Unsolved Mysteries: Why the Car Sometimes Won’t Start

black and white round car air filter
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We recently paid off our car, and so naturally, trouble began. It was intermittent at first. I’d go to start the car in the morning, all of the systems would come on, but the engine wouldn’t start. Eventually, I’d get the car started, either by jumping it, or trying again and again to get it started. At first this happened maybe once every other month. Then once every few weeks. More recenly, it happened 4 times in one week. I recorded it when it happened because our service people have told me that the video sometimes helps them diagnose the problem.

Now, I am troubleshooter at heart. I started at my job at the helpdesk (way back in 1994, before “I.T.” was a term) and I had an intuitive feel for troubleshooting. So I was methodical about documenting what happened when the car wouldn’t start and how I eventually got it to start. I noticed, for instance, that if I turned it and the engine didn’t start, if I waited 10 seconds, the engine would start. I had video showing this. Eventually, I took the car to the dealer, where I’ve known the service people for 12 years now.

They ran a full diagnostic and couldn’t find anything wrong. They suggested that they keep the car overnight so that they could start it cold in the morning. I agreed to this, but the next morning, when they started the car, it started fine, and all of the diagnostics checked out: battery, alternator, everything they tested was fine. It was frustrating. It reminded me of when people would ask me for help with some technical issue with their computer and then as soon as I showed up, it magically worked. It’s not that I wanted there to be something wrong with the car; it’s that I don’t want to end up stuck somewhere because the car won’t start.

As I said, we’ve worked with our service people for a long time. They don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken just to make a sale. Still, I wish I knew what was cauing the problem.

The car was fine when I started it this morning. Also, once the car is started, the problem doesn’t happen again for the rest of the day. So maybe it is a fluke. Still, my gut tells me that after having the car for five-and-a-half years without a problem, and for this suddenly to be a problem, that something has changed. We just don’t know what it is.

For now, we are just winging it. We are heading on our first ever ski trip in early March–just a weekend so the kids can experience skiing and see if they like it–and I was hoping to have this issue fixed before then. If it happens when we’re at home, it’s nothing for me to jump the car from our other car. Jumping the car always seems to get the car started instantly, even though the battery in the car passed all of its tests. But if we are at the ski resort and the car doesn’t start, it means a call to AAA to get it started.

Ah, well. We’ve been lucky with our cars overall. Our other car (which we only drive locally when our kids have to be at different places at the same time) is a 2003 model with more than 150,000 miles and is running just fine. So I probably shouldn’t complain. I just don’t like not knowing why something isn’t working. And what’s worse, all of my experimenting has not led to any clear conclusion onto why the car starts some mornings, but not others.

It’s a mystery. And I don’t like unsolved mysteries.

ETA: Since writing this post, the car has started every day. The folks at the dealer suggested that maybe I wasn’t stepping on the brake hard enough when starting the car. That didn’t make too much sense to me since I’ve been stepping on the break the same way for 5-1/2 years, but I think maybe they are onto something. I’ve stepped on the brake hard when starting the car each day, and no matter how cold it has been, it has started right away. To me that says there is a loose or frayed electronic connection somewhere, but it least the car starts normally now.

Written on February 16, 2022.

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