My car won't start...sometimes.
July 3, 2006 3:34 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes when I try to start my car, it doesn't seem to "catch". This only happens sometimes, and when I took it to the shop, they couldn't find anything wrong.

It's a 1997 Toyota Corolla, and the not-starting thing tends to happen when it's cold (which isn't very often here in San Diego) or when I haven't driven it for a while, e.g. in the morning.

So far, I've been able to get it to work if I leave it for a minute and try again, or if I use another key, but I have to really push the key in to get it to go.

Has anyone else experienced this? I can't replicate the problem when I bring it in the shop, because I'll have just driven it and it will work fine.
posted by exceptinsects to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
Bad starter. I'll bet you can get it to start by tapping the starter with a wrench or hammer (the stock tire iron also works nicely). On my 98 Corolla, it was tucked behind the engine block, right in the center, all the way down at the bottom.
posted by team lowkey at 4:05 PM on July 3, 2006

Whoa, we have the same problem with our '97 Geo Prizm (rebranded Corolla). But when ours doesn't catch, I can immediately turn the key once or twice again without waiting and it starts right up. Haven't found a pattern to ours, though.
posted by DakotaPaul at 4:21 PM on July 3, 2006

IANAM, but the way starters usually work is twofold:
1) the starter spins around; and
2) a solenoid, activated by current, pushes a cog from the starter against one from the engine, so that the starter is actually spinning the engine.

(once the engine is going, and you release the key again, the cog slips back, disengaging the starter, which then just sits around doing nothing)

If this makes sense so far, it's an ok guess that your starter is spinning, but the solenoid is not managing to push the cog into place, ie the starter is spinning on its own without touching the engine.

Possible diagnoses:
* current not reaching solenoid, so cog stays in place - maybe a loose wire, loose connection, or wire pretty much worn out?
* some sort of basic physical stoppage (cog jams in place sometimes) - try a hammer to knock it free, maybe lubricate?
* solenoid may be worn out - i have no idea if this is possible, as it's really just coiled up wire, but who knows...?
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:58 PM on July 3, 2006

Oh, sorry - if it happens when it is cold, or when the car is coldish in the morning, I'd guess the physical jamming, as the metal will be in its most contracted state, perhaps putting the squeeze on the cog's axle. This could explain why the mechanics couldn't diagnose the problem - the engine would have been warm by then, no?
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:02 PM on July 3, 2006

Describe not catching. Do you mean the starter spins without any resistance, or do you mean that the starter spins with the resistance of spinning the motor but the motor simply doesn't catch?

You could have something as simple as a dying battery.
posted by SpecialK at 5:06 PM on July 3, 2006

You could have something as simple as a dying battery.

Seconded that it's something simple -- Battery with too little cold-cranking power; you need new spark plugs; or you have a gunky fuel filter. Go get a tune up.
posted by frogan at 5:21 PM on July 3, 2006

If the starter is spinning strongly without making any grinding noises, the battery is good, and the car just isn't starting, chances are good that something is wrong with your fuel delivery system. My car has a similar problem caused by a pressure sensor in the fuel lines that no longer works well in low temperatures.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 5:27 PM on July 3, 2006

Unlikely because of the lack of sound but it is possible some teeth on the flywheel are missing.
posted by KneeDeep at 5:31 PM on July 3, 2006

You could have something as simple as a dying battery.

Do you hear anything when this happens? My old car used to do this occasionally and I'd hear a sound like playing cards in bicycle spokes. And, yeah, it was the battery croaking out.
posted by Cyrano at 6:24 PM on July 3, 2006

I've had this happen several times on various cars. Thus far it's always been fixable without getting a new starter by either getting a new battery, a new starter relay or replacing the bushings in the starter. If it's only when it's cold, I'd lean towards the battery first. Plus it's easy to test!
posted by fshgrl at 7:39 PM on July 3, 2006

In newer cars, this type of problem is often hard to figure out... it could be a starter - or it could be a computer chip buried somewhere under the hood....

Case in point - I had a car (Mazda Protege) a few years ago that was only 1 year old when it started doing the same thing. Put the key in, turn it, not a damn thing.


And then a few months later, it would just start dying on me in traffic.

So I took it to the shop. Under warranty, they replaced everything that it could possibly be.... alternator, starter, voltage regulator, battery, ignition switches, fuel filters AND lines, circuit boards and chips, and a whole lot of other parts.

The result - a car that would not start on occasion, and leave me stranded in traffic.

I ended up getting a new car out of the deal. Apparently, my car was either possessed or a lemon.

I ended up threatening "lemon law," but The dealership ended up being really nice about the whole situation. They made me a really good deal on a newer model (same payment, same number of payments remaining, higher end model.)
posted by bradth27 at 8:26 PM on July 3, 2006

Best answer: I have an old car that sometimes does this. It's due to a problem with some sort of sensor on the gear shift: the car doesn't believe it's in park, even though it is, and won't let me start it, because of a safety measure that prevents the car from starting in any gear other than park or neutral. If I shift out of and then back into park the car will start.
posted by Violet Hour at 3:35 AM on July 4, 2006

Response by poster: Well, the battery is less than a year old, and when I turn the key it clicks and all the lights and everything go on. There's no other sound--no grinding or playing-card noise, so I'm guessing it's not that.
I wonder if it has to do with the place where you put the key in, since it seems to help when I switch from the main key to the spare or vice versa.
posted by exceptinsects at 9:01 AM on July 4, 2006

Best answer: My last car had the same problem as Violet Hour's, except it only happened if I had stopped the car very briefly (running into a convenience store for a soda, for example, and it would happen nearly every time I did that). I didn't even have to shift out and back again, a wiggle of the shifter (automatic transmission, console (not steering wheel) gear shift) and it started fine. A family member's car with steering-mounted shifter does it too, but you have to crank it out of park and back in pretty hard to get it to start. In both cars, the lights and radio come on but the starter doesn't even click.

I would try the shift-out-and-in (put your foot on the brake) method and see if that doesn't do it.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:02 PM on July 4, 2006

Best answer: To be a little more thorough, here's a page on how a starter works, and an explanation of my answer.

My Corolla did the exact same thing. Seemingly randomly, when you turned the key, nothing would happen. No noise or anything. All the lights would work, and jump starting didn't help. It just wouldn't try to start. I thought for a while there was some relationship to how I turned the key, or what key I used, but I think I was just seeing patterns where none existed. I figured it must be electrical, and went so far as to pull out the ohmmeter to test the leads. Everything checked out fine. I did notice that it would occur more often when the engine was very hot or very cold. But usually if I just kept trying and trying, it would eventually start.

One time I was trying for about half an hour with no luck, so I broke down and called AAA. When the guy showed up, he tapped the starter with his jack handle, and it started right up. Just like the Fonz. So apparently, he'd seen this before. He said he didn't know why it worked, but that you had to use something metal. I never tested whether that part was true or not, but from then on out, whenever I had the problem I would tap the starter with whatever metal I had handy, and it would start up without a problem. Except when it was really hot. Then I would have to wait a few minutes until it cooled down. Or pour some water on the starter to speed up the process.

So in my case, and I think in yours as well, because it was a heat sensitive issue, I figure one of the moving parts in the starter wasn't seated precisely in its housing, and would physically jam. Tapping the starter would unstick it. But I really don't know why. Like the AAA guy, I just know it worked. You can see from the diagram I linked that the starter is a pretty simple thing. From your description, either the solenoid, the starter relay, or the neutral safety switch isn't connecting (the neutral safety switch being the basis of the shifter problem others referred to). Next time it happens, try shifting in and out of park, and if that doesn't work, try tapping the starter. Then you'll know.
posted by team lowkey at 5:01 PM on July 5, 2006

Response by poster: Hah, so I tried putting it in neutral, and it started right up!
Is this something I can get fixed, or do I just have to live with it?
Thanks to everyone for your help.
posted by exceptinsects at 7:42 PM on July 6, 2006

Response by poster: If anyone cares, I eventually had to replace the starter.
posted by exceptinsects at 4:18 PM on October 14, 2006

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