Car Q: Car didn't start, then did. Battery?

The car in question is a '98 Dodge Grand Caravan, AWD, 3.8L.

My GF tried starting it this morning, and from inside the house I could a hear it make a clicking noise, not the same as when you turn the key normally. She tried it a couple times. I came outside, opened the hood, saw nothing amiss (not an expert though (duh, otherwise why would I be posting this?!)), touched nothing, and closed the hood. I had her turn off the radio and close the driver’s door so the interior lights would go off. The car started normally and immediately the next time she turned the key. Think I need a new battery? What else could be wrong?

Don’t bother giving advice to take it to be looked at by a professional, I’m gonna do that; but my dealer has been jerking me around lately and would like a second Doper opinon. Think I need a new battery? The car just had a 30k (120k actually) service. My unhappiness with the dealer comes partially because during the service, they failed to properly seat the new fuel filter, resulting in gas leaking from the car 2 days after I got it back. Simple error, probably, but unprofessional. More disturbing to me is their diagnosis of my rear brakes. I took the car to have the brakes checked before taking it to the dealer for the 30k service, and the local brake/clutch shop, whom I trust, said the rear brakes were fine, front pads ok, they just resurfaced my front rotors. The dealer said my inner rear pads “had 10% left” and the rotors “couldn’t be resurfaced.” Initially mad at the local brake place for their misdiagnosis, I took it back to see what they said. The extremely helpful tech/part owner showed me the rear brakes, which had well over the minimum 1/32" of pad left, and the rotors, which were ungrooved and .454" thick, the minimum being .443". Local brake guy explained that there’s no such thing as “10% left” on a brake pad, just a minimum thickness, and that not only were the rotors in good shape, but were plently thick and could be resurfaced with no problem. Comments?

I had the same thing happen to me once. The symptoms led me to believe that the problem was due to a faulty switch. But when I checked the battery, I realised it was almost dead. Channged the battery and never had the same problem again.

I wouldn’t completely rule out a faulty swich though.

It doesn’t sound like a battery problem because you still had power and the car eventually started. When batteries are dead, they don’t come back to life by themselves. I had this happen to my Isuzu radio a few months ago. It turned out to to be a faulty starter/solenoid (they were bundled together on mine, they aren’t always). The starter had developed a bad spot and wouldn’t start when it was in that position. Turning the key multiple times resulted in a click but it moved the strarter ever so slightly each time and it would eventually start when it was in a better position. I had the whole starter/solenoid combination replaced for $140 but you can have it rebuilt for less.

If the clicking noise you describe was fairly prominent, it’s a pretty sure bet the problem is the starter. A problem with the battery or battery cable connections is not out of the question, but 90+% of the time it’s the starter.

This comment: Local brake guy explained that there’s no such thing as “10% left” on a brake pad, just a minimum thickness… doesn’t make sense. Of course there can be 10% of the lining left, you just have to know what the original (new) thickness was to compute it. Specifications for wear (when to replace) are typically given in 32nds of an inch, not in percent, but it’s incorrect to say there’s no such thing as X% left. In the real world, the pads will function and not cause damage whether they’re 1% worn, 50% worn, or 99% worn. Reach 100% worn, and bigger problems ensue, so replacement is wise when they reach 80-90% worn. For the layman who has no idea how thick they were when new or the significance of X/32" of lining left, a percentage figure can help in communicating what the situation is.

There are good repair shops that are not dealerships. Go to , click on “member directory” (in the “Shop Finder” area), select your state and browse your town for a sponsoring member (name in blue). The overwhelming majority of this organization’s sponsoring members are good quality repair shops or people.

On rereading the OP. I suppose it could be the battery if the charge was on the brink of start/no-start power. How old is your battery? If it about time to get it replaced (say over 4 years old or more) then replace that first. It is quick and relatively cheap and you can do it yourself.

This is not really true. Batteries will, if you give them time, come back at least a bit. Particularly if they have been run down due to cranking or leaving the lights on too long.

The “clicking” sound is sort of the classic indicator of a weak battery. It’s the solenoid in the starter engaging. However the starter motor takes some serious amps, so the battery doesn’t have enough ooomph to turn it. Note that it’s not * necessarily * the battery – it could be corrosion on the battery wires, or a bad alternator but an otherwise good battery.

I’ve had the battery scenario happen to me twice.

The first time was with a vehicle that had run into a deer (these guys are sometimes difficult to avoid in Wisconsin in November). After repairing the damage, the vehicle would intermittently fail to start. But after a few attempts, it’d kick in. Turns out that the battery had a damaged cell, that was causing an internal short. You didn’t collide with anything did you? I’m sure you’d have mentioned it. So this isn’t your problem.

The second time was only a few months ago. Car wouldn’t start. Just click. I had been parked with the radio on, and it drained the battery. However, after walking to get assistance, when I returned and tried (on a whim) to start the car, it kicked in. My repair shop tested the starter and said it was perfectly fine. They tested the battery and said it was on its last legs. So I replaced the battery and everything has been fine. No one has been able to explain to me though why the car started after failing to start (via many, many, many attempts of course).

One more vote for checking the starter/solenoid. The exact same thing happened to me that Shagnasty described (on a Toyota Corolla). Just a “click” when you turned the key. After trying it a few times (waiting a few seconds in between), it would start right up. When it did decide to start, it sounded normal (and not strained, like when the battery is weak).

We also got a quote from a dealer, and then found a good local shop who did the work for 1/2 the price.

Thanks for all the quick replies.

GaryT: Of course I know that at some point there will be 10% of the brake pad left. What the local guy took issue with was the way the dealer presented me with the information, because, due to the comments you’ve made already, he doesn’t know how much pad I started with. I would have found it helpful if he said, “the minimum is 1/32”, you’re at…" Also peeving me is that when I looked at the pad, there was 3/16", maybe even as much as 1/4" of pad, so I think they were lying to get me to give them more work. This is also what I’m thinking with regards to the rotor. If the rotor is ungrooved, how much material does resurfacing take off? I would guess on the order of 1-one thousandth of inch, to smooth it out. I had 11 thousandths left, checked with local guy’s micrometer myself. I don’t mind when a dealer treats me like a layman, but I care when they lie.

I don’t mind announcing the following info, since rethinking this situation leaves a bad taste in mouth. The dealer in question is Lithia Dodge on MLK Blvd. in Eugene, OR, should any local Dopers be reading this. Sales people at Lithia have recently been implicated in covertly jacking up the loan amounts they give to customers who finance with the dealer, making the customer pay more in interest unneccessarily. So, I’m not putting these shenanigans past the service folks, either. I’m not going back there.

Shagnasty: Can you explain about bad spots/good spots on starters/solenoids? I don’t know how they work, so I don’t know how they don’t work.

I just spoke to my mom, who bought the car new and gave it to me 6 months ago. She says she’s had issues with the battery/electrical system from day one. A new battery had to be put in the car before she took it from the lot since the one from the factory had been drained. Her dealer blamed the battery leak (electrical, not physical) on “computer gremlins.” :dubious: She had to get a new battery every 1.5-2 yrs. or so. Anyone have a better diagnosis than gremlins for this underlying problem? Given the history, I’m gonna replace the battery and hope that does it (for now).

All of your replies were/are geatly appreciated.

I just had the same problem with my Accord about two weeks ago. Same symptoms. Click-Click about ten times then voom it would start right up.

Took it to Sears where they did a battery diagnosis for a cheap $11. They said “battery is fine, alternator is fine.”

Then took it to the dealer where it turned out to be “The Starter”. Works fine now a couple hundred bucks later.

I always expect at least 10 thousandths. Even ungrooved, they seldom have perfectly flat surfaces.

Absolutely. There’s plenty of good honest money to be made doing quality auto repair with integrity, and there’s simply no justification for the kind of crap you’ve described.

The bad spot(s) would be on the commutator. Old British cars had a way to turn the starter shaft so you could move it past a bad spot, which would let one nurse a failing starter along for a while. More details at these sites:

Excessive parasitic drain on the battery, which could include the computer(s), is one possibility. The amperage of the drain can be measured and compared to specs. If it is excessive, the faulty component(s) can be discovered through electrical troubleshooting.

Thanks for the links and responses, GaryT, I knew I could count on you.

My GF drove the car to work today, this afternoon it wouldn’t start again. I told her to keep starting it, explaining about the good/bad spots, it started, and she made it home. That seems consistent with what you all are saying about a bad starter, not so much the battery. I’ll ask them to check the battery too, though I’m sure that’s part of the process anyway.

Any idea how much the electrical troubleshooting should cost? Sounds like a long job for special diagnostic equipment…meaning mucho dinero?

While all indications point to a starter, a bad ignition switch can under right conditions give the same symptoms.
As far as fault tracing goes, nothing too special here. Verify that the battery is good, verify that there is not excessive voltage drop between the battery and the starter, and verify that there is not excessive voltage drop from the switch. If all that is OK, 99% of the time we are talking starter.

Rick, re: your comment on fault tracing, I was asking about tracing down the “parasitic/gremlin battery drain” problem. I have full confidence that any shop should be able to track down the ‘car not starting’ problem.

Any idea how long/how much it would take to find that out, if in fact it is find-out-able?

Finding out if that is the problem is rather quick – disconnect the negative battery cable and hook an ammeter between it and the negative terminal. If the total drain is beyond specs, it’s then a matter of disconnecting the various electrical consumers and measuring their individual amperage draws. Usually just one component will be faulty, but that particular item could the first one checked or the seventh. Some of the suspects are easy/quick to get to, some aren’t. There’s really no way to know what kind of time and money is involved until the process is completed.

One quick tip: You can buy the starter yourself from AutoZone or any other large auto parts store. They will probably already have one in stock or they can order it for fast delivery. Mechanics often make money by charging more for parts than they pay for them. At the very least, check AutoZone for the price and call the mechanic and ask him how much the part is and an estimate labor is. If it is more, then just buy it yourself. Many mechanics do not like this but screw’em. If you still trust the mechanic you called, call back and tell him you already have the part and would just like him to put it in. If he doesn’t agree, then you probably don’t want to deal with him. It takes about an hour to put a new starter in, two tops. Ask for an estimate of labor time before you let a mechanic work on it. If he tells you more than that, then he is lying and you should go elsewhere. My mechanic put mine in while I waited and it took about 45 minutes.

In case you are curious, the starter costs $143 from

The experience that I had was that the starter degraded rapidly. At first, it would take three or four start attempts. Within a couple of weeks, it took 20 - 30 attempts. It always started but that is no way to live. You better get it fixed sooner rather than later.

For any one of several reasons a quality shop might refuse to install your parts.
First off if the part fails, would you expect the mechanic to install the new one for free? If your answer is yes, understand that since you supplied the part, the only warranty that the shop will give is that the labor was done correctly. If the failure is not related to a faulty installation, you are on the hook.
For your general fund of information, my current record is 4 bad AZ alternators in a row, and 2 bad starters in a row. These were on my own cars where I was trying to save a buck. On a customers car, I would never install an AZ rebuilt electrical part, I have been burned too many times.
Frankly if a customer brought in their own parts for me to install, I would think long and hard if I wanted that guy for a customer. The simple reason for this is if the customer supplied part fails, then the customer will expect me to install the new one for free. I am not willing to warrant a part that I did not sell. Better to tell the customer no up front that piss him off when the part fails, and get tken infront of the Bureau of Automotive Repair.
On and I can think of several cars that a starter replacement takes more than 2 hours of actual labor. So unless you have experience on the car in question, you should be careful about quoting labor times.

Valid point. However, I wonder what kind of idiot would expect a mechanic to replace of part that the customer supplied himself. I guess it takes all kind (of idiotic assholes) to make the world go round. I can’t even comprehend that.

In my case, I just bought the starter and called around to different mechanics on the street where I work (there are tons). I didn’t want to wait for the mechanic to order the parts, wait for the parts truck to show up, and do the labor. I have been burned by mechanics taking more than one day to work on my car even when they said it would be done too many times. It had to be done that day or I would have been stranded and I was convined that the starter was about to fail completely. The first one that said that they could have it done that morning got the job.

Like I said, my replacement only took about 45 minutes. I wasn’t speaking about ALL cars when I said the replacement should take less than 2 hours. It was based on a conversation about starters that I had with the mechanic after it was done. I am sure that there are some cars with really small engine compartments or complicated engine compartment designs that require the removal of many other parts. I was giving the OP a general idea of the time his should take. This is a Dodge Grand Caravan after all. It should have a large engine compartment with a starter that is fairly easy to reach right?

Actually, no. This afternoon when it wouldn’t start at my gf’s work, one of her friends took a peek and said (paraphrasing), “Damn, the starter’s all the way back in THERE?” Not to say it’s not easy for a trained professional, but that is what I am decidedly NOT. Doesn’t sound like the time for me to get my feet wet with amateur auto repair either. I’m not messing with it myself, and I hear what Rick’s saying re: parts. I’m going out of town till next week, and luckily we have two cars, so the van’s just gonna sit for a few days till I get back and take it to the shop. Thanks for the estimates on parts and labor though, I’ll keep them in mind.

Thanks to all, your work here is done. Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves further if you like. If I remember to do so next week, I’ll post a follow-up.