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1996 Subaru Outback Wagon, manual trans, won't start

I’ve seen similar posts, but nothing exact. Here’s the facts:
-Car runs fine (nothing broken, no codes) clutch is new(er), etc.
-Occasionally/randomly, in cold, hot, rainy/not weather, it just doesn’t engage the starter. Trust me, the starter works, battery is new … it’s like, intermittently, something gets disconnected.
-At times, it used to happen and I would push the clutch down a little harder and it would start (in the middle of me turning the key).
-I’ve tried moving it to neutral, but I think that’s for automatic cars … either way, it didn’t make a difference.
-I removed the floor mats, so there’s nothing blocking the clutch travel.
-The kill switch/fob is in
-I hear a click (single, not rapidly repeating). I thought it was something mechanical, now I think its just the radio getting power
-I have total power to the cabin, I swear I hear other car parts powering on.
-I thought about the key, but I wouldn’t get power if it didn’t work
-I towed it to a shop once when it didn’t start for days, they told me it started right up. All we did was roll it on/off the flatbed (that was annoying, but free).
-I tried rolling the wheels a little this time, nothing

I’m not sure what it is, exposed wire short, water short (though its been dry). I gotta figure this out.

Sounds like a bad starter to me. Easily tested with a voltmeter when it is not starting, but intermittent problems can be frustrating to track down. The click you’re hearing is probably the starter solenoid trying to engage the starter but the starter motor is “sticking.”

Next time it won’t start, try whacking the starter with a 2x4. Or you can use a hammer judiciously. Sometimes a whack will get a balky starter going again.

Could also be the clutch pedal switch which has failed, iffy due to clutch wear, or is out of adjustment.

The question of where to go does depend on the source of the click. I’m not sure how someone can confuse the sound of the starter solenoid with the radio coming on, but I guess if you don’t usually need to pay attention to such things it does get confusing. You will want to focus on that next time and perhaps pop the hood and listen - which is a fine idea anyway since you might want to put a voltmeter on the S-wire for the starter and whack it with a block wood (as noted above). If there is one loud click out of the starter, then that leaves you under the hood.

However, if the click is NOT from the starter solenoid then I would tell you to start at the clutch safety switch. As you suspect, putting it in neutral is for automatics which have a neutral safety switch. It kills the start circuit unless the car is in Park or Neutral. On a manual transmission, that safety switch is activated by the clutch pedal. So go down under your clutch pedal and find that. Some are adjustable. And they do just wear out or break.

This kind of trouble is usually due to worn contacts in the starter solenoid which is part of the starter. When that happens the click that is heard is fairly loud. The contacts can be replaced but it may be better to just replace the whole starter due to other ware on it. A bad battery cable or battery connections can cause the same trouble also.

I think @ok4450 is spot on with the clutch safety switch being the most likely culprit.

OP: FYI, manual transmission cars don’t have a neutral/park safety switch like automatics do, but they have something equivalent, a clutch safety switch. It’s thee so you have to press on the clutch pedal before the starter will engage. To prevent toddlers from accidentally starting the car by turning the key.

These switches wear out over the years and fail to make consistently good contact when this happens. The symptom is the car will start fine for a few days, they when you park at Target, you come out and it doesn’t crank. Since you noted a relationship with the clutch pedal, I’d start there.

If not ask your shop to measure the voltages at both starter terminals during attempted cranking. Both should be 10.5 volts or above. If not, find out why. If both are above 10.5 volts, the starter should crank the engine, so either the starter is bad or something in the engine is seizing up.

Based on experiences with other cars this is likely to be a bad starter. To truly find the problem the diagnosis must occur at the same time as the no-crank condition.

It is not a bad starter. Remember, everything will come back and work fine. This is something with the safety devices to prevent the car from starting.

The clutch safety switch makes the most sense … now, where is it and how can I focus on swapping it out?

and thanks to all those that comment. Much appreciated. If you can help me with locations of this clutch safety switch I would appreciate it. I noticed a switch at the TOP of the clutch, and addressed the plastic plug that was broke, but as research indicated, it fixed my cruise control (which is really cool too). Now if only I can get the car to start so I can test it :slight_smile:

Rig up a test wire into your car to the small wire at the starter that activates it. Connect the test wire to a bulb or voltmeter to ground. Each time you start the car the light will glow or the voltmeter will read 10v or more.

When the time comes for the no crank condition you will expect no light or voltage reading when trying to crank it if your assumption is correct.

If the light glows or the voltmeter reads full voltage during the cranking attempt then you know it is a bad starter or a bad connection (power or ground) to the starter.

This is a low-cost way to collect some facts about the nature of the problem.

  "It is not a bad starter. Remember, everything will come back and work fine."

Matt, go back and re-read cigroller’s post. Starters will often go bad intermittently, where they work find some of the time, and other times only make a clicking sound but don’t move at all.

By all means, check the clutch safety switch. But don’t make the mistaken assumption that, just because the starter works some of the time, that it is not the source of the problem.

In fact, if the clicking noise is coming from the starter when the car won’t start, the starter most likely IS the problem.

I’ll repeat myself again… If the click you are hearing is fairly loud then the trouble is most likely due to bad starter solenoid contacts. The solenoid is part of the starter and this is a very common issue for vehicles as old as yours is. It is possible that the safety switch is the cause also but you don’t hear a loud click if that is the case since power isn’t getting to the solenoid to activate it.

What @rattlegas said. Lots of starters work just fine sometimes when they are on the way out. It’s quite typical. So the fact that yours works sometimes does not tell you that it is good. That’s, e.g., why you got the suggestion early on to try giving it a thump with a block of wood. But the surest way to find out is whether the S wire gets power during these no starts.

In case the OP is still looking for the clutch safety switch, on most cars it is under the clutch pedal. Right up by the firewall. It looks like a pedal-based brake light switch, only under the clutch pedal instead of the brake pedal. I had to replace that switch on my Corolla at one point. My symptom was that the engine wouldn’t crank sometimes. I could get it to crank by waiting a couple minutes and trying again. When it didn’t crank there was a click, but that click was a relay under the dash, not the starter solenoid.

Just wanted to update here. At least for now, it was the starter. I took it in ($325) and it’s been starting ever since. I guess the additional plus is that I fixed the cruise control witha little duct tape, and the fog lights mysteriously came back from the shop working. Triple score! Thanks for all the help.

Happy you are back to a reliable ride. Good for you.