Camry no Start

February 14, 2021

For Valentine’s day , we got a car problem.

The kid went on an expedition to the grocery store, taking our 2006 Toyota Camry. We shortly got a call that the car wouldn’t start; my wife asked if she should “deploy the Dad” to assess (and hopefully remedy) the situation.

The car was only a few blocks away, so I drove the van over with my tools. Sure enough, Camry no start. Key on, all the dashboard lights come on; power seats work; so there’s power. Try to start and there’s one click, but no cranking.

Battery voltage is about 12.4 – not 100% charged, but not terrible… The battery is less than a year old, but I did replace the alternator a few months ago; it’s possible that the alternator is bad and took the battery down.

I tried a jump start from the van, but didn’t get anything different. Hmmm. Maybe the battery is toast, and is just dragging the voltage down? Well, it’s getting late in the day, I need to think about this, so I pulled the battery, took it home and put it on my charger.

The charger had it up to 100% within a couple hours – so it seems like the battery’s probably OK. Next most likely cause would be the starter; the car’s got about 130,000 miles on it and it’s probably the original starter, so it’s about time; and the symptoms are consistent with that. There’s a Pep Boys about 100 yards from where the car’s parked, and their website says that, while that store doesn’t have one in stock, they can have it by noon tomorrow, and the price is good. Even better, if you order online they don’t actually charge you until you pick it up att he store. OK, sold, and I have a plan for the next morning!

Day 2: Re-install the battery, cross fingers, no joy. Try another jump, same result. Try that plus whacking the starter with a stick, no better. Welp, I guess we’re gonna do the starter. I pull the battery back out, and strip the airbox out. In the Camry, the starter is very accessible, you could probably get it off the engine without taking any other parts off, but then there’s no room to get it out from that location without some very torturous wiggling, bending of things that ought not be bent, etc. More risk than it’s worth, easier and safer to just pull the air cleaner box and then you’ve got a nice straight shot, easy peasy.

Starter definitely looks like the original, and the spur gear’s in good shape but there’s some rust around the underside of the solenoid. Who knows, I’ll test it later. I’m surprised I haven’t received any notification from Pep Boys that my part is ready, as it’s now after noon, so I give them a call.

The person at the parts desk looks up my order and says it’s coming from another store and should be there around 3pm. What?!? Why, I ask, does their web site explicitly say “available by 12pm”? I could have gone to the other store and picked it up myself… Well, they have one guy who drives parts around between all the stores, and he doesn’t get to theirs until 3:00. Yeah, she agrees that the corporate web site is terrible, but despite my complaining she’s not going to offer any solution or discount or anything, and is pretty blunt about it. I can twiddle my thumbs for 3-ish hours (if in fact their guy even shows up on schedule) or I can find another part.

Let’s see. The Toyota dealership is right up the street, they have one but it’s almost $300 for a remanufactured unit! Ow. There’s an O’Reilly parts store (one of at least six within about a five-mile radius; O’Reilly seems to have the area saturated) and they have a remanufactured Denso starter, in stock, for less than half that. It’s still considerably more than I was going to pay Pep Boys, but it’s a better unit, I won’t have to wait, and they haven’t gone out of their way to annoy me today… so off to O’Reilly we go, and return with a starter in hand.

The new starter goes in easily, and the rest of the parts too, so I’m shortly ready to fire this thing up and get back to all the other stuff I had planned for the day. Turn the key and… nothing. Crap.

Maybe it’s the starter relay? That’s the only thing I can think of; I can hear/feel it click when I turn the key, though. I check all the cables again, nothing obvious there. Maybe the battery is actually bad, despite how well it seemed to take a charge? A quick run back to O’Reilly and they put their tester on the battery; it’s good. OK, maybe it’s the relay then, and $50 later, I’m ready to try it. But: wrong part, thanks guys. Feh. I don’t think it’s the relay, anyway.

So what’s left? The new starter could also be bad; but that seems unlikely, and even more unlikely for it to be bad in exactly the same way. I think it’s not the battery. Might be the relay, but usually those fail stuck, and this one’s moving. Could be wiring, maybe there’s a short in the positive cable I missed? Could be the key switch I suppose.

One thing I didn’t test, is what happens when other loads are put on. Not sure that will shed any light on the situation, but it’s data I don’t yet have. So I put the key on, and turn on the headlights. Gahhhh! The dash lights dim, flicker, the gauges jitter… not good. It’s repeatable. Sometimes the dash freaks out, and then stabilizes after a few seconds. Boy, I do not understand this now; it’s gone in short order from a simple jump-start, to a straightforward starter replacement, to some evil possession.

I take one more pass through everything I can see or easily measure, and nothing else comes to me; it’s getting late in the day and I’m tired and hungry. Time to call it for now; I’ll sleep on it, and if nothing comes to mind I guess it will have to go off to the pros to figure out.

A beer and dinner didn’t lead to any revelations, so in the morning I called the shop, and let them know it was coming; then got AAA on the horn. The independent shop we use is just up the road, so it didn’t take long to get the car over there. I ran through what I checked, and tried, and they agreed that I had done all the reasonable things; I have to admit, a bit of validation felt good in the face of failure.

The shop gave me a call in a few hours, after the mechanics started poking at it; they thought maybe the new starter was bad. I suggested they check the old one, which I had left in the car, and put it back in if it tested OK. I’m skeptical that’s the issue, but in hindsight I should have tried hooking up the old starter to a battery myself, to see if that was in fact the problem… but at the time, it sure seemed the obvious fix.

A couple days later, the shop called again; the car’s ready. I go over there to pick it up, and the original (old) starter is installed, so it wasn’t that. What is new, is a battery cable, or at least half of one… Aha! The negative/ground cable had corroded internally, and the resistance under load had gone through the roof! It still conducted enough to pass a continuity check, and “sort of” work (e.g. the accessories would come on in the car) but once loaded when running the starter it would choke the current. Lesson learned. The shop kindly charged me only for the actual cost to replace the cable, I think it was maybe $90? I think they felt bad about futzing around with the starter like I did.

Camry no Start - February 14, 2021 - chad r. frost