My truck's hard to start sometimes
February 2, 2004 11:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm having problems with an 87' Nissan truck (5-speed). Recently when its been sitting for a day or so, me engine doesn't want to turn over at all when I turn the key and all I get is this "click" sound that is identical to how my old car sounded when my alternator went out. The thing is, if I turn the key a few times, it'll start and its fine for the rest of the day when I try to start the car. This "clicking" thing has happened a few times now, and I don't think its the battery (lights and everything work perfectly, and no problems with engine turning over when no click sound). Any ideas what might be wrong (gut instant says alternator is going, but just seeing if any other ideas).
posted by jmd82 to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total)
Well... have you checked out the starter motor?
posted by weston at 12:03 AM on February 3, 2004

Diagnostic questions:

Is the engine fuel-injected? If so, when you first turn the ignition key to ON, can you hear the fuel pump start running back near the gas tank?

If after a couple of days idle, you run jumper cables to it from a running car before trying to start it, does it still not start the first time?

Is it cold where you live?
posted by nicwolff at 1:00 AM on February 3, 2004

Try cleaning and retightening the battery terminals and the battery.
posted by Sirius at 2:17 AM on February 3, 2004

Mid-80s Nissans had notoriously weird starters that did strange things as the brushes began to wear out. I seem to remember even reading somewhere about a guy to kept a baseball bat in his car so he could give it a thunk to free it up as needed. First thing is to check the battery terminals, etc. as Sirius mentioned, then what I would recommend (if at all possible) is to pop start the truck when you think it's going to give you this problem. If it works fine, then you've pretty much narrowed the problem to the starter or the alternator and since this really doesn't sound like an alternator problem, you're basically there -- you need a new starter. If it doesn't pop start reliably after sitting for a couple days, then, um your guess is as good as mine... With a car of that vintage, it could just be gremlins that have taken up residence in your glovebox. Try spraying them with WD40. WD40 always gets rid of supernatural beings in vehicles.
posted by lazywhinerkid at 2:39 AM on February 3, 2004

To me, this sounds like your starter motor. Motors do not die in a straight forward fashion, but usually slowly and intermittantly. The thunk you hear is a solenoid which engages the starter motor. At that point, the motor is supposed to spin up and turn the engine. No motor, no spin.
posted by plinth at 3:14 AM on February 3, 2004

This is most likely the bushes in the starter motor wearing out. They have worn slightly unevenly and will or will not make a contact with the armature depending on where the motor stops spinning. There may be a slight contact, just enough to nudge the starter a tiny bit and after you turn the key a few times, it has been nudged enough to make a contact. This will gradually get worse and worse until one day it will not start no matter how many times you turn the key. Often, it will seem as if the battery is at fault because jump starting will work - this is because the extra power from two good batteries allows the current to jump across from the bushes to the armature.

Before you rush off and buy a new starter, though, check the battery terminals at both ends (battery and starter/earth) to make sure there is not a loose contact, which can sometimes give the same symptoms.
posted by dg at 3:27 AM on February 3, 2004

Another vote for the starter motor over here...
posted by twine42 at 3:58 AM on February 3, 2004

Also check into buying a brush kit instead of a whole new starter. Saved me a lot of money once.
posted by anathema at 4:19 AM on February 3, 2004

I vote for the starter motor. This started happening to my 97 jeep grand cherokee a couple years ago. It took over a year before it finally failed. The symptoms were that I'd try to turn it over and I'd hear the starter solenoid thunk, if I turned the key a few times it'd start. A few times became a bunch of times till finally it turned into "Call AAA".

The starter motor probably has a few spots it can't start from right now. As time goes on there are more and more positions it can't start from. When you try to start it over it rotates a tiny bit until it's in a good position. Eventually this doesn't work.
posted by substrate at 4:36 AM on February 3, 2004

Starter solenoid.
posted by machaus at 5:41 AM on February 3, 2004

Try the battery terminals and starter solenoid first, it's cheaper. After you spend the $20 on it, if the problem's still there you haven't really made a significant investment in repair yet, but you'll have eliminated the cheap repair as a possibility before you proceed to the starter, which is a bit more expensive and more of a pain in the ass.
posted by majick at 7:04 AM on February 3, 2004

Another cook adding to the broth ;-) Starter motor contacts. Or possibly the ignition switch is wearing out.
posted by carter at 7:42 AM on February 3, 2004

Mid-80s Nissans had notoriously weird starters that did strange things as the brushes began to wear out. I seem to remember even reading somewhere about a guy to kept a baseball bat in his car so he could give it a thunk to free it up as needed.

I just used a rock or a rubber mallet on my 85 Sentra. Did that for about a year until the starter motor was *really* stubborn at a very unopportune time which darn near made me miss a flight to Australia. When I came home, first thing I did was replace it.
posted by weston at 8:53 AM on February 3, 2004

trharlaon asks a good question - if it clicks once for every attempt then your starter motor is the culprit and it's relatively cheap and easy to replace (or perhaps just replace the brushes - I've never done it). If it clicks repeatedly on every key turn then it could be worn or missing teeth on the flywheel, in which case you'll probably have to take the truck out behind the barn and shoot it.
posted by TimeFactor at 9:32 AM on February 3, 2004

posted by TimeFactor at 9:33 AM on February 3, 2004

The alternator is still a possibility. They often "start" going out in the manner you describe, without going out all at once. That is, they will work halfway and sometimes generate enough power to turn the starter on the first try, and sometimes not, until they go out completely.
posted by sixdifferentways at 1:55 PM on February 3, 2004

Except that the alternator does not "generate power to turn the starter", it generates power to charge the battery while the engine is running.
posted by dg at 2:10 PM on February 3, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks all for the input (sorry couldn't reply to inquires and work beckoned). Indeed, my car does click every time I try to turn the key. Also, I had my terminal wires replaced about a year ago, so I'm pretty sure its the starter from all the advice. Thanks AskMeFi again!
posted by jmd82 at 2:48 PM on February 3, 2004

I had an '89 Nissan Sentra with this exact same problem. I went through 3 starters in one year. I grew convinced something external to the starter was shorting it out/destroying it (is that even possible?) but, having zero mechanical knowledge, I don't have much to back this up except for a gut feeling. I had my mechanic check anything remotely electrical in the car. I finally just got sick of quarterly mechanic bills and bit the bullet and got a new car.

1999 Sentra. I guess I'm some kinda idiot.
posted by contessa at 3:56 PM on February 3, 2004

contessa, the problem is most likely either a design flaw (the specified starter is inadequate or not suitable for the vehicle), or there was a mechanical problem with the starting mechanism such as the flywheel (or flex plate for an auto) being damaged or faulty, creating poor alignment with the starter and putting extra load on it, thereby shortening its life. Design flaw would be my bet and I have seen this in a few cars, where the starter is only just up to the job and is overloaded as a result. They are unlikely to be using the same starter 10 years later, so it shold now be somebody else's problem.
posted by dg at 4:56 PM on February 3, 2004

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