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Car Starter Problems? Five Starting-System Inspection Tips

Updated on March 20, 2016

Car starter problems arise unexpectedly and for more than one reason. Whenever there's corroded terminals, loose connections, a bad, worn out or damaged system component you'll notice. Starting your car becomes more difficult, or it simply refuses to start.

Unfortunately, you won't see the source of the problem when all of a sudden the system fails. And repeatedly turning the ignition key, hoping that eventually the engine will fire up when it refuses to start, doesn't always help. Most often, it creates more problems.

Fortunately, common starter system problems happen in predictable places. And you have at your disposal more than one strategy to help you check the system in your car. Whether it is lack of power, a bad electrical connection, or a bad starter component, use these five troubleshooting tips to fire up your engine again.

Begin with one of the most common sources of engine starting problems.


Checking the Battery Voltage

You need to know whether you have enough juice to operate the starter motor by measuring the amount of voltage in your battery using a voltmeter.

1. Set your voltmeter to a range higher than battery voltage, like 20 volts on the DC (direct current) voltage scale.

2. Turn on the meter and connect the test leads across the battery terminals. Touch the negative lead to the negative (-) post on the battery and the positive lead to the positive (+) post on the battery.

3. Turn on your car's headlights.

4. Read the display on your meter. Your battery should have between 12.4V (75% charge) and 12.6V (100% charge) to properly operate the starter motor. If there's less than 12.4V, recharge the battery and try to start the engine again.

With a reading of 12.4V or less on a three to four years old battery, it's a good idea to hydrometer-check your battery. The hydrometer is a simple tool that lets you know the state of charge and health of your battery. So you'll know whether one or more cells have failed. Buy an inexpensive hydrometer online or at most auto parts stores. Then check this article on troubleshooting a car battery using a hydrometer.

Common Sources of Starter System Problems
* Loose electrical connections in the starting system
* Dirty connections
* Corroded battery terminals
* Worn out or failed starter system parts

Inspecting Cables and Wires

Corrosion around battery terminals prevents electrical flow. This is a common problem on a battery or starter system that hasn't received much attention. If you notice a layer of corrosion around one or both battery terminals, clean them with a solution of baking soda and warm water.

* Mix 8 ounces of warm water for 1 tablespoon of baking soda in a small container.

* Thoroughly mix the solution.

* Disconnect the terminals from the battery and apply the solution to the terminals and battery posts using a soft brush.

* Clean the battery top with the solution as well to remove dirt and acid, which drains battery power, but don't let the cleaning solution seep under the filler caps.

* Remove the caps from the top of the battery and check the electrolyte level. The electrolyte should reach the bottom of the filler rings. If necessary, add distilled water to bring the electrolyte to the correct level.

* Check the tray where the battery sits and clean it as well.

* Reconnect the terminals and try starting the engine again.

Inspecting the Starter Solenoid

Check the connections at the starter solenoid (the small cylinder on top of the starter) or starter relay. Most Ford vehicles use a remote starter relay instead of a solenoid. The positive (red) battery cable connects directly to the solenoid or starter relay. Can't find the relay? Consult the vehicle repair manual for your particular car make and model.

If the solenoid or relay fails, the car won't start.

* To quickly check the solenoid, disable the starting system by disconnecting the thick wire from the center of the distributor cap or by removing the fuel pump fuse — consult your vehicle repair manual to locate the fuse, if necessary. This will prevent the engine from accidentally starting as you check the solenoid or starter relay.

* If you disconnected the wire from the distributor, ground it to a bolt or unpainted metal bracket on the engine block using a jumper wire.

* Ask an assistant to try starting the engine as you listen for any sounds coming from the starter solenoid or relay. If you hear a solid and loud click, it means the electrical current is reaching the solenoid and it's properly working. If you hear a weak click or chattering sound, check the wires connected to the starter solenoid or relay.

Check for dirty, loose, disconnected or broken wires that will prevent electrical current from reaching the motor. If the wires and connections are in good condition, the starter motor, solenoid or relay have failed, and you need to replace it.


Starter Motor Components:

  1. Main Housing (yoke)
  2. Overrunning clutch
  3. Armature
  4. Field coils
  5. Brushes
  6. Solenoid

Checking the Starter Motor

Depending on your particular vehicle model you may need to raise the front of the car or remove the intake manifold or some other component to reach the starter motor. Consult the car repair manual for your particular model, if necessary.

* If you need to raise your car, safely support it on jack stands, engage the parking brake and block the wheels to prevent the car from rolling.

* Make sure the starter mounting bolts are tight. Loose mounting bolts will keep the starter drive from properly engaging the flywheel. When this happens, you'll hear a grinding noise as you try to fire up the engine, since the ring gear on the flywheel and the pinion gear on the starter clash, unable to mesh properly.

* If the mounting bolts are tight, remove the starter motor from the vehicle and check the pinion gear — this is the small gear at the front of the starter that engages the flywheel to crank the engine. Check the condition of the pinion gear's teeth. Worn or damaged gear teeth will prevent you from cranking the engine as well.

* Using a standard screwdriver, try to rotate the pinion gear in both directions. The gear should only rotate in one direction. If it moves in both directions or doesn't move at all, replace the starter.

Make sure to watch the following video to get a visual reference of the trouble points you want to pay attention to.

Inspecting the Engine Flywheel

If you removed the starter motor for inspection, this is a good chance to check the flywheel as well. The flywheel is the large, heavy wheel between the engine and transmission. This is the wheel that the starter pinion gear engages to crank the engine.

* Once you've removed the starter motor, set your transmission to Neutral.

* Have an assistant rotate the crankshaft by turning the center bolt on the crankshaft pulley using a ratchet or breaker bar and a socket. You'll find this pulley at the front and bottom of the engine block. This pulley rotates the drive or serpentine belt to run the alternator, steering pump and other components. Depending on your vehicle model, you may need to remove a wheel to gain access to the pulley center bolt.

* Watch the flywheel as it rotates and make sure the teeth are in good condition. Missing or damaged teeth will prevent the starter motor from cranking the engine. Replace the flywheel, if necessary.

Testing the Starter Motor for Proper Operation

If you suspect the starter motor, take it to an auto parts store for testing. Many auto parts outlets will test your starter for free. An aged starter motor may have worn out brushes, armature, shaft, or burned field winding that may cause unusual noises, excessive current draw, slow cranking or no cranking at all.

A quick inspection at an auto parts store will reveal the drive mechanism and motor general condition, whether the starter draws enough current to operate, and the general state of the internal components.

If the previous checks did not turn out anything wrong with the starting system, you still have other simple troubleshooting strategies to further test the starter motor. Check the tips outlined in the article "Bad Starter Symptoms: Why won't my car start?".

When you face car starter problems, remember that lack of proper battery maintenance, faulty electrical connections and components will prevent your starting system from working properly. Whatever the source of the problem, these troubleshooting tips will help you when your car won't start. They'll provide you with a relatively quick way to solve your starter problems.

Test Your Knowledge of Faulty Starter Motors

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    • Dan Ferrell profile image

      Dan Ferrell 4 days ago

      Hi CO,

      Make sure your battery is actually charged:

      * turn the high beams for about 30 seconds, then turn them off

      * wait 2 minutes and measure base voltage again

      if it is below 12.4V, you need to charge it.

      Also, check all the connections in the starting system, from battery to starter motor. Look for corrosion, loose connections, or damaged.

      There may be problems with the solenoid, too.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      christo ochalla 5 days ago

      my starter drags while starting. what wholuld be the problem ? I checked the battery and it is fine. the battery measurs 12.4 v. what is the next step I can do ?

    • Dan Ferrell profile image

      Dan Ferrell 12 days ago

      Hi DH,

      If you hear a solid click when turning the key to start the engine, current seems to be reaching the starter motor. Check your connections and also the ignition switch. Track the current with a multimeter.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Dennis Herl 2 weeks ago

      I am having issues with the starter bend-ex. It will not engage the flex plate. Have replaced starter, flexplate and battery. It will start up once, then when I go to start it again, it just clicks. Do you have any ideas of what I can try next? Have shimmed starter.

    • Dan Ferrell profile image

      Dan Ferrell 4 weeks ago

      Hi Marco,

      Make sure the battery is actually charged. A base voltage reading from your battery above 12V doesn't necessarily means your battery is good. Have it checked at an auto parts store, make sure it is properly charged and still good. They will charge and check the battery for free.

      If you got a good battery, check the starter solenoid and the connections to it - should be clean and tight. It seems voltage is not reaching the solenoid if you're not hearing anything.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Marco 4 weeks ago

      1993 GMC Suburban. It will not start. no sound at all. good battery and starter. i thought it was the n switch.

    • Dan Ferrell profile image

      Dan Ferrell 6 weeks ago

      Hi jalal

      It is normal for the pinion gear to kick in. This is to rotate the flywheel to crank the engine. If you just hear a click when trying to start the engine, make sure your battery is fully charged and all the connections are good. Then check the starter motor. An auto parts store might bench test it for you.

      Good luck

    • Dan Ferrell profile image

      Dan Ferrell 6 weeks ago

      Hi Troy,

      You seem to have a problem in the fuel system. Start with the fuel filter. When was the last time you changed it. Then check fuel pressure. This can point to the fuel pressure regulator or fuel pump.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Troy 6 weeks ago

      My Chrysler starts with starting fluid but won't start what should I do

    • profile image

      jalal 6 weeks ago

      I have issue with starter motor clicking noise I remove the starter I notice the pinion gear while rotate it going out is it normal !!

    • profile image

      MUHAMMAD UMAR FAROOQ 2 months ago


    • Dan Ferrell profile image

      Dan Ferrell 3 months ago

      Hi bj

      You may have a battery problem. Make sure the battery is fully charged, (it accepts the charge, or is being charged properly). Also check the starting circuit, including the battery terminals. All connections should be cleaned and tight.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      bj mcclure 3 months ago

      thanks for your advice, very helpful indeed. I replaced our starter motor with a new one and the car ran for a day, now its doing the same thing clicks over but just won't start. any ideas???

    • Dan Ferrell profile image

      Dan Ferrell 4 months ago

      Hi MS,

      The pinion gear kicks out during cranking. If you have the right starter for your engine model, it'll be position correctly to mesh with the flywheel.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Michael Snyder 4 months ago

      Hi where should the pinion gear on the top of the starter be positioned? It seems like its not out far enough.

    • profile image

      parker 4 months ago

      For several weeks, my car just wouldn't start on the first try and you'd hear a click. 3 or 4 attempts later the car would finally start. Eventually, every component of the starting system was replaced, including the up sized ground cable, starter motor, alternator, and still the same problem. Finally, a mechanic who was highly rated with electrical systems found the answer. The lug terminal attached to the hot lug on the starter was oversized for the lug plus the crimp on the terminal was not a good crimp, the mechanic showed me the ratcheting crimper he used for the new connection. After 25+ starts I know that the problem has been fixed. FINALLY. This was on a 94 Olds Cutlass Ciera. Happy Motoring all.

    • Dan Ferrell profile image

      Dan Ferrell 4 months ago

      Hi Sippy,

      Make sure the transmission in in Park,

      Try putting a little pressure on the steering wheel (if locked) while trying to turn the key to see if it gets unstuck,

      May be the key is too worn, wiggle the key slightly and see if this makes it turn, if so, you may need a new key,

      Or maybe the tumbler/cylinder or related mechanism is broken and needs to be replaced.

      Hope this helps

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Sippy 4 months ago

      Key would not turn. Solution?

    • Dan Ferrell profile image

      Dan Ferrell 5 months ago


      Yes, misalignment may prevent the starter pinion gear to not mesh properly with the flywheel.

    • profile image

      no name 5 months ago

      could the transmission not lining up properly cause the starter not to engage?

    • Dan Ferrell profile image

      Dan Ferrell 7 months ago

      Hi GK,

      Thanks for the comment. Glad it helped.

      Good luck

    • profile image

      Gordon kerr 7 months ago

      You are awesome!!! Very well explained... helped me a ton... if you are not currently teaching you might want to consider it haha

    • profile image

      Brian Wijekoon 9 months ago

      Thanks a lot for in detailed explanations and it is was a great support to understand the issue.

    • profile image

      Tim Czarnecki 11 months ago

      Thank you for posting this great information. I appreciate it.