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What Does A Bad Starter Sound Like? Here’s How To Diagnose A Faulty Or Bad Starter

Before I answer the question to “what does a bad starter sound like?” it is important to discern the difference between a dead battery and a bad starter.

Why? Because the symptoms of a bad or faulty starter are pretty similar to the symptoms of a bad/dead battery or an alternator problem.

Remember that your battery will need to be fully charged (or sufficiently charged) in order to operate the starter motor. This is the reason why a dead battery can sometimes be mistaken for a starter problem.

Bad Starter? It Might Be A Battery Or Connection Problem

Bad Starter? It Might Be A Battery

Here are some of the things that sound like a starter problem but could be caused by a dead battery or loose battery terminals:

1. If you turn the ignition key and you hear a single loud click and all the power in the car goes off, then you don’t have a starter problem. This problem could be caused by dirty, corroded, or loose battery terminals. Yes, if all the power goes off (including the radio, the lights, the Optitron gauges, etc.) while turning the key then you better check the battery terminals under the hood.

2. Did you hear successive rapid clicks while turning the key? This is NOT the sound of a broken starter. Again, this symptom (multiple and rapid clicking sounds and the engine won’t turn over or start) can be caused by a weak battery or loose battery terminals.

3. If you twist the key and you hear the starter motor cranking but the engine won’t start, then this is not the sound of a bad starter. When you hear the starter turning the engine and the motor refuses to start, you might be dealing with a different problem altogether like bad or fouled-up spark plugs, faulty fuel pump, not enough oil pressure inside the engine, dirty or bad fuel injectors, or probably a dirty throttle body.

What Does A Bad Starter Sound Like?

What Does A Bad Starter Sound Like?

A bad starter will usually make a cacophony of sounds along with the smell or presence of smoke while attempting to start the motor.

Here are the many different sounds that you might hear from a bad starter:

  • High-pitched screeching noise
  • Intermittent whirring sound
  • Loud clicking sound
  • Grinding noise

Sometimes, you won’t hear a sound at all. Turning the key and not hearing the familiar cranking sound might be a starter problem, assuming that the battery is strong and the terminals are clean and tight as a drum.

What’s The Difference Between “Crank But Not Starting” And “No Crank-No start”?

If the engine is cranking and your vehicle won’t start, then you are probably dealing with an ignition or fuel system problem.

But if you don’t hear a cranking sound and the engine won’t start while hearing the noises described above, then you are most likely dealing with a starter problem.

What Causes The Whirring Sound On A Bad Starter?

The starter motor in your vehicle is equipped with a starter solenoid. Without sounding too technical on the details, the starter solenoid is responsible for interlocking the pinion gear from the flywheel when you turn the key to start the engine.

The whirring sound is caused by a worn or bad solenoid since the pinion gear is spinning the armature but is unable to start or crank the engine.

What Are The Symptoms Of A Bad Or Faulty Starter?

Symptoms Of A Bad Or Faulty Starter

Besides the high-pitched screeching noise or an intermittent whirring sound coming from the engine bay when you turn the key, here are a couple more symptoms of a bad starter motor:

1. Freewheeling. You will feel this symptom when you crank the engine and you hear the whining noise mentioned earlier. This means the starter gear or pinion gear is not engaging the flywheel. Remember that there are times when you will feel the starter freewheeling when you turn the key, but the engine will crank and start if you turn the key again.

If this happens, or if you need to run the key a couple of times before the engine comes to life, it is time to have your starter check or replaced by a mechanic.

2. The presence of smoke. Yes, there are times that you will see and smell smoke emanating from under the hood while attempting to start the car. This smoke is usually caused by too much power being drawn to the starter, short-circuit in the starter motor itself (since the starter is an electrical component), or a burned-out starter after attempting to crank the engine repeatedly.

If you see or smell smoke after failing to crank the engine, it is time to call your mechanic immediately. DO NOT ATTEMPT to start or crank the engine again, since you might cause more damage to the vehicle.

3. The motor turns very slowly but it still starts. If you twist the key but the motor turns very slowly and you notice the lights on the dash turn very dim while cranking, then you need to have the starter inspected or replaced by a mechanic. Of course, a weak or bad battery can also cause these symptoms, but if your battery is good and the motor still turns slowly when you start the car, you are most likely dealing with a bad starter.

Nothing Happens When You Turn The Key? Here’s A Neat Trick To Start The Engine

This is a familiar situation. You turn the key and nothing happens, or you hear a single faint click but the motor still won’t crank or start.

The bad news is that your starter is probably worn out. The good news is that you can still probably start the engine so you can avoid being stranded in a deserted parking lot.

This may sound unconventional, but tapping the rear part of the starter with an ordinary hammer while turning the key might help to start the engine.

It is best to have a friend turn the key while you use the hammer to tap the starter. If the engine starts, have the starter fixed or replaced immediately. You don’t want to use a hammer each time you start the car, right?


Whirring, grinding, and high-pitched noises are the usual sounds of a bad starter. Since the symptoms of a bad starter can often be mistaken for a battery or alternator problem, make sure that your battery is in tip-top shape before ruling out a starter problem.

About George Bradley

George is an enthusiastic blogger and an auto mechanic expert whose mission is to provide the readers with the best tips, guides, and recent events in the automotive industry. He has been involved in researching on various topics that are essential to the car owners, especially when it comes to an understanding, maintaining and handling their vehicles.

8 thoughts on “What Does A Bad Starter Sound Like? Here’s How To Diagnose A Faulty Or Bad Starter”

  1. will a bad starter make a 1993 ford 5.0 f150 truck run erratic ? Like chugging around 30-40 mph, hesitation on acceleration?

    • lool the starter has absolutely nothing to do with it. sounds more like an issue with your engine, likely misfiring but possibly something else.

  2. I just changed my starter and camshaft sensor on my 2010 cobalt bc they were going bad and its doin the same thing

  3. This was the most informative post about starters I’ve ever read. Thank you.

    P.S. I’m a girl, so you can imagine how thorough this post must have been for me to understand it

  4. Good to know about the battery, I’ve suspected it before and passed it off on the alternator having an issues.
    Should’ve just bit the bullet and bought a battery from nappa and been done with it.

    Thanks for the post it’s clearly my Wal-Mart battery,(I know, I know) live and learn my Grandfather would say.


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