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'89 Camry intermittent starting issue (driving me crazy!)

I have a 1989 Camry that my dad bought new when I was 4 years old. It has 310k miles on it so it obviously comes up with some quirky issues from time to time but generally speaking it still runs well and still gets over 30 miles to gallon.

On occasion the car will not start. There is no whirring sound of the engine trying to turn over, there is no click of the starter. The power is fully functional, including locks, radio, windows and indeed a jump start won’t get the car going. There is one sure-fire method to get the car started that works every time, waiting two or three hours (this can be impractical at the grocery store). I have taken the car to multiple mechanics to get the problem diagnosed and fixed, and after driving the car around for a while they have been unable to reproduce it. Through trial and error I have been able to reproduce it down to a science… drive the car around for an hour or so, and immediately after shutting off the engine the car will not start.

My current plan is to drive around aimlessly for an hour and cruise into the car repair place, and hope they can diagnose the issue within the next two hours before the car starts normally again, but I feel like this amount of info should be able to give a reasonable clue what’s going on without relying on the questionable timing of car repair shops.

Does anyone have any ideas what may be causing my problem or any thoughts about how I can investigate? I don’t have a volt meter, but I suppose I could go out and get one. Thanks for your help.

Sounds like a classic case of an intermittent neutral safety switch. If the car is an automatic…try shifting to neutral and see if it starts.

It is an automatic. I will give the neutral start that a try next time the problem happens and see how that goes. Any idea why that might be linked to longer drives?

Could also be the starter solenoid - the thing on top of the starter. Maybe it stops working as it heats up.
You could get a test light or voltmeter and measure across the thinner wire on the starter to ground when it doesn’t start. You should see a voltage there at that time. If you don’t, it could be related to the ignition switch or the transmission neutral/park interlock.
If it lights up, it likely is that solenoid.
Check the fat lead to the starter. It should have 12V on it continuously.


Toyotas are known for needing starters every few years.

The Denso starters used get pitted contacts.

Here’s what I would do

When it doesn’t start, check if the starter is getting a voltage signal. If it is, the starter is bad

If it’s not getting a voltage signal, that switch that @missileman mentioned might be bad

In the infinite wisdom of one of my Field Technical Specialists, “It may take you forever to found out what’s wrong. But when you do, It’ll all be clear.” Seriously, it seems like a hot soak issue. Something when heated up is going open, if you need to drive around aimlessly to heat it up for the mechanic, then you have to do that. We (especially flat rate mechanics) can’t charge a customer $104/hr to drive your car around, get doughnuts, pick up dry cleaning, just to get the vehicle to the proper duplicating conditions. When it DOES happen, and your mechanic is staring at it with a blank look on his face, have him use a Smart tester on the battery (digital) that measures static voltage, then puts a load on, then watches to see how the battery recovers. If the battery test shows good, you need to check the starter. There are 2 wires, one will have 12v constant (approx. BUT…if the battery reads 12.3 volts and the starter reads 11.1, you have a voltage drop issue, an corroded or bad connection in that line.) Say the 12v constant is good, check the solenoid wire, it should have 12v when the key is turned to the “start” position. The wiring is >>Ign switch, through the Neutral safety switch, then to the starter solenoid. If all 3 of these things are good, Then put a starter in it. It has an open in the solenoid when hot, then when it cools down, contracts, and makes good contact again. Like someone mentioned above when it happens, try putting it in Neutral to see if it starts. It could be a neutral safety switch. But before guessing with parts, have them diagnose it as described here. If you don’t have 12v at the starter solenois when key is turned to start, check the B+ wire in and out of the PNS (Park/Neutral Safety Switch. If you have now power into it, the problem is between the ign switch and the PNS switch. Power in, but not out, bad PNS switch, B+ in and out, but no B+ (12v) to starter solenoid, then you have an intermittant wiring issue between the PNS switch and the starter solenoid. But, first things first: It’s summer, it’s probably hot. When it happens, make sure the battery isn’t going open cell (reads 5v when it should read 12-12.6) That’s common in summer. The plates heat up and get jiggled around from your driving, and they expand/go open, and no go Joe. Cools down, and connects, and starts. Hope this helps.

My vote is with the starter, but check that the starter is getting power first. I’d do as @db4690 suggests - get a voltmeter, and figure out how to check that the starter is getting power when you start it. Then the next time it doesn’t start, check if it’s getting power. If it is, then it’s the starter. If not, it’s something else, including the neutral safety switch, or the ignition switch, or the battery connection, or even an internally corroded battery cable.

But I bet it’s worn/pitted starter solenoid contacts. These can be replaced separately, the parts are cheap, but if you’re going to the trouble of removing the starter it might make more sense to replace the whole thing. Just make sure the replacement is guaranteed, some rebuilts are not so great.

This is exactly what happened to my Toyota.

Lots of great info guys, thanks a lot. I will pick up a volt meter and think of a good long distance errand to run. I’ll report back when I have more info. Thanks again!

@texases I’m with you on that one. My wife’s Nissan Sentra had the exact same symptoms and. yes it was the starter. $400 later everything was fine until we sold the car 2 years later.

From your description of the problem I would also have to vote for the safety switch as the best suspect for the trouble.

Power for the starter solenoid comes from the power panel under the hood and then on to the ignition switch. The power then passes through the START position contacts of the ignition switch, then to the safety switch contacts, and then to the starter solenoid coil contact which should close the solenoid contacts and provide power to the starter motor.

I assume there isn’t a some sort of theft deterrent system installed in your vehicle which would complicate things some for starting the vehicle and could cause this kind of problem also.

The only theft deterrent I have is 24 years and 310,000 miles :-), well that and power locks. I have a volt meter on its way to me, I will see if I can get it to act up while I’m prepared or the machanic is on duty.

That’s a good one @TimTheSloth.

Purchasing a meter is a very wise thing to do. You will use it more than you realize after you have it. Getting a factory service manual for the wiring would be a real good thing to add also. Ebay is good place to find them at a reasonable price.

So it’s a while later but I did eventually figure out it was the starter. I took a nice scenic drive to reproduce the issue and when I pulled in to the mechanic it failed right on cue. The mechanic hit the starter with a mallet and got it to start right away. Never even got a chance to use my multimeter. Thanks for your help everyone!



And I’m glad to hear you didn’t have some exotic problem.

FWIW . . . I’ve had several Toyotas over the years. All of them have Denso starters. Most of them have already gotten replaced, some more than once.

Glad you got the trouble solved. Start using that meter and get used to using it. You are going to be glad you got it.

I have an 89 Toyota extra cab pick up with 22RE. Didn’t happen very often in the past but lately it’s happening quite often. When I go to start her up all I get is a click and no turn over. If I keep turning the ignition on and off eventually the starter kicks in. It takes a about 10 to 30 seconds to start, I’m assuming do to flooding from turning the ignition on and off. Battery is fine, starter is fine. and ideas on this one?

If the click you are hearing is coming from the starter solenoid then either the contacts inside it are worn out, and can be replaced if that is the case, or there is a bad connection at the battery terminals. I suggest you clean the battery connections regardless of how they look using a battery post cleaning brush.

If the clicking is coming from some other relay then you should check to see if power is getting to the starter solenoid ignition lead while trying to start the engine. If no power is getting to that point then you need to check the safety switch.

Toyotas of the 70s had an engine ground on the firewall that was put on over paint. The pickup truck may need the firewall end scraped and paint scraped off where it attaches or just wire brush the connector and reattach.

How do you know the starter is fine?