Engine Start | Starting System Troubleshooting

What to do when your car won't start

Click. Click. Click. Nothing. Your vehicle's engine refuses to turn over. Troubles with the starting system inside your car or light truck can prove incredibly frustrating. But before you even consider a starter problem, you should first test the battery. A battery that's a dead player (or even weak) can not only create starting troubles, it can make testing next to impossible. Keep in mind, too, that modern EFI (Electronic Fuel Injection) vehicles need full battery energy to start. In the old days, a dodgy battery could occasionally be coaxed into starting a car. Not so today.

Battery Trouble

Once the battery is eliminated as the culprit, turn on the headlights and try starting the engine again. If the lights go out when the ignition key is switched to "start" and the starter doesn't spin, look for a poor connection between the battery and the starter motor. The number one cause of grief is a corroded battery terminal. The next biggest problem is a bad ground, especially where the ground strap attaches to either the car chassis (body) or the engine. In many cases, the problem is actually paint trapped between the ground strap and the ground. This is particularly acute with cars that we tend to lavish attention upon. Why? Simple. Plenty of enthusiasts detail the engine (or chassis) and give it a good coat of paint, completely ignoring the need for a sound ground connection.

Heavy Load

If the lights dim when the starter is turned "on" and the starter turns slowly or the cranking action is sluggish then the starter is experiencing a very heavy load. The number one reason for this in high-performance applications is too much initial advance in the ignition. If the engine has too much initial advance (or the mechanical advance weights are stuck) to start correctly, it tries to run backwards. Of course, this is contrary to the action of the starter. The first thing to check is the mechanical advance within the distributor. If it's stuck, free it up. If the engine has too much initial advance dialed into it, reduce it.

Open Circuit

If the car's headlights remain bright, but the starter does nothing, there's an open circuit somewhere in the starting system. The first thing to do is to hook up a booster cable from the battery + post directly to the terminal on the starter. If the starter still doesn't spin over then it needs work. Another component to check is the neutral safety switch. If you bypass the switch and the starter works, you've found the problem.

Solenoid Problem

If the starter solenoid (or relay) makes clicking sounds when you flick on the ignition switch, but the car starts with a direct shot of battery power, the solenoid is the culprit (it's an age-old trick to bypass the solenoid by inserting a large screwdriver between the large battery cable post and one of the small switch terminals on the starter). If the starter still refuses to spin, it usually means it's time to tear it down for a rebuild. But this doesn't necessarily mean that the solenoid is healthy. Quite often, the contacts inside a solenoid can be burned. This makes it impossible for the solenoid to switch on the heavy current to the starter. The most effective fix here is to simply replace the starter solenoid.

Armature Shaft

If the starter works periodically, but with obvious grinding noises, remove the unit and carefully inspect the armature shaft where it engages the starter drive. Believe it or not, this problem is very perplexing, since the starter will work fine (even off the bench) for a number of "starts," but then it will refuse to function. You might be shocked to find a fractured armature shaft. Usually the cause is poor engagement with the ring gear.

Hydraulic Condition

Finally (and we're leaving the worst for the last), if the engine refuses to turn over, even if the starter is making a bunch of noise, you could have a "hydraulic condition" inside the engine. Since liquids (coolant, oil or gasoline) cannot be compressed, they don't allow the pistons (one or more) to go through their complete stroke. The cause could be a leaking head gasket, a stuck float or even a broken block. Remove all of the spark plugs and try spinning the engine over. If it turns over freely, you'll soon be met by one (or more) of the above fluids, which should tell you what the problem area really is.

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