Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2006-08-28
  Its alive
On my list of things to get done eventually this summer was fix my car. Last year wasn't a very good year for it, though given that its now 16 years old, its in pretty good shape considering.

The first problem I had was that the rings had loosed up over time and the vehicle was burning oil faster than I was checking it. It got to the point that one afternoon I hopped in the car, pushed the gas, sped up down the dirt road only to get about 2,000 feet from the house and have the engine seize up completely. When the starter can't turn the engine over (because the pistons have welded themselves to the side of the cylinder), you know you've seriously messed things up.

Unfortunately, Burke, my regular mechanic had retired, so I had to call around and find someone else who would work on it. Of course, the first thing everyone asks after hearing about how old this car is is, "and you want to fix it?" Well, my car may not be the prettiest thing after 16 years, but spending a thousand or two on it to get it back and running is still a lot cheaper than buying something new (or even used). Turns out that the Mitsubishi Eclipse (the sister car to the Plymoth Laser) was a hot car for many years over in Japan. This is a good thing, because they have some seriously strange laws about old cars over there, so after five years or so, its no longer practical to keep your car, and they junk them all for parts. So turns out if you really want to scrape the bottom of the barrel, you can pick up an entire engine for $400. I went one step up, got a block that had been drained of the shipping gunk, had new belts put on and spun up to check for about $800.

To remind myself to check the oil in the future, the old engine head cover now lives on my garage wall.

So I was back on the road, but my car wasn't done with me. It started hesitating on me when I tried to really punch it (I mean, that's what a sports car is for, right?). I took it too another mechanic to take a look at (not being totally happy with the guys who did the engine replacement), and he adjusted a few things, but it still wasn't happy. Then one evening I took it to the grocery store and it wouldn't start when I came out. Not being one to take a dying car lightly, I inched across the entire parking lot using just the starter motor; tried push starting it as well, and finally after twenty minutes of harrassment I got it to start. Things didn't get better though, pretty soon it wouldn't start warm at all, and I had to leave the car overnight in a few parking lots around town. Unfortunately my mechanic couldn't really tell what was going on at this stage, because he didn't have time to drive the car around long enough to warm it up where it wouldn't re-start. So I drove it around a bit more (I'm a glutton for punishment), and then I got it to the point where it wouldn't start at all. Success!

Larry took a look at it again, and found that the ignition wasn't firing at all. The computer wouldn't run the car. He was out of his element at this point, and his friends at the dealers all warned him that this was a doomsday car and it should be junked. His best guess was that the security module had decided that I was trying to steel the car and had engaged the anti-theft features. Somehow we got the car started one last time, and I drove it home where it sat in the yard for the next year.

So I was cruising the industrial machine section at ebay the other day, cause I'm always on the lookout for a good deal on a CNC gantry table or Synrad engraving CO2 laser, when my search string accidentally picked up "90 Plymoth Laser ECU replacement". Since I have a 1990 Plymoth Laser, I clicked through and pretty soon I ran across this section of text:

4. Symptoms

If any one or more of the following are occurring, a Motoguy's Garage Rebuilt ECU may help

Intermittent 'clicking' behind the radio

Random stalling and only restarting after several tries, or when the car has cooled

Running poorly with a severe decrease in power

Unable to start

No spark on two cylinders

Low, unsteady or oscillating idle

Check Engine Light always on

I don't use the radio that much (and its not a stock one anyways), but out of the other six symptoms I was hitting five pretty regularly. For an investment of $30 to $300 it sounded like I might have a working car soon.

First, I needed to find my ECU, as apparently there are a number of different models depending on year, engine, point of origin, and other some-such. I didn't really bother to pay much attention to the directions for finding it. I figured, how hard can it be to locate? 800 screws later, as I was about to detach the entire dashboard from the firewall, I decided to take a break and go back inside and look it up. Turns out I had past it an hour ago, sitting right there under my radio.

So my car runs on a MD128622 (also refered to on the side as 8622). 2.0L DOHC, non-turbo, california emissions version. In this case, it doesn't run; cause of fourty cents worth of bad parts—capacitors specifically. Seems that from about 1988 to 1994 a number of Japanese auto companies bought these capacitors from a vendor who didn't engineer the parts for the abusive environment that a car puts electronics through. So after about 10-15 years, the capacitors broke down, leaking all their electrolytic material out. This didn't just ruin the capacitor—it happened to ruin a fair number of the parts around it on the board:

Pulling the top off, things look ok at first glance. But then you zoom up into the center where the black can capacitors are, and the sight is not so pretty.

Like the stories say, looks like things leaked out and and have a made a fair mess out of the solder joints and parts near by. Also it looks like the protective shalack on top has been cracked and discolored. Reading the label on the side of the capacitor we learn a couple things. 1) the capacitor was manufactures in August of 1989, 2) the temperature rating for the part is supposed to be 105°C, and 3) Rubycon made some crappy capacitors back then.

Scanning the listings and reading more stuff on the net, it looks like the problem was pretty widespread, ranging from 1988 to 1994 and hitting Mazda, Mitsubishi, Honda and Nissan. By about 1995 things were under control in Japan, but interestingly enough this was not the end of the story,


On September 13, 2002, it was reported to Passive Component Industry Magazine by contacts in Japan that an unusually high rate of failures of low-ESR aluminum electrolytic capacitors produced in Taiwan by Lelon Electronics, Luxon Electronics, and other aluminum capacitor manufacturers had been traced to a problem with an aqueous electrolyte that had been used throughout the Taiwanese electrolytic capacitor industry.

Reportedly, the problem developed after a materials scientist working for Rubycon Corporation in Japan left the company and began working for Luminous Town Electric in China. The scientist then developed a copy of Rubycon P-50 type water-based electrolyte, used in low-ESR aluminum electrolytic capacitors developed by Luminous and equivalent to the Rubycon ZA and ZL series. Subsequently, the scientist's staff members defected with the formula, and began to sell and electrolyte at a low price to many of the major aluminum electrolytic houses in Taiwan, including Luxon Electronics, Lelon Electronics, and other aluminum capacitor manufacturers. (IBM has stated that five companies were affected, while other sources in Taiwan suggest that as many as 11 companies were affected.)

Unfortunately, the staff members who defected from Luminous Town Electric with the formula copied only the partial formula, and the subsequent electrolyte produced was unstable when packaged in a finished aluminum capacitor. The instability of the electrolyte in the low-ESR aluminum electrolytic capacitors using this water-based electrolyte leads to the build-up of excess hydrogen inside the aluminum can, which results in either a rupture of the can itself or destruction of the rubber end-seal. Either failure is potentially catastrophic due to the leaking electrolyte. According to top material scientists in the aluminum capacitor industry, if the correct amount of additives is not mixed into a water-based electrolyte, electrolysis will occur, releasing a high amount of hydrogen gas in the can and resulting in catastrophic failure.

From Passive Component Industry Magazine, October 2002.


In any case, with another replacement ECU, my car is alive, though a little out of sorts due to the battery sitting dead for a year and a clogged air flow sensor. But its alive!
 
Comments:
You probably have a 1990 Plymouth Laser
 
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