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How to handle a no-start, towed-in vehicle in a tight spot

A propane bottle, braided vacuum hose and small welding kit is all you need to jump a car with a dead fuel pump, says Paul Grech

Editor’s note: Paul E. Grech owned the former San Franciso shop, Allied Engine & Auto Repair, before retiring. In this column series, Grech shares his experiences as a shop owner.

The secret to a successful business is to be a proactive manager. This means learning a lesson before it becomes a big problem — in other words the easy way rather than the hard way.

In my 43 years in auto repair, we had many a no-start car towed in. Because my shop was on a two-way street, if a tow truck tried to back a car in, he would tie up traffic in our a busy downtown San Francisco location (and make for unhappy commuters).

Paul Grech

It would take three of us to manually push the car in from off the road: one to steer, two to push. There also was a big hump to go over the sidewalk and another one to go over the entrance to the building, which always threatened a back injury when it was slick out. There was also the day when we just avoided a police chase barreling down.

Eventually I realized by the 1990s that you could start a car with a propane bottle. At that time, we got a lot of no-starts with a dead fuel pump. The car would start and idle enough to drive the car in under its own power, but it would only idle and not rev up.

I realized that this little trick would make things a lot easier. It also would take only one person, who would also diagnose the problem in the process.

To make a setup to do this is easy: get some propane bottles and obtain a small welding kit from a hardware store. Use one of the valves to control the flow of propane to get the car started. The best hose to use is a braided vacuum hose, such as ones used on old Volkswagen Beetles.

Get about 14 feet of it so you can control it from the driver’s seat. Insert the hose in the air cleaner intake. The braid on the hose helps to prevent the hose from slipping out of the air cleaner.

Just dial in the correct amount of propane to let the engine start and idle. If you dial in too much the engine will die. You won’t be able to rev the engine up but it will allow you to drive the car into the shop.

It also prevents fires when you pour gas into to the intake to try to start the car. If you spill gas and a fire starts there is enough gas to burn long enough to do some damage to wiring or set plastic intake ducting on fire — or hurt someone.

The propane can flash back but it will only momentarily flare up and go out. You can turn off the valve to stop the flow of propane. The only other precaution you need to take is to watch out for exposed positive battery power.

For example, positive battery post or the output wire in the back of an alternator. There should be a plastic cap on it but it could be missing.

Tow truck operators also benefit from this technique when they get a call for a no-start for a car that is in a facility with a ceiling too low for the truck — and complete the call rather than turn it down. They can also use this to get a no-start out of a house garage with tight quarters to your truck parked in the street. 

Try it — you will like it.

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