99 Neon DOHC Problems and Solutions

Bought an almost-junked '99 Neon with a replaced motor (75,000 miles total). The original DOHC was replaced with another '99 2.0 DOHC. I'm hoping to learn a few things and have some fun rebuilding what could be
a fun little car. It drives, and the transmission sounds and works, well. I get redline right when it seems like I should in every gear (and drive it harder than I probably should). However, all of a sudden a few days ago - I lost power on the interstate. All my guages went dead and my lights turned off. We jumped it and it ran for a few minutes and died again. We repeated the process about 20 times to get the car home (almost always in 1st gear). So I've 'cleared my schedule' and I'm going to tear this little engine apart and see what I can't fix, repair, replace, or... not.
I'm a weekend warrior but I know my way around a motor for all intents and purposes so I hope my post will be taken a little serious, at least (car and engine choice aside). I have tried looking up alot of this online but find bizarre, random, and non-related materials abound, and very few tangible solutions to my issues. I look to YOU, the ALT luvrs to show me the Light, the Way, or the shame.
I tend to talk, type, think WAY too much so I'm guessing most people wont bother with my issues. So I'll outline one major question that I'd like answered the most :
- My alternator's ground was not connected. What can be results of running the car on the battery with no ground to the alternator? The only thing I can think of are a few power surges that are handled by fuses, and the battery getting gulped down like a cold drink on a hot day.
- Aditionally, the alternator has had coolant dripping onto / into it and the wires around it have been covered in coolant. Both male and female connectors are also coolant-soaked. Does that mean I need to replace the entire alternator wire-set?
:: The GENERAL Isses ::
+ Drains oil at approximately 1 quart per 100 miles or 1 quart per week. Oil smells somewhat burnt when the oil cap is removed. I'm going to do the oil change if I can fix every other damn issue first.
Note : There aren't any drips from the head area, the oil pan, the filter, the oil cap, or anywhere else than I can see. There may be minor leaks from the back area of the block by the exhaust headers. Maybe head gasket? I'm not 100% sure how to tell.
+ Transmission fluid seems full from removing plug and checking but there are uniform fluid leaks from the transmission and around all the parts its connected to. I ride the clutch pretty bad (yeah, yeah...) so could that force leaks? Or what? This does seem to be a big problem, both wheel wells and a lot of the underside of the car is CAKED with some kind of fluid(s).
+ Gas mileage seems to be about 20 miles a gallon (approximately - according to a MPG calculator I used) which is, I hope - ALOT worse than it should be. Air filter is brand new, gas cap is fine, no leaks from lines or tank... Regular unleaded is used all the time.
Note : The check engine light stays on in this car. The OBD II reads a faulty O2 sensor (possibly the gas mileage issue, but then where's it all going?).
+ The O2 sensor OBD's as faulty. I can't seem to figure out how to remove it without taking off the heat shield. I can't get any socket or wrench around it... Maybe cut off that part of the heat shield? Laughing at myself 'cause that would probably melt the shit out of some wiring... I need to get it replaced and Pep Boys only wants pocket change to replace it if I already have the part. But I wanna' do it! I WANNA'!
+ I'm getting another OBD code that apparently isn't readable except by the dealer (Says Advanced Auto Parts). What could that be?
:: SPECIFIC Issues ::
- Car overheats if AC is at a medium setting or higher, if the car idles for long, or if the clutch is ridden in traffic. I've never driven it over-heated, I always pull over and give it time. Coolant is just below full, radiator cap pressure tests fine. * I have not checked the thermostat but if the engine is fresh, the thermostat should be, too (I'll still check it). *
There DOES, however, seem to be a leak underneath the coolant resevoir, directly above the alternator. However if the coolant looks to be full, I don't see how I can be overheating if the cooling system is getting coolant delivered to it. Ignorance or true automotive mystery?
In most cases the car drives well, like I said, and the temp guage stays right where it should be if the AC isn't run, the clutch isn't ridden, and if its not idling. Could that be another indication of the head gasket, or am I relying too much on standard problems with First Gen Neons?
// The electrical system is the main issue with this car, and the field in which I have the least experience or comfort. Being that I got this car just to work on stuff like that, I would like to do the most complicated procedures I can to make sure I clear these issues up 100%. \\
- The first night I owned the car I realized the tail lights didn't work. Then a few days later, (ta-daa) they work, then 48 hours later (*buzzer*) they're off again. The headlights do work all the time, so do the brights. Brake lights work, as do all turning signals. Fuses (under-hood and in-dash) were all checked and replaced as needed. I don't know how to check relays. All ground wires look to be attached correctly and working...
Note : I replaced all 4 bulbs with what I am 100% sure to be the right bulb, although all bulbs replaced weren't burnt-out or the wrong part number. Same problem after bulb replacement (derpy). I haven't (and wouldn't know where to start) done any volt- or other electrical testing. I have a Multi-Meter that I'm dying to use (*smug*) but I don't know where to start. I'd guess : check the wires at the socket, the socket, then check the switch, if none of the above - then... eh...
- Then the car did that power-down I talked about earlier. Now it wont run for 30 seconds without dying. The battery was replaced with a new EverStart 540 CCA but even before I replaced it I didn't think the battery was the problem, but I just couldn't tell. Replacing the battery was bunk. Got the old one re-charged and tested at Pep Boys and it tested fine, had the same thing done to the new one with the same result. The terminals are bruised from the last owner banging on them, but the wires look fine. The starter (the solenoid, or whatever) clicks like crazy when the key is turned, but the motor doesn't even consider turning over unless the car is jumped. I doubt it's the starter because the car, when I bought it, started VERY well - and every indication I've read online leads me to...
!! BIG NOTE !! Electrical masters or those "In the Know" please note : The battery tester I have reads 14 V holding strong with the car running (no lights, no peripherals). When the ignition is turned off the current still reads at 14 V. Which, with my limited knowledge, has been another reason for me to deduce...
So then I ask myself, "Hey bro, what about the alternator?" Well, yeah - I bet dollars to donuts that's my main issue. At first, even with my trusty Hayne's Manual in hand I couldn't find the damn thing. Then I remembered Auto 101 - alterator is belt driven - so it would be with the belt(s). Found it immediately. Jacked up the right-front side of the car and removed the wheel to make life a little easier. Crawled under and looked at the bolts. Got my wrench and started to take that bitch out. Then I noticed the ground wire. Broken (snapped, heat warped, whatever) off of the alternator. It was hanging down, not connected at all. I couldn't even try to reconnect it because the spade (?) connector was snappped off the wire, and was not connected to the alternator's ground bolt. So I found a new connector and clipped off the old one, put on the new one. When I went to attach it to the ground bolt, when I whipped out my 10 wrench, the bolt just broke right off. So I figured I'd remove the size 12 bolt that was actually touching the alternator. It snapped apart just as easily. I figured it would. So now I have to remove the alternator. I removed the main wire from the alterator (SHIT) it was soaked in coolant. Removed another connector that was connected to part of the motor right below the alternator (SHIT) drowned in coolant, too. Then I took a deep breath and slowed down. I got my shop light and snooped around. The alternator had coolant (oil type) stains on it. The wires were covered in coolant, and so were male- and female-ends of any connectors in that area. Looked at the resevoir (drum roll) and there was an obvious leak, or crack, on the bottom of the resevoir. So I'll pull it and look closer tomorrow.
Now the question becomes, how damaged are the connectors, the wires, and so on? I can replace the alternator - it might not even be bad. I'm going to pull it and fix the ground-bolt problem and get it tested. Put a working alternator (mine or a new one) back in and ground it this time. However, I'm worried putting a fixed, or new, alternator back in with coolant-soaked wiring could do more bad than good. True or false?
:: Possible Results (?) of The Non-Grounded Alternator ::
- The car has had to run only on the battery, so the battery is drained and will continue to be until the grounded alternator can recycle power (AC to DC, etc).
- The tail light problem could be explained this way...
- [QUESTION!] What else should I test or examine that might have been consequenced by the non-grounded alternator. I'm thinking something(s) could've gotten power-surged or... something.
- The stereo works funny. It works fine, then when the ignition is turned off, the stereo turns off, then when the ignition lock is pressed and the key is moved to the "all-the-way-off" position the radio turns back off and must be powered off manually. I pulled the deck and the ground wire was NOT connected, nor was the blue turn-on lead (but I think that's just for the remote). Either way the ground wire from the deck was not connected to anything. The safety fuse was fine in the head unit. Another alternator-caused problem, the non-ground itself, or...
:: The OTHER ::
- Lots of paint, body, and interior parts are falling off or mal-adjusted. I intend on (laugh out loud all across America) replacing parts with aftermaket custom, or OEM parts as needed... AS LONG AS I can get the motor and electrical system working 100%.
None of this disappoints me or threatens me, and I guess that's another question I have. Are all these problems and possibly more reasons to just STOP and find another project car? Is transforming the car into something I can be proud of an inhuman accomplishment, or an ultra-high dollar feat? The most I can initially invest into making this car pleasing is about $2,000. As far as I can figure that should be totally sufficient for parts replacement, tool cost, and 'misc'.
My guess? Maybe. Even if I pulled the motor AND the trans, I could replace both for only $500 or so from a junkyard, and that way I could dig into the new motor and transmission and put in high performance parts before I even put them in them in the car. Also, I could clean everything up in the engine bay, test and replace wires, and tidy things up. But I'd rather be proud of repairing then modifying the engine I've been given. Possible? You tell me.

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- Pulled the alternator and went to my local Pep Boys. 15 minutes later they tell me they don't have the correct adapter. Fine. Down to AutoZone, "We can't test this. It has to be tested in the car." O.k.a.y... To NAPA just to make sure. Oh hey, they can test it? What, AutoZone is full of shit?
Alternator tests A-OK, so it was a ground issue all along. Went to Quality Auto Sound and bought 1 guage wire (told them what I was doing and they sold me what they thought would work). They told me not to splice a ground...
Another FOS statement? I THINK so (ehh...) so I'm going to splice that beehotch. Here's to hoping I don't esplode.
I was trying to remove the coolant resevoir to replace it. I couldn't get to the bottom bolt. So I figure "Derpy, derpy, I'll just remove this metal thing that's in my way." Don't get me wrong, I knew I shouldn't try, cause I KNEW it was connected to the A/C. I'm so gull-darned stupid I loosened the bolt on the A/C circulator, or recompressor, or whatever that thing is and PSHHHHHH!!! For 5 mins the car sprayed Freon and what I guess is coolant all over in a big cloud. I feel like a 5 Star Master Tech!!!
Now I'm hoping I haven't destroyed the cooling system. I don't think so (ehh...). I'll have it dumped and filled by a professional, I promise. HVAC is out of my league. Alternator is back in and needs grounded - we'll see how that goes tomorrow. Upon further examination, I think the back of my motor is leaking oil at the head gasket (SHIT on a SHINGLE). But I thought the '99 had the uber-special all-metal oxidized remodified fabri-generated gasket? Guess this one busted (ehh...). So... The Road Less Traveled...
If the alternator works with my hopefully-non-deadly-modified ground, I'll pick up a head gasket and get to work. Might install and Iceman CAI while I have everything taken apart... And I'll finally get to that O2 sensor (yay!).
Solutions and recommendations are still welcome!

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