What Is a Starter in Car?- 5 Signs of a Bad Starter

A starter motor is a vital piece of kit on your car. That’s because you need the engine to be running to make pretty much everything else work the way it should.

To turn over the engine you need an electric motor that can provide lots of torque for a brief time, over and over again. That is exactly what the starter motor is, plus a mechanism to allow it to engage and disengage mechanically in an instant.

What is a Starter?

The starter is a small motor, powered by a battery to turn the flywheel and crankshaft and start the engine of your car. A starter relay sits between the battery and the starter motor, transmitting power.

The crankshaft holds the connecting rods and pistons, so it requires a healthy starter motor and strong battery to move all that metal and get the engine going — a job that’s more difficult in cold weather because the engine oil is thicker. Once the engine is running, the starter motor disengages.

Starters wear out and electrical connections can come loose or fail, but starter motors often last for the life of a vehicle. If the engine doesn’t crank when trying to start it, the starter may not be the culprit. Instead, the battery could be dead or the ignition switch may be broken.

If the lights, wipers, stereo, and other electrical accessories work but the engine doesn’t crank, then the starter could be the cause. Without a properly working starter relay and motor, you won’t be able to start your vehicle and may need a tow.

Starter Motor Diagram

Starter Motor Diagram

How a Starter Motors Work?

When you turn the key in your car’s ignition, the engine turns over and then cranks. However, getting it to crank is actually much more involved than you might think. It requires a flow of air into the engine, which can only be achieved by creating suction (the engine does this when it turns over).

If your engine isn’t turning over, there’s no air. No air means that fuel can’t combust. The starter motor is responsible for turning the engine over during ignition and allowing everything else to happen.

When you turn the ignition on, the starter motor engages and turns the engine over allowing it to suck in air. On the engine, a flywheel, with a ring gear attached around the edge, is fitted to the end of the crankshaft.

On the starter, the pinion is designed to fit into the grooves of the ring gear. When you turn the ignition switch, the electromagnet inside the body engages & pushes out a rod to which the pinion is attached.

The pinion meets the flywheel and the starter motor turns. This spins the engine over, sucking in air (as well as fuel).

As the engine turns over, the starter motor disengages and the electromagnet stops. The rod retracts into the starter motor once more, taking the pinion out of contact with the flywheel and preventing potential damage.

5 Signs Of A Bad Starter

1. Grinding or clicking noise.

One of the symptoms of a bad starter is a clicking noise when you turn the key or push the start button. However, a starter can die without making any sound at all, or it may announce its impending death with a whirring and grinding noise so listen up!

If the starter drive gear is worn out or does not properly engage, then you will hear a grinding sound. If action is not taken to fix the issue, then the engine flywheel could also be damaged.

2. You’ve got lights but no action.

Another sign for detecting a faulty starter could be the dashboard lights. If you see the lights come out of the instrument panel while going through the ignition phase, but the engine is not cranking up, it may also symbolize that the starter system is damaged.

Always make note of whether the lights on the instrument panel go dim when the key is in an engaged position. If so, the problem may be in the battery, not in the starter.

3. Engine fails to crank.

The starter activates the crank and starts turning the pistons and crankshaft in the engine. When you don’t hear the distinctive sound of the engine turning over, the starter is done. You might get one or two half-hearted attempts out of the starter, but it won’t be able to crank and eventually will stop turning at all.

Is your engine not revving up, even after attempting a jumpstart? If a jump start won’t fire up your engine, nothing other than a certified technician will! For more information visit our guide How to jump start a car?

4. Smoke is coming from your car.

The appearance of smoke could be a sign that there are a number of different problems with the starter. Smoke is usually a sign that there is too much power being drawn from the battery to the starter.

That could occur if the starter is shorting, that is has been working too long, or there is a connection problem. Should this occur, then it is advised that you seek the help of a professional mechanic immediately.

5. Oil has soaked the starter.

Your starter can usually be found on the driver’s side of the motor, just below the left bank of cylinders. If you pop the hood only to find that your starter is drenched in engine oil, your bad starter might be a sign of another problem an oil leak.

Unfortunately, what starts out as a few drops of oil can slowly and sometimes unnoticeably turn into an expensive problem, so keep an eye out for oil leaks to avoid starter issues of this nature.

Related Posts: How Much Does It Cost To Replace a Car Starter?

What causes starter problems?

A variety of problems can lead to a bad starter, including:

  • Loose wiring to and from the starter – Loose wiring can disrupt the starter’s connection to electrical power, so your engine may not crank.
  • Dirty or corroded connections at the starter – Built-up dirt or corrosion causes higher resistance between circuits and disrupts the flow of power. This can cause a very weak crank or failure to crank.
  • Battery corrosion – Whether it’s due to overheating, damage from leaking, or battery age, a corroded battery can cause electrical problems if left unattended.
  • Damaged or worn-out parts in the starter system – Over time, parts that conduct and distribute electrical power in the starter system (like the starter to battery cable and the starter relay) may wear out and need replacement. If you have parts in your starter system that fail, a technician can help repair and replace faulty parts.
  • Oil leaks – Typically a problem with older vehicles, oil can leak out of an engine after years of wear and tear. If enough engine oil leaks onto the starter, it may become inoperable—and you’ll need engine oil leak repair plus a replacement starter.
  • Bad relay – A bad starter relay can leave you with either an engine that won’t turn over or a starter that continues to crank after start-up.

How do you troubleshoot starter problems?

Suffering starter or battery problems that result in your inability to start your car can be distressing. Short of calling for a tow truck, there are six things you can do to start your car so you can drive it to a repair shop.

  • Jumpstart the car if you determine that the battery is not the problem. You can also use a battery tester.
  • Try starting with the transmission in neutral.
  • Hit the starter with a hammer or hard object.
  • Put the manual transmission into neutral, turn the ignition key on and as you stay in the car have someone push it or roll it down a hill so it gains momentum. Once you are moving, pop the clutch and put the transmission into first gear or reverse depending on the direction you are moving.
  • Make sure that the battery cables are securely tightened to the battery terminals. A loose connection could be the reason why the car won’t start.
  • If the car won’t start, but it is cranking, check to see if there is fuel.

Related Posts: Top Reasons Why Your Car Won’t Start

How Much Does a Starter Replacement Cost?

The cost of a new starter can range anywhere from $80 to $350—but that’s only for the part. You’ll also need to consider the cost of labor, which can vary from $150 to as much as $1,000. That puts the cost of parts and labor in a wide range, from $230 to over $1,000.

For most vehicles, however, the complete cost for a starter replacement (including both parts and labor) is around $500. So, it sounds like your mechanic is charging you the average fee for this service.

Keep in mind: The variation in labor costs is largely due to the nature of the service. To replace a car starter, the old part must be completely removed from the engine compartment, which can trigger substantial labor fees.

In some vehicles, the starter is more easily accessible, and the service can be completed relatively quickly. Other vehicles, however, are more complex and require more time to access and fix.

The bottom line: Your final cost for a car starter replacement will ultimately depend on the complexity of the repair, which is partially determined by your vehicle’s make, model, and year.


What are the symptoms of a bad starter on a car?

Signs of a Bad Starter:
1. Whirring, grinding, or clicking sounds when trying to start your car.
2. A loud single click while trying to start the vehicle with no engine crank.
3. The instrument cluster, headlights, and radio work normally, but nothing happens when you turn the key.

What is the function of the starter?

As the name suggests, a starter is an electrical device which controls the electrical power for starting a motor. These electrical devices are also used to stop, reverse, and protect electric motors.

Can a car run without a starter?

Unfortunately, if the starter motor has completely gone there’s no way to get your car going again. However, when a vehicle doesn’t start, it’s typically to do with the battery’s insufficient voltage to start the motor.

Can I drive my car if the starter is bad?

Driving with a faulty starter motor is a bit like walking on a tightrope without a safety net. It’s risky, unpredictable, and can lead to some pretty scary situations. For instance, a failing starter can cause your engine to behave erratically or refuse to start altogether.

What causes starter problems?

The brushes, gears, and coil windings within the starter itself may be worn, the solenoid has gone bad, or there are loose bolts so that the starter cannot engage when the key is turned in the ignition. If your car ever cranks but won’t start, don’t keep forcing it as you could make the problem a lot worse.