling it out again, zero clutch pedal travel. Didn’t help that the new clutch disc was thicker than the old. Lucky Imps are easy to pull engines from!

      1. nanoop Avatar

        One of these Imps was on my shortlist for my project car, but the tin/tin oxide ratio was way off… One day, nanoop, one day…

  11. nanoop Avatar

    I consider disabling the ignition after dropping the oil, just to save the nerves…
    I had a workshop installing a controller and auxiliary coolant pump so the auxiliary diesel heater could be used independently of the engine status. 500 miles later I borrowed a selfie stick to photograph the piping, but the droplets were from a previous vehicle…

  12. MohammedM Avatar

    My late Uncle managed to get a great deal on a car because of somebody else having a false alarm moment. The story as I remember it was that my cousin’s friend had a Ford Cortina which he had serviced but could no longer start. After not being able to figure out the cause,he decided to cut his losses and sold it to my Uncle. My Uncle promptly troubleshooted the issue to a fuel filter installed back to front!

  13. Drnoose Avatar

    About 30 years ago my next door neighbor let me take his 1969 mustang super cobra jet out for a drive. New engine. I was really going through the gears and the Rpms when all of a sudden it let out a huge backfire, sounded like it was blowing up and died. Since I was trying to find red line at the time, I bought I was dead. Calling him from a pay phone and telling him his car was dead was not fun. Coil wire had popped off.

  14. Fuhrman16 Avatar

    Well, the most recent false alarm I’ve experienced was with my Hyundai Excel lemons car last spring. About two weeks before the race it started having issues with pushing coolant out of the overflow and I couldn’t find anything that could be causing it, so I became convinced that it had a blown head gasket. So I went about replacing it, only to find nothing wrong with it. I threw a new one on regardless and buttoned the motor back together.
    But shortly after getting it running again, the engine started knocking. This is when I really started panicking. So I took the head off again, thinking I must have accidentally dropped something into the engine or messed up the timing and was smashing a valve into a piston or something. But there was nothing of the sort.
    But while examining the cylinder head, I noticed that the oil drain galleries for the rocker arm ran outside the head and through the intake manifold. And in my haste to get back together I didn’t noticed that and smeared RTV over the drains, partially blocking them and starving the engine of oil.
    Oh, an the overheating issue? That was due to an under rated radiator cap that wasn’t holding enough pressure. Derp.

  15. Rover 1 Avatar
    Rover 1

    I went to help out a friend who was from a wealthy family. His car-nut father had just swapped an ex-racing, converted back to road use, XY Phase 3 GTHO Falcon for a slightly older Ferrari 330GT, with a ‘crunchy’ sounding differential. Through a Jaguar club member, (Salisbury diffs are Salisbury diffs), we sourced a new diff and proceeded to swap the old for the new. I got to help because I had pulled apart and rebuilt the engine on my Rover 2000TC so to them, I was obviously a mechanical expert rather than merely impecunious.
    After a day crawling under the quite tidy, low miles Ferrari, we had the old diff out and the new one in.
    We soon discovered we had five reverse gears and one forward. We had installed the new part the wrong way round. An actual mechanical expert was called and in two hours, had it fixed properly.
    I was never asked to ‘help’ again, though we remained friends and later, on a race track with three others on board and a case of wine in the boot, saw 150mph on the speedo a few times. The Ferrari was later traded for a brand new Audi Ur Quattro
    GTHO like this, but white. (Should have kept it, it’s worth far more than the Ferrari now)
    Ferrari 330GT

    1. Troggy Avatar

      Bet he’s kicking himself for letting the GTHO go.

      1. Rover 1 Avatar
        Rover 1

        What would an ex racing GTHO be worth now? Would it still be a road car?

        1. Troggy Avatar

          No idea at all. A clean factory stock car is well over $100,000 now as you would know, but an ex-race car probably depends more on how meticulous the restoration to road car was, and provenance, like who drove/owned it, how it’s been kept. It’s probably still worth something to the right person but still wouldn’t be as much as an original GTHO.
          There’s also a chance that it was further devalued by turning it back to a road car. Some collectors of historic race cars will pay a good price for a car that is in exactly the same condition as it was when it rolled off the race track.
          I’m reminded by a story that I heard when visiting the Bowden’s collection: A Falcon that was raced by Dick Johnson was sold to another race team who repainted it in their own livery and raced it with moderate success. A collector bought it off that race team, and, finding out that it was an ex-Dick Johnson car, he resprayed it in the original green livery – right down to the sponsors stickers. Trouble is, it turned out that Dick Johnson hated the thing, that’s why they got rid of it after only a couple of races. He hated it so much that he refused to authenticate it, leaving the buyer with what was essentially a nuts & bolts replica of the original car.
          It might have been worth more in the livery that it was better known for racing in. woops.

          1. Rover 1 Avatar
            Rover 1

            I think it may have been ex Leo Leonard, here in NZ. Leo next raced E49 Chargers with huge success.

  16. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    from mid-May to early July this year, i worked on tracking down a strange misfire in my Volvo, which had a freshly-reassembled set of valve stem seals, cams, timing equipment, cam seals, etc. the car started on the first try, but ran like junk. i had spent an age getting the VVT hub set correctly and there was no code, but it was the only thing i could think of after having checked everything ten times and replaced all the injectors. finally got a solenoid test light and checked the injectors to find that only three of them were firing at a time, and in a seemingly random order.
    i still haven’t pieced together why the injectors that weren’t firing seemed to jump around, but i tore off the intake manifold to get at the electronic throttle – a $500 repair i’d done a few years back – and in the process of diagnosing it, i somehow thought i should wiggle a completely unrelated wire. i heard a click from the connector and a ‘bweeeeeee” from the throttle as it gave a healthy waggle. i’d had that cable plugged in, it just wasn’t plugged in enough.
    sure enough, i put it all back together and it ran perfectly right away. current status, a month or two later: running fine, but i’m waiting for the other shoe to drop – it’s an interference engine.

  17. Troggy Avatar

    It didn’t really send me down a rabbit hole of troubleshooting, but did my head in just the same.
    2011 Honda VFR800x Crossrunner, the brakes were starting to feel horrible and wooden and weren’t biting the way they used to.
    It had plenty of meat on the pads, so I suspected contaminated brake fluid. Without enough money at the time to be able to afford to take it to a mechanic, I was looking at having to do the job for myself. Being a VFR800 variant it has Honda’s linked braking system which is a more complex system than most motorbikes have, so flushing the brake fluid was going to be tricky for somebody with my lack of mechanical skills. And it’s a motorbike. I want my motorbike’s brakes to be fixed by a professional, and I am not a professional.
    So one day I was pushing the bike into the garage – with the engine off, I heard a little squeak from the brake lever when I squeezed it.
    Yup, just needed a little drop of oil on the lever hinge and now my brakes feel exactly as they should again. Phew!

  18. JayP Avatar

    I was almost finished installing a working transaxle in my 944 to replace the exploded one. Had all the bits on, the collar from the torque tube to the trans on. I got excited and started the car and heard the worst banging ever. I was sick. Shut it off, left it for a month or 2.
    I finally got brave and checked to see what the noise was… the collar from the driveshaft to the transaxle wasn’t tight and the allen head bolt was hitting the case. 6 turns later and it was perfect.https://i.ebayimg.com/thumbs/images/g/gWUAAOSwsW9YxFrM/s-l225.jpg

  19. 0A5599 Avatar

    Horrendous racket under the hood turned out to be a loose radiator bolt, which allowed for slight contact with the fan.

  20. P161911 Avatar

    Horrendous racket under the hood only under hard acceleration on my 1996 Z-28. Only happened once per drive, could not repeat it until a few days later. It was winter and I didn’t have time to check things out at home. car was working, keep driving. A week or two later it wouldn’t start. Turns out rats had been saving dog food on the engine and under hard acceleration the dog food got thrown into the fan. Rats eventually chewed through the wires. Ever since then dog food has been stored in a steel trash can.

  21. cap'n fast Avatar
    cap’n fast

    i thoroughly enjoyed your sojourn into the world of terrified trouble shooting after wrenching. welcome to the club. now, go back and install a direct reading gauge on the engine cylinder head oil gallery where the plug for the drilled end of the gallery is. easy enough to do and using an oil filled gauge would be helpful in letting the gauge last more than 100 hours in that environment. very old racer trick. using a hydraulic fuse in the gauge feed line would prevent oil on the track if the gauge did fail.
    nice to know i am not alone when it comes to getting the self satisfied smug look wiped off my face.

  22. Tiller188 Avatar

    Not me personally, but I’ve read a couple of variants of this one on Subaru forums. Guy performs some maintenance on the engine of his turbo Subaru (one of the models with a top-mounted intercooler), finishes up, and cranks the car over. Engine fires, and suddenly there’s a terrifying rattling sound. Guy panics, shuts off engine, and runs back around to look under the hood…where he finds the [socket/open-end wrench/screwdriver] he left on top of the conveniently-located intercooler. Put away tool, start engine again, all is good.
    I’m too paranoid about bending fins on my intercooler (and it doesn’t hurt that I had already read one or two of these anecdotes by the time I did anything under the hood on my car), so thankfully I’ve never had this one happen to me…yet.

  23. bekar Avatar

    Finished the initial oil change on a much-used car that I’d just bought. On the way to the shop to recycle the old oil, the engine began knocking horribly. I was right outside the parking lot so I parked and had a look. There was a huge trail of oil on the road behind me.
    Sure enough, the o-ring from the old oil filter had stuck to the block, until the oil pressure blew it out. Five minutes and a few more quarts of oil later, it sounded OK. The original engine is still running fine nearly a decade later.

  24. cap'n fast Avatar
    cap’n fast

    here is a delayed action disaster for you from a previous life.
    in the late 1970’s we lost one of our aircraft in Iceland. Warning Star 0121 was taxing out from the ramp to the runway 26 crew and 7200 gallons of 115/145 avgas on board with four turning. the left main landing gear shock strut blew out and broke off the trunnion. this caused the left wing to hit the ground breaking off the propeller blades. which causes the right wing to fling into the air causing the right tip tank with 610 gallons of avgas to break off and fly over the top of the fuselage and land on the still running engines of the left wing. flames erupt and the crew runs like hell thru burning fuel to get out. all made it out. two Icelandic fire fighters were injured while checking for stragglers while the aircraft burned to a puddle. i cannot say enough about the courage of fire fighters.
    the delayed action was this; years before,the landing gear shock strut was damaged while in storage in Utah. a forklift hit the packing case it was stored in and it appears no thought was given to any damage done to the huge piece of machined steel forging. a nick 10mm long 0.5mm deep was in the upper section of the outer casing. it was painted over and that was that.
    during heavy maintenance, the landing gears were renewed. this strut was installed on 0121. stress corrosion is very very quiet. with maximum loading and the stress of the not so smooth ramp in that place, the landing gear explosively failed while taxing out.
    often, I have found that the questions asked are more important than the answers. sometimes the smallest things can bite you in the butt.

    1. nanoop Avatar

      Years and distance (Utah->Iceland), a relatively tiny scratch – very impressive story indeed!

    2. Alan Cesar Avatar
      Alan Cesar

      Holy shit.