Signs Your Starter Is Going Bad

Stephen Fogel
May 2, 2018

Your starter system is meant to be durable. It’s designed for repeated use under a variety of weather and road conditions. But the wear and tear of daily use, extreme conditions and poor maintenance can all create problems with it.

There are several symptoms that can indicate a bad or failing starter — many of which can also be caused by the battery or charging system, which we’ll discuss later. Here are some signs to watch out for.


Symptoms of a failing starter

Your vehicle cranks slowly or labors to crank when starting: Slow or labored cranking is often the first sign that you have a starter system problem. It could be a starter motor problem, or it could be something else in the system. Have a mechanic check this out right away, before any further damage occurs.

Your vehicle won’t start: You turn the key (or push the start button), but the engine doesn’t crank. You may hear no sound at all, or there may be a clicking or clanking noise. It’s likely that a key part of your starter system has either malfunctioned or failed. The problem could be related to the starter motor, the solenoid or the electrical system. Clearly, you’ll want to get this fixed, and it may require a tow to your mechanic.

You have intermittent starting problems: A starting problem that comes and goes can be maddening, as well as tricky to fix. Loose or dirty wiring somewhere in the system could be causing the issue. Or it could be an electrical component, like a relay, that has become damaged and is failing to work under certain conditions. Even if you’re only having occasional starting problems, you should get your car checked out as soon as possible, before the issue gets worse and leaves you stranded. 

Your interior lights dim when you try to start the car: If you notice your dashboard or interior lights dim as you attempt to start your car, this can be a sign of a short circuit in the starter motor’s internal wiring. This condition causes the starter motor to draw excess current, leaving less for the vehicle’s other systems. If you notice a chugging sound along with the dimming lights, you may have a failure of the bearings in the starter motor. Either way, your vehicle needs immediate attention.

You hear a grinding noise when the car is starting or running: The presence of grinding sounds indicates a mechanical problem, as opposed to an electrical problem. This usually is related to the gears that connect to the starter motor. The gears may be worn or not engaging correctly. The gear may not be disengaging after the engine starts running. The starter motor may be loose on its mountings. Or there may be a problem inside the starter. This should be looked at immediately, before more severe mechanical damage occurs.

You hear a whining or whirring sound, and the engine doesn’t crank: This is a sign of a condition known as “freewheeling,” in which the starter motor isn’t engaging the flywheel, and is instead spinning freely on its own. It’s caused by a problem with the mechanism that engages and disengages the starter. If you hear this type of noise, repairs are needed urgently.

Your starter keeps running after the engine has started: Once your engine has started, you release the key from the start position, or take your finger off of the start button. The starter motor should turn off, but if it doesn’t, it’ll sound like it’s still trying to start up. This means there’s a big problem in the system’s electrical circuitry that needs to be fixed quickly before it damages other parts. 

A burning smell or smoke is coming from underneath the engine: Because your starter system is both electrical and mechanical, malfunctions often combine electrical problems with overheated metal components that are lubricated with grease. This can result in a noticeable burning smell, or even smoke. You need to have this situation dealt with quickly. 

Your starter is soaked with oil: Your starter system lives near the bottom of the engine, in a very hostile environment. It’s very hot, and engine fluids can leak into your starter motor and other related components. If your starter is operating under these conditions, its days may be numbered. 

How does the starter work?

The starter system in your vehicle is what gets your motor running when you turn the ignition key or push the start button. It consists of:

  • An electric starter motor that spins the engine’s flywheel and gets it started
  • A solenoid that relays electric current from the starter motor to the engine in order to start it, and then disengages the starter motor once the engine is running
  • The electrical circuitry that controls the solenoid, provides power to the starter motor, runs the engine while it’s on, and cuts the power when you turn off the ignition

» MORE: Get an estimate for your starter repair

Fixing your starter problem

The first step in getting your starter system problem properly diagnosed is to rule out the battery and charging system as a cause. A battery with a low charge can cause many of these same symptoms. If your battery and charging system check out OK, the focus can shift to your starter system.

If your engine has an oil leak that’s dripping into the starter, this needs to be corrected before any other repairs are made. Otherwise, your new starter system parts won’t last as long as they should.

The odds are that your problem can be traced to the starter motor, the solenoid or the starter relay. All of these will involve straightforward repairs, and your system should work fine once the defective items are repaired or replaced. 

It’s also possible that you may have wiring issues, or possibly a bad ignition switch. Your mechanic should check out these possibilities, depending on your exact set of symptoms.

Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.

1 User Comment

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By , December 20, 2018
Have a kind of odd issue with my 2008 Honda Civic. When i got home and turned my car off, it sounded like something was running where the starter is. Now the sound has stopped and the car is completely dead. We tried to jump start it and when we did the sound started again and the jumper cables got hot so we removed them. As soon as the cables were removed, the sound stopped and the car is still this is a starter issue?

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