Diagnose a car problem...

Yesterday morning I drove about eight miles to go shopping. After shopping, I pulled out of the parking space and the car died. It wouldn’t turn over at first but then I turned off the radio and the A/C and it started up fine and I went home. Later that night and went to the market and then on the way home the same thing happened. The car just stopped. I turned off the radio and lights but couldn’t get it started this time. There is plenty of gas in the tank and the battery is new so I figured it was the alternator. I had the car towed to my house.

This morning I had it towed to Sears without trying to start it again. They did a test and said that the battery and alternator were fine and wanted to replace the starter. I don’t see how it is the starter so it has to be something else electrical. They were able to get it started and I drove home.

Any ideas?

Did the starter sound weak when trying to start the car? Slower than usual?

I don’t think so. I turned over once but didn’t start the car.

It’s hard to make a diagnosis based upon the info given here; could you tell us the make/model/year of the car? There are several possiblilties, but my initial intinct is the problem is either a worn timing belt or a malfunctioning fuel pump.

And then it would not crank at all?

'94 Honda Accord. Manual transmission. How stupid of me not to include that in the OP. Thanks.

I had the timing belt replaced 30k miles ago as part of standard maintenance. The fuel pump did occur to me too.

Every time I tried it would turn over once but not start.

Might be the starter. They can get worn out in spots. If it happens to be in that spot when you attempt to crank, there might be no reaction at all. No cranking, nothing. Which can make one suspect an electrical problem.

Some googling shows that the main relay or the starter are usually the issue with older Accord starting issues.

I really appreciate all of the help so far. What I don’t understand is if it’s the starter, then why does it initially die when the car has been running?

The OP mentions that the car died. Bad starters do not cause cars to die.
I have heard of main relay problems on Hondas before. I would look at that, before I bought a starter.
A bad main relay can cause a car to die while driving, and to not restart.

Unfortunately, “turn over” is widely misunderstood and misused, so we need to clarify our terminology.

Just so you know, “turn over” historically and properly means “crank” - the starter motor rotating the engine with a rhythmic ruh-ruh-ruh sound. But to avoid any possible confusion, let’s not use the term.

So what we need to know is, did the starter ever fail to crank the engine? As in, no “ruh-ruh-ruh” when the key was turned to the “Start” position? Or only cranked for a second or so, or even only one “ruh”? If so, there’s a starting system problem - battery, alternator, starter, ignition switch, or cable/wire connections among those. Given the dying, a poor connection would be the first suspect, followed by a faulty battery, then (very) distantly followed by a bad alternator. Batteries and alternators can have intermittent faults - if they fail a proper test, they’re definitely bad, but if they pass, it’s not 100% certain that they’re good.

Now, if the starter always cranked, there’s an engine performance problem (ignition system or fuel system). The prime suspect is the main relay. Other possibilities, in order of likelihood, include the fuel pump, fuel pump relay, and various electronic ignition parts.

I suspect what you’re describing is not failure to crank, rather the engine sometimes running for an instant after cranking before it dies (sometimes running a bit longer before dying). This fairly screams “main relay.” What bothers me though, is Sears suggesting a starter. That either means it wasn’t cranking for them, or they’re colossal idiots.

But the absolutely key and vital piece of information is, did the engine ever fail to crank, or did it always crank?

This is it. I am pretty sure that it’s the main relay too after googling a bit after the previous answers and especially after reading your excellent post.

The guy was clearly over his head. He as much as admitted that he didn’t know what he was doing. Even though I am an engineer, I don’t know that much about auto mechanics but no damn way it was the starter.

I only went to Sears because they are close to my house and open on Sundays. I’ll take it to a real place tomorrow.

It always cranked.

Thanks everyone for your help. I’ll let you know what happened.

The repair shop wasn’t able to replicate my problem but they did notice that the leads on the main relay were cracked and all they had to do was re-solder them.

Thanks again for the help!