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On the farm near Eendekuil

The Day The Dash Died

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Late November last year I went to a good friend’s bachelors party on a farm close to Eendekuil, past Piketberg.  Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the first night of the festivities, as I had to leave early to prepare for a live album recording at my house.  Apart from the celebrations, the rush there Friday evening from Stellenbosch after work, and the rush back Saturday morning bright and early made for some fun driving.

Though, as I was trying to make good time on the way back, Spotty started misbehaving.  First, the DigiDash started resetting randomly, and even before it eventually had completely died, the car would cut out for very brief moments every once in a while.  And the problem with the fantastic looking LCD DigiDash is, if it’s dead, it’s dead. You have zero instrumentation.

Cruising along with no instrumentation can be problematic

My lack of instrumentation might not have stopped me, but unfortunately the problems itself didn’t stop.  After reaching home safely and completing the morning’s preparation, Spotty started pinging heavily in traffic on an afternoon errand run.  With the instrumentation dead, I didn’t realize that the car was overheating until I heard it. Not good. Ever. But these 20SE motors are tough as nails, so after stopping and checking, I found that it was a case of all the coolant water steaming out with the hard work it did to get me home fast.  What? Yes. You read that right. The coolant system can’t build pressure, because some twat managed to strip the reservoir bottle’s thread, and with the chase home I underestimated how much water I’d be losing.

So, filled the beast up with cooling juice, and off I was again.  I did take him to my mechanic for a good checkup after the incident, as I was worried about blown gaskets or warped pistons or heads.  Louis gave it a good run through, torqued the head bolts again, and told me he’s confident Zanzibar and back is going to be a breeze.

Before I took the car to Louis, I decided that proper instrumentation is important after all.  The Saturday after the incident I proceeded to take the DigiDash out and find out what was wrong.  At first it took some effort to wrap my head around the wiring again, but I soon had a hunch of what went wrong, but perhaps some inside info is required.

DigiDash to the side, exposing the nest of wires

See, these cars didn’t come with a DigiDash, so I installed it myself, which is, to be fair, pretty “plug and play”, but I still had to make up the wire to the speed pickup myself and, due to laziness – there, I said it – got it wrong and blew the pickup.  So I taped off the cable and left it at the bottom of the car. The power for this, however, I tapped off the power for the DigiDash, and since I soon found the fuse blown for the dash, I figured the cable must have worn from dangling beneath the car and caused an intermittent short, which had reset the DigiDash each time, and ultimately blown the fuse.  A quick resistance measurement on the cable confirmed some load, so I simply removed it as I don’t have a speedometer at the moment in any case – a problem I’ll sort out with an inline fuse if and when I ever find a speed pickup again. A replaced fuse later, and the DigiDash was back up and running again, and the dash reassembled.

DigiDash lamp test startup sequence

We’re down to two out of three issues resolved by this stage, but I just assumed the stutters from the motor was related to the same issue as the dash dying.  After driving the car for a week or two, I had to acknowledge that something was decidedly wrong. Eventually the “ABS” light – which only some German engineer knows what it stands for, but it’s not Antilock Braking System, it’s pretty much the “check engine” light, go figure – started coming on intermittently (got to love that word, nope).  I also noticed that my indicator flashing rate would vary just ever so slightly. That was my main cause of suspicion that I had some power issues, because, should my voltage dip and recover, the current through the indicator relay will change, causing the rate of flash to change.

You can read up here how a bimetal flasher unit works and why current affects the flashing rate
and here about the properties of a bimetal strip

Bridging pin 1 and 2 on the diagnostic plug flashes out the fault codes on the dashboard

The first order of business, however, was to determine what the check engine light was trying to tell me.  Spotty may be an 80’s child, but it has quite advanced, yet fairly simple to work with, electronic fuel injection.  It was a case of finding the fault code sheet online or a Bosch Motronic 4.1, and bridging pin 1 and 2 on the diagnostic plug.  The system then flashes out fault codes on the “ABS” dash light, each number repeated 3 times, the number 12 flashing out at the start of the sequence.  And so, the only fault code reported was number 48, and you know what 48 means?

Low voltage.

Fault code 48 flashing out on the dashboard

I was right on the money.  But I still needed to find out why the voltage was low.  So, measuring the battery with the car off revealed it was floating at just below 12.5 volts, which is fine enough, but one would expect it to float well above 13 volts.  The alternator should deliver upwards of 14 volts, so my next mission was to start the car and disconnect the battery to measure the alternator on its own. The engine sprung to life, and I moved around to the battery, and didn’t even have to lift a finger to find out what was wrong.

The alternator has rubber bushes it mounts on, as it can swivel to adjust the tension on the belt, and therefore has its own earth cable running to the engine.  Typically the entire car is earthed, so all exposed metal would be considered an earth point. Said earth cable had somehow over the years worn its strands out and was now busy welding itself to the tensioner bracket with a brilliant display of blue arcs and sparks.

Worn earth cable becoming one with the tensioner bracket.  The bracket is earthed to the alternator, but not to the engine because of a rubber bush, hence the need for the earth cable to earth the entire engine – or car, for that matter – to the alternator.

I didn’t have the right lugs available, so decided a quick fix to would be to simply cable tie the remaining cable to the bracket to make sure it has a good connection, and just like that all the woes were solved.  When I told a friend at work, he said, “there’s nothing as permanent as a temporary solution”, and I decided this shan’t be one of those cases. Visiting another friend a week or so later – yes, permanence is looming – he offered an offcut piece of 10mm² cable, more than sufficient to carry 55 amps of current.  I got some lugs and bolted the new earth cable to the car and the engine. So there. Now it is permanent, and rightly so.

Perhaps with one caveat.  The bolt on the swivel side of the bracket can’t be removed without removing the timing belt cover, which can’t be removed without…  You see where this is going. So the temporary solution wasn’t removed, but the permanent solution simply added. To an intake manifold stud.  Next time Louis replaces a timing belt, he can permanently remove the temporary solution.

Bolting a 10mm² cable on for an earth wire is more than sufficient, and quite the upgrade.  The temporary solution can be seen cable tied to the bracket just to the right of the new black cable, as well as the bolt it’s lugged to, the rubber bush necessitating the cable, and the timing belt cover in front of it.

And so, that was it.  Spotty now charges the battery happily, indicates at a consistent rate, and stopped intermittently stuttering.  Funny how all these things happen all at once, but sometimes, such is life.

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