Why won't my car start?
August 20, 2008 6:45 PM   Subscribe

Why won't my car start?

I have a 94 Toyota Camry. When I put the key in and turn it over, I get nothing but a click from under the hood. I've replaced the alternator, the battery, and the starter twice.

The car used to do this occasionally when I would start it, stop it, and try to restart it in a short time period, such as getting out to fill up my gas tank. I took it to an electrical shop, and naturally they couldn't reproduce the problem.

Now it doesn't even turn over at all. All the dash lights are on like normal, no fuse warnings or idiot lights. When I turn the key, the panels dim, and we just get a click from the starter. No cranking. Just turn-click. Turn-click.

Any ideas? What can I do? I really need this car to work tomorrow.
posted by torpark to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total)
Automatic transmission, yes? I used to have a problem exactly like this with my Jeep - for a couple of years, it was only on a short stop, like stopping at the corner store on my way home, and then later would happen in my driveway or other inconvenient places. The trick was to wiggle the gear shift, something wasn't seating or making a connection or something. I could usually depress the brake, turn the key, move the gearshift to N and then back to P (fairly firmly, with a wiggle at the finish), turn the key off and back on again, and it would start.

It's free to try, anyway.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:55 PM on August 20, 2008

Have you checked the solenoid?
posted by buggzzee23 at 6:56 PM on August 20, 2008

When my 1989 Isuzu Trooper would occasionally not start, I'd hit the starter with a hammer. Worked every time.
posted by girlmightlive at 7:02 PM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Replaced the solenoid, and yes, automatic transmission. However, I've tried the wiggle thing. That is usually if your shift sensor doesn't recognize you are firmly in Park.
posted by torpark at 7:02 PM on August 20, 2008

Best answer: Assuming your new parts are good (unfortunately not always the case) this is being caused by a bad connection between battery and starter. Often caused by a poor ground or bad starter relay. Test the former by connecting the engine block directly to the negative post of the battery with a jumper cable. Sometimes there is a handy bolt head right at the starter. If that fixes it clean all the ground connections.

Looking at the wiring diagram for your car (I can email it to you if you'd like) there is also a direct positive connection between the starter and the battery (black/red wire). Give those a good clean too if you haven't already.

Can also be caused by a bad ignition switch or a loose connection in the switch circuit.

If it's your neutral safety switch you can try starting your car in Neutral instead of Park.
posted by Mitheral at 7:11 PM on August 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: When we took it to the electrician, he said he replaced the solenoid and the negative (something) cable.
posted by torpark at 7:19 PM on August 20, 2008

Response by poster: Negative on the neutral safety switch, wouldn't start in neutral either.

HOWEVER, i do notice that after i try to start it a few times, I don't even get the click. It's almost like there isn't enough power...
posted by torpark at 7:21 PM on August 20, 2008

I think Mitheral is on the right track. If your positive cable is corroded or rusted (not just at the terminals but anywhere in the wire) you have a large resistance which will increase as it heats up, which could explain why you don't get even a click after a few tries. I had the same problem in a Honda Civic, and the cable looked OK.
posted by doctor_negative at 7:28 PM on August 20, 2008

My first bet is on the solenoid, then the battery cables, then the battery, followed at a distant fourth by the starter. (This is assuming that the click you hear is the solenoid — if is just a relay under the dash somewhere, then my bet is on the neutral/park safety switch.)

I've several times replaced a starter (or other part) to find that the new (rebuilt) part is a dud. So don't assume that having replaced those parts recently means that they are guaranteed to be working perfectly. (My worst was three bad starters in a row, before finally getting a good one.)

There are three or four battery cables (+ and - cables, plus the cable to the solenoid, and if the solenoid is mounted separately from the starter then there is a cable between them); if any of them is old and corroded this can happen. Look for cracks, frayed strands, loose terminals, and corrosion. New cables are cheap, but sometimes replacing them is a real pain, with inaccessible connections needing a triple-jointed person with small hands.

If your battery, starter, etc, were replaced recently, they should be under warranty — go back to the place that put them in and ask to have them checked out.

Often a dud solenoid can be made to work by whacking it with a hammer or a pair of pliers right before turning the key. This isn't a fix — it just jars the stuck part loose for a moment. But sometimes that will get you home, so you can fix it later.
posted by Forktine at 7:35 PM on August 20, 2008

(Ignore my incorrect double count of one battery cable — the point is that there might be more than two needing replacement; anyway, they are cheap and can be bought at any auto parts store.)
posted by Forktine at 7:37 PM on August 20, 2008

torpark writes "i do notice that after i try to start it a few times, I don't even get the click. It's almost like there isn't enough power..."

Do your headlights work? Do they really dim when you try to start, dim just a little or no change?

Is your battery serviceable? If yes check fluid levels in the cells. Either way have you access to another car that you could use to give your car a boost? Doing so will eliminate the possibility of a bad or low charged battery.
posted by Mitheral at 7:41 PM on August 20, 2008

When I turn the key, the panels dim

Mithereal is on the right track, and the quote above is a clue - the lights are dimming because there is power to something but it can't get the motor to turn over. This sounds like a high load produced by a resistance higher than the system is designed to cope with - poor connections, corroded wires or faulty relays are prime candidates for this. Just replacing components isn't necessarily the issue, as the bits between them are just as problematic if not looked after.
posted by Brockles at 7:43 PM on August 20, 2008

Response by poster: Headlights work, *everything* dims when i try to start. I've tried starting from another battery, no go.
posted by torpark at 7:48 PM on August 20, 2008

So we know your problem isn't the battery. Also we can eliminate an alternator as the immediate problem because when it fails it just stops charging the battery which you've bypassed with no change.

This feels like a starter or the starter solenoid to me, especially if the attempt to start it a few times results in no clicking is repeatable. It is a classic failure mode on GMs for example. I'd try shorting the solenoid at the starter if accessible or pulling the starter and bench testing it.

However that's a lot of work. So I'd also try shorting the starter relay (note not the starter solenoid, your car appears to have both) first. From the wiring diagram the relay is probably in a fuse panel next to or integral with a 40A fuse. These types of panels are usually under the hood.

It still could be wiring or connection somewhere but usually you'd either get nothing or something much more intermittent. A progressive symptom isn't typical.

PS: besides have a bad new starter it's possible to have a good starter that is incorrect for your engine. Has it ever started since you installed the latest starter? If not if you pull the starter and still have your old one give it a really close look paying attention to things like the length of the bendix shaft, the size of the gear. and any offset caused by the position of the mounting holes. On some starters if the gear doesn't slide out far enough it won't turn either giving you this symptom.

Usually a fuse isn't intermittent but you might want to check them. You have a 10A starter fuse, a fusible link and the 40A fuse in this circuit.
posted by Mitheral at 8:15 PM on August 20, 2008

Response by poster: starter started, and as did the old one. I assumed it just didn't hit hard enough. When i apply voltage the starter pushes its hammer without a problem.

I tried shorting a the solenoid before, and if I recall correctly the thing burned up and I had to replace it.
posted by torpark at 8:22 PM on August 20, 2008

Try the starter relay. If the problem is in your safety switch or your ignition switch or the relay shorting it will start the car. You want to momentarily jump, if they are labelled, H2/M2 and C5. Make sure your car is in park with the ebrake set as this will bypass all the no start safety features.
posted by Mitheral at 8:34 PM on August 20, 2008

Response by poster: Mitheral, i would love to get a copy of the wiring diagram via email. I've been chasing this problem for 3 years now.
posted by torpark at 8:36 PM on August 20, 2008

Sent to the email in your profile along with the power distribution and charging circuit.
posted by Mitheral at 8:53 PM on August 20, 2008

About 2 months ago I had the exact same problem on a Ford van, including the click. After checking the battery and connections, etc, it was clear that the starter relay was engaging (the source of the click) but the solenoid on the starter was not. A quick bang on the solenoid with a hammer and we got the beast home, where we changed out the starter (they wouldn't sell the solenoid separately.)

I'm not sure if you mean that you have replaced all the parts you mentioned recently, or right now while trying to fix the problem, but what you ought to do is find the starter relay, have someone turn the key, and listen to it, to see if it engages. If it does, find the starter solenoid and listen to it while someone turns the key and see if it engages. If the starter relay engages but not the solenoid, you've narrowed down the cause to the solenoid or its wiring. Likewise if the solenoid engages, you've narrowed down the problem to a burned out starter.
posted by no1hatchling at 9:32 PM on August 20, 2008

Response by poster: These comments are a huge help. I'll try them tomorrow when the sun comes up.
posted by torpark at 9:39 PM on August 20, 2008

To add to Mithereal's comment (and because I find it odd that two starter/solenoids would fail in teh exact same way) one thing worth checking is when jumping the solenoid (after you have jumped the relay and tried that way, which will eliminate the switch) would be to attach a jump lead to the main terminal of the starter motor direct from the positive of the battery. This will eliminate the feed wire being an issue - if there is a problem with it (internal damage, corrosion, etc) it may wll have enough current to throw the solenoid a few times, then heat up/otherwise die and not have the ability to carry further current. I'd be moving toward anything you have replaced not being the issue, based on the issue being identical after changing them. It may be the things connecting the different components, and disturbing them by replacing them re-made the connection or re-aligned a poor connection or something, but I find two identical failures of an original and replacement component odd.

My feeling is this is some sort of internally damaged wire, or switch/relay. If the solenoid throws and the feed is ok, I think it will be a burned/internally cracked wire or something. Where half the strands or more are damaged, for instance. Just a gut feeling, though.
posted by Brockles at 5:02 AM on August 21, 2008

I would try using some heavy gauge wire (8g or better) to create a secondary ground from the battery post to the chassis. Be sure to get your connection point down to the bare metal. I'd also redo both battery connections, and make sure they are CLEAN and TIGHT.

I had this identical issue with a 95 Camry, and it simply wasn't getting a good enough ground, compounded by the fact that there was corrosion that didn't look that bad on the posts. However, cleaning them and redoing the connections cleared the issue right up.
posted by chrisfromthelc at 7:53 AM on August 21, 2008

I also think it's a connection problem. I used to own a '92 Tercel and had the exact same problem at one point. the fix was to pull all the leads and give them a good cleaning, paying special attention to the spade connections on the starter. A Toyota specialist at the time told me that this was the most common repair he had to do.
posted by bonehead at 8:32 AM on August 21, 2008

An interesting issue with the japanese cars I've had: The cigarette lighter/power point is wired in serial with the ignition. It was weird that if I bumped my knee into the phone charger, the car would fail to start just like it had a dead battery. Once I jiggled the charger (and, consequently, the socket assembly) back into being connected, it started up like normal.
posted by Citrus at 10:49 AM on August 21, 2008

Response by poster: Mithral, et al:

I tried all the methods. Turns out it indeed appears to be the starter solenoid. I had replaced it a couple times already so this is obnoxious. I'll be keeping a high-tech tool around to fix the problem till i replace it again: a hammer.

Thanks a ton!
posted by torpark at 2:35 PM on August 21, 2008

« Older Citizens of Glendale: Do not worry. He is dead.   |   OSX: Future as a programmer dashed by failure to... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.