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5 Ways To Start a Car With a Bad Starter

Got a car that won't start? A faulty starter could be the culprit. Learn how to diagnose starter problems.

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Hand turning car key in the key hole to start the car engineJUNCE/GETTY IMAGES

How To Know if Your Starter Is Bad

There are many possible reasons why a vehicle fails to start, and one potential culprit is a bad starter motor. So your first step is determining if the problem really is the starter, or something else. Here’s what to do:

  • Turn the key.
    • If the car won’t start and you hear a chattering noise, the problem is most likely your battery.
    • If the engine turns over but won’t start, chances are it’s not your starter or battery, but something else.
    • If when you turn the key there’s no noise at all, or just one click, it might be a bad starter.
  • Now, check the battery terminals.
    • Dirty wire connections could be the issue. Disconnect the wires and clean the terminals if there’s any corrosion buildup visible. Reconnect the wires, then check the battery with a volt meter. It should show at least 12.5 volts. Less than 12 volts means your battery is weak, and you’ll need a jump to get going. If a jump starts your vehicle, your problem wasn’t the starter.
    • Assuming your starter is bad, keep reading for different things to try.

man taking a car battery out of a truckRobin Gentry/Getty Images

Clean the Positive Connection Between the Battery and the Starter

The cables connected to your battery each have two ends. The positive cable connects the positive battery terminal to the positive starter terminal. If this connection is faulty, your starter won’t work.

Open your hood and find the starter on the driver’s side of the engine. Check the positive connection. Disconnect it with a wrench. Clean the starter terminal with a wire brush if you see any corrosion that could interrupt the flow of electricity. If a bad connection was the problem, your vehicle should now start.

Man connecting the car battery to the vehicleStefan Tomic/Getty Images

Clean the Negative Connection of the Battery to the Vehicle

The negative pole of your car’s battery connects to the metal body of your vehicle, or possibly to the engine block. Follow the negative cable to this connection point, then examine it.

If you see corrosion, disconnect it with a wrench and clean it with a wire brush. A bad connection here could also be responsible for your starter not working. Reconnect the now clean connect, then try to start your vehicle again. If the negative connection was faulty, your car should now start.

Close up of blacksmiths hands gripping a large hammer.Mint Images/Getty Images

Hit the Starter With a Hammer or Piece of Wood

Sometimes the electrically conductive brushes inside a starter motor begin to wear out, or the springs holding them against the armature (spinning part) grow weak. When one or more of the brushes breaks contact with the armature, your starter won’t work, and neither will your vehicle.

Believe it or not, sometimes tapping the outer casing of the starter with something solid reestablishes contact between the brushes and armature.

If you can reach down far enough into your engine to swing a hammer, go for it. I personally find it easier to use a two-foot-long, 2×2 hardwood stick, which I keep in my trunk for this exact situation. It once got me going again when my starter failed in a Walmart parking lot on Boxing Day, December 26!

worried mature man looking under the hood of breakdown carFotoeventis/Getty Images

Check the Solenoid Wires If Your Starter Has an External Solenoid

The solenoid is an electromagnetic switch that converts the small amount of current from the ignition switch to the large amount of current needed to get the starter going.

Solenoids can be built into starters or separated and connected with a wire. If your vehicle has an external solenoid, there’s a chance the wire connecting it to your starter has come loose, or the connection is dirty. Check, reconnect and clean with a wire brush as needed. If this was the problem, your vehicle should now start.

Friends pushing car after engine failureLeoPatrizi/Getty Images

Push Start Your Manual Transmission Vehicle

This trick only works for manual transmission cars. It’s a way of bypassing your bad starter to get your vehicle running.

Sit inside your vehicle with the key held in the start position and the clutch held in. Put it in second gear, then have two or three strong friends push your vehicle. The idea is to get the car rolling at a fairly good clip, then release the clutch while still turning the key. Do it right and your car should start, despite your faulty starter motor.

Robert Maxwell
Robert Maxwell is a writer, videographer, photographer and online strength coach based in Northern Ontario, Canada. He grew up on a rural self-sufficient homestead property where he learned the skills to build his own home from the ground up, do all his own vehicle repairs, and work with wood, stone and metal to find practical DIY solutions to many everyday problems.