What's going on with this car's starter?!
January 20, 2005 10:27 PM   Subscribe

MotorFilter: My wife's car's starter is haunted! Twice now, when turning the key to start the car, the engine starts but the starter keeps going, as if I just held the key in the start position. [MI]

Both times, even after removing the key from the ignition (killing the engine), the starter just kept grinding away. The first time, the engine (starter) started to smoke, and finally froze. We had the starter replaced. This last time, my wife leapt out of the car in a panic, and when she slammed the car door, it stopped. I showed up a few minutes later, and it turned over as if there was nothing wrong.

Obviously, the shop that "fixed" the problem the first time is going to hear from me, but what is going on? How is it that anything can keep running after the key is removed? (This is a 1993 Ford Taurus with impossibly low mileage, by the way.) Considering the door-slam fix, is it just something in the steering column?

And perhaps more practically... if it happens again before we get it fixed, what's a good way to kill the runaway starter? I was on the verge of just yanking the wires off the battery the first time, but by that time it had just burned itself out.
posted by pzarquon to Travel & Transportation (6 answers total)
I had exactly the same problem with my 1976 Dodge Dart--I wound up loosening the battery lead from the terminal so I could yank it off to stop it as a temporary fix until I could get it to the mechanic who, I seem to remember, said it was a bad solenoid. (The solenoid is a sort of electromagnet which, when engaged, shoves the starter gear against the flywheel to turn over the engine--when you let go of the key, the solenoid releases the starter gear.)

In my case the solenoid was jamming but if you had the entire starter replaced, the solenoid would have been integral with the starter. Unless, as is the case with some Fords (like my old Fairlane) the solenoid was not integral with the starter--it was mounted separately on the side of the engine bay. If it's not the solenoid, it's likely something in the steering column--this would explain the door-slamming cutoff.
posted by fandango_matt at 10:46 PM on January 20, 2005

Sounds like a stuck relay/starter solenoid- shouldn't be too expensive a fix, since such things are generally in accessible areas underhood.

Before it gets fixed, though, I'd recommend figuring out *where* the starter solenoid is. Should this happen again, pop the hood and whack it directly. (Incidentally, this happened to me - a stuck solenoid - on a carwash i was working on earlier in the week. I smacked it to short-term-fix the problem, then took it apart and cleaned it.)
posted by notsnot at 10:46 PM on January 20, 2005

Addendum: And the key removal, too. So it might be a sticky switch inside the key mechanism. If the solenoid was replaced along with the starter, my guess is the ignition switch.
posted by fandango_matt at 10:49 PM on January 20, 2005

I've had the sticky switch in the key mechanism happen to me. That was a bad, bad day. Definitely get this checked out if the solenoid seems OK, or if you've spilled coke in the key slot (only possible on Saabs, of course).
posted by daver at 11:53 PM on January 20, 2005

Yeah, the starter solenoid, starter relay and ingnition switch are all likely culprits. I've used the forums at Cartalk in the past with success, you may try there.
posted by Doohickie at 6:11 AM on January 21, 2005

Thanks. The inside of a car is a foreign land to me (I got a Commodore 64 as a kid, not a wrench), but maybe I'll be able to ask better questions when I take it to a pro. I will look up where the solenoid is, and basically get creative on whacking things in general if it happens again.
posted by pzarquon at 3:38 PM on January 21, 2005

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