Most of us get into our car, turn the key and drive off, without knowing (or caring) much about how this happens.
The little magic device that does the work for us in starting our car is called, quite fittingly, a starter. And it’s a device we don’t give a second thought to unless something goes wrong.
If you turn the key and nothing happens, what do you do?. That’s exactly what this article is all about: How to start a car with a bad starter.
We’ll start by discussing what the job of a starter is. Then we’ll describe symptoms of a malfunctioning one. And finally, we’ll teach you how to start your car in any case.
You may not turn into Bonnie & Clyde, but you won’t be stranded waiting for help either.
It’s helpful to know how to start your car, even if it’s only to drive to the nearest service station. So let’s get into what this little device is and the job it performs.
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What is a Starter and What Does it do?
A starter is a small electrical motor located between the engine and transmission.
For the engine to start, it needs to turn in order to draw gas and air into the cylinders.
A car starter motor does precisely that: it sets the engine in motion. It takes the strong, heavy electrical current necessary to function from the battery of the car.
What are the Symptoms of a Bad Starter?
Usually, this engine part doesn’t fail out of the blue. Before it stops working, it will give some warning signs that the starter is going bad, as is the case with the majority of car parts.
Let’s look at the most common symptoms that it’s not doing its job properly. This way, you can take action before it dies on you and your engine doesn’t start.
The most common symptoms are:
- Grinding noise.
- Car starts intermittently.
- Hear a clicking sound.
- Starter doesn’t turn off.
- Lights dimming when starting the car.
- Starter spinning.
Now let’s look at each one in more detail:
If you’re not sure what a grinding noise is, think of turning the key again when the engine is on. It usually happens by accident, of course, but that’s exactly the noise you’ll hear if your ignition system has problems.
More precisely, the grinding noise signals that the issue is with the starter drive gear.
You don’t want to ignore it, or you may end up causing damage to the engine flywheel. This, in turn, will prevent your gearbox from working efficiently.
This happens when you crank the engine, and all you get is a whining noise and nothing else. It means that the electrical motor is not connecting with the flywheel as it should.
This is a problem that needs professional assistance. Get your car checked out as soon as possible if you notice this symptom.
Car Starts Intermittently
In this case, when you turn the key, the engine will not start the first time. It might then start fine if you try again.
This usually means that the relay is not working properly. The ignition relay sends electrical current, and if it doesn’t work, the engine will not start.
Another symptom that the relay has issues is a clicking sound when turning the key.
The relay transfers electricity from the battery terminals to the electrical motor, so is an essential part of your car. Luckily, it’s a relatively cheap part to replace.
Starter Doesn’t Turn Off
Usually, as soon as you turn the key and the engine turns on, the electrical motor in the starter will turn off. If it doesn’t, the relay has likely become jammed in the “on” position.
This will cause significant damage to the starter mechanism and the flywheel. It needs to be addressed as soon as possible!
Appearance of Smoke
Smoke is never a good sign when dealing with a car. If there’s too much continuous power reaching the starter gear, it will overheat.
The existence of smoke could also mean loose connections, blown fuses or short circuits. If there’s smoke underneath your car and a burning smell, it’s not to be ignored or underestimated.
Lights Dimming When Starting Car
Those of you with older vehicles will probably think lights dimming when you start the car is typical and nothing to worry about. While that might be the case for older models of cars, modern ones should not experience this, and you should take it as a sign of a potentially faulty starter motor.
Other electrical devices might show signs of a lack of power or not work at all, such as the car radio. This means not enough electricity is being supplied by the battery. In other words, you have a bad ignition system.
This is when you hear the electrical motor spin when you turn the key, but the engine doesn’t start.
It means there’s no connection happening with the flywheel, even if the electrical motor has power.
Ways to Start Your Car With a Bad Starter
Now that we’ve seen how to identify a faulty ignition system, we’ll see how to start the car anyway. At least you’ll be able to get to a repair shop if you cannot fix it yourself.
These are the most popular techniques for starting your car if the ignition system just won’t cooperate. They are to be used in an emergency situation, namely if you are stranded somewhere. Make sure they don’t become a habit.
- Check connections.
- Look for corrosion.
- Tap the starter with a hammer.
- Bypass the relay.
- Jump-start the car.
- Push-start the car (only manual transmission!)
Here’s a video demonstrating some of these techniques:
The first thing to do is to check the electrical connections. If the battery connections are loose, they will not provide enough power to the electrical motor.
Follow the positive wire going from the battery to the starter and check if it’s tight or not. If it appears OK, you can still bypass it by using a jumper cable and turning the key to start the car just to make sure all is well.
Also check all other wires for rust, dirt, acid and to make sure they are tightly connected.
Look for Corrosion
If there are any signs of corrosion, whether on the battery or any wire, they need to be cleaned. Corrosion can prevent an electrical circuit from working properly. It is the number one enemy.
How can you do this?
- First of all, disconnect the battery.
- Prepare a mixture of 50 percent water and 50 percent sodium bicarbonate.
- Pour the mixture over the battery.
- Let it soak for a few minutes.
- Rinse with hot water.
Tap the Starter With a Hammer
Tapping the starter sounds crazy, right?
It’s actually an ancient and effective trick. All old-school mechanics were taught this technique. The electrical motor may not be working because it has hit a dead spot. Tapping the outer frame with a heavy object will force it back into functioning.
The only problem is that in modern cars this is usually located behind the engine. There’s not enough space to put this solution into practice. Some experts suggest to reach it with a long pry bar or a ratchet extension bar instead.
Bypass the Relay
This is another old-school trick. What you need to do is use a screwdriver to create an electrical connection. Place it so that it touches both the positive starter terminal and the starter solenoid terminal.
This bypasses the starter relay and can sometimes start the car.
Jump Start the Car
This is the same technique used when your car battery doesn’t hold enough charge to start your car.
You will need another car to do this. Use jumper cables to connect the two positives as well as the two negatives on the batteries on both cars. This should give your car enough power to start even with a faulty ignition system.
Please check our article on how to jump start a car for full details.
Push Start the Car
If all else fails, pushing the car to start it is the last straw. Attempt this only if you have a manual transmission car, as automatic cars will be damaged by this process.
If you’ve never done this before, we’ll guide you step by step:
- Turn the key so that it’s on the drive position.
- Put the car in first or second gear, and fully depress the clutch.
- Get someone else to push the car while you drive.
- It usually works best if you have a slight downhill slope.
- When the car reaches a speed of 5-10 mph, release the clutch.
- This should start the car.
- If not, try it again.
We’ve seen that there are many symptoms to alert you to a faulty starter. Do not ignore them, or else you’ll have to try one of the many techniques we covered to be able to start your car.
And keep in mind, if you suspect a faulty starter, that getting your car running with one of the above cheats may only be a temporary solution. It will help you get to a repair shop or service station, but your car still needs servicing.
As with any fault, it can create a domino effect if you don’t fix it, you may well end up with more significant and much more costly damage.
Let us know if you ever had to start your car with a bad starter motor. What did you do? Tell us your stories in the comments section. Also, feel free to ask us if you have any additional questions. We’ll be sure to answer them all!