A bad starter is one of the most common problems we get to see in an auto repair shop on a weekly basis. It’s a little less true these days since we began to see some electric vehicles and hybrids rolling in but until all cars are converted to EV, I think it’s a safe guess to say that starter problems will continue to be one of the leading cause of car problems.
So what should you do if your starter decides to let you down and stop working? How can you get your car to start so you can safely get to the repair shop to get that fixed without having to call for a tow truck, you ask?
How to Start a Car with a Bad Starter?
First, you need to understand what a starter needs in order to do its job. A typical starter needs 3 things to run: a positive current coming from the battery, a ground, and a positive current trigger to the starter solenoid coming from the starter relay. Each of these 3 things can be bypassed manually to start the car in the event of a car problem to get the engine to run, at least until you get somewhere you can fix it.
Check the connections
The first thing to check is the connections. Make sure the wire connections between the battery and the starter aren’t loose. Loose connections can prevent the starter from receiving enough amps from the battery to run correctly.
Try tightening the battery terminal connectors using a ratchet. If everything seems good, try to follow the positive wire with your hand. Technically, the positive wire from the battery should split into two, one going to the starter and one to the alternator. Follow the wire going to the starter and try to shake it a little to see if the connection to the starter seems loose.
If everything is alright, you could try bypassing the positive wire from the battery to the starter with a big jumper cable and turning the key to the START position.
Check the engine grounds
A starter doesn’t have a ground wire coming from the battery. The ground is supplied to the starter via its outer frame in contact with the transmission. The transmission itself gets its ground from one or more ground wires connected between the transmission and the car’s body. If for some reason the wire is rusted or damaged, it could create an open circuit in the starting system, thus preventing the starter from running.
The transmission’s ground wire, and the engine’s ground wires too, as sometimes a bad engine ground can also affect the quality of the overall ground provided to the starter, must be in perfect condition for the starter to do what it’s designed to do.
Providing a direct ground from the battery negative post directly to the starter frame using a jumper wire is a good way of bypassing this problem. If any ground on the vehicle is the problem, the starter should turn easily once provided with a good ground.
Check the starter solenoid’s wire
The positive and the ground wire make the starter turn but what makes it actually engage with the transmission’s ring gear is the solenoid. If you can hear your starter turning free when cranking, the problem is most probably the solenoid. Find the smallest wire connecting to your starter and check the connection for rust and dirt.
To bypass the starter solenoid’s wire, try directly providing a 12v current from the battery to the solenoid’s connection using a small wire. You should hear a click when connecting the jumper wire. All that’s left to do is to crank the engine.
Check for corrosion
Corrosion is the arch-enemy of good electrical conductivity. Make sure your battery terminals are free of corrosion and acid deposits. The best way to clean dirty battery connectors is to disconnect the battery, mix 50/50 water/sodium bicarbonate in a small cup and pour it over the battery terminals. Let soak for a couple of minutes and clean with hot water.
Don’t forget to look for corrosion at the other end of the wires. The starter positive connector and the solenoid connector could also be in problem. Make sure all engine and tranny ground connections are also free of dirt, rust, and acid.
Tapping the starter with a hammer
Tapping on the starter’s outer frame using a hammer is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Every old-school mechanic will suggest you hit the starter while cranking to make it run. A pretty good advice if you ask me, since old starters can develop dead spots between the field coils and the armature, causing intermittent problems everytime the starter stops on a dead spot. Taping on the starter can help resolve this by making the armature spin just enough to start.
The only inconvenient with this tip is the fact that most cars have a transversal engine nowadays as opposed to longitudinal engines like before when all cars were RWD. The thing with a transversal engine is that the starter is usually located behind the engine, between the engine and the firewall, most of the times under the intake manifold or over the exhaust manifold. This location makes it really hard to reach even with your bare hand, let alone with a hammer.
One of the tricks I use is to find a long prybar or a ratchet extension bar to reach between the intake channels and tap on the starter that way. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Jump-start the car
In most situations, jump-starting the car won’t do anything. If your battery is in a good working condition, it should normally be able to supply the starter with enough current to make the car start. But, as nothing is ever set in stone in the world of auto mechanics, supplying the starter with a surge of current coming from a bigger battery or a portable jump-starter can help the armature overcome a dead spot and give it a big enough push to make it spin a little. It never hurts to try.
Bypass the starter relay
A trick that also used to work well with older cars or any other car where the starter is accessible is the screwdriver trick. Simply put, to overcome and bypass a faulty starter relay or ignition switch, you can touch both the positive starter terminal and the solenoid terminal on the starter using a big screwdriver. Because the starter terminal is always connected directly to the battery positive terminal, this will bypass the starter relay and will send a direct 12v current to the starter’s solenoid, closing the starting system circuit’s loop and start the car at the same time.
Push start the car
If all else fails, and you are lucky enough to own a vehicle with a manual transmission, you can always try to push start it. Simply turn the key to the RUN position, put the car in first or second gear and hold the clutch while someone else is pushing the vehicle. When the vehicle reaches 5-10mph or so, quickly release the clutch to make the engine rotate and fire. This is enough to get the car running. Don’t let it stall after that or you’ll have to push start it again.
Always remember that all these tricks are only temporary solutions to help you get somewhere you can get your car fixed without having to pay for an expensive tow truck ride. No starter has ever fixed itself and rust, corrosion, and dead spots problems can only get worst. Get your car checked as soon as possible to avoid getting yourself in a more problematic or costly situation…