Mark Giammalvo specializes in driveability diagnostics at his family business, Sam Giammalvo's Auto Sales & Service, Inc. in New Bedford, MA.
Mark, who has been with the business for
over 20 years, is an ASE Master
Technician and Parts Specialist. He also holds the ASE L1
certification, and has an associates degree in business
(Printed in the Journal of The Alliance of Automotive Service Providers, AASP)
"It all started with a bang" That's what the customer told me as the wrecker was dropping off his car. The vehicle was a 2000 Mercury Sable with the 3.0 Liter 4V Duratec engine. Our customer said that his wife had attempted to start the car, when suddenly, he heard a loud bang. Actually, he said it sounded like a bomb went off. Even his neighbors ran outside to see what had happened. The customer's wife was a little shaken by the noise but otherwise ok. Now, the car would not start. The cause was obvious upon opening the hood. The plastic upper intake had blown to pieces from a backfire. It harkened me back a few years ago to GM's plastic intake failures. After a few of those blew, GM started using that big plastic cover on top of the engine. You didn't hear it from me but a relative of mine inside GM says that the V6 engineering team calls it the shrapnel shield. What was scary about this Ford was that the intake exploded so violently that the air borne pieces tore up the underhood insulation. Good thing the hood wasn't open! Anyway, a check of service bulletins revealed some interesting information. Just as I suspected, this was not the only 3.0L Sable with an exploding intake. Back in April of 2000, Ford issued Owner Notification 00B38 for this exact condition. Basically, owners of certain 2000 Sable and Taurus vehicles were notified that the upper intake can "crack" due to a backfire on startup. Owners were to come in to get a free reprogramming, (reflash), of the PCM, (Powertrain Control Module). I can only imagine that the factory calibration is too lean for certain cold start conditions, resulting in this intermittent backfire. Unfortunately for my customer, Ford is no longer performing this free PCM reflash. The free program ended on April 30, 2001. Perhaps the prior owner never received the letter or did not bother having the work done. I called the local Ford dealer just to have them double check the vehicle's coverage. After running the VIN through the Ford OASIS system, they reported that this vehicle was no longer covered by that notification. Looks like my customer is stuck for the price of a new intake, labor and PCM reflash. To further add insult to injury, I had to tell the customer that I don't dare take on the job. Why not? We don't have the authority to reflash the PCM. However, we could replace the intake and then drive it to the dealer for the PCM reflash. Then again, what if the backfire recurs during the restart after installing the new intake? No way, I don't intend to do that job over again for free.
To add to the confusion of all this nonsense, another "Owner Notification Program" caught my eye while researching 2000 Taurus/Sables. Six months after the backfire notification was sent out Ford realized they had another problem. The owners that went to the dealer for the free reprogramming in 00B38 wound up getting the wrong program for their car. That's right, you read that correctly, the wrong program. In September 2000, Ford initiated "Owner Notification 00B55". In this second notification, Ford sent another letter out, stating: "Our records indicate that you brought your vehicle to the dealership to be serviced under Owner Notification Program 00B38. This service would have resulted in your Powertrain Control Module, (PCM), being re-programmed. We have discovered that calibrations previously released to re-program the PCM of your vehicle may result in performance or driveability degradation. We wish to apologize for this and advise you that the calibration concerns have been corrected and that Ford is providing a no-charge service, Program Number 00B55, to resolve this engine performance concern on your vehicle. You have until October 31, 2001 to take advantage of this program, regardless of mileage." The letter goes on in the usual fashion to tell the owner to call the dealership and schedule an appointment. The last line really made me chuckle though: "We are sorry for the inconvenience this error has caused you, and as a small token of our appreciation for your patience we are enclosing a "Mag Lite Flashlight".
Further research revealed a letter that Ford sent to it's dealers. This letter explained the cause of the performance problem. Turns out that the first free reprogramming activated a feature in the PCM called "Export Octane Adjust." This resulted in retarded engine spark timing, thus causing the poor performance. Well, you've got to admit, it was sure nice of them to send that flashlight. The owners can always use it to flag someone down if the car conks out.
Anyway, I had the customer call Ford Customer Assistance, (FCA), to see if she could convince them to pay for all, or a portion of, the repair. After all, it was not an unknown or freak problem. It was a problem Ford knew about that was inadvertently built into the car at assembly. FCA told her to tow the car to the dealership so the dealer can diagnose the problem. She had a good comeback for them: "Diagnose the problem? All they have to do is open the hood and look." After the car was towed to the Ford dealer, the service manager called to say that FCA could not assist her in this matter. The customer authorized the total cost of $500.00, to complete the repairs and reflash the PCM. Too bad the problem didn't end their though. The service manager at the dealership called me three days later to tell me that the car was repaired. There was just this other little problem. Now the engine was knocking and had a dead skip on cylinder # five. The service manager wanted to know if I, or the customer, wanted to authorize spending more money to diagnose this additional problem. I knew at this point that if I called the customer she would be wild. As it is, she's been without a car over a weekend, now engine surgery? After discussing the situation with my father, it was decided that we would request to speak to the Ford District Service Manager. I called one of the owners of the dealership personally to make that request. Immediately the owner offered some assistance. He said that he would get Ford to cover 70% of the repair if the customer paid 30%. In addition, he promised that the customer's portion of expense would cap off and not exceed $495.00. At that point I said: "Great, she's already at the cap!" The owner disagreed, saying that since this would fall under a new repair order, this would be an additional $495.00 on top of the $500.00 repair she had just spent for the intake and reflash. At that point I politely advised the owner that the invoice was still open. He had not realized that the car had never left the shop. At that point he agreed that there would be no additional charges. After pulling the heads the dealer found that plastic pieces from the broken intake had melted onto the intake valves. Due to a back order on the valves, it took 2 weeks to get the heads back from the machine shop. The technician at the dealership installed the heads but did not set the timing correctly at the cam shafts. After startup the valves were again trashed. The engine was again torn down, repaired and reassembled. Then a problem developed with the oil warning light and a valve cover gasket leak. In the end, after almost 2 months (58 days at the dealership) we received the car back with no problems.
Finally, let this be a safety warning to any technician working on a 2000 Duratec Sable or Taurus. Do you know if the PCM was reflashed? Not every technician bothers putting the reflash modification sticker under the hood. Could the car your working on be another one that was not reflashed? What if someone in your shop is working on one of these and it backfires with the hood open? Let me tell you, someone's going to get hurt. Once again, the automotive service industry proves to be a daily hazardous occupation. Be careful out their and stay safe. Here are the pictures of the damaged intake: