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1996 Subaru Legacy Randomly Will Not Start

edited January 2012 in Repair and Maintenance
We bought a 1996 Subaru Outback Legacy Wagon a year ago. It has a salvaged title with some back-end damage that doesn't seem to effect the overall ride of the car. The car really seems to run fine, but the main problem is it randomly won't start. We can drive it short or long distances. It will start just fine 5 to 10 times in a row and then - BAM - we go to leave somewhere and it won't start. It makes a sound like it is trying to turn over, but it just doesn't have that last spark to start...until you wait approximately 10 minutes, then it starts again like nothing happened. We changed the fuel filter thinking it might have a blockage, but to no avail. We live in Portland, Oregon, so we get all four seasons of weather. The temperature does not seem to be of any consequence.

Does anyone have any insight to what the problem might be? Thanks!


  • Apparently I've stumped the Car Talk community! We want to sell this car, but need to know what to fix before we sell it. Anyone...anyone...anyone?!
  • Is this vehicle equipped with an automatic transmission? If it is then shift to neutral and try starting the engine the next time it does not start in park. If it starts then replace the neutral safety switch. If it's a standard shift transmission then the clutch safety switch is probably bad. To test it just pump the clutch pedal several times and see if it starts.
  • edited January 2012
    "" It makes a sound like it is trying to turn over, but it just doesn't have that last spark to start..."" This is a bit confusing..... Are you saying that you turn the key and the engine turns over/cranks......but will not "run/start"? OR are you saying that the engine cannot "Crank"

    It goes like turn your ignition key to the RUN position....then on to the spring loaded CRANK turns over/cranks the engine......and THEN if youre STARTS and RUNS for you......

    SO....if the engine is turning over and will not start....then it is most COMMONLY ONE OF TWO THINGS...Either it is not getting fuel.....or it is not getting spark...

    NOW.....if you try to turn it over.....and it sounds Rrrrrur Rrrrur rrrur.....slowly it doesnt have enough battery power to spin the engine fast enough.....THEN THAT.....would be a battery/charging issue.....or not having enough voltage to crank the engine fast enough. This gets us to say make sure your batt connections are clean and tight...but I don't think you are describing this issue

    I THINK you are trying to say the first turns over/cranks just fine.....but is unable to start.....and in that case it may be having a fueling problem......this condition can be caused by a Fuel Pump Relay not supplying power to the pump due to dirty contact points inside the relay....(THIS is actually quite common)....locate your Fuel Pump Relay under the hood in the fuse box found there....find the relay....and SWAP IT with an identical one that powers something else......if after you swap them the issue is found it....

    Another fueling issue can be that your fuel pump motor gets stuck....If this does the "no start" condition again......locate your fuel tank.....and BANG ON with a 2x4 piece of wood what this does is Jar/vibrate the fuel pump in the tank and many x it will jog the fuel pump motor into spinning again.....IF you do this experiment and the banging the tank trick works.....then its your fuel pump getting "Tired"....

    Either the fuel pump cant get power.....or the fuel pump is getting stuck...THESE cover the issue IF it is a fueling problem. THE OTHER....and EQUALLY IMPORTANT cause could be that you aren't getting spark to the plugs....that's a whole other bag of tricks.... IF she cranks over and doesn't start....go back and actually SMELL your tailpipe....LOL....I know sounds silly.....but if you smell unburnt fuel smell.....then it is not getting SPARK.....and we can go from there You have some homework to do.....Let us know


  • edited January 2012
    Does it start if you floor the accelerator pedal?
    Note: don't pump it - just floor it. That disables the fuel injectors and doesn't pump more fuel in. If you're flooded, not being able to start would be an indicator.
  • Thanks for all the queries and information, Missleman, Blackbird & RemcoW, ! We really appreciate it.
    1. Yes, it is an automatic.
    2. When trying to start it, it cranks. but does not start. So, it's not a battery issue I guess is my point. Sorry, that was a bit confusing. It does not sound slowed or tired.
    3. and...A HA! There is indeed an unburnt fuel smell occasionally from the exhaust. I've noticed this on and off many times. We thought maybe it was something to do with the carburetor, but have never gotten to the root of the problem. Perhaps this is a significant clue?

    @RemcoW: We've never thought to try that. Being that it only happens every so often, we will give it a go next time she decides to fail us!

    Thanks again. We look forward to more of your thoughts.
  • Your 96 surely has fuel injection, not a carburetor?
    You could have a leaky injector or something like that. It wouldn't hurt to put some good injector cleaner in your next full tank.
    Report back when it happens again.

  • I am thinking along the same lines as Remco, and I am quite sure that this engine is fuel-injected, rather than carbureted.

    I guess that it wouldn't hurt to use a good fuel injector cleaner in the next tank (I recommend Chevron's Techron), but if--as I am beginning to theorize--it is a leaking fuel injector, replacing the bad injector(s) is probably the only solution.
  • Yeah, that's what I was thinking as well, a leaky injector flooding the engine.
    +1 on the Chevron stuff. That has worked well for me as well.
  • Sure Fuel injector cleaner is all fine and good.....but if you don't have spark to light it all off.....they wont get anywhere. When you have that no start condition is it after a long drive....what I'm getting at is it running long enough to FULLY heat up the engine and all of its components? Reason being....if an ignition component such as a coil pack or distributor cap is "on its way out" the symptoms usually arise when they are FULLY heated up...

    Here is an example of a distributor cap... The cap (which you don't have) has a microscopic crack in it it functions fine when cold and the crack is the smallest....then when its fully heated up the crack opens just enough (because of the heat) that it actually lets the high voltage (that would normally shoot down the spark plug wire and to the plugs)...leaks out to ground and NOT down to spark the plugs.... This is how heat affects ignition components like coils and distributor caps.....this could be a situation that your Subie suffers from...

  • @ Blackbird: It doesn't matter if the car has been driven a couple miles or a hundred. It is very random as to when it won't start. I would say that the last time it happened, it was driven approximately 2 miles on a day that it snowed. But I'd driven it over a hundred miles once, stopped for a burger, and it wouldn't start. Does driving it only a couple of miles in freezing temperatures allow the engine to actually heat up fully? So, are we thinking that it may be the coil pack or distributor cap on its way out?

    You all are being really, super, amazingly helpful and it is appreciated :)
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