Bad Starter Symptoms: Why Won't My Car Start?

Typical automotive starter motor.
Typical automotive starter motor. | Source

Use Your Ears and Your Headlights to Help Diagnose Your Starter System

Bad starter system issues are more common than you may think.

Starting system troubles may be caused by poor maintenance, or just wear and tear. Even with decent maintenance, the different system components get a lot of wear during their service life and are bound to start having problems eventually. Problems may show up as a no-crank or slow-cranking condition, caused by a worn-out component, a bad electrical connection, or an undercharged or failed battery.

Unfortunately, a problem in the system can catch you unprepared, and leave you stranded with a huge repair bill.

If you have a little experience with car repair, you may feel tempted to rush out and start buying and swapping components, trying to fix your car. This may lead to frustration and a waste of time and money.

But troubleshooting the starting system is actually relatively easy, compared to other electrical systems in your vehicle. This system can give you some clues about the type of problem you are facing. And, armed with your car repair manual, you may be able to make the necessary fixes to get your car going again.

So here are some of the most common symptoms you may notice when having troubles with the starting system in your car.

Diagnosing a Problem With a Starter: What Noise Does It Make?

  • "I hear a whirring sound."
  • "It's a buzzing sound."
  • "I hear a loud click."
  • "It's more like a grinding noise."
  • "I don't hear anything!"
  • "My headlights don't work."
  • "Cranking the car makes my headlights dim or go out."
  • "My headlights are fine, but my car still won't start."

All of these instances will be thoroughly described and diagnosed below. If your engine is cranking as usual and still refuses to start, you're likely dealing with an ignition or fuel system issue, not a starter issue.

What Do You Hear When You Try to Start Your Car?

As discussed in the video below, there's a difference between a "crank--no start" situation, and a "no-crank--no start" situation. If your engine is cranking as usual and still refuses to start, you're likely dealing with an ignition or fuel system issue, not a starter issue. Below we discuss different situations where you turn the key and hear either nothing, or something other than the engine turning over. Depending on the situation, the problem may be the starter itself, or something else.

Sounds May Indicate Electrical Problems in the Starter or Elsewhere

Funny sounds, or no sound, upon the turn of the key may indicate electrical problems in the starter or elsewhere in the starting system. Some of the most common electrical problems are corroded electrical connections, an undercharged or bad battery, or a malfunctioning component:

  • bad neutral safety switch (automatic transmission)
  • bad clutch safety switch (manual transmission)
  • bad starter relay
  • bad starter solenoid
  • corroded electrical connections in the starting circuit
  • worn-out part in the starter motor or some other system component

No Crank, No Start Diagnosis

Sounds and Their Possible Meanings

"I Just Hear A Whirring Sound."

Car starter motors use a small device called an overrunning clutch, or one-way clutch. When you turn the ignition key to the run position, the starter solenoid interlocks the starter's pinion gear with the flywheel on the engine to rotate the engine at "cranking speed". Once the engine starts and exceeds cranking speed, the overrunning clutch releases the pinion gear from the flywheel.

However, if the solenoid mechanism is too worn to engage the flywheel, all you'll hear is a swishing sound as the armature in the starter spins all by itself, unable to crank the engine to a start. So this sound may indicate that the solenoid in the starter is worn out.

"I Hear a Buzzing Sound."

Sometimes you just hear a buzzing sound. Electrical current is making it to the starter solenoid, but all it does is try unsuccessfully to activate the solenoid's plunger to engage the pinion gear and flywheel. This is failure is usually caused by poor current flow due to low battery charge or poor electrical connections along the starting circuit, including corroded battery terminals.

"I Hear a Loud Click."

On the other hand, if you can hear a single, solid click, the starter circuit may be getting enough current, but you may have a bad starting motor, bad solenoid, or even an engine mechanical problem.

"It's More Like a Grinding Noise."

If you hear a harsh or grinding noise as you try to crank up the engine, you may have a loose starter motor (mounting bolts), or a flywheel or pinion gear with broken or worn-out teeth. If the gears on the flywheel and pinion aren't able to mesh properly, all you hear is the sound of metal teeth clashing loudly.

"I Don't Hear Anything."

When you try to start your car, you may hear no sound at all.

This silence may be due to electrical issues:

  • a discharged or failed battery
  • a failed system component (for example, relay or safety switch)
  • corroded electrical connections (including battery terminals) that prevent electrical current from reaching the starter motor.

Starter Motor Components

Automotive starter motor components.
Automotive starter motor components. | Source

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

Using Your Headlights as a Diagnostic Tool

OK, so now you have an idea about what may be the cause of your starting system problem. But, is there a way you can confirm your suspicions?

Actually there is. And you don't need special equipment either. Let's use your car's headlights to confirm your tentative diagnosis.

The test: Have a friend—or a willing assistant—turn on the headlights and try to start the engine, as you stand in front of but to one side of your car (just in case your car decides to start and lurch forward).

"My Headlights Don't Work."

If you hear no sound, and the headlights don't come on, you're on the right track. Either:

  • Your battery is dead,
  • There's an open circuit in the starter, or
  • Corroded terminals (most commonly battery terminals) are preventing electrical current from reaching the starter motor and other systems.

"Cranking the Car Makes My Headlights Go Out."

What if the headlights turn on OK, but go out as soon as your car starts cranking? There are several possibilities:

  • Your battery may be undercharged.
  • If your battery is properly charged, you could have a short in the starting motor that is causing it to draw too much current.
  • Another possibility is that you may not be dealing with a starting system problem at all, but an engine problem.

"My Headlights Are Fine, They Don't Change."

There's the possibility that your headlights remain bright while your engine cranks poorly. Then, it's likely you have an open circuit, or too much resistance in the circuit.

Check for a failing component, or corrosion at one or more of the system circuit connections, including the battery terminals.

ACDelco Starter Motor

ACDelco 337-1078 Professional Starter
ACDelco 337-1078 Professional Starter

If after these diagnostics you decide you need a replacement starter, make sure you have exactly the right one for your make and model. ACDelco provides high-quality replacement parts, meeting or exceeding OEM standards, for all vehicle makes.


How to Bench-Test a Starter Motor

Starting system problems are hard to diagnose sometimes, but paying attention to the symptoms will help you repair your car faster than you could otherwise. And not only that, it can help you save money in the process.

And if you are the DIY type or are mechanically inclined, having the repair manual for your particular car make and model can greatly help you zero in on the root cause of the problem and get it fixed, even if you don't have much car repair experience.

Take the Starter System Problems Poll

What is the most common starting system problem you've dealt with?

  • Bad starter solenoid
  • Bad starter relay
  • Other bad system component
  • Failed starter motor
  • Corroded battery terminal or some other circuit connection
See results without voting

More by this Author


londonaccountants profile image

londonaccountants 2 years ago from London, UK

I had some starter problems in my car earlier in the year (15+ times trying to start) but since the weather has improved, so has the problem. Not looking forward to the coming winter!

wordsbyalma profile image

wordsbyalma 23 months ago

Very informative! Thanks!

Jimmy Dolo 22 months ago

I need very much your help friends. The battery is in good condition. When I turn the key the dashboard lights up but when I continue to start the lights disappears and I hear a little sound likely from the starter. Sometimes it cranks the engine and starts and sometimes it doesn't. I thought there is faulty wiring that causes everything because it sometimes blows the fuse but not at all times. Is it possible that there is a problem in the starter since I took it to the shop for armature soldering and fixing? (my email: Thank you very much.

RANDY 21 months ago

i have 82 bronco 351w 2bbl i turn the key my stater relay sound like a jankhammer and the battery good the stater new so as the stater relay and also my lights dim aka comes out when i turn the key i need to know what i need to do to get it back going

nicolas-ray profile image

nicolas-ray 20 months ago from Stamford, CT

Excellent article...was doing a bit of research because today started having start issues, of course it is now in the single digits temperature wise. Take care and thanks.

Craig Baker 20 months ago

you forgot to mention that with an automatic transmission, the gear may be set to something other than Drive or Neutral for which most have a safety switch prohibiting the car from being started if not in one of these two gear positions. Just had a friend do this and was just about to tow the car into a mechanic lol.

Craig Baker 20 months ago

@londonaccountants - if you have problems only when it is cold out, you may need a new battery or one with higher cold cranking amps

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 20 months ago Author

Criag Baker - Very true. Something like that could happen early in the morning when we're late for work and we don't pay too much attention to what we're doing. Thanks for commenting.

Trevor 18 months ago

My car had been having turning over. But if I gave it has it would help it start. Sometimes needing to keep Erving the motor till it would hold idle. Within this scope I've also fired my car right up and experienced a high idle. These two scenarios have been going on for a couple days. Note: Oil level is good. Just tonight though I went to start my vehicle (talk 99-00' civic SI.) and nothing at all. So I keep turning and nothing. Then turn one more time and it fires right up??

Trevor - Sorry for the typos 18 months ago

My car has been having trouble turning over. But if I give it gas it will help it start. Sometimes i have to rev the motor till it holds idle. Within this scope I've also fired my car right up and have experienced a high idle. (These two scenarios have been going on for a couple days.) Note: Oil level is good. - Just tonight though I went to start my vehicle (it is a 99' civic SI. and nothing at all. I tried turning it multiple times and still nothing. But, out of frustration I turned the key and held it. When I did this it does nothing for about 2-3 seconds and then fires right up..? It's as if there is latency in the current. Right after the dashboard lights go off it fires up. What could cause the low idle, the high idle, and the latency to start? Three different scenarios... So I really don't know where to start.

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 18 months ago Author

Hi Trevor,

I'd check the battery terminals and the starter circuit first. Make sure they're clean and tight. Then check the battery and and the starter motor--in that order. Good luck.

Brandon Rubio 14 months ago

after a day of not being used my car will be completely dead, no lights, no crank nothing but the battery has a good charge only way to start is to jump it

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 14 months ago Author

Hi Brandon. If you have no even headlights after you leave the car just sitting for a few hours, check for a loose connection on the battery terminals. A main cable or wire is preventing power flow.

Mari 13 months ago

My car won't start new battery Honda accord 96 any suggestions

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 13 months ago Author

Hi Mari, if you checked the starting system and everything turned out ok, check the ignition and fuel systems. Have someone scan the computer memory for any trouble codes too.

James 13 months ago

I have a 2001 Nissan maxima and the other day it left me stranded at the grocery store. Was told it was the starter because nothing happened as we turned the key. Replacing the starter fired the car right up and was working great. Next day we took a trip about 60 miles and all of a sudden the car died and rolled to a stop on the highway. The car does a full crank when the key is turned but won't start as if its out of gas. Thinking this i checked all wiring going to the fuel pump and decided to change the fuel pump when all seemed hot and tested good. Well now $260 later the problem is still not fixed any tips would be deeply appreciated. I never heard any grinding noises or sounds as if something broke when it last died so im kinda dumbfounded. People say to change crankshaft sensor and camshaft sensor but i want more opinions. Thanks in advance :)

Brandon 13 months ago

My s 10 would turn over slow then fire right up I was thinking low batt tonight it started to turn then just clicks the relay is sending power but not turning started would starter going bad cause it to turn slower ?

James 13 months ago

Note to all: please check parts bought from auto part store. Turns out my starter was not good for some odd reason. Took a week with the mechanic but he finally figured out the problem. So after $800 in parts and mechanic fees a lesson was learned. Hope this helps someone not to make same mistake as i did.

Jose 12 months ago

I have a 2003 Nissan Altima with a 2.5 and some times the car does not turn and if I try again it turns on I wonder if it's the starter

Rochelle 10 months ago

I have a 2009 Ford Edge. On occasion, when I try to start my car it won't start. I don't hear any sounds but all my dash lights come on. I then tap on the start and then the car will start. However, I'm being told by my "mechanic" friends that this does not necessarily mean the starter is bad....??? Any suggestions?

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 10 months ago Author

Hi Rochelle,

You might want to check the starting circuit for a loose or bad connection and then the starter motor itself.

Ron 10 months ago

I have a1987 ford truck . it has a 302 motor and a new battery .it startes good when it is cold but when it comes up to temp it just spikes.

elsoar profile image

elsoar 10 months ago from Egypt

Awesome. But you can add more images.

sierra 7 months ago

My car was runnjng then i pulked in and turned it off when i tried tstart it agan there was nothng no sound ... but wn the key is turned over there is a nosie

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 7 months ago Author

Hi sierra

identify the type of noise you are hearing and go over the symptoms in this guide to help you troubleshoot the problem.

Petrolhead1 7 months ago


Please HELP.

Drove my car 20miles got out for 5mins then completely dead when I tried to start it. I seem to remember a slight clicking sound. Called breakdown he attached a boaster starter and it started straight away. He then attached a brand knew battery to my car and followed me home, car drove fine. Breakdown put my original battery back on and I then recharged my battery.

Following day I started car, started as normal drove as normal I took it for granted I had just been a flat battery.

I drove for out of for 5mins, when I returned to start car it started again. Five miles down the road battery light came on, I stopped in a Carpark when I tried to restart my car after 10 mins car dead just slight clicking sound again. I used jump leads to start it(started straight away)

I drove to kwik fit brought a new battery because needed to get home.

Driving home battery light came on after driving for 10 mins and stayed on the whole journey home which took 3hrs! Other then that car drove as normal.

Next morning car started. But battery light on. Been charging battery on and off ever since(about 4days)

Driven car 3 times on 15mins journeys just to pick someone up so I've not needed to stop and restart my car while away from home.

Last time I drove it my interior kept coming on and going off so did a dash light saying boot open. They were just coming on and off!

Haven't driven car since.(yesterday)

Now when I think of this I had the same thing happen with flashing dash light and interior light day or so before my battery died first time.

Car hasn't been dead since I've fitted new battery but battery light has been on all the time. Haven't had a dead battery or had a problem starting it but it has been on charge on and off to keep battery topped up. I haven't done any reading or anything I'm not mechanically minded. Radio works, interior lights, all electronic pack inside car works even when battery is dead, so do the headlight. HELP what could this be...

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 6 months ago Author

Hi PetrolH1

You should have the alternator checked, from what you describe it seems as a diode gone bad in your alternator, but you may also have a short somewhere that is pulling current form your battery.

You'll need to do some troubleshooting of the charging and starting system to locate the problem.

Alec 5 months ago

After around a day of the car getting harder and harder to turn over, it eventually just stopped trying. Everything looks good with the dashboard, my headlights stay on and bright when I turn the key. Does that point to a bad starter or something between the ignition and starter?

I know you mentioned this might mean an open circuit or resistance in the circuit. Is there somewhere I should look first? Given it was a gradual fading of the ability to start, does that help to identify a potential problem area?



Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 5 months ago Author

Hi Alec,

it seems electric current is not flowing properly, the first thing to check are the connections at the battery. they should be clean and tight. This is the most common problem, If you have a way to check the wiring connections between the battery and starter (have good access) check that those are tight and clean as well.

then make sure the state of the battery, and the condition of the starter.

For the battery, make sure you have enough charge and then check the battery state with a hydrometer. This is a fairly cheap tool and you can do this at home. If the battery is OK, remove the starter and take it to your local auto parts store for a check before doing anything else in the ignition system.

Katie 5 months ago

I have a 1998 seems to be losing the power from the battery. If you jump it it will start right up then if you let it sit a couple of days it does nothing. I thought it was the alternator and replaced that and it is still doing the same thing. Would a starter solenoid have anything to do with this problem?

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 5 months ago Author

Hi Katie,

Form what you describe it seems your battery is draining power. You might want to check for a battery parasitic drain,

( )

or your battery has reached the end of its service life.

( )

Good luck.

Kristen 4 months ago

How does a car sound when it's out of time?

Demi 4 months ago

It happens every so often get in the car turn the key won't start but everything has power,radio, lights,ac,but won't start,auto zone said it was the battery paid 190.00 for a new battery Crunk up an 3 weeks later it didn't

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 4 months ago Author

Hi Kristen,

When out of time you'll here the engine rattling, similar to a diesel engine but more metallic.

On modern vehicles the computer controls the timing, but you can still check it using a timing light.


On older models you can set the timing yourself by adjusting the distributor.

Hope this helps.


Hi Demi,

It's easily to get confused about the component giving trouble sometimes, specially when it comes to the electrical, charging and starting systems.

Check the starter system if you haven't yet.

Good luck.

2 months ago

Have a 2005 pontiac grand prx lights work fine, no grinding, jumped once and started right up, ran great for 3 days and won't start again

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 2 months ago Author

Hi D, make sure you don't have a battery drain

or some problems with your alternator

Also, your battery may have reached the end of its service life. They usually last around 4-5 years.

Hope this helps.

Mary 2 months ago

My 2002 PT Crusier: It wouldn't start. I heard a clicking noise. I took it for repairs and was told it was the starter. I picked it up and stop at a store on the way home. Car started but my battery light came on. I arrived at home and try to start the car after parking it and it would not start. Having it tow back to the repair shop. What could it be?

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 2 months ago Author

Hi Mary,

You may have a charging system problem, usually the alternator, but it could also be a battery problem.

Good luck Mary.

Magnus 6 weeks ago

Hi Dan

The other day my manual Ford Fiesta died on the freeway, all of a sudden, and now it will light up the display but won't crank. Any ideas?

Best regards, Magnus

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 5 weeks ago Author

Hi Magnus,

Can you hear any clicks when trying to crank the engine, check the starter, battery and solenoid connections. If possible, check voltage drops.

Good luck.

Glori 5 days ago

My my 04 honda crv turns on but i give it gas and it turns off i have to give it gas for a bit so it can run then i will drive for a few miles and turn off it just happened today any suggestions

Esther davila 5 days ago

My 04 honda crv turned off when it started to shake ingave it gas a few times i had it running a few miles then it stoped i had to do the same thing i dnt know what is the problem first time this happens any suggestions

Amy windous 5 days ago

Ok last couple of days I have had to jump start my car. When I go to start it all electronical things work. Headlights are nice and bright then go to turn the key all I hear Is like a growl no cranking. Could a failing map senser be the culprit? Brought this car 6 months ago and it's now doing this.

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 2 days ago Author

Hi Glori,

Start with something simple as a maintenance issue. For example, When was the last time you replaced the fuel filter? If the engine starts and then stalls, doesn't point to a starting system issue (bad starter); check also the ignnition system. Your Honda may be due for new spark plugs, plug wires, etc.

Good luck

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 2 days ago Author

Hi Esther,

Check for maintenance issues first, a clogging fuel filter, worn out spark plugs, plug wires, a failing ignition coil, etc.

Good luck

Dan Ferrell profile image

Dan Ferrell 2 days ago Author

Hi Amy,

Have your battery tested. Your battery may store some juice in it, but not enough to energize the starter, which requuires a good push from the battery to work. Start there, then have the starting system checked, but it seems more like a battery issue.

Good luck

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