How To Start a Car With a Bad Starter

Some of us know the feeling all too well. You get in your car, turn the ignition key, and...nothing. The engine doesn’t start, and you’re left wondering exactly what’s going on with your vehicle. Why is it not responding? While the first assumption for many is to think it’s an issue with your battery, in reality, it could actually be a problem with your starter. Encountering a bad starter can be very frustrating, especially for those who may be running short on time. Many of us have schedules so full that it’s next to impossible to find time to take the car to the shop. But if your car won’t start, you may not have much of a choice.

When all else fails, how do you start a car with a bad starter? Though a blown starter can be obnoxious, a collection of simple tricks is sometimes enough to get it back in working order.

How Does A Starter Work?

The starter - sometimes known as a self-starter, starter motor, or cranking motor - is a device on the drivers side of the motor that is used to rotate (crank) an internal-combustion engine in order to initiate the engine's operation under its own power. Starters come in many forms and can be electric, pneumatic, or hydraulic. 

What many people don't know is that your car’s starter is actually an electric motor. For example, the starter on vehicles with very large engines can even be another internal-combustion engine in some cases. The starter engages once you turn over the ignition in your car. By turning the ignition switch, the starter motor is energized and the electromagnet inside the body engages, which causes your engine to turn over and begin running.

Symptoms of a Bad Starter

There are a few tell tale signs that your starter may be bad (or going bad)...

Your car won’t start: We described this situation above; you turn the key, but the engine doesn’t turn over. You may not even hear a sound at all. In some cases, there may be a clicking or clunking sound. In this instance, it's often a key part of your starter system that has potentially failed or malfunctioned. The problem can sometimes be related to the starter motor or the electrical system. You should look to get this issue addressed immediately, which may include the need for a tow to your nearest mechanic or service center.

You have starting problems that come and go: This vicious cycle is guaranteed to get under your skin. Sometimes your car starts, sometimes it doesn’t. A starting problem that seems to come and go can be both annoying and difficult to fix. In some cases, this can be something as simple as loose or dirty wiring somewhere in the system. It could potentially be an electrical component that has become damaged or stopped working for some reason, like a relay. Regardless of the frequency of your starting problems, if you are having any issues getting your vehicle started, you should get the issue checked as soon as possible.

The lights in your car dim when you start it: 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.

Your starter continues running after the engine has already started: Once your engine has started and you release the key from the start position, the starter should stop running. But when your starter isn’t working correctly, it will sound as if it is still trying to start up even after you have released the key. This is often an indication there’s a bigger issue at hand in the system’s electrical circuitry, a problem that needs to be fixed as quickly as possible.

How to Start a Car with a Bad Starter

You don’t necessarily need to be a mechanic to get your starter up and running again. Here’s some tips and tricks to help bring a dead starter back to life. Try them one by one until you find a solution.

Check the Connections

Remember, the starter is an electric motor, and that means it's part of an electrical circuit that helps set the engine of a vehicle in motion. The engine won’t respond if there is a faulty or failed connection with the battery (or an issue with the battery itself). If the engine isn’t responding, there could possibly be an issue with the battery or the connections. Be sure to check the joint of all the connecting cables that run between the starter and the battery. Double check that everything is tightened and correctly fastened. A loose connection can cause a decrease in current flow to the starter, and that is often the culprit of your ill-functioning starter. 

Clean Off Any Corrosion

Just as we alluded to above when we discussed checking the connections, corrosion could also be the origin of your issue, which can result from an obstructed flow of electrical current. Dirt, grime, and grease can build up over time and begin to accumulate on the starter and the car battery. Over time, it begins to corrode the terminals and cable clamps on the battery. When this appears to be the case with your vehicle, start by disconnecting the battery. From there, take fine-grade sandpaper and use it to clean the areas where corrosion has occurrred. It will remove the excess dirt, grime, stain, and rust. If you encounter stubborn corrosion, create a mixture of water and caustic soda and apply it to the affected areas. Be mindful not to damage the connections during the cleaning process.

Tap it with a Tool

It’s the oldest trick in the book, but that’s because it works! If the starter is dead, but functions like the headlights and windshield wipers are working as usual, the problem could surprisingly be the byproduct of a stuck gear. When a gear gets stuck, the starter doesn’t function properly. 

Try giving the starter a good tap about 4 or 5 times with a small tool like a wrench or a hammer. Keep in mind, you must be knowledgeable of your engine block and carefully locate the position of the starter. Being able to distinguish it from other components is key, so you don't damage or disturb any of the other components. With the respect to this approach, the taps on the starter should be gentle so that the part is not damaged.

In some cases, this method even works on a completely bad starter. But while tapping can provide a temporary fix, it’s still best practice to get the core issue looked at and repaired to working order.