Car Starter Problems, Symptoms, and Fixes

Before the electric car starter was invented in the early 1910s, cars were started with a hand crank. It only took 50 to 60 psi in the cylinders and just a few revolutions per minute to get the engine started. Today’s engines could never be cranked by hand, as cylinder pressure exceed 200 psi and over 200 rpm.

The electric car starter is just one innovation that made it possible for drivers everywhere to start bigger and more powerful engines. No matter the season, starter problems can leave you stranded. However, engine cranking problems aren’t always related to the starter.

Symptoms of a Bad Car Starter

It helps to know how your car normally sounds and feels when cranking and starting. Here are a few symptoms of a failing starter.

  • Intermittent problems – If the car starts fine one day but has difficulty the next day, the starter or its circuit could be near failure.
  • Nothing – If you hear nothing at all when you attempt to crank the engine, this could mean the starter has completely failed. A thorough electrical system diagnosis is needed to confirm.
  • Dimming lights – If cranking seems to draw more power or is slower than usual, this can indicate short circuit issues inside the starter, excessive electrical resistance, or engine mechanical problems.
  • Grinding noise – A grinding noise when cranking could indicate a worn drive gear, or that the starter solenoid isn’t extending far enough to engage the flex plate or flywheel. A grinding noise right after the engine starts running could mean the starter solenoid isn’t releasing properly.
  • Whining noise – If you hear a whining noise, the starter solenoid isn’t engaging at all and the starter cannot engage the flex plate or flywheel.
  • Burning smell – A smell of burning plastic or rubber could indicate a serious short circuit problem somewhere in the starter circuit.
  • Clicking noise – A clicking sound could indicate that the solenoid is activating but that there isn’t enough energy to turn the starter motor. This can be caused by excessive electrical resistance in the starter, solenoid, or starter motor circuit.

Car starters can fail for several reasons, and age isn’t usually as critical a factor as overheating.

  • Engine mechanical problems can overload the starter motor, leading to overheating.
  • Oil leaks can cause overheating because the starter can’t cool off.
  • Jump starting the engine properly with these GROTE Booster Cables or something similar can’t kill a starter, but constantly cranking the engine because it won’t start for some other reason will overheat the starter and its circuit, leading to failure.
  • The contact plate inside the starter solenoid, which carries the bulk of the current, can become pitted over time. In this case, the solenoid works but the main circuit can’t carry enough current to turn the motor.

Fixing Car Starter Problems

Diagnosing starter problems requires a bit of working electrical knowledge. First, confirm there is enough battery voltage and load test the battery. Be sure there is no corrosion on the battery terminals and that the ground cables are in good shape. Then confirm that the starter circuit is functioning properly, including the ignition switch, starter relay, and fuses.

Once you’ve ruled out electrical system problems, you can be sure that the starter is faulty. For peace of mind, get a professional diagnosis before continuing with starter replacement.

Check out all the electrical system products available on or trust one of our 600 NAPA AUTOPRO shops for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on car starter problems, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA Auto Parts store.

By Benjamin Jerew

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