When 9 Volts Isn’t Enough

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One of the many appealing things about old cars, in particular, those so old they don’t have computers (to find one without one, you’ll need to go back to the late 1970s) or at least old enough that they don’t have computer-controlled fuel injection, is that there’s a chance you’ll be able to start the engine with a weak battery, if there’s enough charge to turn the thing over.

Even if only just barely.

No such luck with a new car – like the ’24 Dodge Hornet I am test driving this week. Make that was test driving.

It is now sitting (as am I) because for some reason, the battery lost charge while it sat overnight the other night. I have read that some new cars have old batteries – a new phenomenon, the result of vehicles sitting a long time in between manufacture point-of-sale.

But the point is that a modern car with computer controlled fuel injection won’t even try to start if the battery’s low on charge – because the computer won’t let it. There’s not enough juice to power up the EFI (including the electric fuel pump and high pressure injectors).  I checked the battery with my multimeter; just 9 volts showing rather than 12. And so I sat – and waited – for my trickle charger to restore the battery to 12. (I’d have tried jump-starting it, but the Dodge isn’t mine – and I don’t want to risk fritzing out any of the electronics .)

Well, I got the battery charged up – but now the car won’t let me start the car. Apparently, the computer now thinks someone is trying to steal the car – and the horn honks furiously (and endlessly) as soon as the battery is reconnected to the car. There is some opaque ritual that must be performed to get the alarm to shut off and the car to start. It may involve a computer – and a tow truck-trip to the dealer.

Now, an old car – old enough to not have a computer – old enough to have a carburetor – might start even with a weak battery. Turn the key (remember them?) and eeeerrrrrr . . . . rrrrrr . . .rrrrrr . . .  and then – just maybe! – it’d fire. Because all you needed was fire. There was probably already gas in the carburetor’s bowl (remember them?) and if there was enough charge to fire the plugs and turn the engine over, just enough, the engine would fire.

If the battery was dead, remove and replace it. Two clamps, usually – and that’s it. No need to “reflash” or “pair” the battery to the computer or perform some arcane ritual of pushing lock/unlock buttons in just the right order and within a certain number of seconds and then do a Chinese fire drill around the car three times while saying four Hail Marys. 

This is an example of one of the biggest differences between the old and the new. The latter usually work as reliably as a digital watch. Until they day they don’t. And when that day comes, there is very little you can do. The screen goes dark – or the horn goes off –  and that’s all you know.

Old cars are like old watches – the ones that tell time mechanically. Gears and springs; hands that move. They are not as reliable as electronic watches; some have to be wound/adjusted every now and then. But they rarely just stop telling time. They may not tell you the right time. But they’ll give you a general idea – and that’s better than having no idea what time it is.

Also, they are comprehensible. In part because one can see their workings. This helps to understand how they work. And they are far more user-fixable. Sometimes, just by shaking them. If that doesn’t work, a little cleaning, some adjustments, usually bring everything back to good working order. A good mechanical watch is one that, with care, will outlast your time on this Earth. It will go on telling your son what time it is – and maybe his son, too.

Old cars are also like that in that – with care – they can be made to last generations.

The Orange Pumpkin (my 1976 Trans-Am) I often write about has been around for nearly three generations already. I’ve cared for it for the past 30 years and when I got it, it was already a generation (20 years) old. When I am no longer able to care for it, someone from another generation will (hopefully) take care of it and if the custodial changing of the guard is not broken, it is entirely possible someone will be caring for it another 60 years from now.

As for the Dodge sitting outside waiting for a tow truck – or a computer shaman – probably not. There’s just too much that’s not fixable, that can’t be jiggered with, cajoled and otherwise kept operational. The day will come when it won’t start for some other, more serious reason.

And when that day comes, it’ll be the little Dodge’s last day.

. . .

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  1. My 1998 VW would lock the doors and sound the alarm when battery connected. Had to unlock the door with the key to silence it. Happened often enough that I removed the security module. At least you could do that in the 90’s.

  2. When 600 volts ain’t enough:

    No One Wants Used EVs

    ‘Drivers don’t want to buy used electric vehicles, and that’s undermining the market for new ones, too.

    ‘Some of the biggest buyers of new cars, including rental firms, are cutting back on EV adoption because they’re losing money on resales. [A chart shows three-year residual value of about 70% for used ICE vehicles, versus about 60% for used EeeVees.]

    ‘The problems are expected to intensify next year, when many of the 1.2 million EVs sold in Europe in 2021 will come off their three-year leasing contracts and enter the secondhand market.

    ‘China offers a cautionary tale. Lucrative subsidies turned the country into an EV giant, but also produced weed-infested graveyards of abandoned battery-powered vehicles.’


    Hey, I’ve got a great idea: let’s start a Burning Car festival … with an effigy of Joe Manchin going incandescent in the drivers seat.


      • Ken,

        Yeah, I caught that gratuitous slur by reporterette Monica Raymunt.

        It’s straight from the Lügenpresse style sheet: the stenographer can’t type ‘combustion’ without appending an adjective such as ‘dirty,’ ‘polluting,’ or ‘climate destroying.’

        Of course, this formulaic overlay is easily replicated by artificial intelligence, spewing agitprop like a runaway firehose.

  3. These debacles point to a future where the working poor and even into what’s left of the middle class won’t be able to afford car ownership. First The Kenyans Cash for Clunkers destroyed a viable second hand market of affordable cars. Now the next step eliminates DIY repairs for something as simple as a battery replacement. The local auto parts stores used to test and then replace your battery if needed, no charge for labor as it then took mere minutes and the batteries were always in stock and affordable. Worst that would happen is an electronic radio channel memory would be lost. Now, drive away and find your wipers don’t work? Wow.

    • Can you replace the battery in “your” tracking device ? How does “android” perform after removal from a few hours in a faraday bag ?

      Oh yes, it knows exactly what youve attempted by blocking its connections. No conspiracy here. . .

      So what actually “owns” your android tracker?

      Your “phone” is the future of “smart” everything control grid aka matrix.

  4. Good stuff as always, and good comments too.
    I think it’s mandatory now to carry jump packs. All of my cars, bikes, have them in some form and size(s). Seem to use them all the time, on ‘others’ dead stuff.
    Even most new dirtbikes don’t have kickstarters anymore. And some will or won’t start trying to ‘bump’ start them. So I carry a tiny little jump pack 90% of the time. It has worked too on some friends bikes.

  5. Contrast this to the 50 ford sedan I pulled out of a barn a few years back. It had been used like an old Ford, first as a daily driver, then as a kids car a few times, eventually to haul firewood. Then it was struck in a barn sometime around 1980, so about 35 years of sitting.

    The hood was stuck shut, with careful shots of PB Blaster and judicious jiggling, tugging, and swearing, it opened to reveal the original flathead V8 in all its cast iron glory. The oil bath air cleaner had kept the engine from getting stuck. I rigged a gas can, stuck in a 6 volt battery, and was startled by an odd noise under the dash.

    Turns out old car clocks (an expensive Ford option, like the heater) are mechanical clocks which self wind with electricity present! The 70 year old clock started keeping good time, and with a little effort, she started and ran.

    That won’t ever happen with the 24 Hornet.

    • A friend bought a ’65 Ford pickup, wouldn’t go, pulled it back to town, the starter was rusted tight and shut, wouldn’t turn the ring gear, new starter, engine started. It had been sitting out in the open for a few winters in a field.

      It was more than 40 years ago, I still buy new tools, always need a new slip joint pliers.

      Have to re-supply the Kroil, that stuff can’t be beat.

    • I have recently discovered a show on the Youtubes called Vice Grip Garage. It’s basically a guy that finds old vehicles that have been sitting for decades, gets them running on the spot and road trips them back to his home state.

      Funny and entertaining guy. From what I can tell, he does it all on his own. Just him, his tools, and a camera.

      He has a shortened version on Motortrend (which is how I discovered him), but his lengthy, in depth Youtubes channel is where it’s at.

  6. It’s a shame that we’re so far down this road now. The Dodge Hornet doesn’t look like anything too spectacular, it just has all the same stuff as every other car on the road these days. Here we are, with enough extra stuff to turn a Chevy into a Cadillac, on every car. Is that the only way to sell a car anymore? Is it even desired by customers at the end of the day? I’m sure everyone can find at least one feature they might like to have, but because it’s all-or-nothing you get the good, bad and ugly, wanted or not. Of course all these vehicles were designed back in the 0% interest days. Now that your automobile’s mortgage cost is seven and seven (7% over 7 years), is that theatre lighting package really going to improve your driving experience? Even if you could order one from the factory without it, you lose a lot of your haggling hand with a custom order.

    Was this trip really necessary?

  7. My 2014 Honda did that to me on a trip – started it up in the morning, drove to the destination, and then when we went to leave, turned the key and not a peep. Dead as a doornail. Someone gave us a jump and we went and bought a new battery and there was no issue in connecting the new one. At the time I blamed it on the battery – I was thinking “WTF is wrong with batteries they make these days?!? I had no idea that it was actually the car’s doing….
    Nope, I much preferred the day when your battery would give you a warning that it was getting low and would soon die. Which of course gave you time to go out and get another one.

    • I’ve had batteries fail in this manner on older vehicles, some several times. Start the truck, stop by the donut shop, go to start the truck-stone dead. The batteries now just aren’t as physically robust anymore. They function, a plate jumper inside breaks, and it’s dead.

  8. As I dropped off my buddy and his gal pal for the airporter shuttle, he was not sure he had turned off her car. (? You’ll see later in my blurb) They’re off on a two week vacation so I offered to drive the 15 miles back and check this out.

    He and she explained it’s a Honda hybrid and if the start button is dark it’s off, if it glows it’s “active”. I opened his shop, called him back, and by looking thru the drivers window I could see the start button was dark. “Is it locked?” “No.” “Wow, it’s supposed to auto lock if it’s off, please climb in, push the brake while pushing the start button then get back out, close the door and see if it auto locks.” Big mistake. Opened the door to get back out the horn alarm sets off since I didn’t have the key fob it thinks I’m stealing the car. Back to his house, unlock his safe, grab her key fob and get the damn thing to shut up. Brake, button, on/off get back out close the car door it beeps once. On the phone with him again “Did it lock?” “I don’t know, it beeped and I’m not trying the door handle to find out, I’ll make sure your shop is locked as I leave.”

    She said she’s forgotten to turn it off even out shopping. Who would own such a thing? My last comment on the phone was “when you get back trade this off for a ‘72 Malibu!”

  9. Try to lock and then unlock the car or cycle the emergency button… might work. These damn alarm systems are far more trouble than their worth. It’s like they never expect the battery to die.

  10. I was driving the truck back home one day years ago now, it began to cut out and wanted to stop some, made it home. The battery is going dead fast. Go buy new, you have to, the one you have is dead.

    Johnson Controls manufactures batteries by the millions. Interstate is one brand they manufacture, also the Walmart brand, EverStart.

    No need to wonder why they do.

  11. The Ford Fusion, and a growing number of Ford Escapes, have non-linked, twin-motored front Wiper blades, computer controlled, of course. Change the battery, or even the memory module that is mounted directly on the positive battery terminal (thus corroding like gangbusters) and the wipers are automatically rendered inoperative until they are re-programmed and re-synchronized at the stealer-ship. The available TSB for this process is a nightmare that includes warnings about the system’s ability to break you hands if done incorrectly. WHY? 2 wiper motors and an impossible operations programming for WHAT?
    I used to think the ‘AI HVAC System’ that would attack unauthorized repair men, in the film “Brazil” was a cosmic joke, being a Monty-Python film and all. Not anymore.

    • I’ll be keeping my ‘03 Escape, thank you very much! Good grief, non linked wipers that depends on a computer setup to function? Although now I find out the stock group 40R battery is a rare bird, my soon to be 8 year old Exide is due for replacement, if I disconnect without a backup power source all I lose is the radio and clock settings.

  12. Hi gtc, my 2 year old Camry has a tire nanny and it drives me crazy. Of course I am going to lose air when it gets down to -20 friggin’ below. So what? When I drove (regularly) my old, WRX (no nannies of any kind), if the tires looked a bit low, I would check them, and add more air if needed. But then again, we are living amongst a generation of people that have to be warned that coffee is hot. I wish I could just shut the damned thing off, because it is more of a hassle than it’s worth.

  13. I swear to God, this morning, a customer asked me if his windshield wipers were ‘too tight’ or if his windshield wasn’t ‘level’. The fact that it has been cold as blue blazes with snow & ice here in the mountains last week, doesn’t seem to actually register with a lot of people.
    Another one keeps complaining about his oil level dropping when he drives on long trips, and his tire pressure ‘warning light’ keeps coming on when it’s below freezing outside.

    How out-of-fucking-touch with reality are people anymore???

    My grandparents had to hand-start their 1st cars, and even I had cars with generators & a handstarter from the 1960’s. Now some modern motorcycles have available electric self-lowering training wheels, for God’s sake!

    The last 20 years of the ‘information age’ have created nothing but a society of spineless, inept meat-sacks that couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag.

    • Hi Graves!

      Yep. The Hornet lies dead in my driveway. I made the mistake of thinking I could just charge the battery and solve the problem. This in fact created a whole new problem. The battery is charged – but the car thinks I’m trying to steal it. Reconnected the charged up battery – and the car goes into an apoplectic electronic hissy fit. Horn honks incessantly and will not shut off – not without disconnecting the battery (again). Nothing in the owner’s manual about the process – Christ! – that is necessary to get the goddamn horn to stop honking and the car to be drivable again.

      • Most anything 2018 or newer I do the battery re-charge in the car, still connected, ‘keys’ as far away from it as possible. Some of the new garbage has ‘key proximity sensors’ that keep activating the damn car within 25 feet of it.
        People have demanded automation out the asshole to the point nothing can be serviced in less than 2 hours without a major fight.
        Want to change a parking light bulb? Sure thing! 1 1/2 hours to disassemble the entire front end and lay it on the floor to extricate a 50-cent light bulb. Another 2 hours to re-assemble because 1/2 the plastic fasteners were missing or broke during the tear-down, and now have to be refastened with drywall screws and plastic zip-ties! It’s all a pile of garbage meant to be thrown in the dump after 5 years!

        • Hi Graves,

          Yup; I am waiting to hear from Dodge… meanwhile, my 22-year-old truck just starts and runs, as it has for the past 22 years… as it will for another 22, prolly.

        • I always clip-lead a small 12v battery to the cables whenever I have to replace the battery. It’s only to save the settings on the radio since my newest car is an ‘03 Corolla; absolutely ridiculous to need to reprogram the computer – unless you own the stealership.

          • Tool trucks have little 12v mini battery packs you can plug into the cig lighter to keep memory alive while you perform battery service.

  14. One issue with the batteries might be the excessive heat from these turbo 2.0 four pots. I once had a Hyundai Sonata 2.0 and it went through three batteries in five years. My feeling is there isn’t enough heat shielding in Christendom to protect the batteries and they die quick deaths.

    • They don’t give a rat’s ass anymore. I see entire ECU modules for the engine and transmission mounted on the GD battery box, 2 inches from an exhaust manifold, or 2 inches from a wheel-well full of leaves, dirt, water, antifreeze reservoirs, and other contamination sources.
      I guess that’s the industry answer to bad ECU harness connections at the firewall connections that plagued cars 15 years ago.
      I remember the 1st Cavalier 2.0L had a single plastic decorative air cleaner cap that ‘supposedly’ “caught the car on fire”. Now there is so much pointless plastic under the hood of cars, I can’t find a spot to mount my magnetic drop-light!

  15. At least with the old cars you also knew ahead of time that the battery was getting low. The starter would crank a little slower, the headlights would be a little dimmer. You knew that you had a few days or couple of weeks to get a new one. These new cars, it starts perfectly fine in the morning, you go to home depot and come out and it’s deader than a door nail. No warning at all. I try to replace my batteries every three years, whether I need to or not, especially with the FL heat.

    • ‘you come out and it’s deader than a doornail’ — Floriduh man

      Automotive coders (they aren’t really designers anymore) evidently assume 100% battery reliability. That’s totally unrealistic. Batteries are crap now; you’re lucky to get 2-3 years of service.

      Actual engineers design products to fail gracefully. If you know the battery is going to die every 2-3 years, then you minimize the hassles and resetting needed after voltage is temporarily removed from the vehicle.

      Putting owners through an exercise like that described by gtc above is unacceptable. If that happened to me, I would sue the dealer in small claims court — win or lose — just to grind their face in the dirt.

      FORD: Found On the Road Dead.

  16. When I show my hit n miss engines, I tell people all they need is gas, a spark, and compression. Everything else is just a matter of tweaking the mixture. That’s a bit oversimplified e.g. the timing can be persnickety but once it’s set it’s set.

    That’s the same with old cars with carbs and mechanical linkages. All you need is gas, spark, and compression. Everything else is just tweaking.

    Embellish the soul with simplicity, said Marcus Aurelius. He was right then and is so now.

  17. I had a rental CX-5 fail to start one afternoon while on vacation in Orlando for an unknown reason. The driver of the tow truck who responded to the AAA call with a commercial Noco rig said that he was starting to see it more frequently with the new cars which have all the gadgetry active even when “off”.

    The tow truck driver wasn’t even sure he could start the Mazda since the voltage was so low and asked me for a verbal agreement which made me liable for any damage to the systems. From just a jump start!

    I now travel with my own Noco. I haven’t had to use it yet, but a BMW X5 we had in Wisconsin last month would not unlock the passenger door one particularly cold morning unitl I pulled the handle from the inside.

  18. ‘Apparently, the computer now thinks someone is trying to steal the car – and the horn honks furiously (and endlessly) as soon as the battery is reconnected to the car.’ — eric

    You have been punished, Eric, for removing the battery to trickle charge it in the garage. What part of the ‘no user-serviceable components inside’ notice under the hood did you fail to understand? /sarc

    This is what is in store for you if your casual hooliganism continues, and even escalates:

    ‘Expanding on Tesla’s Autopilot Over-the-Air (OTA) recall is a section that states repeated abusers will be given five strikes if the vehicle detects five forced Autopilot disengagements — which usually occurs when the vehicle senses the driver is not paying attention. On the fifth strike, Tesla said the automated service will be “unavailable for approximately one week.” – ZH


    ‘Keep your hands on the wheel and remain attentive at all times,’ the lecture continues. ‘Use of any hand-held devices while using Autopilot is not allowed.’

    There goes your delinquent habit of recording video commentary while driving. This is no longer allowed. Your expected compliance will avoid the need for us to impose stronger sanctions. :-0

    • Indeed, Jim –

      It’s as exhausting as it is depressing. That something as basic as disconnecting/reconnecting a battery is now a complicated rigmarole – one that may require a trip (and a tow) to a dealer to deal with. It’s absurd – and worse. There is no benefit to the owner. It is the opposite, in fact. My ’76 Trans-Am starts up when you turn the key. If it doesn’t start, because the battery is weak or dead, I can remove it and replace it in a few minutes and the car will start when I turn the key. I do not have to do anything else, other than turn the goddamned key.

      What has been improved here?

      I have no desire to wrench on these things because you cannot do it any way besides their way. If you can do it at all.

      • Digital nannying has gone wild. In a Tesla, you have voluntarily placed yourself in a Panopticon which judges you all day long … and finds you wanting.

        My reaction to an uppity device that fights me and sanctions me is to resort to lethal violence: that is, fix it where it can’t be fixed.

        • It IS remarkably satisfying to administer a coup de grace to an old cell phone or I-gizmo with a 45 caliber bullet or 2. 45ACP for a normal one, 45-70 for a particularly annoying one.

  19. All we really need is choice. Unfortunately we have a democracy instead of a republic, passed the 19th Amendment, and continue to import more hapless midwits.

    Erasing 175 years of stupid won’t be easy or pretty.


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