Engine not cranking and turning over

Does your dash lights go out when your turn the key and try to crank the engine over? Or is the starter not working at all? These problems can come and go at the most inconvenient times. Some of these problems are easy to fix while others can be a little tougher which I will describe in the following guide.

One thing you need to know is that the engine starter pulls a high amount of amperage from the battery. The battery supplies voltage to the starter through two electrical cables, positive and negative which need to be clean and tight while being free from corrosion. Electrical current will not flow through corrosion and cannot be drawn down to the starter when the cables are loose.

You will notice a few different scenarios which can mean the same problem that are listed below:

  • You turn the key to the on position and the dash lights go out or are dim
  • You hit the key and it goes for a brief time then you hear a loud clicking noise
  • The engine turns over slowly and then stops
  • You turn the key to the crank position to engage the starter and the dash lights go out
  • It does fine and then suddenly stops and the lights go out
  • You turn the key and hear nothing while the dash lights are bright
  • You hear a loud grinding noise while the lights stay bright
  • The starter is making a whirring noise
  • You hear a loud clunk
So you get frustrated as anyone would, you wait a while then try it again usually when the tow truck is on its way. This is when you can lift the hood and do some checking on your own and perhaps fix the problem before the truck arrives.

Residual battery acid around the top of the battery can be present so wear gloves and avoid touching your clothes or skin when working on or near the battery.

The first step will address the first three problems on the bullet point list, let's get started.

Step 1

A car battery is the life of the electrical system when the engine is not running. The battery is made up of a series of plates engulfed in acid which create a chemical reaction that produces the electrical power needed to turn the engine over. As a general rule of thumb batteries last about 3 years before they start to weaken and fail. If you have been driven your car without the battery warning light on and there were no lights left on such as an interior dome or head lights its probably time for a new battery.

If you suspect a bad battery you can jump start it if you are stranded but it will fail again once you shut the engine off. To load test your battery you can do so easily without fancy equipment.

You can get an Optima or AC Delco replacement battery which last longer at Amazon which you can get through prime in one day but they cost a little more, or just head on down to your local parts store for a replacement.

Step 2

This step is aimed at the next two symptoms on the list; turn the key to the crank position and the dash lights go out, the car cranks fine but suddenly stops while the lights go out.

Corrosion and loose connections is the enemy of electrical current flow. These conditions cause heat which will produce the power disconnect, this is why this problem will come and go because when the connection cools it can start working again. Inspect the battery cable ends for corrosion which means they need to be cleaned, also while wearing rubber or vinyl disposable gloves grasp both battery cable ends and try to wiggle them to check for tightness.

Avoid trying to crank the engine over when anyone is near the battery. A battery is sometimes filled with explosive gasses that can ignite when extreme heat or a spark is present.

If needed use baking soda and a garden hose to neutralize any acid residue before you begin working.

Then use a wrench or socket to loosen and remove the cable end. Be careful not to touch the wrench or ratchet to any metal parts or the opposing terminal to avoid a short circuit. Record radio preset stations for re-entry once the battery cable end is reinstalled. If the end is badly eaten away by acid you may need to use a pair of channel locks to work the cable end loose. Then replace the battery cable end which you can get from Amazon or the local parts store. 

Once the battery cable end has been removed use a terminal cleaner or a wire brush to remove all corrosion or rust on the cable end and battery terminal. This is done by inserting the cleaner tool into the cable end and twisting back and forth. This tool has a tapper fit which you should observe because it will only work in one direction on the cable end.  

After the terminal and cable end has been cleaned thoroughly reinstall and tighten. Push down on the cable end while tightening will help secure the connection.

Once the repair is complete, try to wiggle the cable end it should be nice a tight which means the repair is done correctly, reinstall the terminal cover.

Step 3

This portion of the guide will address the last parts of the bullet point problems; You hear nothing while the dash lights are still bright, you hear a loud grinding noise and the dash lights stay bright, the starter is making a whirring noise or you hear a loud clunk sound.

In this set of problems the battery is probably okay and there is some kind of safety, security or mechanical problem.

Begin by checking the fuse panel for blown fuses which relate to the security or starter system by using a test light. If all fuses test okay continue on with the guide.

Also some cars use a starter relay which should be located in the same fuse panel which can be tested and replaced if needed.

The starter motor receives a signal from the ignition key to excite the solenoid which activates the start motor to begin its operation. You will need to use a test light to see if the starter motor is bad or if there is some other issue. You must locate the starter motor to test the trigger wire for this signal, begin by lifting the car safely and supporting it with jack stands.

Next, locate the starter solenoid trigger wire which is the smaller of the two electrical connections. Use a test light attached to ground and have a helper turn the key to the crank position while testing the small trigger wire on the solenoid, it should light up, next test the large power terminal which should also have power from the battery.

Do not touch the test light probe to ground while checking for power to avoid a short circuit. If both terminals have power the starter has failed and replacement is required. Sometimes you will here the starter click but not activate this is telling you the solenoid is working but the motor part is bad. 

If when you turn the key and hear a loud grinding or whirring noise the starter drive gear or bendix has failed which is telling you the starter needs to be replaced. During this replacement is a good idea to check the flywheel condition as well.

If there was no power observed at the small trigger wire there is problem in the delivery system which include:

  • Ignition switch
  • Security system
  • Neutral safety switch
  • Clutch safety switch
  • Wiring harness
The ignition switch is used to control power via the key which prevents someone from operating the vehicle that shouldn't be. This switch controls main vehicle power using a series of relays and fuses. As this switch ages internal electrical contacts become worn and fail to connect leaving and open circuit. To test for this condition you must obtain a wiring diagram for your vehicle and then gain access to the rear of the switch or wiring harness to test for power from the trigger wire circuit.

A security system is built into the vehicle which disables the starter when activated. Occasionally the system will simply become confused due to a glitch or a procedure error. If the security light is flashing the system has been activated.

Exit the vehicle and lock all of the doors with the windows up then wait two minutes, next unlock the vehicle by the drivers door, this should reset the system, try to start the engine. If the light is still flashing try the spare key, if the light goes out it's because the frequency chip located inside the first key has gone bad. This could be due to age or it was exposed to electronic waves of some kind which changed the chip in which case you will need a new key from the dealership.

If the ignition switch is working okay the next stop in the circuit is the neutral and clutch safety switches which are designed to stop the starter from operating while the transmission is in gear. There are some easy fixes that are attributed to this problem, one is that the gear selector has not been pushed fully into park (automatic transmission) or the clutch is not fully depressed (standard transmission.) Also, some vehicles need to have the brake pedal depressed before the starter will operate.

If this fails testing is in order which is not to difficult, move the adjustment on the transmission for the neutral safety switch, and on the clutch switch try pushing the pedal further down without the floor mat in the way. If this doesn't work you will need a wiring diagram and a test light to test the circuits.

If you hear a loud "cluck" and then nothing, the starter is working but the engine is being held and not able to turn over. This can happen if one of the engine accessories has locked up such as the alternator, air conditioner compressor, power steering or water pump. Remove the serpentine belt and try the starter operation again.

Last but very well not least is major engine failure, in other words the engine is locked up for some reason which are listed below:

  • Blown head gasket which has filled the cylinder will coolant that cannot be compressed
  • Engine has thrown a rod
  • Crankshaft or rod bearings are seized
  • Broken piston
  • Dropped intake or exhaust valve
  • Dropped cylinder head valve seat
  • Broken crankshaft
  • Seized oil pump
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Article first published