Why doesn't my car want to start?

I recently bought a 93 Corolla LE Deluxe, ~53K miles.

It had been running fine for the first month or two, but now it doesn’t like to start. I turn the key, and I hear a click in the steering column, and if I roll my window down, I can hear a louder click coming from under the hood.

One person I talked to said it might be crud built up on the battery contacts, so I scraped what I could away, and when that didn’t work, I poured a baking soda and water mix over the contacts. It seemed to clear off any remaining buildup, and I have a green-stained towel to prove it. That did work for a while, but it’s back to its old ways now.

It hasn’t flat-out refused to start up yet- it may take anywhere between 2 and 20 tries, but it’ll eventually start up.

I haven’t noticed any pattern to it, except if I try to start the engine a few seconds after I kill it, it will work the first time. Once in a great while it’ll start up the first try- it did last night after being parked for about two hours.

While I fear its a bigger problem, the fact that it worked great immediately after I cleaned the contacts gives me hope that it’s something I can fix myself. The battery itself is no more than five years old, the previous owner had it replaced, and gave me the receipt to prove it.

So, teeming millions, what say you? And thank you for your help.

5 year old battery? Methinks that’s old enough. Replace it, and drive on.

My first guess, based on the symptoms, is the starter solenoid–specifically, the starter motor switch in the solenoid. This allwos current to flow through the starter moter when the solenoid has pushed the starter pinion gear to engage the flywheel, the shuts it off again once the engine has started and the key released.

It might be worth trying to clean the contacts on the starter before replacing the solenoid and/or battery. But once you’re sure that the wires carrying juice to the starter motor are getting the job done, if the problem persists it’s either the solenoid or the battery.

Typically a clicking from the starter solenoid (this is what goes click, click click when the car does not start) indicates a problem with the amount of juice being delivered to the starter and solenoid. This could be caused by:
[li]A bad battery[/li][li]Corroded cable ends [/li][li]a bad cable[/li][li]A bad starter[/li][/ul]

A five year old battery is a senior citizen with a heart condition as far as batteries go. If I were going to guess with no further tests, I would guess battery. Many auto parts stores will test a battery for free. Well worth the price.

As far as the corroded cable ends go, I know you cleaned up what you saw, but the external stuff does not cause resistance. Corrosion between the cable and the battery post is what causes the car not to start. If you feel up to this, go to the auto parts store and buy what is called a battery brush. (Probably less than $5) Take a wrench and remove the negative cable from the battery (If the top of the battery is not marked, the negative cable is the one that goes from the battery to either the engine BLOCK (not the starter) or is bolted to the body. After the negative cable is removed you can remove the positive cable. Use your new battery brush to clean both the inside of the cable ends and the outside of the battery post. Reassemble putting the positive cable back on the positive post and tightening it before even thinking about installing the negative cable. Warning! not doing the cables in this order could cause you to get an impromptu lesson in arc welding causing burns, fires, or other damage to both you and the car. In other words if you make a connection from battery positive to ground with the wrench you life will become very exciting. Also putting the cables back on the wrong terminals might cause the entire car to become a paperweight. :smiley:

The cable itself could be bad. If the corrosion was bad enough on the terminal ends, it can migrate to inside the cables causing resistance, and not enough voltage will get to the starter. If you have a voltmeter I can tell you how to test for this.

A bad starter is possible, but not very common. Make sure the other stuff is right before even thinking of buying a starter.

This problem for me has always been the battery. When starters give me trouble it’s usually about 3 minutes prior to a compresion start (hate automatics for this reason). Seems like if the engine is turning over, 20 times or so the problem is not your starter…YET!

What Rick said about the battery brush. Because of the age of your battery I’d dump it right now and start with a new one. At that time you can brush all the contact surfaces.

When I was little I always thought the loose connection theory was crap. I figured any connection twixt battery & cable was a good one. Not so. Stuff gots ta be clean and tight.

I see the OP is located in SF, just north of me. SF has a lot of salty sea air & this makes the green crud you see (I also get it on my phone jacks). I have to clean my battery top about once a year. But a new battery certainly is worth it.

Wow. I thought batteries started getting old around 10 years.

I wish I weren’t so utterly ignorant about cars and their inner workings. Complete mystery to me. I thought the names of all the parts under the hood ended with “-amajigger.”

Thanks for the help, folks. Now it’s time to do some research.

Few batteries last 5 years.

When you cleaned the battery posts, did you clean inside of the clamps that go around the post? They’re made of lead or something. Using a pocketknife you can scrape a layer of crud away and get it down to a shiny silvery surface. Then tighten it to the clean posts. This method worked for me, AFTER I had tried a lot of the ideas mentioned above.

I think you’ve got green crud on the battery terminal because the cable connection is made of copper instead of lead. This is not of itself a bad thing, but your copper connection is eroding. I think you may find when you disconnect it to shine it up with the battery brush that it has been eaten away so much that the connector needs to be replaced.

Okay, so, to sum up the tribal knowledge here:

  1. First, pull the battery cable clamps off the battery, scrape the inner surfaces of the clamps and the outside of the posts with a knife until bright and shiny, reconnect, try to start. In my experience, if the corrosion layer is thick, a battery brush won’t do the trick; you have to use a knife to scrape away the corrosion layer.

  2. If it doesn’t start, try a new battery. I agree with others here that five years is about when a battery goes to hell.

  3. If it starts, measure the voltage across the battery terminals with the engine running. Cold engine, should be 14.5 volts or so; hot engine, 13.5 volts or so. Low voltage would indicate a problem with the charging system.

  4. If the new battery doesn’t do the trick (and your battery cables are all sound), you’ve probably got a starter problem. I had this happen on our Corolla and on our minivan, both of which used similar starters. I took apart the starters and in both cases, it was an eroded internal contact. I was able to buy new contacts from an auto-electric shop for a very few bucks, install, reassemble, worked fine.

Well, the crud itself is roughly white. After it mixed with the baking soda, it turned green.

I did clean the clamps, too- they were dirtier than the battery contacts, but they could probably use some more work.

Incidentally, it’s been working pretty well the last 24 hours, starting on the third try at the worst.

And while I’m here, can you recommend a good how-to site where I could pick up some of the basics of the innards of a car? Assume I know absolutely nothing.

Thanks again.

I don’t know a how-to site, but the best book was “how to keep your volkswagen alive (a manual of step-by-step procedures for the compleat idiot)”.
It not only taught you a lot about volkswagens, but you also learned how to read terrain and would always park facing down hill even on a two degree slope because you knew you would end up push-starting the damn thing.
I don’t recommend the volkswagen addiction route to learn to fix cars. It leads to advanced swearing and a twelve-step program.